“This city of 21 million looks like a ghost town. No one goes out. Or very few. And it has been like that for three weeks.” With those words Jim Healy began a Facebook post Sunday evening from Beijing, China. It’s one of his series of posts that bring home the jolting reality of the current depth of human suffering in China — with no end in sight.
From 1989-2009, Healy was a copy editor, and occasional music reviewer, for the San Diego Union-Tribune. In 2014, he started working in Beijing for China’s official English-language newspaper, the China Daily, where he edits Page One of the global edition. Healy is close to the front lines of the coronavirus epidemic, which seems to observe no boundaries, even though his city is more than 700 miles north of Wuhan, the disease epicenter. This column is devoted to his posts on Facebook and his answers to my messaged questions, beginning with his Sunday evening post:
“There is a general sense of stifled panic. We are advised to never leave our apartment, but one must live. No visitors (are) allowed. The gate to (my) apartment community is closed and we need to show our work ID to enter.
“Food is hard to find. Most restaurants are not open. Grocery store shelves are quickly emptied. I am very concerned by all the restaurant workers who cannot earn any money now. Most shops are not open.
“I stocked up on water and buy more every chance I get. … And, very fortunately, I have enough food for the cats (I am taking care of a friend’s cat as well as my own).
“Very few of us are allowed to go to the office, but since I edit Page One of (the) global edition, I must be on site. Most colleagues are in quarantine if they have traveled outside Beijing, which many have done, because the recent week-long Spring Festival holiday is a traditional travel time.
“Wuhan, the epicenter, is a frightful place now. It is in absolute lock-down. No traffic in or out.”
Are you wearing protective gear? “I wear a surgical mask everywhere I go, either outside or at work. Beijing requires anyone venturing outside to wear a mask.
“But masks are nearly impossible to find now in Beijing. At the office we recently were issued five each. I fortunately have a stockpile from a couple of years ago when the pollution was horrid.
“Each time I enter the gate of my apartment community or office, someone checks my temperature. At one restaurant that is open, they take my temperature upon entering, I must wear a mask upon entering, I must sign in with my name and telephone number, and I must note whether I have been outside Beijing recently. No visitors are allowed at our apartment building.”
On Monday, he posted: “I went by subway today to the tax office. The subway stations were all but empty. So were the streets in mid-afternoon. When I took the photos of the series of skyscrapers (last weekend), I saw just one or two other people in the whole area. Imagine that in a city of 21 million. …. Usually, the roads are filled with cars, electric scooters and buses, the sidewalks teeming with people. But not now.
“I work evenings, and late at night when I go home, I take a shortcut out the back door, which goes through the printing plant area. … The orange (lights of the city) at the end of the tunnel is, during the virus outbreak, the dreaded ‘outside world.’ The city that truly never sleeps is now eerily hushed at night.”
A Facebook friend asked how people are buying groceries, getting to work and the impact of this crisis on their lives. Healy replied:
“Many people (are) working from home, but many of my Chinese friends who do not work where I do have lost their jobs. Many are just in limbo.
“Some friends have run out of money in their phones, and most transactions now for food and such are made via phones. (Very little cash changes hands in China anymore.) So they must use their phones to get food, because they are not supposed to go outside, but they have no money at their disposal.”(He explained that couriers deliver the food or supplies to the gate of housing complexes but no delivery people are allowed inside the communities.)
“Many of my friends are asking for help because they have no money for food or anything else, and no prospects for getting any. In addition, any government aid is provided only at the city of your birth, so Chinese (people) from outside Beijing who live in Beijing have no safety net whatsoever unless they go home, which in some cases is not possible.
“I have really tapped deep into my bank account this month because so many friends simply cannot eat.
“I think it is easy in the big media picture to never see how this really affects many people; sometimes people fall between the cracks and raising an awareness serves to increase understanding outside China of how many people are hurting now.”
Are Chinese authorities sharing information with the newspaper? “We are in close touch with government agencies that release frequent updates. We also have an army of reporters across the whole country and beyond.
“I have seen many heart-wrenching videos — doors to apartment buildings being welded shut in Wuhan to enforce the quarantine; fires sparked after people disinfect their surroundings or clothing with alcohol; and people suspected of having the virus being dragged out of their homes by crews in protective suits.
“But the most gripping video I’ve yet seen is a 15-second clip from one of our reporters on the front line. It shows the emergency entrance of a hospital in Wuhan at night. In the eerie yellow light, a coroner’s van slowly pulls away, with a person wearing a mask trailing behind it on foot, and you hear a young woman’s piercing shriek of ‘Mama! Mama! Mama!’”
“Apparently the bodies are removed immediately and cremated, so families have no chance to say goodbye.”
On Tuesday Healy wrote about Wuhan: “I feel the strong pull of the journalist to go to where things are the worst right now, if it weren’t for the language barrier. But I want to see with my own eyes. I cannot imagine what Wuhan, Hubei province, is like. …
“We had (about) 50 reporters volunteer to go there. One of our best, who is on the medical beat, volunteered to go last week. … He filed from the front line and I got to edit the story for our global edition. What he must see and feel being in such a dismal place is beyond my imagination.
“The city (of Wuhan) is no doubt heartbroken. And there is a stigma now. People are afraid of anyone from there.
“It would be truly touching if a city outside China became a new sister city of Wuhan right now and people channeled help and love and messages of support.”
Do you have a way to return to the United States? “Flights to and from China are increasingly being canceled, so I am probably here for the long haul. But this is my city now, and these are my friends.
“I feel a solidarity with the people of China and do not want to leave them behind. And as a journalist, I feel privileged to play a role in helping to cover the crisis so the world can understand the situation better.
“Though China and its people may be distant geographically, they are wonderful people facing a horrible, tremendously painful crisis right now. Prayers, messages, donations big or small and words of encouragement are more helpful than you might imagine.
“We cannot ignore the situation, and we must be vigilant, no matter where we live, because with increasing travel and globalization, all people are one family. This virus, or any other, could affect any of us. I would also implore people not to stigmatize the people of China or, especially, the good people of Wuhan.”
Healy ends his Monday morning post with these words: “This is an extraordinary time and I feel very bad for the sick, the lonely, the vulnerable, especially the elderly. I see a lot of people here talking about prayer, which is remarkable.”
Diane Bell is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.