Coronavirus diary: Life inside China during the outbreak

Canadian Kai Wood and his wife, Xiaolin, live in Chongqing, China, a sprawling metropolis with more than 32 million people. The large municipality is located about 800 kilometres west of Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Chongqing and several other Chinese cities have been in a state of emergency since Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei were locked down in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus.

In Chongqing, public gatherings are banned, most shops are closed and nonessential travel or outdoor activities are discouraged as people are being advised to self-quarantine in their homes to control the spread of infection.

Wood is a 40-year-old writer and teacher. He also works for iChongqing, a local news organization. He is keeping a diary of what is happening in China and is sharing it with

January 21 — Life before the outbreak

We get in touch with my journalist colleague Sasha and our cameraman Deng. We agree to meet at noon to shoot a Chinese Spring Festival Shopping Gala at the Nanping Convention Center

I wear a mask on the subway, but I notice I am the only one. I feel comfortable even though I feel the weight of stares. Normally people in China only wear masks when they are sick, as a kindness to others.

After we finish up and get back on the subway, I get my mask back on.

We make it to downtown and spend some time with Lin’s family. We get coffee, walk around and play.

My 17-year-old niece invites me to join her in a zombie apocalypse escape room. The next hour of my life was straight out of a horror movie.

We walk around, tasting street food, and relaxing.

We stay up late – maybe until 2 a.m. and then go to bed. I slip on some headphones and listen to some YouTube news coverage.

First cases are discovered in Beijing and Shenzen, and there is an ominous tone to the coverage.

January 22 — People start wearing masks

It got sunny for a few minutes, and we took the dogs to the parking garage with two chairs and sat in the sun for a bit. That was glorious.

Around 5:30 p.m. we got ready to head to Raffles City, the new mall in Chongqing, to meet our son, Jin, and his girlfriend, Cici, for dinner.

On the subway, Xiaolin agreed to wear a mask, and luckily, I have a bunch to spare. This time we noticed more like one out of three people on the subway were also wearing masks, and we moved to stand next to some masked people rather than unmasked ones.

We got off the subway in Jiefangbei, the original downtown centre. Raffles City is a $4.8-billion horizontal skyscraper on top of an enormous shopping plaza. It’s very modern inside. I can smell a strong disinfectant spray there. By this time, many people, over half, are wearing masks outside, and I think almost everyone inside is.

We walk around for a few minutes before Lin gets a call, and we go to a Vietnamese restaurant. We see Jin and Cici seated. They aren’t wearing masks, and we self-consciously take ours off. They have an amazing, colourful, fragrant, massive spread of soups, curry, rice, and seafood in front of them. It’s all really delicious and clean, and it was a really relaxing experience.

Later, we walk around a bit and buy Jin and Cici some N95 masks. Most shops are sold out, but we eventually find a three pack. A boy about 30 metres away is running, and he stops to sneeze into the air. He’s not wearing a mask. People have stopped to stare but continue on. Collectively people are becoming a bit more paranoid or careful.

We take the subway home around 10, with our masks on, and most people have them on.


January 23 — The day Wuhan is locked down

While I’m editing the news, we both discuss Wuhan. A city roughly the size of London, or New York City is going into quarantine mode at the end of the day. We hear there is a rush to the highways and airports for Wuhanians hoping to travel for Spring Festival.

In Chongqing, our headline is “Chongqing Reports 9 Confirmed Cases of New Coronavirus Pneumonia.” Nine cases in a city of 8 million downtown and more than 32 million in the metro area doesn’t sound like a lot.

We have only two family dinners this year, and Lin has a big extended family in Chongqing. Lin offers that I can stay at home if I’m worried about travel, but my mind does the math, and there’s no difference if I stay or go. If she comes back sick, I’ll catch it. I might as well go and remind her to take precautions on the way there and back. Plus, I like spending time with family, even if my Chinese isn’t very good.

We just relax all day, happy to be home and free. We get suited up to take the subway to my cousin’s place. Almost everyone wears a mask. The few that don’t look around puzzled.

We get to Panze’s place. He’s an air marshal for a major airline. We discuss a few things, such as the quarantine expanding to nearby cities and 20 million people altogether in that part of the Hubei province. Hubei borders the Chongqing municipality. Panze has to fly to Xinjiang the following day. He’s nervous; he wishes he didn’t have to. We predict it’ll be over in a couple of months but should stay safe until then.

After dinner, Lin tells me they’re debating canceling the dinner at our parent’s house tomorrow. Her sister is all for being safe, with old people and a one-year-old staying in the house, but mama is stubborn and doesn’t think it’s a big deal, and she worries she might not have too many Chinese New Year’s dinners left. So we say we’ll be careful and come over for lunch.

January 24 — A family gathering

I wake up around 11, pack a book bag of stuff, and we head over for the day. We take a taxi and wear goggles, masks, and gloves to protect ourselves in the cab. We won’t be taking the subway anymore.

It sounds like the Wuhan quarantine has grown. A total of 60 million people are affected by travel restrictions in Wuhan and neighbouring cities. The World Health Organization is saying the virus is not a public health emergency of international concern. They admit it’s an emergency here in China.

Baba and mama cook all day. Our niece, Yidan, is studying for her college entrance tests. Lin’s got a little “flying UFO” drone for baby Ethan, and we are all amazed playing with it inside the living room. The day passes quickly, and we have a nice dinner.

I ask where Panze is, as his wife and daughter show up. He got stuck in Xinjiang due to snow, Lin tells me.

On WeChat, we set up a Chongqing Canadians group to keep in touch about the virus and other news. It’s long overdue, and it’s nice to have that space.

January 25 — Self-isolation begins

Saturday, we sleep in until noon. Benben has urinated in front of the screen door. He’s an 11-year-old brown poodle with lousy hearing and cataracts and can’t figure out screen doors. I mop it up, using disinfectant. Everything has to be clean now. Our lives depend on it. Hachoo, our tiny black poodle, is about four but has good eyes and a quick mind. She can zip outside and will use a puppy pad out there too. Xiaolin tells me people are worried animals can get infected or get their humans sick. Some are throwing their pets away in fear for their life.

We decide we will keep the dogs inside until it’s over. Lin’s mom asks us to come over, but we tell her it’s too dangerous to go outside and risk the taxi. Mama says it’s not too bad, I mean, we’re all healthy, we don’t know any sick people. We try to explain it could be a big health risk, and we’re trying to be careful.

I get a call from Jenny, the newsroom chief, “pending stories, please edit!” I check the news. “Chongqing New Coronavirus Update: 57 Cases in Total, Medical Team Headed to Wuhan.” A medical crew and army support from all areas of China are organizing to go support Wuhan’s seizing hospital system.

We get suited up with protective “outdoor clothes,” including gloves, goggles, and masks. We grab a couple of stools and head to the parking garage where we can sit outside and get some sunshine for an hour or two. It feels amazing. Poor dogs looked so disappointed when we left them inside. I’m going to get some more dog treats as soon as I can.

My friends decide to make a “Canadians in China” group, and I meet Terry and Patterson, two Canadians inside the Wuhan quarantine zone, although they tell me there are a couple hundred more that aren’t in our group. We talk about the lack of contact with the Canadian consulates and embassy. I guess they’re on holiday. Most of us aren’t registered, although I did it last year and have gotten a few emails, basically “Don’t go to Wuhan.”

There’s talk about an American plane coming to rescue the Americans. We’re not sure if that means consular officials only or all American citizens stranded inside the quarantine zone. We wonder if Canada will come to help us, at least those of us in the quarantine zone, and how the people will make it to the airport with roads closed off. Those of us outside but in China wonder when the virus will come to us and if we will be quarantined too if Canada will help us if we are.

My school tells the foreign teachers if they’re outside China, not to come back. Those in their home country, stay home. A few of my friends are on vacation and wonder how long they can manage to stay away and what they should do. So many unknowns and people are starting to freak out.


January 26 — Travel discouraged

We wake up before noon on our second full day of isolation. Lin’s mom asks us to come over again. Lin wants to see the baby. I get a bad feeling about it and try to put it off a few hours, or until tomorrow. It would be nice, but it feels risky.

Our headline update is “Chongqing New Coronavirus Update: 18 Newly Confirmed Cases Reported, Group Tours Suspended.” We publish a story about Chongqing’s emergency control measures. We list several foreigner-friendly hospitals. No one I know is sick yet. The government is discouraging travel, and our hopes at a nice vacation are canceled.

Online we are discussing lots of ideas. Is it an airborne virus? Probably not, it seems. Just coughs and sneezes and touching stuff. The best thing to do is to stay away from other people.

Later, Lin says she wants to go to the family house tomorrow. If I don’t want to go, she can stay a few days and come back. I don’t like the idea, not because I am afraid to be alone, but because this thing has a long incubation period. If she is sick, she could infect her parents and the baby and then me when she returns. It’s probably an overreaction. I say, let us think it over. I ask a friend on WeChat. He encourages me to talk her out of it, citing rumors about asymptomatic transmission. Lin agrees to discuss it tomorrow over lunch.

It’s been five days since the shopping market adventure and two to three days since the family dinner. We feel fine. That particular panic that I’m already sick starts to subside.

I write a chapter for my new book. I stay up really late listening to YouTube videos.

Xiaolin’s shoulder is still sore from our trip to Rome. We’ve been to the hospital for an MRI recently, and her medicine to control the inflammation and settle it down will run out soon.


January 27 — A trip to the market

We sleep in late, no reason to rush up early with not much to do. It’s our third day of self-imposed full quarantine from other humans and staying in our flat.

My district has one to five people infected so far. It’s a huge area, though, so these are still relatively low numbers.

We decide to go shopping at the local market on the street and get a few things. We get our coats and gloves, mask and goggles on, and head down to the campus gates.

There are only a few people on the street, and we all keep our distance. Everyone is wearing masks and walking quickly.

At the market, where we can shop from the street, we feel comfortable, it’s not indoors, but we keep our goggles and mask on. I’ve lent Xiaolin my clear safety goggles, so I’m wearing shaded rainbow swim goggles. Everyone else wears a mask, but most people have their eyes exposed.

At home, the decontamination procedure kicks in. We try to stand in place by the door. We keep the dogs back. We take off our gloves, our jackets, our hats, and our goggles. Then we wash our hands for a minute as hot as we can stand with lots of soap. Then we take off our masks and spray them down with alcohol, inside and out, and then put all that away and rewash our hands. I take a shower.

Today Xiaolin is excited about her club, Salsa 5. They are going to broadcast a class with the two new instructors from Venezuela.

The day passes quickly, writing and chatting with friends online. She’s happy to move around and dance and I try a little bit. I’m just happy to get some exercise.

That night, Xiaolin just starts to scream. Her arm is spasming in pain, but she can’t tell me what’s wrong. She’s stuck in her sweater and turned her sore shoulder the wrong way. I help her get it off and then give her a shoulder and arm massage with a balm. We’re both a bit freaked out by how much she’s in pain.

I worry about what would happen in a medical emergency where we are scared to call for help or to go to the hospital.

I stay up all night listening to a WHO and Centre for Disease Control podcast, Canadian news, American news, European news, British news, podcasts from doctors and specialists, and start listening to “city preppers,” those that discuss how to survive “grid down” situations.

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