Frontline voices from the pandemic’s early days

In his new book, ‘The Wuhan Lockdown,’ Guobin Yang uses personal diaries from that city’s residents to recreate how it felt at the epicenter of what was then a scary and unknown new virus.

Following is an excerpt from “The Wuhan Lockdown by Guobin Yang of the University of Pennsylvania. Copyright ©2022 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

At age 40, Dr. Cai Yi was the head of the Pain Department of Wuhan Central Hospital. During the lockdown, his first post on the Chinese social media site Sina Weibo was about the death of his colleague Li Wenliang. Each sentence of the page-long message was put in a separate line, so the entire post looked like a poem, an elegy. Addressing Li as “brother,” the message read like a long howl of anger, sadness, and pain.

Cover of the book called "The Wuhan Lockdown by Guobin Yang." The image shows a person fully covered in what appears like a hazmat suit next to a person in a hospital bed. They are outside.

By the time the lockdown was lifted on April 8, Cai Yi had posted about 30 Weibo messages and had become an internet celebrity. His diary-like postings offered a rare and detailed insider perspective on the life and work of medical professionals in Wuhan. Almost all of his postings were like character portraits, telling the stories of his brave colleagues and friends and condoling every death in his hospital. 

The posting that made Cai Yi famous was put up on February 11. A story about “little people” who died of COVID-19, it opened with four plain words: “Mr. Lin passed away.” Then he continued: 

“Who was Mr. Lin? I don’t even know whether his name was Lin Jun 林军 or Lin Jun 林君 or Lin Jun 林均. But almost every old-timer in Wuhan Central Hospital knows him. He was not the head of the hospital or the party secretary. He was only the owner of the small mart at the entrance of our campus on Nanjing Road.” 

Dr. Cai recalled what a wonderful person Mr. Lin had always been. With just a phone call to him, he would quickly deliver bottled water to a doctor’s office. He would receive express deliveries for staff in the hospital. Hospital staff could take something from his store and pay later (and it would be OK if someone forgot to pay). And Mr. Lin was always smiling and never complained. Dr. Cai lamented that there were many kind people like Mr. Lin around, and yet they were invisible. “It is only when they are suddenly gone that we discover how important they were in our lives.” 

In the days ahead, Dr. Cai would write stories about everyone in his hospital who died of coronavirus—six in all as of June 2020. Five of them were physicians, and one an administrative staff member. He wrote of their colorful personalities, their hard work, their sacrifices, and their humility and kindness as human beings. The pathos of sorrow in these writings was as deep as an earnestness to learn from their examples. They were stories of remembrance and condolence. Readers found them both heart-rending and inspiring. Because Cai was a physician in the hospital’s Pain Department, his fans jokingly called his postings “pain style.” Even the funniest of his postings brought tears to his readers. 

Cai Yi not only mourned the dead but also wrote about the living, especially about colleagues who, like him, worked on the front line. These postings were humorous even when he was recounting the hardships of work and life. 

Guobin Yang
Guobin Yang is the Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Communication and Sociology, with appointments in the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of Penn’s Center on Digital Culture and Society and deputy director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China. (Image: Courtesy Annenberg School for Communication)

On March 12, Cai told a moving story about a female colleague. Wuhan Central Hospital has two campuses. Next to its Houhu campus is the Home Inn, which had been converted into temporary dormitories for the hospital’s employees. By March 12, Cai Yi had lived in the hotel for 45 days. Initially, he and his colleagues at work lived there. For a long time, they never visited their own homes for fear of bringing the virus to their families. Later, when the pandemic situation improved, some female colleagues would take their laundry back home. 

He once gave a ride to a nurse in his department who had just gotten off her night shift and wanted to pay a quick visit to her family. When they reached the entrance to the nurse’s residential compound, she did not enter. Instead, she handed some bottled milk to her husband, who was waiting inside the gate with their child. She did not hug her husband or child. They exchanged a few words before she left hurriedly. The moment when she turned her head away from her husband and child, Cai Yi saw tears in her eyes and was deeply touched. 

Everyone was fighting the battle in their own way, Cai wrote: “They do not have any grandiose words. It is just one small family after another persevering with great tenacity and optimism and bearing the hardships of separation between husband and wife, mother and child!”

Cai Yi wrote his social media diaries after work. At work, he embodied the same kind of bravery and self-sacrifice he saw in his colleagues. 

The policy for frontline medical professionals was a two-week work shift. After two weeks, they would be replaced for a new shift. By February 11, Cai and his team had worked for 14 days straight, and it was time for them to turn over their work to a new team. But when he learned that the new team did not have enough personnel to staff it, he and his team members decided to stay on. Eventually, he was “forced” to leave work on February 17 for the sake of his personal health and safety. He wrote on February 9: “I have never had as strong a sense of professional identity as I do now.”

As if in immediate response to Cai’s March 12 posting about the sacrifices of medical workers, Ye Qing, deputy director of the Bureau of Statistics in Hubei province and a professor of public finance at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, wrote on March 13 that 50 days of lockdown experience proved unequivocally that “in the fight against the coronavirus, medical workers are the frontline soldiers, while academicians are the generals.” 

By “academicians,” he meant distinguished scientists such as Dr. Zhong Nanshan. Zhong played a key role in the decision-making process in the war on the virus and would later be awarded the Order of the Republic. 

Academicians are few and far between, but there are many frontline soldiers like Dr. Cai, and they literally put their lives on the line. The nature of their work exposed them to health risks, but they showed no fear. As Cai said in a later public interview about their experiences at the beginning of the lockdown: 

“We were fighting with our own lives. We had no way of protecting ourselves. We didn’t have enough supplies. Not enough ventilators or face masks. The temporary department for [COVID] patients was hastily created. It was so urgent. Then patients just poured in. They kept pouring in. You couldn’t stop them. They were so sick. They stood at the entrance. Were you going to turn them away?” 

There could be many reasons for such bravery and sacrifice—duty, responsibility, professionalism, compassion for patients, and more. But the image of medical workers as frontline soldiers suggested that bravery may also derive from the power of comradeship in times of war. 

As J. Glenn Gray wrote in his classic work The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (1959), military comradeship is a communal experience, the feeling of belonging together in battle. While comradeship may be called into being by external conditions such as the defense of one’s country, ultimately in the heat of battle “the fighter is sustained solely by the determination not to let down his comrades.”

Cai and his team did not hesitate to continue to work even after they had completed their shift because they were moved by the sacrifices made by their colleagues, some of whom had lost their lives. The sense of comradeship that came from working closely together in a time of danger gave him strength. It was when he got off work and returned to his hotel room that he was sometimes overwhelmed with loneliness: 

“It’s actually better to be at work because after work, when people return to the hotel, they could not visit one another. They all have to lock themselves up in their own rooms. The cell phone becomes the best way of killing time…. But when you browse your WeChat moments, you could easily see news of colleagues getting infected and even dying. Obituaries and mourning messages about colleagues around you keep popping up in the WeChat Moments. They hurt. Since you’re all by yourself, and there is no need to hide your feelings, you just cry. Crying becomes normal.”

Guobin Yang is the Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Communication and Sociology, with appointments in the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of Penn’s Center on Digital Culture and Society and deputy director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

The text above is excerpted from “The Wuhan Lockdown” by Guobin Yang, copyright ©2022 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher.