COVID19 update, May 30, 2020: Fang Fang’s “Wuhan Diary”

The Chinese novelist Fang Fang has lived most of her life in Wuhan, going back to the days before the Cultural Revolution. Until her retirement, she used to be the provincial chair of the Chinese Writers Association. 

(Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, was originally three separate cities named Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang, all lying on the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers.)

When it became clear that an epidemic was breaking out, she started writing diary entries and posting them  on Chinese social media. They quickly acquired a following in the millions, despite furious attempts of online censors to airbrush them away. By the time the lockdowns on Wuhan were lifted, the combined diary had reached book length.  

Now translations in both English and German have come out. I read the English translation, which is available on Amazon. The rating is dragged down by a number of 1-star reviews posted by obvious “50-Cent Army” troll reviewers. So I decided to read the book for myself.

I warmly recommend it, despite its high price ($19.99). It is a unique first-person document by an articulate person with lots of contacts, including in the medical system.

It seems that the Wuhan residents were just as bamboozled by the ChiCom regime as the West. Doctors at the Central Hospital apparently realized early on that they were not just dealing with a new SARS-like infection, but that it was contagious person-to-person. After attempted whistleblower  Dr. Li Wenliang was strong-armed by the police into confessing he had been spreading false news, the others apparently restricted themselves to quietly warning each other. Yet officials eventually realized something was up and organized a high-level meeting on the 14th, which ended inconclusively. Even the Chinese New Year celebration was allowed to proceed.

She tells numerous stories of friends, acquaintances, and relatives who succumbed to the disease — many of them surprisingly young. Many medical personnel (including Li Wenliang) were among the early casualties, but also such people as journalists and cameramen.

She also relates the harrowing period where the local medical system was overwhelmed and patients would die while waiting to be admitted. This was a brief situation, alleviated when medical personnel and supplies started flowing in from other parts of China. 

She highlights the inventiveness of the locals in coping with the lockdowns and the attendant logistical problems. For example, as trying to shop individually was problematic (you were allowed out of your apartment complex once every 3 days) and often stores could not handle the flood of calls, an informal association of residents would collect orders, place a centralized bulk order, then distribute the ordered grocery parcels, at first by placing them in the building’s courtyard, then by placing them in buckets lowered from the windows of residents.

Food donations from other parts of China were apparently abundant enough that distributing them before they spoiled became a problem. She proposed a surprisingly (or not) “capitalist” solution: deliver to grocery stores (who have the storage and the delivery network in place), and let them resell at highly discounted prices meant to cover their distribution costs. 

While she affirmed the necessity of a strict lockdown, she highlights a number of instances where unthinking and callous enforcement of the letter of regulations, with no room for common sense, led to suffering and deaths. (One example that stands out in my mind was a special-needs child left to fend for itself when its father was placed in isolation. Another was a married couple stuck on a bridge between two boroughs because the two spouses had residence permits for opposite banks of the river.) 

“People often have reasons that they use to describe their actions, such as “we were just carrying out written directives.” But reality is filled with all kinds of unpredictable changes, whereas written directives are often prepared hastily with only broad guidelines. Moreover, those written directives are mostly composed with common sense in mind, so they are usually not in direct contradiction with the basic principles of humanitarianism. All we need is for the people assigned to enforce these principles to have just a little more humanistic spirit; just enough so that a driver who had been stuck out on the highways for more than 20 days wouldn’t end up with his life in danger; just enough so that when someone is infected with coronavirus, a crowd of people doesn’t end up sealing their front door with a steel rod so that everyone is locked inside; just enough so that when an adult is forced into mandatory quarantine, their children don’t end up starving to death alone at home. That is all I am asking for.”

Some of her tales will sound familiar — for example, how the suspension of all non-emergency medical services at the height of the epidemic led to other medical problems being neglected (e.g., dialysis and chemotherapy cases). (Apparently she and two of her siblings are diabetic, and the siblings have additional chronic medical problems, so this is something they experienced first-hand. Her ex-husband caught COVID but survived.) 

She also described, via her medical contacts, that mortality at the hospitals decreased once the capacity crunch was over and the doctors had refined their treatment protocols. She mentions remdesivir being applied with some success: non-intubated patients were also often treated with traditional Chinese remedies alongside Western medicine. She herself took various herbal potions in an attempt to boost her immune system. 

Telling it like it is, warts and all, earned her enemies, and even death threats.

“Today there is something I want to get off my chest that has been weighing on me for a long time: Those ultra-leftists in China are responsible for causing irreparable harm to the nation and the people. All they want to do is return to the good old days of the Cultural Revolution and reverse all the Reform Era policies. Anyone with an opinion that differs from their own is regarded as their enemy. They behave like a pack of thugs, attacking anyone who fails to cooperate with them, launching wave after wave of attacks. They spray the world with their violent, hate-filled language and often resort to even more despicable tactics, so base that it almost defies understanding.”

In a footnote, she explains that by ultra-leftists she means ultra-Maoist nostalgics for the Cultural Revolution era, opposed to the reformist polices introduced by Deng Xiaoping.  These people report her posts on the Chinese Twitter-clone and managed to get her account blocked a number of times.

In this atmosphere, newspapers practice self-censorship. She highlights the story of a man who left a testament of 11 word, “I donate my body to the state… what about my wife?” where the newspaper would only highlight the first seven words as concern for his surviving spouse was apparently not worthy of sharing the limelight with his selfless devotion to the state.

(She does mention that autopsies of people like that man were invaluable in helping doctors understand what they were dealing with, notably the ARDS.)

The party leadership and officialdom — well, let me quote her:

“The world of officialdom is filled with people who have never learned a damn thing in their entire lives, but one thing they have mastered is the art of putting on a show; and they have ways to deal with you that you would have never imagined even existed. Their ability to shirk responsibility is also second to none; if they didn’t have a good foundation in all these worthless skills, this outbreak would have never grown into the large-scale calamity that it is today.”

She mentions that three groups of specialists had come to visit during the earlier stages of the outbreak. The first two had accepted the claim that no person-to-person transmission took place, but the leader of the 3rd group —  one Dr. Zhong Nanshan, who had earned his spurs in managing the original SARS outbreak — did not take no for an answer. Under insistent questioning, it was admitted that a patient had infected 14 others, and he announced on January 20 that person-to-person transmission did take place. By then, of course, precious time had been lost.