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    Dispatches From Hubei: New Year’s in the Countryside

    As China confronts a deadly coronavirus outbreak, rural areas near the epicenter are hunkering down for a long fight.

    On the night of Jan. 13, 2020, I left Shanghai and returned to central China’s Hubei province to spend the Lunar New Year holiday with my family. After reaching the provincial capital of Wuhan, I caught a two-hour bus back to my village in the nearby municipality of Xiaogan. I remember thinking that the orange groves near my house resembled a sea of lanterns, stretching far off into the distance.

    That first week’s weather was cold, and my family and I spent it huddled indoors, only occasionally going out to stand by our door and chat with the neighbors or passing villagers. In other words, it was a perfectly ordinary January. Then, on Jan. 22, the Wuhan municipal government abruptly announced it was shutting down all public transit in and out of the city, effective from 10 a.m. the next day. Within a week, 14 other cities across the province followed suit as officials belatedly rushed to contain a viral outbreak that had already spread out of Wuhan to almost every region of the country.

    As of 3:50 p.m. on Feb. 3, China’s health authorities have confirmed 17,218 cases of the novel coronavirus, a cousin of SARS that causes pneumonia-like symptoms; 361 have died. Much of the public’s attention has been concentrated on Wuhan, where the outbreak originated last December, but a number of nearby satellite cities have also been devastated. Huanggang, a small city 75 kilometers from Wuhan, has the second most confirmed cases in the country at 1,246; Xiaogan is next, with a reported 918 cases.

    Villagers here were slow to wake up to the danger. Many of the 200 people in my village continued going about their lives and preparing for their Lunar New Year gatherings, even after Wuhan announced it was severing transit links on Jan. 22. Most had heard of the so-called Wuhan Disease, but out of habit they trusted that local officials were fully capable of handling the outbreak.

    Yet as I read up on the situation in Wuhan, I began to feel a sense of dread. More disturbing news began coming out of the city around Jan. 21. One of my relatives, who had been admitted to a hospital in that city for a bone fracture, was ordered out after just two days. His doctors said the hospital was being emptied but didn’t explain why.

    Over the next few days, the epidemic bubbled just beneath the surface of village life. Residents started sharing videos of Wuhan hospitals calling for aid, fever patients lined up out the door, and doctors on the brink. But they didn’t seem fully aware that they, too, were at risk. A few younger villagers and I tried to get our relatives to stay home, but without much success. The local farmer’s markets remained packed.

    The atmosphere intensified Jan. 23, after the news of Wuhan’s lockdown broke, but even then, few villagers believed they were in any personal danger. When I sent a message about the coronavirus outbreak to a group chat populated by friends and family, I was scolded by a relative. “Oh, cut it out,” he complained. “It’s the New Year and you’re making everyone uncomfortable.” I understood. Given the circumstances, denial was a normal response.

    That night, however, a widely shared video brought the villagers’ worst fears to life. In it, a man is taken away by doctors to be quarantined as the middle-aged woman by his side starts to wail. “Help me!” she cries. “I have a fever too! I have a fever too!”

    Everyone instantly recognized her accent. Once they saw a fellow Xiaogan local being affected, they began to fear for themselves. Village chat groups were suddenly flooded with details about the outbreak. “It’s too scary out there,” another relative of mine wrote after cancelling plans to help host a banquet. “I’m not going out, even to make (the customary) New Year’s visits.”

    Of course, not everyone’s minds were so easily changed. While some social media-savvy residents spent the next few days sharing increasingly worrisome updates, videos, and photos from the crisis, others who were less plugged in hardly altered their routines.

    What finally spurred the village to take concrete action was news that a resident of a neighboring town had been quarantined, paired with Xiaogan’s announcement that it was halting all public transit services within the city limits. The city’s various counties and villages quickly fell in line by parking buses, shuttering stations, and closing roads. Cadres in some villages used construction waste to fashion makeshift blockades, while others organized shifts to keep an eye on roads into their villages. The local authorities in my area closed the roads down on Jan. 24 — Lunar New Year’s Eve. There was no more denying what was happening.

    Almost immediately, everyone began looking for face masks. Younger residents tried buying some online, but most outlets had already sold out. Local pharmacies had a limited stock, but this, too, was quickly exhausted. The afternoon our village’s transit links were cut, my father rushed to the nearest town on his scooter, where, after considerable effort, he managed to procure two disposable smog masks. Typically these might cost between 2 and 3 yuan ($0.30 and $0.45) each; he paid 20 yuan apiece.

    That night, we gathered around the TV to watch the annual Spring Festival gala, but we weren’t in the mood for its usual extravagant skits and performances. Instead we talked about cancelling our yearly New Year’s visits to the other houses in the village — something no one in our deeply traditional village could ever recall happening before.

    The first morning of the new year arrived amid deathly silence.

    We all know who came home from Wuhan, but while word of every cough or fever spreads like wildfire, there’s no sign of panic or prejudice. Local cadres go around the village making announcements reminding residents to wear masks, stay indoors, and not to gather in large numbers. To keep villagers contained, the county government has told gas stations to stop selling gas to vehicles without a state-issued transit pass. With the roads closed, there’s nowhere to go anyway.

    Bringing goods into the village is no less challenging. Currently local pharmacists rely on their own private channels to procure supplies. It’s impossible to find effective medical-grade masks in local shops, and even the disposable ones are either out of stock or marked up. On Feb. 1, only two of the markets in the nearest town were open, and while they still had most daily necessities available, there was nowhere to buy hand sanitizer, antibacterial spray, or rubbing alcohol.

    Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen people make numerous unfounded accusations about my province. Residents hailing from Wuhan but now living elsewhere have been doxed in some parts of the country. Other locals, traveling when the outbreak hit, now can’t find hotels willing to take them in. A few have opted to return home and risk contagion rather than put up with such treatment.

    I’m not opposed to the quarantine. But it requires respect and trust. Hubei residents are victims, too. Just because we’re at the greatest risk doesn’t make us risks ourselves. China has extended the Lunar New Year holiday as it deals with the crisis. Even so, with our province still on lockdown, many residents worry they’ll be stuck in our hometowns and unable to get back to work.

    On a more positive note, the village’s old traditions of self-reliance and self-governance have started to reemerge. Everyone says China’s countryside is in decline, and rural Hubei has supposedly fallen into disarray, but this epidemic has brought residents closer together. We don’t know where the virus will hit next, yet in the face of supply shortages and a lack of outside help, many villages are managing to fend for themselves while maintaining order. For example, in one nearby village, residents have organized and set up a system for spreading the alarm whenever new infections are reported, while others have taken the initiative to disinfect their neighborhoods.

    These villages are our homes. Besides, we have nowhere left to run.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.

    (Header image: A villager uses a ladder to set up a roadblock near the border of Yunmeng County in Hubei province, January 2020. From梦里水乡大美朱湖 on WeChat)