Wuhan’s Irish emerge blinking in sunlight as coronavirus controls ease

‘I couldn’t even tell you what we’ve done, but somehow we got through it’


As Hubei province creaked open its gates this week after more than two months of stringent shutdown, the first walk many residents took was to the local funeral home to collect the ashes of their loved ones.

Winding, well-spaced queues formed outside the city of Wuhan’s eight municipal funeral homes, sombre lines of masked faces in the blinding sun. The bereaved often had to wait five or six hours to collect their urns.

A photograph in a local news report showed 3,500 urns with cremated remains stacked high in one funeral parlour. Another showed a truck delivering 2,500 remains, the driver’s second run of the day.

Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began at the end of last year, has reported 50,006 confirmed cases and 2,538 deaths. The city’s healthcare system was entirely overwhelmed in the early phases of the outbreak, and images of the industrial-scale urn output has rekindled sceptism online this week about the accuracy of China’s official figures, particularly in light of apparently higher fatality rates seen since in other countries.

Local officials defend their data, and of course many of those who passed away over the past two months would have died from non-coronavirus reasons. Some here remain unconvinced; others don’t wish to dwell on the grim numbers.

For many, the sight of mourners heading home through the city, cremated ashes in hand, depicts the tragic saga this scarred city has been through more than any statistic.

About 45,000 Wuhan residents have now officially recovered from Covid-19, while millions more in the city either didn’t catch it or had symptoms so mild they never knew they were infected.

Irish Embassy

As a thriving, commercial hub, the city has attracted people from all over the world since China opened up its economy – several Irish numbering among them. Some of the Wuhan Irish were travelling out of China when the lockdown came into force, as the country was already in holiday mode for the Lunar New Year.

Co-ordinated by the Irish Embassy in Beijing, three of the Irish in Wuhan were evacuated on January 30th on a flight arranged by the British government for its nationals.

At least seven Irish chose to stay behind and not join the evacuees, for a variety of personal or work reasons. They count among the lucky in the beleaguered city, in that none of them contracted Covid-19, but they have endured a prolonged period confined to their homes.

Mike has been home alone in Wuhan since the lockdown order was put in place on January 23rd

In recent weeks, almost all the new confirmed infections in China have been imported cases, mostly returning Chinese fleeing the US and other badly affected countries in Europe and the Middle East. The country has shut its borders to foreigners indefinitely.

As Beijing now looks to reboot the economy, controls across most of Hubei have been eased and Wuhan’s lockdown will be fully lifted on April 8th.

Stay inside

Mike (59), a man originally from Westport in Co Mayo who asked to be identified only by his first name, has been one of the worst affected in the Irish group in that he has been home alone in Wuhan since the lockdown order was put in place on January 23rd. His partner was visiting a different part of Hubei when the city was sealed off and he was instructed to stay inside his sixth-floor flat.

Unable to speak Chinese, he has had to rely on her to liaise with the local Communist Party officials over the phone to arrange food deliveries and monitor his health.

His building is in central Wuhan, a part of town that stands at the absolute epicentre of the outbreak, so even as other areas of the city start to loosen restrictions his district remains sealed tight.

When news emerged in recent days that many Wuhan residents were being allowed to leave their compounds, or at least walk around outside within their complex gates, Mike was hopeful. But he was quickly told he would not be able to step across his threshold for another while yet.

“Sixty-four days in lockdown. Dreading 14 more,” he said recently.

More than 2,500 people are still infected in the city, according to government data, and in a worrying development officials said recently that about 5-10 per cent of patients pronounced “recovered” had later tested positive again.

Mike said he was very much looking forward to getting outside, but even after things open up slightly for him it will still be “a scary time. Precautions will have to be adhered to.”

For the others in the Irish community in Hubei, they are already seeing containment policies being relaxed.

“Restrictions have been lifted all right. There are more cars on the roads now and the subway is supposed to start running again soon,” said Liam Griffey from Ennis in Co Clare.

‘Green’ health code

Some people are now allowed to move about or travel in or out of Hubei as long as they have a “green” health code on a mobile app issued by authorities showing they are not infected by the virus. But the newly launched system requires a Chinese ID number, meaning foreigners have not yet been able to register.

“I haven’t managed to register,” Griffey said. “I’m still inside the community. It’s only essential travel and movement that’s allowed” until he can join that system.

Bureaucracy is also keeping Meath man Martin Gilsenan confined to the grounds of his housing community, as he needs paperwork from the school he works in before he can get a pass but the school is currently closed.

For now, though, he is happy to bide his time.

“I’d rather wait a few more weeks and make sure it won’t start up again, anyway,” he said.

Michael McGreal and Laura Liu
Michael McGreal and Laura Liu

Michael McGreal has been in the Hubei city of Zaoyang since the lockdown came into force and now the buzz is slowly but surely returning to the city.

“It is great to see. People are out for walks, laughing and enjoying spending time outside. That excessive city noise which I have grown to dislike over the last few years is now welcomed and appreciated once more.”

Residents are remaining vigilant when it comes to social distancing, he said, with everyone still wearing masks and some donning latex gloves.

“No bars are open yet though. I could murder a Guinness!” he said. “Bars, restaurants and cinemas are the last to open in every city and town, it seems. They are deemed high risk for spread of infection.”

Dubliner Conor O’Neill has also been in a different part of Hubei since the crisis began, but soon he will be able to return to his home-from-home in Wuhan. He is delighted the ordeal appears to be coming to an end across the province.

“It was a really rough time here, to be honest. It went by so slowly but at the same time so fast. I couldn’t even tell you what we’ve done, but somehow we got through it,” he said.

Bird song

Spring blossoms are everywhere now in China, bird song is in the air, and temperatures are climbing quickly. As signs of normality finally return after Wuhan’s bleak winter, the bereaved are reminded that we are still firmly in dreamlike times, however.

Usually ashes would be taken to a family plot on a public holiday, such as the upcoming Tomb Sweeping Festival on April 4th, when families tidy up graves, pay respects to their ancestors, offer flowers and burn joss sticks.

There will be no such festival this year, yet another mass gathering to fall foul of the pathogen, with people instructed to stay away from the cemeteries.

In its place, authorities are offering websites where grieving families can burn virtual incense and make digital flower offerings – the online ritual being just the latest in a long stream of surreal experiences in this outbreak for the people of Wuhan.

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