Why would the personal story of a 65-year-old writer’s blockade have any meaning for the rest of the world? Because she’s telling the truth to the authorities, as few in her country do. Despite the strict control of the media and social media, Fang continues to ask difficult questions to the authorities, pointing out shortcomings and contesting official allegations – steps that most journalists in China cannot take. His diary is not only the portrait of a society in a closed space, but also that of people wrapped in muzzles. Fang’s book also sounds like a warning when the world enters the sixth month of an epidemic. There is still no reliable treatment for Covid-19, let alone a vaccine to eradicate it. The world opens up after long periods of blockage, but the infections spread. To date, more than 83,000 cases have been registered in China alone, resulting in 4,634 deaths (according to official figures). Worldwide, almost 6.3 million people have been affected by the virus and more than 380,000 have died from it.
Could mass tragedies have been avoided if China had tightened its policy from the first days of the epidemic? Fang returned to this issue several times, despite the anger of censorship, the troll army demanding their blood, and the blatant displeasure of the ruling Communist Party. While her critics question the authenticity of her sources, she continues to testify to the plight of ordinary citizens, migrant workers with no means of subsistence, and ordinary doctors and workers trying to survive on the front line.
Just as Fan does not turn away from hard truths, she also pays attention to moments of little joy: the texture of the light that changes every day, the changing seasons observed from her window, memories of spring flowers from the past, acts of kindness and sympathy – nothing escapes her.
This week 32 new cases of Covid-19 have been reported in China and none in Wuhan, although 320 people in the city remain under quarantine. The authorities in Wuhan are monitoring 11 million citizens to ensure that such cases do not recur. Such laborious attempts to contain the virus may not have been initiated directly by free speakers such as Fang, but without his diary and his repeated exhortations to his fellow citizens to record the trauma of those tragic times, the story of the pandemic would be incomplete. When she started writing her diary, Fang was a famous writer in China and was rarely translated into English. With the publication of Wuhan’s newspaper in English, she became a worldwide figure for freedom of speech. These are the highlights of more than 60 days that Fang recorded in his diary. The original recordings have been cut and shortened with the publisher’s permission.
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The Chinese writer Fan Fang (L) and his book – Wuhan Diary from the quarantine city: Fang Fang, translated by Michael Berry, HarperCollins India, 328 pages, ₹469 (digital price).
27. January 2020 : Today, everyone talks about the lack of face masks as the most urgent problem. After all, we all still have to leave our homes once in a while to buy food and supplies. There are reports on the internet of people selling used face masks that have been repaired, but no one dares to use them. One of the jokes I saw was right: Face masks have truly replaced pork as the most valuable product for Chinese New Year!
29. January: I’ve decided to leave it alone and sleep until noon today. I was still in bed browsing through messages on my phone when I saw a message from a doctor friend: Take care of yourself and don’t go out under any circumstances! Don’t go outside! Don’t go outside!
I thought it meant lightning had reached its peak. I quickly called my daughter, who went to the supermarket to get lunch boxes. I told him not to go. Even if the only thing left at home is ordinary white rice, don’t leave the house. I think she was too lazy to cook, so she wanted to go out. She called me back and asked me how to make cabbage.
31. January: Some of the small supermarkets are still open. There are also several vegetable transporters on the sidewalk. I bought vegetables from one of these suppliers and went to the supermarket to buy milk and eggs (I had to visit three markets before I found one with available eggs). I asked the shopkeeper if she was afraid of contracting an illness if she stayed open during lightning. She answered frankly: We have to live, just like you!
The first one. In February, if I remember correctly, it was my older brother who first told me that the virus was contagious. He teaches at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology. The 31st. In December he sent me a test titled Suspect Case of Virus of Unknown Origin in Wuhan. However, it was not long before the official line of government fell: It’s not contagious between people, it’s controllable and preventable. When we heard it, everyone was immediately relieved.
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A statue with a face mask in Wuhan on the 10th. February.
2. February: The video I found hardest to watch today was a news video about a girl looking at her mother’s hearse and crying through her tears. Her mother left her, and now her remains are banished. A daughter can never bury her mother properly; she probably won’t even know what she did with her mother’s ashes.
6. February: Dr Li Wengyang died. He was one of eight doctors who were punished because they first talked about the virus and then infected themselves with the new coronavirus. Right now, everyone in this town is crying for him. And my heart is broken.
7. February: He wasn’t the only victim at Wuhan Central Hospital, where Li Wenliang worked. I’ve heard that at least three other doctors have succumbed to the virus as well. In almost all hospitals a lot of health workers are sick. They all sacrificed their health and, in some cases, their lives to save their patients.
My friend, the doctor, told me that when all these doctors got sick, everybody knew it was a contagious disease, but nobody dared to talk about it because they had gags.
8. February: Despite the fact that each of my positions ends with the removal of the censorship shortly after placement, I keep writing. Some of my friends are afraid it’s gonna be hard for me, but I think it’s gonna be okay.
I am always on the same side as my government, participating in all official actions, helping the government to convince people who do not entirely agree with a certain policy, and helping the government to comfort all those who care about citizens. The only difference is that I use an alternative method, and sometimes, when I write an article, I reveal some of my personal thoughts on different subjects; but in fact, that’s the only difference.
This morning I heard a recorded phone conversation between an investigator and a morgue employee. She called several civil servants by name, cursed them and called them dogs.
11. February: This afternoon I prepared four dishes for myself; I also prepared some extra rice. My dog ran out of dog food. He’s been in my life for 16 years. The day before the quarantine I took some food from the pet store, but I didn’t think it would be close enough. I called the vet at the clinic to ask what he had to do and he told me I could feed the dog rice. So, from now on, I’m making him an extra meal.
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An empty shopping street in Wuhan 13. February.
12. February: One of the temporary hospitals was told that a local political leader was visiting, so there were several people queuing at the entrance, including government officials, medical staff and perhaps even some patients. They all wore face masks and went one by one to sing to all the patients in their hospital beds: Without the Communist Party there would be no new China! Isn’t that a contagious disease we’re dealing with? Doesn’t this affect the lungs and make it harder to breathe? And here, do you want them to sing?
13. February: My daughter once asked her 99-year-old grandfather what his lifelong secret was. His answer: Eat a lot of fatty meat, don’t practice and curse everyone who deserves it. And the third secret of a long life is the curse of man.
All the inhabitants of Wuhan are locked in their houses, bored and have nothing to do – we must all free ourselves. We can’t get together to talk to each other because of the danger of infection; we can’t open the windows and sing together because we’re afraid that saliva particles hanging in the air could still spread the virus; we tried to mourn together for the loss of Dr. Li Wengyang, but that wasn’t enough; now we just have to try to lift the curse on all the people who have made us suffer so much. In addition, the people of Wuhan have always had a special talent for putting people in their place. As soon as you take it out of your body, the whole body feels completely refreshed; it’s like taking a bath on a cold winter’s day.
I was very sad about a little message today: It is the death of the famous master of traditional Chinese painting, Liu Shouxian. The photo the doctor’s friend sent me is even more heartbreaking. The photo shows a pile of mobile phones stacked on the floor of a funeral home; the owners of these phones had already been reduced to ashes. No words.
17. February: The strictest state quarantine order has just been issued: Now everyone has to stay in his or her apartment forever. Staying home is easy enough for a man like me. My dog can walk in my garden. It’s a good thing he’s so old.
18. February: Today there’s something I’ve been wanting to get rid of for a very long time that bothers me: These extreme left-wingers in China are responsible for the irreparable damage inflicted on the nation and its people. All they want to do is go back to the good old days of the cultural revolution and undo all the policies of the reform era. They behave like a bunch of criminals, attack anyone who can’t cooperate with them and launch one attack wave after another. What I don’t really understand is: How is it possible that they can publish these ridiculous things on the Internet and constantly turn the truth upside down, but that their messages are never censored or erased and that no one ever ends their shameful actions?
24. February: I have heard that some patients admitted to temporary hospitals do not want to leave, even after their recovery! These makeshift hospitals are very spacious, eat well and even have entertainment rooms where patients can sing and dance! It’s so weird, it almost sounds like a bad joke.
25. February: Today, an old college classmate of mine told me that he was getting ready to go out when his three-year-old granddaughter begged him: Grandpa, please don’t go outside. There’s a disease out there! But the most heartbreaking story is the story of the grandfather who died a few days, but his grandson was afraid to hatch because of the coronavirus, so he only ate crackers for a few days. Too many stories like that. There are so many children who don’t dare because their parents always scare them with words: You’ll be sick when you get out! You’re gonna get sick! The virus has already found its way into their hearts and lives like the devil in them.
On the fourth. In March, starting yesterday, they launched a large three-day project to clean and disinfect the seafood market in Juanani. It was closed at the beginning of January and since then people come every day to disinfect the area. But when they closed the market for the first time, they acted rather hastily and a lot of things were left out in different shops. I suspect that no one ever thought that the market would remain closed for so long; and they certainly never thought that the virus that turned up there would lead to a catastrophe that would affect the whole of China and then the whole world. After all electricity and water pipes to the market were cut and the temperature began to rise, many of the remaining seafood began to stink.
5. Mars: According to the lunar calendar, insects today are waking up from their hibernation. We’re the 43rd. Midlife Day. A few days ago I told a friend I was feeling busier than usual. I haven’t seen any TV mini-series, and although I’ve prepared several films that I wanted to see, I’ve never had the chance to see any of them. My neighbor Tan Xiaohe showed a video of his granddaughter’s food. The way she eats in that video is so cute. A friend of mine told me: I spend my days watching videos of Xiaohe’s granddaughter eating at night and reading Fang’s diary; this is how I spend my time these days. These videos and my boyfriend’s message brought me a lot of smiles.
6. Mars: The new daily cases of the coronavirus in Wuhan have finally dropped below 100. In today’s online chat rooms the word thank you is usually written. The political leaders here in Wuhan have called on the citizens to publicly thank the Chinese Communist Party and the people of the country. Your thinking process is really weird.
It’s true, the epidemic is now largely under control, and we should really pay tribute to it. But it is the government that must express its gratitude. The government must begin by thanking the families of these thousands of victims; their loved ones are the illegitimate victims of this terrible disaster. The government must express its gratitude to the more than 5,000 people still lying on hospital beds, fighting for their lives against the God of death; it is their stubborn will to live that has slowed the death toll.
The government should thank all the health workers and the 40,000 white angels who came to Wuhan from all over China to save lives; they worked in great danger and pulled people, one soul at a time, from the clutches of death. The government should thank all the workers and workers who caused a feeling in the city at the time of the epidemic, because it was they who kept the city in crisis. And the government must maintain its greatest gratitude for the nine million people in Wuhan who have locked themselves in their homes, even if this means that they will face all sorts of difficulties; without their cooperation the virus would never have been brought under control.
The government must then hurry to ask the people for forgiveness.
13. Mars: The coronavirus epidemic has improved significantly in recent days, but the public reaction is deafening. The strongest voices opposed the practice of supplying food to the people of Wuhan through garbage trucks. Who would have thought to use garbage trucks to deliver food! The degree of ignorance and impudence is outrageous. Are these officials lacking in common sense or do they regard the citizens as slightly less human?
19. Mars: The news we’ve been waiting for day after day has finally arrived: Today there are no new cases of new coronaviruses in Wuhan and no new suspicious cases!
22. Mars: Communities that have never had coronaviruses are gradually opening up; today I even heard the sound of a child laughing on the street – it’s been so long since I’ve heard that sound.
24. Mars: 62. Quarantine day. It is now officially withdrawn for all areas outside Wuhan; it will be withdrawn for the city on the 8th. Avril’s retired. My housekeeper wrote me she’ll probably be here tomorrow. Deep inside, I sighed with relief. My housekeeper is a pretty good cook; my colleagues always came and eventually invited each other for dinner. I’m sure as soon as we’re free to move again, they’ll come back and cancel our dinners. My hard days are almost over.
Extended with permission of HarperCollins India.
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