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Letter From Wuhan: As Australia Locks Down I Have A Message Of Hope

March 12th, 2020. It is a very clear day in Wuhan.

There are fluffy clouds in the distance, and such weather seems very helpful in lifting people’s spirits.

Things are looking much better than before. For the past several days, new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the city have been dropping. Yesterday was the first time for the last two months when new cases were below 10. [Ed Note: By the 18th, there were no new cases reported.] All 14 temporary hospitals that were built or converted rapidly for tens of thousands of patients were closed on March 10th. Hopefully, forever. That was when our president visited Wuhan.

With fewer new cases, local government officials are finally able to shift their focus and energy from case identification, contact tracing and containment implementation to the daily life of healthy citizens. Food prices are falling back to normal. Cabbages are now six yuan per kilogram instead of 14 in February, pork is 60 yuan per kilogram instead of 120 and flour is four yuan instead of 10 per kilogram. For the first time in two months, I am not feeling as anxious about food supply and other groceries.

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Our spending on food alone has more than doubled since January 23rd, when the lockdown started, despite how little we consume normally anyway as a small family of only three members. Costs of water, electricity and gas has also gone up, now that everyone has been home all the time. I am lucky to have a kind company that did not cut my salary, but it is a different case for my husband.

As a psychiatrist, he makes a living by talking to people face-to-face in a discreet manner. That is clearly impossible now. His income has been cut by about 30 percent. It has been 50 days, and we have been spending a lot more, while making a lot less. My calculation is that we have been shouldering an extra economic burden of about 7,000 yuan a month.

Access to fresh and affordable vegetables, rice, flour, and meat used to be something we all took for granted before COVID-19. After almost two months of lockdown, a green bok choy makes me happy. It doesn’t take much to make me happy nowadays. I have my husband and daughter. My parents and parents-in-law are all still around. Life is still good.

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves to quarantined Wuhan residents on March 10. (Image: AAP)

My city seems to be waking up from a very long hibernation. Around me, in our community, I can sense people eagerly getting ready to go out and have food that is prepared by a professional chef, not just cooked at home. There are also trucks coming to our gate to deliver not only vegetables and meat, but snacks and sweets. Previously, we couldn't even dream of snacks like duck necks, chicken feet or matcha cakes. There was only one thing in every Wuhan citizen’s mind, and it was how to survive by hiding in our caves and trying to stretch our food supply.

I’ve been cooking for 50 days, and I am running out of ideas and new recipes with limited ingredients.

How I miss a good, slow, long and loud hotpot banquet with my family and friends. Those poor restaurants have suffered the most in this lockdown. Some of them stayed closed the entire time, even though the Chinese New Year was supposed to be their busiest season. Some of them offered free food to medical professionals and volunteers from other provinces.

On March 11th, a notice from the Wuhan municipal government said that only a handful of important industries and companies would be allowed to resume work and business before March 20th. Other companies, whose products or businesses are not directly involved in epidemic control or meeting people’s basic daily needs, are required to apply for special permission before reopening. Restaurants and other businesses in the catering industry, considered least necessary and relevant to the epidemic control, are required to stay closed until the lockdown is lifted.

As part of an effort to contain the virus, a volunteer collects medicine for those in quarantine in Wuhan on February 29. (Image: Getty)

No one knows when schools will resume. Wuhan has a large cluster of some of China’s best universities, and college students are from all over the country, and even other countries. They are still told to remain closed indefinitely. My daughter, a primary school student, has been taking classes online. She doesn’t mind it, but I can tell she misses going out to play with her friends. It is getting warmer outside.

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Although there are no new daily cases are slowing down to a single digit, no one knows when the city will be fully liberated from the epidemic. Some say it might be June. Others are wondering if the city will ever be normal again. I am not sure. I am not sure how much longer my boss can be so generous and keep paying us full salaries.

Yet, above Wuhan, the heavy air of anxiety is lightening up. My community officer called on March 8th to inform us that we only need to report our temperatures once, instead of twice, a day. That is a small but significant change and relief.

[Postscript: This was written on March 12. Since then, Wuhan's number of reported new cases of coronavirus has dropped to zero -- as opposed to thousands at the outbreak's peak. However, there are reports that suggest there have been new asymptomatic cases. Limited movement is now allowed for residents classified as healthy and checkpoints between districts are coming down.]