Exactly one month later, the South China Morning Post reported a suspected case of the novel coronavirus in Shanghai. The event went
unreported in mainland Chinese media, even as tourists from Wuhan with
confirmed cases of the condition were hospitalized in Japan and
Thailand. Meanwhile, notices from the Hong Kong Public Health Department
about preventing pneumonia and respiratory tract infections circulated
in many WeChat groups, reactivating horrible memories of the 2003 SARS
outbreak. After Shanghai’s first coronavirus case and human-to-human
transmission were both confirmed on January 20, I told myself to prepare
for the worst scenario.
Events in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, did not mirror my cautious approach. For example, the local government organized a Lunar
New Year potluck banquet for more than 40,000 families. I was shocked
and furious when I saw the news.
On January 21, 2020, I confronted a former classmate, now a professor and vice dean at Wuhan University, in a WeChat group with
members from our graduate program. I said that local scholars should
speak out and ask the local leadership to be proactive. Their
irresponsibility and ignorance had the potential to harm the whole world
given how deadly and contagious the virus was already proving to be.
Despite the mounting evidence, my former classmate questioned whether
the reports of the virus were real. Even now, I cannot blame him for his
sense of security because he believed the city was in good hands.
Another classmate in the same WeChat group, who is a civil servant in Guangdong, told us that when four people in the province died of the
coronavirus, she was informed of the news in an internal meeting that
same day. She also said that she was using masks provided by her office
because local pharmacies had run out of them. Another friend, who works
for the government in Beijing, advised me early in the outbreak to be
vigilant. When I mentioned my concerns about mask quality in mainland
China, he said that only the masks he received from his office were good
quality. The ones his family bought online were inadequate for
self-protection. It seemed that higher-ranking public servants tended to
have better access to information and personal protective equipment
than the general population.
Public awareness of COVID-19 in Shanghai dramatically changed in late January. News of the first confirmed case of community transmission
in the Yangpu district, where I used to live, surfaced in a WeChat
group I was in. Apparently, a woman from Wuhan who was visiting her
daughter in Shanghai had fled a local hospital after she was
hospitalized with COVID-19 on January 21. Information on her whereabouts
and her daughter’s several Shanghai apartments was posted in many local
WeChat groups. In the end, the Shanghai police quickly found her and
returned her to the hospital. Nevertheless, this first case in our
district confirmed that the virus was at our doorsteps. After that, we
kept our children indoors for their own protection.
Rumors about the case spread on Chinese social media. Some people wondered how this woman’s daughter could own five apartments in downtown
Shanghai, three of which are in neighborhoods where housing prices
often top RMB 10 million ($1.4 million). Other people gave a name for
the woman and claimed she was a high-ranking CCP cadre from Wuhan who
had abandoned the epidemic to spend the holidays with her family.
Further speculation asserted that the woman bought her daughter’s
properties in Shanghai using funds she had obtained through corruption.
On January 22, the city of Wuhan issued a notice stating that Liu
Qingxiang, vice director of the Wuhan CDC and the subject of many of
these rumors, had not left Wuhan and had been working on the front lines
of the outbreak.
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