Healthy Wuhan residents say they were forced into mass coronavirus quarantine, risking infection
CNN’s David Culver gets a glimpse inside a field hospital designed to contain the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, where some of the people jammed inside are perfectly healthy.
Three weeks ago, Lisa Wang was fighting a high fever when she was turned away from an overflowing hospital in Wuhan, the central Chinese city mired in a deadly coronavirus crisis.
A chest scan showed her lungs were infected, but she couldn’t get treated for the novel coronavirus she likely had because there weren’t enough beds at the Wuhan Third Hospital, a doctor told her. Instead, she was given medication and instructed to self-quarantine at home.
But on Tuesday, despite having recovered from the illness and been given the all-clear, the 30-year-old lawyer said she was forced into a makeshift quarantine center at a technology park — putting her at risk of cross-infection with hundreds of other patients warehoused in the bare-bones facility.
“They couldn’t provide me with a hospital when I was sick. Now when I’m recovered, they forced me into one,” Wang, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of repercussions, told CNN over the phone.
“I’m very angry, because I feel I shouldn’t have come here,” she said.
Wang’s involuntary relocation to the center was part of escalating government efforts to contain the spread of the virus, which has claimed more than 2,200 lives and infected more than 76,000 people worldwide.
Under the measures, individuals deemed to be high risk — either those with signs of the virus, or those who have come into close contact with confirmed cases — are removed from the population and placed into hundreds of temporary isolation centers set up across the city.
Wang is among thousands caught in the web of restrictive measures now in place in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak since the virus emerged in mid-December.
The city of 11 million has been on lockdown since January 23, but the virus had already spread to the rest of the country.
Most of the deaths, however, have been in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province, as have the majority of confirmed cases.
Leaders in Beijing removed the Communist Party bosses of Hubei and Wuhan earlier this month amid seething public anger over the government’s alleged mishandling of the outbreak. They were replaced by two hardliners, parachuted in from outside the province, both with extensive backgrounds in law enforcement.
Almost immediately after Wang Zhonglin’s arrival in Wuhan to replace the city’s party chief, quarantine measures were escalated.
Wang, who rose through the ranks as a police officer, ordered a city-wide, three-day roundup of people possibly sickened with the coronavirus. That was a response to the central leadership’s decree last week to “round up everyone who should be rounded up” — an attempt to prevent further cross-infection in families and communities.
Since Monday, many people have been barred from leaving their residential compounds, even to buy groceries. Supermarkets have shut their doors to individuals, only accepting “group orders” from communities, according to residents interviewed by CNN and state media reports.
Wang warned sternly that district party bosses and governors would be held responsible if any confirmed or suspected cases were found at home after the dragnet ended on Wednesday, the state-run Changjiang Daily reported Tuesday.
The stringent searches are designed to corral all infected patients under self-quarantine into medical facilities for treatment. The move followed an online outcry over infected people who couldn’t get admitted into hospitals and were dying at home or infecting other family members.
Confirmed patients with mild symptoms were put in the so-called Fangcang hospitals, stadiums and exhibition halls converted into makeshift hospitals where doctors and nurses perform performing basic medical care.
As of Tuesday, more than 8,500 patients have been admitted into 12 Fangcang Hospitals across the city, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.
Suspected cases, close contacts of confirmed cases and patients with fevers were put in temporary quarantine centers set up in requisitioned hotels and university dormitories.
As of Wednesday, police in Wuhan have helped transfer more than 22,000 people from their homes to hospitals and quarantine centers, according to China’s Ministry of Public Security.
However, some recovered patients — like Wang — have been caught up in the mass roundup and exposed to unnecessary risks of cross-infection.
The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
“I have no choice…I have to comply”
Wang, the young lawyer who was forced into mass quarantine, and her husband are a typical middle-class family in Wuhan, an economic engine along the middle reaches of the Yangtze River.
Their lives, like millions of others in the city, have been turned upside down by the outbreak, since her husband developed a fever on January 22.
She said she spent three days taking care of him at home before he was admitted to hospital. By then, she had already developed a fever.
Wang started her own self-quarantine on January 28, the same day she said she got turned away by the Wuhan Third Hospital. Within a week, her fever had subsided and her temperature had returned to normal.
Her neighborhood committee arranged two nucleic acid tests for her, and both came back negative for the coronavirus. Despite the results, she said the committee insisted that she move into a “quarantine hotel” — one of the more than 500 temporary quarantine centers set up by the government in hotels and university dormitories across the city. Wang obliged.
A relic from the Mao era, neighborhood committees typically serve as an intermediary between residents and the government, maintaining grassroots stability and order. Since the outbreak, however, they have been thrust to the front line in the fight against the virus, tasked with screening residents for suspected patients, allocating community resources and coordinating with hospitals.
At the quarantine hotel, Wang did another chest scan on February 16. It showed the infection in her lungs was gone and a doctor she knew told her she had recovered. Wang said she was relieved.
On Tuesday, however, things took a dark turn. Wang was told by her neighborhood committee that she could not go home. Instead, she had to go to a “Fangcan hospitals” because she couldn’t provide a hospital “discharge letter.” Wang protested that she had no way of obtaining one because she was never admitted into a hospital.
“They said if I refused to go, the police would come and forcibly take me there,” Wang said.
Later that evening, Wang was bused to the Optics Valley Convention and Exhibition Center along with more than 40 people from her hotel. The center was featured on state broadcaster CCTV when it opened last week, footage of its shiny new wards and spotless floors beamed across the country.
“We want to create a warm environment in the hospital and provide sound medical services. We hope all patients will recover soon,” Wu Yingchun, an official in charge of the exhibition center, told CCTV.
Conditions on the ground, however, appeared different. Bags of garbage, including unfinished meals and used masks, were piling up on the floor, and no medicine or treatment were provided to patients apart from daily temperature checks, according to Wang. “Here, two doctors are in charge of 200 patients,” she said.
There was no central heating inside. Instead, heated blankets were provided to patients to keep them warm. Rows of portable toilets and shower rooms were located outdoors, in the biting cold. “The condition here is tough,” Wang said, adding that she did not dare to use the showers, fearing cross-infection.
Wang was concerned that other viral diseases — such as the common flu — could easily spread in the large converted space, crowded with rows of beds without any partitions.
The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
During a visit to the Optics Valley shelter last week, Wang, the party boss, said: “The Fangcang Hospitals are of great significance for Wuhan in preventing and controlling the outbreak, and bringing timely treatment to patients.” He urged relevant government departments to ensure “high standards” on facilities such as heating and ventilation, and pay special attention to garbage and medical waste.
The Fangcang Hospitals are only supposed to handle confirmed coronavirus patients with mild symptoms. However, Wang said she and fellow patients who said their test results were negative were taken to these facilities by mistake.
“I think now (they are carrying out this) one size for all sweeping policy,” Wang said, referring to the government behest to “round up everyone who should be rounded up”. “They would rather wrong 10,000 people than miss that 100.”
On Wednesday night, Wang said she called the city’s outbreak command center to complain about her case. The next morning, a doctor came by with a piece of good news: she could leave.
Wang left the center on a bus with six others — including several recovered patients who had had a similar experience. But instead of heading home, they were sent to another quarantine hotel.
Wang said she doesn’t know how long she will need to spend in this one.
Tricked into quarantine
Wang wasn’t the only one caught up in the roundup.
On Tuesday, Bo Hanlin, a photographer in his early 30s, was nearly forced into quarantine at the hospital that had rejected his wife two weeks ago.
His wife was later confirmed to have the virus and finally admitted to another hospital — only after her social media post (now deleted) pleading for help was viewed hundreds of thousands of times and caught the attention of authorities. She recovered and was discharged last week.
Worried about his own health, Bo said he had a chest scan, which showed no sign of infection. He also did two swab tests at the behest of his neighborhood committee — both came back negative, but he was not informed of the results at the time.
On Tuesday, after he had been under self-quarantine for 11 days, the committee told him to do a third nucleic acid test. Bo was puzzled.
Bo initially refused, demanding to know the results of his previous tests first. But he said the committee called in the neighborhood police, who put him in an ambulance to the hospital.
After he arrived, however, Bo said he was shocked to find out outside the hospital entrance that the test was just an excuse to get him out of the compound — he was being taken into quarantine, along with five others who said they also had no symptoms and had been cleared by swab tests and chest scans. They protested against the order with an official at the scene, who refused to give his name or title.
The six men were surrounded by police officers in full protective suits, and a squad force vehicle was called in. “It’s like they were going to forcefully quarantine us,” Bo said.
Amid the stalemate, a handful of doctors from the hospital were called to the scene to persuade them to go into quarantine. The doctors examined their test results, and were left “totally speechless,” Bo said.
“The experts shouted at the official: ‘all these people are negative, why would you get them to the hospital for quarantine?'” he said.
The official explained that Bo and the other five were named on a list online of people who had been tested for the virus and were considered suspected cases. The doctors told him the list was outdated because it included people with negative test results.
They were finally allowed to go home. Bo said he called the mayor’s hotline to complain about his experience.
“I felt quite angry about this. Because so many people have not been hospitalized at the moment, and there are not enough beds for them, why would they quarantine the healthy people and compete with those people with serious or mild symptoms for beds?”
Just last week, CNN had found hundreds of desperate people posting messages on social media begging for a hospital bed for their ailing loved ones. Some infected with the virus were dying at home without any treatment.
“I don’t need their apology — they should apologize to the doctors and those who cannot be hospitalized,” Bo said of the government.
The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission did not respond to CNN’s inquiry on Wang and Bo’s cases.
“We can only obey and believe in the government”
Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared a “people’s war” against the novel coronavirus as it spreads across China, urging authorities to “rely on the masses to resolutely curb the spread of the outbreak.”
Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing, said the language of war and the phrase “rounding up everyone who should be rounded up” were both previously used by Chinese officials in the sweeping crackdown and mass internment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, a western region home to 11 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs.
“They are borrowing on the anti-terrorism measures in Xinjiang to put greater effort into tackling the crisis,” he said.
Since 2017, China has been detaining hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in what Beijing alternatively describes as “vocational training centers” as part of its “de-radicalization” campaign. Former detainees have described them as closer to internment camps, however, and allegations of abuse are rampant, including in firsthand accounts given to CNN describing torture and forced political re-education under the threat of violence. Beijing denies those allegations.
“I think this is also the reason why the central leadership and Xi decided to send in officials with background in law enforcement — for their political loyalty, sweeping manner and knowledge of the anti-terrorist campaign,” Wu added.
While Xi has noted this week that China’s battle against the coronavirus is making “visible progress,” Wang, the party boss, appeared more cautious in his assessment of the reality in Wuhan.
“The situation of outbreak prevention and control is still severe, (we) must remain clear-headed and avoid blind optimism,” he said Tuesday.
Another woman who spoke to CNN said her uncle’s whole family was moved into a quarantine hotel on Wednesday, a month after the uncle had been discharged from hospital for viral pneumonia.
None of the six family members had shown any symptoms of infection over the past month, when they were under self-quarantine at home. The uncle had also had several clear chest scans after being discharged, the woman said.
The woman, who spoke to CNN the night before they were sent away, said she was worried about her grandparents — who are already in their 80s — and her 10-year-old cousin.
“They are all in the vulnerable group of weak immune systems, how can they endure all this tossing about?” said the woman, who declined to reveal her name.
When contacted again by CNN on Wednesday, she said the whole family had “volunteered themselves” to be brought to the quarantine hotel, in a move of “self-sacrifice” for the greater good of Wuhan.
“There’s no other way — this is the policy now. We can only obey and believe in the government,” she said in a message.