Heartbreak in the Streets of Wuhan

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The two women were on the empty streets of Wuhan for three hours. Zhu E’Yan, 61, pushed her 86-year-old mother Ren Zhengzai down the road in a wheelchair, trying to find the nearest hospital willing to treat a patient with a fever. All bus and taxi services were shuttered. When they finally got to a hospital, the hallways were packed with people coughing, many with IV fluid drips on makeshift beds. Zhu sat on the floor for the entire night as they waited for a room. But none was available. The next day, she wheeled her mother—untreated—home on another three-hour trek.

In the next five weeks, they were turned away by one hospital after another—and both women are now dead. Li Yaqing, 38, wasn’t with her mother and grandmother when their ordeal began; she’s reconstructed it from phone calls and texts. In January her grandmother came down with a fever. Rumor had it that people were contracting a weird disease near the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The family didn’t take it seriously at first, because they lived far from the market and Li’s granny rarely left the house except to play mahjong with her friends. Then, after a few days, the old lady began to have trouble breathing. At the same time, the rest of Wuhan went into lockdown.

On phone calls, mother and grandmother told Li—who lived alone in her own apartment—about the illness but said she shouldn’t visit because they didn’t want her to be infected. She called everyone she knew who might have influence to try to get help. Li made hundreds of calls, to the police, hospital emergency lines, government directories, and hotlines listed by netizens. No one answered. She blasted posts seeking help on Chinese social media including WeChat, Weibo, and ByteDance. She pleaded for help with the local authorities who enforced quarantine in her neighborhood. After three days, a community hospital notified them of a spot for her grandmother. But it was too late. She died that night. The community authorities then dispatched people to disinfect the woman’s apartment.

On the same day, Li’s mother, Zhu, came down with a fever. At Wuhan Hankou Hospital, her lungs showed mild signs of infection. But she tested negative on the nucleic acid test, which identifies the virus in a patient’s body through its specific genetic sequence. A lack of test kits and the unreliability of test results caused many patients to be excluded during the early weeks of the outbreak. They told Zhu to go home and take pills to bring her fever down. After six days of self-quarantine, on Feb. 6, she began to have trouble breathing and started vomiting. Three days later, the authorities moved her, not to a hospital but to a hotel, where she continued to go untreated.

Heartbreak in the Streets of Wuhan

On Feb. 10, after more online pleading and phone calls by Li, her mom was rushed to an intensive care unit. She called Li to ask her to tap more of her connections to get her into a better hospital. “She was going through a mental breakdown,” her daughter says. Zhu had seen two of her ward mates die by then. “I told her, ‘You’re in the ICU because I pulled all the strings I could,’ and she got upset and hung up the phone.” Li would desperately try to find help—even unproven cures—for her mother. But, she said of the phone call, “that was our last exchange.”

Beginning on Feb. 15, the hospital put Zhu on a feeding tube, a catheter, and, eventually, a respirator. The next few days were full of dread, and Li’s heart sank every time the phone rang, fearing bad news. She finally got the call at 8 a.m. on Feb. 26: The doctors said her mother might not make it. By the time she got to the hospital, her mother had died, her body wrapped in plastic and cremated.

“People who die are just a number on paper,” she says. “My grandma didn’t even make it as a number,” because she died before testing positive for the novel coronavirus. “The worst part is I couldn’t be there to take care of them in person. I never saw my mom, or even got to say goodbye to her in her final days.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at hchuaeoan@bloomberg.net

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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