‘Dead city’: Sydney evacuee on life in Wuhan lockdown

Gloria Zeng knew about the virus well before it came to terrify the world. As early as New Year's Eve, messages had been coming through on WeChat about a strange new illness taking hold in Wuhan, which is home to her extended family.

"What they called it at that time was suspicious SARS," she says. "Someone said 'SARS is back'."

A week later, the 42-year-old Sydney mum loaded her three children on to a plane from Sydney to the virus' epicentre. They had been planning the holiday for a year and were not about to let it go. Her husband, who stayed behind for work, joked: "If worst comes to worst you guys will either get the virus or you will be stuck in Wuhan."

Gloria Zeng’s children watch a video while under lockdown in Wuhan.

The latter prediction came true. Zeng heard the news at 2am from a friend who said the city had been shut down. Her first instinct was to get to Changsha, about four hours' drive away, and fly home. But it soon became clear the highways were blocked and that would be impossible.

Zeng, who is now back in Australia, says the first few days of the lockdown were relatively normal. No one was checking body temperatures except at the hospital. Grocery store shelves were emptier than usual, but after a few days they were replenished by the government.

"There were not many choices if you wanted a certain brand," she says. "But if you want to find rice or noodles, definitely you can find them."

Shoppers look for groceries at a supermarket in Wuhan in January.Credit:Chinatopix/AP

Around day four or five, Zeng says buses started patrolling the neighbourhood with loudspeakers attached, broadcasting information about what people should do if they felt sick. Authorities told people to go to their local community clinic, rather than the hospital as is customary in Wuhan.

Food delivery was still available, though you had to book early. Zeng says the service was "really good", with prices relatively stable. "My kids said 'oh, we want to drink Australian milk, A2," she says. "So I paid 13 Australian dollars for A2 milk."

Zeng's mother, who is still in Wuhan, reports that inflation has since taken hold on food prices, though not insurmountably. She says prices are now two to three times higher than normal – up to 10 times on some items.

The widely-watched Shouguang vegetable price index actually fell over the course of last week, but remains about 25 per cent higher than on January 1. Meanwhile, the BBC reported that Meituan, China's largest food courier service, now allows recipients to request their drivers to leave the food on their doorstop or at reception, rather than risk a face-to-face meeting.

Patients diagnosed with the coronavirus settle at a temporary hospital set up in an exhibition centre in Wuhan on February 5.Credit:AP

When it came time to be evacuated on the first Qantas rescue flight, Zeng was reluctant. She calculated their chance of contracting the virus in their apartment at less than 1 per cent. Out in the open, she figured it would be significantly higher.

In the end, her husband convinced her to take the offer, threatening to jump on a plane and find his way to Wuhan if she didn't. The final confirmation came one afternoon at 4pm, with a number to call to arrange a travel permit. When Zeng and her children arrived at the airport ahead of their scheduled 2am flight, she was stunned by how busy it was – three other countries were also evacuating their nationals that evening.

"I was really scared when we were at the airport," she says. "My kids were touching everything, rolling on the ground, throwing their masks in the air. I was literally yelling at my husband on the phone saying: my kids will get the virus in the airport!"

They didn't, of course. Zeng and her children were among the 243 evacuees flown on board QF6032 to Western Australia and then to Christmas Island, where they were quarantined for two weeks and remained virus-free.

Zeng says she is highly appreciative of the Morrison government's efforts and the services provided on the island. "They turned a cold jail into a welcoming place," she says.

Zeng's mother remains in Wuhan caring for Zeng's 93-year-old grandfather. Another of her friends was last week seconded to work at Huoshenshan ("Fire God Mountain") hospital , one of two special coronavirus hospitals built in Wuhan in just 10 days. The hospital has 1000 beds and according to Zeng's friend, "all the beds were taken".

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