The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For one family at center of coronavirus crisis, a death, stress and fight for a hospital bed

A customer shops for vegetables at a supermarket in Wuhan, the epicenter of China’s coronavirus outbreak, on Feb. 14. (Reuters)
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BEIJING — Twenty-first-century life pulls China’s only-child sandwich generation in two directions at the best of times. But these are not the best of times.

Take the case of Zhu Wei, a 38-year-old marketing manager for a real estate company in Wuhan, the city at the center of the coronavirus outbreak that has radiated out across China and spilled into other countries around the world.

These days, Zhu is not just trying to be a good daughter and wife and mother and employee. She’s also trying to take care of her aging parents, both of whom have been infected with the pneumonia-like virus, while hoping not to put her husband and 9-year-old daughter at risk in the process.

And all while living in a city under near-total lockdown.

“I don’t know what will happen next, but I will try my best to keep myself fed and stay strong,” Zhu said after getting her sick, 65-year-old father into a hospital in Wuhan. She had literally fought her way through the throngs at Hubei Provincial People’s Hospital — “I am not proud of it” — to nab a bed vacated by a patient who had just died.

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She’d returned home to take a bath in disinfectant and eat a dinner of crackers and tinned meat.

“I hope I can finally have a good night’s sleep tonight. Maybe after a good cry,” she told The Washington Post by phone from Wuhan.

But Zhu would not get to rest for long. She found out this week — the week her daughter was starting online learning, because all schools in China are closed — that her mother was infected with the virus, too.

The story of Zhu and her family is not an exceptional one. It is the story of one Wuhan family and also the story of tens of thousands of Chinese families who are trying to protect their health and their sanity in a moment that feels apocalyptic.

Almost 55,000 people in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, have been infected with the virus, and 1,457 people have died as of Saturday.

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The Zhu family’s showdown with the coronavirus began in an entirely unremarkable way.

Her father, who owned a small business until he retired, did not make his usual trip to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan to buy fresh fish and shrimp for their family celebration on Lunar New Year’s Eve, which fell on Jan. 24 this year.

Zhu Wei had planned to go to Europe over the holidays. So her parents were planning a more modest dinner that didn’t warrant a visit to the huge market, where the coronavirus is thought to have first jumped from animals to people working there.

“It still bewilders me how my father got infected,” Zhu said, guessing it must have been at the local supermarket.

Instead of the feast, Zhu Wei and her husband and daughter went to her parents’ house for a small get-together with them and her grandmother on Jan. 23. Wuhan had gone into lockdown that morning, and the mood was somber.

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The next day, Zhu canceled the European vacation. That night, her 94-year-old grandmother began coughing and developed a fever. In a pattern that has now become all too familiar, they couldn’t get her a coronavirus diagnosis and therefore couldn’t get her into a hospital.

She died at home six days later. Staff from a local crematorium came to pick up the body, and forbade anyone from the family from accompanying her.

“My grandma loved having people around,” Zhu said. “But there was no family member by her side to say goodbye to her. We were not even able to get her ashes.”

There was little time for grieving, however; two days later, Zhu’s father, who has chronic emphysema, started to show symptoms.

Then began a struggle to get him diagnosed and admitted to a hospital. Without inpatient treatment, he would die in couple of days, the doctor said.

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“My mother burst into tears and fell to her knees to beg the doctors for help. But they couldn't do anything about it,” she said.

There was simply no space anywhere.

“I have never felt so hopeless,” Zhu said. She filled out countless applications and dialed hotlines and used whatever connections she had. She posted on social media. She paid for immunoglobulin and a respirator and wondered if she should buy an anti-Ebola drug people were talking about. Her father was getting weaker day by day. She was worried her mother would get infected. She lost 10 pounds in three days.

Then a colleague called to say a patient had just died and there might be vacancy at Hubei Provincial People’s Hospital.

“This was my only chance,” she said. “And I knew I had to be there personally and fight for it.”

She put on a hazmat-style suit, protective goggles and three face masks. “There was no time to hesitate. I literally fought my way through for that bed.”

That was just the first step in the family’s battle. Her mother went into quarantine in a government-requisitioned hotel room. Zhu stayed alone in her parents’ house to avoid the risk of infecting her husband and daughter.

Then her mother came down with a fever. On Feb. 10, she was diagnosed with coronavirus and on Wednesday was taken to Wuhan Zijing Hospital, a private institution that has been taken over the government.

“Two of us share one room here. It’s not the cleanest place I’ve been to, and it’s difficult to sleep without a pillow, but I try to get by,” Zhu’s mother, Ding Li, who had worked as an accountant, said in messages sent through her daughter. Zhu tried to send a pillow to the ward, but no delivery driver would go near the place.

“The doctors are quite nice, but unfortunately we don’t have a respiratory expert here because all the best doctors are taking care of severe cases in other hospitals,” Ding said. “You have to understand that most doctors in Wuhan are exhausted, and I don’t want to complain or blame anyone.”

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Meanwhile, Zhu’s husband, Zhang Wei, a professor of computer science at Hubei University, is due to start back at work on Monday but will have to teach courses online. At the same time, he’s having to supervise lessons for their fourth-grader, Renyin.

“Math is a piece of cake, but music is something her mom and grandma are better at. It was a bit of a struggle for me, but now I’m doing okay, I guess,” Zhang said, adding that he has been finding ways to make the “extended quality time” less boring for his daughter.

After lessons, Renyin plays Minecraft with her friends, then jumps rope or plays Legos with her dad for a bit.

The situation is trying for everyone. But they’re attempting to adjust to this disruption to their family lives and the stress the situation is placing on everyone.

“I miss Mama and Grandma, and I hope my grandparents stay strong and recover soon so that we can go to parks and watch movies together,” Renyin said over the phone. “And I hope dad improves his cooking and stops nagging at me for taking more than one piece of tissue to wipe my mouth.”

Zhang’s parents are living with them to help out, and Zhang leaves the apartment only every third day, as mandated by the authorities, to buy more supplies.

“Before my in-laws got sick, I would probably have hated being stuck at home under these inflexible regulations,” he said. “But now, I believe it’s for the best of everyone because there is a huge risk of cross-infection when too many people are moving about.”

Even once this is over, the family expects they, and Wuhan, will have to deal with new problems. The real estate market will suffer, with construction projects planned for this year delayed and prices set to plummet, Zhu said.

But that is a worry for another day. For now, she has other priorities. She is just trying to make sure her family survives.

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