The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reading ‘Wuhan Diary’ while quarantined in China stirs heartache for America

Chinese writer Fang Fang speaks with journalists in Wuhan, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, on Feb. 22. Her diary of living under lockdown in the city became a hit with readers the world over. (AFP/Getty Images)
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JINSHAN, China — Day Three started much the same as Day Two and, as I would soon discover, Day Four. I threw open the curtains in our hotel room near Shanghai to look across a painstakingly groomed beach at Hangzhou Bay, almost indistinguishable from the overcast sky.

The third day of my 14-day hotel quarantine, mandatory for everyone entering China, fell on June 25, which was just another day in the grinding catastrophe we know as 2020.

But Day Three was the day I sat down to read Michael Berry’s excellent translation of “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City,” by the acclaimed Chinese novelist Fang Fang.

Her daily accounts from the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic — her frustrations with officialdom and confinement, her fears for her family and her struggle to obtain masks — resonated with many Chinese during the darkest days of February.

Over the past six months, people everywhere have grown accustomed to measures that were unimaginable as the year dawned, including Zoom weddings and restaurants with mannequins in the chairs, and so much death and suffering.

From Wuhan to Milan, Auckland in New Zealand to Oakland, people have stayed home for weeks on end to stop the spread of this pernicious force.

But the response has also become political in a way a virus doesn’t understand. We’ve seen that draconian lockdowns are not the sole preserve of authoritarian states. We’ve seen that exercising your right to not wear a mask can also mean exercising your right to contract the coronavirus.

I translated ‘Wuhan Diary’ to amplify the author’s voice of courage

Opening Fang Fang’s diary while beginning my own quarantine was the kind of surreal experience I had not had since reading George Orwell’s “1984” in Pyongyang.

“I never imagined that something so serious would befall the city of Wuhan,” Fang Fang wrote in her first reflection, posted Jan. 25.

From that day on, she charts the downs — the deaths, despair, trauma, mental health effects — and longs for the ups of recovery and walking by the river.

In my case, I knew that my 9-year-old son and I would be in mandatory quarantine after returning to China from our home country of New Zealand.

It was my second isolation — although my first was altogether more pleasant, on a beach in New Zealand — and I was prepared. I had a suitcase full of food: boxes of Cheerios, packets of coffee and brewing equipment, and the New Zealand equivalent of Cheetos.

I set about trying to keep us sane. We played badminton and cards. We jumped rope and had online playdates. There was an obscene amount of screen time.

I tried to work but found I couldn’t concentrate and that my child was incensed to discover that I, absent so much during a normal workweek, could not be present even in confinement.

But the whole time, I felt lucky. At least I had only two weeks of this. We drew a chart on the window with highlighter so we could mark off the days, striking through each number before we went to bed.

I thought of my friends in the United States who were facing months of this juggling act. My heart sank when I saw the crowds that gathered for July 4, despite the spike in infections linked to Memorial Day weekend.

A Wuhan writer, on the ground at the center of the outbreak

Reading Fang Fang’s diary, I was struck by the interminable nature of Wuhan’s lockdown.

She would latch onto snippets of good news, hoping that the end was near. Whereas we could mark off Day Seven, Fang Fang could not count down to freedom.

“You won’t even give us a clear answer as to when it will end so we can at least have a target in mind,” she rails against officials on March 16. “The end of March? The end of April? Whatever the case, you need to give us a time frame!”

In the end, the people of Wuhan were shut at home for more than two months. I would spend two weeks confined to a room with white plastic sheeting on the floor and eating the same meals every day, delivered by people in hazmat suits.

But at the end, we would return to a semblance of normal life. My son would go to summer camp. I would go to the office. That prospect helped us through.

My friends in the United States didn’t have a light at the end of the tunnel. They didn’t know if their kids would return to school in the fall or when they would be able to work uninterrupted by requests for snacks or toilet help.

Toggling between my Kindle and the news on my phone, I was struck by a sense of missed opportunities.

On Day Four, I read Fang Fang’s entry from Feb. 21, almost a month into lockdown and as results were beginning to be seen in Wuhan, where she noted that a quick response was “essential in trying to get ahead of the disease.”

The United States was doing the opposite. The same day I read Fang Fang’s advice from four months prior, Vice President Pence announced that more than 2.5 million Americans had contracted the coronavirus but hailed the “encouraging news” of America opening up again.

The United States set a record for new coronavirus cases for the third time in three days, passing the 40,000 mark for the first time. By the day of my release, July 7, the number of new cases would exceed 59,000.  

This same sense of missed opportunity plagued Berry, the UCLA professor who was translating Fang Fang’s diary while she was still writing it.

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“Everything I was translating was already a month behind, yet as coronavirus cases began to rise in the city of Los Angeles where I live, Fang Fang’s words increasingly felt like they were dispatches from the future,” he wrote in an afterword to the English edition.

Fang Fang wrote repeatedly about the psychological trauma, saying in one passage that Wuhan would need an army of counselors to help people through the aftermath. I read that on the day the U.S. death toll hit 125,434, about 27 times that of China’s.

I couldn’t even imagine. Even without the sickness and death that Wuhan experienced, we felt like we were going crazy at Day Seven. At Day 10, we gave up any sense of structure and stayed in our pajamas all day, watching Netflix and eating the Kiwi Cheetos.

We knew we had four more days. Maybe it was better that Fang Fang didn’t know she had 66 more. How many more days will Americans have, I wondered.

Still, after Wuhan’s anguish came a sense that the end was in sight.

“Right now the head of this monster has been cut off and all that is left is its writhing tail,” Fang Fang wrote in early March.

As I read this, the American infectious-diseases expert Anthony S. Fauci said the United States was going “in the wrong direction” and warned that daily cases could hit 100,000.

What will post-pandemic fiction look like? The novels that followed 9/11 offer some clues.

It is clear that the Chinese Communist Party mishandled the initial phase of the outbreak, suppressing information and putting politics above public health. But it is also clear that, once the severity of the situation became apparent, authorities moved quickly to try to control the situation.

Reading about Wuhan’s experience four months later, I couldn’t help but feel that, in its effort to condemn everything the Chinese government does, the Trump administration had thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Translating on March 7, as President Trump said he would continue with campaign events despite the worsening epidemic, Berry wrote: “How I wish that the people attending those rallies could read Fang Fang’s diary.”

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