IN DANGER Michael McGreal and his wife Laura Liu, who live in Wuhan. Photograph courtesy Michael McGreal
“If you went outside and saw tumbleweed rolling across the road it would not be out of place.”
That is the reality of living in Wuhan, the quarantined Chinese city at the centre of the novel coronavirus outbreak that has claimed the lives of over 900 people in China. It is also home to Westport native Michael McGreal.
The city of 11 million people has been under lockdown for over two weeks, with people’s movements restricted as the Chinese Government tries to contain the virus.
Speaking to The Mayo News last Friday, the 15th day of the quarantine, Michael explained that both himself and his wife are restricted to their apartment. In Wuhan, only one person per household is allowed to leave their home every two days to go out for supplies.
Michael and his wife had not left their home for 14 days, but he was planning to go out on Saturday for supplies. He was not looking forward to the ordeal.
“The plan is to do a bulk shop tomorrow and do two weeks of shopping. I last went out on the second day of the quarantine, and it was absolute mayhem. Mass panic buying everywhere, you would go into a supermarket and there would be fighting over a head of lettuce and carrots. Shelves are empty, and very little is left apart from canned goods. There have been reports that it hasn’t improved much, and tomorrow I’m not expecting to get much. I probably have to settle for tins of tuna and chicken if I’m lucky… frozen fish fingers, but definitely nothing fresh,” explained the 35 year old.
Michael has been living in China for the last 12 years. He moved there for work purposes, and is married to a Chinese woman. His father, also Michael, moved out with him to Wuhan. They have not seen each other since the quarantine was imposed.
Michael described Wuhan as a buzzing metropolis that is ‘90 percent new’, but that since the quarantine, everything has closed down. It is like living in a film, he said.
“We heard a rumour of a viral infection around Wuhan but there was no official announcement. Eventually the Government said there was a virus but it was under control and no need to worry. This was going on for weeks, and next thing 24 hours later the city was under full quarantine … it escalated so quickly. Your head was spinning.
“It is eerie here. If you went outside and saw tumbleweed rolling across the road it would not be out of place. Years ago you watched contagion movies and you took it as fiction, but oh my God, it is far from fiction. When you are living through it, it develops exactly as it does in a movie.
“You see how people behave when a city is quarantined and there is a lack of supplies. Society slowly breaks down. Everyone wants to be first, nobody wants to be second. It causes aggression and arguments and manners go out the window. Every man and woman for themselves. It is a frightening scenario to be living through.”
Due to the panic buying there is a shortage of masks, which now have to be worn by law and can only be worn once. Michael explained when you do go outside you have to ‘make sure you get full value’.
Having stayed in his apartment all day, every day for the last two weeks, Michael said that depression does set in. There is only so much television you can watch, he said, and the fear of catching the virus is real.
“What is really difficult is the anxiety part of it. When you do go outside and do your shopping it, is not as simple as putting on your mask and going outside. The virus is passed from person to person through air droplets, water droplets and contact with surfaces, so when you go outside you have to wear latex gloves, glasses, a mask and at least two layers of clothes.
“When you come home you have to be careful how you take off everything so as not to contaminate everything. You take everything off, wash your clothes in Dettol, have a shower. When you come home, OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] sets in and you get paranoid. Did I bring the virus home? What did I touch by mistake? You go around essentially cleaning your house with Dettol. Going outside is such a chore.
“Yeah, I am [scared]. I am scared at how quickly it transmits from person to person and what is frightening is the virus can be in your system for ten to 14 days before you show any symptoms. The reason it is so difficult to control is that you have no symptoms but you are infecting people from day one, and you don’t even know it. That anxiety is there. When you do go outside and come home, the clock is reset.
“You sit wondering did you pick it up. You are sitting for the next 14 days. I have made it for 14 days and I’m healthy and my mind is clear. But tomorrow I have to go shopping again, and when I come home I am back to day one again. It is a mental struggle.”
‘Above and beyond’
From his apartment, Michael witnessed the new hospital being built in ten days. Though he has been told the quarantine will end on February 17, he is not too confident that it will. Although frightened of the prospect of contracting the virus, he believes he is strong enough to survive it.
Michael has praised the Irish Embassy in Beijing, saying it has been providing Irish citizens around Wuhan with surgical masks and that it was the first embassy to offer evacuations from the region.
“The Irish embassy has gone above and beyond what they are supposed to do. Masks are worth their weight in gold, and the embassy is sending masks to Irish people who are really stuck. No other embassy is doing that, only the Irish. It is great they have our back.
“I turned down the evac [evacuation], and a good few did, because most of us have Chinese partners and wives here, and it turned out Chinese wives weren’t allowed to go back to Ireland. The embassy said the Chinese Government wouldn’t allow them. It creates a situation where in your mind it is the right thing to do, but in your heart it is something different. A lot of us chose to stay with our spouses and ride it out.”