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Revisiting With People Who Got Stuck In Months-Long Wuhan Lockdown


As we near the end of 2020, we've been thinking about the ways that the coronavirus pandemic has affected the lives of people all over the world. NPR's Pien Huang has been covering the pandemic from the start, and early on, she spoke to a couple of people who were visiting Wuhan, China, when that city became the first epicenter of the outbreak. Pien has been checking in with them throughout the year, and she's with us now to tell us more.

Pien, welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So for people who didn't hear your original story, what brought those two people to Wuhan in the first place?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, both of them had traveled to Wuhan to be with family during the Lunar New Year holiday. And when Wuhan's lockdown started, they got stuck there. So, as you might recall, it was a really strict lockdown. At times, people were not even allowed to leave their homes.

And I first spoke with Lin Yang back in February. She's an epidemiologist at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. And she and her husband and their two school-aged kids stayed with her parents in Wuhan. She says in the first week, people were really shocked, and then in the second week, they started freaking out.


LIN YANG: But in the third week, we kind of tried to accept this as a reality.

HUANG: The quarantine ended up lasting for around 11 weeks. Yang told me that she had little choice but to figure out how to teach and do research remotely during that time.

MARTIN: And what about the other person you talked to who was also in Wuhan? What was his situation?

HUANG: Yeah, so his name was Xi Lu, and he had just finished his Ph.D. in the U.K. He went back to Wuhan to spend the holiday with his parents for the first time in seven years. Lu told me that he had some reservations before he traveled to Wuhan in January. But the fact that his parents might be in danger actually convinced him to go.


XI LU: Yeah, I can never imagine if the worst thing happened, and I was not there.

HUANG: Lu had planned to be there for three weeks and then return to his wife in the U.K., and he actually ended up staying around 20 weeks.

MARTIN: So both of the families that you interviewed eventually did get to leave Wuhan. What have they been up to since then? And how did they - I mean, did they apply some of the lessons from their time in lockdown there to their situations back home?

HUANG: Well, let me tell you first about Yang. She went back to Hong Kong with her family, and just like she had done in Wuhan, she threw herself into her work.

YANG: I have published, like, 30 papers so far. I didn't have anything to do but writing, you know, in Wuhan (laughter).

HUANG: But she says the experience in Wuhan was really hard on her kids, and they've told her they never, ever want to go back. Hong Kong is now dealing with its fourth wave of the virus, and Yang says she's back to working remotely. And her kids are going to school from home, so all of them are jostling for the best Wi-Fi spots in the house. But at least, she says, the quarantine in Hong Kong is not as strict as the lockdown in Wuhan. She says you can at least take a walk and go get some groceries.

MARTIN: I'm glad you mentioned about the kids because I was wondering about them, too, 'cause maybe publishing 30 academic papers wasn't (laughter) as big of a goal for them as it was for...

HUANG: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Their mom. I don't know - just a thought there. OK. And what about Lu? I mean, he did eventually get to go back to the U.K. after 20 weeks. And then what happened?

HUANG: Yeah. So he ended up taking a job as a university researcher, and he and his wife moved into a new place outside of Cambridge. And the area he lives in is now actually under some COVID restrictions. Lu says he now only leaves his house once or twice a week. So he's ended up following some of the same routines he kept in Wuhan. He works from home, and he's turned their living room into a gym so they can work out.

LU: I just mimic everything that I got from my parents in Wuhan, so I feel quite comfortable.

HUANG: Lu also told me that one of the things he misses most right now is going to the movies, so to cope, he's gotten himself a projector. And for the holidays, what he's really looking forward to is watching episodes of one of his favorite TV shows, "The Mandalorian," from bed.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Pien Huang.

Pien, thank you so much for this continued reporting.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.