Photo: Reuters

In China's coronavirus epicentre, volunteers keep stricken city moving

Many volunteers in the city use pseudonyms and keep their work hidden from their families who may otherwise try to stop them


A day after the city government of Wuhan locked down all of its public transportation to keep the coronavirus outbreak that began in the city from spreading further, three nurses found themselves stranded outside Hankou train station.

They had returned early from the Lunar New Year holiday to go back to work at Tongji hospital, just five kilometres away, but laden with luggage and food from concerned relatives, they had no way to reach there.

Seeing their request for help online, 53-year-old Wuhan resident Chen Hui donned a face mask and went to pick them up at the station, which is just down the street from the seafood market believed to be where the coronavirus emerged.

Wuhan, where 11 million people live, has been paralyzed by containment efforts by health authorities. With public transit shut down and taxis and ride-hailing operations also suspended, ordinary citizens are risking their health to ferry medical staff to and from work and getting key supplies such as food and masks to people needed to keep the city running.

"Through the experience of this epidemic, I really feel that we people of Wuhan are so united. Everyone in our group has such a strong sense of mission," said Chen, who runs an ad hoc ride service through a messaging group on China's ubiquitous WeChat app, to find volunteer drivers for people working in vital roles, like doctors and health workers.

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Long days are common for the volunteers, some of whom are lending a hand from outside Wuhan. Shen Honghua, a volunteer who lives in eastern Zhejiang province, sits with two phones and her computer every day to find hotel rooms for some of the thousands of medical workers arriving in Wuhan.

"I wouldn't sleep until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m.," she said.

While no-one has tallied the number of rides given or donations sent, one informal alliance of hoteliers who volunteered their rooms estimated that in the first week of the shutdown, hotels in Wuhan sheltered over 6,000 medical workers.

The work is not without risk or consequence. Many volunteers in the city use pseudonyms and keep their work hidden from their families who may otherwise try to stop them. Some have also fallen ill after being exposed to the virus during their work.

Officials in Wuhan and Hubei province have repeatedly warned of shortages in medical equipment to guard against infection including masks, even as Beijing exhorts manufacturers to boost production.

One 50-year-old volunteer, who has not told his family what he is doing and declined to give his real name, said he wore a mask purchased from a grocery store when he started ferrying doctors and nurses to and from work.

"After they got in the car, they said what you're wearing is completely below standard," he recalled from one of his first rides. He now delivers donations of food, medical supplies and protective gear to other volunteers as well as people whose family members have fallen ill from the new virus.

Chen's family found out about her volunteer work when her daughter called one day during a delivery run. Hearing the noise in the background, her daughter suspected that she was outside and pressed for the truth, asking for a video call. Chen said she had no choice but to tell the truth.

"She said to me, 'I'm asking, are you going out tomorrow? If you go out tomorrow, then I'm not going to wear a face mask. I'm going to stand outside the gate to my building and let myself get infected.'"

"If you get infected, then how can I live?"