Hours after a state-imposed lockdown brought public transport in the Chinese city of Wuhan to a halt in late January, Wan Jiuxiong and his colleagues sprang into action.
The 27-year-old ride hailing driver joined a group of volunteers ferrying medical staff to and from overcrowded hospitals, where rows of feverish patients were fighting the coronavirus outbreak.
Wan’s first assignment was to pick up a nurse from home and drive her to the Jinyintan Hospital, a key facility designated by the government to treat patients infected with the pneumonia-like illness.
Since emerging from Wuhan last month, the deadly virus has claimed at least 700 lives and sickened nearly 30,000 people, spreading from the city on the Yangzte River to the rest of China and as far as the United States and Europe.
Wan’s passenger left in a hurry, without saying “goodbye” or “thank you”, but Wan isn’t looking for thanks.
“In this time of need, we Wuhan people have to save ourselves. Everyone has got to do their own part,” he said.
In the midst of the contagious outbreak, Wan has not taken precautionary measures lightly.
When volunteering, he leaves home every morning with a bundle of facemasks, a bottle of medicinal alcohol and a pot of disinfectant. He changes his mask every two to three hours, and spends half an hour disinfecting his car after dropping off every health care worker.
“I’m not worried about getting infected myself, but I fear the health care workers I pick up will be cross-infected – they still need to save lives,” he said.
Lifeline of Wuhan
Wan is among hundreds of volunteers who have formed a lifeline for the residents of Wuhan, a sprawling metropolis of 11 million people.
After the suspension of all buses and subways when the city went under lockdown on January 23, the government deployed 6,000 taxis to help deliver supplies and transport patients without a fever to hospital. Those with a fever can only be transported by special quarantine vehicles dispatched by disease control authorities. But each residential community is only allocated three or four taxis, hardly enough for dense sites housing thousands of people.
That gap is filled by ordinary car owners like Wan. They have organized themselves into groups on WeChat, China’s popular messaging app, where they swiftly respond to the requests of medics.
Wan is in four such WeChat groups, each with more than 100 members – including drivers and health care workers. Most rides are arranged the night before, but someone in the group will usually step forward to accept emergency requests.
In China, many had hoped the supposedly omnipresent and omnipotent state would come to their rescue in times of crisis like this. It eventually did, to some extent, but critics say it has come too late, and the help is too little.
The Wuhan government’s initial mishandling of the outbreak, coupled with an overstretched health care system and an extreme shortage of protective gear, has left hundreds of families reeling from grief for the loss of their loved ones – and thousands more are doing everything they can to get their ailing families treated.
Wuhan officials have admitted their delay in disclosing information on the outbreak. They have also acknowledged the lack of medical resources to deal with the influx of feverish patients, and pledged to offer more support to overflowing hospitals while new ones are being built.
But platforms across Chinese social media are still being inundated by posts from Wuhan residents crying desperately for help. Ordinary citizens like Wan and others are left to shoulder part of the responsibility for their government, doing what they can to help the city pull through this abyss – often themselves taking tremendous risks.
On Tuesday, Wan went from a volunteer to one of the people pleading for help online. His parents have fallen seriously ill and are still waiting in hospital for treatment – his mother has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, and his father is suspected to have contracted it, too.
The Chinese health authorities had said previously that an asymptomatic patient can spread the virus, but now they’re not so sure.
Wan, who as of Thursday had not shown any symptoms, did not know whether he had spread the virus to his parents. Quietly, he said he did not want to think about that possibility.
“Wuhan is sick, and we want to cure it”
In addition to driving health care workers, some volunteer groups are delivering medical resources and supplies to hospitals. Others specialize in providing accommodation and hot meals to overworked doctors and nurses.
For Chen Hui, a 53-year-old manager of a transport business in Wuhan, the company’s refrigerated truck has come in handy. Her first volunteer assignment was to deliver 900 meals from a restaurant to nearby hospitals. Since then, she has delivered hundreds of boxes of meals and fruit, as well as face masks, goggles and protective suits.
Chen is in 10 volunteer groups on WeChat, some of which have 500 members – the maximum number allowed for a single group on WeChat. She is also the organizer of a group of more than 24 car owners, liaising with donors and recipients before dispatching volunteer drivers to deliver supplies. She receives thousands of WeChat messages a day – often late into the night, and wakes up early to reply and make calls.
She is proud of the volunteers in her group, who were strangers just two weeks ago.
“These young people are really excellent,” she said. “One day, Yang Jin (a volunteer) confessed to me that he was afraid of catching the virus. ‘How can I not be scared? I have a four-year-old child, and I live with my parents. What would happen to them if I get infected?’ he told me. But he went about delivering goods all the same.”
Due to their busy schedule, Chen and others often have to skip meals on the road, relying on crackers and snacks instead.
“It has been really difficult work for us volunteers. All we relied on is our hot blood,” Chen said. “Wuhan is sick, and we all want to cure it by pulling everyone’s effort together.”
“We will be on our way again”
The sprawling network of volunteers has extended beyond the provincial capital of Wuhan into wider Hubei province.
Fan, an insurance broker in his early thirties who would only give his surname, returned to his village in Xiangyang, 200 miles from Wuhan, days before the city banned nearly everyone from leaving.
On WeChat he organized 30 drivers from northwestern Hubei to drive health care workers, who had also returned to their villages for Lunar New Year, hundreds of miles back to Wuhan to relieve their overstretched colleagues.
Major highways in the province have been closed as part of the draconian measures to stop the virus from spreading, and Fan often had to apply for special permits for his volunteers ahead of their long journeys.
Every car is disinfected before setting off, and again after doctors and nurses disembark along the highway entrance to Wuhan. Volunteers in Wuhan – such as those from Wan and Chen’s teams – take over from there, driving them downtown to hospitals.
Since the first day of the Lunar New Year on January 25, Fan’s team has helped to send nearly 300 health care workers back to Wuhan from other parts of the province. But on Tuesday, Fan said he could not continue to work.
“We’ve run out of masks,” he said in dismay over the phone.
Fan and his fellow drivers had bought the masks themselves early on, but they are increasingly hard to come by, he explained. Fan phoned the local government for help last week, and claims to have gotten an unexpected response.
“I was told to mind my own business, and not to violate state policy (of travel restrictions) by ‘smuggling’ Wuhan personnel back to Wuhan,” he said.
His parents, both farmers in the village, tried to encourage him. “They told me I’m not doing this for the officials. I’m doing this for the common folks. So I continued the next day,” he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has said the Chinese government and people have gone all out to fight the outbreak. “We mobilized the whole country, laid out an overall plan, responded swiftly, and adopted the most comprehensive, strictest measures to start a people’s war on preventing and controlling the outbreak,” he said.
In recent days, however, reports have spread over WeChat that volunteers are falling ill.
One volunteer, He Hui, died from coronavirus on Monday, according to state-backed outlet The Paper, which cited He’s family and a funeral parlor. The 54-year-old volunteer had been driving health care workers to and from hospital in Wuhan.
Fan was devastated.
“(It) was a huge blow to me,” he said. “Originally, I had not yet made up my mind. But after He’s case, I finally decided to suspend (our service). I have no choice, because I can’t guarantee the safety of our volunteers – it won’t be responsible for them or for health care workers to carry on.”
Yet Fan said he would resume the service if he can get enough masks and goggles for his team.
He said he was moved by a post on popular video sharing platform Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok – which purportedly showed a young doctor riding her bike for over 300 kilometers to return to work in Wuhan, a journey that took her four days. CNN cannot independently verify the video.
“I was moved by this Wuhan female doctor,” Fan said in a WeChat post asking for help obtaining masks and goggles.
“I’ve decided to resume our volunteer service and continue to escort health care workers back to the frontlines in Wuhan,” he said. “As soon as we get our protective gear, we will be on our way again.”