Editor’s note: As of Tuesday, more than 73,000 people in 25 countries have become infected with the coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization. The New York Times reported that 150 million people in China are under restrictions governing how often they can leave their homes. Law.com International’s Hong Kong bureau chief, Anna Zhang, had been visiting her family in mainland China when the coronavirus outbreak occurred, She is still there. She filed this report late last week:
In China, where the coronavirus has infected close to 60,000 people and continues to spread, lawyers are making efforts to contribute to fighting the virus. (Pro bono is a whole different matter in China.) Many large Chinese law firms have organized efforts to buy medical supplies for Wuhan and other places. Jingtian & Gongcheng was among the first to organize firm-wide donations and purchased Rmb1 million worth of medical supplies for hospitals in Hubei in January.
King & Wood Mallesons’ offices in Hong Kong, the U.S., and Tokyo worked with the firm’s charity arm KWM Public Interest Foundation and have helped purchase and ship several batches of medical equipment and supplies to Hubei. Zhong Lun and its charity foundation raised Rmb4 million for hospitals in Wuhan and neighboring cities as well as lawyers in Hubei for protection and treatment if they are infected. JunHe also raised over Rmb1 million to give to Hubei hospitals as well as for protection for front line community workers in Beijing. And the list goes on. Clifford Chance also joined the efforts and made a donation.
Most firms have started normal operations in offices outside of Hubei from this week; there are still people traveling or under quarantine who need to work remotely, and travel restrictions continue to prevent business meetings and other types of gatherings. Lawyers at Grandall Law Firm and Shanghai-based EY affiliate law firm Chen & Co worked with mobile office software developer Bitzsoft and developed a remote office platform for any Chinese lawyer to use for free for a year.
But despite this, there is hardly any good news. A week ago, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, died after contracting the coronavirus. He was 34, leaving behind his parents, who were also infected, a young child and a pregnant wife. Li died around 3 o’clock in the morning, but nobody went to bed. I got constant updates of posts, messages and images of mourning from lawyers, friends, and people who never post on social media. In the middle of the night, the entire country was overwhelmed with a mix of anger, sorrow and regret.
I was more on the regret end. Li was mourned as a national hero because he was one of the first people to warn the public about the SARS-like coronavirus, blowing the whistle on the disastrous outbreak some people were trying to cover up. He wasn’t believed, of course, and was summoned by the local police after warning his classmates on WeChat. He was told off and made to promise that he wouldn’t spread any more rumors. The story of people “lying” about a new SARS virus made national television on New Year’s Day.
Few people believed him then. Many of us mourning him, shaming national media, the government and the police didn’t believe him. I was suspicious when I first heard about it. I remember being dismissive when a friend told me in early January, “I heard Wuhan has feidian again.” Feidian is how SARS is referred to on the mainland. Many of us scarred by the outbreak that plagued the country in 2003 didn’t want to believe it could come back.
But it did, in a much worse form. I was wrong. Many people were wrong. And now the entire country and beyond are paying the price for not believing Dr. Li and his colleagues. I’m paying that price by being confined in my home, unable to leave and unable to go back to work in Hong Kong. All flights between my city and Hong Kong are canceled until the end of March. I don’t know when and how I can go to Hong Kong.
I work from home now as others in China do. Working from home is one thing, working from home in China is a different thing if you are like me and have to log on to a VPN to get anything done. I used to think working remotely was easy, and all I need was a laptop. But I also need a stable internet connection. When I think of working from home, I think of working on stories, not spending hours trying to log on to various accounts or open an email. The amount of time I spent wrestling with the “loading…” message at the top of my email page is infuriating. On some occasions, I spend 20 minutes doing something I typically get done in a few seconds just to be told that I am no longer on the internet.
Frustration about technical failures isn’t the only problem. I am constantly reminded that a deadly virus that has killed more than 1,300 people may be closer to me than I can imagine. The district where I live made national news when one patient supposedly contracted the virus after a mere 15-second interface with another infected patient, both not wearing masks.
I literally don’t remember the last time I left the apartment. My residential compound, as with the rest of the city, has been in lockdown since Feb. 4; every household was allowed one person every day—every other day until Monday—to leave and buy groceries once. We are issued a permit that is marked with the dates someone from my family has left the compound. Supermarkets and grocery stores are the only places still open, but they always seem to be on the verge of running out of stock. My father would come home with the last bit of cabbage or pork and tell us “dumplings are all out.”
Life outside the compound gate has been canceled; the entire subway system was shut down and only a fraction of the bus routes are running; most shops and restaurants remain closed. My vibrant hometown of 8 million people has come to a complete stall. It’s also a terrible time to get sick otherwise; hospitals barely open and sales of cough and fever medications are banned. Local government offers masks to each household, but we had to register through an online system. We didn’t get any.
For a while, the number of infections in my city increased fast, going from under 50 to over 140 in just a few days; that has changed this week, the number of new infections has gone down significantly. That is unfortunately not the case nationwide, where total infections have reached close to 60,000 as of Thursday. Some 10% have been cured.
Despite the obstacles, I am not in Wuhan, I am not in Hubei, and I am not infected. I’m luckier than a lot of people. I get to stay at home, with my parents. So far, more than 300 doctors, nurses and other medical staff from my city have volunteered to go to Wuhan and other places in Hubei to provide assistance; nationwide, the number of medical volunteers has gone over 20,000.
I am home for almost a month now. This is the most time I have spent with my aging parents in a decade. I wish it didn’t have to take this, but spending time with my family (and reading books I bought years ago and left at home) is the silver lining for me. Knowing that makes it easier and less stressful for me to get through my days.
Not long before he died, Li Wenliang told reporters he’d go back to the front lines once he recovered. He was driven by care and compassion. There are still mistakes, cover-ups and empty slogans in handling this public health crisis. We remember him by staying alarmed and calm and continuing the fight. Paranoia and hatred are not his legacy.