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Wuhan, one year later

Life at ‘ground zero’ nearly back to normal while concerns in Canada over COVID-19 variant grow.

“We’re not going into lockdown, but Wuhan is being very cautious and taking measures that are eerily similar to what happened a year ago,” Rebecca Franks says. “Now some gates are being locked again to control the flow of people into and out of our apartment complex. No new cases here. Just a very precautious city, never to be caught off guard again.”

Franks lives in Wuhan, China, where she spoke recently with Christian Courier over Zoom about conditions at “ground zero” of the virus one year later, including the role of faith in a global pandemic. “When you have no control,” she says, “you’re talking to God in different ways than you were before. It gets more real.”

Franks, an American who grew up in the Church of Christ, moved to Wuhan in 2011 with her husband, a teacher at the same Atlanta-based school where she now works in communications. On the last day of 2019, when the Chinese government first reported 27 cases of “viral pneumonia” to the World Health Organization (WHO), “we were ignoring it, thinking it was a virus like we get all the time. But it wasn’t.” Their students went on break for Chinese New Years and, like schools all over the world, didn’t return in person until September. Wuhan went into a strict, 76-day lockdown in early 2020, with measures that seemed drastic at the time but have now been adapted worldwide. Initially, Franks and her three-person family were confined to their apartment, which is when she began posting regularly on Facebook – encouraging messages to friends and family in North America as the virus began to disrupt lives here. In Christian Courier’s first pandemic issue, Franks wrote about how to see God’s goodness and remain hopeful during quarantine.

Now, nearly a year later, Franks – like the rest of us – sounds tired of talking about COVID-19.

“God doesn’t promise us an easy life. This will pass one day. This is just life. It forces ingenuity to figure out how you’re gonna do this, and do it well.”

Behind the headlines

Social distancing has been more effective in China than it has in North America, according to Leah*, an American who has lived in China for nine years, studying Chinese and teaching English. In Beijing when COVID-19 first hit, she recalls how quickly crowds were banned, masks were mandatory, and a team in “full hazmat suits checked temperatures before we entered the subway.” Government restrictions, stricter than we have experienced in Canada yet, may have helped to keep Chinese case numbers low.

Two children with arms together in the park.
Two children watch a calligrapher in the park. Photo in Yunnan, 15,000 km southwest of Wuhan. See the entire photo essay here.

Though the virus hasn’t vanished, the Chinese government is eager to declare victory in its “people’s war” against COVID-19, as CBC reported. There’s already a museum exhibit celebrating how Wuhan overcame the virus, which shows how firmly the authorities want the pandemic placed in the past. To date, China has reported 4,795 deaths from COVID-19; by comparison, the disease has taken the lives of 18,880 Canadians (at the time of writing), with case numbers currently spiking all over North America.

“I hear a lot of local people saying, ‘Wow, things are really bad in America and I wish they’d get their act together,’” Franks says. “‘The rest of the world has gone crazy; they should follow China’s lead’ [with stricter lockdowns], which I agree with. ‘Stop fighting it; stay home, people!’ We hear that a lot.”

Despite a population of 1.4 billion, China reported only 12 new cases on the day that Franks and I spoke. But when it comes to pandemic data, “we are comparing apples to oranges,” Franks admits, “because there’s no way that all the testing is the same, and not all cases of COVID are the same.” Nevertheless, “China perceives North America as a mess; they don’t want to go there, which is interesting because in the past that’s been the opposite.”

“I do generally believe the low COVID numbers,” Leah, who moved back to the United States in March of 2020, says. “I doubt they are 100 percent accurate, but neither are the U.S. numbers. There might be limited outbreaks that haven’t been publicized, but it doesn’t seem like there are widespread outbreaks they are just ignoring.” After months of delay, a WHO team was permitted entry to Wuhan on January 14, 2021 to investigate the virus’ origins.

Obedience and pride

Perhaps more than any other factor, and certainly more than we’re used to in Canada, our lives during COVID-19 have been affected by wide-ranging government decisions. Some people, like the anti-maskers, rebel. Others stretch the guidelines or interpret them creatively. And many of us feel worn down by the tension of navigating the rules in our own lives and among family and friends who may be making different decisions.

“I’m thankful I’m not there to have to handle that,” Franks says, who sees the strain on her family in the U.S. She maintains that it’s easier to live in a country like China, where everyone submits to the authorities whether they agree or not.

In the first image there are people with full PPE outside the buildings. In the second image people are moving freely.
Wuhan’s fruit market, 2020 (above) and 2021 (below).

A friend of Franks’ took a short trip to another city recently and was scooped up by an ambulance on her return, with only two-hours’ notice. The neighbouring city was considered “high risk, with an outbreak of 10 people.” The traveller was taken to a hotel in Wuhan for a week of monitoring, despite having no symptoms. “That’s the system we’re in.”

“It’s much more controlled,” Leah says, “and people aren’t necessarily mad about it. Americans, who have individual freedom as their highest value, tend to freak out and assume that everyone is like them, trying to fight back.”

“People ask us, ‘How can you live in this place?’ But Wuhan is not scary,” Franks says. “It’s actually refreshing to be told what to do, and people do it.” As Christians, “we’re told to submit to authorities and to live in peace with everybody. It’s just a matter of obeying. Especially something so innocuous, like wearing a mask. That’s just pride. We’ve all been there. Just wear the mask! There are way bigger things to fight about.”

Like many of us, Franks currently attends her church over Zoom. She says that COVID-19 has “been beautiful in every regard for personal relationships” among the survivors, as they call themselves. Though she struggles with survivor’s guilt, “this is just a problem, one of many in life,” she says. “If this is the worst thing you’ve encountered in your life, consider yourself blessed.”

If your church is closed, take heart: “The church usually grows under times of persecution,” Franks says. “Use that as your opportunity to go and do something different. And then watch God do his work.”

Take a look at the photo essay that accompanies this story here.

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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