A year ago, Wuhan residents were struggling through a very scary time. In late January, the city of 11 million people went under a full lockdown due to the coronavirus.
Most people were not allowed to leave their homes or apartment complexes. Videos taken inside emergency rooms revealed exhausted doctors and nurses struggling to manage the onslaught of patients coming in with a new virus that ultimately claimed thousands of lives.
The city ended its lockdown on April 8, 2020, and there hasn’t been a COVID-19 case in Wuhan since last May. Still, many people say they were changed by the experience. For some, the pandemic inspired them to help out and connect with their communities in new ways. Others sought out a change of scenery after the lockdown lifted.
Wang Fan, 39, runs several bars and restaurants in Wuhan. Before last year’s lockdown, he wouldn’t describe himself as much of a do-gooder. But in those fearful months at the start of the pandemic, his desire to help came as a surprise.
“When you see something happening right in front of your eyes, and you can help, you do something.”
“It was a natural reaction,” he said. “When you see something happening right in front of your eyes, and you can help, you do something.”
With his restaurants unable to open, he donated the excess food to make meals for medical workers. He took journalists around on his scooter. He knocked on doors to check on elderly people.
He wasn’t alone. Others in Wuhan were connecting on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, trying to help out in whatever way they could. Some coordinated deliveries of masks and protective gear from abroad. Others donated supplies or helped patients get to the hospital.
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Wang Fan’s friend, Jiang Qi, who works as a craft brewer, was also moved to help. Most people followed orders to stay inside, but he said it felt awful to be stuck at home worrying.
“It was less scary to go out and do something,” he said. “So, I started from something small. I put on protective gear and drove medical workers to the hospital.”
Wang said that he and his friends in the restaurant business have continued to support local causes, including helping children who lost their parents to COVID-19. The experience of volunteering last year changed how he thinks about his role in the community.
“It got me involved in charitable work,” he said. “I think having a business means you have some obligations to society — a responsibility to help others.”
Once the lockdown ended in April, Wang said he fell into a bit of a depression. Business was bad. After helping so many people, now he was the one in need of help. His restaurants could only do takeout. Business dropped to just 3% of what it was normally.
“During the lockdown, I was always busy, helping journalists or volunteering,” he said. “I had a lot of things to do. But once restaurants reopened, my businesses were struggling. I had a lot of bills to pay. I couldn’t sleep at night.”
Wang’s friend Evan Zou, a liquor importer, was also struggling with his business. During the lockdown, he kept busy coordinating deliveries of donated masks and helping people get to the hospital. Once things reopened, his business was in ruins and he was out $60,000.
“When I was volunteering, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. ... I made a decision to leave everything in Wuhan and go try somewhere new. I was sick of being stuck in one place.”
“When I was volunteering, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I made a decision to leave everything in Wuhan and go try somewhere new. I was sick of being stuck in one place.”
Evan moved to Shanghai last spring and now works for a drinks distributor. He said after the lockdown, a change of scenery was just what he needed.
“A lot of friends tell me they think I look happier here,” he said. “Shanghai was less affected by the pandemic, and the economy is doing better here. I think this is the right environment for me right now.”
Back in Wuhan, Jiang and Wang have just opened a new brewpub. It’s packed with young people eating American-style food and drinking India pale ales. The restaurant industry is still not back to what it was like before the pandemic, but the two friends are optimistic about this year.
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“We just want to work hard and enjoy our lives,” Wang said.
He said he’s been spending much more time with his parents. Even those who didn’t lose a loved one to COVID-19 suffer from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
“The wound is healing,” he said. “We’ll never forget that time but it is not as painful now as it was then. But it’s like a scar, it will never go away.”