By Zeng Xiaofeng, Vice President, Niko Partners
Shortly before the Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival) that fell on January 25, 2020, I went to Wuhan from Shanghai as my wife’s family lives in Wuhan. My wife’s family told me that Wuhan had a mass outbreak of unexplained pneumonia cases just before January 1st, but I decided to go anyway. Previously, my 11 year old daughter said that she planned to go to a performance in the Museum with her classmate on (calendar) New Year’s Day, but her classmate’s mother, who works in the government’s Department of Health, said that there had been unexplained pneumonia in Wuhan and said no to the outing. She also suggested that we not go to any public gatherings. My daughter attended school normally until January 14, after which date off campus enrichment classes were still available until January 19, just before the (lunar) Chinese New Year. We still went shopping and to restaurants as usual, and we even reserved a large table for our extended family for Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner on January 24th, in a nearby restaurant (which ultimately was canceled). We never used masks in that period of time, as local officers reported that the virus would not spread via human to human transmission.
However, on the morning of January 20th, officials announced that the new type of pneumonia does have human-to-human transmission . That same afternoon, all of my daughter’s off-campus tutoring classes were halted, but we still did not have enough information nor were we alerted on what was really happening. We still went to the supermarket and restaurants as usual, until the government announced on the afternoon of January 22 that the city of Wuhan would be locked-down from midnight on January 23. We then began to realize that things could be much more severe than we had been led to believe. My second child, a baby girl, was only 4 months old in January and in caring for her we had not spent any time preparing for quarantine for the family. Ultimately we had to decide whether to remain in Wuhan (we did remain, I normally live in Shanghai, and we had a choice to go there or even to go to my hometown, but finally I decided to stay in Wuhan prior to the lockdown, as we did not know the full extent of the virus when we made the decision), we then cancelled our restaurant reservation for the New Year’s Eve dinner, and told all of our relatives and friends that we shouldn’t meet during the Chinese New Year Holiday week.
Wuhan was closed on January 23rd followed by closures of other cities in Hubei Province. The virus was rapidly spreading and soon even apartment communities (complexes) were contained without transfer in or out. We had prepared a lot of food for the Spring Festival already, that is the traditional way, but this year we prepared more food from January as soon as this became “real”. We also purchased personal protection equipment such as masks and disposable gloves, which turned out to be a really lucky purchase a few weeks later, but we ate the food quickly and the community was shut off from the city.
I have a good friend who was my classmate, and she and her husband are both doctors in Wuhan and have two children. We have a WeChat group of our classmates, and in this group she told us that her husband had COVID-19 but needed to be quarantined at home, as the hospitals were all full. Her parents are also doctors, and she was able to send her children to their house while she cared for her husband using safe protocols at home. Fortunately he was able to recover quickly, and both of them returned to work at the hospital. The hospital experienced a scarcity of PPE, and rather than turn to the government for help, the hospital took an abnormal step to reach out to media – in fact, many hospitals resorted to that, to request more masks and other equipment. Her boss stopped her when she was entering the COVID-19 ICU wing and said “I will go first, because you have two young children at home.” My friend was crying, as it was all so overwhelming.
At the beginning of the pandemic in Wuhan many confirmed COVID-19 cases were quarantined at home because hospitals were overwhelmed. Most people are not doctors, and therefore did not follow protocols for caring for their loved ones, and cases spread rampantly. There also was not enough testing, therefore cases were labeled as “suspected” rather than “confirmed.” Many suspected cases had to travel by public transportation (bus, subway) to seek treatment. Even non COVID-19 patients in the hospital got the disease. That is when the government erected several temporary treatment facilities.
My family went to the hospital for regular clinic visits during the pandemic but prior to the quarantine, not knowing the danger involved. My 3 month old daughter needed her vaccinations, and my 11 year old daughter had contracted A Flu (H1N1) in January so needed medicine – they gave her oseltamivir (Tamiflu), and she recovered quickly. H1N1 was prevalent during Chinese New Year 2019 as well, and we all got it then too.
The lockdown in Wuhan was lifted on April 8, but the city has not returned to normal and not everyone can leave. We have not left the city since January 23rd, and it is now April 30th and we are still here. More than 3 months and counting. The first week we thought the quarantine would last 2 weeks, but then we quickly realized it would be longer. At first the supermarkets remained open, but we could go out only once a day. Then it became more strict and there were guards at the community gate marking a document that indicated when we left – only one person per family could go out 1 time, for 2 hours maximum, every three days. Shortly thereafter the supermarkets closed and we could only do ordering as described above. We really haven’t be able to leave, even for what the west calls “essential trips” in 3 months. Luckily my family has a balcony in our apartment. While we were allowed to go downstairs in our building, my family never did until March 29th, but we only recently left the community, but not often nor far away.
At first we could only purchase food online and have it delivered by couriers (all stores were closed, even grocery stores), there were few choices and prices were much higher than usual. Each housing community (apartment complex, with gated grounds) created their own volunteer committee to arrange for group purchasing of staples, such as rice, flour, eggs and so on. The group purchasing allowed for regular pricing and sufficient supply, delivered to one location in the community. I volunteered to unload food from a van, and I lifted 10x 25kg bags of flour! To make matters worse, it was snowing that day and I lost my footing and injured my foot. Couldn’t go to the hospital for it, so I had to rest and hope it improved on its own at home – it did, after two weeks. Food distribution was done via calling 10 people at a time via WeChat, so those individuals could go downstairs and pick up their food with social distancing.
The government also distributed free vegetables for the needy, and reduced the price of meat (such as 20 RMB/kg of pork or $1.50/pound , which is 20% of full price). Vegetables were donated from other cities too, for example cabbage, lettuce, potatoes and cauliflower. Eventually delivery companies resumed business so people could purchase food online, and Meituan Express, JD Express, SF Express were able to deliver to the gate of the community. Buyers met the delivery truck at the gate after being called. When our delivery arrived, I went out with my mask, raincoat, gloves, and shoe covers.
At the beginning of this crisis we weren’t really concerned, because we had no idea that it could last this long. Rather, we enjoyed the special “holiday” that my mother-in law said she’d never had during her 60+ years of life. During the lockdown, we began to pay more attention to video games, online movies, and other entertainment at home. Sadly, due to the rapid rise of infection cases and the amount of negative information on Weibo and WeChat, we became very anxious. We then began to consume all kinds of information non-stop everyday and we put games and entertainment on hold. We replaced home entertainment with participation in social media, and we saw that people began to criticize the local government officials’ apparent dereliction of their duties.
In time, friends and relatives supported each other emotionally and we began to relax. Thousands of medical staff from all over China arrived in Wuhan to help the locals, including medical staff from the Army. Some local government officers were replaced. Feeling more at ease we turned to figure out more ways to purchase food. And we began to play games again.
I played Starcraft with some of my college classmates, most of whom had not had time to play before the lockdown due to work and family life. We all downloaded once again Blizzard’s Battle.net and Starcraft games. We also played Honor of Kings together, most of us needing to download it once more too. I also downloaded some new games on my phone and from Steam on my notebook. My daughter downloaded a lot of games on her iPad, while my wife spent around 3-4 hours per day playing the mobile game AniPop from Happy Elements. My wife increased her time playing video games by around 3-4 times compared to before the pandemic, and she also taught her mother (who lives with us) how to play.
In terms of streaming video, I watched 1-2 hours per day of game videos and live streaming on my phone, mainly military chess games and Starcraft matches. I probably watched streaming video around 2-3 times more than before the quarantine. Surprisingly, and fortunately, our spending on games did not significantly increase, despite the higher usage.
By February my friends and I would actively organize online gaming. We communicated mostly in a WeChat group – many live outside of Wuhan and were not under our tight restrictions. They were compassionate and someone always joined me in an online game if I asked. However, by the beginning of March, many of them were able to return to work and consequently didn’t have as much free time to play. Our WeChat group for gaming, that was the core of passing time in quarantine, turned inactive once the rest of China resumed work – though we were still inside.
We have stayed at home for three long months, yet Wuhan is still not fully reopened. Some can leave Wuhan, but there are still a lot of preconditions. Every day our housing community still needs to adhere to strict temperature testing and submit data to authorities. Those who can work eagerly work hard now, as some of them received zero salary in the last three months. Even if they receive their salary, they seemed to only receive the minimum income (around $200 per month). It is fortunate to have been able to fully work from home, salary helps me to pay for everything and working let me to ignore many negative news.
As of April 28, 2020 there is no official notice about when we will be able to totally end our quarantine and when things will return to normal. We still have guards at entrances and many are required to take a COVID-19 test before they can go to work and people must still wear masks to go out, but it is not as strict as it has been. 60% of retail stores are open, school will resume May 6th for twelfth grade ( or 3rd graders in senior school), but other grades are still remote learning. We hope that everything will return to normal by the end of May. I took my children to a park about 1km from our house – it was very good to get out!
Once we go back to normal, whenever that happens, I predict people will reduce their gaming hours at home and in icafes. Interestingly, the older generations, including our parents, are no longer complaining about how much time we spend playing games. In my own household we no longer ban children from playing video games, as games have become an important part of our lives. Surely this COVID-19 lockdown is a life-changing experience for all of us, and it also changes our cognition on how we spend our time and we all have a much greater appreciation for each other, and video games.