Documentary captures extreme distress in Wuhan, China, during the coronavirus epidemic

Cellphone videos reveal anger among residents, hospital overcrowding and officials appearing to force quarantine on citizens. CBC Docs

The city of Wuhan, China, with its 11 million residents, was once a vibrant, bustling place. Now, it’s a ghost town. Coronavirus, a documentary presented by The Passionate Eye, features cellphone interviews with experts and ordinary people living in lockdown at the centre of an epidemic.

On Jan. 23, weeks after reports began to surface about a potentially deadly new virus gaining a foothold in the city, Chinese officials shut down all public transport in an effort to contain its spread. The residents of Wuhan were not allowed to leave the city without permission from authorities. A lockdown of this scale was unprecedented in the history of modern medicine.

Ying Wang, an Australian resident visiting the city with her family, is interviewed in the film. “The day I learned that Wuhan was in lockdown, I felt quite shocked,” she says. “I immediately start worrying about food supply.”

Accounts of forced quarantine in Wuhan

Soon, videos began to emerge on social media of authorities appearing to force Wuhan residents into quarantine.

Australian Tim McLean, filming from Wuhan where he lives with his Chinese spouse, says, “the police are actually knocking on doors and taking temperatures, and if people have got a temperature, they’re dragging them out, mate. ... You don’t get an option.”

Residents also post video footage online that they say shows officials welding the doors of apartment buildings shut.

One video, featured in Coronavirus, shows a woman screaming from her balcony: “Help! My mother is dying. Someone come quickly! I have no way out!”

Hospital workers under pressure

By the end of January, Wuhan’s hospitals were struggling to cope and medical staff were stressed. Cellphone videos depict what life has been like for them inside. One worker is seen saying, “I don’t know what you can do. What about those patients lying there? … It is full here.”

McLean is staying on the outskirts of Wuhan, close to one of its hospitals. “It’s dire here. It’s very dire,” he says. “There’s queues outside the hospitals now. We’re not allowed near them. There’s people dropping on the footpath, literally.” He says that the hospitals near him have also run out of medical supplies.

Wang, trapped with her husband and two children, says she wants to know how serious the pandemic is. “I really just want a more firm answer from anywhere, really — from [the] WHO or my local government.” Every day, she watches the death toll and the number of infected people go up. “I feel like [it’s] the end of the world.”

Neil Ferguson, a U.K. epidemiologist interviewed in the film, says that new infections likely exceed official case numbers: “We think 10 per cent or less of all infections in China are being detected at the current time.”

And according to the documentary, doctors still don’t know just how deadly the novel coronavirus is. Sharon Lewin, director of Australia’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, says, “if the mortality rate is two per cent, if it’s one per cent, even if it’s 0.5 per cent, and 300 million people get infected, that’s a lot of people that could potentially die.”

Wuhan residents speak out on social media

Coronavirus shows how people in Wuhan have been expressing their fury with the government and its handling of the crisis on social media. “Can you find another country on this planet, another government to f--ck shit up like this? Wuhan is like f--king hell right now,” one citizen says in a video featured in the documentary.

“From my own observation, this level of dissatisfaction is unprecedented in the past eight years,” says Wu Qiang, a Chinese political commentator. “They were basically concealing the truth. Although internal controls were in place, the information kept from the public caused the outbreak of the disaster and the spread of disease.”

The film documents the outrage reaching a breaking point after the death of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan-based ophthalmologist who had tried to warn others about the virus and was reprimanded by local authorities.

“There was a huge outpouring of grief, anger [and] frustration on Chinese social media,” says Richard McGregor, a senior fellow from Australia’s Lowy Institute. “And not just from so-called ‘netizens’ of Chinese-style Reddit forums or something, but from the Supreme Court of China who put out a statement saying that you know, these doctors were heroes. They should have been allowed to do their job.”

Wang and her family were able to travel home on a flight arranged by the Australian government, but McLean and his wife remain quarantined in Wuhan. “I’m hiding from a virus that you can’t see and a government that you don’t want to muck around with,” he says.

Watch Coronavirus on The Passionate Eye.

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The Passionate Eye