The Coronavirus Outbreak

By Li Yuan

In locked-down cities like Wuhan, isolated seniors and disabled people have largely had to fend for themselves.

Credit...Jialun Deng
Li Yuan

Lucifer Zhang, who is deaf and cannot speak, was able to get by on her $140 monthly stipend from the government. Then China locked down her home city, Wuhan, in late January to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Now she has to buy face masks and disinfectants. And since Wuhan residents aren’t allowed out of their apartment compounds, Ms. Zhang, 32, and her mother, a retiree, can no longer scavenge the nearby markets for bargains. Groceries have to be ordered online and delivered, adding to prices that have already been driven up by scarcity.

Tomatoes, for example, cost three to four times what they did before the lockdown. Ms. Zhang and her mother haven’t eaten meat in over a month.

“Life is too tough,” Ms. Zhang wrote on Weibo, the Twitter-like social media platform. “I want to jump from the balcony.”

The outbreak has affected just about all of China’s 1.4 billion people. Even the rich and the powerful have to follow quarantine rules, which often means staying home.

But it’s the most vulnerable — the poor, the disabled, the very old and the very young — who have been hit hardest. The coronavirus is exposing the breadth of China’s wealth gap and the holes in its social safety net.

A 16-year-old with cerebral palsy in a village in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is the capital, starved to death days after his father was taken to a hospital. A 6-year-old boy was found in an apartment in Shiyan, also in Hubei, alone with the body of his grandfather; he told community workers that he hadn’t gone out to ask for help because his grandfather told him the virus was outside.

A young couple, both migrant workers, left their newborn son at a Guangdong Province hospital last month because they were out of money and, with the economy at a standstill, couldn’t find work. In Henan Province, state media reported that a ninth-grade girl attempted suicide after her school shut down and she couldn’t take online classes, because her family had to share a single mobile phone.

China is one of the most unequal countries in the world. It has more billionaires than the United States. But though hundreds of millions of its people have risen out of poverty over the past few decades, about 400 million were living just above the poverty line in 2015, according to the World Bank.

China has expanded medical coverage and made poverty eradication a top priority. Yet it still lags behind some other emerging economies, let alone the world’s richest countries, in public spending on education, health care and social assistance.

Social spending accounted for 8 percent of China’s economic output in 2016, compared with an average of 22 percent for nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the global club of developed countries. The United States spends the equivalent of one-fifth of its output on health care and other social programs; China’s social spending was on par with Mexico’s, and lower than South Africa’s.

In recent years, China has expanded social services meant to help older and disabled people in their daily lives, but they still aren’t as widespread as in more developed countries. For most Chinese people, their families are their safety net.

In Wuhan, social services essentially stopped when the city was locked down. Many neighborhoods were deprived of medical care, food supplies and social assistance. People were left to fend for themselves.

Volunteer groups said local officials were too overwhelmed by the outbreak to make sure that the needs of older and disabled people were met.

For example, the Wuhan government made no announcements about the epidemic in sign language, said Cui Jing, an organizer for a group supporting deaf people in the city. On Jan. 23, the day the city was locked down, some deaf residents didn’t find out about it until they had trouble taking public transportation, Ms. Cui said.

Many older deaf people have trouble reading, so much information about the outbreak’s seriousness did not reach them. Some kept getting together to play mahjong, despite a ban on such gatherings. After the city forbade residents to leave their compounds in February, Ms. Cui’s 66-year-old aunt, who is also deaf, sneaked out, only to find the shops and markets closed.

When deaf residents became sick, they found it hard to communicate with medical workers. Most Chinese hospitals are unable to provide sign-language services, even when they are not as strained as the Wuhan and Hubei hospitals have been.

Amy Ye, the organizer of a volunteer group for disabled people in Wuhan, said that as soon as Wuhan was locked down, her organization asked local community workers to look out for disabled people. But they were too overwhelmed. The volunteers tried to help disabled residents themselves, but gave up because public transportation had been shut down.

“The whole city was paralyzed,” Ms. Ye said.

Like Ms. Zhang, Ms. Ye, who uses a wheelchair, lives on a monthly government stipend. She spends nearly a fifth of it, about $30, on prescription drugs for her high blood pressure, the cheapest she can find. And food costs have soared. A cucumber costs nearly $1 now, and the price of pork has tripled since a year ago.

“My family has always been treading on thin ice financially,” she said. “I want this to be over as soon as possible.”

Community workers in many neighborhoods in Hubei have turned to mobile apps to share information and organize grocery shopping for residents. The most widely used app is the social messaging service WeChat, which hundreds of millions of Chinese use to communicate, pay and shop.

But many older people aren’t familiar with WeChat or fluent in all of its functions. Many are lost when they have to use their phones to shop for food.

Hu Jing, a Wuhan resident who has been doing volunteer work over the past month, said that in one six-hour shift at an apartment compound, about a dozen older people came to her complaining that groceries were too expensive, or that they didn’t know how to order them online.

A volunteer group started a social media campaign last week asking for information about seniors in Wuhan who needed help buying groceries. Within a week, they received more than 1,300 requests from children and neighbors of isolated older residents. The group has arranged to help dozens of them, said Jackie Yu, a volunteer.

For people like Ms. Zhang and Ms. Ye, the most disheartening thing has been the lack of empathy shown by some people who are better off. On Weibo, a woman in Wuhan who described being caught in the epidemic with scant savings was called a loser. People who complained about food prices and empty stomachs were dismissed as liars and rumormongers.

It isn’t uncommon for social media users to accuse the poor and less fortunate of not trying hard enough. “They have no sympathy until they’re in our situation,” said Ms. Ye. “Otherwise, they’ll just laugh at you.”

She and Ms. Zhang each received a $72 emergency subsidy from the Wuhan government, and both said the money would make a difference. Ms. Zhang said she had ordered pork and couldn’t wait for it to be delivered.

Ms. Zhang has never had medical insurance or a chance to go to school. She learned reading and basic math on her own. Her introduction on her WeChat account reads, “All that’s wonderful in life has nothing to do with me.”

(I asked her on WeChat if she knew that Lucifer, her chosen English name, was another name for Satan. She replied that she knew but thought it was cool.)

Ms. Zhang has had her own problems finding empathy. When she complained about grocery prices in a neighborhood chat group, a member snapped that poor people could move to the countryside. They’ll be happy there, the neighbor wrote — they can grow their own vegetables.

Ms. Zhang understood that her neighbor was worried that the grocer would stop delivering to their compound if they complained about prices. But the neighbor could be a little more thoughtful, she wrote to me.

“There are many poor people in the world,” she wrote. “But when the others question why you are so poor, you have no way to explain.”

  • Updated March 2, 2020

    • What is a coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crownlike spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to lung lesions and pneumonia.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can travel through the air, enveloped in tiny respiratory droplets that are produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 89,700 in at least 67 countries and more than 3,000 have died. The spread has slowed in China, but is picking up speed in Europe and the United States.
    • What symptoms should I look out for?
      Symptoms, which can take between two to 14 days to appear, include fever, cough and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Milder cases may resemble the flu or a bad cold, but people may be able to pass on the virus even before they develop symptoms.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has advised against all non-essential travel to South Korea, China, Italy and Iran. And the agency has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan.
    • How long will it take to develop a treatment or vaccine?
      Several drugs are being tested, and some initial findings are expected soon. A vaccine to stop the spread is still at least a year away.