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World

What It's Like To Be A Reporter In Wuhan Amid Coronavirus Epidemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The city of Wuhan, China, has been shut off from the outside world for more than two weeks now. It's part of China's effort to contain the spread of coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan. The New York Times' Chris Buckley is one of only a few reporters in the city. He is on the line now from Wuhan.

Chris Buckley, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHRIS BUCKLEY: Thank you.

KELLY: Would you start with the death of the doctor who first sounded a warning about coronavirus? He was a doctor in Wuhan. How are people in the city reacting?

BUCKLEY: Well, to go out on the streets today, Wuhan was what counts as normal for the past two weeks, which means extremely quiet. I did go to the hospital where he passed away, and there was a small memorial with bouquets of flowers. But apart from that, there wasn't really any sense of public grieving in the city. But that was very deceptive because...

KELLY: I was going to ask whether online it was a different story.

BUCKLEY: Online, a very different story. And across China, including Wuhan, there's been an extraordinary public reaction to his death, the likes of which we haven't seen for quite a few years in China - the great deal of sympathy for him, condemnation to the officials who have seen to have persecuted him because of his warnings of a SARS-like coronavirus, an extraordinary outpouring of emotion.

KELLY: And give me some detail on that. I was reading a dispatch this morning from one of our reporters in China, Emily Feng, who said that China's censorship machine has kicked into high gear very quickly, trying to shut down some of this outpouring of grief.

BUCKLEY: That's probably true. But the scale of the outpouring of grief, I think, is a little bit like large waves battering against sea walls or something like that, has overcome some of those protections. I think what's also happened is that the traditional Chinese media, I mean, newspapers and magazines, have been emboldened by this crisis over the coronavirus as well. We've seen much more combative and interesting reporting from them over the past few weeks in a way that I don't think the propaganda masters in Beijing would necessarily welcome.

KELLY: I want to go back to something you said, which is that the streets of Wuhan today have felt like what passes for normal these days, which is to say very quiet, which is amazing. Wuhan is a big city, 11 million people. Just give us a sense, if we walked out onto the street, what we would see. What does it sound like? What does it look like there?

BUCKLEY: Chinese cities normally aren't the most quiet places in the world.

KELLY: No.

BUCKLEY: They're clanging with noise often. But certainly where I'm staying at the moment, I go downstairs, and I hear birds. I hear dogs barking from a distance off. And by and large, people are staying at home unless, for example, they need to run an important errand, or particularly if they have to go and see a doctor because of the virus. Even people with what you might think are relatively mild symptoms of a cold or flu are rushing to the doctor because there's so much anxiety about whether it might be the virus.

KELLY: Are basic services still being performed? Is trash being collected? Are the streets being swept?

BUCKLEY: To a surprising extent, yes. One thing you do see when you step out in the mornings is that the cleaners are at work. Usually the cleaners are rural migrants from surrounding villages in Hubei province. And they've been given orders to keep the streets clean. Sometimes I think it's perhaps too much to a fault, and they should be given some time off. So a city which you might think had been completely paralyzed still has this under structure of basic public services which is somehow continuing.

KELLY: I know you have been there this whole time. You got into Wuhan right before the city was locked down and shut off from the world. Has it changed in these two-plus weeks or does it feel like a city not only disconnected from the world but frozen in time?

BUCKLEY: Just talking to Wuhan residents who I've gotten to know, I am struck by how difficult they're finding it now. People are starting to feel very down about their lives. And it's not just about jobs and livelihoods. It's sort of the sense of having lost direction as well. Like, what day is it? How many days have I been inside now playing my video game or trying to find a way to keep the kids amused? You know, it's a great drain on people's mental energy just to keep active and focused.

KELLY: Well, and no end in sight. No one knows when this might end.

BUCKLEY: That's true. It's all guesswork at the moment. And some people say that perhaps in a week or so the government might begin to loosen up a bit. I tend to think that that's probably on the optimistic side, just given the rates of infection, while they might be going down a bit, are still very significant. So I think, given all of that, we might be here for - and now I really have to guess it - a few more weeks, certainly.

KELLY: That's Chris Buckley of The New York Times. He is one of the very few reporters on the ground in Wuhan, China.

Chris Buckley, many, many thanks.

BUCKLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.