During weeks holed up in her grandmother’s apartment with 10 relatives and eating a restricted diet, Chinese teenager Li Yuxuan says tempers have frayed.
Li and her family are among the millions of people across China’s Hubei province, epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, who are subject to official orders to stay at home amid attempts to contain the spread of the disease.
Officials and volunteers have sealed off buildings, erected barricades and stepped up surveillance to ensure compliance with the ban on movement, measures that are taking a toll on many in the community.
“Every day there’s fighting. Every day we sigh. Every day I’m scolded,” Li, 19, told Reuters by WeChat from the apartment in Ezhou, a city near the provincial capital of Wuhan.
Li said the family had eaten the same combination of white rice, cabbage and peanuts for three weeks, since gathering to celebrate the Lunar New Year last month, stinting on portions because of limits on the numbers of people from each household allowed out to shop.
Cities and villages across China have taken measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 76,000 people in the country, killing 2,345, but the protocols in Hubei are the most extreme.
The province, which is home to 60 million people, announced a “sealed management” policy a week ago that effectively prevents residents from leaving their homes, further isolating a population that has been living under a transport lockdown since late January.
“We bought vegetables today, but I don’t know when we will go out again,” Li said by WeChat Friday, adding the family could now only buy food at the gate of their compound.
Officials have promised to ensure sufficient food and medicine for residents and have also warned against hoarding or price-gouging.
“Sealed management will continue so that no one will go outside, but they must still be able to buy their daily necessities,” Wuhan’s newly appointed Communist Party chief, Wang Zhonglin, said last Sunday.
Hubei’s sealed management policy depends heavily on residential committees, a network of volunteers who carry out government and Communist Party orders at the grassroots level in coordination with private employees of residential compounds.
One day last week, before her compound in Jingzhou city was completely sealed, 31-year-old Vicky Yi said she was stopped at the gate by a volunteer when she tried to go out for groceries.
Minutes later, an elderly woman walked past and out of the compound. Yi argued with the volunteer to let her out. He eventually yielded.
“These people in the compound, when they get even a little bit of power, they will use all their energy to try to get in your way,” she said.
“It’s like the Stanford prison experiment,” she added, referring to the 1971 psychology experiment to investigate perceptions of power that assigned a group of the university’s students to be either prisoners or guards.
The Jingzhou government could not be reached by Reuters for comment.
Online videos have shown police and volunteers using force to penalize residents for even gathering in groups. In one that went viral, and which caught the attention of the official People’s Daily, volunteers flipped over a table where a family was playing mah-jong, and hit one of the players.
“There are some things, no matter how pressing the epidemic is, that should not be done,” the People’s Daily noted on social media of the incident, and the Xiaogang city government issued an apology.
Public health concerns
Non-residents are also caught in the Hubei net, with many who were in the province to visit relatives over Lunar New Year now stuck far from their homes and livelihoods.
“The rent, the water bill, the electricity bill, I still have to pay them,” said 28-year-old Cao Dezhao, who owns a small IT business in Jinan, in eastern Shandong province, but is stuck in Wuhan after he came to visit his in-laws. “I could be bankrupt at the end of this epidemic.”
Experts say that essential needs, including monitoring of mental health, should be ensured for people under quarantine or containment measures.
“You have to address the basic rights and well-being of people: Can they get their food and water? What is their mental health status?” said Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.
Hundreds of official 24-hour telephone hotlines for psychological support have been launched since the beginning of the outbreak, but many are overwhelmed.
Wuhan, the Hubei city hardest hit in the epidemic, says it will ensure food and other necessities through group orders as supermarkets stopped selling to individuals. Some communities have arranged for vendors to come to their compound gates.
Hubei has said drugs and other necessities must be delivered to residents.
But Song Chunlin, whose daughter has psoriasis, a painful chronic skin condition, said she has been unable to receive delivery of the medication her daughter needs in the village where her parents live in Yichang, in western Hubei, while she herself has not been able to receive her allergy medication.
The Yichang government did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
“I’m really in a difficult situation,” Song told Reuters.