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Life as a reporter trapped in Hubei, ground zero of the coronavirus outbreak

Authorities have locked Hubei down to combat the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash. Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash.

South China Morning Post reporter Jane Zhang, who was back in her hometown for the Lunar New Year, is one of millions trapped in the Chinese province.

As a reporter used to covering innovation and the fast-changing technology industry, I never thought I would be getting a taste of retiree life in my 20s.

Getting up early, cooking for myself, reading books and watching TV before going to bed—that is what my life has been like for the past ten days in Hubei, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

Just a short while after arriving from Hong Kong to my hometown of Enshi, near Hubei’s border with Chongqing, for the Lunar New Year, I found myself stranded along with millions of others when authorities locked the province down to combat the spread of the disease. Now all airports, railways, motorways, and even village roads have been closed or blocked.

Lunar New Year is usually a time when online entertainment gives way to more offline activities such as karaoke and playing card games and mahjong with friends and relatives in person. This year, however, social gatherings have been cancelled to avoid people potentially spreading the virus.

This forced isolation has seen people turn to technology—new and old—to pass the time and communicate with others.

My parents, who had become accustomed recently to reading the news on their phones via Jinri Toutiao, a popular Chinese news aggregator app run by Beijing-based tech unicorn ByteDance, have gone back to watching TV amid a welter of fake news and rumors about the coronavirus circulating online.

The whole family now huddles around the TV at 7:00 p.m. each day to watch Xinwen Lianbo (which translates to News Simulcast), a daily news program produced by state-run CCTV and shown simultaneously by all local TV stations in mainland China. Many other Chinese TV stations have also produced special programs on the health crisis.

Though I’m not a gaming fan, I have gone back to playing Candy Crush, a popular mobile game from a few years ago, for one or two hours every day. I have also played Werewolf, a social deduction game, online with other people who are stranded in their homes.

Across China, real gaming fans overwhelmed the servers of one of Tencent’s biggest games over the weekend. Some users struggled to log on to Game for Peace, the internet giant’s rebranded version of PUBG Mobile, while others had trouble joining matches.

Meanwhile, Plague Inc, a strategy game about wiping out humanity with an infectious disease that has been available for some time, recently topped paid download charts in China, according to App Annie.

Elsewhere, millions—including myself—have tuned in to watch CCTV’s live stream of the construction of two temporary hospitals, Huoshenshan and Leishenshan, in Wuhan, the provincial capital at the center of the coronavirus outbreak.

The facilities are expected to be completed by February 2 and February 5, respectively.

While my family does not use short video platforms such as Douyin and Kuaishou, these have reportedly also become popular news sources for outsiders hungry for information on what is happening on the ground.

One major disappointment has been a reduction in so-called “lucky money” this year—the red envelopes filled with cash that Chinese people traditionally give and receive at this time of year.

Like many young people, I was not able to see my grandparents in person due to the lockdown and could only send them greetings via the phone. Although sending virtual red envelopes via the electronic payments platforms WeChat Pay and Alipay is not new in China, this year is likely to see an upsurge.

The days have been long and the skies grey. A rare bout of sunshine this week allowed me to sit by the window and get some fresh air—with my mask on of course.

Local government cars ply the streets with loud speakers, urging people not to go outside, to cancel meetings, wear a mask, wash their hands, and report any suspected cases of the virus.

I’m still not sure when the lockdown will be lifted. And even when it is, I face uncertainty at the border when I try to return to work in Hong Kong: The government there has banned the re-entry of anyone who has recently spent time in Hubei except residents of the city.

As I work in Hong Kong, I should be allowed in under the current policy, although there have been calls from some quarters—such as medical unions—to close the border completely.

But for now, I feel another game of Candy Crush coming on.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post