The Chinese government and people have received high praise from a Barbadian student who has endured months of gruelling restrictions in a city that for months was considered Ground Zero of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).
And based on her experience in Wuhan, where the dreaded virus originated, she is sending a strong message to Barbadians and fellow citizens about the danger of complacency in this new environment.
The sprawling metropolis is now largely regarded as a low-risk destination, while dozens of countries have come face to face with the raging pandemic in one way or another.
But six months ago, debilitating food shortages, stiff restrictions and a mysterious virus was becoming the new normal for 25-year-old Alexandria Payne who was completing her sixth and final year as a student in the Chinese city.
Back in January, health officials in the now infamous Hubei province were investigating a “mysterious pneumonia” with no known origin or cure that had already killed 17 people and affected more than 400. By the end of that month, more than 7,700 cases and 170 deaths had been recorded in the Asian country and the number of deaths in Hubei were well into the thousands.
Housing compounds closed by the Chinese government were being monitored by neighbourhood committees, residents could only go out for necessities, and near the end of the first month, guidelines were tightened further, until virtually all goods could only be delivered.
“I’m not even going to lie. It was scary. It was very scary, because even though I was so far away, I was accustomed to easy travel… so to have everything stopped and to know that you are so many miles away from home and you can’t even get to an airport was very scary,” Payne told Barbados TODAY.
She explained that as a foreigner in China, further limits were placed on her ability to move around or leave the city throughout the shutdown period.
“Some Chinese could get out of the city to get back to their homes, but we couldn’t because, obviously, we were from a whole different system. There was so much red tape that we would’ve had to go through and it was very scary knowing that you were there, stuck in this place where this pandemic is off the charts and you can’t even get home,” Payne explained.
“Sometimes you couldn’t even get proper communication, because… when emergencies happen, things start to fall apart. Even the Internet connection became unstable, and trying to stay in contact to make sure everybody at home knows that you’re safe became more difficult.”
Then came the times that the Central China Normal University student wondered if she would eat, as shortages started to grip the city of 11 million inhabitants. It was in those moments that the 25-year-old leaned on help from a handful of Barbadians also living in Wuhan.
“People were suggesting sites that I could purchase food on, delivery services that I could try, and they even tried to send goods, but that proved difficult due to the restrictions. At one point, we couldn’t even buy groceries. You had to actually just order food. The stores would set out a certain number of meals per day, and you had to be quick.
“Sometimes a store might open at 8:00 a.m. and by 8:05, everything would be gone because of pre-orders. So sometimes you didn’t even have access to the things that you needed and that was a problem,” she recollected.
Government restrictions were backed up by threats of stiff fines and imprisonment to control the spread of the virus in hundreds of apartment buildings with millions of inhabitants. Payne however credits the “community spirit” of the Chinese people for steering the city through the crisis.
“…Everybody understood that they should not only think about themselves, but also that if you violate certain laws you will be fined or imprisoned, because there are too many people living there for you to just do what you want to and think that you will be okay,” she said.
“There is no room for error in China. If you do something that you are not supposed to do, you will be punished for it, and everybody understands that and adheres to the rules there. I think maybe just in the West, we already have a less stringent attitude,” she added.
After almost ten months of gruelling restrictions, light began to appear at the end of Wuhan’s dark COVID-19 tunnel in mid-April when many other countries across the world were struggling to come to grips with overwhelmingly high rates of infections and deaths.
Payne recalls that she waited an additional three weeks before venturing outside to a city where masks, thermometers, and physical distancing were the new normal. Eventually, bars, restaurants, and even night clubbing resumed and the city has returned to its former glory.
Nevertheless, Alexandria decided that after six years of studying, it was time to return to her family in Barbados and “regroup” before making her next move. The process for travelling was yet another reminder of how seriously the Republic of China continued to take the COVID-19 situation.
“You need to have certification saying that you do not have the virus, even before flying out to a neighbouring city. They took it very seriously from the beginning and they are still taking it very seriously now.
“I think they just have a good idea of the best way to protect their people,” she pointed out.
Finally back home, the Barbadian says she is “very impressed” with the protocols at the Grantley Adams International Airport (GAIA). However, she pointed to “worrying” evidence of complacency among citizens.
“…Because Barbados is so low risk and we can still have events and do a lot of things, I think people tend to relax a bit. But you can’t relax, and China still hasn’t relaxed yet.
“Even though it’s back to normal, their protocols and stuff are still very much in place, and I think that’s really what Barbados will need to pay attention to – making sure that everybody understands that until this thing is 100 per cent gone or until there is a patented cure or vaccine, there is no room to let up,” she warned.
The now fluent Mandarin speaker has not ruled out a return to China in pursuit of further studies or employment. But for now, she prefers the warmth and comfort of home.
“Will it be next year? Maybe not, but definitely I can see myself going back. I am still not sure how soon that would be,” she said.