It had been 72 days since the lockdown started and Lydia Chen needed some light.
In January, Chen, 30, flew from New York City to Wuhan to celebrate the Lunar New Year with her parents. Days later, the city shut down, trapping her in place through a long, dark winter.
Now it was April. Around the world, hundreds of millions were adjusting to life on lockdown. In Wuhan, it seemed like the worst was over. Chen put on her face mask and ventured out.
Outside, the city was stirring, she said in an interview. Some shops were still boarded up, but she found a stall selling a seasoned flatbread she calls “Chinese pizza.”
She stood outside with the sun on her skin. When it was safe, she pulled down her mask. “I took a bite of it and I’m like, ‘Oh my God,'” she said. “Oh my God, my life is back.”
Sort of. Months into an unprecedented global health crisis, with much of the world ordered indoors, it can be hard to imagine life after COVID-19.
Wuhan offers clues. On Wednesday, after 76 days, the city’s siege officially lifted, giving a snapshot of a strange, but not-so-distant, future.
The city’s 11 million residents have seen a lot: transport suspended, hospitals overrun, doctors dying, the loss of family members and friends. For months, trips outside the home were severely restricted.
As of April 8, residents are allowed to travel and businesses deemed “nonessential” can open. But people will be closely monitored, their movements tracked by an app that assigns a “health bar code.”
It’s still not normal life
For Chen and many others, the reopening means the return of simple pleasures like fresh air and street food, but not a resumption of normal life.
Grief is everywhere. Sometimes, Chen is afraid to check in with friends because she doesn’t know what they’ll tell her. Just when things feel better, she said, sorrow steps in and “hits you in the face.”
“I feel like it will take a while,” she said.
The coronavirus outbreak stopped time and changed life trajectories.
In January, Chen was living in Manhattan, where she works for a bank. When she booked a ticket to her hometown, she expected to stay two weeks.
When she landed on Jan. 19 everything felt normal. The next day, China acknowledged that the virus was spreading person-to-person. On Jan. 23, the city was sealed off.
Chen took shelter in her family’s three-bedroom apartment alongside her parents and an aunt and uncle who were also visiting from out of town. The first few weeks were brutal.
“It was a long period of anxiety,” she said. “You know, whenever you are awake, you are on your phone.”
She learned where and how to source food and how to get supplies to vulnerable family members. She did what she could to help people posting “SOS” messages on social media.
Mostly, she settled into what would become a months-long period of worry and waiting. She cooked with her family. She did yoga and barre. She worked from home.
At some point, she stopped getting so many messages from worried friends in New York. Instead, she started sending them.
Watching it spread around the world
For Chen, the pain of witnessing what happened in Wuhan has been compounded by watching the same, terrifying scenes play out again and again.
She watched the virus sweep through northern Italy, then through New York City, where she has lived for nine years.
“What is interesting about this whole epidemic is that we are so similar. In the beginning it’s denial, like, ‘Everything is fine, what are you talking about?'” she said.
“Then, every time you thought someone was exaggerating, it all turned out to be true.”
She decided she needed to share her story. She wrote a detailed account and posted it on Medium, a publishing platform. Later, she talked by phone to The Washington Post.
Chen knows that what is happening in New York now won’t last forever. She wants to tell her friends that they will get through the worst of it, that people will rally together, just as they did in Wuhan.
That does not mean this is over. Even with restrictions lifted, she doesn’t plan to spend much time outdoors. She is worried about the number of asymptomatic carriers in shops or on the subway.
She fears that if she spends time out and about she might unwittingly cross paths with someone who is sick, changing her “health bar code” status because she could have been exposed.
“I have a green bar code, which means I’m healthy,” she said. “And these days, healthy is a privilege. If I’m healthy, I can more than people who are not healthy. I want to keep my status.”
Not going back to New York yet
Though she left a life in New York, she does not know when she will return. Even if she could safely fly, she can’t imagine living through another lockdown.
For now, she’s staying in Wuhan, waiting things out — just like everyone else.
From her window, she watches the plum tree on her neighbors’ balcony as it trades pale, spring blossoms for summer-green sprouts.