Life in lockdown: Behind closed doors keeping out the coronavirus

Khaya Madlala* has stopped making video calls to his mother.

“My mother is 65 years old, so she gets concerned about stuff. So I try to hide it from her, because I don’t want her to panic,” he says during a static WhatsApp call from his small dormitory room at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

He says his mother wasn’t happy with him moving to China in the first place. “But she didn’t want to feel like she was blocking my dreams.”

The 26-year-old is doing his master’s degree in higher education and economics.

“For the past two years I have been calling her over video call. But I don’t anymore because I don’t want her to see me. Because she can read through my eyes if I am okay or not. And I am not okay. So I just … ” he says, trailing off before filling the silence with a forlorn “ja”.

Like others in Wuhan, Madlala is stuck. The city has been in lockdown for three weeks and the university has closed the main entrances to all its dormitories.


On Monday, when he spoke to the Mail & Guardian, news reports offer some hope to those quarantined in Wuhan: the rate of new infections is on the decline. The Chinese government has chalked this up to a successful lockdown.

At a press briefing at the Chinese embassy in Pretoria on Tuesday, ambassador Lin Songtian said the people of China are “fighting in a war” against the coronavirus.

Addressing concerns that the quarantine was infringing on the freedom of those in lockdown, he said: “This is the best way to protect human rights. Because people are dying. And this is the best way to protect the human rights of people around the world.”

He later added that despite there being tens of millions of foreigners living in China, only 27 of them have been infected with the coronavirus. Two have died.

“Sometimes people who are not comfortable, they say China’s not free — there’s no freedom … So when the people say they are not comfortable, they have to think, we are in wartime against the epidemic nationwide.”

By Thursday there were over 75 000 reported cases of coronavirus, with 2 130 fatalities.

Some countries evacuated their citizens. Others, including South Africa, did not. For those living under quarantine, everyday life in the city has become hellishly routine.

Prison time

“It’s the same every day,” Madlala says. “Every day you wake up. You eat. You take a shower. You do some exercises. You eat. You go back to sleep. Every day.”

The student says time has become warped, dragging on without any of the normal milestones. His mornings start at 1pm.

“I was thinking: How do people who spend two years in prison do it? Because myself, ha … It’s worse when you know that even tomorrow is going to be the same. And the day after tomorrow is going to be the same day.”

Ross Diaz* got to bed at 3am on Monday morning.

She lives in Hankou, the first of Wuhan’s three districts to be hit by the outbreak. When she moved there, just a day before the lockdown, she hadn’t expected she would be trapped in her new apartment for almost a month.

The apartment still doesn’t feel like home. When the quarantine is over, Diaz says she is looking forward to getting new curtains to spruce up the place.

An English teacher, Diaz did not want to use her real name because she did not want her employers to know she was speaking to the media.

Last week, Diaz could leave her apartment every three days to buy food. But things quickly changed and by last Thursday nobody living in the building was allowed to leave.

Leaving the flat was a complex affair. Diaz would wear two masks, a disposable one under another one she can wash.

“It’s still pretty cold here, so I would put on a beanie and then I would wear gloves. And then when I came back, I would throw the gloves in the wash — make sure they would get washed straight away.

“I basically disinfected everything, washed my hands and got rid of the mask,” she says.

“That was basically the procedure. Any shoes that I had on would have to be sterilised as soon as I stepped in the door.”

‘You get what you can’

Whatever Diaz can get delivered from the shops now has to be bought in bulk. “So I had to get dishwashing liquid for instance and I had to get a 5kg. So I know that is going to last me for the next 10 months. So if you want cheese, it’s going to be a 3kg block of cheese,” she says, breathy laughter punctuating her words.

“But, ja, you’ve got to get what you can get.”

Diaz washes all the food she buys. Lately she also boils a lot of her food. “I’m eating mostly stews and things like that. I was able to get some frozen chicken. So I have chicken or scrambled eggs, or you know whatever. Whatever I can whip together and isn’t going to spoil.”

Sizwe Sibiya and his small family have been eating “a lot of noodles” lately.

“You basically just take what you get, because we’re not as spoiled for choice as we were before the quarantine,” he says.

Sibiya’s wife, Amanda, is six months pregnant and their daughter is five years old.

Though the company of his family soothes the sting of solitude, Sibiya says he is constantly worried about their wellbeing.

The cry

Amanda says their daughter cries “almost every day”. “It’s hard. It’s very hard,” she says, her voice getting louder as her husband joins the chorus.

Talking about how his daughter is coping Sibiya says: “She is getting to understand that there’s something going on outside. Because she can see that there is no one outside. I mean, we live in a very busy location and usually it’s just a buzz outside — a lot of people. But at this moment, it’s quiet. And she can almost see that there is something wrong even though she doesn’t fully understand.”

He says the language barrier has made adjusting to the lockdown especially difficult.

“Sometimes you just see stuff happening, you know, honestly you just see,” Sibiya says.

“You just go out of your apartment and, when you’re trying to get out of the gate, the gate is locked.”

To get away from it all, Sibiya says he sneaks past the apartment officials to get to the “top, top, top” of the building.

“There is some space for me to run there — a little bit of running. Not a lot, just enough for me to run up and down.”

*Not their real names

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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