Lockdown, day 24 and a friend sent me an article today from the New York Times about the Wuhan writer, who goes by the pen name Fang Fang, who began chronicling the coronavirus pandemic on 26 January of this year. When the journalist began writing, the virus that had began in Wuhan was already well advanced. Initially she considered writing in retrospect starting at the beginning of the crisis on 31 December but she decided instead to focus her energies on a daily journal, one that would chart her impressions in real time of life under lockdown. She saw her role as one of bearing witness. ‘If authors have any responsibilities in the face of disaster, the greatest of them is to bear witness. I’ve always cared about how the weak survive great upheavals. The individuals who are left out — they’ve always been my chief concern.’
A brave woman. She saw her role as a recorder, reporting in plain language on people’s shock, anxiety and fear, their frustrations and sense of helplessness as they lived through the long harsh winter shut indoors, in tight spaces in high density tall apartment buildings for days, weeks — it was eleven weeks in total — unable to leave for exercise or fresh air. She wrote about the bravery of essential workers who risked their own safety to carry out vital tasks to keep the city functioning, she described the acts of altruism, neighbours helping one another, she highlighted the plight of medical professionals whose lives on the front line dealing with the sick and dying made them vulnerable. She bore witness to those who had died in the fight and, unafraid to strike a political stance, she vowed to hold to account the officials who had allowed the virus to spread. Many believe that the numbers of cases were far higher than official reports.
Fang Fang also wrote about the doctor Li Wenliang who first spoke out about the virus in December of 2019, the doctor, labelled ‘the whistle blower’ who was officially reprimanded for “spreading rumours”, and who died on February 6 from Covid-19. On the next evening, Fang Fang described the response of people in Wuhan, at the exact time he had died. They turned their lights off and each individual shone a ray of light into the sky, using flashlights and cellphones while making a whistling noise. Imagine the spectacle, the sound of the whistling on the wintery night.
By March millions across China were following her diary of a closed city, looking to her for information, drawing on her daily chronicles for reassurance and comfort. There is now talk of a book publication, however her writing has attracted condemnation from those who see it as an attempt to undermine the government and the ‘heroic image of Wuhan.’ Despite the threats she continues undaunted. ‘If anyone imagines that I’ll lightly set aside my pen, that will never happen. One word after another, I will inscribe them onto history’s pillar of infamy.”
Powerful words from a determined, brave woman. Reading of the gift of Fang Fang’s words to the people of China has given me cause to reflect on my own journal practice here recording the day by day experience of living in lockdown in New Zealand. Fang Fang’s plight contrasts with my own privileged position as a writer lucky enough to live in a democracy, where I can write freely without fear of being put under surveillance, without fear of having my basic rights taken from me for speaking out against repression, without fear of imprisonment as is the case in many nondemocratic countries around the globe. Instead I find myself writing in a society where very often the keywords surrounding our government policies are ‘kindness’, ‘compassion’, fairness. I have heard from people in public health that our current government is a dream to work with because it has been quick to act to limit the spread of the virus, quick to follow their recommendations. This is a scenario few public health professionals outside our country are ever likely to experience. We are so lucky. I am so lucky. When I go to bed at night I know I will not wake in the middle of the night with a pounding heart worrying about the repercussions of my writing. I can sleep easy.
I have travelled in China as a back packer. It was the winter of 1984-85 and it was before the really great leap forward, when China ‘caught up’ with the West. At the time the country was still in the grip of the greyness of communism, people still wore the blue Mao costume, their lives were very tough. We visited a small rural town near Guilin and stayed there two nights in a strange building in the countryside. I have never felt so out of my comfort zone, small and vulnerable and scared. I remember buying food from a vendor in the street and how the ground was mud, the stalls reminded me of the conditions in a cowshed, basic, dirty, wet, cold, hard. And yet the food, a stir fry from the street seller, was absolutely delicious.