WUHAN, China -- In late 2019, Wuhan businesswoman Duan Ling and her surgeon husband Fang Yushun began to hear snippets in hospital chat groups about a disease emerging in the city’s respiratory wards.
Duan didn’t pay much attention at first.
Fang had that year returned from a stint studying in the United States, and the pair, both 36-years-old, were planning a family, starting a costly round of fertility treatments.
“But as more and more news came, we began to realise this was something different from previous infectious diseases,” said Duan.
In just over a month, Fang would become one of the first people in the world to contract what came to be known as COVID-19, which has since infected over 74 million worldwide and killed more than 1.5 million.
During the early days of the outbreak, the city’s hospitals were crushed with patients, testing was scarce, and many doctors worked unprotected.
“At that time, there were a lot of undiagnosed patients appearing already in Wuhan. That’s why we still don’t know how he got infected,” said Duan.
Fang probably caught the disease in the hospital where he works, but the couple also lived within walking distance of Wuhan’s Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where several initial cases were linked, which led to the discovery of the disease.
On the day his case was confirmed, February 3, just over 420 people had died of COVID-19 and Wuhan had begun announcing several thousand new cases a day.
Wuhan was also two weeks into what became a gruelling 76-day lockdown that cut the city off from the rest of China.
“I finally felt that the numbers are not just some cold facts, because among those 2,388 people, one of them is the protector of my small family,” said Duan.
Fang was lucky. While 3,869 people would eventually die of coronavirus in Wuhan, he suffered only a moderate case and still had to go to work even after he began showing symptoms, Duan remembers.
Duan also believes it is possible she caught the virus, as she showed some symptoms around the same time, but testing in Wuhan was scarce in the first months of 2020, and limited to some frontline workers and severely ill patients.
When Fang entered hospital, he had a high fever, his resting heart rate was over 100 beats per minute, and his chest X-rays resembled ground glass. Duan characterised the time as surreal.
“When I was alone, I would watch the video of him playing guitar in the dormitory during his study abroad” in 2019, she said, choking up when she recounts the difficult two months they spent apart during his illness and recovery.
“But this epidemic had never let me cry once, and I always believed that we would get through this,” she said.
Video snippets shared by the couple show a masked Fang moving slowly around his ward in blue and white pyjamas.
While Fang was one of the first confirmed patients in the world, his status as a COVID-19 survivor now puts him in a club of over 70 million people worldwide, many of whom continue to face complex health issues.
Some nine out of ten COVID-19 survivors experience lasting side effects, and the longer term impacts of the illness are not known.
Duan says relatives and friends are still frightened Fang’s disease could re-activate.
“They might also raise this concern when we go to the party with them, so we won’t go. So there will still be some uncomfortable things in my heart.”
Return to normal
Today, Wuhan has largely returned to normal. The city hasn’t reported a new COVID-19 case since May. Its streets, bars, wet markets and restaurants are crowded.
But for some families less fortunate than Fang and Duan, memories of the traumatic early days are still hard to forget.
“There is nothing left to say for me,” said one Wuhan woman surnamed Chen, who caught the disease along with her mother, father and sister in January. Her father died in early February.
“Even though Wuhan has returned to normal, you can’t turn off the news ... you can’t escape these memories when the whole world is experiencing it,” said Chen, who declined to use her full name because she was warned against sharing her story by local police early in the pandemic.
For Duan and Fang, they are focused on the future.
The pair are moving into a new apartment, which was offered at a 15% discount to frontline medical workers by a local property developer.
Surrounded by unopened cardboard boxes, they discuss plans to re-start fertility treatments.
“Life is actually quite short, and life is also a process with many surprises,” said Duan. “Every day of peace and quiet is actually quite precious. So, we will cherish our time together more in the future.”