The year started out on a high note for us. Our two older children flew back to Wuhan from the US on New Years’ Eve to celebrate Christmas and birthdays with my wife and I and our two younger kids. Nothing beats seeing your kids come home after a long absence.
During their visit, rumblings started to emerge about an outbreak affecting people who worked and shopped at a market in Hankou, but we didn’t know the extent of the spread. Before long, however, a tipping point was reached, and just four days after our older two returned to the States, Wuhan was locked down. The airport, train stations, bus stations, roadways, subways—all stopped, all closed. And this happened two days before Chinese New Year! It was shocking and impressive at the same time.
Although it was clear that this was not going to blow over quickly, my wife and I had peace about our situation. We knew God had called us here to be a blessing to the people around us, and we had confidence that whatever issues our family or our team faced, he would give us the grace to deal with them. We were concerned, but we were at peace. Of course, the fact that we had no way of leaving probably influenced our peace about staying.
Our peace was rattled by the news of an evacuation plane leaving in just a few days’ time. Suddenly, what seemed like an obvious call to shelter in place and help people if possible started to feel like reckless endangerment. How could we pass up an opportunity to take our 12-year-old and 14-year-old out of harm’s way? How would we feel if either of them became infected and had to be isolated in a fever hospital, separated from us? How could we justify the risk?
We prayed. We consulted with State-side people we respect. We talked it over with our Chinese friends. At no point did any of us, kids included, feel like we should try to get seats on the plane. God gave us peace on the inside.
This is not to say we in any way disparage those who took the flights. In fact, we counseled several team members to evacuate due to their families’ circumstances. We believe they did the right thing by going, and we did the right thing by staying.
The months that followed led to some unforeseen complications, but even more unforeseen blessings. Our hats are off to the local government for organizing a way to provide staple food for millions of people who couldn’t leave their development. Once we figured out the system, we had ready access to rice, noodles, fruits, vegetables, meat, and eggs.
At the very beginning, it was a little confusing, but our downstairs neighbor, anticipating that the foreigners might not know how to order food, purchased extra food and left a couple of bags of groceries outside our door. She knocked on our door, ran back downstairs to avoid contact, and texted me when she got home. It was an act of social-distancing kindness.
We communicated with our neighbors on WeChat. What an incredible blessing that was. Our Residents Service Committee created WeChat groups for every ten buildings or so. Thanks to the lockdown, we’ve been communicating with over four hundred neighbors. One Chinese businessman working from home texted, “I’ve lived here ten years and never met anybody. Now I know everybody!”
Early on, we and our team of national coworkers had the opportunity, cooperating with the Hubei Charity Foundation, to help facilitate the donation of over 100,000 masks from the USA to several hospitals in Hubei province who were running out. The fact that we were locked down in Wuhan opened doors for us outside. Shipping companies, Air China, and government agencies were happy to help us, knowing that foreigners had chosen to stay and help. Later, we had the opportunity to facilitate the donation of another hundred thousand masks made in China to other countries, such as America, Ghana, Egypt and Lebanon. Being here helped us with sourcing and customs issues.
My wife was able to play an important role caring for sick people in the foreign community with their non-COVID medical problems. Some expats from countries that didn’t provide evacuation flights had medical issues which needed to be addressed. She was limited by the fact that she couldn’t get out to see the patient in person, but as she always says, “The Holy Spirit isn’t limited.” By phone, she was able to make treatment recommendations and help people overcome some significant medical problems. She was even able to do a house call for an elderly Chinese neighbor who “happened to” live in our same development with a difficult medical issue. Even when the gates were shut, God opened doors.
As the days of lockdown turned to weeks and months, it was hardest on our kids. They missed their friends, riding bikes outside, and playing basketball. Our community had a basketball court, but going outside was frowned upon and most of the time the basketball court was used for food distribution.
Needless to say, when the lockdown was lifted after 76 days, all of us breathed a sigh of relief. We had come through without getting sick, and without being separated. We were blessed by God so that we could bless others. There were times throughout that period when our anxiety got the better of us, but overall, we enjoyed a peace that passes understanding. We would never have asked to go through this period, and we are hoping we won’t have an encore performance with a second wave this winter, but we are thankful for God’s unwavering presence throughout this crazy year. We learned that when the world is a mess on the outside, we can have peace on the inside.
All images courtesy of the author.
Paul deMena, together with his wife and children, have lived in Wuhan since August, 2000. He leads an international team working in the areas of international education, family medicine, and counseling. Paul studied chemical engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology and worked at Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Division before going …View Full Bio
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