The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) swept across the world in early 2020, upending economies and bringing misery to millions. By 2022, the disease had started waning, if unevenly. In many countries, people started going about their business unmasked; in others, they kept their masks on and their distance from each other.
The pandemic didn’t subside on its own. A global effort to prevent the spread of the disease, develop vaccines, and vaccinate most of the world’s population slowed the virus. But variants—some more lethal than others—are discovered regularly and public health authorities remain vigilant. The pandemic is not yet a distant memory.
In the PRC—ground zero for the pandemic and with the biggest population in the world—the stakes were and continue to be especially high.
News of the first infections, in Wuhan, Hubei, broke in late January 2020, on the eve of Chinese New Year. Little was known of the virus except that it was new, that it spread quickly, and that people had already died from it.
Health-care workers and volunteers from across the PRC joined the battle against the disease. Six shared their stories. They include doctors and nurses, seasoned and less so, and a young man with no medical training and nothing but enthusiasm.
Three work in Litong District, Wuzhong (population 1.4 million), Ningxia Autonomous Region, north-central PRC. Lina Wang is a health-care worker at Shengli Township Community Health Service Center. Yanfang Li is director of Jinxing Garden Community Health Service Station. And Dr. Lianzhi Zhang came out of retirement and moved from Hefei City to work at the Shengli center.
Two of the interviewed frontliners are from Heifei (population 5 million), Anhui, in eastern PRC. Dr. Hua Niu is a chief physician at Anhui Provincial Chest Hospital. A veteran of the battle against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), she was one of the first health workers to troop to Wuhan. Dr. Yin Liu is a member of the health education unit of the provincial Center for Disease Control. He, too, was sent to Wuhan.
Jin Chen, a young man working in clothing retail in Wuhan, offered invaluable logistical and moral support to the frontliners.
Most left their homes for weeks and all risked their health to hold the line against the virus. They will not soon forget how hard it was to be away from family, the crushing hours, and the mental and emotional toll on themselves and others. They all overcame fear and exhaustion to get the job done. None regretted the experience.