Originally published in Portrait(人物), Feb. 10th, 2020
Yang Pu (alias) is a police officer in Hubei Province. He works in a county city with a population of one million about 50 kilometers from Wuhan. Before the severity of the outbreak became clear, a large number of local residents had travelled to and from Wuhan, including migrant workers returning from Wuhan for the Chinese New Year.
As Wuhan was found to be the outbreak source where the situation was worse than other places, a lot of attention has been drawn there. The small towns nearby have become spots of “darkness under the light”, which do not have the capabilities to deal with their own affairs.
January 23, at 10 a.m. Wuhan was locked down. That afternoon the county city where Yang Pu works began to block roads and traffic. In order to contain the outbreak, like all medical staff, a police officer like Yang Pu should be on the front line. They will be on 24-hour duties outside the hospital building where patients infected with the novel Coronavirus were being treated; they will be at the intersection of the highway that leads into and out of the city, screening suspected cases; they will handle all the trivial but necessary things in the city which sometimes could even be frustrating and laughable, for example, the reports on passers-by for not wearing masks, gradually tense family relations after the lockdown of the city and so on.
Most of the time they could only wear a thin mask to catch people trying to break the checkpoints, due to the shortage of protective equipment. In February, they started to have protective clothing that can only be worn where the risk is high, such as in a hospital or at the checkpoint. –“It’s all disposable. Doctors wear diapers in it.” –“Are you wearing them, too?” I asked. “We can’t. Police on duty drink little water. They drink after they are off work.” Though seemingly strong, fear also haunts them. For instance, as funeral coaches with their deceased patients pass by, Yang Pu will subconsciously identify the direction of the wind , worrying that the virus will be spread by the wind and fall on him.
Here is a narrative by Yang Pu, noted down by Pang Xie, edited by Tang Qi
Reporter | Pang, Xie (庞谢)
Editor | Tang, Qi (糖槭)
Now the call-outs are not the same as before anymore. It used to be cases of theft, fraud, provocation, and so on, all criminal cases or public security cases. Now it’s all about the mask. Some people call the police to report quarrels; some call us because others gather to play cards. These sorts of strange call-outs all have something to do with COVID.
We are near Wuhan. It’s just a one-hour drive. Before Wuhan’s lockdown, tens of thousands of people has returned. Earlier, people in every district were required to wear masks before they could leave. There were a lot of calls to the police at that time because they saw someone in the street without a mask. There were some masks in the police car. We just brought some masks for people who did not wear them. We had no other ways.
There was a mentally handicapped man who had a mask but he never wore it. Then he was reported to the police. We gave him masks. When we left, someone else called the police again and said there’s a man not wearing a mask. Once we got there, it was still him. There were several call-outs a day for that guy. There were also people who went to the city hall to protest because they couldn’t get a mask. “Get me a mask.” They said to me when I arrived there. After the closure of the city, people called the police to ask for food, vegetables and everything else.
Another change that has occurred since the closure of the city is that there has been calls to the police due to conflicts within the quarantined family. According to the regulation, as long as there is a new infected person, the whole neighborhood must be closed down and the street office and neighborhood committee must have someone on duty. There was a 15-year-old boy who had stayed at home for such a long time, and he wanted to go out. The son quarreled with his parents who did not let him go out and was beaten by them. He then called the police. A few minutes later, his parents also reported that his son had hit them back.
Closed neighborhoods are not allowed to enter or exit, and some have also closed elevators and hallways, which made things difficult. We have to decide whether we should go to people’s home or not based on their specific situations. We normally don’t go there because we are afraid of the virus in their home, also afraid of bringing the virus to them so we often resort to working through the telephone with the ones who called the police.
We asked them to turn on the speakerphone and communicated with the kid on the phone, explaining the danger of going out, and also told them not to beat the kids and asked them to say sorry. Then the kid was comforted, and agreed to stay at home.
In another case, a wife called the police and said her husband had been drinking and beating her up after a long stay at home. On hearing this call, we called the husband but he didn’t pick up. So it was not easy to do our job. Being afraid of infecting each other, we could not go to their place, but only talked to the wife. She agreed with us that when the quarantine was over, she would sue the man. There has been no other way but to get used to it for all these years. We have become problem-solvers. We can solve a bit of everything.
No matter who calls the police, you have to deal with it. Sometimes it’s quite tricky. On the Chinese New Year’s Day, there was a man in his thirties who jumped over a wall in a closed neighborhood and was caught by a street patrol. The patrol measure his body temperature, adn found he had a fever. He refused to go back, so conflict broke out and he beated the patrol. After the street office called the police, we went there and we couldn’t tell if he had the virus. He said his temperature was high because he was drinking. Damn liar! Who could believe what he said in this situation! There was no way but to get him in the car with us to the police station.
I wore a mask and a pair of goggles on that day because experts said that if the infected saliva got into your eyes, things could also go wrong. We were all scared because we all sat in the same car. So we opened all the windows. We went back to the police station and his temperature was still high. Thus we notified the health department to take him to the hospital for a check-up. Then we sterilized the car with alcohol.
This happened to us on the first day of the Chinese New Year. After we brought that person back, I had felt worried in the following two days. I thought it was a dangerous thing. Was that man sick? Was there any danger for me to sit so closely to him?
There have been rumors of an outbreak since mid January. There were some friends sending videos back on WeChat, telling us that the disease would lead to a lung infection, and might be transmitted from person to person. Some of them said it was through physical contact, and some said it was saliva or something similar. We all knew already that the disease is contagious and might be fatal. But there was no sign in our city at the time. No one was wearing a mask in the street, people were still preparing for the new year and I myself didn’t have any protections either.
On January 21^st^, the city government held a meeting to prevent COVID. After the city meeting, the police began to shift all its focus to controlling the virus. Our usual working pattern was changed. All the police forces in our station, including the auxiliary police, more than forty people in total, were divided into five shifts –some at the station, some receive police calls, some go to the Infection Department of the hospitals and help quarantine and protect patients in critical situation; some set up barricades at key intersections at the entrances and exits of the city to stop sources of infection. Communities that have been blockaded since the outbreak also need cops to guard. 24 hours a shift for every other day. Sometime we cannot even take that one-day rest.
We also have to go to the Hospital Infection Department which is for the treatment of COVID. It’s only a separate building. Our working station is only 10 meters away from the entrance. We often see dead people inside. Don’t you think that’s frightening?
One day two COVID patients died in the hospital. In order to prevent the the disease from spreading out, the city arranged a specific car from the funeral parlor to collect the corpses, but then there was a conflict. No one in the hospital was assigned to carry the body down from the Infection Department. The morticians said they were only responsible for driving the bodies away, not for taking the bodies out of the ward. No one dared to do it and this deadlock lasted several hours and at last mortician called the police. Something that is not really in our charge now becomes what we have to do.
After we contacted the hospital manager, he said that he would put arrange the hospital security guards to do it, but one of the guards was not willing to do it. The manager said the transport fee for one body is ￥500. The security guard said that even if the manager were to offer ￥5000, he would not do it. We resorted to the security company and made arrangements again and again. Finally the chief of security called in two older security guards, equipped them with protective clothings and finally the bodies were transported down to the funeral parlor. The guard who said he wouldn’t work even for ￥5000 quitted the next day.
Since then, those two security guards have been the hospital’s corpse handlers. With protective clothes on, they would be called in when there is need to get the bodies down. They stay at the hotel when there are no corpses to handle. The hospital arranged hotel rooms for them. You can’t go home if that’s your job.
Some police officers do not go home if they have been in close contact with the patients. They live in the police dormitory. They dare not to return because they do not know whether they have been infected or not. I sleep in my dorm room when I’m on duty. Sometimes before I go into my home, I take off my uniforms and leave them in the car. I run in without much clothes and immediately take a shower.
I heard that there was a patient in his fifties who died and was directly put in a corpse bag. His brother insisted on seeing him for the last time, the doctor said it’s dangerous to do so even with a mask and protective clothes. But the man did it when doctors and the staff did not pay attention. He opened the body bag and held the body and cried for a while. The doctors found that and pulled him away immediately. A corpse is also highly contagious and requires the government to deal with it uniformly. If the police are present, no one would be allowed to approach the body freely.
The other day there was a confirmed patient who asked to be hospitalized in the Infection Department but there was no bed in the department. The doctor explained to him that their resources were limited, offered to prescribe meds for him and asked him to wait for the bed. But he did not listen, and desperately wanted to live there. The patient had a conflict with the doctor and the security department. In the end he said he wanted to go. But who could let him go? The hospital had no choice but to call the police station.
We had a few police officers in the hospital to help to coordinate. Without a protective suit, we could only stand as far away from the patient as possible. But he did not follow what we suggested and yelled at us. In order to express himself clearly that he wanted to be hospitalized, he even took off his mask. What could we do?
He always wanted to go out. What if the disease spread out if he really left the hospital? The police had to follow him, persuading him that we would find another room for him and get him an extra bed, as well as infusions or some other treatments. We had to calm him down temporarily and prevent him from going out and spreading the virus. This is the only conciliatory role we can play. It’s up to the hospital to arrange the final placement.
We know the place is dangerous and we should wear protective clothing in that area, but it’s inconvenient to wear it when you are on duty. It is only possible to wear masks and goggles. As a medic or as a cop, we should both be on the front line. There are other occupations that can dodge this. But we have no choice but to get things done, what else can we do?
I got a call prior to this and it said that someone died in a public place in our precinct. We had to have a look. We didn’t know whether he was killed or killed himself or whether he died of COVID. So we’ll call the criminal investigation division. They came to the site in their own protective clothings (not the type wore by hospital staff) but without goggles. They just put a plastic bag over their heads. They complained that they could not do it because they could not see anything. Though without these equipment, the difficulty still had to be overcome. Finally we found a few swimming goggles and they started an autopsy. In the end, they said he died out of a heart problem, but who really knew for sure at the time.
After the autopsy, we arranged a funeral vehicle to pull the body away, looked up his identity and informed his family. There were no protective measures at that time. There were not enough protective equipment even in Wuhan. Not to mention us.
We’re a county-level city and we don’t even have a first grade hospital and we’re short of medical resources. We depend on the city to give us resources. This time, the expert team from the city which came here is only a small medical team of a dozen or so people.
Supplies are even less available. Masks were not allocated until Chinese New Year. Each person could receive an N95 mask every day, but the day before yesterday it was announced that due to short supply, officials would not be offered N95 masks to wear and could only wear ordinary protective masks, except for those who works in high-risk areas such as medical spots and quarantine spots. It was not until early February that we got the protective clothings. Still it’s only available to those who work for the hospitals or work at the checkpoints.
The checkpoints are all at the key entrances and exits of the city. We check the vehicles, stop the car to see how many people are in the car, verify their identities, check their body temperatures, and see if they have a pass. The pass is usually issued by the hospital, the city epidemic prevention headquarters, the town factories for purposes of transporting patients, daily supplies and so on. We would do a thorough check before we let them into the city. Or we have no idea who is sitting inside. Some said that they were heading to the hospitals. We don’t know what kind of disease they had. Some of them were patients from adjacent towns. Who knows if he is a carrier of the virus. We have to make it clear.
And the city is in a panic. Once we met an old man who was almost seventy years old and walked to the checkpoint himself. the neighborhood he lived in was blocked but he snuck out. He did not want to live in the city, and wanted to go to his hometown in the countryside. He did not bring anything with him. He just wanted to go out. We did not know if he was ill or not. We could not let him pass but he insisted. We tried to kept a one-metre distance when we talked to him, but when he didn’t understand what we said, he would take off his mask and kept talking. Wouldn’t you be afraid? It’s not like killing you with a knife, but it’s also a hidden danger.
In the end, we asked him go back and refused him to leave the city, We told him that he could not just walk to his hometown because there were more barricades other than ours. There would be plenty of checkpoints ahead where he couldn’t get past.
The people are all afraid and so are we. Sometimes the funeral car came to the hospital to take the bodies. When the car went past, we would check the wind direction in case the wind blew the virus to us. We were all afraid of the virus now.
There are also two people in our police station who are infected. Everyone got nervous. We need to keep a distance from our colleges, too. I don’t eat with others when I have meal at workplace in the morning. You have to protect yourself before you protect others. Things will go wrong if you cannot even protect yourself.
But as a police officer, there’s still work to be done. You must go there if someone died. Even for people alive, when they get sick, you also have to go there if you want to solve the problem.