American trapped in Wuhan: Despite coronavirus, I won’t evacuate without my wife and son

There are many things in life a person should worry about — what to eat tonight or how to get that bill taken care of. But what if you were trapped at home while a highly infections virus was spreading through your city of 11 million people? What thoughts would go through your head?

I am a 26-year-old American currently living in Wuhan, China, with my wife and our newborn son. I came to China in November 2018 to be with my then-girlfriend and future wife, Li Ling. My initial reasons for coming to China were simple: explore a new country, marry the woman I love, help her get her paperwork done so we can finally go back to America, and start a family.

Well, things got complicated. Ling became pregnant with our first child, which made our schedule busier and delayed our ability to get meetings with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which we needed to get her a visa. Now, we’re stuck in Wuhan while the coronavirus makes it’s way around Wuhan, China and the world. According to Chinese officials, 170 people have died and the World Health Organization has dubbed it a global health emergency.

Transportation brought to a halt

Luckily, my son, Colm, was born safely in early January. However, this posed a predicament. The Chinese government started putting out more and more information about the spread of the disease through various news organizations, and our expatriate group on WeChat (a popular social media and messaging app in China) diligently posted articles as soon as we could get them. Since my wife delivered our son through a cesarean section, she has spent the last few weeks recovering and it will still be quite a while before she’s up to full strength and able to move around.

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On Jan. 23, we heard that Wuhan is being locked down and the government is launching a mass quarantine. That means there is no transportation in or out of the city. Public transportation like the metro, buses, and flights from the airport have all been shut down. We are essentially trapped.

When the news about the lockdown initially hit, many of the foreigners here started stocking food ahead of time. We knew that most shops would have a rush of people trying to buy up everything they could to last for the next few weeks — but I did not expect the shelves to be so bare. When I went out just days before the lockdown to buy some simple vegetables to go with my already-stocked dry and canned food, almost everything was sold out. People were carrying big carts of food home, full of whatever they could carry.

Justin Steece with his newborn son, Colm, in Wuhan, China, in January 2020.

Now, we sit and wait, unable to leave. The government is telling us to be calm and resolute during this time. The Chinese people I know and see have had mixed reactions. Most are fairly calm and not worried about contracting the coronavirus. A few are worried and others are actively spreading false rumors to try to mislead people.

I won’t leave without my family

The other expats and I are a little disappointed.

The government apparently knew about this virus since early in December, but really under-reacted and only alerted the world about the outbreak on Dec. 31. They just talked calmly and let everyone lead their lives, only reacting when things got out of hand. 

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There are around 1,000 Americans in Wuhan, and the U.S. government evacuated 195 Americans this week, but the process has been confusing. I first heard about the flight from the WeChat group and I was told that Americans who do not work with the Wuhan consulate had to pay $1,000 per seat. Sadly, my wife and I were not able to get on this flight, not only because she is not an American citizen and is still recovering from her surgery, but because they would not allow my son to board the flight. My son does not have any paperwork showing he is an American citizen because of the city’s lockdown. 

I won’t leave Wuhan without my family or get evacuated to America without them because of some minor paperwork, and $3,000 is a lot to ask one family to pay to leave. At least one other flight is being planned, according to the State Department, but information about the flight is not clear.

I am a little afraid, because I am the only one who can leave the house to get essential supplies every few days. I would be devastated if I were to get sick, and spread the infection to Ling or Colm. This is not just what I worry about, but what many of the American expats here are worried about. We care about our country and are trying to help others while still helping our families.

Justin Steece is an American working as an online English teacher in Wuhan, China. He is a former member of the Minnesota Army National Guard.

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