China: Housebound friends support each other by phone

Wuhan church

Wuhan church

This is the fourth exclusive ICN report from a Catholic - who lives in Wuhan and prefers to remain anonymous - giving a first-hand account of the situation in the city at the centre of the coronovirus infection.

This afternoon I had a phone call from Han Weiwei. His daily calls are a normal part of my life in Wuhan, and have been so even before the coronavirus arrived. During these days, as 60 million people in this province need to stay indoors, Weiwei's phone calls have taken on a deeper significance. In a setting where meeting people has become so rare, these phone calls allow me to keep in touch with him and the life of his family at the other side of the city.

As we talk, he gives me an update about his mother. She is in hospital with mild symptoms of the coronavirus. Thankfully, she expects to return home within a few days. He asks about when we might meet again. I assure him that as soon as public transport is restored we will be able to meet. Later I enquire if he has enough food in his house while he takes care of his own meals. He assures me that he is doing fine with the cooking. The conversation then takes a familiar change of direction as he tells me which mobile phones are better than others. Then follows another change of focus as he tells me that it is ten years since we met for the first time. My assumption is that it is closer to five years. Again he asks me about when we might meet. In recent weeks he has introduced a new dimension to our conversations. He begins by saying that he would like to tell a joke. I encourage him to do so. Then in a serious tone he announces that we will never again meet. My side of the dialogue is to receive this news with a gasp. Then there is silence. Soon the silence is broken when he says that he was only joking. We both laugh and then move on to other discussions.

Weiwei's family lives close to Holy Family Catholic Church in Wuhan. That is where we met for the first time. He likes to greet members of the international community who gather on Sunday mornings to celebrate Mass in English. He is also well known among the Chinese parishioners. Occasionally during the week he helps to clean the compound surrounding the 120-year-old Italian style church.

Two years ago Weiwei and I decided to meet on a Wednesday and go with three other friends on an adventure around the city. I met him at his home and we travelled to another area of the city where we met our three friends. We then continued as far as the city's aquarium. In this unique setting of abundant fish life we joined the weaving crowds moving from one glass wall of water to the next. Before our eyes were a multitude of coloured fish that would rival any coral reef in the world. Each of us pointed out particular fish that we really liked. Later we found a suitable place outdoors in the pleasant sunshine to share some light food and chat. A few people were asked to take photographs of our group. In the early afternoon we went for lunch and continued to talk about what we had seen at the aquarium. Later we prepared to return to our respective homes in five different areas of the city. Even this part of the day required some coordination in the hope that each of us would get home safely. Throughout the day some flexibility was needed because our planning of the day and the actual unfolding of events were occasionally a distance away from each other. Most importantly, we had enjoyed out time together.

Since two years ago there have been similar outings, sometimes with a smaller number of people compared to the first day. These activities are based on a model of community as envisioned by Marie-Helene Mathieu and Jean Vanier when they co-founded Faith and Light in France in 1971. Faith and Light provides opportunities for people of different abilities to form supportive communities, with shared activities playing an important role within a faith setting. In Wuhan we do not claim to be members of Faith and Light but some day we might get closer to that possibility. In China there can be a painful isolation for people who experience life on the margins of society as the country moves ahead with rapid economic development. However, in several areas of China I have noticed that people at parish churches provide a warm welcome to people of varying abilities. People can meet others, participate in prayer and stay at the church for several hours in a setting that has a pleasant atmosphere. This is quite different to the atmosphere that can prevail in many commercial districts of modern Chinese cities.

As we approach the end of the fourth week in Wuhan since public transport was suspended, we are likely to have at least two more weeks of restricted living. Thankfully, statistics for this week indicate that the strict measures are now bringing a decrease in the number of new cases.

During our recent phone calls, Weiwei and I have discussed where we might go during our next outing. I suggest Hubuxiang, the area with multiple small restaurants offering local food very near the first bridge ever built across the Yangtze River. He suggests that we will go to the riverside to view the scenery, something that has not been possible for so many people for almost a month. Taking the ferry to the other side of the river is also suggested. Today I said that on the day we meet, it might be necessary for the two of us to go to the barber, such is the length of time that this profession has been deprived of its contribution to society. Our plans are likely to be discussed and reviewed again before public transport is restored in this city of 11 million people.

In the meantime, we continue to wait. We also continue to pray for the many grieving families who have endured so much suffering during these weeks of upheaval. As the phone call comes to a close, we say a prayer. Then Weiwei and I say goodbye to each other. He concludes with the assurance that he will call again tomorrow.


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Tags: China, Wuhan, Coronavirus

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