China: Low-income families 'eat bitterness' through coronavirus emergency

This is the sixth 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.

Each two weeks I usually meet Li Qiong at the apartment where she grew up. The second-floor residence is located just 200 metres from the intersection of lines 1 and 7 of Wuhan's Metro system, an ideal location in terms of transport. From the station, the first half of the short walk brings me by a stylish coffee shop on the ground floor of a towering new office block, a recent symbolic benchmark of the city's economic development. The second half of the short journey is like slipping over the edge of an economic cliff - the sleek shine of the skyscraper replaced by old concrete apartment blocks. Under the shadow of the office building, these humble homes still hold a fragile community together, as if counting the days until a pencil stroke on a planning office map will signal their end.

Walking up the dark stairs to the second floor, a knock on the outer door of rattling metal leads to an acknowledgement from inside. Li Qiong opens the door, an action followed by her switching on the room's single light, sparingly used in the windowless living room. As I sit down, Li Qiong pours tea and passes it to me. Following initial greetings, her mother enquires about a topic that is always of interest to them, the price of vegetables. It would seem that information from my area might add to their understanding of economic trends in the city. When asked the question for the first time a few years ago, they seemed surprised that I struggled to give a clear answer. For them a small price difference would decide where they go to buy these essentials.

In 2002 a Catholic friend introduced me to Li Qiong and her mother. Their lives have not been easy. Born in 1976 following a long and difficult delivery for her undernourished mother, Li Qiong was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Ten years later she took her first sliding tentative steps. Her speech has been restricted for her entire life. Efforts by her parents to have her registered at various schools fell on deaf ears in a country where teachers are assessed on the academic performance of their students. A childhood without education and an adult life without employment robbed her of the possibility of having school friends and work colleagues. When she goes to nearby shops, her struggled words and restricted hand coordination produce more challenges.

A faith-based project initiated in 2006 provided Li Qiong with the opportunity of some work at home and a small income. The social interaction with the visitors every two weeks has probably been the greater benefit as she meets with people who are happy to know her.

In 2007 the traditional Chinese understanding of long-term security came to the fore when she was introduced to a young man with the possibility of marriage. At the end of the year their wedding took place at a nearby hotel. There was no honeymoon. The newly-married couple lived in a simple rented apartment near her parents' home, a dark place, as if designed for residents who were allergic to light.

Two years later there was a joyful announcement. Li Qiong was expecting a child. In China there is a strong preference for a newborn child to be a boy. As the pregnancy progressed Li Qiong's mother said that they were hoping that the birth would provide them with a girl, certainly a counter-cultural approach. It was quickly explained that the birth of a girl would mean that she could eventually, as an adult, pick and choose from potential marriage partners, the big discrepancy between male and female numbers being the basis of such logic. A few days before Christmas 2010 a healthy and well-loved child was born, a child that has brought joy in abundance to a family that has endured so much - a girl, as hoped for.

The English word coolie has its origin in the Chinese language. The Chinese word 'ku-li' means bitter strength. In China a person who can "eat bitterness" is admired as one who can persevere through all kinds of adversity. Another serving of bitterness awaited the family around the time of the child's birth. Li Qiong's father, a kind person, a dedicated husband, a talented cook, a man who swam across the Yangtze River with his friends once a week, was diagnosed with cancer. Having lived to see the birth of his granddaughter, he died when she was just four months old.

Nine years have passed by since those bittersweet months. Li Qiong's daughter has grown to be a bright energetic child whose performance in school has placed her near the top of the class. A talent for dancing has delightfully emerged - her agile feet and flowing moves a beautiful sight for a mother consigned to a life of shuffled movement.

As is understandable for a family in their situation, they have hopes that this child will make progress academically over the next ten years with the eventual possibility that she will provide some relief for the family's life on the poverty line. Six years ago, a small low-rent apartment was made available to the family of three by the local authorities. It is a more comfortable setting but it means one hour on a bus each morning for the child to go to school.

Then, six weeks ago, the family faced its latest economic shock with the emergence of the Coronavirus. Li Qiong's husband works as a day labourer, installing and fixing water pumps. Even in normal times it is not a secure job. Like hundreds of thousands of people in Wuhan and the greater multitudes in Hubei province, the coronavirus means that he is likely to be without income for two months. Aside from the day labourers like himself are the huge numbers of people who depend for a living on the endless number of small shops and restaurants that line the city streets in this part of China. They are under pressure to pay rent for premises whose doors are locked.

Two weeks ago, funds were running low for Li Qiong's family of three. A timely donation by sisters at one of the city's convents brought some much-needed relief. Similar charitable efforts in various parts of the country by the Church and other faith groups are also taking place. Small against a background of tens of millions of disrupted people, it is encouraging that charity is reaching some of those who are struggling. It conveys the message that faith groups are concerned for the wellbeing of Chinese people who are suffering at this time even though they can only assist a few.

Like millions of children, Li Qiong's daughter, rather than going to school during these weeks, is attending class online. It is not an ideal situation but it is the adjustment that so many have made in response to what has been a huge medical emergency in central China.

Statistics since the weekend indicate that the strict measures implemented since 23 January are producing the desired results. Almost all new cases of the virus are now within the sealed off province of Hubei, the province itself subdivided into multiple isolated units to prevent local movement of the virus. When life eventually returns to normal, for many families it will not be a return to a comfortable life. It will be a return to a less stressful way of life where a simple livelihood will continue to be eked out on a day-to-day basis.

An occasional phone call to Li Qiong's mother keeps me in touch with their situation at this time. Due to current travel restrictions in the city, Li Qiong has not travelled to meet her mother for six weeks, their longest separation in over 40 years. When the disruption of the coronavirus ends, I look forward to meeting them again at the second-floor home where there is restricted light but a warm welcome. Our discussions are likely to continue about the price of vegetables. Li Qiong is likely to continue serving tea and telling me to be careful as she pours it while telling her daughter to distribute oranges to the visitors.

In the centre of the floor the dislodged rattling grey floor tile, broken at one corner into a few pieces, will still convey the message that its ongoing mosaic presence is as secure as ever in this home of poor residents. As we drink the warm tea and eat the sweet oranges, we will discuss local issues of great importance while Li Qiong's mother, speaking for the family that has no connection with Church, will again ask us to pray for them. As guests among three generations of Chinese women, we will sit eating and drinking in this humble setting where many chapters of China's history have been lived through, believing also that the resurrected Christ is among His suffering faithful people.


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Tags: Wuhan, Coronavirus, China

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