'Just the two of us': a bleak New Year in China's virus-hit Wuhan

3 min

Wuhan (China) (AFP)

Wang Yanhong and her husband prepared a family feast for their Lunar New Year celebrations -- but only two will be eating this time in their apartment in China's virus-struck Wuhan.

The holiday is normally a joyous occasion for family reunions across China, but the couple's 25-year-old son could not join them this year.

Wuhan is under strict quarantine, with flights and trains banned from leaving the city of 11 million people and residents told to stay home to contain the spread of a virus that has killed 26 people and sickened hundreds.

"This is the first time he doesn't come home to celebrate New Year's Eve with us," his mother told AFP reporters in their small apartment on Friday.

"We are just the two of us," said the retired supermarket worker, who has not set foot outside for days for fear of the SARS-like virus.

Their son, Andy, stayed in his home 750 kilometres (450 miles) to the east in Hangzhou, where he works.

Nonetheless, the couple, both 53, prepared their traditional feast in their apartment complex, surrounded by deserted streets on a day that many worried residents rushed to hospitals to check if they had caught the virus.

Wang's husband Pen Lixin toiled in the kitchen since the morning to whip up local specialities: fish, meatballs and lotus pancakes.

A full bottle of red wine sat on the table -- but nobody will have it this year without their son, as neither of them drink alcohol.

But the wine remained on the table nonetheless, because it is still the most important night on the Chinese calendar.

- 'Everything we need' -

With the news playing on a TV screen in the background, the pair have heeded advice to stay in and avoid contact with other people.

"I am very happy to have guests," Wang said, opening her door to AFP journalists.

Pen, a driver, wore an apron over thick pyjamas as he made the final food preparations.

"We don't have to go out, we already have everything we need at home," he said.

"This year is special."

It is not just Wuhan residents who have been affected, with 12 other cities in Hubei province facing various restrictions on travel affecting an area of more than 40 million people.

A range of Lunar New Year festivities across the country have been cancelled to prevent the disease from spreading further, with Wuhan cancelling an annual prayer-giving that attracts hundreds of thousands of people at the Guiyuan Temple.

There's no heating in Wang and Pen's neat apartment in Wuhan, but they have been following advice and keeping it well-ventilated, even if it is cold.

"Every morning, I clean and disinfect the apartment and open the windows wide," Wang said.

- Good health -

Their quiet street with shuttered stores is a reflection of the understated holiday celebrations in the city, where all public festivities have been cancelled.

On Saturday, the first day of the Lunar New Year, they have cancelled plans to meet friends at a local restaurant.

"Of course I am sad about it, but I have to overcome that," said Pen.

"Because it is a time of great mobilisation for the country."

Fortunately, in anticipation of the Spring Festival, the couple stocked up well before the city was placed under lockdown this week.

But Wang said they will force themselves to enjoy the New Year evening as they normally would.

The cookies and snacks are ready on a low table for watching the traditional Lunar New Year's Eve extravaganza broadcast on state televisions and watched by hundreds of millions of Chinese.

And they remain resilient.

"Whether he is with us or not, what is important is that the whole family is in good health," she said.

"We are all in good health, we are really lucky."