The Story of a Plague

Society & Culture

How does one tell a story about the COVID-19 pandemic? In his new documentary ‘76 Days,’ set primarily at Wuhan hospitals, director Hao Wu chooses to push back against the prevalent approach in foreign coverage of China, where the gaze is fixed on the government and art falls into a false binary of protest or propaganda.

76 Days

A hospital worker in full protective gear rushes down a corridor. Several more follow. A door is cracked open before it swings shut. No one enters. The first person is pulled back by her colleagues. Her wailing tears through the rustling of plastic gowns and the beeping of machines: “Papa!” It is not a rescue but a farewell.

So begins the film 76 Days, a new documentary on the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. The title refers to the number of days the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak started, was placed under lockdown. Written and edited by U.S.-based Chinese filmmaker Hao Wu, with footage from two frontline reporters in China, Weixi Chen and “Anonymous,” the 93-minute documentary is set mostly inside Wuhan hospitals. The camera follows a diverse group of doctors, nurses, and their patients through life and death, struggle and recovery.

I purchased a ticket to 76 Days at the Heartland Film Festival in October, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Alone in my room on a weekend night, I stared at the streaming link on my computer screen, my primary access to the outside world since March, not knowing if I was ready to revisit this past winter.

Confinement has an interesting effect on time. The lockdown of Wuhan felt both distant and near. It seemed like yesterday when social media was flooded with scenes of calamity and chaos from the megacity by the Yangtze: crowded hospitals with makeshift beds in the hallway, frustrated patients and stressed-out doctors screaming at each other, people collapsing in the streets, a woman banging a washbasin on her balcony pleading for help.

From my isolated perch in Chicago, I watched the disaster unfold and blanket across continents. What it is like to live through history, when neither looking nor looking away offers any absolution. I told myself that as a writer and an academic I have a duty to bear witness, that the pandemic is an education. But, without providing material assistance to those in need, I wondered if my attention was indeed selfish: I consumed the suffering of others as a spectacle. The distress it induced was my rightful punishment.

It is hard to sustain focus on a single crisis when the world is burning on so many fronts, at times literally. When the case rate abated over the summer, I took it as permission to move on. I knew the pandemic would flare up again in the fall, as it has, and the coming winter would be worse than the worst days of spring, but I could no longer assemble the same level of alertness or appetite for repetitive news. My body had depleted its reservoir of existential dread and adapted to the rhythm of endless suspense. The life I used to have before and the life I might have after both appeared unimaginable.

Judging from the description for 76 Days, I had an idea of what I was about to see. The story would not be entirely new, but I hoped the retrospective would be a potent reminder of what it was like at the beginning. I was looking for catharsis, to peel away the calloused emotions and touch the raw tenderness. I clicked play and braced for impact.

The opening went as I had expected. When the screen flicked to black and the words “76 Days” appeared, I hit pause, took a deep breath, and hit play again.

“Granny! Look, this is the food for today. I will go heat it up for Grandpa now. Don’t worry! He said he can eat.” A nurse lifts up a plastic bag and pats the containers inside: rice, meat, vegetables, and soup.

From her hospital bed, the elder woman wipes away tears. She was admitted at the same time as her husband. While she is getting better, his condition has worsened. Patients are not allowed to leave their assigned rooms, so the couple rely on the medical staff to communicate the same message to each other: Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’m only worried about you.

I have seen 76 Days a few times now and I always press replay here. I study the young nurse as she says “don’t worry,” the way she shakes her gloved hand to gesture “no problem.” Covered by layers of face masks, her smile is visible in her voice.

I have heard that voice before. If I dig into the dusty bins of memory, there is a reel from almost 30 years ago, when a nurse from the provincial hospital comforted my distraught mother. She sounded just like the one on screen.

“You came back to see us so quickly!” she teased me. “Is it that you have developed feelings for us?” Her short, dark hair peaked beneath her white cap. I had come down with pneumonia again, barely weeks from the last infection.

In the next frame, I was lying in one of those beds with high railings as the nurse rubbed alcohol on my forehead, preparing for an IV drip. Old-fashioned light bulbs buzzed on the ceiling. I heard other children crying around me and proceeded to do the same.

I do not know why that night is engraved in my memory. It was not my first hospital visit and certainly not the last. I think I remember it because it was about the last time when getting sick was innocent, when I was still too young to be blamed. By the time I started elementary school, my mother had been pouncing on the notion that illness was a personal failing. The hospital was no longer a place for healing but a site of judgement, a courthouse and a prison.

Each encounter with the medical system brought shame and extra burden to the family, so I was told. I dealt with the guilt by making myself a non-person in its facilities, willing my body invisible, with only eyes to observe the machinery, each cog performing its function. The softness of personal interactions melted away to reveal the hardened edge of a cruel system. I saw the long lines, the exorbitant prices, the people who trekked from afar, the ones denied treatment, the desperate pleas and the occasional bribes. Always the teacher, my mother made a point of signaling me to the disparities. In every corner of destitute lay a lesson, reasons to be grateful for what I had and imperatives to strive ahead.

Hao Wu has chosen to tell a story about a sliver of the Chinese medical system at its most abundant and most noble.

In 76 Days, the only villain is the virus. The hospitals are well-equipped. The staff are gentle and kind. They go the extra mile to care for their patients. Placed next to an oxygen line, a latex glove is turned into a balloon, a smiley face drawn over the palm, zǎo rì kāng fù 早日康复 written on the fingers: Get well soon.

I speak with Wu over the phone and fumble my questions. I am embarrassed that I had such cliched anticipations of his film, the pandemic as melodrama. I struggle to bridge the cognitive dissonance between the warmth on screen and the cold system I knew.

Did the presence of cameras affect people’s behavior? I ask Wu and regret it immediately. The camera, of course, is not a neutral observer. It’s primed for action, to catch the glimmer in the mundane. Among hundreds of hours of footage, unflattering moments are inevitable. What makes it into the film is the director’s choice. No stranger to the Chinese medical system, Wu has chosen to tell a story about a sliver of that system at its most abundant and most noble.

The doctors on screen are too wholesome; my inability to accept that as is probably says more about me than anything else, I tell Wu. I realize that I’m being obnoxiously judgmental, attempting to apply some moral criteria to a work of art. I’m suspicious of uplifting narratives that highlight individual virtue not because the individuals are not, indeed, virtuous, but because the aura of the hero often blinds the public to systemic injustices. The powers-that-be absolves itself by emphasizing “personal behavior.” Altruism becomes a useful sedative to the dispossessed.

“I told (my family) that I dream of becoming a hero. I wanted to go and support Wuhan,” a young medical worker says. Most of the doctors and nurses in the film are not local: They had volunteered or been recruited from across the country.

“Everyone has a dream like that,” her colleague concurs. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s our good fortune to encounter it.” Both of them have a little cartoon near the collar of their protective suits. Drawn with a sharpie, a toothy face smiles next to a heart emoji.

“You used to be a member of the Communist Party. Look at your behavior now,” a son scolds his elderly father over the phone. The old man is sobbing uncontrollably in bed, refusing food and medicine. The nurses are hoping that talking to his family would help.

“I’m still a Party member! I will be a Party member even when I’m dead!” the father yells back.

“If you are a true Communist Party member, then you need to be a model, like you used to,” the son says. Later, he informs the nurses that his father suffers from dementia. “He has been a member of Communist Party for over six decades. Please remind him of that.”

In our conversation, Wu emphasizes that his aim was to “strip away the political context” and present the human story. The film makes no mention of the Chinese government’s initial cover-up, the bluntness of the lockdown, or concerns over surveillance. The footage from Wuhan hospitals, skillfully woven and uninterrupted by news clips or commentary, gains a transcendent quality, like a fable unmoored from place or time.

All social context is inherently political. What Wu has done with 76 Days is to push back against a very narrow definition of “political,” prevalent in foreign coverage of China, where the gaze is fixed on the Chinese government and art falls into a false binary of protest or propaganda.

When a son invokes the Communist Party to encourage his father, that gesture is profoundly political. What Party membership means in this instance has very little to do with Marxist ideology or the reality of Mao’s revolutions, but has very much to do with the promise of that revolution and an individual’s sense of identity.

Earlier in the summer, the White House put forth a draft proposal that would prohibit all members of the Chinese Communist Party and their families from entering the U.S. Amid  rising tensions between the two countries, the proposal was little more than political posturing, where “America” symbolizes freedom and “Communism” equates to evil. A member of the Chinese Communist Party is complicit in the system of oppression, but a person’s humanity cannot be reduced to the sole crime of membership.

Dr. Lǐ Wénliàng 李文亮, the ophthalmologist who blew the whistle on the initial outbreak and later died of the virus, was a member of the Chinese Communist Party. So is Dr. Zhāng Wénhóng 张文宏, who led the COVID response in Shanghai. At the start of the pandemic, Dr. Zhang made headlines by stating that Communist Party members should take the lead in fighting COVID: Whatever your reasons were for joining the Party, now is the time to live up to its proclaimed creed of selfless sacrifice.

“There is so much discussion about the politics of the Wuhan response, so much discussion about the political machine in China,” Wu explains. Through his film, he aims to peel back the bureaucracy and affirm individual agency, that “people can choose to be nicer to others.”

I share Wu’s frustration when our birth country becomes synonymous with its ruling party. However, a “political machine” is not an abstract entity. It is made of people. The people, through their actions, deliberate or unthinking, constitute the system and keep it running.

When a government repurposes tools of the military to claim the private act of grieving, it is not honoring the departed, nor consoling the living.

Early in the film, a nurse rings up the family of a patient who has just died. She informs them of the bad news, offers her condolences, and asks for a copy of the government ID from both the deceased and the family member. “Then we can start preparing a death certificate,” she says. A copy of the residency permit would do in the absence of an ID.

I linger at this scene. A person dies and dies again in the official records. The dead have no use for a death certificate, but the state needs it to control the living. There is something appallingly cruel about ratifying a death via a political document, but such cruelty has been normalized and made necessary by the modern state. Despite the hype of an all-seeing, all-knowing government, many of the poorest people in China do not have official identification. They have lost their papers, met financial or bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining them, or never had their births registered because it violated family planning policy. Are their deaths less real? Are their lives less complete?

The film concludes on April 4, Qīngmíng 清明, clear and bright. In the traditional Chinese calendar, the date is an occasion to pay respect to the dead. The lockdown has been relaxed and will be lifted four days later. As part of a national ceremony of mourning, air raid sirens pierce the chilly spring air. Traffic halt. People bow their heads in silence. Some weep.

I look up the history of air raid sirens in Wuhan. The alarms were used for the first time in 1937 during the Japanese invasion. Since 2004, the municipal government rings the siren every year on the 25th of October, marking the day the city fell to Japan in 1938. On May 19, 2008, sirens blared to commemorate victims of the Sichuan earthquake, which took place seven days prior.

I listen again to the recording of the sirens. The sound is designed to penetrate, to command attention, to provoke primal senses of fear, sorrow, and awe. It is violent. The violence befits its intended function: to awaken the public to imminent danger, to mobilize society for war. When people die in a pandemic or other natural disasters, what is the purpose of blasting air raid sirens? Death does not need a political ritual to gain meaning. The dignity of life does not require certification from the state. When a government repurposes tools of the military to claim the private act of grieving, it is not honoring the departed, nor consoling the living: It is glorifying war and empowering the state.

I’ve been writing about the pandemic since January. When I published my first column on this topic, six days after Wuhan went under lockdown, the piece was a broad discussion on the Chinese medical system and its many flaws, including harsh criticism of the government’s initial response to COVID. After I shared the essay on social media, a Chinese schoolmate left this comment: “So many people have died. It’s better not to eat this blood-stained bun.”

I asked him to explain what he meant. “I understand that you oppose the governing system in China,” he said. “Fine, I respect your political opinion. You can express your dissent on many subjects. That too is fine. However, the virus has killed so many people. When you use the dead as a vehicle for political dissent, that is immoral.”

I have been thinking about his comment. A life outweighs any political entity. Words, a creation of this world, always fail when reaching for the world beyond. Making polemics about death is always a little sacrilegious. Survival can seem like a moral error when so many have died.

Yet I am alive. In the impossible task of living, I have made a choice to draw lessons from the political body I inhabit. Politics is a matter of life and death. There is no sanctity in denial.

I do not know the schoolmate in person, which is also to say that he does not know me. What intrigues me is his allegation of my motives, that I derive some sort of personal benefit, which does not have to be financial, by being critical of the Chinese state, that I write with an agenda and would fit any story into this agenda.

The schoolmate appears rather nationalistic on social media, as many Chinese people do, though I do not think the average Chinese is any more nationalistic than the average American. I cannot defend his wounded pride, but I recognize in his grievance a kernel of truth, that China is frequently portrayed in the Anglophone sphere not as a place, a country where real people live, but as an issue, a problem to be solved.

In his mind, I too am guilty of this collective sin. Because I’m Chinese, my offense is much more egregious. I have, on several occasions, been referred to as a “dissident” or “government critic” by media outlets in the U.S. and Europe, a term I’ve never identified with and always push back against. The Chinese government is one of my subjects. It is not my opposition. To label it so is to give the state too much credit. The government does not possess all the stories. To reclaim narrative not just against the state but beyond the state is political work and is liberatory work.

As we speak, Wu mentions that he cut a scene from the film, which depicted a closing rally at Huǒshénshān 火神山, one of the two makeshift COVID hospitals in Wuhan. With the outbreak over, the facility would soon be decommissioned. Its staff gathered in the courtyard, reminiscing on their time together. There was music and a lot of tears. “Their emotions were genuine,” says Wu, but the event was also “a bit too much propaganda.”

I recall seeing footage from the same event on Chinese state media, as the government celebrated its victory over the disease. It’s a familiar sight. I never know how to interpret moments like that, where every individual becomes an unwitting actor in the official script. Hearing Wu talk about his process feels like permission, that I’m not alone in my dilemma.

To tell a story is a delicate balancing act between submission and resistance. We give in to our senses, guided by instinct, ready to be surprised. We reject the easy and the obvious for a path less taken, convince ourselves of a vision and abide by it. There is no single answer and no correct answer. Every decision affirms. Nothing extinguishes the doubt.

The stories of COVID are still being written. 76 Days is one among many. Like any good work of art, it has revealed to me something new not only on the subject but also about myself, between what I expected it to do and what it has indeed done. In its disciplined approach to an ocean of materials, the documentary constructs a generous world, where no person is a stranger. Every viewer is welcomed into that world and leaves it a little richer.

“I want a drawing too!” a medical worker says about halfway through the film. The head nurse is sketching cartoons on their uniforms. She traces a black, jagged line across the bleached fabric, switches to a red marker, and adds flowers to each corner. Some are just a bud. Others are in full bloom. She fills out the petals and dots the heart. They open like fireworks.

No need to pause or rewind. This image will stay with me. The flowers will outlive this pandemic. At another place in time, when staying hopeful takes up all the strength one can muster, I will reach into my memory and summon these flowers. I will remember that a barren branch blossomed over a sterile surface, that in the depth of winter there lies an invincible summer.

76 Days will be released in over 50 virtual cinemas nationwide beginning Friday, December 4. Read more of Yangyang Cheng’s Science and China Column on The China Project.