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Seventy-six days and counting

HK EDITION | Updated: 2020-05-12 09:18
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Exclusive: Arnauld Miguet and Gaël Caron of France Télévisions were among the only Western journalists in Wuhan during the entire 76-day city lockdown. Miguet, Beijing-based head of the station's Asia bureau, shares his first post-lockdown interview with CDLP.

Arnauld Miguet [Photo provided to China Daily]

How did you start those 76 days?

We arrived on January 22nd, just before the lockdown, which must have been a shock for everyone. We learned just like everyone else that the city was going to be contained, and the announcement came around two in the morning on the 23rd. From then on, it was all surreal scenes of a city that was cut off from the world and where everything stopped. Ultimately, we experienced it with incredible astonishment and a fresh perspective on it all. Now, everybody is used to it because it has happened in other cities in the world – but it was quite surreal and anxiety-provoking not to hear a noise in the city, not to see a car, not to see anybody.

Why did you decide to stay in Wuhan?

For two reasons. The first was a journalistic reason: the start of the epidemic that became a pandemic was happening there, so journalistically speaking, that was obviously where we had to be. I've always thought that China is the country of the future and that one could read the future from China, and it turns out that what happened in Wuhan happened later in Southeast Asia and then in Italy, Spain, France and the United States. We didn't know it at the time, but journalistically speaking, it turned out to be an incredible experience. I think we made the choice to stay to witness and explain everything that was happening, which was absolutely out of the ordinary – and remains that way.

The other reason is that Gaël and I are correspondents in China; we are there to cover and relate what happens in China, so we had no reason to leave and be repatriated to France. We live and work in China, and it was therefore normal to stay and cover this exceptional event. It's no longer exceptional today, since many other countries have been affected, but journalistically speaking, I don't see how we could have left. We do this job for better or for worse. Sometimes there are light, playful subjects, but this time it was a serious subject and we had no reason to leave.

The authorities asked me this question several times. First, the French asked us if we wanted to be repatriated – and I always replied that if we were, it would be to our home in Beijing and not to France. The local Chinese authorities asked us the same thing – if we were going to get on the plane. I asked them if they would come with us. They said, "No, we live in Wuhan." And I told them that we were going to do as they were, to live in Wuhan and die if necessary – without any reason for us to die, anyway! In a city of 11 million inhabitants, we knew that this disease was going to affect many people, but it wasn't going to kill everyone. It's like in La Fontaine's fable The Animals Stricken with the Plague – they were all affected, but not all of them died. So I told the local authorities that we would stay with them in Wuhan.

What did – and do – the Chinese people you met think about the management of the crisis in other countries around the world?

There are a lot of people who are obviously worried about what can happen in other countries of the world. The cordon sanitaire placed around Wuhan probably halted the spread of the disease, but it didn't completely stop it since it became a pandemic. Many people are appalled by what is happening elsewhere because it has already happened in China – and probably not enough attention has been paid to the silent cry of the people of Wuhan, who first suffered in the flesh, with people in their families who got sick or died. 

Then we found out that this disease made its way to Europe and the United States, whereas since December it has been affecting China. Not enough attention has been paid to the Chinese people. It's often something that comes back around. What also comes back around is that ultimately, the Chinese methods – aside from some countries like South Korea – that have been applied in Italy or France are the methods that the Chinese used. This was when it was thought that the specific way to stop the epidemic was strictly Chinese and could only affect China for various reasons. Containment methods are common-sense methods; the wearing of masks is nowadays applied almost everywhere in the affected countries in the West. There are many Chinese people who today say that the danger comes from elsewhere.

Compared to what you lived through and reported every day, how do you feel about the coverage by other Western media outlets that weren't on the ground?

We had a lot of work to do and didn't necessarily have the time, working like crazy on the overflowing news. Everyone wanted to know what was going on in Wuhan. So we didn't have time to watch what was being broadcast on the other channels. There must have been some aberrations and some mistakes, but I won't blame anyone. We were focused on what we were doing.

What was your relationship with the local media in all of this?

We have had very little communication, actually. Wuhan is a very big city. Even in those times of absolute containment, when there was nobody in the streets, by definition we didn't meet many people. We never met the local media. We had some exchanges with CGTN and we exchanged some contacts with CCTV when they arrived in much greater numbers around the middle of February. They were positive exchanges with people from the CCTV group. But we weren't necessarily looking for the same stories, so we didn't really cross paths.

What were some of the moments that left the strongest impressions?

The most surprising moments were obviously the first days of the absolute closure of the city, when we didn't really know what was going on. There was also this moment of panic on January 23rd at 10am, when the phones were ringing all over the place because there were people trying to escape from Wuhan all day long – with some rather tragi-comic moments with people who were using small roads and who finally found themselves, after having managed to get out of the town, stuck in fields because they had taken secondary roads or even dirt roads. It was the fear of being locked up.

One tragic moment for me was certainly this image of a husband and wife who were both intubated in a hospital. They were among the first patients, both in their 70s or 80s. They looked at each other, with tubes all over the place, and the husband said a last goodbye to his wife because they both knew they were probably going to die. It was one of the most poignant episodes I have ever seen.

Then there's this other image of a little boy who must have been five years old. At the very beginning of this confinement that lasted 76 days, his grandfather said, "We mustn't go out because there's an invisible killer in the city and we have to stay in the apartment." One day, a man came to take temperatures in the building, as was done every week. He knocked on the door and asked the little boy where his grandfather was; the little one answered that he was is in the bedroom but wasn't moving. What's tragic is that the grandfather had been dead for five days – and certainly not from the coronavirus. But the little boy continued to hear his grandfather's words telling him not to go out, so he didn't go out for five days to tell someone. He ate cookies next to his dead grandfather's body. It's a very, very sad thing, and it's part of this Wuhan tragedy that will sadly mark this city for years to come…

Were there scary moments for you?

There was one very high point and that was when we went to one of the hospitals in the emergency department, where they were treating the people most affected by the coronavirus. It's the wing of the hospital that was inaugurated by President Jacques Chirac as part of the Franco-Chinese medical cooperation. Dr Zhao Yan, who is in charge of this unit, showed us around this emergency department and told us that most patients have a 50% chance of survival – and that if they were in another hospital in the city, they would probably already be dead… This is particularly poignant and sad.

It was a very difficult moment – from a journalistic point of view, exciting to be able to enter a hospital, but also scary on the other hand. We were made to put on two layers of suits, two pairs of gloves, hairnets, masks, visors… it's always quite worrying. Dr Zhao told us that since we were obviously in a "virus nest", we were only going to stay 20 minutes and after that we would have to leave for our own safety. We filmed and did interviews, and when I looked at the clock, I saw that 40 minutes had passed. I asked him if it was okay; he looked at me and I imagine he had a big smile on behind his mask, saying "Yes, don't worry, it's okay."

What was quite impressive – and again quite incredible – was all these doctors and nurses who worked night and day, who slept in the clinics and hospitals to take care of all these patients. They told us that at the beginning, they wore adult diapers to keep them going for eight hours straight; to stay on deck, they didn't eat or drink so they didn't have to go to the bathroom – and that was so they didn't have to change their suits, because if you take the suit off, you have to throw it away and put on another one. 

At first, they were short of materials. They weren't well-prepared. I found it to be absolutely incredible courage and self-sacrifice; they were dedicated in this war to fight this disease. Truly men and women of courage, of honor – it was very touching for me. I had read that they lacked protection, and I told them that it was perhaps unreasonable for us to do this story and use this equipment to protect ourselves. By then, the hospitals had been supplied with equipment and they told us that there was no problem.

Did you feel you were in danger?

To quote Sartre: "Who is not afraid is not normal." In danger, no; worried, sometimes yes. I was especially afraid of having a high temperature. One day, I had a fever and I was very, very, very afraid of being taken into one of those fever clinics and becoming a danger to others. That was the only time. We were very careful; we wore masks, washed our hands regularly, kept our distance from people and didn't go out for too long. We were a bit like prisoners who escaped from prison, thanks to our press cards that allowed us to circulate, but we weren't contained like the other 11 million people. So there was no fear, but a little anxiety from time to time…

How about some of the funnier or happier moments?

There were funny episodes, like this little boy who was five or six years old. He didn't understand why he couldn't go out on the street during the lockdown and his parents told him that there was a very nasty virus out there. He said, "I want to go out and play with the virus, it looks fun!" It always makes you smile, even though deep down it's a little sad.

I was expecting the reopening of the city to be much more joyful, that there would be a lot more jubilation in the city. But it turns out that the release has been gradual and there are still many people who are afraid to go outside. There's a little girl who is 12 years old and since April 8th, her mother has been trying to get her to go out. But she doesn't want to go out and always finds an excuse to stay at home. It's a bit scary. I hope it will pass. We are creating this homebound generation of people who are afraid to go out – and it gives you a bit of a chill.

Many have called the Wuhanese people heroes. Do you agree – and do you consider yourselves heroes in your profession?

It wasn't only the people from Wuhan, but also all the inhabitants of Hubei, who paid a high price. Some 58 million people were cut off from the world all at once and then locked in their homes – and sometimes for two weeks straight, with a very strict lockdown and the impossibility of leaving their homes at all. They still paid a heavy price. They were particularly affected by this epidemic and of course it's quite heroic. They did it with self-sacrifice, with diligence, with an absolutely incredible awareness of the danger, which is quite commendable. There wasn't a single person on the streets and when they were asked to stay indoors, even though obviously a few people tried to rebel, the instructions were nevertheless respected. Staying indoors for so long is very abnormal.

The heroes in the city were not only the doctors, the nurses and all the people who worked in the 50 or 60 hospitals in the city day and night, but also the drivers, many of whom we met. They took incredible risks in transporting the sick and transporting civil servants. The city's deliverymen were the lifeline; they brought food or medicine to the people who were confined in their homes. Yes, these people are truly heroes because they took risks. They did it for others, even if there were also some who were requisitioned.

The doctors and nurses who came from neighboring provinces are also heroes. You have to have courage, because when you go into a hospital or one of those fever clinics, you feel like you're pushing on the devil's door… That's where the killer virus is, so it's obviously heroic and commendable.

To this day, sincerely, I am still moved. I went into a hospital today and the nurse at the reception desk, though you could barely see her face because she was covered from head to toe, you could still feel her smile. It was less tense than it might have been at the beginning of the epidemic. I left after asking her my questions and turned around and said, "Thank you for everything you've done." I almost wanted to hug her, because it's obviously very moving to see all these people who have dedicated themselves day and night to saving lives and saving the sick. After such a shock, such a tsunami, such a war, it's very moving. You want to take them all in your arms and give them a smile – unfortunately you have a mask on and you have to keep your distance.

Do we consider ourselves heroes? Certainly not. I think we are doing this job, again, for better and for worse. We cover lighter subjects, like a visit to the colorful mountains of China, but we are also here for tough stories – for a war that doesn't have a name, with an invisible killer in the city. And we also tell those human stories that are tragic, that show the gift of oneself and the beauty of humanity, because this virus is a crime against humanity. We simply did our job. I hope that tomorrow's subjects that we will work on will be lighter and more fun. 

One week before going to Wuhan, we were in Bali to do a report on bamboo culture: bamboo houses, bamboo T-shirts... For sure, we're now in a completely different register. But that's the beauty of this job – entering different universes. This universe of Wuhan at the time of the coronavirus is a universe that we've never seen (and that we'll never see again, I hope), but it is absolutely incredible. It is an experience that will mark us for life, and that we will tell our children and grandchildren about.

Is there a book in preparation about your experience?

I've received requests from publishers, but I haven't answered any of them yet. It's true that we still really want to tell this story, but the television format, even if we made the stories a bit longer, for about 34 minutes, doesn't necessarily allow it. We want to extend and tell this story in a long format – so why not in a book? We'll see… For the moment, the plan is to rest and move on to something else after 84 days.

Before going back to Beijing, I'll try to walk around the city of Wuhan to see something else. It's nice to see traffic jams and people in the streets again, to see the different traces of the rich history of this city, to see the Mao museum where he crossed the Yangtze, to see the different Russian and French-British concessions, to do a bit of tourism. There's a time when we'll have to leave, but at the same time, the period of reopening is almost as interesting as the much darker period of lockdown. This reopening is also reading into the future as we watch what will happen in France, Europe and the US.

It's a very interesting period indeed. It's interesting to see the number of marriages, divorces and pregnant women, to see how these people who have been traumatised – or not – mark this return to normal life. And then obviously, from a medical point of view, to be able to learn from what the hospitals and doctors in Wuhan have been able to experience, and to see how they have solutions for France, Europe and the United States to fight the virus. China has a lot to share with the rest of the world.

"I've always thought that China is the country of the future and that one could read the future from China, and it turns out that what happened in Wuhan happened later in Southeast Asia and then in Italy, Spain, France and the United States."

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