Feature story

“I’ve saved lives on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic in China”

28 April 2020

The winter of 2019/2020 in Wuhan, China, will remain with Xiao Yang for the rest of his life. During 60 days working in a makeshift hospital as an emergency nurse, he saw life and death, happiness and sorrow, tears and laughter.

Mr Xiao volunteered to go to Wuhan from his home town, Beijing, to save lives. “Saving life is the responsibility of every medical worker,” he said. This commitment is deeply rooted in his family—17 years ago, his father worked as a doctor on the frontline of the SARS epidemic.

Mr Xiao didn’t tell his boyfriend he was going to Wuhan until the last minute. “He didn’t want me to go, but he respected my decision,” he said.

On the night of their arrival in Wuhan, the volunteers were divided into two groups—intensive care and mild cases.

Mr Xiao was assigned to intensive care. For his protection, he was required to wear five gloves and two masks. However, most of the gloves were too small for him—wearing them for more than 20 minutes hurt. He also found it difficult to breathe. “It felt like someone was covering my mouth all the time,” he said.

Even worse for Mr Xiao is that he is asthmatic. If an asthma attack struck, he wouldn't have time to reach his medicine because of all the protective equipment he was wearing.

“All of us medical workers recorded final words for our families on our phones,” he said.

His boyfriend, Lin Feng, is a policeman. He too has become a lot busier because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When COVID-19 first broke out in Beijing, he was on duty for long hours, inspecting the freeways, streets and residential areas.

When the couple were far apart, instant messaging was the only way to communicate. Covered in snow after finishing his night shift, he received a text message from Mr Xiao reminding him to put on thicker clothes. His reply: “You take care of your patients. I’ll take care of you.”

Six days after his arrival in Wuhan, Mr Xiao realized that death could be near.

As he made his way around the ward, he saw a patient suffering from a drastic drop of blood oxygen level and shortness of breath. He rushed to intubate him—the quickest and most effective way to keep him alive. But he acted too forcefully, his protective suit tearing at his back—a colleague taped up the hole so he could continue to work.

After the patient was stabilized, Mr Xiao could hardly breathe and he felt sharp pains in his hands, ears and face—he had worn masks, gloves and his protective suit for too long. When the pain subsided, fear came over him. That leak could easily have seen him become infected with the new coronavirus. The leak also reminded him of the risks he was facing every day. “I can only pray I will be fine,” he said. “I was prepared for the worst when I decided to come here.”

There are many people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, like Mr Xiao and Mr Lin, who worked hard to contain the virus and save lives during the pandemic. In the Wuhan Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center, 26 volunteers worked around the clock to deliver medicine to people living with HIV. UNAIDS was proud to support their efforts by connecting the centre with local health authorities to facilitate the delivery of medicine, helping with the delivery of medicine for Chinese people living with HIV overseas and supporting the establishment of a hotline providing counselling services for people living with HIV. As a result, the centre was able to deliver medicine to more than 2600 people, and the hotline reached about 5500 people.

“It was planned that I would stay for one week, but then it was extended to three weeks and then longer,” Mr Xiao said, choking back his tears.

He finally left in early April, when the COVID-19 pandemic subsided in the city. He said he will remember everything, but he doesn’t want to relive it. Nobody should.

Now safely back with his boyfriend in Beijing, he remembered the captain’s words on his flight to Wuhan, “The flight is from Beijing to Beijing, with a stopover in Wuhan. When you have won the battle, we will take you back home.”