'Act as though it's going to be a lot longer': American in Wuhan warns U.S. over lockdowns

Keir Simmons and Yuliya Talmazan
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'Act as though it's going to be a lot longer': American in Wuhan warns U.S. over lockdowns

An American who spent more than two months locked down in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus epidemic first emerged, is urging people back home to prepare for a lengthy interruption to their lives.

“Don't go into this thinking it's going to be over in a few weeks,” Benjamin Wilson told NBC News from his apartment in Wuhan where he and his family spent eight weeks in confinement.

After initially experiencing problems getting evacuated back to the U.S., Wilson, 38, chose to stay in the city where he has lived for more than 16 years, with his Chinese wife, Li Qin, and seven-year-old daughter Jasmin as it went into lockdown in late January.

For six out of the eight weeks that the family spent cooped up inside, they could not leave their apartment at all, relying on delivery services for their daily needs.

“No one would have anticipated that it would be this long,” said Wilson, originally from Alexandria, Louisiana.

Image: A woman wearing a face mask pedals along a street in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province (Noel Celis / AFP - Getty Images)

As the virus spread outside of China, infecting nearly a million people around the world, a number of European nations have entered nationwide lockdowns.

In the U.S., which now has the world's highest number of cases, no federal quarantine has been enacted although a number of states have imposed "shelter in place" orders.

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Wilson warned Americans they should be be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

“Act as though it's going to be a lot longer from the beginning — financially pace yourself, physically try to set up a routine, keep some kind of schedule with exercise, with your children’s education and just prepare for it to be a lot longer.”

For more than two months, Wuhan residents faced draconian restrictions, with all movement in, out and around the industrial city of 11 million people blocked.

But in recent days, Wuhan has been showing signs of going back to normal.

With its subway and train service resuming this weekend, some businesses, supermarkets and shopping malls have also re-opened their doors, hoping for customers to start trickling in. Travel restrictions are also expected to be lifted on April 8.

But despite restrictions easing off, Wilson said there has been a shift in the psyche of Wuhan’s residents, with few rushing to go outside or take their masks off.

“People are still in a quarantine mindset and I don't know how many weeks or months they are going to continue to behave as though there's still an imminent threat, even though we might have almost no infections,” he said. “There's always a fear that it's not actually under control, that it could re-emerge.”

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The reopening of Wuhan marks a turning point in China’s fight against the virus, with nearly no domestic new cases reported in recent days and the majority of new infections coming from abroad. But lingering questions about whether the city has completely stemmed the epidemic are not making the return to the normal easy.

Wilson expects it could be months before life gets back to what it used to be before the outbreak despite Chinese government’s optimistic outlook and eagerness to reignite the economy.

“I myself don't really have a clear bright line for when I would say it's safe, that I don't need to wear a mask anymore or socially distance myself,” he said. “I'm not sure any newspaper or any government could just tell me that and I would believe it.”

“I think that it’s going to be a very slow transition,” he added.