Feeding Families in Wuhan During a COVID-19 Quarantine

Intersectional Adaptations to a Disaster

Jane Henrici
The George Washington University

Aojie Ju
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Claire Raulston
The George Washington University

Publication Date: 2021

Abstract

Wuhan, China in December 2019 was the site of the first confirmed case of the disease that would be named COVID-19. Between 23 January through 8 April 2020, the city and surrounding Hubei Province were under government-imposed quarantine and blockade. The gendered and otherwise segmented urban population of Wuhan already dealt with climate crisis-related conditions; residents then were affected further by the pandemic, quarantine, and blockade. Disaster researchers have been aware for decades that intersectional relations of inequality and discrimination including gender affect event outcomes, yet analysts have not always employed an intersectional approach. At the same time, reporting on urban neighborhoods, social networks, and supply operations during times of hardship and crisis often have failed to acknowledge differentiated household and community roles. Gender, articulated with age, occupation, income, savings levels, and rural to urban migration status, can serve both as a demographic identifier and a measure of relative levels of what often are called vulnerability and resilience within ongoing conditions and crisis contexts.

To that end, this project applied an intersectional gender lens and mixed methods approach to gain insight into a mega-city blockade, the current pandemic, and the experiences of Wuhan residents. In general, the investigation sought to learn, how do the people of Wuhan adapt? How do people across a vast urban area, differentiated by gender and generation as well as occupation and length of city residency, adjust and get by during a public health disaster combined with a government-imposed blockade? How do socioeconomic activities persist in a region if each household is insulated from the other? How do people feed their families, have the established neighborhood association groups in Wuhan contributed, and what are some of the gendered and other issues that have arisen linked to that provisioning? This study involved the collection of original survey data during July-October 2020 and in-depth interviews conducted online and remotely in Mandarin Chinese with persons who were inside Wuhan during the COVID-19 outbreak lockdown to get descriptions of adaptation strategies across an urban center affected by compounded sudden- and slow-onset hazards and insecurities. Coded and analyzed survey responses, with translations into English, are combined with translated and de-identified coded transcriptions and observations from recorded encrypted interviews.

In general, we find that Wuhan respondents vary in their answers and descriptions of having experienced difficulties during the quarantine somewhat by relative age; somewhat by gender, although less than we had anticipated; and most of all by the presence or not of dependent children in the household. Our preliminary findings suggest that residents with established social networks, who were either retired or securely employed and living in a household where they had no primary care or co-parental responsibility, were unlikely to report struggles during the quarantine. Conversely, those who had not yet completed their education or found employment and/or who were parenting or co-parenting said they experienced challenges. The findings when complete will inform discussion and action carried out by disaster specialists, economists, urban planners, gender advisors, and health and food security practitioners.

Literature Review

Wuhan—Proclivity to Disaster

Wuhan, China in December 2019 was the site of the first confirmed COVID-19 case. Following that, between 23 January and 8 April 2020, the city and surrounding Hubei Province were subjected by the Chinese government to a quarantine and blockade. This is not the first disaster experienced by Wuhan; indeed, compounded and converging disasters have occurred there and are likely to happen again (Yang et al., 20151).

Wuhan City is the capital and population hub of the Hubei Province in East-Central China. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s 8,500 square kilometers were home to 11 million people, with a metropolitan area population of nearly 20 million. Wuhan is one of China’s largest and fastest-growing urban areas and the fastest-growing metropolitan area in Hubei Province. As of 2016, its urbanization rate was 71.7% (Song et al., 20182).

Wuhan is situated on the Jianghan Plain, a flood plain where the Yangtze and Han Rivers intersect. A transportation hub that relies on contemporary forms of terrestrial and air freight and transit, the city is nevertheless known as the “River Town” and the “City of Hundreds of Lakes,” and its water resources continue to serve an essential role in the area’s development and urbanization (Dai et al., 20173). These waterways also add to the city’s vulnerability to natural and human-sourced hazards and related disasters.

Water pollution is a significant problem for Wuhan. Some river areas were historically designated drain outlets, where pollution intensified as incompletely treated industrial and domestic sewage were discharged into the Han and Yangtze Rivers. Additional pollutants such as agriculture byproducts, pesticides, and fertilizers have exacerbated these circumstances. Wuhan’s chronic vulnerability to flooding—such as that experienced in 2020 during the pandemic post-quarantine—is indicative of a more broadly observed pattern of increasing frequency and severity of urban floods in China (Dai et al., 2018; O’Meara, 20154; Watts et al., 20205).

Meanwhile, Wuhan's rapid urbanization is currently in a stage of "rural-urban land conversion," in which rural agricultural land is becoming developed urban land, marked by sprawl, industrial expansion, and economic growth (Song et al., 2018). This urban expansion process has implications for the region's food supply. Agricultural lands are being lost in the urban conversion and rural residents' ecological well-being, especially farmers who rely on farming to provide their food supply and income, is affected. The speed of land conversion in Wuhan is contributing to a sharp decrease in agricultural land and rural ecosystem, the health of which is directly related to the frequency of meteorological disasters, drought, floods, soil erosion, and desertification, to name a few (Liu et al., 20146; Song et al., 2018).

Communication Trends During Disasters in Wuhan

In their media analysis of public discourse on Micro-Blog during a 2016 period of flooding in Wuhan, Zhou, Cai, and Ye (20197) found that the unexpected event created a combination of “weak information and strong emotion,” which they believe impacted the attitudes and emotions expressed online. The study discovered that positive emotion exceeded the negative in the online discourse responding to the rainstorm. These findings counter many previous studies on online expression during disasters, which have overwhelmingly found negative posts more prevalent. Questions emerge on the Chinese government’s censorship on the internet and whether the overwhelmingly positive messaging they observed is a manufactured trend. Provincial government officials are also active participants in these communications, such as Wuhan’s Office of Emergency Management’s official page sharing flood warnings, waterlogging, and other traffic-related concerns to the public. These observations provide critical insights, with a Wuhan-specific context, on the emotional response of people experiencing a disaster and the accessibility of information related to the government’s disaster response. These media studies also contribute to a greater understanding of how the government communicates during a disaster, a critical feature of their successful COVID-19 response.

Indeed, research conducted with Wuhan residents by other researchers based on early 2020 data found negative reactions and concerns in response the pandemic even if not directly expressed in social media (Bu et al., 20208; Liu, N. et al., 20209). Simultaneously, at first on social media and later translated into English as a published book, well-known author Fang produced Wuhan Diary (202010), filled with her anger and frustration during the city’s quarantine. Criticism of her words came from among her Chinese readers as the English translation appeared: apparently, she had shared too much in too negative of a manner among too many non-locals for it to be socially acceptable (Jandrić, 202011).

Our own project experienced challenges in communications between researchers and respondents, some perhaps tied to governmental censure and others to self-censure or possibly loyalty to Wuhan’s image as it would be shared among non-locals. Additional challenges meanwhile appeared tied to incompatible or inadequate software applications, which in turn suffered further with geo-political and international economic disputes that took place during the time of the research project (Gertz, 202012). Ironically, the same Chinese-based software on which we most relied for conducting our project, WeChat, also was invaluable for helping Chinese nationals living in the United States in Houston at the time of the 2017 floods to help one another in that disaster (Chu & Yang, 201913).

Intersectional Social Identities: Gender, Age, and Wuhan-Residency Status

Gender and Intersectional Norms, Gaps, and Stresses of Disasters

Researchers Song, Huntsinger, and Han (2018) found in their statistical evaluation of well-being among Hubei Province residents that both urban and rural Chinese women respondents experience a more significant decrease in ecological well-being than their male counterparts as their surroundings urbanize. Another gender difference in Wuhan’s COVID-19 context can be found in the institutionally-gendered outbreak response.

Data from China’s State Council Information Office shows that more than 90% of Hubei Province’s paid healthcare workers are women (Boniol et al., 201914). As researchers argued since the beginning of the pandemic, with women as the majority of health first responders, their voices and experiences must be centered while analyzing the disaster risk and response (Liu et al., 202015; Liu, W. et al., 202016; Mo et al., 202017; Song et al., 202018).

Elsewhere, experts have observed similar patterns of gendered vulnerabilities emerging during the pandemic, such as additional limits on agency. The expectations have been since the start of the quarantines that women, regardless of whether they have wage employment responsibility either remotely or “essential” and thus in-person, would have to undertake all unpaid care work while men, in contrast, would not face additional pressure (Wenham et al., 202019). These issues have affected Wuhan women and men.

As everywhere, gender norms in China combine traditional values with contemporary changes. Previously, the national policy that permitted each household a maximum of one child was skewed by Chinese patriarchal norms that led families to seek female sex-selective abortions, procedures that are now banned. This sex-selection resulted in China having a greater population of males than females, although the gap is now narrow (Gaetano, 201520). At the same time, popular Chinese stereotypes of individual maturity remain linked to heterosexual marriage, and adult masculinity in particular is equated with having both stable employment and a wife. The continuing population imbalance between males and females, however slight, together with pressure on men to marry, leads to men seeking women to wed and feeling anxiety when unable to do so (Luo, 201721).

Scholars have also written on a trend of “leftover women,” referencing experiences of educated, urban women feeling perceived as less feminine and navigating immense pressures to marry (in a heterosexual union) and bear and raise children, along with a perceived binary between either having a career or a family (Gui, 202022; Gaetano, 200823, 201024, 2015; Ji et al., 201725). Yet, with unpaid care work in China presumed to be largely the domain of women, and two children permitted now in each household, marriage in a home that cannot afford to support additional labor for care work (whether by a live-in grandparent or someone hired to help) may be less appealing to Chinese women, particularly as they ascend in educational levels (Giu, 2020).

Again, similar to situations elsewhere, Chinese women have surpassed men in college enrollment, a condition that only tends to highlight the gender wage gap. That is, women generally require more education to earn as well as men, and more parity in educational advancement has not necessarily brought better parity in pay. Recent studies on occupational segregation in urban China since the 1990s argue that increasing marketization led to the feminization of some jobs and the concomitant lowering of wages (Ji et al., 2017).

The scholarship on gendered wage gaps and occupational segregations in paid and unpaid care work worldwide is extensive. Feminist scholars in China have long criticized the merits of neoclassical frameworks claiming the merits of a trade-off between women’s potential for relatively less economic gain from paid labor than that to be made by a man versus unpaid work in the household, especially within urban environments where two-income households are the norm (Ji et al., 2017; Zhou, 202026).

Data from China’s 2008 large-scale time use survey (TUS) shows that, as in other nations, women typically spent more time on unpaid care work well before the pandemic and its related quarantines and effects on employment, both in total hours and as a proportion of women’s total working hours. In their review of the TUS data, authors Dong and An (201427) divided unpaid care work into four categories: housework, childcare, adult care, and volunteer work. Overall, the study found that women spend more hours on housework and childcare, while men and women spend a similar amount of time on adult care and volunteer work. Using data from the TUS and the 2008 China’s Household Income Project, Dong and An estimated the value of unpaid care work and unpaid person-care work (caring for children and others who need assistance) at a lower boundry of $7.705 trillion yuan (approximately $1.133 trillion in 2008 U.S. dollars) and 1.522 trillion yuan (approximately $224 billion, in 2008 U.S. dollars), respectively (Dong & An, 2014).

Since the time of the TUS, care work seems to have remained gendered but shifted perhaps to extra-household labor in urban centers such as Wuhan. Moreover, even when paid, care work in China apparently is regarded as undesirable labor. The care work done for the elderly or those with disabilities requiring assistance now may be seen as “dirty,” and pre-pandemic was typically undertaken by rural-to-urban migrants or urban workers no longer employed by state-owned factories (Yan, 202028). What needs further study related to the lockdown period in Wuhan is how such migrant workers and issues of gender might have intersected within household adaptations to domestic care work, including the feeding of families.

Migrant Workers and Wuhan Residency Status

Both geography and gender link to migration and the rapid urbanization of Wuhan. The most prevalent form of migration in China is temporary and circular (Zhang et al., 201929). Male and female migrants often travel between homes in rural areas and urban employment centers (Gaetano, 2008, 2015). However, migrants into urban centers increasingly are spending more time away from their rural hometowns. Scholars have observed that younger generations of Chinese rural-to-urban migrant workers are staying longer periods away, consuming more, and remitting less than did older generations of migrants.

Despite a series of Chinese reforms and relaxations which helped facilitate rural-to-urban migration, the system of household registration (hukou) continues to formalize a distinction between migrants and permanent residents in large urban areas, and while reforms are underway in China—perhaps influenced by labor shortages during the pandemic (Fang C., 202030)—these registration matters typically affect children of migrant women workers more than those of migrant men (Gaetano, 2015; Yu & Crowley, 202031). Meanwhile, most rural-urban migrants retain temporary status, as few have the resources to obtain registration as an urban household (Gaetano, 2008).

People with rural hukou status cannot access benefits afforded to urban hukou holders, such as health care, education subsidies, welfare, social security, and other programs. Recent studies on internal migration in China have argued that the hukou system perpetuates circular migration trends. For example, rural migrants often leave their children with relatives, as they would not qualify to attend public schools or receive healthcare in the cities where their parents work (Yu & Crowley 2020; Zhou et al., 2019).

Chinese cities have an idealized structure of governance as part of the national system for the channeled distribution of information and provisions. Neighborhood associations are nodes within this structure and were anticipated to be critical to the functioning of the city by disaster and public health experts when the pandemic began (Zhu & Cai, 202032). Certainly, social networks are widely known to be of key importance in everyday existence; during disasters, such networks are among the factors that can help individuals and groups survive and move on (Miao et al., 202033). Neighborhood associations, however, on the one hand are tied to the Communist Party and on the other to kinship relations (Zhu & Cai, 2020). Neither of these connections helps those who lack of residency status, regardless of the fact that those workers are needed to provide wage care work, whether in healthcare centers or in households.

Disaster provides a unique opportunity to examine the social distribution of deep-seated as well as emerging inequalities. By investigating how individuals’ income has changed relative to before the COVID-19 outbreak, we show that education, family income, Communist Party membership, state-sector employment, and urban hukou—all long-standing status markers in China—shield one from COVID-19 related financial troubles (Qian & Fan, 202034: 5).

Disaster researchers have been aware for decades that intersectional relations of inequality and discrimination affect event outcomes. However, analysts have not always employed an intersectional approach. Moreover, reporting on urban neighborhoods, social networks, and supply operations during times of hardship and crisis has often failed to acknowledge differentiated household and community roles.

Gender, articulated with age, occupation, income, savings levels, and rural to urban migration status, can serve both as a demographic identifier and a measure of relative levels of what often are called vulnerability and resilience within ongoing conditions and crisis contexts. Applying an intersectional, gender-lens approach to the current pandemic, and examining how Wuhan residents dealt with differentiated issues during their lockdown and blockade, can deepen what is being learned about ways in which adaptations and responses—including if not exclusively to the COVID-19 quarantine and its effects on community food supply and distribution—occur with the increasingly frequent sudden-onset emergencies and traumas as well as the related, if relatively slower onset, climate change.

Research Question

The principal research question for our study was: How do people across communities and neighborhoods, differentiated by gender and generation as well as occupation, adjust and get by during a public health disaster combined with a government-imposed blockade?

Methods

Our project employed survey and interview methods among Wuhan residents to learn more about their quarantine experiences. In February 2020, we began reviewing data and analyses collected by Chinese and other scholars regarding our topic. In early April we submitted our project design for IRB review, and in early July we received IRB approval and launched our original data collection, which we concluded in mid-October.

Meanwhile, remote research presented particular issues. The existing technologies assisted, and at the same time impeded, filling gaps. We pieced together multiple technologies and software applications, some of which we had to alter during the months since we first planned this project in an effort to keep our data collection as rich as possible without compromising confidentiality. However, we also struggled with compatibility among the multiple software applications that we have had to piece together. In addition to Zoom.com and WhatsApp.com, we used:

  • WeChat to recruit for the survey and conduct interviews in Mandarin Chinese
  • SurveyMonkey.com to conduct our encrypted survey; we replaced this when we found it to be incompatible with Chinese characters
  • Wix.cn to administer our survey in Mandarin Chinese
  • R version 4.0.2 to analyze survey data
  • GoPro Max to video Aojie Ju with respondents during WeChat interviews for “field” observations using an encrypted form (WeChat does not encrypt)
  • iPhoto to upload GoPro Max interview videos (these will be deleted and are for observations only)
  • MAXQDA.com to translate, clean, code, and synthesize verbal (no video) data

We also faced high levels of mistrust among respondents. This last is a condition of research that at one level seemed familiar based on past field research, particularly that conducted among those going through post-disaster conditions. Yet, while familiar, the situation was also new. While one of us, Aojie Ju, is a native of Wuhan and the non-Wuhan researcher, Jane Henrici, was never present at the time of the interviews, both names are on all research correspondence and paperwork. As several of those we attempted to recruit for the survey or interviews informed us, and as came through in several interview transcripts, multiple Wuhan residents felt either that they should not share their experiences for non-Chinese or that researchers affiliated with a U.S. university should not be conducting a study about Wuhan. This latter issue, which led to delays and cancellations for our interviews, seemed more notable when the U.S. president made negative statements regarding China.

Those who did agree to speak with us were fairly homogeneous and represented the relatively well-educated and well-off in terms of employment wages, family supports, or retirement pensions. We were unable to secure survey results from or interviews with anyone without residency documents (or at least who would self-describe that way). Physicians and other healthcare workers were explicit about informing us that they might have given responses freely to questions in early 2020 but neither had the time available nor felt encouraged by the government to speak with us when we sought them out during the second half of the year.

Despite such obstacles and limitations, we were able to collect interesting data. Using wix.cn, the survey yielded 158 responses with a fairly wide range in age groups and relative parity between those who identified as men and women, as shown in Table 1 and Figure 1. The survey collected demographic data about: gender; age; educational level; renter status; Wuhan residency status; and number of dependent children in the household. The survey questions focused on household resources and challenges, as well as any extra-household assistance respondents might have sought or experienced, with multiple questions regarding whether the respondent found there to be any difficulty during the period of the lockdown.

Table 1. Wuhan Survey Respondents Gauge of Difficulty in Completing Cooking, Cleaning, and Household Tasks Since the COVID-19 Pandemic
Indicated Difficulty by Variable Mean
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Gender -0.354 (0.365) 0.406 (1.431) 1.279 (2.063) 0.205 (0.922)
Age -0.018 (0.024) 0.017 (0.069) -0.013 (0.025) -0.019 (0.024)
Education -0.104 (0.255) -0.071 (0.262) 0.514 (0.806) -0.086 (0.255)
Wuhan Registration -0.190 (0.398) -0.214 (0.400) -0.134 (0.404) -0.227 (0.401)
Dependent Children 0.465* (0.227) 0.481* (0.231) 0.474* (0.226) 0.975 (0.822)
Rent -0.132 (0.425) -0.140 (0.425) -0.116 (0.426) -0.178 (0.430)
Gender: Age -0.025 (0.046)
Gender: Education -0.419 (0.521)
Gender: Dependent Children -0.303 (0.462)
Constant 1.583 (1.834) 0.388 (2.842) -1.084 (3.782) 0.736 (2.220)

Each model in Table 1 represents a different calculation to show relative level of difficulty experienced during the lockdown quarantine in Wuhan, China, in 2020. See Appendix 1 for formulas.
*Significantly different from the other two variable values.

Figure 1. Wuhan Survey Respondents by Social Identity Indicator and Reported Level of Difficulty Completing Cooking, Cleaning, and Household Tasks Since the COVID-19 Pandemic (Click image to enlarge)

We also conducted interviews. Only two respondents gave permission to video; however, while observations are highly important to improve the quality of interview analysis, the five interviews completed yielded extensive comments. Each step required to schedule, conduct, transcribe, and translate each interview led to discussions between the researchers to understand what was being emphasized by those who resided in Wuhan under lockdown.

Findings

Despite a diversity among survey respondents in terms of demographics, their responses were fairly uniform. Everyone commented throughout the interviews on experiences of longing: to return to Wuhan if they had left since the lockdown was lifted; to be with family from whom they had been separated during the blockade imposed as families were scattered for festival celebrations; and for certain foods associated with special feast days that by the time period of the interviews were being shipped worldwide yet during the lockdown were less available. Yet, across social identities, most respondents stated they did not experience any particular difficulty during the lockdown (Table 1). The notable exception to that general response was from those living in households with dependent children, and both men and women reported having greater difficulty with domestic duties in that context; indeed, in households with dependent children, slightly more men than women were likely to report the lockdown as a change and a challenge.

Our preliminary findings suggest that older residents with established social networks, who were either retired or securely employed and living in a household where they had no primary care or co-parental responsibility, were unlikely to report any difficulty during the quarantine. Conversely, those who were younger adults who had not yet completed their education or found employment and/or who were parenting or co-parenting said they experienced difficulty.

In terms of provisioning, the spread of the disease and lockdown had corresponded with the annual national holidays of the Winter Solstice and Lunar New Year, or Spring, Festivals. This meant that restaurants, food distributers, and agri- and aqua-producers were well stocked. Through a combination of public and private resources, working both from within and without the municipal boundaries, the city was able to eat despite the blockade. Our respondents told us that city neighborhood committees; school alumni associations; food business owners; delivery persons; news media; emergency workers; and residents of apartments and housing blocks had differing responsibilities and concerns regarding food acquisition and distribution to get through the city’s quarantine period and beyond. Those from Wuhan surveyed and interviewed for this research, however, had less to say about differences among them in provisioning food for homes and communities during disastrous events, and more about how Wuhan as a place and site unifies them in terms of memories centering on their favorite foods.

Our findings when complete will inform discussion and action carried out by disaster specialists, economists, urban planners, gender advisors, and health and food security practitioners. An anthropology of food systems special issue has accepted our proposed article (to be submitted in February 2021); an edited volume on gender and climate change will include our book chapter based on our analysis about adaptations to Wuhan disasters in general and the pandemic in particular (co-authored with Claire Raulston); and our research method challenges will be part of an article on remote research authored by others to be submitted in March.

Conclusion

Individuals who experienced lockdown and quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic within Wuhan, China shared with us their experiences of adaptation to the worldwide disaster. Respondents varied in their answers and descriptions of difficulties somewhat by relative age, as has been found by other researchers (Song et al., 2020); somewhat by gender, although less than we had anticipated; and most of all by the presence or not of dependent children in the household. Our preliminary findings suggest that residents with established social networks, who were either retired or securely employed and living in a household where they had no primary care or co-parental responsibility, were unlikely to report struggles during the quarantine that required much in the way of adaptations. Conversely, those who had not yet completed their education or found employment, and/or who were parenting or co-parenting, said they had experienced challenges that demanded changes.

Our mixed-methods research with persons inside Wuhan during the COVID-19 lockdown is allowing us to add insights concerning the gendered and otherwise segmented socioeconomic system of an urban population already seeking to counter the relatively slow-onset climate crisis that then went through the multiple sudden-onset disasters of a pandemic and a government-imposed quarantine and blockade. We will share what we have learned from our data and desk review concerning the nexus of care work, rural-to-urban migration, gender, and disaster with relevant practitioners and other researchers, including those in China who advised us regarding local standards of ethical practice, as we find that to be an area in need of future examination using a gender and intersectional lens.

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Suggested Citation: Henrici, J., Ju, A., & Raulston, C. (2021). Feeding Families in Wuhan During a COVID-19 Quarantine: Intersectional Adaptations to a Disaster.Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 318. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/feeding-families-in-wuhan-during-a-covid-19-quarantine-intersectional-adaptations-to-a-disaster

Henrici, J., Ju, A., & Raulston, C. (2021). Feeding Families in Wuhan During a COVID-19 Quarantine: Intersectional Adaptations to a Disaster.Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Grant Report Series, 318. Boulder, CO: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Available at: https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/feeding-families-in-wuhan-during-a-covid-19-quarantine-intersectional-adaptations-to-a-disaster