When Wuhan Went Into Lockdown, This Psychologist Became a Frontline Worker

Author: Jacky Habib

Courtesy of Wang Yi

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The United Nations’ Global Goal 3 aims to ensure access to good health and well-being for all, including access to mental health services — an issue that has received more attention in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Join Global Citizen in taking action on this issue here.

At the peak of the coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan, China, psychologist Wang Yi left her apartment for the first time in weeks. 

She was called upon by the Hubei Psychological Counselors Association to provide mental health support for those impacted by COVID-19. 

“I was scared when I went in the first time, really scared,” Yi told Global Citizen, recalling the pungent smell of disinfectant in the hospital. 

Alongside medical staff in the quarantine unit, Yi wore a face mask, shield, goggles, gloves, a hazmat suit, and boots. 

The first patient she visited was an elderly woman who contracted the virus. Yi looked around the small room, with just enough space for a bed and television, and was overcome with emotion, thinking about how lonely this woman in her 70s must have been.

“She took my hand. She had a lot she wanted to say to me. She was really emotional, and tears were welling up in her eyes,” Yi said.

At the hospital, it wasn’t just patients who were struggling. As health care professionals worked long hours in heavy, protective clothing, worried about their patients and about contracting the virus themselves, they turned to Yi for support. 

During the pandemic, 50% of health care workers in China have reported dealing with depression, 45% face anxiety, and 34% said they have insomnia. 

“The main thing we do is just listen. This helps them know they’re not alone and gives them strength to keep going,” Yi said. 

When Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province, went into lockdown on Jan. 23, 2020, no one was prepared. 

“We didn't realize how serious COVID-19 was at first,” Yi said. “We were very nervous, because we had never been through this before. It was obviously going to cause a lot of psychological problems.” 

In the weeks to come, she began working from her home to provide free psychological assistance over the phone to health workers, COVID-19 positive patients, and members of the public who needed support, before providing in-person counseling at hospitals. Yi also hosted online educational workshops on how to relieve stress and cope with the pandemic.

“We counselors bring a little light into people’s lives. We hope this light can become a beacon of hope that will bring warmth to those who are living through this pandemic,” she said.

The lockdown wasn’t easy for Yi either.

“Day after day, it was really hard to deal with,” she said. “Sometimes it drove me crazy, too.”

After two weeks in lockdown, Yi ran out of groceries and began to worry. Grocery stores and supermarkets were sold out of food as people in Wuhan stocked up on supplies for the lockdown. She was relieved when neighbors found a grocery store outside their neighbourhood and arranged a bulk order.

At the peak of lockdowns in Wuhan, China, Wang Yi was called upon to provide mental health support for those impacted by COVID-19. Alongside medical staff in the quarantine unit, Yi wore a face mask, shield, goggles, gloves, a hazmat suit, and boots.
At the peak of lockdowns in Wuhan, China, Wang Yi was called upon to provide mental health support for those impacted by COVID-19. Alongside medical staff in the quarantine unit, Yi wore a face mask, shield, goggles, gloves, a hazmat suit, and boots.
Image: Courtesy of Wang Yi

With not much to do during the lockdown except work, Yi turned to her own counselor to help her cope with stress and support her as she did the same for others during a time of heightened distress.

Frontline health care workers, children, adolescents, people facing increased workloads, and those at risk of infection are particularly likely to experience psychological distress, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In addition to fears of contracting the virus, people around the world are experiencing changes to everyday life such as working from home or facing unemployment, homeschooling, and a lack of social and physical contact with others. All of this is leading to “extremely concerning” mental health effects, according to WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“It is now crystal clear that mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Tedros said in a statement.

According to the WHO, the interruption of physical and mental health services globally have contributed to the increase in mental health and psychosocial conditions. The organization called for urgent investment in mental health services in order to avert a crisis. 

Yi has seen an increase in people who are willing to seek support and said the pandemic has helped people in China “realize the importance of psychological services and mental health.” 

While life is almost back to normal in Wuhan, Yi said the mental impacts are long lasting. She continues to support people with their mental well-being.

“I hope people all over the world ... [will] face the pandemic with a scientific attitude and a positive mindset and be confident that we would get over all this eventually,” she said.

Following the A-Team is a content series that profiles the women working on the ground to combat COVID-19 via the ACT-Accelerator.

Launched in April by seven global partners, the ACT-Accelerator is a unique coalition aimed at accelerating global efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic. Its members are working together to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines as quickly as possible, while also strengthening the world’s most fragile health systems. 

The organization desperately needs financial support from governments around the world. You can join us in calling on world leaders to fund the ACT-Accelerator by taking action here.

Disclosure: This series was made possible with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Each piece was produced with full editorial independence.