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Teacher’s photos document virus-hit Chinese city

Poland native Arek Rataj, who recently took a position teaching visual communication at Jianghan University, felt compelled to document the outbreak.

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A worker takes the temperature of a customer at the entrance of a Walmart store in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province (Arek Rataj/AP)

A worker takes the temperature of a customer at the entrance of a Walmart store in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province (Arek Rataj/AP)

A worker takes the temperature of a customer at the entrance of a Walmart store in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province (Arek Rataj/AP)

A teacher who was starting a new life with his wife in the Chinese industrial centre of Wuhan when a viral outbreak spread across the city has documented the coronavirus fallout in a series of photos.

Poland native Arek Rataj had recently taken a position teaching visual communication at Jianghan University, but almost immediately the metropolis of 11 million people, which had been teeming with Lunar New Year holiday revelry, turned quiet.

A girl wears a face mask as she plays on a swing near the Yingwuzhou Yangtze River Bridge in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province
A girl wears a face mask as she plays on a swing near the Yingwuzhou Yangtze River Bridge in Wuhan (Arek Rataj/AP)

Arek and his wife Jenina, who have been married for five years, bought face masks for protection and kept to their apartment on campus.

While they were relatively safe sheltering at home, treating their foyer as a type of airlock, Arek felt compelled to go out and document the outbreak of the new type of coronavirus.

Among his subjects were the construction of a new hospital built in a handful of days, biosecurity checkpoints, closed bus stations, empty streets and families gathered at playgrounds when the sun broke through winter clouds.

Construction workers at the site of the Huoshenshan temporary field hospital being built in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province
Construction workers at the site of the Huoshenshan temporary field hospital (Arek Rataj/AP)

Cautiously, the couple moved around in the city, with Jenina forcing Arek to wear a mask.

Then on January 23, the authorities put the city under lockdown in the hopes of preventing the virus from spreading.

Shoppers wear face masks as they line up at a grocery store in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province
Shoppers wear face masks as they queue up at a grocery store (Arek Rataj/AP)

Fresh fruit and vegetables became scarce as the couple tried to balance personal safety with an urge to document.

“We met in the middle. We need to be cautious but we will not panic,” Jenina said.

They recounted their survival and escape from Wuhan to the Associated Press via Skype from their new room in a military hospital in Poland, where they are under a 14-day quarantine.

People wearing face masks walk down a deserted street in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province
People wearing face masks walk down a deserted street in Wuhan (Arek Rataj/AP)

“With Arek, everything has to be an adventure. This is the biggest so far,” Jenina said.

Arek got a call to go to the French consulate for evacuation along with other European Union citizens, but with no guarantee of a ticket for Jenina, a native of the Philippines.

Despite the uncertainty, they decided to try, but vowed not to separate.

A clerk wearing a face mask and a plastic bag stands in a pharmacy in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province
A pharmacy worker wears a face mask and plastic bag (Arek Rataj/AP)

They packed one bag, “half his, half mine”, Jenina said, and fled their new home in Wuhan.

When they arrived at the consulate, they were relieved to find a Polish diplomat with a visa for Jenina.

French crisis centre staff led an EU team providing identification papers, medical bracelets, masks and hand sanitisers to more than 200 EU citizens at the consulate.

They then rode in a fleet of buses through deserted streets to a mostly closed Wuhan airport.

A worker in a protective suit holds paperwork before an evacuation flight for EU nationals at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province
A worker in a protective suit holds paperwork before an evacuation flight for EU nationals at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport (Arek Rataj/AP)

Staff at the terminal wore yellow hazmat suits, rubber gloves and goggles.

A large group of Indian citizens were there, also being evacuated.

One Chinese staff member told Arek that he was worried evacuating people would spread the disease outside of China.

At immigration, evacuees had to briefly lower their masks to provide positive identification to officials.

A worker wearing a protective suit checks the luggage of an evacuee from Wuhan, China, after their evacuation flight landed at an airport in Marseilles, France
A worker wearing a protective suit checks the luggage of an evacuee from Wuhan after their evacuation flight landed at an airport in Marseilles, France (Arek Rataj/AP)

When they landed at a military base in Marseilles, France, some passengers clapped, but many were simply too worn out.

The pair moved across the tarmac to a small military plane that took off from France and descended through a foggy night to Poland.

Police then escorted them to a military hospital in Wroclaw where they started a 14-day quarantine to make sure they are not contagious.

A military officer wearing a protective suit gives instructions to evacuees from Wuhan, China, as they travel to a hospital after their arrival at a military base in Wroclaw, Poland
A military officer wearing a protective suit gives instructions to evacuees from Wuhan as they travel to hospital after their arrival at a military base in Wroclaw, Poland (Arek Rataj/AP)

“It was like a dream … life-changing,” Jenina said.

So far, they remain healthy and Poland is free of the virus.

Arek is planning some kind of project with his photographs and the objects from their trip – such as their medical bracelets for travelling and ear plugs used on the military flight.

His hope is that it will prompt governments to develop stronger evacuation protocols for emergency events such as that still gripping Wuhan.

A man wears a face mask as he stands along the waterfront in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province
A man wears a face mask at the waterfront in Wuhan (Arek Rataj/AP)

The two are split on returning to China, a land and culture Arek greatly admires.

“We have some long discussions ahead,” Jenina said, adding that she hopes to at least return to pick up personal items left at their campus apartment.

Arek feels the connection more strongly.

A man wearing a face mask jogs along a track in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province
A man wearing a face mask jogs along a track in the city (Arek Rataj/AP)

“Wuhan is within me,” he says.

“Wuhan will keep coming back to me.”

PA Media