Physics in the pandemic: ‘I hope the rest of the world can see hope from my experience’ – Physics World

Physics

Tao Wang is an experimental physicist in the School of Materials Science & Engineering at Wuhan University of Technology in Wuhan, China.

This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at pwld@ioppublishing.org.

Tao Wang sitting at his laptop computer

I run a research group made up of more than 20 graduate students, and in a “normal” workday my job is to supervise and direct them on research activities related to optoelectronic devices such as solar cells and light-emitting diodes. I also teach an undergraduate course in polymer physics during our teaching season, with lectures two times a week. I would normally also go to conferences, although not every week.

The city of Wuhan and the residential compounds within it responded differently at different stages of the pandemic. At the beginning of the outbreak, normal life was not affected much as the number of infected people was low. On 23 January, Wuhan was locked down, with nobody able to leave the city; however, in the early days of the lockdown people could still walk freely outside their homes. This was soon changed so that nobody could leave their residential compound except those involved in essential work, as evidence showed that less strict measures were not preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Life under lockdown

During the lockdown, a lot of medical and other resources were sent to Wuhan, and many volunteers helped deliver groceries to residential compounds, assist the vulnerable, and bring food to doctors and nurses on the front line. At first, patients with mild symptoms were asked to return home and self-isolate – partly due to the shortage of hospital beds and other resources, and partly due to a lack of experience in how to treat a virus that humans had not encountered before. Again, this was soon changed, as the virus continued to spread, clusters of infections appeared, and people with mild conditions developed more serious symptoms.

To deal exclusively with coronavirus patients, Wuhan constructed two new hospitals from scratch in 10 days. Another 16 makeshift hospitals were also built, some of them in one day. Other provinces in China also sent many thousands of doctors and nurses to hospitals in Hubei. This enabled health workers to collect and treat all patients in hospital and closely watch those who have been in close contacts with patients. The number of new cases reduced immediately with these actions, and this – along with a reduced number of patients in hospitals after their cure and discharge – helped to ease the crisis.

I have kept myself fairly busy while self-isolating at home during the lockdown time in Wuhan. Whilst we report our body temperatures every day to local health volunteers and try to keep our life free of chaos and panic, we also try to do some of the work we would expect to do in a normal time. My students and I have online meetings every two weeks, during which we discuss some of the latest literature related to their projects. We finished writing and revising a few manuscripts, and I also wrote two grant proposals (it is proposal writing time between January and March in China). At the beginning of the new semester in March, university students in Wuhan were asked not to return on campus due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and all face-to-face lectures have been turned to online virtual ones. This minimizes the disruption to their studies, while also ensuring their health and safety.

Emerging from the epidemic

For the past 20 days, very few new cases of coronavirus have been reported in Wuhan, and as of today the total number of coronavirus patients is less than 500. So, after 11 weeks of lockdown, people in Wuhan were allowed to leave the city from midnight on 8 April. Thanks to the great achievement of putting down a pandemic in about two months, people in “epidemic-free” residential compounds are now allowed to leave their homes, for example to do grocery shopping in supermarkets. A lot of commercial units have resumed functioning. The authorities are evaluating how to ensure public health and safety in these new circumstances, and when that is settled our students will be allowed to return to campus. I actually tidied up my office today, and I am waiting for our students to be back, which I am sure won’t take long.

With great efforts from people in every country, this extraordinary crisis will surely be overcome, and we will be back to “normal” life. But this new normality won’t be the same as the one that existed before. It is going to change our society in ways we haven’t fully anticipated. I hope the changes are positive rather than negative. We should live in more healthy ways so that we can share this planet with other beings, and that will require everyone to think things over after the disruption is finished. I do see positive things in all nations across the globe: responsibility, selflessness, self-discipline, unity and resolve. As for positive things in my professional life, the lockdown gave me time to look back and think over what I have done in my research activities over the past few years, and particularly to evaluate whether they are as methodologically robust as they could be. I have some thoughts on that and will start from those once I am able to return to my laboratory.

I hope the rest of the world can see hope from my experience in Wuhan. If we stick to social distancing, wash hands and wear masks, this pandemic is certainly controllable.

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