It took eight hours for a doctor to see Wu Chen’s mother after she arrived at the hospital. Eight days later, she was dead.
The doctor was “99% sure” she had contracted the mysterious pneumonia-like illness sweeping China’s central city of Wuhan, Wu says, but he didn’t have the testing kit to prove it. And despite the 64-year-old’s fever and perilously low oxygen levels, there was no bed for her. Wu tried two more hospitals over the next week, but all were overrun. By Jan. 25, her mother was slumped on the tile floor of an emergency room, gasping for air, drifting in and out of consciousness. “We didn’t want to see my mom die on the floor, so we took her home,” says Wu, 30. “She passed the next day.”
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez for TIME
Because she did not want a spell in jail for dissent to compound her grief, Wu asked TIME to refer to her by a pseudonym–a reasonable request and one that carries with it a measure of what each virus death means to the People’s Republic of China. The novel coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV threatens more than the 24,000 people known to be infected as of Feb.