A year after Wuhan’s lockdown: China’s former Covid-19 epicenter has emotional scars


At dawn, market vendors busily unload fresh fruits and vegetables. Office workers fill popular eateries during their lunch break. As dusk falls, elderly couples descend on the city’s parks, practicing dance moves by the Yangtze River. Red lanterns have been erected around the city in anticipation of the Lunar New Year celebrations.

A year has passed since the central Chinese city of 11 million people was placed under the world’s first coronavirus lockdown on January 23. At least 3,869 Wuhan residents eventually died from the virus, which has since claimed more than two million lives around the globe.

But the Chinese government has since heralded those drastic steps as crucial to curbing the initial outbreak, and similar measures have now been enforced in countries around the world — with some cities outside China undergoing multiple lockdowns.

In that context, Wuhan has become a success story in taming the virus. It has not reported a local coronavirus infection for months.

On December 31, as millions of people in other countries spent New Year’s Eve in the confinement of another lockdown, Wuhan’s residents packed glittering streets to celebrate the arrival of 2021 with a midnight countdown.

Today, residents speak proudly of the resilience and strength of their city, and the efforts they made to ward off Covid-19.

But the severe measures also came at a huge personal cost to residents, and despite the apparent return to normal life, deep emotional scars haunt the city.

Some residents who lost loved ones to the virus are still living in grief, angry at the government for its early missteps in preventing people from knowing facts that could have saved lives.

“To seek truth is the best way to remember her”

Yang Min, 50, still wonders if her daughter would be alive had she been told that coronavirus was infectious just four days earlier.

On January 16, her 24-year-old daughter went to hospital to receive chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Healthcare workers had already been sickened from the virus — a dangerous sign that it was infectious — but their cases had not been made public. Instead, Wuhan officials insisted there was “no obvious evidence for human-to-human transmission,” and maintained that the virus was “preventable and controllable.”
Elderly couples dance along the Yangtze River that cuts through the heart of the city.
Three days later, the night before authorities finally admitted the virus is transmittable from person to person on January 20, Yang’s daughter developed a high fever. She was transferred to another hospital, before eventually ending up in Jinyintan Hospital, a designated facility for coronavirus patients. She died there on February 6.

Yang believes her daughter caught the virus in hospital, and blames the government for not warning the public about the severity and true nature of the outbreak earlier. “If I knew there was an infectious disease, I wouldn’t send my child (to hospital for cancer treatment),” Yang said. “I sent her to the hospital for life, not death.”

Yang Min demands answer for her daughter's death.

While tending to her daughter, Yang also caught the virus. Her husband didn’t tell Yang that their daughter had died until she had recovered herself, fearing the news would devastate her.

At the end of February, she learned that she would never see her daughter again. “My last memory of my child was the top of her head and her hair when she was wheeled (to the ICU) on a trolley bed. She didn’t even look back at me. It still pains me,” she said.

Yang accused the government of covering up the severity of the initial outbreak, and says she has met local officials several times to demand accountability. “I was told by the street and district leaders that (the government) did not cover up the pandemic. (They said they) released an online notice on December 31,” she said.

On December 31, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued a statement that reported the discovery of a cluster of “pneumonia” cases. But it claimed there was no sign of “human-to-human transmission.”
Red lanterns are hung around Wuhan's Yellow Crane Tower for the upcoming Lunar New Year.
Around the same time, authorities silenced healthcare workers who tried to sound the alarm of the virus — including Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, who was punished by police for “spreading rumors” and later died of Covid-19. The suppression likely led to unnecessary cross-infections inside hospitals, as well as in families and communities, according to health experts.
In an interview with state broadcaster CCTV on January 27, Wuhan’s then-mayor Zhou Xianwang admitted his government did not disclose information on the coronavirus “in a timely fashion.” He said the city’s management of the epidemic was “not good enough” and offered to resign if that would help the efforts to control the crisis.
Two weeks later, amid widespread public criticism of the authorities’ handling of the outbreak, several senior local officials were removed from office, but Zhou stayed on. Last week, state media reported that Zhou had resigned due to an unspecified “work arrangement.”

Yang wants all officials involved in the early handling of Wuhan’s crisis to be punished, and for the truth to be told over their actions.

“I want to hold them accountable. I need to ask for an explanation. If there’s no explanation, there’s no justice,” she said. “To seek truth for (my daughter) … is the best way to remember her.”

“I’m a patriot, too”

Yang is not the only bereaved family member demanding justice. Zhang Hai, who lost his father to the coronavirus, spent much of last year trying to sue the government for compensation over his father’s death.

Taking the government to court is a rare — and often futile — step in China, where the judiciary is firmly controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

Zhang Hai is trying to sue the government for his father's death.

Still, Zhang was undeterred. He filed a lawsuit against the governments of Wuhan and Hubei province in June, but a local court rejected the case. He turned to a higher-level court two months later, only to be dismissed again. In November, he submitted a complaint — seen by CNN — to have his case heard at China’s highest judicial organ, the Supreme People’s Court, but has received no reply so far.

“‘Ruling the country by law’ and ‘everyone is equal before the law’ have long been our country’s slogans. But so far, I haven’t seen any evidence of that,” he said.

Like Yang, Zhang blames the Wuhan government for withholding the truth about the coronavirus.

On January 17, a day after Yang sent her daughter for cancer treatment, Zhang brought his father Zhang Lifa to a Wuhan hospital to treat his leg fracture. The surgery went smoothly, but his father was infected with Covid-19 while recovering in hospital. He died on February 1, aged 76.

Face masks are one of the few remaining signs that point to Wuhan's past as the epicenter of a deadly pandemic.

“I’m feeling very emotional, and at the same time, my heart is filled with anger,” Zhang said, standing by the water in a Wuhan park — it was the last place that the father and son visited together, before going to the hospital.

“If the Wuhan government hadn’t concealed (the severity of the outbreak), my father wouldn’t have left this world,” he said.

Zhang’s father was an army veteran who worked on China’s nuclear weapons program — and suffered long-term health effects because of his work. “My father is a patriot. He sacrificed his youth and his health for the country,” Zhang said.

“And I’m a patriot, too. By speaking out and seeking accountability, I’m conducting an act of patriotism. No country, no political party can be perfect. In Wuhan, officials covered up (the outbreak) and went unpunished. By punishing them, I believe it’s doing a service to our country and our party,” he said.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said last month that accusations China covered up the epidemic were “simply groundless.”

Wang said: “There’s a clear timeline of China’s effort to fight Covid-19, which is open and transparent. At the earliest time possible we reported the epidemic to the WHO, identified the pathogen and shared its genome sequence with the world, and we shared our information and containment experience of the virus with other countries and regions in a timely manner.”

A tale of triumph

There is little indication that the Chinese government is going to address Yang and Zhang’s grievances. A week before the one-year anniversary of Wuhan’s lockdown, more than 90 bereaved family members suddenly found their WeChat group had been shut down, according to Zhang. The group had been a source of support for Zhang and others — and provided a rare space for them to share their grief.

Facing growing criticism and blame from countries around the world, Beijing has unleashed its army of propagandists and censors to reshape the narrative around its coronavirus response as a victorious one from the start, and suppress any voices that stray from the official line.
Crowds have returned to Wuhan's famous Jianghan shopping street, which was desserted this time last year.

China’s subsequent success in containing the virus has been used as proof to deny that any mistakes were made in the early stages. Wang said: “Faced with the once-in-a-century pandemic, can such achievements ever be made by covering up the truth? The answer is simple enough. China’s achievements in fighting the pandemic are the best response to the fallacy of China concealing the virus.”

Authorities have detained citizen journalists who documented the harsh reality of life in Wuhan during the height of the outbreak. One of them, Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, was sentenced to four years in jail last month for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

The story of Wuhan, by the official narrative, has become one of heroism, solidarity and triumph.

An exhibition, titled "Putting People and Lives First -- A Special Exhibition on the Fight Against Covid-19 Pandemic," celebrates Wuhan's eventual triumph over the coronavirus.

At a convention center in the city, which previously served as a makeshift quarantine site for Covid-19 patients, a massive exhibition opened in October, to commemorate the city’s struggle against the coronavirus. It is titled “Putting People and Lives First — A Special Exhibition on the Fight Against Covid-19 Pandemic,” and features more than 1,000 items reminding visitors of the effort and sacrifice healthcare workers, soldiers, volunteers, officials and citizens made to defeat the virus. The Party’s unfaltering leadership over the fight is highlighted throughout the exhibit, but there is no mention of any mistakes the government had made.

“The propaganda machine is on full force to promote the government’s success — the (hardship) is all over and we can now sing and dance in celebration of peace,” Zhang Hai said. “But the so-called victory was achieved by sacrificing the people.”

“Most tormenting time”

In the heart of Wuhan’s city center, there is one unmistakeable reminder that not everything has recovered from the coronavirus: the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where a cluster of coronavirus cases was first detected, propelling the site to international notoriety.

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, known as the ground zero of the outbreak, was shut down last January.

Today, the market — with its name removed from the gates — remains shut behind metal fences, its future uncertain.

Xiao Chuan’an, who sells sugar cane near the market, remembers the lockdown with dread. As restrictions kicked in, Xiao, who comes from a neighboring city, was trapped in Wuhan for more than two months. In the days before the lockdown was imposed, her daughter had kept pleading with her to go home, but Xiao didn’t want to abandon her stock of sugar cane. In the end, she was unable to sell any of it — as the lockdown dragged on, her sugar cane all rotted.

“I really washed my face with tears every day. It was the most tormenting time, and I was so sad and scared to death,” she said.

Xiao Chuan'an remembers the lockdown with dread.

But the strict measures apparently worked. By mid-March, the number of new infections had slowed to a trickle from thousands per day at its worst in February. Residents were allowed to return to work. Public buses and underground trains resumed service. Finally, on April 8, the lockdown was officially lifted.

Chinese authorities have largely been able to avoid a Wuhan-style city-wide lockdown during subsequent local flareups, by resorting to mass testing, extensive contact tracing and more targeted restrictions.

As the pandemic spreas, China’s overall success in containing the virus, especially when contrasted with the chaotic and deadly failures to do so in countries like the US and UK, has won wide domestic support for Beijing.

A year on from the lockdown, Xiao’s business has resumed outside the closed market. It isn’t as good as pre-pandemic times, but Xiao remains hopeful. “Wuhan will definitely be getting better and better,” she said. “The people in Wuhan are very tough and doing great.”

“Those efforts were worthwhile”

But the virus can make a comeback after a long respite. Earlier this month, tens of millions of people in northern China were placed under strict lockdowns, similar to what Wuhan underwent, after hundreds of people were infected in the country’s worst outbreak in months.
Authorities are also rushing to build a massive quarantine camp that can house more than 4,000 people, reminiscent of earlier efforts undertaken in Wuhan, where several medical facilities, including a 1,000-bed hospital, were built from scratch in just 10 days.
The lockdown in 2020 turned Wuhan's bustling commercial district into a ghost town.

These sweeping measures have evoked familiar memories for some Wuhan residents, who are once again wearing masks in public, as are people now in Beijing and Shanghai, with the country entering a cautious mode ahead of the Lunar New Year next month.

The festival typically sees tens of millions of Chinese traveling home to reunite with family. But authorities have discouraged people from traveling this year, requiring those returning to rural areas to produce a negative Covid-19 test taken within 7 days and a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

Wu Hui, a 40-year-old food delivery driver in Wuhan, said he hoped this time around, authorities in northern China learned from the initial chaos in Wuhan and would handle things more humanely during their lockdowns.

“During the early stage of the Wuhan lockdown, (the government) was at a loss of how to deal with issues concerning residents’ livelihood, it was an utter mess. I’m sure everybody hasn’t forgot about it,” he wrote in a post on Weibo last week.

Wu said the people of Wuhan paid “a great price” when their city was sealed off, but was proud the city was able to pull through.

“Now, after so long, no new case has been identified and Wuhan has begun to recover for a while. The streets are full of people. I just feel that all those efforts made at that time were worthwhile,” he said.

David Culver reported from Wuhan, Nectar Gan wrote from Hong Kong.



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