A year ago, a notice was sent at 2 a.m. to smartphones in Wuhan. The first coronavirus lockdown in the world was announced, bringing the busy central Chinese industrial and transport hub almost overnight to a virtual standstill. It’s going to last 76 days.
However, early Saturday morning, in a fog-shrouded park alongside the mighty Yangtze River, residents of the city where the virus was first found were jogging and practising tai chi.
Life in the city of 11 million has largely returned to normal, even as the rest of the world grapples with the spread of the most infectious strains of the virus. In some areas, attempts to vaccinate citizens for COVID-19 have been hampered by disarray and insufficient supplies. More than 2 million people worldwide have been killed by the scourge.
In Wuhan, traffic was light, but there was no indication of the obstacles that separated neighbourhoods a year earlier, blocked travel across the city and restricted people to their housing complexes and even apartments.
Wuhan accounted for the bulk of the 4,635 deaths from COVID-19 in China, a figure that for months has largely remained stagnant. Since the lockdown was lifted on April 8, the city has been largely free of further outbreaks, but concerns remain as to where the virus originated and whether Wuhan and the Chinese authorities acted rapidly enough and with proper clarity to allow the world to plan for a pandemic of more than 98 million people.
In China’s war against the virus, Wuhan was lauded for his sacrifice in the service of the country, turning it into a sort of Stalingrad, commemorated in novels, documentaries, television shows and florid panegyrics by officials including Chief of State and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.
“We believe that Wuhan is a heroic city. It stopped its economy, after all, in order to help China cope with the pandemic. This is a noble act,’ said resident Chen Jiali, 24, who works at a shopping company on the internet.
China reported a further 107 cases on Saturday, taking its total to 88,911 since the start of the pandemic. Of those, 56 accounted for the largest number in the northern province of Heilongjiang. In the midst of mass monitoring and lockdowns of hospitals and housing units related to recent outbreaks, Beijing and the eastern financial hub of Shanghai both confirmed three new cases.
Authorities are aware of the potential for a new boom following the Lunar New Year holiday next month and are asking people not to travel as often as possible and to avoid gatherings. Schools are being published a week early and many have switched to online classes already. The wearing of masks indoors and on public transport remains nearly universal. Mobile phone apps are used to monitor the movements of individuals and show that they are both virus-free and have not been to places where suspicious cases have been identified.
Wuhan has largely been spared further outbreaks since the end of the lockdown, something residents such as chemistry instructor Yao Dongyu attribute to increased sensitivity stemming from last year’s traumatic experience.
People were very anxious at that time, but the government gave us tremendous support. It was a really good guarantee, so we got through it together,’ Yao, 24, said. “Since the people of Wuhan have been through the pandemic, they have done better with personal precautions than in other regions.”
In the early days of the epidemic, China doggedly defended its actions, claiming that it helped buy time for the rest of the world while promoting fringe theories that the virus was brought from outside China to the region, likely from a laboratory in the U.S.
After months of talks, China finally granted the World Health Organization permission last week to send a team of international experts to begin researching the source of the virus. At present, they are undergoing two weeks of quarantine.
This week, a group of experts commissioned by the WHO condemned China and other nations for not acting sooner to curb the initial outbreak, leading Beijing to admit that it should have done better.
Meanwhile, thousands of residents were locked down on Saturday in Hong Kong in southern China, in an unprecedented effort to contain a worsening outbreak in the region.
Since November, Hong Kong has been struggling to control a new outbreak of coronaviruses. In the last two months, more than 4,300 cases have been registered, making up almost 40 percent of the city’s total.
Authorities said in a statement that once all residents have been checked, an area comprising 16 buildings in the working-class Yau Tsim Mong district will be locked down.