One year after the Chinese city of 11 million was locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, businesses and schools are open and the streets are bustling with people — nearly all of whom wear masks. Some practice tai chi in parks, while others jog along the Yangtze River that flows through the urban centre.
Yet Wuhan and its residents still bear the scars of a fast-moving outbreak that accounted for 80 per cent of China’s official death toll from the virus, as well as the 76-day lockdown that ultimately curbed it. The city is also under fresh scrutiny from a team of medical experts probing the origins of the pandemic.
Here’s how Wuhan got to this point, and what has been learned in the year that followed.
76 days lost
At 2 a.m. on Jan. 23, 2020, an alert was sent to every smartphone in Wuhan: no one would be allowed to enter or leave the city, in order to help curb the spread of a deadly viral illness with pneumonia-like symptoms.
There was little warning that the alert was coming, though cases had been spiking steadily in the days leading up to the move and at least 18 people had died. Three days earlier, China’s national health commission had confirmed the virus could be spread between humans.
It had been 24 days since China alerted the World Health Organization about the 27 cases of “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan. Authorities had shut down a wet market in the city that dealt with live animals on New Year’s Day, after discovering some patients were vendors or dealers.
Two days after the lockdown was enforced, China banned all wildlife trade after the virus was traced to that same wet market, concluding it began through animal-to-human transmission. By that point, at least 38 more people were dead.
During the lockdown, Wuhan residents were allowed out of their homes only to buy food or attend to other tasks deemed absolutely necessary. Some were allowed to leave the city, but only if they had paperwork showing they were not a health risk and a letter attesting to where they were going and why.
Even then, authorities stationed at barricades surrounding the city could turn people back on a technicality such as missing a stamp, preventing thousands from returning to their jobs elsewhere in China.
Apartment buildings where residents tested positive for the virus would get locked down entirely, requiring groceries to be delivered by neighbourhood workers.
Despite an influx of medical workers and the quick creation of 14 new hospitals, thousands more people would die. Many of those deaths would remain unreported until weeks later.
It wasn’t until March 18 that Wuhan registered zero new confirmed cases for the first time, and authorities began to gradually withdraw medical workers from the wider Hubei province, including Wuhan.
On April 8, the barriers were finally removed and residents were allowed to start leaving the city again — as long as a mandatory smartphone application, powered by a mix of data-tracking and government surveillance, showed they were healthy and had not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus.
“Being indoors for so long drove me crazy,” one resident told the Associated Press amid outdoor celebrations marking the end of the ordeal.
As of Jan. 21, 2021, Wuhan’s official death toll is 3,869, according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. China has reported 4,803 deaths to date, based on data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The Chinese Communist Party and state media has dubbed Wuhan the “Hero City” for the sacrifices it made during that lockdown, which officials say helped buy time for the country to learn about the virus and keep infections and deaths low elsewhere.
But residents felt uncertainty and sadness as they returned to some semblance of normal life after they watched family members and neighbours die from COVID-19; tended to others who slowly but never fully recovered; and suffered hunger and losses of income.
“The aftereffects of the epidemic can still be felt,” Guo Jing, a social worker, wrote in her diary on the day the lockdown measures were eased. Her writings were later published as “Wuhan Lockdown Diary.”
“Those who have recovered from COVID-19 are left with lifelong physical and psychological trauma,” she continued. “How can they restart their life? Will people from Hubei Province and Wuhan City continue to face discrimination? Who will take care of the companies that have gone bankrupt and the people who have lost their jobs?”
Other residents are angry. Lawsuits have been filed by those who lost loved ones against the Wuhan and Hubei governments, criticizing them for their slow responses to the pandemic.
While the lawsuits have been quickly rejected, Beijing has responded with crackdowns on dissent.
Another lockdown diary, written on the blogging site Weibo by Fang Fang, has been effectively censored in China, and the translator who brought Fang’s book to English audiences has received death threats online. Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who reported from Wuhan at the height of the pandemic, was jailed last month for four years on grounds of what her lawyer called “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
The divide between state-sponsored triumph and local doubt can be seen in two films released almost simultaneously this month to mark the lockdown anniversary.
The first, a state-backed film praising Wuhan’s sacrifices, is being screened throughout China, targeting audiences that firmly back the ruling Communist Party’s response to the outbreak. Dubbed “Days and Nights in Wuhan,” it highlights the work and sacrifices made by medical staff and front-line workers, who are portrayed as noble warriors.
The second is a sombre documentary about the pandemic from artist and political activist Ai Weiwei. That film, “Coronation,” tells the same story from the perspective of residents and — most notably — the patients themselves, with footage of people struggling to breathe as medical workers in protective gear attempt to save them.
In her diary, Fang predicted at the end of January that the government would attempt to portray the Wuhan lockdown victoriously, and warned other writers not to be drafted into the effort.
“You will likely be asked to write celebratory essays and poems,” she wrote. “Please pause before you write — who do you want to praise?
“I might be getting old, but I’ll never give up voicing my opinion.”
More to learn
Studies have shown the lockdown had mixed success on curtailing the pandemic’s spread in Wuhan, despite China’s ongoing information campaign.
Other studies have proven the lockdown only allowed the virus to spread unimpeded within Wuhan itself. A December report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests nearly half a million people may have been infected — almost 10 times the official case tally of 50,355. The study was conducted about a month after the virus was initially contained.
Doubt on where the coronavirus initially came from has also emerged, including from Beijing, which has now focused its blame on frozen food imports from overseas. The claims have been disputed by countries with trade ties to China, including Canada.
Suggestions that the virus originated in the very Wuhan lab that first studied and identified it have been promoted by former U.S. president Donald Trump and his administration, leading to conspiracy theories that China unleashed COVID-19 on the world intentionally.
A World Health Organization-backed team of medical experts has now travelled to Wuhan to try and find answers. They will analyze data from local labs and scientists as well as visit key sites like the now-closed wet market believed to be the origin point, though there have been clashes over how much access China is willing to give.
In the background, the virus continues to rage, popping up in pockets of China and sparking scares of fresh outbreaks in Wuhan itself. In June, the city tested 10 million people in a matter of days after new cases were detected, one of several mass testing programs run by the country.
Almost a year to the day after Wuhan was shut down, a new lockdown was mandated in the city of Langfang, southeast of Beijing, amid a spike in infections. Other neighbourhoods throughout the mainland, including in Beijing, have also been forced to curb activities.
Writing in her diary, Guo, the social worker, spoke in her final entry about how such actions will affect people in the long term, including those lucky enough not to get sick.
“It is difficult to articulate one’s psychological trauma in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but its impact on a person’s life can be long-lasting,” she wrote.
“There is no reason our lives have to be monotonous. How would we experience the richness and colour of life otherwise?”
–With files from the Associated Press and Reuters