Wuhan celebrates its ‘liberation’ as Covid-19 lockdown ends
Last week the city of Wuhan celebrated the end of its nearly three-month lockdown. Flower beds and trees were planted in parks across from hospitals previously overwhelmed with panicked and sick patients. The streets have been scrubbed clean.
Before midnight last Wednesday, when restrictions barring people from leaving the city were officially lifted, state news outlets sent drones into the sky to film lit-up buildings and bridges. Cars lined up at motorway tollbooths, waiting to leave. Drivers described feeling finally “liberated”. Several housing developments had flags declaring them “virus free”. One said: “Decisive battle, decisive win.”
But for many in the city of 11 million, where at least 2,500 have died from the coronavirus, it has not feel much like a release. “We haven’t felt much of a change,” said Zhang, 50, who lives in the district of Wuchang and has been quarantining at home. “For regular people, the lockdown is not over.”
Wuhan’s exit from lockdown is part of a broader effort by Chinese officials to assure the public that life can return to normal and that authorities have beaten the virus.
“The high-profile re-opening of Wuhan is meant to send a signal that China is getting back to business and work can be resumed. But despite the government efforts, people will be still very cautious,” said Ho-Fung Hung, a lecturer in political economy at Johns Hopkins University. “People can’t easily forget the government’s early missteps in causing the crisis, particularly for those who lost their loved ones or have their health severely impaired.”
In the city, many shops remain closed, with restaurants reopening only for deliveries. Schools, cinemas and other entertainment venues remain shut. Many neighbourhoods are still sealed off, with only those with permission from their employers able to leave regularly to go back to work. While people are freer to come and go, there are constant checkpoints where residents must show their “health code” and have their temperatures taken. Zhang says he has to go through four just to get to his local bus stop.
The continued restrictions, which authorities have said will be lifted in a “gradual and orderly manner”, are an indication that the epidemic – while much eased– is not over.
Many residents are still worried about the number of asymptomatic patients, as well as released patients who retest as positive but do not show symptoms. Others worry about the number of imported cases, as Chinese travellers return from infected countries. Yesterday the National Health Commission reported 46 new cases from the day before, all but four of them from abroad. Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, has seen no new cases for seven days.
“We are still worried and will stay inside. There are still people who have come out that are retesting positive,” said Zhou, 68, who lives in Hankou and who had ventured outside of her home for the first time in two months.
Others said they were eager to return to work but still worried about the possibility of a second outbreak. “Going back to normal doesn’t mean the virus disappears,” said Iris Yao, 41, who also lives in Hankou.
At a recently reopened convenience store just outside Wuhan Youfu Hospital near the Huanan Seafood market where cases were first detected, a store owner said she would not have returned to work if she did not have to. “If I don’t come out, I can’t make money and I cannot eat. If I could, I would stay home,” she said.
Several said their neighbourhoods, after loosening restrictions, had become strict again. Some suspected new infections had emerged. Others said they did not trust what was officially reported. Coco Han, 22, who was infected with the virus in January, remembered how her compound in Wuchang still posted its “virus free” sign even when she was at home sick.
But residents also said they believed the government had made up for early missteps, including being slow to alert the public about the virus and suppressing doctors who attempted to warn residents.
Chen, 60, from the city of Yichang, which was also placed under strict travel curbs at the beginning of the outbreak, had just returned to Wuhan to go back to work. He was proud of the government’s efforts to contain the virus. “The government and the country banded together,” he said. “The party really puts the people first.”