The Chinese metropolis of Wuhan spent weeks in complete lockdown to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Now, it is reopening its shops and restaurants. But the people remain fearful and cautious.
By Bernhard Zand in Wuhan, China
Ms. Yang walks into her frog restaurant, opens the windows, plugs in her e-bike and scrapes off the announcement she posted on the window just before the Chinese New Year declaring the temporary closure of the establishment.
Yang Xue, 55, is wearing a face mask as she picks up the newspapers that had been shoved under the door. Just seven issues of the Hubei Daily have been produced since the city was sealed off. At the bottom of the pile is the yellowed issue from Jan. 23, the day of the lockdown.
She begins cleaning out spoiled food from the refrigerator. “I still had a tank full of frogs when the lockdown was imposed,” she says. Frogs are stored alive, but they can’t survive for more than a week. “I couldn’t come back to get rid of them,” says Ms. Yang. “The neighborhood party committee took care of it, and disinfected the entire restaurant while they were at it.”
Ms. Yang’s Frog Restaurant specializes in hot pot dishes. The tables have a spot for a fondue pot, in which patrons can boil raw frog legs, along with bamboo, lotus root, lettuce leaves and pieces of tofu. The menu also includes frog stew and deep-fried frog meat.
Before long, Mr. Zhang, drops by. He runs the tobacco shop next door and the two talk about how they spent the last 10 weeks. Yang was in her hometown not far from Wuhan, but Zhang was in his store the entire time. For 72 days, he held out in the small alcove behind the counter of his shop.
Ultimately, he couldn’t stand it any longer. Four days before the government released the city from its isolation, he says, he simply walked over the threshold of his small cigarette shop out onto the street. Into the fresh air, into the sun.
Staying in the Shop
Zhang is 50 years old and is wearing a white, button-down shirt. Now, he can no longer stand being in his shop for even 10 minutes at a time and even takes his meals out on the sidewalk, he says as he shoves his mask down below his chin to drink his soup. And he greets everybody who walks by: How are you? What are you up to? When were you let out?
On the evening of Jan. 22, Zhang took the precaution of not going home after work. Two days earlier, it had been announced that the novel coronavirus, which officials had been playing down for weeks, could be transmitted from person to person, and Zhang says he didn’t want to put his grandchildren in danger, given that he constantly had contact with people in his shop.
The next morning, Wuhan was cut off from the outside world, with the airport, train stations and highways all shut down. Inside the city, nobody was allowed to leave their neighborhood. And Zhang found himself stuck in his cigarette shop. “For days, I ate nothing but instant noodles,” he says. “After 10 days, I got an ulcer in my mouth.”
His wife made him some vegetable dishes at home and the people from the party committee, who had since shut down the entire district, delivered them to him. “They had already started patrolling at the time. They came through the street five times every day,” says Zhang. “But by then, nobody was going out anyway.”
The Wuhan lockdown lasted for 76 days. First, the government ordered the 11 million residents of the provincial capital to isolate themselves, and then expanded the order to include all 60 million people in the province of Hubei. Traffic, the economy, public life: It all came to a complete standstill.
Lockdowns Around the World
It was a mass quarantine of a kind that had never before been seen in human history – an inconceivable measure for most people, at least until, in the ensuing weeks, city after city and country after country adopted similar lockdowns around the world.
Now, though, the city where it all began is opening up again. For the past several days, travelers have once again been allowed to enter the city of Wuhan, as have journalists. On April 8, the Chinese government officially declared an end to the state of emergency in Wuhan, meaning the people can once again go back outside.
An evening light show illuminated the skyline of Wuhan along the Yangtse River, with the skyscrapers lit up in violet and red. Then, last Wednesday morning, the first trains, not even half full, pulled out of the stations and the first planes took off from the airport. Since then, the barricades that were set up around the city have been gradually disappearing and stores are slowly reopening their doors. Even as cities elsewhere in the world continue to struggle, Wuhan is experiencing a reawakening.
Those interested in traveling to Wuhan are first disinfected and must consent to having their temperatures checked. Since January, Wuhan has served around the world as shorthand for fear and desperation. But for many Chinese, it is a paragon of discipline and perseverance.
Now, the city must once again serve as an example – for how to carry on. But what about the people in the city? How are they doing?
The cherry trees are blossoming, but fear remains palpable. The city is opening up hesitantly, step by step. Spring, though sumptuous in Wuhan, is rather short, with June, July and August being notorious for the heat and humidity that comes with those months. But this April, the kind of light-heartedness that usually accompanies spring is nowhere to be found. Nobody knows if others might be carrying the virus. Everyone stands at a distance from others and everyone is wearing a face mask.
The entire city is full of yellow, red, blue and green barricades, with the blockades having separated the city’s 7,110 neighborhoods from each other during the lockdown. Nobody was allowed to pass, and party officials stood guard everywhere. Even now, those wanting to get through must have their temperatures checked.
Just a few kilometers from Ms. Yang and Mr. Zhang, who are taking initial steps to reopen their businesses on this morning, Ground Zero of the coronavirus pandemic can be found – the Huanan fish market, which was closed down by the city on Jan. 1. It is here where the first cases appeared. It is here where the virus may have jumped from wild animals to people.
Those wanting to visit the market these days won’t get too far. In January, it was just cordoned off with police tape, but its interior was still visible from a distance. Now, blue barriers have been erected, all entrances have been closed off and traffic surveillance cameras have been set up on Xinhua Road. It’s almost as though the place is to be erased from memory. The world is supposed to see the lightshow, not the market.
Traffic Slowly Returns
A week ago last Friday, there were hardly any cars at all on the streets of Wuhan, but now, their number is increasing by the day. That weekend, it was still possible to walk across the road on the large bridge across the Yangtse, the most famous modern structure in the city, built near where Mao went swimming in China’s largest river in 1966. Last Wednesday, the day the lockdown was lifted, some highways in the city were once again just as full as on a quiet weekend.
Hankou, a district on the northern bank of the Yangtse that was built under European influence in the 20th century, is where one can find the largest number of people out and about. The shopping centers, to be sure, still have strict controls at the entrances and cafés, if they are open at all, are only serving drinks to go. “Just 10 percent of the number of people who would normally be on the streets at this time of year,” says a passerby. “Five at the most,” says another.
The city’s university, which has lent the city its reputation as an important center of higher learning in China, can be found in the Wuchang district, on the southern bank of the Yangtse. But it remains closed, which makes the entire neighborhood feel rather empty. There are few cars driving in front of the office buildings, very few people in the hotels and a limited number of pedestrians enjoying the Yangtse Promenade. In the morning, there are just a couple of older men down by the river flying kites.
The writer and political scientist Lu Xiaoyu, 29, has maintained a widely read online diary in recent weeks, documenting life during the lockdown in Wuhan, his hometown. In his final entry, he writes: “What really moved me the most during this entire epidemic was the urge among people from Wuhan to come home, no matter what.”
Lu is from Wuhan, but went to university in Scotland. Because there were no cafés or restaurants open at the beginning of last week where we could meet, he proposed a walk through the old city center, past the classical and art-deco facades from the early 20th century, back when the urban cluster near the confluence of the Yangtse and Han Rivers experienced its first economic coming out. Its second boom came as the 21st century began, much later than in Beijing and Shanghai.
It wasn’t just the world at large that knew little of Wuhan before the virus arrived to cast an unflattering light on the city for what will likely be decades to come. It had also been overshadowed in the minds of many Chinese by the other mega-city on the banks of the Yangtse, Shanghai. “Wuhan has experienced an enormous upswing in recent years,” says Lu. “It’s a bit unfair that it now has the worldwide reputation as the birthplace of a pandemic.”
“Warnings from the Very Beginning”
The government of Wuhan, he says, hesitated for far too long at the beginning of the crisis. “It was the first city to make the mistake that would be repeated in so many countries and cities after Wuhan: It allowed itself to be guided by fears of the social and economic consequences of a lockdown instead of listening to the experts’ warnings from the very beginning.”
It is difficult to measure just how great the loss of trust is in the Wuhan party leadership. Self-celebratory propaganda has once again resumed its dominance and censorship, which was unable to suppress every critical post in the social media channels at the beginning of the crisis, has now been tightened.
For years, Wuhan had been what is called a “second tier” city in China – a huge, inland agglomeration driven by the energy of its residents and the ambition of its political leaders to measure up to the wealthy cities on the coast. Perhaps it was a fear of losing prestige in the competition with those cities that led to the early attempts at keeping the illness under wraps.
By late January, only those with absolute need to do so were allowed to leave the neighborhood in which they lived. In mid-February, the Chinese central government then fired party leaders in the city and the province. It was only their successors who completely shut down Wuhan. From that point on, the streets were virtually empty, with the only people out and about medical personnel on their way to the hospital or the seriously ill doing the same.
Huang Siding, a 68-year-old retired rail worker, began developing a slight fever in early February. On Feb. 6, his wife escorted Huang, who suffers from impaired vision, to a clinic in the neighborhood. A computer tomography revealed dark shading on his lungs, and he was told to go to Hanyang Hospital.
“There hadn’t been any taxis on the road for quite some time,” he recalls today, “so we had to walk. It took more than an hour.” The hospital, though, didn’t have any beds available and he arrived back home at 10:30 that evening. On Feb. 7, he tried again, and then another time on the day after that – with no luck. Six walks of over an hour combined with waiting in front of the hospital for hours each time: Eventually, it became too much for a sick 68-year-old. On the evening of Feb. 8, Huang gave up. His fever refused to go away.
Five days later, on Feb. 13, the neighborhood committee called to tell him that a bus would come by to pick him up and take him to a different clinic, a hospital for traditional Chinese medicine. “I stayed there on an IV for two weeks until the fever broke. In the bed next to me was a 91-year-old man who was doing much worse than me. I don’t know if he survived.” After being released from hospital, Huang was sent for another two weeks to a trade school that had been modified to serve as a quarantine hostel.
A Fraction of the Total
He says he’s still a bit unsteady on his feet, but is immensely grateful to the doctors and nurses for saving his life, Huang says, bowing slightly. Picking lint off his jacket, his wife reminds him: “Keep your distance from the reporter.”
By the time the lockdown was lifted, Wuhan had an official count of 50,008 people infected and 2,574 fatalities. Hardly anyone in the city, though, seems to believe that these numbers are an accurate reflection of the true extent of the catastrophe. Lu, the political scientist, believes the government statistics are only a fraction of the total.
The discrepancy between the statistics and reality, though, doesn’t seem to be a major issue for the people of Wuhan. In over two dozen interviews with former patients, nurses, pharmacists and passersby, many simply reacted with a resigned shrug of the shoulders when asked about the numbers – roughly the same reaction one gets to questions about state propaganda efforts.
When the sirens began to wail at 10 a.m. across China a week ago Saturday to mark the officially proclaimed day of mourning, the stoplights in central Wuhan may all have switched to red, but only a handful of the few people on the streets actually stopped to observe the moment of silence. The rest simply continued their discussions or carried on with their shopping. It almost seemed as though they weren’t interested in an official moment of silence after the three months of fear and mourning they had just gone through. As though they were more focused on life than on death, on the future than on the past.
In western Wuhan, where the dense structures of the city give way to the green of the Yangtse river banks, hundreds of people have been streaming into the botanical garden since last weekend, a place that carries the name “Ville des Fleurs,” recalling the French influence on the city. A couple of kilometers further on, the parking lot fills up in front of a factory belonging to the automobile manufacturer Peugeot. “The winter has ended,” reads a banner hanging on the fence that surrounds the plant. “Spring is coming. Welcome back.”
Going About Their Business
At the peak of the crisis, one of two, large emergency hospitals was built here within just a few days, to the astonishment of the world at large. Of the 1,000 beds, around 900 of them are now empty, it is said. There are rumors that the container clinic will soon be dismantled and sent to South America.
For now, though, the heavy off-road vehicles belonging to the People’s Liberation Army remain posted at the entrance, the humming of the air-conditioning can still be heard from across the high security walls and, in front of the building labelled “Second Medical Department for Severe Symptoms,” people wearing protective suits can be see going about their business.
The second large emergency hospital, named Leishenshan and constructed on a parking lot in the southern part of the city, looks more accessible from the outside. The entrances are heavily guarded here too, but to block the view, posters have been affixed to several hundred meters of fencing, all of them submitted by dozens of graphic artists for an art contest. Some of them show grim, dark motives, while others are cartoonishly colorful or drawn in the agitprop style of the Mao era. All of them, however, announce the “people’s war against the virus” that President Xi Jinping announced in February.
The effort expended and the number of victims treated in recent weeks was enormous, says the nurse Yang Peng. She is 37 years old and arrived in early February with a team of 151 medical professionals from Beijing to help out her overwhelmed colleagues in Wuhan. “I volunteered of my own free will after the director of our clinic did the same.” Before leaving, Yang had her hair cut short for the first time as an adult – as a precaution to comply with the extreme infection protection regulations in Wuhan.
Yang says she has 18 years of professional experience, but she still had to learn how to use the protective equipment appropriately. Just putting on and taking off the protective suits, she says, takes more than an hour. Like all medical professionals working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, she says she wore adult diapers during her shifts. “The diapers weren’t the problem,” she says. “To save on protective suits, we drank as little as possible before our shifts and then sweated profusely, so that we didn’t have to use the restroom. Breathing, though, was uncomfortable in these suits because of the overly tight masks, and for us women, it was difficult when we got our periods.”
In the endocrinology department of the Tongji Hospital, where she works, the situation was much more orderly by early February than it was out in the outpatient area, she says. “We had 50 beds to take care of. I never saw the overflowing emergency room.”
She says she is still shaken by how quickly the lung disease caused by the coronavirus can worsen. “A patient that is doing well in the morning can already be critical by the afternoon,” she says.
Last Monday, Yang Peng returned with her team to Beijing, where she must now remain in quarantine for two weeks. “What I will never forget is the people of this city, their gratefulness and the colorfully lit trees in North Guishan Road, that I saw one evening on the way to my night shift.”
Yang Xue, meanwhile, is standing in front of her frog restaurant and trying to figure out a way forward. She lost a lot of money as a result of the lockdown, saying she will ultimately have to write off the equivalent of between 15,000 and 30,000 euros, assuming that business ever recovers to where it was before the crisis. Does she blame the government for imposing the strict lockdown? “If I were the government,” she says, “I would have imposed it much earlier.”
Her relatives managed to survive the illness. She had brought her uncle and his wife to the hospital back in January. “How afraid do you think I was back when I learned that the virus could actually be transmitted from person to person? My hair turned white from fear.” A short time later, her younger sister fell ill, but she, too, survived.
Ms. Yang’s 10 employees are still too afraid to go out on the street and the delivery companies she relies on haven’t resumed service yet either. “They will have lost a lot of money, just like me,” she says.
The restaurant almost certainly won’t reopen before the end of April, Ms. Yang tells her neighboring shopkeeper, Zhang. “The danger hasn’t yet passed. Have you heard of the people who are infected but who don’t show any symptoms? They could still be contagious.”