One year on: Wuhan is now a source of pride for China but many remain wary

Contact tracers in hazmat suits on January 11th investigate a market where a Covid-positive traveller had visited merchants days earlier in Wuhan. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
The Chinese government has pressed people in Wuhan and across the country to bustle into the future and play down, if not forget, the deaths and hardship of last year

The long months of harsh lockdown have faded from view in Wuhan, the first city in the world devastated by the new coronavirus. As residents look to move on, they cite a Chinese saying that warns against “forgetting the pain after a scar heals.”

To many in this central Chinese city, the saying sums up a temptation to let go of the bad memories while revelling in the recovery. To families grieving in the shadows, it means the danger of hastily forgetting without a public reckoning for the lives needlessly lost.

A year ago when Wuhan shut down, it offered the world a forewarning about the dangers of the virus. Now it heralds a post-pandemic world where the relief at unmasked faces, joyous get-togethers and daily commutes conceals the emotional aftershocks.

In Wuhan, residents savour ordinary pleasures that a year ago became forbidden hazards, like strolling along the historic Jianghan shopping street. Office workers jostle for seats on the subway, which was shut throughout the lockdown. Riverside restaurants, karaoke bars and music clubs are a hubbub of conversation and song that was unthinkable last year and remains unthinkable for much of the world still in the grips of the pandemic.

A singer in traditional garb prepares for a fashion performance in Wuhan on January 1st. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
A singer in traditional garb prepares for a fashion performance in Wuhan on January 1st. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

Among rocks and concrete lumps dotting the shore of the Yangtze River, the Qingshan Swimming Association is back. Its members, mostly wizened retirees, wade almost daily into the murky water where former Communist Chairman Mao Zedong once famously swam.

During the lockdown, they stopped, except for a few die-hards who occasionally crept outside. “Everyone put on weight. I was more than 5 kilos fatter after being stuck at home for a few months,” said Song Datong, a retired bus driver who pulled on his dark blue parka after his swim and bantered with other old-timers.

Among the 300 people in the informal club, no one was infected. “Maybe it was thanks to their health,” Song said. Even in the cold, the shores of the Yangtze, the artery of the city, attract swimmers, saxophone players and courting couples. “Wuhan is now the safest city in the whole country,” Song said resolutely. “We won’t catch this illness.” Beneath the exuberant normalcy, some grieving families struggle to exorcise the ghosts – memories and anger that find no place in the government’s triumphant turn to the future. Some cling to mementos of those they lost. Others flinch from reminders, trying to forget.

A man warms up for a swim in the Yangtze as a cargo carrier laden with cars passed by in Wuhan in early January. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
A man warms up for a swim in the Yangtze as a cargo carrier laden with cars passed by in Wuhan in early January. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

Zhu Tao, a 44-year-old metal worker, lives in a Wuhan neighbourhood that suffered a serious outbreak, and he remains angry over an 82-year old aunt who died from the coronavirus. He believes a cousin also perished from the disease, although her death certificate gave the cause as bacterial lung infection.

“The Wuhan people around me can leave me with the feeling – it’s very clear – that the scar has healed and they’ve forgotten the pain,” he said. “But they’re in the situation that the scar hasn’t healed but they’ve already forgotten the pain.”

He took a year of leave from work, fearful that the virus could come back. “I stay inside as much as I can,” he said.

Wuhan’s experience will echo in New York, New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro and other hard-hit places as they eventually recover. All have families marooned in grief and anger about deaths they say were avoidable. All have restaurants and shops, the livelihood of millions, struggling to survive. All have cemeteries that swelled in the past year.

The Chinese Communist Party has been singularly successful at stifling infections and vaulting Wuhan back to life faster than any foreign counterparts. But China, too, is singularly powerful at controlling remembrance of disasters, erasing troublesome facts and omitting critical questions from its official narrative.

Revellers at a gig in Wuhan. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

Some families find little comfort in the government’s celebrations of victory. A few have kept fighting the state’s efforts to veil its initial failings, despite detentions, surveillance and regular warnings. Most have retreated into private grief that sharpened before the anniversary of the crisis: when Wuhan was locked down on January 23rd of last year.

“You realise that there are still many wounds,” said Veranda Chen (24) who lost his mother to the virus in Wuhan. Her death, he said, strained relations with his father, and there will be no reunion of the extended family for this year’s Lunar New Year celebration. “We’re missing one person,” he said.

Lines of graves at the Biandanshan cemetery, one of the largest in Wuhan. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
Lines of graves at the Biandanshan cemetery, one of the largest in Wuhan. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

The lockdown in Wuhan is often described as a kind of nightmare that passed in a feverish daze. At the beginning, shock and dread pervaded the city, which had been assured for weeks by officials that the virus was unlikely to spread. People crowded into supermarkets to stock up on food or rushed to hospitals to check a cough or a fever.

“There were no people and cars on the roads in Wuhan, only ambulances, and they wouldn’t sound their sirens, only flashing their lights, because they worried that the sound would frighten people,” said Ma Keqin (66) a retired steelworker. Hospitals were built in days to treat the rapidly rising cases, and a national mobilisation eased desperate shortfalls of equipment and medical workers. Wuhan became a honeycomb of barricades and checkpoints as yellow plastic barriers and metal cladding enclosed neighbourhoods.

After the lockdown was lifted 76 days later in April, the city revealed that it had officially recorded 50,333 infections from the virus and 3,869 deaths; studies suggest that the virus actually infected many more. Back then, residents vented fury over the officials they blamed for having let the virus slip out of control. Graffiti along the Yangtze declared, “Good will be repaid with good, evil with evil.”

Even in Wuhan, it can be easy to forget that time when shutting off a whole city seemed like a unique, draconian experiment on 11 million people. Coming from the city became a source of stigma last year; now it is a point of pride. The Chinese government has pressed people in Wuhan and across the country to bustle into the future and play down, if not forget, the deaths and hardship of last year. Where the city’s months in isolation once stood out as brutally exceptional, the recent daily death toll from the virus in the United States has sometimes approached China’s official total for the whole pandemic, undergirding confidence in Wuhan’s return.

Tango aficionados meet up at a dance studio in Wuhan on January 1st. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
Tango aficionados meet up at a dance studio in Wuhan on January 1st. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times
Patrons queue for a ride at the Happy Valley park in Wuhan on January 2nd. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
Patrons queue for a ride at the Happy Valley park in Wuhan on January 2nd. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times

At the height of the crisis last year, the government converted the city’s exhibition centres into cavernous temporary hospitals for suspected carriers of the virus pulled from their homes to help break the chains of infections. One centre currently houses an exhibition about the crisis in Wuhan.

Decked with red banners, it gives a glossy, at times embellished, history. A central hero, as in all official accounts, is Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader who in the exhibit’s telling commanded a national mobilisation that swiftly stamped out infections.

The exhibition extols the role of the military, and a diorama celebrates the medical teams from across China who came to Wuhan’s aid. Doctors and other “martyrs” who lost their lives fighting the pandemic in Wuhan are memorialized on a white wall, but the thousands of civilians who died have no wall of their own.

Patrons visit an exhibit about the People’s Liberation Army’s role in the battle against Covid at an exhibition centre that had served as a temporary hospital during the outbreak in Wuhan. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
Patrons visit an exhibit about the People’s Liberation Army’s role in the battle against Covid at an exhibition centre that had served as a temporary hospital during the outbreak in Wuhan. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

Across China, mentions of fatalities are muted. Wuhan still has not released statistics for cremations in the first quarter of last year, many months after they would normally be reported. Writers and independent journalists who even mildly challenge the glowing official accounts of Wuhan’s crisis have been vilified in Chinese media, detained or even imprisoned.

“It has always been this way in China. How many tens of millions died in the Great Leap famine? How many in the Cultural Revolution?” said Ai Xiaoming, a retired professor in Wuhan who, like quite a few residents, kept an online diary about the lockdown. “Everything can be forgotten with the passage of time. You don’t see it, hear it or report it.”

Many in Wuhan now embrace the version of events offered by the Chinese government and say that their “city of heroes” waged a proud fight against a virus that has gone on to humble wealthier countries. Some residents view the early failures in a more forgiving light after seeing the trail of calamities in the United States and other democracies.

“This is not boasting, either,” said Huang Qing (55) who sat on a bench in the East Lake Park with her husband, sharing a small bottle of white wine. Last winter before outings were banned, residents gathered in the park to share their worries. Now elderly couples and parents with small children walk among the weeping willows, taking in the sunshine.

“The Wuhan epidemic was dealt with well, really well,” she said. “It fully showed the superiority of China’s policies.”

Masked shoppers check out dolls and accessories at a store in Wuhan, on December 31st. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
Masked shoppers check out dolls and accessories at a store in Wuhan, on December 31st. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

China is the only major economy that has continued to grow in the pandemic. Middle-class Chinese consumers, who once vacationed and shopped in Europe or Thailand, now stay close to home, and many luxury brands have done well. At the upscale Wuhan Plaza, shoppers crowd displays of Dior, Louis Vuitton and Cartier.

Even before China’s crisis ended, leaders began pushing local officials to jump-start economic life. Infrastructure projects have been revived in Wuhan, and the city’s consumer electronics factories have found ready buyers in countries hamstrung by the virus.

“Wuhan is more or less back on its feet, and a lot of people are coming out to relax,” said Ma Tengyun, a 40-year old employee of a bike rental service near East Lake Park. He is not desperate for the vaccine. “It’s a very safe environment now,” he said. “It’s no big deal if I get one or not, but I will if they want me to.” Away from wealthier precincts, the recovery has been uneven, exposing the inequalities in Chinese society. At Wanda Plaza in the southwest of the city, Xie Tiantian, a salesperson in a clothing store, waits for potential customers to wander through the quiet, brightly lit aisles. Sales in the store were down by at least 30 per cent compared to before the pandemic, she said, recalling one longtime customer who had agonised over buying new clothes.

“She came to look at the outfit several times,” Xie said, “but still she did not buy it. She said, ‘Ah, I just don’t have the money!’” In the old back streets of Wuhan, some shops and stalls have closed. In an outdoor market selling fruit and fresh meat, business is slow. The city, though, has resumed its frenetic modernisation as demolition crews level dilapidated low-rise homes in the Minquan neighbourhood.

Masked patrons play mah-jongg at a parlor in an alleyway in Wuhan on January 6th. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
Masked patrons play mah-jongg at a parlor in an alleyway in Wuhan on January 6th. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

Like survivors of an earthquake, some in Wuhan are nervous that the crisis could return. Many on the streets have continued wearing masks over the past year. Face coverings were less common in the rest of the country until a spate of small outbreaks in recent weeks. “When I accept food deliveries at the door of my home, I wear a double-layer mask,” said Zhang Yongfang, a 68-year-old retired math teacher who fondly remembers a retired co-worker who died with a high fever. It took seven months before Zhang ventured out of her home – far longer than the official lockdown – and she is preparing to stay in for the winter. “I’m afraid that the epidemic may break out again,” she said. Wuhan has stiffened back into greater vigilance recently as other parts of China face flare-ups of infections. Signs urge residents to watch for symptoms, avoid travel over the coming Lunar New Year and refrain from sharing food. Infrared monitors scan stores and hotels, displaying spectral images of shoppers and guests as temperature blobs. Checkpoints, in varying states of alertness, stand ready to register visitors and scan for fever.

People who suffered infection say that neighbours and relatives still treat them with suspicion, as if they might still spread the disease – despite medical assurances to the contrary. “Even now, my parents have healed, but they’re afraid of being shunned by the people around them,” said Zhao Ting, a woman from Wuhan. Her parents, in their 60s, creep downstairs at night to discard their trash, avoiding neighbours. “If they run into neighbours who were friendly before and used to have a chat,” she said, “they just give a simple hello and very tactfully move on.”

Contact tracers in hazmat suits on January 11th investigate a market where a Covid-positive traveller had visited merchants days earlier in Wuhan. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
Contact tracers in hazmat suits on January 11th investigate a market where a Covid-positive traveller had visited merchants days earlier in Wuhan. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

For Yang Min,who lost her daughter to the virus, moving on seems almost unthinkable. Yet recalling last year feels at times unbearable. In her small home, she keeps her daughter’s violin atop a cabinet because the finality of locking it away is too painful.

“I keep it there but can’t bear to see it,” Yang said. “Anything to do with my child, I instantly have to turn my attention away. Otherwise, I can’t take it.” Her daughter, Tian Yuxi (24) fell ill with the virus in January of last year while receiving treatment for breast cancer in a Wuhan hospital. To care for her daughter, Yang talked her way into an infectious disease hospital. Tian died soon after, transferred to an intensive care unit a short way from her mother, who also contracted the virus.

An emergency room at Zhongnan Hospital, one of the largest in Wuhan, China, on December 20th. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The NewYork Times
An emergency room at Zhongnan Hospital, one of the largest in Wuhan, China, on December 20th. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

Yang (50) maintains a lonely campaign seeking redress for her daughter’s death. She knows it is futile to challenge the Chinese Communist Party, which fears that opening up about past mistakes will stain its image and authority. When Yang tried to sit outside the Wuhan Communist Party Committee office with a photo of her daughter, guards carried her into a room and sent her home. When she tried to return, she said, her street was lined with police officers. “I don’t think there’s any hope at the moment, but I can’t give up,” she said. – New York Times