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Wuhan plays it safe

William Yang
December 10, 2020

Wuhan's markets hit the headlines for being the epicenter of the coronavirus. Now, the city has bounced back to normal, with protective measures in place.

People enjoy a music party inside a swimming pool at the Wuhan Maya Beach Park in August 2020
As if the coronavirus pandemic never happenedImage: Stringer/REUTERS

Large groups of shoppers line up outside the stores of luxury brands on a chilly afternoon in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Apart from the masks on their faces, everything seems to have returned to normal in the city where the  first COVID-19 cases were diagnosed almost a year ago.

Though countries around the world are struggling to contain the latest waves of the pandemic, residents in Wuhan don't seem too worried about the possibility of a resurgence. "Following the initial outbreak in January, I don't think we will witness another large-scale infection in Wuhan" Yen, a 29-year-old English teacher, told DW.

"Even if the number of confirmed cases went up again, we know how to properly prevent ourselves from being infected," Yen said. "If you look around, almost everyone on the street follows the government's protocol diligently. If you forget to put on a mask in public, someone will remind you."

Hubei province, of which WUhan is the capital, relaxed the lockdown in April
Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, relaxed the lockdown in AprilImage: Getty Images/AFP/Str.

Epicenter of COVID-19

Since it was identified in Wuhan in December 2019, the coronavirus has infected more than 68 million people while close to 1.5 million people have lost their lives globally. After it reported the first 27 cases to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019, the central Chinese city was quickly engulfed by the mysterious virus, which infected about 50,000 people within weeks.

Some residents blamed the government's effort to silence whistleblowers and its initial reluctance to reveal the full scale of the pandemic as reasons why tens of thousands of people in the city of 11 million people were infected by COVID-19.

"The local government warned medical staff not to share any information about the virus, and then they failed to publicly announce that the virus could be transmitted between human beings during the first few weeks, which led to the rapid spread of the virus among Wuhan residents," a 30-year-old named Li told DW.

In late January, the Wuhan government decided to enforce a total lockdown in the city. Public transportation was suspended, and citizens were asked to stay at home. The number of confirmed cases reduced gradually. Then, in April, the regional government lifted the citywide lockdown, and businesses slowly resumed operations in the following months.

Life after COVID-19

The initial outbreak and the monthslong total lockdown have prompted many Wuhan residents to remain cautious despite the decreasing number of confirmed cases.

"We have been going to movies, watching live performances, and even traveling to other cities since the beginning of the summer," Lin, who asked to only use his last name, told DW.

"However, everyone still has their masks on and many of us keep small bottles of disinfectant in our bags," Lin said. "When I visited Shanghai last month, I saw that people in other cities weren't as vigilant as people in Wuhan. Less people wear masks in public."

Follow orders, avoid disease

As life returns to normal in Wuhan, many cities around the world are entering another wave of shutdowns. In the United States, about 15,000 people have died after being infected with COVID-19 in the past week. Several countries in Europe have rolled out tight restrictions on gatherings ahead of the Christmas holiday.

For people in Wuhan, witnessing other countries struggling to keep the pandemic under control is bewildering. "I find it hard to understand why the United States can't get the pandemic under control despite repeated attempts to roll out social distancing measures or strict lockdown," Yen said.

"It seems like their momentum was always interrupted by nationwide events, including the Black Lives Matter protests, the presidential election and holiday celebrations. I think these incidents all contribute to their inability to contain the coronavirus outbreak."

Others expressed sorrow for countries that have struggled to control the spread of the virus. "I feel really sorry for the rest of the world, because the pandemic emerged from Wuhan in the first place," Lin said.

"I think we can also see the difference in how people from different countries are responding to preventive measures," Lin added. "In my opinion, the pandemic reflects Chinese people's nature of following the orders while people in Western countries are more reluctant to sacrifice their freedom and rights."

Protection or surveillance?

Some residents of Wuhan are asking whether the "Chinese model" is really as economical and effective as the government claims it to be.

"Since the initial outbreak, I've been tested at least five times and I also constantly worry about being traced by the government through the QR codes that citizens are required to install on their devices," Lin said.

As a small number of confirmed cases begin to resurface in several parts of China, Wuhan residents are getting more cautious about any possible resurgence of the outbreak. After the government found traces of coronavirus on some imported frozen food, Yen said, some of his friends have decided not to buy any frozen products this winter.

"We have begun to wear masks at work again, and many people are also trying to hoard masks, disinfectant and other protective gear that will be useful if there's another COVID-19 outbreak," Yen said.

As many countries pin their hopes on COVID vaccine rollouts, some Wuhan residents are wary of putting all their eggs in one basket. "While news of the vaccine makes me less nervous about the coming winter, I believe it is not the ultimate cure for the pandemic," Li said. "I think science will be the only thing we can count on," she added.