Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the novel coronavirus outbreak began late last year, finally lifted its lockdown today after 77 days. Even as signs of normality return to its streets and malls, however, it’s clear that the psychological trauma of the experience will last for a long time to come.
As the disease has spread around the world, with reported cases and deaths in the US and other European countries now far outstripping that of China and once unimaginable lockdowns now becoming the norm everywhere, the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan now feel like distant memories. At the start of the lockdown there, videos and posts circulated widely on Chinese social networks depicting the desperation of the situation. Hospitals were overwhelmed amid an acute shortage of testing kits and beds. One viral video showed a woman banging a homemade gong (link in Chinese) while crying for help on the balcony of her apartment, as her sick mother could not be admitted into the hospital.
The city’s people say they’ll carry the emotional scars of living through that period with them forever.
“Wuhan can never go back to be what it was like before the outbreak. Neither can its residents. But we need to continue living alongside our traumas,” said Guo Jing, a 29-year-old social worker and advocate for women’s rights, who has been living there since November.
As soon as the lockdown was lifted at midnight, crowds flocked to the roads in their cars and to train stations as they leapt at the chance to get out of the city. But even as they’re now free to roam around their city and the rest of the country, many feel that the stigma associated with Wuhan will not go away.
“Now everyone in China is vigilant against Wuhan residents, fearing that we are virus carriers. As a result, I have decided not to leave the city for the rest of the year, unless I can’t avoid it,” said 38-year-old Wuhan native Xiao Lu, who said he has no plans to celebrate the lifting of the lockdown.
Such discrimination played out when police and citizens clashed at the border between Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, and Jiangxi province, in late March when most parts of Hubei opened up.
Imposed abruptly on Jan. 23, the lockdown barred 11 million people in Wuhan not only from leaving the city, but also their residential compounds. The measures, which were replicated to various degrees across China, appear to have been effective in containing the epidemic in China, which on Monday (April 6), reported no new Covid-19 deaths for the first time and no new locally transmitted cases. Wuhan accounts for 61% of the 81,740 reported Covid-19 cases (link in Chinese) in China.
Even amid the stress of the lockdown, some Wuhan residents may also look back on the period as a time when people put their resilience and creativity on display as they found ways to cope. Carol Huang, a journalist from Wuhan who lives in Hong Kong, said she had frequent video calls with her family, who asked to see her cat, while her mother learned to become a more “peaceful” person as a result of the lockdown. Huang said that during the lockdown, she could not even bring herself to follow the daily updates on new Covid-19 cases in Wuhan.
“[My mother] now appreciates tiny pleasures in life, such as being able to get cheap vegetables. She’s also stopped pressuring me to get married,” said Huang.
Xiao remembers how citizens tried to keep business going during the lockdown, with a “gray economy” flourishing whereby daily necessities rationed for community workers would find their way to ordinary residents. Some grocery stores, which were only supposed to sell their goods to community workers, left their shutters open at night to sell items to ordinary people, even law enforcement officers. Xiao himself said that he was able to find ways to sneak out of his fenced-off compound several times.
For people in countries battling Covid-19 who want to look ahead to what a life after a lockdown might look like, Wuhan may provide a useful, if still unsettling, picture.
Even as the lockdown has officially been lifted, “normality” remains elusive in Wuhan due to fears that asymptomatic carriers and infected people entering China from overseas could stoke a second outbreak, and that official figures are being underreported (paywall). Schools and universities remain shut. Some compounds where there are suspected Covid-19 cases continue to restrict their residents’ movements, for example by only letting them out for two hours a day or requiring proof that they need to go to work. Many restaurants still only allow people to take away.
Travel continues to be strictly controlled, as people across the country must download apps ascertaining their health status before being allowed to check into hotels or board public transport. Living in fear of contracting the virus, Xiao added he will avoid going into supermarkets, riding on the subway, or any “closed spaces” apart from his apartment.
All of this points to the reality that a long period of adjustment lies ahead for the people of Wuhan post lockdown—and any other population when they emerge from lockdowns later.
“One difficult part of having a normal life after the lockdown is regaining a sense of control and certainty over one’s own life after it has been put under such heavy official scrutiny,” said Guo. “The lifting of the lockdown is not the end.”