The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A year after Wuhan coronavirus lockdown, trauma runs deep in China’s ‘Hero City’

People visit an exhibition about China’s fight against the coronavirus at a convention center in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 15. The center was previously used as a makeshift hospital. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — In November, Zhang Hai wrote a letter to his country's leader, Xi Jinping, asking for help. He cut to the chase.

“Revered Chairman Xi, hello!” he wrote in neat script. “We are the families of covid-19 victims in Wuhan. The lies and coverups by Wuhan officials caused the painful loss of our loved ones. Their actions were extremely evil.”

For most of the past year, Zhang, 51, has been waging a campaign to sue local officials over the death of his father, an army veteran from Wuhan who died last February of the coronavirus. He and other relatives of covid-19 victims in the city of 11 million say the government should bear responsibility for the loss of thousands of lives.

China premiered the documentary “Wuhan Days and Nights” on Jan. 22, to mark the one-year anniversary of Wuhan's coronavirus lockdown. (Video: Reuters)

Today, Zhang and other families are no closer to getting an explanation, silenced by censors and drowned out by state propaganda — tools, critics say, that have allowed China to rewrite the first chapter of the pandemic and muddy the search for the outbreak’s origins. Scientists are still far from understanding the source of the virus.

In the year since authorities locked down Wuhan on Jan. 23, the Chinese leadership has emerged stronger, overseeing one of the world’s few growing economies, a near-victory over the virus and increasingly successful suppression of internal dissent.

Yet in Wuhan, where life appears to have returned to normal with schools, businesses, restaurants and bars reopened, residents say a full recovery is not possible until the outbreak can be openly discussed and key questions answered.

“We aren’t able to talk about what it was that this city went through,” said Guo Jing, a social worker in Wuhan and author of “Wuhan Lockdown Diary,” an account of the 76-day citywide quarantine. “When people cannot talk about these things, they won’t go away. The trauma is definitely there.”

Politics frustrate WHO mission to search for origins of coronavirus in China

While state media hail tales of sacrifice from Wuhan, the “Hero City,” censors on Weibo appear to have blocked searches related to the lockdown anniversary. On Jan. 16, a WeChat group of almost 100 relatives of coronavirus victims, including Zhang, was shut down without explanation.

Previously outspoken family members were warned not to talk to foreign media. In December, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan — one of several journalists and activists detained in connection to work documenting the Wuhan outbreak — was sentenced to four years in prison.

The sensitive anniversary coincides with a World Health Organization mission in Wuhan investigating the cause of the coronavirus. While scientists believe the virus probably spread from bats to humans, possibly via a second, as-yet-unidentified animal, little else is known about the pathogen.

In that void, other theories have proliferated — that the virus escaped from a lab or, according to Chinese state media, that it was brought into the country via frozen food imports such as ice cream — politicizing an already difficult investigation.

“Some of the big questions, such as where the virus came from and how it was first transmitted between species, have remained unexplained despite months of studies and investigations,” said Liu Jia, a doctor in the infectious-diseases department at Wuhan Union Hospital. “It takes a lot of time and effort, and maybe a stroke of luck to find the answers,” he said.

Erasing history

In the documentary “Wuhan Days and Nights,” a doctor in full hazmat gear holds the hand of a bedridden elderly woman, assuring her that nurses are available 24 hours. In another scene, two medics rally themselves by marching arm in arm down a hallway. Other footage shows people waiting in orderly lines; collecting vegetables from volunteers; or waving cheerfully at staff as they leave a hospital.

The film, which was set to premiere nationwide Friday, is one of few official nods to this week’s lockdown anniversary. There will be more than 350 free screenings of the documentary, a joint production between the Hubei provincial propaganda department, state broadcaster CCTV, and Hubei Television, across the country.

“Witness the Chinese miracle,” China Film Report, A CCTV program, said of the film, promising viewers a chance to “relive the warmth and be moved all over again.” The official People’s Daily called it a “salute to the heroic city.”

Yet the film appears to show little of the panic and desperation many in Wuhan remember from the lockdown. After weeks of official assurances that a new, mysterious strain of coronavirus showed no clear evidence of contagion — despite evidence by late December that there was — China’s national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission on Jan. 20, 2020, and authorities sealed off the city three days later, just before the Lunar New Year holiday. An estimated 5 million people had already left Wuhan, joining hundreds of millions of Chinese traveling before the holiday.

Footage filtered out of bodies in hospital hallways, exhausted medics wearing raincoats and trash bags for protection, and people pleading with nurses at overrun hospitals to take their sick family members. Those trapped inside complained the government had abandoned them.

“Seeing elderly people fall in front of you, pregnant women with nowhere to give birth, hospitals without disinfectants, community workers without masks, and wondering whether your fever symptoms are a cold or covid — there is no way to understand this unless you experienced it,” said Zhou Ying, a 48-year-old Wuhan native, who worked as a volunteer at the time, delivering protective equipment and supplies to hospitals.

“The chaos, the disorder and despair — it gnaws on you,” she said. “Don’t romanticize tragedy.”

China grapples with new coronavirus cases ahead of Lunar New Year

Experts say that by refusing to examine early mistakes, authorities risk bungled responses to future crises. More sensitive questions are likely to remain unanswered, including whether the official death toll of about 3,800 in Wuhan is correct. Last month, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of a survey in April that showed 4.4 percent of residents in Wuhan had antibodies for the virus, suggesting that about half a million people were infected. Authorities have only reported 50,000 infections in the city.

“The official rhetoric saying we responded almost perfectly under the leadership of Xi Jinping has made it much harder to go back and look at what happened,” said Dali Yang, a professor of political science focusing on China at the University of Chicago.

Today, residents say they are still grappling with the repercussions of the outbreak. Former patients describe friends and family who no longer contact them, fearful they could still transmit the virus. Others say many small businesses in their neighborhoods have closed, while young professionals complain of stagnant wages and fear of changing jobs amid economic uncertainty.

Pandemic measures adopted during the outbreak remain, including checkpoints, the constant wearing of face masks, and apps that track not only one’s health status but exactly where a person has been in the city. Outbreaks are flaring in at least three provinces in northern China, prompting new lockdowns and new anxiety.

“For us here, the pandemic has not ended. It has always felt like it is not far from us,” said Han, 23, a recent graduate in Wuhan who contracted the coronavirus last January. She spoke without using her full name because police warned her not to speak to foreign media.

No peace

In Wuhan, light shows flash across skyscrapers along the Yangtze River cutting through the city, where tourists take photos of a float decorated with lions ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday next month. Residents say the festive lights and decorations are less than in years past. The words “Hero City” are emblazoned in giant red and gold characters along a bridge.

It was around this time last year that Wang Fei, a 43-year-old driver from Wuhan, began to feel unwell. By the time authorities announced the mysterious SARS-like virus was contagious, he had developed a fever and was sent home from work.

His sister, who spoke using only their family name because of privacy concerns, says a doctor told her brother not to worry. “He said, ‘You won’t die from this,’ ” recalled Wang, 52. Now she regrets believing him.

After days of being turned away from overcrowded hospitals, Wang Fei, weak and suffering breathing problems, was admitted to Wuhan Central Hospital in late January. While doctors at the same hospital were staging “all-out efforts” to save whistleblower Li Wenliang, Wang Fei was sending WeChat messages to his family that he could not get help going to the bathroom.

“Save me,” he wrote. A few hours later, on Feb. 8, a doctor told the family that Wang Fei had died.

Today, Wang has written more than 100 letters, petitioning government departments to help her get compensation for her brother’s death, which she believes was caused by a lack of care. She plans to give the money to Wang Fei’s wife and young child.

A year after coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China’s Xi declares 2020 a triumph

“If spirits have memory, this is what he will remember. They humiliated my little brother and I couldn’t do anything,” Wang said.

She persists even as many relatives of victims in Wuhan have come under more pressure. Those pursuing lawsuits in the court system have had their cases denied while lawyers refuse to represent them. One by one, the relatives have withdrawn from public view or dropped complaints as their jobs or family members have been threatened.

For Zhang, the past week has been hard. The de facto leader of relatives of covid-19 victims seeking accountability from officials often comes across as undaunted and indefatigable. On Jan. 15, 2020, his father suffered a fall while in Shenzhen, where Zhang lives. Unaware of the burgeoning virus, the next day he took his father back to Wuhan for treatment.

Zhang believes his father caught the virus in the hospital in Wuhan, where he was later diagnosed with it. On Feb. 1, his father died in an isolation ward.

“It feels like I myself have gone through a major illness,” Zhang said.

For the last year, consumed by his mission, he has not retrieved his father’s remains from a funeral home in Wuhan. In his letter to Xi, he called for him to put the government officials responsible for the death of his father on trial.

“Only then will we have peace. Only then will we have respected our family members who died,” he wrote.

He said Xi had not written back.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Alicia Chen in Taipei contributed to this report.

Politics frustrate WHO mission to search for origins of coronavirus in China

China grapples with new coronavirus cases ahead of Lunar New Year

A year after coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China’s Xi declares 2020 a triumph

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