Relaxed and crowded scenes in Wuhan – a year on from first alerting the world to COVID-19

Exactly one year after it thrust the word “lockdown” into the global conversation, Wuhan passed the anniversary on Saturday with a mix of pride at emerging from COVID-19’s grip and caution over a possible relapse.

A year ago, Wuhan shocked the world by confining its 11 million anxious inhabitants to their homes, beginning a traumatic 76-day lockdown that underscored the growing threat of a mysterious pathogen emanating from the city.

At 10am that day, public transport was shut down and exiting the city was banned without special permission. An eerie silence descended.

One by one, adjacent areas in hard-hit Hubei province quickly followed suit, as did governments worldwide as the coronavirus went global.

But while the world’s pandemic struggles continue, Wuhan today is nothing like the locked-down ghost town of a year ago, with traffic humming, sidewalks bustling, and citizens packing public transport and parks.

“I was frightened last year but things have improved a lot since the epidemic has been brought under control,” said a mask-less jogger in his 20s, who gave only his surname, Wang. He was one of many people exercising under hazy skies along Wuhan’s Yangtze Riverfront on Saturday.

“Life is like before, now.”

But memories of Wuhan’s ordeal remain fresh, especially as localised COVID-19 clusters multiply across China, prompting mass testing in Beijing and targeted lockdowns in other areas.

Huang Genben, 76, spent 67 days in hospital fighting COVID-19 last year, spitting up blood and expecting to die.

“When I closed my eyes at night I didn’t know if I would open them again,” Huang told AFP.

Like many of his countrymen, he expresses pride at the “great efforts” made by China’s government and citizens to contain the pandemic, exemplified by Wuhan.

The virus has killed at least 2 million people globally and continues to rage, but, in China, authorities have reported fewer than 5,000 deaths, the vast majority in Wuhan at the pandemic’s outset.

And Saturday’s relaxed scenes – elderly dancers spinning in parks and crowded bars selling “Wuhan Stay Strong” craft beer – contrast with the rolling lockdowns, surging death rates and overwhelmed hospitals in other countries.

The government has pushed an official propaganda narrative – starring Wuhan – focusing on a “heroic” Chinese response and recovery.

But there are no known lockdown commemorations planned Saturday by Beijing, which remains tight-lipped on the pandemic’s early days amid accusations of cover ups or mishandling the outbreak.

The virus is generally believed to have spread from a Wuhan wet market where exotic animals were sold as food.

But China has otherwise released little information on its origins, fuelling calls in the West for more transparency.

The lockdown anniversary comes with World Health Organisation (WHO) experts just days from completing a two-week quarantine in Wuhan before launching a planned investigation into the coronavirus’s origins.

The WHO said Friday it was too early to draw any conclusions as to whether the pandemic started in China.

“All hypotheses are on the table,” said WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan.

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