Wuhan wakes up from COVID-19 nightmare to start again

Jun Mai and Echo Xie, South China Morning Post

Posted at Apr 10 2020 11:09 AM

Wuhan wakes up from COVID-19 nightmare to start again 1
A member of a medical team reacts at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport after travel restrictions to leave Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and China's epicenter of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, were lifted, April 8, 2020. Aly Song, Reuters

WUHAN, China -- Doctor Hu Weiling lived and worked right through the 76 days of what became a nightmare of disease, death and fear in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

As a doctor at a community hospital, she said she treated hundreds of patients from toddlers to grandmothers as she battled with colleagues against the COVID-19 disease that first surfaced in the city at the end of last year before spreading around the world.

Wuhan faced one of the strictest quarantine lockdowns ever attempted for a contemporary city to try to contain the new virus that caused the disease. All road, rail and air services were severed, and police patrols and community watchdog checkpoints kept people indoors unless they had permission to go out.

As the numbers of the sick and dying in Wuhan surged, Hu recalled a moment of watching rain patter on a hospital window and wondering whether the centuries-old city and its 11 million residents would come out the other side of the nightmare.

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It felt like they had on Wednesday when Wuhan's lockdown formally ended after a staggered resumption of work and public transport. Hu said it was a hard-won reward for Wuhan, as well as for her and about 90 colleagues who had spent sleepless nights in quarantine wards, often short of supplies and protection against the coronavirus.

"I'm glad I survived the battle and we have won a victory," she said. "I think the city is ready for it ... and I hope life could return to normal."

But she said she well understood that life will not simply snap back to how it was, because too much has been lost. Besides those who have died, many have been traumatized by the experience, and not just through illness. Businesses shuddered to a halt and some may never reopen. Hu said 2 of her sisters had lost their jobs in the hotel industry. She saw some patients suffer mental disorders during the ordeal, she said.

By mid-March, Hu's hospital had dealt with hundreds of COVID-19 patients. They eventually brought their number of remaining cases to zero, which Hu said she and other doctors celebrated while still strapped up in protective equipment. Citywide, the number of patients now numbers about 400, according to official data. Hu did 14 days of quarantine and returned to the hospital, which only recently opened for consultations for non-COVID-19 patients.

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Elsewhere in Wuhan, a number of automobile plants that form the backbone of the city's economy have been getting back to work, including factories run by Honda, General Motors and Renault. Before the lockdown, the city produced close to 2 million vehicles a year, making it Wuhan's largest industry and earning the city a reputation as China's car capital.

Unfortunately, Wuhan is now known around the world not for car production, its local cuisine of spiced duck, its central role in the country's revolution in 1911 that ended thousands of years of imperial rule, or its highly regarded universities. It is known as the first epicenter where COVID-19 broke out.

Just as the cities of Chernobyl, in what is now Ukraine, and Japan's Fukushima became associated with the nuclear disasters that happened there, the concern in Wuhan is that it will be similarly tarred by a pandemic that has infected 1.4 million, while claiming 82,000 lives around the world in a little over three months.

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"I don't have enough leave to do that, and more importantly I think I might be discriminated against in other cities," she said. "That might be true until the pandemic is under control globally."

As Wuhan's lockdown ended on Wednesday, residents were allowed to leave the city and taxis were back on the streets. But travelling almost anywhere within the city still required people to show a government-issued QR code on their phone to verify they were healthy, and proof of their job " including at supermarkets and when boarding buses or the subway. Those unable to provide both could not leave their community. Malls opened but few customers were visible. A number of office buildings remained closed.

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While the overall sense from talking to the city's residents was one of relief, the mood at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was bleak. The wet market was linked to one of the earliest clusters of coronavirus cases and some medical researchers have said that the virus may have jumped to a human from one of the variety of wild animals sold there.

It was shut down by the authorities on January 1, after unexplained pneumonia cases were reported in the city " the work of the new coronavirus.

On Wednesday, it stood empty and silent. The stalls were shielded by barriers and plastic sheets. The names of seafood stalls were covered by black cloth. Although it had been closed for months, the smell of rotten seafood still lingered.

A banner hanging on a fence in a nearby neighborhood read: "Resolutely win the battle against COVID-19 by closely relying on the public."

Wuhan residents say the name of the market conjures up a bad dream. They and owners of stores in the area are worried about their health and their businesses.

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Liu Miao, 36, runs a shop not far from the market selling mobile phones, and he said he planned to close and open elsewhere.

"The name 'Huanan Seafood Market' is like a nightmare for many Wuhanese," he said. "It's the location that everybody is afraid of."

For others in Wuhan, the lifting of the lockdown was a moment to look back at what happened and the decisions that were made.

Zhang Xiaochun, a doctor and deputy director of the radiology department at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, was the first to openly suggest the government allow diagnosis of the virus by using CT scans to show lung tissue damage, rather than confirming it only with test kits, which were in short supply.

As she put it at the time, the change could help "press the brake on the COVID-19 outbreak".

Looking back 2 months later, Zhang recalled being unable to sleep, because she was worried about getting hospital bosses into trouble by giving her medical opinion. "It was like awaiting execution," she said of the stress.

But China changed its policy and the new diagnosis standard allowed another 20,000 patients to be admitted to hospitals.

Doctors' involvement went beyond just doing their jobs. As infections in Wuhan fell but cases globally skyrocketed, Zhang began to donate medical supplies overseas, as well as holding online consultations and lectures on prevention and control of COVID-19.

Others in the city, too, speak of the community spirit that developed. Yu Xiuzhu, a restaurant owner, started to deliver hot meals to doctors at a time when many residents were afraid to go near hospitals. He persuaded his parents and wife to help him deliver meals at cost prices.

At times, he said, they worked from 2 a.m. until 7 p.m. to prepare the food and deliver it to a nearby community hospital.

"I just felt like I had to go; the doctors inside were risking their lives," he said. "If I didn't go, they would be starving and we'll all be finished."

Zhi Hua, who owns a supply chain management company in the city, also got involved in delivering meals to hospitals as a volunteer.

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He recalls driving down empty roads in downtown Wuhan, wondering if the epidemic would ever end, when he realized it was Feb. 24, his birthday. He said he just broke down and cried at the wheel.

Like many, Zhi is grateful for the lifting of the city's travel ban. He said he believed the worst had passed, but saw it as no time to celebrate.

"You might see more cars and more people on the streets now, but there are wounds inside people that might take much longer to heal," he said.

Revenues at Zhi's logistics business dropped 40 percent, and 25 percent may never be recovered, Zhi said. Wuhan is a transport hub, thanks to its central location, train and road networks, and the Yangtze River, which flows through it and on to Shanghai. But Zhi thinks clients will have rearranged their supply chains to avoid the city.

The company also serviced retail stores in Wuhan, most of which remain closed or have suffered a slump in business.

"We have a surplus of labor because orders fell," Zhi, who employs about 60 people, said. "But I will not willingly make anyone redundant. There's a family behind each of them."

Meanwhile, bigger businesses are coming back to life in Wuhan, offering hope to smaller firms that serve them. The city's economic growth engine remains its automobile industry, and Honda's Wuhan plant is back up to pre-virus production levels, with 98 percent of its 12,000 workers working overtime to make up for lost production, according to Reuters.

State-owned Dongfeng Automobile is also ramping up production at a plant in the city. An employee, who gave only his surname Wu, said 60 per cent of staff were back at work, while others would return following the week's self-isolation required by the company after travelling from other cities.

All employees have been tested for COVID-19, and temperatures are taken twice a day, he said. Shoes and clothes are also disinfected.

Smaller companies in the industry are waiting for the benefits to trickle down, but have noticed other obstacles.

Yu Kun, who supplies automobile repair shops around the country, reopened his business two weeks ago.

"My client in Guangzhou asked me not to go there to sign the contract," said Yu, who employs about two dozen people. "And I was asked whether I had been tested for the virus."

Other members of his company did not want to travel, because of a fear of infection.

"My colleagues are not making jokes any more and it's unusually quiet in the office," Yu said. "I guess some people find it hard to bear the trauma."

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