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The former site of an emergency field hospital that treated hundreds of patients at the peak of the outbreak now hosts an exhibition (AP)
The former site of an emergency field hospital that treated hundreds of patients at the peak of the outbreak now hosts an exhibition (AP)
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Anger at China’s Covid-19 response smolders in Wuhan

One year later, Beijing tries to portray pandemic’s starting point as a symbol of victory, but many residents aren’t buying it

WUHAN, China—In the original center of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a monument to China’s fight against Covid-19.

The former site of an emergency field hospital that treated hundreds of patients at the peak of the outbreak now hosts an exhibition on Wuhan’s “decisive victory in the battle" against the viral enemy.

A year after the virus broke out here, though, there is a widespread feeling that the triumphalism is misplaced. For some in Wuhan, there is a sense that it is too soon to declare victory and that the tone is inappropriate. For others, particularly those who lost loved ones at the height of the chaos, there is anger at the government for not acting more quickly and openly.

When Vice Premier Sun Chunlan visited during the city’s quarantine last March to show the situation was under control, she was heckled. Some residents shouted “It’s all fake!" from their apartment windows. Anger still simmers to the point that some are willing to openly criticize the government when such candor is rare, and potentially dangerous.

“We are very angry," said Zhang Hong, a resident who lost her father to Covid-19 in February. “We used to have a lot of faith in the government—we assumed they’d handle matters like this properly and not put us in danger." Instead, officials initially tried to cover up the outbreak rather than confront it, she said. “Now we’re much more skeptical when it comes to trusting the government."

Nationwide, the Communist Party maintains a firm grip on power that, if anything, has been strengthened by its overall handling of the virus. Unlike the U.S. and other countries which have failed to bring the disease under control, China has reported relatively few cases since Wuhan reopened in April, after 76 days of strict quarantine. Authorities are trying to contain a new cluster in Hebei province, near Beijing, though the roughly 800 cases recorded there this month are dwarfed by the mass outbreaks still affecting Western nations.

Still, there are signs that authorities are rattled by the initial outpouring of anger in Wuhan, where people suffered the worst horrors of the pandemic. Censors have clamped down on criticism of the early response. A citizen journalist who covered the pandemic in Wuhan, Zhang Zhan, was sentenced to four years in prison in December after being accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble."

By many measures, Wuhan has recovered with impressive speed. From the depths of lockdown in early 2020, the central Chinese city of 11 million people, which recorded most of China’s more than 88,000 officially recognized Covid-19 cases, has visibly bounced back. As before, cars clog the city’s highways, diners pack its restaurants and old couples dance in its parks.

By August, images of unmasked crowds packing a Wuhan swimming pool for a late-summer DJ party went viral online, highlighting the extent to which life had returned to normal across the country.

With its factories humming again and its shopping malls bustling, China was the only major economy to grow last year. Exports hit a record high, while business in China remains a rare bright spot for many Western companies struggling in other markets, even though travel in and out of the country remains tightly restricted.

That success is worth celebrating, according to some Wuhan residents, who said in December that the government’s handling of the crisis has been vindicated by the runaway outbreaks ravaging other countries.

“I’m proud of what our country is capable of," said Hu Kuanda, a 70-year-old retiree who was in Wuhan throughout the lockdown. He felt that discipline, organization and togetherness had delivered the city from Covid. “I’m moved to tears looking back on it," he said after touring the exhibition alongside busloads of school children, military personnel and government officials, many of them wearing red Communist Party pins.

Its photo displays pay tribute to the heroism of medical workers, their faces lined after hours wearing masks, and ordinary citizens whose small acts of humanity enabled the city to endure. But first in line for praise was President Xi Jinping, credited with leading China to victory over the virus.

Zhang Hong, who says her father was a healthy 66-year-old when Covid-19 engulfed the city, is among those who finds little glory in Wuhan’s suffering. A week after developing what initially seemed like an ordinary cold, he was hospitalized. Days later he was dead.

“I think about it every day. I can never forget what happened," said the 36-year-old, who works in retail.

Ms. Zhang recalled watching with her mother on the day her father died as medical staff in hazmat suits carried him out of a hospital side door in a yellow body bag, which they flung into the back of a funeral car on top of around eight other corpses already piled inside.

“That was a very dark thing to experience; we never really got over it," she said.

Their grief was then drawn out because the funeral, which would normally have been held within three days, couldn’t take place until the city’s lockdown was lifted two months later. Her mother wept every day as they waited to say a proper goodbye, she said.

Ms. Zhang said the victory narrative now being presented by state media obscures the lethal blunders, which she accused the authorities of making in the outbreak’s early stages.

Though doctors told Ms. Zhang that Covid-19 likely killed her father, he was—like many people who died during the Wuhan outbreak—never formally diagnosed or included in the official tally of cases, she said.

The authorities recently acknowledged that the official count of 50,340 citywide cases doesn’t reflect the true scale of the Wuhan outbreak. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in early January that its testing found Covid antibodies in 4.43% of the city’s population, putting the total number of cases Wuhan likely experienced at around half a million.

On Jan. 11, almost exactly one year since Wuhan recorded the first official Covid-19 fatality, the Chinese government succumbed to international pressure to allow a team of World Health Organization experts to enter the country to begin investigating the causes of the pandemic. Chinese authorities had faced mounting criticism for blocking the investigators and suggesting the virus originated in another country.

Chinese authorities have repeatedly defended their actions in the initial first weeks of the outbreak in Wuhan. “As for Covid-19 we have laid out a clear timeline, and what we have done and achieved in our fight against it are open for all to see," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular media briefing in October when asked about U.S. criticism of its handling of the Wuhan outbreak. “So where does the coverup allegation come from?"

The State Council Information Office in Beijing referred questions to Wuhan authorities, who didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Zhu Tao, whose aunt and cousin died during the city’s outbreak, said he had lost all confidence in the authorities to keep him safe. The 45-year-old said he has become a recluse, rarely venturing out of the house because he doesn’t trust official assurances that the virus is under control. He has taken a long-term leave from his job at a state-run steel company.

“The stuff the government says in the media—I don’t believe a word of it," he said, echoing the protests that greeted Ms. Sun, the vice-premier, on her visit last year. “Personally, I think the Covid situation could still be serious."

Mr. Zhu blames officials for the deaths of his relatives. He said they lied about the epidemic in its first weeks, putting millions of people in danger to safeguard their own careers. He expressed outrage that the government had seemingly learned nothing from the 2003 outbreak of a similar novel coronavirus known as Sars that infected over 8,000 people, mostly in China, amid an attempted government coverup.

“They still operate in exactly the same way—suppressing, blocking news, covering things up," he said.

The chaos and fear of the epidemic’s initial phase still weighs on those who experienced it firsthand.

When Wang Shifeng’s pregnant wife fell ill with feverish symptoms in late January, he drove her to the hospital, he recalled, but after waiting in line for four hours staff there refused to admit her, sending them instead to a designated coronavirus facility. Yet they were turned away there too after another four-hour wait, Mr. Wang said, because doctors refused to perform a mandatory CT scan in case it harmed their unborn child.

“At that point everyone in Wuhan [with any kind of illness] was rushing like crazy to get themselves into a hospital in case they had the disease," Mr. Wang said, recalling his sense of panic and frustration as they stood in the late-night cold, not knowing where to turn. “I was frightened to see what was happening."

A nurse finally took pity on them when his wife collapsed and found a way to admit her, Mr. Wang said. Suffering from pneumonia but not, as it turned out, from Covid-19, she recovered after a week in hospital, and their son was born safely in April.

But that harrowing night has left its mark, said the 25-year-old, who now obsessively hoards supplies at home in case there’s another lockdown.

“This left a lifelong impression on the mind of anyone who went through it," he said.

—Qianwei Zhang contributed to this article.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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