The Washington Post

In Wuhan, trauma still runs deep

A year after its coro­n­avirus lock­down, the Chi­nese city’s res­i­dents seek an­swers so they can move on

- BY LILY KUO lily.kuo@wash­ Lyric Li in Seoul and Ali­cia Chen in Taipei con­trib­uted to this re­port. Coronavirus (COVID-19) · Infectious Diseases · Health Conditions · Taipei · Xi Jinping · Beijing · Sina Weibo · World Health Organization · Hubei · China · Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention · U.S. Centers for Disease Control · Dalida · Faye Wong · Shenzhen · Zhongguo Zhongyang Dianshitai · Dali · University of Chicago

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.

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.”

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, mys

teri­ous 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, com

mu­nity 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.”

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. Au

thor­i­ties 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 SARS­like 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 “all­out 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.

“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.

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 ?? PHO­TOS BY NI­CO­LAS ASFOURI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES ?? Peo­ple visit an ex­hi­bi­tion at a cen­ter once used as a makeshift covid hos­pi­tal, above, and pass by a mar­ket in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 15.
PHO­TOS BY NI­CO­LAS ASFOURI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES Peo­ple visit an ex­hi­bi­tion at a cen­ter once used as a makeshift covid hos­pi­tal, above, and pass by a mar­ket in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 15.

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