For people living in Wuhan this January, a year after the world’s first coronavirus lockdown came into place, deja vu hangs in the foggy, winter air.
China is battling its most severe outbreak of the coronavirus in 11 months – more than 2,000 cases over the last five weeks, with at least three from the new UK variant. Infections are primarily clustered around cities in northeast China, more than 600 miles away from Wuhan.
But the city where coronavirus first erupted in late 2019 is taking zero chances. Authorities have reintroduced restrictions, limiting bars and restaurants to 75 per cent capacity and prohibiting large group gatherings.
Posters with pandemic tips that had been torn down are going back up, reminding passersby to wash their hands regularly and stand at least one meter apart. Dedicated bins for face mask disposal are again perched on street corners.
Blue, a hue associated with lockdown – blue face masks, blue emergency tents, blue metal sheets that sealed streets – is back in the city’s colour palette as masks and tents return.
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“For us Wuhan residents, we’ve already been through this,” said Wang Hui, 37, a chauffeur, shrugging. He’s been tested for Covid-19 so many times – always negative – he’s lost count. “This is just the way it is.”
Social distancing may be a nuisance, but it beats the alternative – complete lockdown. Saturday marked exactly a year since Wuhan residents were sealed in their homes for 76 days, confused and scared by a mystery virus killing off neighbours and relatives.
Even before the latest virus flare-up, many were wary of surprise outbreaks and have been happy to keep exercising precautions.
Mr Wang, for instance, is due to receive a vaccine – prioritised by the government as his job means coming into contact with different people daily. “I’ll get the jabs, but after that I’ll still wear a face mask.”
Ms Ma, a shop attendant, half-joking, jumped away when Telegraph reporters from Beijing approached. The capital city is rushing to mass test residents after finding local transmissions in some neighbourhoods.
“Ah, stay far away from me!” she said, describing how a friend living in one of Beijing’s affected districts was recently ushered into quarantine upon arriving in Wuhan.
“We have to stay vigilant,” said Ms Qin, 55, while walking her two dogs, a bichon and a corgi. “I still don’t take the subway these days; it’s way too crowded and I’m scared of the risks.”
Most people are doing their best to live with this new normal, slipping face masks below their chin to slurp spicy sesame noodles, a local specialty, and shouting over loudspeakers triumphantly proclaiming Wuhan a “heroic city,” followed by reminders to ventilate indoor spaces.
“We aren’t exactly relaxed about the situation,” said Mr Li, 52. “But we do have to find ways to live with the stress.” For him, that means enjoying a cup of aged pu’er tea in his teahouse – a new location with cheaper rent as lockdown meant no business, forcing him to move.
The resurgence is alarming for Beijing a few weeks ahead of Chinese New Year, a major travel period that ramped up infection spread across the country last year.
This year, authorities have urged its 1.4 billion people to stay put. In Wuhan, universities extended the break to allow students to return home early in hopes of staggering public travel.
It also comes as Beijing is eager to tout containment success and export its vaccines – a way to deflect growing global anger over its mistakes, which some health experts say may have exacerbated the pandemic.
A massive new exhibition in Wuhan boasts of victory in what Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping called the “people’s war” against the virus.
Visitors walk through China’s official narrative, which sources all virus achievements to Mr Xi and praises him for pulling the country out of misfortune, making zero mention of missteps.
“General Secretary Xi explicitly instructed that medical treatment should be the first priority,” said one sign.
He “gave a series of instructions to mobilise resources and directed the battles of defending Wuhan and Hubei, which in turn boosted confidence, gathered strength, and guided the way for the entire Chinese people.”
Displays are stirring – a hologram of medical staff rushing in a hospital room, a wall from a field hospital with drawings and messages like “For Wuhan, add oil!”, a lifesize replica of workers lined up in hazmat suits, all as orchestral music swells in the background.
But there’s no mention of key figures – Ai Fen, punished for being one of the first doctors to sound the alarm, or Zhang Yongzhen, the virologist who mapped and shared the genome publicly without official permission.
Whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang appears near the end on a wall of martyrs, but the sign omits that he was reprimanded by police after warning colleagues about a virus from which he later died.
Chinese government officials have stopped saying “lockdown,” instead using the euphemistic term, “wartime measures,” to mean the quarantine of millions, which occurs even if only a handful of infections are discovered.
“Wuhan is the safest city in the world,” agrees Ma Lianping, 32, who owns a noodle shop across the street from Jinyintan Hospital, one of the first in the world to start treating coronavirus infections. “You don’t have to worry coming here.”
But others don't believe the government spin.
“I don’t really know about the government’s figures,” said a man running a funeral goods shop across from a crematorium. At pandemic peak, he saw dozens and dozens of corpses transported daily to be burned, more than the 10 or so a day now.
A few blocks from Wuhan Central Hospital, where Dr Li worked and later died, a cafe has on its menu “the whistleblower coffee – a 100% controversial drink.”
“We wanted to do something to remember Li Wenliang,” said Liu Zhenyu, 35, an artist who came up with the idea and designed a bright label with a whistle logo for the drink, which comes in a can. “But we couldn’t be too direct about it.”
Customers can also order a set of four, which comes with a whistle.
“No way, I don’t believe the government’s figures,” he said. Mr Liu thinks the real infection and death tolls could be 10 to 20 times higher than what China reported at about 89,000 and 4,600, respectively.
A recent study by China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention found antibodies in more than 4 per cent of blood samples studied, suggesting the true infection rate in Wuhan could have been at least ten times higher than the roughly 50,000 cases by the government.
He knew a person hospitalised for coronavirus for a month before being discharged, but died a week later — a death that he believes was never counted.
More than 40 clinics in Wuhan have started administering vaccines. Nationwide, 15 million doses have been given, enough for about 1 per cent of the population. Authorities aim to vaccinate 50 million people before Chinese New Year on Feb 12.
But with clusters emerging again, some in Wuhan are bedding in for the holiday a second year in a row hoping to minimise quarantine and infection risks. Even the prospect of getting vaccinated isn’t enough to assuage concerns.
“No, I don’t trust the vaccine. It was developed based on last year’s virus,” said Mr Li, a taxi driver slated to receive shots. “Now, new variants are circulating.”
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