Coronavirus

Pride and caution in Wuhan as city passes anniversary of world-first COVID-19 lockdown

People wearing face masks walk on Jianghan street in Wuhan on 10 January, 2021, the eve of the first anniversary of China confirming its first COVID-19 death. Source: Getty Images

It's been a year since Wuhan shocked the world and thrust the word "lockdown" into the global conversation, by confining its 11 million anxious citizens to their homes.

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 citizens 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 eery silence descended.

People run along the banks of the Yangtze River in Wuhan on 11 January, as the city marks the first anniversary of China confirming its first COVID-19 death.
People run along the banks of the Yangtze River in Wuhan on 11 January, as the city marks the first anniversary of China confirming its first COVID-19 death.
Getty Images

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 maskless jogger in his 20s who gave only his surname Wang, 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," Mr 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.

Elderly people dance in a public area along the Yangtze River in Wuhan on 11 January, 2021.
Elderly people dance in a public area along the Yangtze River in Wuhan on 11 January, 2021.
Getty Images

The virus has killed at least two million people globally and continues to rage, but in China authorities have reported fewer than 5,000 deaths, the vast majority coming 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.

'I feel pain'

"We can tell from the results that the policy of the government was correct, the cooperation of (Wuhan) citizens was correct. I feel pain seeing the epidemic all over the world," Mr Huang said.

The government has pushed an official propaganda narrative - starring Wuhan - focusing on a "heroic" Chinese response and recovery.

A woman wearing a protective face mask sells food to customers at a small restaurant in a residential area of Wuhan, China, on 22 January, 2021.
A woman wearing a protective face mask sells food to customers at a small restaurant in a residential area of Wuhan, China, on 22 January, 2021.
AAP

But there are no known lockdown commemorations planned Saturday by Beijing, which remains tight-lipped on the pandemic's early days amid accusations it tried to cover it up or mishandled the outbreak, allowing it to spread.

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 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.

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks at a market in a residential area, in Wuhan, China, on 22 January 2021.
A woman wearing a protective face mask walks at a market in a residential area, in Wuhan, China, on 22 January 2021.
AAP

'Strong, fearless'

The anniversary was barely acknowledged in China on Saturday morning, with no initial government statements seen and minimal mention in state propaganda outlets.

A commentary in the Beijing News professed "mixed feelings", praising the aggressive lockdown as a model for the world while noting Wuhan's sacrifices - and the persistent virus threat.

"We must not lose the hard-won results of the epidemic to negligence, and must not let the epidemic rebound," it said.

It added: "Pay tribute to Wuhan. Pay tribute to the strong and fearless Chinese people!"

While other nations, notably the United States, have dithered on their coronavirus response, Wuhan shut down completely, plunging its economy into recession.

Now, the activity on the streets attests to an impressive rebound, but some say it remains incomplete.

Xu Jiajun, a 58-year-old street vendor, said times remained tough.

"The situation is not good. I don't have a stable income like I did before. Things have changed," he said.

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