Pride and caution in Wuhan on lockdown anniversary

Wuhan (China) (AFP) –


Exactly one year after it thrust the word "lockdown" into the global conversation, Wuhan passes the anniversary on Saturday with a mix of pride at recovering from the coronavirus and caution over a possible relapse.

A year ago Saturday, Wuhan shocked the world by ordering 11 million anxious citizens be confined at home, beginning a traumatic 76-day lockdown that underscored the growing threat of a then-mysterious pathogen emanating from the city.

One by one, adjacent metropolises in hard-hit Hubei province quickly followed suit, as did cities and entire countries worldwide as Covid-19 went global.

But while the world's pandemic struggles continue, Wuhan today is nothing like that locked-down ghost town of a year ago, with traffic humming, sidewalks bustling, and citizens packing public transport and parks.

Yet anxiety lurks below the surface as localised clusters multiply across China, reviving memories of the city's ordeal.

They remain vivid for Huang Genben, 76, who 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," Huang told AFP.

Like many Chinese, he expresses pride at the "great efforts" made by the Beijing government and citizens to contain the pandemic, exemplified by hard-hit Wuhan.

The virus has killed at least two million people globally and continues to spread, but in China less than 5,000 deaths have been reported by authorities, the vast majority coming in Wuhan at the pandemic's outset.

And the city'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 overseas.

- '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," Huang said.

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

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

The virus is generally believed to have spread outward 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 Organization 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.

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

State media reports –- and activity on the streets –- attest to an impressive recovery, but some say it remains incomplete and many residents voice wariness of a viral resurgence.

Xu Jiajun, a 58-year-old street vendor of local foods, drinks, and other items, said times remain tough.

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