By Martin Quin Pollard
WUHAN (Reuters) -In the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak nearly three years ago and where thousands died, residents cautiously greeted a relaxation of lockdown measures by authorities this week.
In the city center, few people were in shops and restaurants and the subway was only partially filled as many residents remained wary of a possible new flare-up of infections.
The teeming metropolis bore the brunt of the pandemic in its early stages in early 2020, when authorities ordered the entire city of 11 million to be sealed off in a military-style lockdown for more than two months - a traumatic chapter that has not been forgotten by some.
"We know the country is reopening but we ourselves haven't let down our guard," said one Wuhan cornershop owner. "We're taking precautions, protecting ourselves because it (the virus) is spreading quickly."
Outside a fever clinic attached to Wuhan's central hospital where Li Wenliang, a whistleblower doctor, had worked and first raised awareness of the mysterious virus before succumbing to it himself, a queue of more than 100 people sought treatment, marshalled by workers in white hazmat suits.
Two Wuhan pharmacies visited by Reuters had sold out of fever medication a day ago, while customers asked for vitamin C or cough medicine in vain with stocks depleted.
"This has never happened before, not even at the start of the outbreak in 2020," said one Wuhan pharmacist surnamed Liu.
Health authorities in Wuhan reported 229 new COVID cases on Thursday, while health authorities in Beijing reported more than 16,000 cases nationwide on the same day.
Beijing has also been quiet amid a reluctance of some businesses to drop COVID curbs. Enduring anxieties about the coronavirus are likely to hamper a speedy return to health for the world's second-largest economy. [L8N32Z09X]
"For Wuhaners, there's always this tendency to resort to panic buying, whether it is medicine, or food. It's fair to say that's because we were traumatised from the first wave, and that experience stays with us," said Li, a 31-year old manager who works for a real estate company in Wuhan.
"LIKE A NIGHTMARE"
Over the past year, Wuhan, which straddles the Yangtze River in central China, has been in intermittent, partial lockdown as some regional logistic centres such as Dongxi Hu District reported cases throughout the year.
By November, as frustration towards the zero-COVID policies mounted, some Wuhan residents like Sam Yuen, a teacher, joined protests demanding an end to the lockdowns, alongside thousands of others in cities across China.
"It was a nightmare ... it felt like we were being treated like animals," Yuen told Reuters.
He described how residential compounds across the city had been sealed off with metal sheets by the autumn in a throwback to the days of the first outbreak.
"Before, people always said youths wouldn't resist and fight for their rights, but resisting like this was good. It showed wisdow and courage ... When I saw people standing there I was very moved. It was one of the best moments of my life. In 30 years I've not felt such collective passion such as this."
For Wang Wenjun, who lost an uncle during the lockdown in 2020, the scars have not yet healed.
"All throughout this period I have felt numb. I don't feel I received any help at all," she told Reuters
When people began falling ill with a mysterious form of pneumonia in December 2019, with a cluster of cases linked to the Huanan seafood market, authorities were criticised for being slow to respond and trying to cover up news of the infections.
The downtown market remained boarded up during a visit by a Reuters correspondent on Friday.
Cases surged in Wuhan, with authorities later scrambling to build make-shift hospitals in gymnasiums, sports stadiums and convention centers amid the city-wide lockdown.
City authorities put the official death toll at 3,869 in April 2020. But some felt the actual figures were much higher amid reports of people queing to collect the ashes of relatives and urns stacking up in funeral homes.
"Under their (government) control, their leadership, how can we have a good life?" Wang said.
Others, however, welcomed the chance for a fresh start.
"I was excited to hear the news," said Chen, 32, a university lecturer. "We can finally, finally move on."
(Additional reporting by Selena Li, Darerca Siu and James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Angus MacSwan)