Wuhan Shows the World Its Post-Coronavirus Future

Brendon Hong
Noel Celis/Getty

HONG KONG—Trains are leaving Wuhan for the first time since January 23, carrying 55,000 people out of the city in one day. Long-haul buses are moving passengers across provinces. Planes are taking off at the airport again. Roadblocks on outbound highways have been removed, and cars have been streaming through since midnight. The lockdown of the first epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic—after doctors who flagged the unusual virus were gagged by authorities—was lifted at midnight local time on Wednesday. 

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It’s difficult to look back at the lockdown without feeling like it was an 11-week internment. More than 3,300 people reportedly have died in China due to COVID-19, including nearly 2,600 in the city of Wuhan alone. (The official tallies are deemed by medical professionals in China and abroad to be much lower than the actual count.) Intensive care units were, of course, where the most recorded deaths occurred; the mortality rate in Wuhan’s ICUs was between 25 and 30 percent, according to Dr. Peng Zhiyong, who led two ICU teams in the city and maintained the lowest rates of fatalities and hospital transmissions at the facilities where he worked.

Now, after daily—hourly, constant—checks on the epidemic curve, there is an uneasy mixture of relief and apprehension as life in Wuhan crawls back to a normal pace and Hubei province reconnects with the rest of the country.

There are lessons here for the hard-hit United States, where to date almost four times as many people have died as in China, judging by official numbers. But, sadly, those lessons are limited. Other countries may benefit more from what has been learned in Wuhan.

In the United States, the Trump administration apparently expects 50 states to compete with each other, and with the federal government, for vital resources. In China, the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party poured everything it could into Wuhan and Hubei after the very strict province-wide lockdown. It flew in medical workers from all over the country, military assistance, construction workers to build hospitals, and others to enforce the quarantines while enhancing survival rates.

For two and a half months, Hubei’s 60 million people—roughly the population of Italy—have been confined to their homes. To venture out in public for crucial supply runs, they had to pass through checkpoints manned by private security guards, neighborhood-level Chinese Communist Party custodians, or police officers. 

The population’s material needs were taken care of, but there was a constant air of uncertainty about what might happen next. Might there be a surge in infection numbers and deaths the next day? Could one’s neighbor, parent, friend fall ill and fail to find medical assistance at the packed hospitals? What if the pandemic does not end?

Today, the physical signs of those weeks of worry remain present. Barbed wire still runs along the tops of walls surrounding some residential complexes, installed to prevent people from leaping over the barriers to cure their cabin fever. Many older buildings—those with only two or three floors—are still boarded up.

So far, it hasn’t been a smooth transition for Wuhan. There were plenty of dead car batteries. Social distancing was difficult to achieve on public transportation. Frequent temperature checks and pauses to disinfect slowed down movement across the city—although few were in a rush to begin with.

Even at the beginning of the week, Wuhan and the rest of Hubei were coming back to life slowly. Some restaurants lit their stove fires again—patrons couldn’t always dine in, but they placed orders and waited patiently for their takeout, standing five or six feet apart from each other. Sounds and smells of human activity were returning. You could spot people strolling along the quiet waterfront—just a handful, but enough to give the impression that things could go back to normal, that maybe not all of spring was lost. 

Now, across mainland China, it’s common enough to see people wearing latex gloves and plastic goggles when they are outside of their homes. Masks are mandatory in public areas, meant to limit significantly the virus’ spread in case you are a carrier. This curtails the footprint of the coronavirus—a particularly important act because medical professionals believe that many people who carry the virus are asymptomatic, meaning they may not even realize that they can cause severe illness in others.

When much of China was still under lockdown, people spoke of “revenge spending,” a term that harks back to the spike in consumption after the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, now appropriated to outline the urge to splurge after shops reopen when the COVID pandemic subsides. But while businesses in Wuhan, Hubei, and the rest of the country have spun up operations again, consumers have been cautious about their expenditures. Many have drained significant chunks of their savings, and the likelihood of a second wave of infections hitting later this year has people worrying that they will have to hunker down again, this time with even tighter purse strings.

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In the first three months of this year, nearly half a million businesses in China went belly up. More are expected to declare bankruptcy in the coming weeks. Companies that ship goods to other countries are being hit hard as foreign clients seek delays in shipments or are canceling orders altogether.

Firms involved in mass-scale surveillance, however, are more active than ever. Throughout China, smartphone-based tracking measures are now used to indicate a person’s health status and location history. Whip out your phone and call up your assigned QR code—if it’s green, then you can access public transportation, as well as facilities like shopping malls, restaurants, and parks. The same tools are used to determine whether a person can travel throughout the country. The exception is the capital, Beijing, where all arrivals must commit to 14 days of quarantine.

This isn’t a policy that is unique to China. Around the world, at least 24 countries are tracking their citizens’ locations using applications that went online during the COVID-19 pandemic, and at least 14 nations have rolled out apps for contact tracing or as part of quarantine protocols, according to information compiled by Human Rights Watch, Privacy International, and more than 100 other organizations.

Yet even with a digital dragnet over the country, our lack of understanding of the coronavirus and COVID-19 brings about intense uneasiness. It is still unclear how common asymptomatic transmission is, but classified Chinese documents seen by reporters of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post suggest that up to one-third of people who test positive could be carrying the virus without showing any symptoms. 

People I spoke to in Wuhan, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou were all anxious about how every human body—including their own—has the potential to become a walking bio-bomb that could kill a friend or loved one. It’s a distressing thought that is compounded when a nation is being steered by its central government to return to the tempo from three months ago.

The weekend was a reminder that the pandemic has left indelible imprints on China—and the rest of the world. Last Saturday was a day of mourning for those who died in China due to COVID-19. At 10:00 a.m., people stopped what they were doing to observe three minutes of silence. Sirens wailed. Drivers sounded their vehicles’ horns. Flags flew at half-mast. In every city, town, and village, tears fell. Chinese Communist Party leaders, including President Xi Jinping, gathered at Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the CCP and central government in the capital, where a banner reading “deeply mourn for martyrs and compatriots” now hangs. The party has claimed every casualty as one of its own.

Yet none of this implies that China is on the other side of this viral calamity. Last week, Zeng Guang, the chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the country “has not reached the end [of the pandemic], but is merely entering a new phase.” The main worry, for now, is that asymptomatic carriers will infect others as people travel across the country to get back to work, ultimately negating the months-long containment efforts that have placed life on hold for many millions of people.

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