‘Coronavirus has changed us forever’: Wuhan emerges from its nightmare

Just days after reports of an outbreak of a new virus in Wuhan, Chen Wenlu’s father woke up with a fever. It was January 22 and, as far as they knew, only a few hundred people had fallen ill. They thought it unlikely that the 55-year-old public servant would be one of them.

“He thought it would be impossible,” said Ms Chen, a 29-year-old architect. But along with millions of others in the Chinese city, the Chen family was on the cusp of a 76-day ordeal that would radically alter their lives and from which they are only this week emerging. 

The next day, the city of 11m was shut off from the outside world to halt the spread of coronavirus — a decision that shocked the Chen family and the city as a whole. 

Within weeks, the lockdown would be replicated across Asia, Europe and the US. As of Friday, more than 1.6m cases have been confirmed globally and more than 90,000 people have died. With much of the world still under lockdown, Wuhan, where the disease originated, is among the first to lift restrictions.

The mass quarantine, which lasted 76 days, officially ended on Wednesday with the so-called “liberation” of the city. Official data revealed that more than 3,200 people died of the disease during the period and more than 67,000 people in Hubei province became sick. 

Residents are trying to make sense of two months in which normal life ceased to exist. Some are desperate to leave the city, others are anxious about a second outbreak. The lockdown has had huge economic consequences and many are wondering how they will get back on their feet.

“Seventy-six days is a long time,” said Ms Chen. “During that time I also felt angry . . . Nothing was right in the beginning. Overall management of the situation was very bad. But it got better.”

Her family’s health problems worsened quickly, Ms Chen recalled. First her father had a fever. But he shrugged it off and still went to work. The next day his wife also had a fever. Then Ms Chen fell ill a day later, followed by her husband.

They went to the hospital several times but told they were not suffering from coronavirus. Not until the 10th day after Mr Chen fell ill did a doctor confirm that “something was wrong”. 

Mr Chen, who did not wish to disclose his first name, and his wife were eventually admitted to hospital. By then many people in the district where they lived were infected. A quarantine had been imposed and they were forbidden from stepping outside. 

Makeshift hospitals were built and morgues quickly became overloaded. Many people have described a feeling of helplessness that swept over Wuhan and lingers still, even after the reopening of the city.

“There was nothing you could do but watch from your window,” said Zhang Shixu, the owner of a small business selling beauty and hair supplies. “I’m my own boss. So I had to rely on my own savings through the outbreak. But now I have nothing left. I don’t know how I’ll keep my doors open.”

Now that the city has formally opened up, Mr Zhang is eager to visit loved ones in western China, as well as in the capital Beijing. 

But despite the official lifting of the ban on Wuhan residents, it is difficult to travel to other cities. Beijing, for example, has put in place a complex system that allows Wuhan residents to purchase inbound train tickets only after applying to local government officials, a process that can take several days and is not guaranteed.

China launched a national campaign during the outbreak to recognise Wuhan residents as heroes. The slogan “Wuhan, add oil!”, a Chinese phrase that translates as “Go Wuhan!”, can be seen on signboards and advertisements across the country. But still Mr Zhang feels like a pariah. 

“Everyday you hear people on TV say ‘Wuhan, add oil!’ but actually they don’t want us,” he said.

Travellers in protective suits at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport after the lockdown was lifted
Travellers in protective suits at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport after the lockdown was lifted © Aly Song/Reuters

Huang Wei, a restaurateur in Wuhan, shut down his barbecue shop when news first emerged of human-to-human transmission on January 20.

He only began selling takeaway meals on April 5 but a full reopening of his restaurant is at least a month away. He is taking in less than a sixth of his normal income and has received no support from the government.

While the government has promised to help small businesses to get low-cost bank loans, in practice it might be difficult for them to access this cash. 

“A lot of people are talking about the consumption rebound as a result of the release of pent-up demand,” Mr Huang said. “I don’t expect that to happen.”

“How can you spend your way out of recession when you have a mortgage and other bills to pay and your job is under threat? It is going to be a tough year for Wuhan.”

Coronavirus business update

How is coronavirus taking its toll on markets, business, and our everyday lives and workplaces? Stay briefed with our coronavirus newsletter.

Sign up here

After spending 10 days in the hospital, Mr Chen and his wife returned home. They both made a full recovery. Ms Chen and her husband also recovered. Others in their residential district were less fortunate. The area reported several deaths during the outbreak.

Life is slowly beginning to come back to normal in Wuhan. But Ms Chen said there is still a long way to go. 

“I think it’s possible,” she said of returning to how life was before the outbreak. “Maybe it needs two more months. But it has already changed Wuhanese forever, I think.”

[optin-cat id=7010]