Wuhan’s liberation greeted with anger and anxiety
Seventy-six days after severing links with the outside world, the Chinese city at the centre of the global coronavirus outbreak has lifted its official ban on travel, ending the world’s largest mass quarantine.
The “liberation” of Wuhan marks an important step in President Xi Jinping’s plan to declare an early victory over the crisis just as western countries are struggling to contain the outbreak.
Some 55,000 people on Wednesday alone are expected to leave Wuhan, the railway administration said.
But for many of Wuhan’s 11m residents, the formal lifting of restrictions on movement is just the start of a long recovery for a city in severe economic distress and a population fearful of a second outbreak.
Activity has picked up on the streets of Wuhan but many businesses remain shut. Scores of residential districts around the city are still sealed off, barring free movement.
Many people eager to leave the city are still waiting for permission to do so and will end up in quarantine when they eventually arrive at their destination. Even more worrying, locals fear asymptomatic cases are spreading without detection as more people emerge from their homes.
“There is no reason to feel relieved,” said Lucy Zhang, a Wuhan-based academic, who has been stuck in the city throughout the crisis. “The disease has come under control because China has allocated the entire nation’s medical resources to Wuhan. We can’t afford a second wave.”
Wuhan was sealed off from the rest of the country from January 23. In the following days, cities and towns across Hubei province went into lockdown. An estimated 60m people were trapped.
While most of Hubei province reopened on March 25, Wuhan remained closed to outbound travellers until Wednesday.
Its reconnection with the world has been hailed in state media as proof that China’s system has succeeded while other countries such as the US, Italy and Spain have struggled to bring the outbreak under control.
On Wednesday morning, car horns blared across downtown Wuhan while on the outskirts of the city, traffic increased by 10 times overnight and authorities stopped checking temperatures of passengers.
Locals in Wuhan have welcomed the opening of their city but point out that complete victory is still far off.
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In Wuhan’s central Hankou area, where the virus is thought to have originated, many residential communities are still under strict lockdown. Many apartment blocks have been boarded up with makeshift walls that stop people from leaving or entering.
Authorities have recently grown concerned about asymptomatic carriers of the disease spreading quickly through the city as controls are lifted. Residents in communities where such cases are discovered are barred from leaving.
The fear of new contagion has forced many to stay inside. Those free to move about say they plan to do so cautiously.
“I wouldn’t visit shopping malls at this point. It’s still risky given the existence of asymptomatic virus carriers,” said Jack Mao, a sales director at Charoen Pokphand Group in Wuhan.
“When you just recover from a big disease, you wouldn’t eat and drink heavily. You take a gradual approach to return to normal life and that’s what Wuhan will experience.”
The sudden outbreak of the virus, followed by the rapid severing of transport links to other provinces in January, trapped tens of thousands of people from elsewhere in the country. Many struggled to sustain themselves during the lockdown.
In a makeshift dormitory once occupied by construction workers in downtown Wuhan, more than 50 non-residents are keen to return to their hometowns after being trapped for more than two months.
After being denied entry to hotels and being forced to sleep on the street, the local government in early March provided free shelter and food and promised a one-time subsidy of Rmb3,000 ($425) per person.
But many among the group are still angry with the government. Li Xiujuan, a 39-year-old sales manager from Hunan province, said she paid a heavy price for the government’s slow response to the crisis.
“I’ve lost two months of income and couldn’t be with my family,” said Ms Li, who will be leaving on Wednesday for the city of Changsha. “The government would not even compensate my train ticket even though it’s their fault for covering up the disease.”
Many people eager to take advantage of their new-found mobility are finding it more difficult than expected to leave Wuhan.
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To return to some cities in China, such as Hangzhou and Guangzhou, travellers must first get tested for the virus, which can take a long time and is very expensive for poorer families. Some people hoping to return to Beijing have discovered they must enter government-controlled quarantine facilities, an option some say is worse than simply staying in Wuhan.
Nikki Xu, a 31-year-old programmer who works for a Beijing-based ecommerce company, was trapped in Wuhan after visiting her parents for the lunar new year in January. She is now allowed to return to Beijing but local officials in the capital insist she must enter a government quarantine facility upon arrival.
“Now they said I can go but will have to let them know [so I can be taken to the facility],” Ms Xu said.
Instead of leaving and facing a new quarantine in another city, Ms Xu says she plans to stick it out in Wuhan.
Additional reporting by Selena Li in Hong Kong