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China ends Wuhan lockdown, but normal life is a distant dream

Wednesday’s reopening came after only three new coronavirus cases were reported in the city in the previous three weeks, and a day after China reported no new deaths for the first time since January. Controls on outbound travel were officially lifted just after midnight in China.

By: New York Times | Published: April 8, 2020 7:42:34 am
Residents wearing masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus line up to enter a supermarket in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. (AP Photo)

Written by Raymond Zhong and Vivian Wang

China on Wednesday ended its lockdown of Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus first emerged and a potent symbol in a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of people, shaken the global economy and thrown daily life into upheaval across the planet.

But the city that has reopened after more than 10 weeks is a profoundly damaged one, a place whose recovery will be watched worldwide for lessons on how populations move past pain and calamity of such staggering magnitude.

In Wuhan, sickness and death have touched hundreds of thousands of lives, imprinting them with trauma that could linger for decades. Businesses, even those that have reopened, face a wrenching road ahead, with sluggishness likely to persist. Neighborhood authorities continue to regulate people’s comings and goings, with no return to normalcy in sight.

Chinese authorities sealed off Wuhan, an industrial hub of 11 million people, in late January, in a frantic attempt to limit the outbreak’s spread. At the time, many outsiders saw it as an extreme step, one that could be tried only in an authoritarian system like China’s. But as the epidemic has worsened, governments around the world have enacted a variety of stringent restrictions on their citizens’ movements.

The full measure of the sacrifice that such policies entail — in jobs and income lost, in lives disrupted — might first be taken in Wuhan.

Wednesday’s reopening came after only three new coronavirus cases were reported in the city in the previous three weeks, and a day after China reported no new deaths for the first time since January. Controls on outbound travel were officially lifted just after midnight in China.

People can now leave after presenting to the authorities a government-sanctioned phone app that indicates, based on their home address, recent travels and medical history, whether they are a contagion risk.

China’s national rail operator estimated that more than 55,000 people would leave Wuhan by train Wednesday, according to a state-run broadcaster.

Within the city, however, tough rules on individuals and businesses are still in place to prevent the virus from regaining a foothold. Officials continue to urge everyone to stay at home as much as possible. Schools are still closed.

Many people in Wuhan do not need to be told to keep isolating themselves, to say nothing about leaving the city. The experience of death and near-death has left psychic wounds. Of mainland China’s 80,000 reported cases of the virus, nearly two-thirds have been in Wuhan.

People can now leave after presenting to the authorities a government-sanctioned phone app that indicates, based on their home address, recent travels and medical history, whether they are a contagion risk. (AP Photo)

“Wuhan people experienced it firsthand,” said Yan Hui, a Wuhan native and sales executive in her 50s who recovered from the coronavirus. “Their friends got sick. Their friends and friends’ relatives died. Right before their eyes, one by one, they left us.”

“Their understanding of this disaster is deeper compared to people in other cities,” she said.

Wuhan is already not the same metropolis where, not so long ago, the passage of time seemed to have ground to a halt.

In recent days, more shops have reopened, often setting up street-front counters so that customers can buy vegetables, alcohol, cigarettes and other goods without entering. In parks along the Yangtze River, growing numbers of families have ventured out to take in the sunshine and fresh air.

Older residents have started congregating again in small groups to chat or play rounds of Chinese chess. Children are a rarer sight, and always appear to be under the wary watch of parents.

Public buses and the subway system have restarted, although they often seem to have few passengers.

Mountains of cardboard boxes have sprouted up outside apartment complexes as online shopping picks up. According to JD.com, an e-retailer, delivery orders in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, increased threefold in March compared with February.

In this Thursday, April 2, 2020, photo, residents cross the expressway gate at the border into Wuhan city in central China’s Hubei province. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

And more people are treating themselves, the company said: They have shifted from buying daily necessities and home fitness equipment to buying clothing, cosmetics and travel accessories.

Companies in Wuhan have been cautiously calling their employees back to work, contributing to the revival of city life.

Across Wuhan, nearly 94% of businesses — almost 11,000 of them in total — have resumed operations, said Hu Yabo, the city’s deputy mayor, at a recent news briefing. For major industrial enterprises, the rate exceeded 97%. For service companies, it was 93%.

It is unclear how much business they are actually doing, however. At industrial companies in Wuhan, only 60% of employees are on the job, and electricity consumption is one-fifth less than what it was this time last year, said Dang Zhen, another city official, at the same briefing.

Honda’s local venture is back to producing at full capacity, Hu said. Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, said on social media that employees at its Wuhan research center were eagerly returning to work “as a fresh wave of positivity pulsates around the building.”

china coronavirus cases, coronavirus outbreak, hubei province, china lifts restrictions, world news, indian express

Yet gloom about the local economy remains widespread. Much of China’s factory sector is suffering as the pandemic dampens overseas demand for exports. As businesses pull back their spending on equipment and offices, the effects will ripple through the rest of the economy.

During the whole of February, when the epidemic was at its peak in China, not a single residential real estate deal was made in Wuhan, neither for new properties nor for ones already built, according to government statistics.

Helen Ding, 47, works at an architectural design company in the city. While her firm’s existing projects are mostly large enough that they cannot be easily canceled, her bosses are concerned about future business and future clients.

“The whole world is in a bad state, and as far as the future goes, nobody has much confidence,” Ding said.

For many small businesses, the loss of income could lead to further trouble. Short on cash, companies that have laid off workers may not be able to rehire them right away. Others worry about backed-up inventories of unsold goods, maintenance costs for equipment and customs disputes as the pandemic continues to snarl commerce around the world.

This month, a large group of restaurateurs in Wuhan wrote a letter to the city government pleading for rent relief, subsidized loans and wage support. The epidemic, they said, had been a “total disaster” for the industry.

At the height of the epidemic, Liu Dongzhou thought about giving up on his company, which makes fish balls, shredded chicken, and other frozen and processed foods. Now, he hopes to restart operations next week — but expects to lay off a fifth of his 80 employees.

People wearing face masks wait for a subway train on the first day the city’s subway services resumed following the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Wuhan of Hubei province, the epicentre of China’s coronavirus outbreak, Reuters Photo

Liu, 45, has heard much talk of government policies to help small enterprises. But he does not think any will be available to him in the short term.

Even if authorities are allowing people to leave Wuhan, Liu said his own neighborhood had recently tightened its restrictions on residents’ movements. Wednesday does not feel like much of a milestone.

“To an ordinary person, if you lift or don’t lift the lockdown, there isn’t that big of a difference,” he said.

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