Searching for answers in Wuhan’s coronavirus aftermath: people at epicentre of China’s crisis want explanations

20-Apr-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Tian Xi says he still can’t get the sound of the screams out of his head.

It was about noon on February 4 and he had volunteered to help deliver medical masks and other supplies in the central Chinese city of Wuhan as part of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

As he entered one residential compound with a delivery, four men in full protective medical gear carried a black body bag downstairs, followed by two wailing women. Their cries were piecing and hysterical, he said.

The men loaded the body into a van, which had several others already inside.

More than two months later, he says he wants to forget that day but the memory and the shock of the moment stays with him.

“I don’t want this to stay with me for my whole life,” he said. “It’s so frightening.”

That was two weeks into an unprecedented lockdown in Wuhan, the initial epicentre of the pandemic that has infected about 2 million people around the world and claimed 140,000 lives.

Tian, a sales representative for a drone company, is one of dozens of people in Wuhan, from doctors and business owners to volunteers and the general public, who shared some of the most dramatic moments of their lives as the epidemic raged in Wuhan. They also had questions.

For Tian, 33, one of the big questions is what happened to the early-warning disease control system that China developed and set up after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) 17 years earlier.

He also wanted to know why the first Wuhan doctors to raise the alarm about the virus were silenced by local police.

“China spent millions of dollars on the early-warning system for infectious diseases. Why did it fail?” Tian said. “We had whistle-blowers, why were they reprimanded?

“If there’s no reflection about this, another crisis will come and it will become even more severe.”

In the months since the emergence of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, China has slowly brought down the number of cases nationwide. Finally, after 76 days, it lifted many of the major lockdown restrictions on the city on April 8.

But critics, both Chinese intellectuals and Western politicians, have pointed to clear signs of a government cover-up in the beginning of the outbreak. Some of them blame that on China’s Communist Party and President Xi Jinping personally.

Xi himself had to acknowledge that lessons needed to be learned, but that has been limited to disease control and the illegal wildlife trade, with the virus thought to have jumped to humans from an animal, possibly linked to a Wuhan wet market.

However, on the ground in the city, there was much less criticism of the top and even praise for Beijing’s capacity to pour resources into combating the crisis.

On the street, Wuhan residents reserved their criticism for the mistreatment of early whistle-blowers, as well as the lack of credibility of lower-level government officials, while raising broader issues of transparency and accountability.

The most prominent of those to raise an early red flag was Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist who warned colleagues and friends in an online group about a number of “Sars-like” cases at his hospital.

For that he was disciplined by the police in early January for “rumour mongering”.

Li later contracted the disease and died in early February. For many, his death symbolised government inaction in the outbreak and a lack of freedom of speech, even on issues of major public concern.

“The thing that touched me the most was the death of Dr Li Wenliang,” said a doctor with the Zhongnan Hospital in Wuhan, who would only be identified by his surname Wang. “As a fellow doctor, I think he’s a great man.”

Calling Li’s experience “very unfair”, Wang, 26, said that he would do the same if he faced a similar situation in the future.

“Learning from Dr Li Wenliang, I think most doctors would do the same,” Wang said.

He added that the pandemic showed how China’s political system had marginalised medical expertise, but he now expected it to change for the better.

“The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not a government body and has no decision-making power,” he said. “This is a major flaw of the system compared to those of other countries.”

Unlike its US counterpart, China’s CDC is a research institute affiliated with the National Health Commission, which is a ministerial body. It therefore has no decision-making power or authority to make important health announcements.

Similar concerns haunt Stephen Cheng, a 30-year-old Wuhan resident whose pregnant wife and father contracted the coronavirus.

“If the decision-makers ever visited or talked to frontline doctors, they would’ve known how many patients were there and they would have taken precautions earlier,” said Cheng, who works in the real estate business.

Cheng’s family showed symptoms of the disease in late January, when panicked crowds flooded hospitals in the city, resulting in great shortages of beds and test kits.

The family spent two weeks driving from one hospital to another, only to be turned away time after time. Hundreds of people were waiting at the city’s seven main hospitals for a bed. By Cheng’s rough calculations, that could add up to more than 10,000 cases within a week of the lockdown starting. The official number for Wuhan a week later was only around 2,600.

“I believe the death toll is higher too, but I can’t tell by how many more,” he said.

As Cheng’s wife and father gradually recovered, Cheng became curious about how other countries tackled the outbreak as it spread.

“Other countries have their problems, too, but I think they do a better job in respecting individuals,” Cheng said.

“In Italy they published profiles of so many of the dead [from the disease] in the newspaper. But China wouldn’t do it, it might even hide the real numbers.”

The crisis in Wuhan also prompted some people to act with more solidarity and to help each other.

Zhang Zhonglin is a hotel owner and on Monday he signed an online petition with dozens more owners to demand government action to help small hotels like his.

The municipal Wuhan government gave no warning about the crisis until a lockdown was imposed on January 23, he said.

“There were obviously a number of [Covid-19] cases in December and there were some whistle-blowers,” he said. “There was definitely government inaction then, and we volunteered and acted on our own to help.”

Zhang, along with dozens of other hotel proprietors, opened up their hotels for free to doctors and nurses in the city.

The medical personnel did not dare to go home after work, fearing they would infect their families with the deadly virus. Many had to stay near the hospital as all transport was suspended in the city.

Zhang, who runs two hotels in the city, said he took in more than 80 doctors and nurses, providing them with some room service, too.

One of his hotels was fully occupied by 60 doctors from the nearby Wuhan Central Hospital, he said.

“That is the hospital where Dr Li Wenliang worked,” Zhang said.

But as the city heals, Zhang’s business is struggling to survive and does not have the cash flow to keep operating.

Zhang and others who signed the petition maintain that they are entitled to government support, given the helping hand they gave in the crisis.

“Those who brought firewood to the public should not be left frozen to death in the snow,” the petition said.

The impact of the pandemic on Wuhan residents varied but almost all had been touched by a sense of despair, said Hu Fayun, a writer based in the city.

“With desperation, people might ultimately ask why,” said Hu, who has written several books on the most turbulent chapters of China’s history under late leader Mao Zedong. “If the government wants to win hearts and minds, it has to first say what it did right and what it did wrong.

“None of the most important questions are answered. What are the real numbers of infection and deaths? How many died of chronic diseases when the hospitals were all busy treating Covid-19 patients?”

While critics have questioned the government’s actions, the authorities have also pushed back to claim control of the narrative a tactic that has worked with some of Wuhan’s residents.

At least eight residents in separate interviews said the virus most likely came from the US, citing the Military World Games in October, which brought military athletes from around the world, including from the US.

For months, China’s internet censors have allowed articles to circulate on social media that support this theory.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian even raised theory on his Twitter account, and urged his followers to share the allegation from a Canadian conspiracy website that the disease originated in the US.

Zhao wrote on the platform, which is inaccessible to most in China: “Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

His comments, which came as Beijing was angered by US officials referring to the outbreak as the “China virus”, did find an audience in Wuhan.

“This is very likely to be from the US, the timing says it all,” said a Wuhan cab driver who gave his surname as Cheng. He added that the first cases were found soon after the military games.

“I also saw Russian experts talk about it in the news,” he said. “There needs to be a moment of truth for this.”


Category: China

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