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SENSE OF NORMALCY. Residents practice tai chi at a park in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on January 23, 2021. A year after it was locked down to contain the spread of coronavirus, the city of Wuhan has largely returned to normal, even as China continues to battle outbreaks elsewhere in the country. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

From The Asian Reporter, V31, #2 (February 1, 2021), pages 4 & 5.

Wuhan returns to normal as world still battling pandemic

By Emily Wang Fujiyama

The Associated Press

WUHAN, China — More than a year ago, a notice sent to smartphones in Wuhan at 2:00am announced the world’s first coronavirus lockdown, bringing the bustling central Chinese industrial and transport center to a virtual standstill almost overnight. It would last 76 days.

On an early Saturday morning last month, however, residents of the city where the virus was first detected were jogging and practicing tai chi in a fog-shrouded park beside the mighty Yangtze River.

Life has largely returned to normal in the city of 11 million, even as the rest of the world grapples with the spread of the virus’ more contagious variants. Efforts to vaccinate people for COVID-19 have been frustrated by disarray and limited supplies in some places. The scourge has killed more than 2.2 million people worldwide.

Traffic was light in Wuhan but there was no sign of the barriers that a year ago isolated neighborhoods, prevented movement around the city, and confined people to their housing compounds and even apartments.

Wuhan accounted for the bulk of China’s 4,636 deaths from COVID-19, a number that has largely stayed static for months. The city has been largely free of further outbreaks since the lockdown was lifted on April 8, but questions persist as to where the virus originated and whether Wuhan and Chinese authorities acted fast enough and with sufficient transparency to allow the world to prepare for a pandemic that has sickened more than 100 million.

Wuhan has been praised for its sacrifice in the service of the nation, turning it into a sort of Stalingrad in China’s war against the virus, commemorated in books, documentaries, TV shows, and florid panegyrics from officials including head of state and leader of the Communist Party Xi Jinping.

"We think Wuhan is a heroic city. After all, it stopped its economy to help China deal with the pandemic. This is a noble act," said resident Chen Jiali, 24, who works at an internet shopping company.

Authorities are wary of the potential for a new surge surrounding the Lunar New Year holiday and are telling people not to travel and to avoid gatherings as much as possible. Schools are being let out a week early and many have already shifted to online classes. Mask wearing remains virtually universal indoors and on public transport. Mobile phone apps are used to trace people’s movements and prove they are both virus-free and have not been to areas where suspected cases have been found.

Since the end of the lockdown, Wuhan has largely been spared further outbreaks, something residents such as chemistry teacher Yao Dongyu attribute to heightened awareness resulting from the traumatic experience of last year.

"At that time, people were very nervous, but the government gave us huge support. It was a very powerful guarantee, so we got through this together," said Yao, 24. "Since Wuhan people went through the pandemic, they’ve done better in personal precautions than people in other regions."

China has doggedly defended its actions in the early days of the outbreak, saying it helped buy time for the rest of the world while pushing fringe theories that the virus was brought to the city from outside China, possibly from a laboratory in the U.S.

After months of negotiations, China finally gave permission last month for the World Health Organization (WHO) to send a team of international experts to begin investigating the origins of the virus. They recently completed their two weeks of quarantine.

A panel of experts commissioned by WHO criticized China and other countries in January for not moving to stem the initial outbreak earlier, prompting Beijing to concede it could have done better.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong in southern China, thousands of residents were locked down in January in an unprecedented move to contain a worsening outbreak in the city. Hong Kong has been grappling to contain a fresh wave of the coronavirus since November.

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