Li Heng lives in a 1,600-square-foot apartment with her husband, her three-year-old daughter and, over the six weeks of the strict virus measures that locked down her hometown, 35 dogs and 29 cats.
Ms. Li is in Wuhan, where she rescues animals. In normal times, she nurses them to health and flies them overseas – she has sent more than 100 dogs to Canada alone for adoption. But as a deadly virus began to spread this year, she found herself unable to do anything with the homeless animals she accumulated.
Instead, when Wuhan announced a lockdown on Jan. 23, she became marooned with a barking, brawling menagerie that has destroyed the walls of her apartment and risked doing the same to her sanity. “We are all blocked at home, not allowed to leave or walk the dogs,” she said.
Some have yet to be spayed and neutered, and the lockdown has now gone on so long that she worries her home may soon be invaded by new puppies.
“We are all exhausted. My husband and I almost want to give up,” Ms. Li said. Making matters worse, her aunt died at home during the outbreak, because no hospital was willing to accept her. “Many friends lost their friends and family members, too,” she said.
Across China, medical professionals and government officials have touted the “China model” of battling the novel coronavirus and its resulting COVID-19, holding up Wuhan in the province of Hubei as an example for other countries now struggling to hold back its worldwide spread. “Chinese experience will be utilized to save humanity globally,” Zamir Ahmed Awan, a non-resident fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, wrote in China Daily on Friday.
That experience includes the unprecedented measures taken in Wuhan, where officials shut down the entire city, cutting off flights, trains and public transport. That draconian step was key to the country’s success, Chinese officials have said.
Zhong Nanshan, a revered epidemiologist, said a delay of just five days in the lockdown of Wuhan could have led to the epidemic tripling in scale in China. With such strict measures, the rate of new cases declined “very fast,” Dr. Zhong has said in remarks reported by state media. “Other countries should be doing something like that.”
The World Health Organization has commended China for what it has done, and epidemiologists around the world have similarly noted the effectiveness of the Chinese approach.
But Ms. Li is less effusive. “This epidemic could have been discovered and contained much earlier. But because of the incompetence of some officials, and their failure to fulfill their responsibilities, measures were not taken until many people got infected and the situation became bad enough,” she said.
Still Ms. Li, like many in Wuhan, expressed support for government efforts to rid the city of the virus. “Taking measures is a must. If not, everyone would die,” she said.
But those in Wuhan have also been forced to reckon with the cost of the measures taken as they assess how China responded to the virus. In other countries, authorities have shown that COVID-19 can be fought without the mass home imprisonment of a population.
Both Hong Kong and Singapore were hit early by the virus, but have kept the number of cases in each place below 200, through the widespread use of masks, aggressive contact tracking and effective use of individual quarantines. In Hong Kong, some 12,000 people were in isolation at one point. In South Korea, widespread testing for the virus has helped bring about a rapid decline in its expansion. On Friday, the number of recoveries outpaced the number of new cases.
In Wuhan, meanwhile, the cost of virus containment continues to mount. Some 20 per cent of startup companies have already failed, said Li Ruxiong, a venture capital leader in Wuhan who has co-invested with Lei Jun, the Chinese billionaire behind smartphone maker Xiaomi. By year’s end, he expects that 30 per cent will have collapsed.
“The impact for all companies is huge,” he said. Although local authorities have begun to push some companies to restart work, Mr. Li said just 26 of the tens of thousands of businesses in Wuhan’s Optics Valley – the city’s answer to Silicon Valley – have resumed operations. He acknowledges ambivalence about the severity of the Chinese response.
At the outset, “emotionally, I didn't really understand it,” he said. “But now, I think these measures are correct, because they are good for China and the world.”
Nonetheless, governments should help compensate for losses from the measures taken, he said. “People in Hubei should get more support, considering the sacrifice they’ve made,” he said.
For those with the clearest view of the virus, however, there is little doubt that it presented a menace that could be defeated only with extraordinary measures.
Lin Ming, a doctor at Xiehe Hospital in Wuhan, recounted how he wore adult diapers during the most stressful times to carry him through long shifts in layers of protective equipment.
In the darkest days for Wuhan, ”the number of newly added infection cases reached 10,000 per day,” he said. On Friday, Wuhan reported just five new cases. “That’s a huge improvement.”
“Of course the isolation and all the other measures were worth it,” he added. He’s loath to use the word “sacrifice” to describe what took place in Wuhan. “Wherever something like this might happen, we would definitely do what people in Wuhan have done,” he said.
With a report from Alexandra Li
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