For weeks, almost no one passed by the door of the 7-Eleven in southwestern Wuhan. Now the view is changing for Guo Hao, who works at the convenience store. Delivery vehicles are rushing by, and “the number of cars is growing rapidly,” he said. It all amounts to “very important evidence that people’s lives are improving.”
The most important piece of evidence comes from the numbers tracked by Chinese authorities: On Wednesday, China reported only one new confirmed case of COVID-19 in Wuhan, and it has been 13 days since surrounding Hubei province reported a new case.
Mr. Guo has been at work since the beginning of the lockdown that shuttered the city almost two months ago and tipped its people into despair. Now, ”I am full of hope,” he said. ”At the beginning of the virus outbreak, it felt devastating and incredibly serious. Now, the situation is improving, we are just in the process of wrapping things up.”
Across much of the globe, panic over COVID-19 is intensifying as governments close borders, shutter schools and businesses and report large daily increases in the number of sick and dead.
In the Chinese epicentre of the outbreak, however, the spread of the virus has dramatically slowed. On Wednesday, health officials said they had found no additional suspected cases from domestic sources in the entire country for the first time since the beginning of the outbreak.
Postal authorities are working to restore service, aiming to return to 50 per cent of capacity by the end of March. On Tuesday, 3,675 medical workers left Hubei for their homes elsewhere in China. Some Wuhan companies have already gotten back to work, with more planning to do the same beginning March 20.
Newly diagnosed cases should vanish around that time, Li Lanjuan, an epidemiologist who is director of the State Key Laboratory for Diagnosis and Treatment of Infectious Diseases, told state media this week. Authorities will then wait two weeks to ensure the outbreak remains suppressed. If so, it will be time to resume normal life and work, Ms. Li said. Wuhan is now on a “sprint” to the finish, she said.
The thought has injected a springtime flourish of optimism across the city.
“The most important thing for us now is to persist a bit longer. We’ve entered the final stage of the battle. It’s not over, but it will be,” said Wan Yun, whose elderly mother recovered from a COVID-19 infection but has since returned to hospital with a pulmonary infection.
But such hope has still done little to free those in Wuhan who have now been kept in their homes for 55 days. Lockdown measures have not been loosened. In fact, “it has become even a bit more strict than it was two weeks ago,” Mr. Wan said. Guards now monitor each building in his apartment complex, and the intensity of the security presence has increased, he said.
“Because even though the numbers have been low for many days, we are in the last phase of this battle. We can’t let any carelessness destroy what we’ve achieved so far,” he said.
Officials across China have sounded the alarm about the arrival of new virus cases from outside the country. Beijing has now reported 54 cases from abroad, including 11 on Wednesday. Authorities in the capital have ordered a 14-day quarantine for every person entering the country.
In Wuhan, only cars with specific authorization can take to the streets – although the increase in traffic suggests a more liberal attitude among authorities. Elsewhere, the long duration of the lockdown was becoming increasingly obvious.
At Yuanshifu Shaomai Restaurant, revenue this week was only 30 per cent of what it was a few weeks ago.
“Things are not returning to normal,” said Mr. Wang, a restaurant worker who gave only his surname. ”People’s lives have only become more difficult and more bitter.”
Customers who might have eaten three meals a day are now down to two, he said. “In the past they were picky about their food. Now they are fine with whatever is edible. Everyone is just struggling, trying to survive the difficulties, even though we have no idea when the end will arrive.”
On Wednesday, President Xi Jinping led a meeting of the country’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee, which ordered Wuhan to gradually resume work while commanding other areas of Hubei to lift lockdown measures.
Some of that has already begun.
On Monday, Jane Zhang, a Canadian woman who has been under lockdown in the Hubei city of Yichang, left home for the first time since Jan. 30. She went to Walmart, where she bought pork, eggs and snacks. In Yichang, Hubei’s second-largest city, “supermarkets are back in business. We can go into the supermarkets and pick what we want on our own now,” said Ms. Zhang, who immigrated to Canada 19 years ago before returning to China this year for the first time to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
The loosening of restrictions has provided a sense of relief, she said. The lockdown had left her “super-anxious, feeling desperate to return to Canada.”
But with outbreaks rapidly gaining in severity around the world – including in Canada – she is no longer as eager to return home.
“I won’t go back until the risk is gone,” she said. “At the moment, I’m not facing any difficulties. I’m just waiting for the epidemic to pass so I will be able to fly back to Canada.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li
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