Walking through departure halls echoing with the swells of triumphant music, streams of mask-wearing people boarded planes and trains Wednesday in Wuhan, leaving the city for the first time since it was closed off to slow the spread of a deadly virus that first took root inside its limits.
April 8 marked what state media called the “unsealing of Wuhan,” an end to a 76-day lockdown. The queues of people looking to leave began before midnight, with 276 passenger trains and 111 flights set to leave the city throughout the day. At the stroke of midnight, police rolled away highway barriers, a potent image of the city breaking out of more than two months of medical imprisonment.
Hours later, long lines formed outside office buildings as employees waited to pass health screening procedures before being allowed back into their workplaces – a sign that fear of the virus continues to permeate life in the city, despite official reassurances that it has been contained, with only two new cases in the past two weeks.
The risks of a new outbreak were dramatically underscored Wednesday thousands of kilometres from Wuhan, in Suifenhe, a small northeastern city that went into lockdown after a resurgence in cases blamed on Chinese citizens arriving from Russia.
In Wuhan’s international airport, however, loudspeakers played a song that has become a cheerful virus anthem: “To the ends of the world and the edge of the Earth, if we know each other, there’s no place that can be too near or too far away.” Across the city, cheers erupted for the end of a long and painful lockdown.
”It’s a sunny day, which makes everything look more hopeful,” said Luo Sisi, a Wuhan restaurateur who owns a small chain of hot dry noodle shops. He sensed a psychological spring sweeping in, “a feeling that reminds us that we’ve finished the first phase” of the virus.
The city’s economic and social functions have “changed from ‘suspended’ to fully ‘restarted,’ ” the state-run Beijing News declared.
But for many in Wuhan, a new kind of hardship is just beginning. They have emerged from their homes into an invasive public-health surveillance regime that closely tracks people’s movements, as officials fear a second wave of the virus.
People going to work must carry formal declarations from their company. Others can leave home for just two hours at a time – and only after submitting to frequent scans of codes that record and communicate personal information with authorities.
The codes are coloured, with green allowing free passage and red meaning movement is not allowed. The colours can change quickly to reinstate lockdown measures in areas where the virus re-emerges.
“People have to scan their code to report their movements wherever they go,” said Guo Jing, who runs a legal advice hotline for women. “It makes me feel like I am living under surveillance – as if I am being supervised by someone. It’s enough to make me lose interest in going out.”
Some residents simply refused to step outside, skeptical of official assurances that the virus has been contained – echoing concerns in other countries about the trustworthiness of China’s outbreak statistics.
Others tried and failed to navigate the unforgiving public-health rules. Train tickets to Beijing, for example, could only be purchased by those authorized by an app, run by the capital, that could take days to respond to requests.
Large numbers of empty seats on trains and planes departing Wuhan pointed to widespread problems.
On MU2527, the China Eastern flight that was first to leave at 7:25 a.m. Wednesday, fewer than 50 of 134 seats were filled, local media reported. On the first bullet train out of Wuhan, roughly two-thirds of the seats remained empty. Local officials said they expected 55,000 people to board trains out of the city, barely half the normal passenger volume.
Those travelling to major centres such as Beijing faced even greater obstacles, with authorities requiring a negative nucleic-acid test in Wuhan and another in the capital before people could enter another mandatory 14-day quarantine there.
In Wuhan, too, the reopening is only partial, with some areas still largely closed down because the risk is considered too high. For Mr. Luo, that means some of his noodle outlets have been able to reopen while others remain closed. Hanyang district “isn’t 100 per cent safe for business, so we are still waiting on the government’s order,” he said.
Even so, “it’s very obvious that there are more pedestrians outside today,” he said.
But Li Heng, a woman who rescues pets and has been living under lockdown with 64 cats and dogs, remained inside Wednesday.
“We should be able to go out if we want to, but we hear that there are many asymptomatic people out there, so we’d rather stay inside,” she said.
It wasn’t until last week that Chinese authorities began releasing official numbers of people who tested positive for the virus but showed no symptoms. Even then, the figure released March 31 – 1,541 asymptomatic cases under observation – was a small fraction of the number found by researchers studying the virus in other places.
Scholars in Japan have studied passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship as well as Japanese people who had returned from Wuhan. They estimated that between 18 per cent and 30 per cent of people who contract the virus show no symptoms.
Ms. Li saw further reason for skepticism. Some residential compounds in Wuhan remain locked down. Schools are still closed. It all “indicates that the situation is still awful,” she said. Being inside isn’t much better: “We live in daily fear, scared the police will come to the door and seize our dogs.”
Mr. Luo, meanwhile, was optimistic.
“We’ve lived through the hardest time. There’s no reason for fear now,” he said. “What is important is that we don’t relax our vigilance.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li
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