Wuhan's Lockdown Memories 1 Year Later: Pride, Anger, Deep Pain

Jan 23, 2021
Originally published on January 24, 2021 7:34 pm

A year ago, on January 23, 2020, China imposed an absolute lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

For more than two months, nearly all of its 11 million residents could not leave their apartments. Anyone displaying symptoms was taken to hastily-built quarantine centers to prevent family infections.

A scene from Jan. 25, 2020, in Wuhan: Health workers in protective garb walk next to patients awaiting medical attention at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital.
Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images

The legacy of the lockdown has splintered Wuhan's residents, who have conflicting memories of those 76 days.

For many, Wuhan is largely back to normal, and most of its residents want to move on. Song Feifei, who's in her late 20s and works at a snacks store along Wuhan's famous Jianghan promenade, thinks the lockdown was worth it.

"The lockdown wasn't so bad, except for having no freedom. Just give us the Internet, and we young people can stay at home forever," she says, joking darkly.

When my NPR colleague Amy Cheng and I visited Wuhan's famous Jianghan shopping promenade last April, it was partially boarded up and completely deserted. Now, the street is popping with color and people. Business remains slow – in the wake of the pandemic, many people lost jobs and are spending less. And a new wave of virus cases is hitting at least three provinces in China. But behind the checkout counter, Song is cheerfully realistic about the future.

Post lockdown scenes from Wuhan: On Jan. 22, 2021, a woman enters a shopping mall after showing her health code, assigned by the government to indicate COVID-19 status; shoppers browse in the night market in front of Dayang department store on June 12.
Hector Retamal / AFP ; Costfoto/Barcroft Media / Getty Images

"We are not going to go back home for Chinese new year and you have to show your health certificate wherever you go, but for us there's been not much impact, thankfully," she says of the latest COVID-19 wave.

All of this depends on who is asked, however. For thousands of residents, the physical and emotional marks of lockdown remain. Some 3,000 died of the virus in China, and more than three fourths of those who contracted coronavirus in Wuhan still experience residual symptoms, according to a recent study published in the Lancet.

The New Year's countdown in Wuhan on Dec. 31, 2020. "The people who did not experience tragedy, they have forgotten [the lockdown] already. They only think, everything is good now," a mother who lost her son to the virus told NPR.
Noel Celis / AFP via Getty Images

"The people who did not experience tragedy, they have forgotten [the lockdown] already. They only think, everything is good now," says a woman who asked to be identified by her last name, Zhong. Her 39-year-old son died from the coronavirus in Wuhan last year.

Her son, an elementary school teacher, came down with a fever in early February. But the severity of the lockdown meant no one could drive him to any of Wuhan's strained hospitals to look for care.

Eventually, her son hitched a ride on the back of an open truck in freezing rain looking for an open hospital bed. He finally found an open hospital spot, but no one attended to him for two days. He texted desperate messages for help to his wife before he died several days later.

Staff members transfer patients to Jin Yintan hospital on Jan. 17, 2020, in Wuhan.
Getty Images / Getty Images

"My biggest regret is that I sent him to the hospital. At least at home he would have gotten something to eat, people to care for him," Zhong said to NPR. "Now when I think of him, my heart hurts more than I can bear."

Zhong asked that only her last name be used because authorities have arrested people who documented how local governments struggled to provide care in the onset of the pandemic.

Others who spoke out about what have been imprisoned. Zhang Zhan, a lawyer-turned-blogger, was sentenced to four years in prison last month for "fabricating lies." Until her arrest in May, Zhang walked around the city and uploaded videos to YouTube about the desperation of Wuhan's residents throughout the lockdown.

Now behind bars, Zhang is on a hunger strike to protest against her sentence, according to one of her lawyers who requested anonymity as his law license would be revoked for speaking to foreign media. Ren Quanniu, another lawyer who represented Zhang, had his license revoked this week for taking on politically sensitive cases, including Zhang's.

A street scene in Wuhan on Jan. 31. The 76-day absolute lockdown had begun days earlier. Nearly all of the city's 11 million residents could not leave their apartments.
Stringer / Getty Images

Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua, two other well-known bloggers who filmed scenes of anxiety within hospitals and community centers as resources ran low, remain in what is effectively house arrest. A third, Wuhan businessman Fang Bing, has simply disappeared.

Police have rebuffed inquiries from Fang's family regarding his whereabouts and prevented them from hiring a lawyer, according to Zhang Yi, a friend of Fang's.

Fang became famous after filming a video of eight corpses being unloaded from a major Wuhan hospital just a week into lockdown. The video shocked Chinese viewers.

"At first I thought, what's so serious about this virus? Why are they locking down the city? It was only after watching this Fang Bin's videos that I realized how bad things were!" recalled a volunteer from Wuhan who delivered medical supplies and food during the lockdown. He also requested anonymity.

Many health experts say a Wuhan lockdown should have begun earlier and would have slowed down the virus' spread. This volunteer says nonetheless, he cannot forgive the cost it placed on the city's residents - a cost he feels other Chinese citizens do not grasp: "The lockdown created a run on medical resources and a sense of panic. Many people with conditions other than the coronavirus could not get care as a result and died during lockdown."

Fang's disappearance and the death of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang still rankle for Melanie Wang, a Wuhan resident.

"When I recall the anxiety of the lockdown, I am very sad. Especially because people who told the truth were arrested and even jailed. What has this world come to, where officials get to escape blame for such a tragedy?," says Wang, crying.

Wang remembers the only cars she saw on the streets for weeks bore the logo of the local mortuary. Her elderly father was in the hospital during the pandemic and had COVID-like symptoms. That sent the family into a panic until he tested negative. In the meantime, two other relatives died from chronic illnesses for which they normally received regular treatment that was interrupted during the lockdown.

"We're still living, by some fluke," says Wang. "But who knows what could happen the next minute? What will tomorrow bring?"

For some, the severity of the lockdown is a point of pride. It showed how well China's top-down political system could work.

"Wuhan people are the safest people. Every one of us have all been tested at least once," says Huang He, a masseuse in Wuhan. Her business was shut down for nearly half a year during and after the lockdown but she applauds the strict lockdown measure: "The virus could not possibly come here again."

Then there are thousands of people like Zhong, who lost her son. They bore the brunt of these measures.

A resident of Wuhan prays after burning paper offerings during the Tomb Sweeping festival, also known as Qingming festival, on April 4, 2020, a holiday to honor ancestors. Last year, a China called for a 3-minute silence on this day to mourn patients and medical staff killed by the coronavirus.
Noel Celis / AFP via Getty Images

"All officials see is a statistic of total deaths. But each was a sacrifice made by us common folks. A pointless sacrifice," she says, quivering with grief, her dry eyes fixed on some distant point in the past. "Who wants to be a hero in that case?"

Amy Cheng contributed research from Wuhan, China.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One year ago tomorrow, Chinese authorities imposed the most Draconian lockdown of the pandemic. It was in the city where it all began, Wuhan. People couldn't leave their apartments. If they displayed symptoms, they were taken to a quarantine center. And a year on, residents of Wuhan are conflicted about those measures. Many are still sorting through the trauma of the early days of the pandemic. NPR's Emily Feng has been covering the coronavirus in China from the beginning and went back to Wuhan to talk to people about their memories of that time.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The last time I was here, at Wuhan's main shopping promenade last April, it was completely dark and deserted. Now, one year later, the street is popping with color and people.

Wow, the lights. It looks so different.

Wuhan is largely back to normal. Most of its residents want to move on.

Song Feifei works at a snack store along the promenade and thinks the lockdown was worth it.

SONG FEIFEI: (Through interpreter) The lockdown wasn't so bad, except for having no freedom. Just give us Internet, and we young people can stay at home forever.

FENG: Business is still slow, and new virus cases are still showing up in China. But behind the checkout counter, Song is cheerfully realistic about the future.

SONG: (Through interpreter) We're not going to go back home for Chinese New Year, and you have to show your health certificate wherever you go. But for us, there's been not much impact, thankfully.

FENG: All of this depends on who you ask, however.

MS ZHONG: (Through interpreter) The people who did not experience tragedy, they've forgotten already. They only think, everything is good now.

FENG: That's Ms. Zhong. Her son got sick in February, but the severity of the lockdown meant no cars could take him to any of Wuhan's overcrowded hospitals. So he hitched a ride on the back of an open truck in freezing rain looking for care. He finally got a hospital bed, but no one attended to him. He sent desperate messages for help to his wife before he died several days later.

ZHONG: (Through interpreter) My biggest regret is that I sent him to the hospital. At least at home, he would have gotten something to eat, people to care for him. Now, when I think of him, my heart hurts more than I can bear.

FENG: Ms. Zhong wants to remain partially anonymous because authorities have arrested people who documented how local governments at first struggled to provide care. Last month, a lawyer-turned-blogger named Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years prison for shooting videos about the desperation of Wuhan's residents in the early days of the lockdown. This is one of the lawyers who represented Zhang. He asked to remain unnamed because he could lose his law license for speaking to NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: (Through interpreter) We don't know how big this group of people are, but their stories are shocking. The cost they paid for all of us was everything they had.

FENG: Two other well-known bloggers remain in what is effectively detention. A third, Wuhan businessman Fang Bin, has simply disappeared.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FANG BIN: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Fang became famous after filming this video of eight corpses being unloaded from a major Wuhan mortuary just a week into lockdown. The video shocked Chinese viewers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) At first I thought, what's so serious about this virus? Why are they locking down the city? It was only after watching this Fang Bin video that I realized how bad things were.

FENG: That's a volunteer who delivered medical supplies and food during lockdown. He also requested anonymity. Many health experts say a Wuhan lockdown should have begun earlier and would have slowed down the virus' spread. This volunteer says, nonetheless, he cannot forgive the cost it placed on the city's residents, a cost he feels other Chinese citizens do not grasp.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The lockdown created a run on medical resources and a sense of panic. Many people with conditions other than the coronavirus couldn't get care as a result and died during lockdown.

FENG: Fang's disappearance and the death of whistleblowing Dr. Li Wenliang still rankle for Melanie Wang, another Wuhan resident.

MELANIE WANG: (Through interpreter) When I remember the anxiety of the lockdown, I'm very sad, especially because people who told the truth were arrested and even jailed. What has this world come to, where officials get to escape blame for such tragedy?

FENG: Wang remembers during the lockdown, the only cars she saw for weeks were from the mortuary. Her elderly father was in the hospital during the pandemic and had COVID-like symptoms. That sent the family into a panic until he tested negative. In the meantime, two other relatives died from chronic illnesses for which they normally received regular treatment that was interrupted during the lockdown.

WANG: (Through interpreter) We're still living by some fluke. But who knows what could happen the next minute? What will tomorrow bring?

FENG: For some, the severity of the lockdown is a point of pride. It showed how well their top-down political system could work. Then there are thousands of people like Ms. Zhong, who lost her son. They bore the brunt of these measures.

ZHONG: (Through interpreter) All officials see is a statistic of total deaths, but each was a sacrifice made by us common folks, a pointless sacrifice. Who wants to be a hero in that case?

FENG: She is quivering with grief as she says these words, her dry eyes fixed on some distant point in the past. Emily Feng, NPR News, Wuhan, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.