I found no trace of the pandemic in Wuhan, but is that how the China story should be told?

On an organised visit to Wuhan with other journalists and business representatives, Lianhe Zaobao’s Shanghai correspondent Chen Jing sees a city that appears to be humming away as if the Covid-19 disaster was nothing but a bad dream. Nevertheless, she gets an inkling that many stories of the pandemic are still waiting to be told. She resolves to tell them, all in good time.
Elementary school students in Wuhan decked out in their performance outfits.
Elementary school students in Wuhan decked out in their performance outfits.

(Photos: Chen Jing, unless otherwise stated)

From my perch on a cruise ship, shimmery lights danced on the bridge before me. On my left, the Yellow Crane Tower looked dazzling against the night sky. On my right, skyscrapers turned into projector screens, as scenes flitted from one to the other in a dynamic display.  

Business and media representatives from around the world whipped out their phones to capture the mesmerising light show on Yangtze River. They were full of praise for the glorious scene before their eyes. A Shanghai representative exclaimed, “I’d even believe you if you told me this is the night view of the Bund. Who could have imagined this is Wuhan?”

Through scenes of everyday life in Wuhan, we were given an understanding of how this city was recovering from the pandemic and getting back to normal. No traces of the pandemic were to be found.

The dazzling light show on Yangtze River.
The dazzling light show on Yangtze River.

On the second day of my visit to Wuhan, I still could not detect any unusual atmosphere in this city. It was organised, lively and vibrant, just like any other major Chinese city. It was almost as if this city was never once the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic. How surprising and a little baffling. 

The itinerary of our three-day visit was very packed and consisted of trips to schools, enterprises, hospitals, markets, tourist attractions, and so on. Through scenes of everyday life in Wuhan, we were given an understanding of how this city was recovering from the pandemic and getting back to normal. No traces of the pandemic were to be found.

As if nothing ever happened

We went to a local elementary school early one morning. The majority of the students were not in classrooms but in the music, dance, drama, and art rooms. Decked out in their performance outfits, they were fully immersed in their rehearsals. No one was wearing a mask. According to the principal, the teachers had all completed their nucleic acid and blood tests before they returned to school. As long as one’s temperature reading was normal when he or she entered the school, they did not need to wear a mask. 

In the open spaces in front of the malls, clusters of middle-aged women were gathered in twos and threes, ready for an evening of square dancing.            

We headed to a wet market as soon as we left the school. Managed by a state-owned enterprise, this wet market had just been upgraded into a supermarket. Everything, from vegetables and fruits to poultry and seafood, was clearly categorised and neatly displayed. Behind bright and clean cooked food stalls, a few young workers in snow-white uniforms were making noodles.

An upgraded wet market.
An upgraded wet market.

In the evening, we were caught in a traffic jam for quite some time on the way back to the hotel. I looked out the bus window and it seemed like there was no end to how far the vehicles ahead of us stretched. Gentle billows of smoke rose out from barbecue roadside stalls as food fiends tucked into barbecued skewers and chugged beer. In the open spaces in front of the malls, clusters of middle-aged women were gathered in twos and threes, ready for an evening of square dancing.       

It wasn’t just the foodies and dancing grannies who were out without masks; many pedestrians did not wear masks as well, or had them pulled down to their chins so that they could gulp in big breaths of the fresh night air. This scene is uncommon even in the present streets of Shanghai.   

I was reminded of a shocking photograph that has been circulating around the world: thousands of people attending an electric music festival pool party — without masks and with disregard for safe distancing — in a Wuhan that has not seen a Covid-19 case in awhile. This exaggerated scene is, in fact, a true reflection of Wuhan at present.  

People enjoy a music party inside a swimming pool at the Wuhan Maya Beach Park, in Wuhan, following the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, Hubei, China, 15 August 2020. (Stringer/Reuters)
People enjoy a music party inside a swimming pool at the Wuhan Maya Beach Park, in Wuhan, following the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, Hubei, China, 15 August 2020. (Stringer/Reuters)

Seeing these scenes, it is unimaginable that the city was previously locked down for 76 days, with not one person or vehicle to be seen. Interviewees themselves hardly mentioned the impact of the pandemic. If they did, company representatives said “we resumed work very quickly, basically there was no impact” while school leaders asserted that thousands of students and parents were not infected, and the biggest impact was having months of online lessons at home.

Stories left to be told

Was the pandemic just a legend in Wuhan? On the last morning of my trip, on a whim, I went alone to Huanan Seafood Market — the largest seafood wholesale market in central China with a reputation for being associated with the first cases of Covid-19 in Wuhan. The 50,000-square-metre area was sealed shut. An elderly passerby told me that the market was barricaded after the pandemic broke out. “It’s been six months, who knows what will happen to this place.”

This stubborn resilience is perhaps what has brought Wuhan out of the pandemic so quickly and reignited its drive.

barricade
Barricades outside the Huanan market.

I walked to a residential area near the market, and found a few vendors near the entrance. They were small vendors, but they sold everything — fish, meat, vegetables, and fruits. I went up to them and found out that they were vendors from Huanan. Pork seller “Big Sister” Wu said that after the market was shut, the big merchants moved out and individual vendors like them had to find their own solution. “They said they would help us find a new market, but it hasn’t happened.”

Wu lives on the outskirts of Wuhan city, and only came back to the market in May, after it was closed early this year. The market saw high human traffic, and she used to be able to sell out a whole load of pork by noon. But now, she is usually left with unsold pork at closing time. “What can we do?” she sighed. “Life goes on. At least we are healthy, which is better than a lot of people. Isn’t it?”

These simple words were spoken with a quiet strength. In this city of 11 million people, there must be many people like Wu, gritting their teeth and moving on while bearing the burden following the pandemic. This stubborn resilience is perhaps what has brought Wuhan out of the pandemic so quickly and reignited its drive. Unfortunately, foreign media do not get to see these vivid stories through the authorities.

...bravely showing the city’s wounds will not dampen its spirit. Instead, it will let people know how strong this city is and how indomitable the spirit of the people are.

night market
This photo taken on 27 August 2020 shows people visiting a night market in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. (STR/AFP)

Undoubtedly, Wuhan has regrouped and risen again from the ashes of this global pandemic of the century. Instead of only reporting the good and not the bad, as if the pandemic never happened, bravely showing the city’s wounds will not dampen its spirit. Instead, it will let people know how strong this city is and how indomitable the spirit of the people are. In the complex global situation following the outbreak, Wuhan is an important touchstone in how to tell the “China story”.

As a journalist, I think I will have to find time to come back to Wuhan, and gather the stories that I missed on this trip.

 

Related: The Great Lockdown: How to ensure a speedy recovery? | Wuhan businesses' quest for survival after 76-day lockdown