On Wednesday, for the first time in more than two months, 11 million people in China’s Wuhan will have the option to step out of their homes and leave the city.
The lifting of the lockdown in the place where the global coronavirus pandemic started is a symbolic victory for the Chinese government, coming as new infections and daily death tolls still soar in Europe and the US.
Residents in Wuhan, who have been subjected to one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, will not see life return to normal immediately. The Chinese government says travel should be for “necessary” reasons only, and screening will still take place upon arrival in other provinces whether by road, rail or air.
But the dismantling of roadblocks from midnight, and the opening up of non-essential businesses, buses and metro services on Wednesday, will be watched closely by virus-hit countries around the world trying to get a sense of what their own exit strategies from coronavirus lockdowns might look like.
Wuhan has accounted for 61 per cent of China’s 81,700 reported coronavirus cases, and the trauma of what residents now refer to as the “great calamity” will leave a legacy lasting long after the return to freedom of movement.
For Graham*, who along with his parents became infected not long after the city’s outbreak began, the experience has left him determined not just to get out of Hubei province, but to leave China altogether.
A photographer who was used to roaming around the city with his camera, Graham felt his loss of liberty during the lockdown more keenly than most.
His parents became ill first, and after the disease spread to the rest of the family they spent seven days at the People’s Hospital in Wuhan, before finally being transferred to one of the city’s many Square Cabin hospitals.
These makeshift hospitals were specifically built, at breakneck speed, to house coronavirus patients with mild symptoms. Graham describes how the facilities, staffed mostly by doctors trained in traditional Chinese medicine, encouraged treatments that “didn’t make any sense”, he tells The Independent.
Patients were told to massage the area around their belly button clockwise throughout the day, as the doctor claimed this would help them “release the virus” out of their bodies.
“When I asked one of the doctors what would happen if I massage my belly button counter-clockwise, he immediately said that’s the typical reasoning in western medicine,” says Graham.
Graham says doctors also taught patients how to “detox” by hitting their elbows and other body parts as hard as they could, for prolonged periods, “to cleanse the virus from their lungs. So throughout the day I could hear the sound of patients hitting their elbows, and many of them had bruised elbows.”
During his stay in the facility he also witnessed firsthand the ruthlessly utilitarian approach the Chinese authorities took to disease prevention, “trampling” over individuals’ rights in the process.
“Some families were forcefully separated in front of me because they had been assigned to different hospitals based on the severity of their infection,” he recalls.
“A guy was begging the authorities at our hospital to let him go see his mother before she passed away. Instead, they handcuffed him to his bed so he couldn’t escape.” The man’s mother later died in a nearby hospital.
“This pandemic made me realise how extreme the Chinese government can be when they try to take control over the society,” Graham says. Censorship, always a part of everyday life under the Communist Party, has become even more extreme. “Over the last two months, what we can basically do is to praise the government’s efforts in containing the virus and receive relevant information that has already been heavily censored,” he says.
The lockdown, Graham says, “helped me understand that as long as I stay in China, I can never enjoy real freedom, and I don’t want my children to have the same life. I think the sensible decision is to leave China, and that’s what I plan to do once the lockdown is over”.
Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University in London, says China’s authoritarian one-party system means it can enforce a lockdown in a way that would not be possible in most democratic nations. “You have no choice,” he says. “If you don’t follow orders the police will come and snatch you and put you away.”
He says that one thing that China appears to have done particularly effectively to curtail its outbreak has been the use of a large number of requisitioned locations to quarantine people who have tested positive or travelled abroad away from other members of their community or family.
“That probably significantly reduced the level of transmissions within households, and that is something that I don’t think has been widely copied outside of China,” he said. “It would be very hard to imagine that being mandatory in the United Kingdom, that if you test positive with Covid-19 but do not require hospital treatment, you will be required to go into a quarantined quarters separate from your family for two weeks. It’s very difficult to see that being widely embraced or enforceable in the UK.”
With the steady reduction in locally transmitted cases culminating in not a single new coronavirus death being reported on Tuesday for the first time since January, attention has turned in China to preventing new cases being brought in from abroad.
In Beijing, that has meant ever stricter conditions for anyone arriving in the county or the capital’s province, even as restrictions in places like Wuhan have eased.
James Ashcroft, a Chinese language student at Beijing Normal University, returned to the city from London shortly before all entry for foreigners was halted late last month.
At the airport, authorities said he would simply have to stay at home, but a week into his quarantine community volunteers installed a motion sensor on his door.
The motion sensor, connected to a program on the messaging application WeChat, would send an alert to the neighbourhood association whenever the door was ajar. If he or his housemate opened the door to pick up a food delivery or put the bins out, they would within minutes get a phone call from the police.
Ashcroft says he has seen no written policy that explains why the device was put on his door. “It was only communicated verbally to us that this is a thing that they are trying to apply.”
He says he felt much more uncomfortable being monitored in this way than if he had just been asked to observe a quarantine normally. “It doesn’t really contribute to a sense of peace and well-being and surety, to just not quite know what’s happening or why.
Carl Rappa, 30, came back to the city from the US before the travel regulations came into effect and says he feels comparatively better off in Beijing as the virus has taken hold elsewhere.
When he left the US last month, people there couldn’t understand why. “Everyone was like, ‘why are you going back to China? It’s bad there’,” Rappa says. “[We told them] we have lives and jobs there and it’s getting better there.” He quarantined at home with his girlfriend, Michelle – spending two weeks straight without leaving their Beijing apartment.
He didn’t have a motion sensor put on his door, but since being back said he has noticed other low-tech – and not always logical – ways that virus prevention is being enforced. New measures are in place like being made to write down personal information when entering buildings, for example, that seem ill-conceived for virus prevention but are widely carried out without question. “Everyone [is] having to sign in, which means [everyone] touching the same pen,” Rappa says.
Now that international travel has been stopped, Beijing’s efforts to prevent a second wave of imported cases must focus on returning Chinese nationals.
But quarantine measures enforced by community groups and local officials appear to be changing rapidly, leaving people to smooth out any kinks as they go. Even as the Chinese government attempts to restore calm, the inconsistencies have added to the sense of unease.
“I just feel like they have many loopholes they need to fix,” He Mao, 24, said after completing his hotel quarantine period last week following his return to Beijing from Cambodia.
He says he flew through Guangzhou on his way to the capital, and airport officials seemed not to know whether, given the internal layover, he needed to undergo quarantine at a centralised facility. He was eventually allowed to return home to his apartment, only for community volunteers to turn up hours later and move him to a quarantine hotel.
For two weeks mandatory stay at the hotel, He was required to pay 6,000 Chinese yuan (£690). While not thrilled about the cost, he’s made peace with his circumstances but said he wishes he would have been informed about what to expect before he arrived.
Part of a first wave of arrivals to the city after the regulation about hotel quarantine went into effect, He said he’s also become a test case for friends in a similar position who are stuck outside the country and considering returning. “Everyone is like, ‘you have to share your story because we are all counting on you. Because we are not sure if we should come back’,” he said.
Back in Wuhan, not everyone is as excited about the end of the lockdown as might be expected, in part because of a widespread perception that it could be premature.
Graham says he hears reports of new cases still emerging from hospitals and some neighbourhoods, that don’t make the official daily tallies. “The government wants to get people back to work, so they lied about the current situation in Wuhan,” he claims. “The official numbers are definitely fake, and it’s just the matter of how fabricated it is.”
Tsang, the China Institute director, says Xi Jinping has created a culture in the Communist Party where “whatever he says is the truth, the whole truth, and nobody would ever dare contradict him”. “Xi said he wanted to reduce the numbers to zero. So if you are a senior official in Wuhan, you think that if you report new cases then you are failing the general secretary.”
Aware of this dilemma, the Chinese premier Li Keqiang pleaded with local officials on 23 March that “there must be no concealing or underreporting” of cases. “If the premier of China cannot believe in the official figures, I don’t see why I should believe in the official figures,” Tsang says.
Ultimately, Tsang says the propaganda coup of opening up Wuhan “at a time when the lockdown is at its tightest in places like New York” would have been too valuable for the Chinese government to let even a small number of cases derail it.
“It doesn’t really matter what the reality on the ground is,” he says. “Unless the situation on the ground is really pretty horrific, I think they will proceed [regardless].”
Even for those who have stayed healthy in Wuhan, the lockdown has had a transformative impact on lives – and not only in ways that have been negative. For some modern Chinese families, life under lockdown offered a rare opportunity to rebuild fraying bonds.
Robin* says he was living with friends in an apartment in the city before the outbreak, as the relationship with his parents had soured since he came out as gay several years ago.
“With my father being in his seventies, I decided to go home and spend time with them after the government announced the plan to lock down the city,” he says.
As life came to a standstill, Robin had to come to terms with life confined to a 75 square metre apartment with his parents. They played cards, watched television or just tried to catch up on things they had missed in the years since they drifted apart.
“It was definitely not easy,” Robin tells The Independent. “I had to rediscover the best way to live with them, as we barely had chances like this before the pandemic happened. Instead of arguing with them as I normally would do, I tried to communicate with them. That suddenly helped clear up all the misunderstanding between me and my father.”
This rare chance gave Robin new thoughts about life after the lockdown. “I probably won’t have more opportunities like this in the future, so I don’t think I’m in a rush to move back to my apartment after the lockdown is over,” Robin says. “I want to have more time with my parents.”