BEIJING (Reuters) – When the world grapples with the escalating coronavirus pandemic, China reopened the city of Wuhan on Wednesday, giving its 11 million people the opportunity to leave the country for the first time in over two months. This is a milestone in his efforts to fight the outbreak.
FILE PHOTO: A man with a face mask walks next to barriers designed to block buildings from a street in Wuhan, Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak of Chinese Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), on March 29, 2020. REUTERS / Aly Song
Although the operation to curb the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak was celebrated as a success by China and many international health experts, it was not easy.
Using virus case data, official reports, and over a dozen interviews with officials, residents, and scientists in Wuhan, Reuters has compiled a comprehensive report on the development of the city’s military-style quarantine.
Wuhan health officials reported the first case of the new coronavirus in December and the first known death related to the virus in early January.
City officials insisted that the situation was under control in the first two weeks of January and downplayed the possibility of human-to-human transmission as they focused on a seafood and wildlife market where the outbreak was believed to have started.
But there were worrying signs.
Hospitals’ respiratory stations reached capacity on January 12, and some people were turned away, half a dozen Wuhan residents told Reuters.
But at least until January 16, the Wuhan government said that no new cases of the disease had occurred in about two weeks and the city was proceeding normally. Diners packed restaurants, shoppers flocked to business districts, and travelers went to train stations and airports for their New Year holidays.
Minimal measures were taken to measure residents’ temperatures in public places or to encourage them to wear protective masks, residents said.
“We ordinary people didn’t know we had to take protective measures,” said Wang Wenjun, whose uncle died of the coronavirus on January 31.
However, this changed after January 18, when a team of scientists, dispatched by the central government in Beijing, arrived in Wuhan.
The group was headed by 83-year-old Zhong Nanshan, an epidemiologist who triggered the alarm in China in 2003 that another coronavirus, SARS, had spread. For two days, the team examined the source and extent of the Wuhan outbreak and inspected the seafood and wildlife and other sightseeing market.
When the scientists traveled to Wuhan, their mood darkened when the extent of the crisis became clear, a source familiar with the trip said.
A day before the scientists’ arrival, four new cases were confirmed in Wuhan, none of which had obvious connections to the market.
This raised doubts about the previous claims by local authorities that there was no substantial evidence of human-to-human transmission that would have required the city to be subjected to drastic containment measures.
The scientists’ visit was the third from a group of experts since the end of December, when Beijing suspected that the virus was transmissible and local officials had kept silent about the challenges they faced in containing the disease, a scientist on the Journey on January 18 scientist who visited on January 2. Another trip took place on January 8th.
During the visit on January 18, the team made several discoveries that had previously not been made public by local officials.
Over a dozen healthcare workers were infected, efforts to maintain close contact with other confirmed cases had shrunk, and hospitals hadn’t performed a single test before January 16, Zhong and other team experts said a few days after their trip Wuhan known.
On January 19, the group of about half a dozen scientists returned to Beijing to report their findings to the National Health Commission, which formulates China’s health policy.
The experts recommended that Wuhan be quarantined and the hospital capacity expanded rapidly, according to two sources who were informed of the discussions. Zhong himself proposed the blocking measures, they said. Zhong and the Commission did not respond to requests for comments.
According to one source, government officials in Wuhan initially rejected the proposal because they feared the economic impact, but were overridden by the central authorities.
On the evening of January 20, the central government set up a task force in Wuhan to advance the fight against the epidemic.
The closure of Wuhan had been started.
Ye Qing, deputy chief of the Hubei Province Bureau of Statistics, where Wuhan is located, said that only when Zhong released his results did he begin to see the seriousness of the epidemic.
Wuhan officials, he said, responded far too late. “If the government had sent out a message, asking everyone to wear masks and temperature controls, far fewer people could have died.”
He added, “It’s a painful lesson with blood and tears.”
Subsequent tracing of virus patients showed that people confirmed that the Wuhan virus had traveled to at least 25 provinces, municipalities, and administrative regions across China before the blocking plan came into force.
The Wuhan government and the National Health Commission in Beijing did not respond to requests for comments.
The effects of the events in Beijing were soon felt in Wuhan.
On January 22, senior officials in Wuhan received a written government notice asking them not to leave the city or to report their whereabouts if they did, according to two sources from the local government.
The guideline contained no further details, but around 8 p.m. That night, some officials received a phone call saying the city would be closed the next morning, sources said.
The ban was announced publicly at 2 a.m. and thousands of Wuhan residents were looking for a way out.
However, access to and from the city was quickly blocked, public transport was closed and the use of private cars was prohibited. The residents were soon confined to their homes.
After Beijing took control of the crisis, it also removed a number of key officials from Wuhan and Hubei provinces.
Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, who kept his job, openly admitted in an interview with state media a few days later that party reporting mechanisms had stifled early action.
“Information should have been released faster,” he said. The process has been slowed down by officials in Wuhan “being required to ask for permission” before fully disclosing information, he said.
Almost two months after the block was imposed, China has started allowing residents to leave the city, as well as domestic flights and overland trains. Wuhan only reported one new case in the past week, and according to official reports, around 93% of all cases have recovered.
However, as other countries are considering Wuhan-style quarantines, these numbers have been reviewed. US President Donald Trump said last week that China’s numbers are “on the bright side” and are causing Beijing’s anger.
China has just started reporting data on asymptomatic cases last week – those where carriers can transmit the disease without feeling symptoms. This followed a public backlash on social media in China that did not include the key numbers in the official list, raising concerns that such cases could lead to a second wave of infections.
Xue Lan, a professor at Tsinghua University who is a member of a government coronavirus task force, said that precautionary measures, such as social distancing, would likely become part of life in China in the future.
“From now on, our social life will return to a new normal,” said Xue.
Reporting by Cate Cadell and Yawen Chen; Additional reports have been written by Keith Zhai in Singapore, David Kirton in Shenzhen and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing. Edited by Philip McClellan