Four years on, Wuhan remembers the first COVID-19 lockdown

Residents say they'll never forget the trauma, yet have more pressing economic concerns these days.
By Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin
2024.01.24
Four years on, Wuhan remembers the first COVID-19 lockdown Residents climb on chairs to buy groceries from vendors behind barriers used to seal off a neighborhood in Wuhan, China, April 3, 2020.
(Ng Han Guan/AP)

For many people in 2020, the news that the central Chinese city of Wuhan had been placed under lockdown was the first indication that something was profoundly amiss, and that the emerging pandemic could have a global impact.

On Jan. 23, 2020, the provincial authorities imposed a travel ban on some 18 million people in Wuhan and surrounding areas, prompting a mass rush to leave the city, three days after admitting that the newly emerging coronavirus was transmissible between people, something experts elsewhere had suspected for weeks.

Four years on, there has been no official mention of the anniversary, although the authorities appeared to be taking steps to ensure nobody uses the date to cause trouble for the ruling party.

Staff members check the temperatures of passengers arriving on a train from Wuhan to Hangzhou, China, Jan. 23, 2020. (AFP)
Staff members check the temperatures of passengers arriving on a train from Wuhan to Hangzhou, China, Jan. 23, 2020. (AFP)

Wuhan police took at least one activist out of town ahead of the politically sensitive fourth anniversary of the citywide lockdown – the first of the COVID-19 pandemic, RFA has learned.

The person, who requested anonymity for fear of further reprisals, said state security police had forced him to leave town with them on a "day trip" on Tuesday, which marked the anniversary of the start of Wuhan's lockdown on Jan. 23, 2020.

"They took me out for a day trip yesterday because it was the anniversary of the [Wuhan] lockdown," the person said. "I was confused yesterday, and I didn't realize why I was being dragged out for the day."

"I only saw later what my friends were posting on WeChat Moments, that it was the fourth anniversary," he said. 

"The authorities were having a 'stability maintenance' day," the activist said, in a reference to a nationwide system of controls and restrictions that targets potential activists before they take action.

State media silent

There was no mention of the anniversary in state media, although some people commemorated the date on overseas social media platforms, posting the official announcement from four years ago.

"Today, Hubei province has launched its top-level response to a major public health emergency," the announcement said. 

"From Jan. 23, 2020, all bus, subway, ferry and long-distance passenger transportation in and out of the city will be suspended."

"No residents will be permitted to leave Wuhan without a special reason," it said.

Patients infected with COVID-19 rest at a temporary hospital in the Wuhan Sports Center, Feb. 17, 2020. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP)
Patients infected with COVID-19 rest at a temporary hospital in the Wuhan Sports Center, Feb. 17, 2020. (Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP)

The notice was to plunge the city into a whirlwind of compulsory daily testing, enforced quarantine in rapidly constructed mass facilities, and a desperate struggle to seek medical treatment as hospitals in the city were overwhelmed.

As political heads rolled, the government tried to claw back control of the narrative by suppressing whistleblowing doctors like Li Wenliang and Ai Fen, as police started rounding up frontline bloggers, archivists, diarists, YouTubers, livestreamers and other citizen journalists.

Meanwhile, seriously ill people were left scrambling for medical attention, as crematoriums started operating around the clock.

A recent documentary made from footage filmed at the time and smuggled out of the country for editing overseas remains blocked to viewers behind China's Great Firewall, including the 11 million people who call Wuhan home.

"The level of control they had over people [back then] was like something out of a novel, with scenes straight out of [George Orwell's dystopian novel] 1984 becoming part of our daily lives," one of the film's producers, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, told RFA. "It was very scary."

"What's even more scary now, looking back on it, is that people have already forgotten that this kind of thing was happening all around us," they said. "It could come back at any time."

Poverty spreads

Several Wuhan residents told RFA that most people have more pressing concerns in the current economic downturn.

"The trauma fades as time goes by, but I definitely won't forget it, because the pain of that time was unforgettable," a resident who gave only the surname Wang for fear of reprisals told RFA.

"Some people have no jobs, and nothing to eat, and the sequelae [of the zero-COVID era] aren't going to be resolved any time soon," he said.

A Jianghan district resident who gave only the surname Song agreed, saying that poverty appears much more widespread in Wuhan these days.

"Who could forget the beginning of lockdown on Jan. 23, 2020?" she said. "It had a huge impact on people's lives."

"A lot of people were made unemployed ... and a lot of the shops are closed ... for example on Hongqiqu Road in Jianghan district," she said. "Many people are worried about their livelihood – things are really tough."

A passenger arrives at the nearly deserted Wuhan train station, usually full of passengers ahead of the Lunar New Year, on Jan. 23, 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
A passenger arrives at the nearly deserted Wuhan train station, usually full of passengers ahead of the Lunar New Year, on Jan. 23, 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Others took to social media to comment on the date, or to say that the past four years were something of a blur. Others complained that they were far worse off, economically, than four years ago.

For many who lived through that time, the full story remains untold, although possibly guessed at.

Even by the end of Wuhan's 76-day lockdown, which was to set the pattern for ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's nationwide zero-COVID restrictions over the three years that followed, residents were calling into question the official death toll as the virus ripped through an unprepared and as-yet-unvaccinated community.

Widespread doubts remain that China's reported COVID-19 death toll – a 2021 study published in British medical journal The Lancet estimated excess deaths outside China at 18 million -- could be an accurate reflection of reality.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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