For more than two months, the 11 million residents of Wuhan endured a strict lockdown as the coronavirus raced around the city in central China.
Now, some are letting loose en masse at rocking nighttime pool parties at a popular amusement park chain. The Wuhan Maya Beach Water Park reopened in late June, and the crowds have picked up this month.
Wuhan was where the novel coronavirus was first discovered late last year, although whether the virus originated there remains hotly debated. As the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China, Wuhan saw the most deaths. The official death toll in the city is 3,869, but that number is widely believed to be under-reported.
Since then, the spread of the disease has been all but eradicated in China, though isolated outbreaks pop up sporadically. Outdoor attractions and tourist sites have gradually reopened across the country with restrictions.
Western tabloids got a hold of the news of the pool parties and attacked Wuhan residents over the “disturbing images,” as the U.K.’s The Sun called them, of “swimmers in China’s former coronavirus epicenter crammed together for a massive pool party.” In Australia, The Daily Telegraph said the pictures “of thousands of Chinese people enjoying a pool party in the city that gave the world the pandemic” was “salt… in the wounds for local businesses struggling to survive coronavirus restriction.”
That coverage was reflected in outraged Twitter posts suggesting that Wuhan was “mocking the entire world” by daring to have a pool party while the rest of the world continues to struggle to contain the coronavirus.
That narrative overlooks the immense human suffering Wuhan went through to reach a point where mass gatherings could be allowed again.
While politicians around the world, most notably U.S. President Donald Trump, have taken China to task for its early cover-up of the new coronavirus, the people of Wuhan were the victims, not the perpetrators, of their government’s failure. The first cases were confirmed by late December 2019, but for weeks the local government not only did nothing but, worse, actively punished those discussing the new disease. People in Wuhan trying to find and share information about a new threat to their health faced reprimand and censorship.
Then, in late January, the central government did a 180-degree turn. On January 20, Chinese experts confirmed human-to-human transmission of the virus; just three days later, on the 23rd, the city was locked down to an extent that few governments have matched since. People couldn’t leave or enter Wuhan and were mostly restricted to their homes. Road, rail, and air connections with the rest of China, much less the outside world, were severed. Public transportation was shut down. People were mostly restricted to their homes; even trips to buy groceries were forbidden. Police patrolled the city and would question those found on the streets.
The measures were decried at the time for their severity, and the disregard for human rights. In the coming months, as other countries scrambled to impose their own lockdowns, the situation in Wuhan became more normalized, perceptually – even though few countries have come close to the draconian nature of the restrictions imposed on Wuhan.
The lockdown lasted until April 8.
The psychological toll of both quarantine and censorship was captured by Wuhan writer Fang Fang in her online diary. In a post translated by China Digital Times, Fang complained about the sacrifices of Wuhan’s people being overlooked:
We’re all still stuck at home on lockdown, yet some people are already singing praise to the government and posting book covers about the victory that has been achieved (if they’re not trolling). What do the people of Wuhan have to say? Whether anxious or upset, we’ve put up with it all, haven’t we? Yet even the victory is theirs. Today I saw this phrase: “When you hear someone say ‘we will do this at all costs,’ don’t assume that you are the ‘we’; you are only the ‘cost’ that is being paid.”
As Fang suggests, the pandemic turned Wuhan into a political pawn. Within China, the city was both celebrated and feared – local doctors were feted for their toils but also ferried around China (and even abroad) to promote the government’s success in the COVID-19 fight. Meanwhile, people from Wuhan faced discrimination within China.
Overseas, figures like Trump reveled in calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus,” ascribing blame to the pandemic’s first victims. The angry finger-pointing after the recent pool party is more of the same: The party-goers are somehow held responsible not only for the pandemic, but for other countries’ difficulties in containing it.
Today, it has been some three months since the last reported case of community transmission in Wuhan. Even now, restrictions remain. In order to enter the Wuhan water park, for instance, party-goers need to reserve tickets online in advance with their national ID number. Upon arrival, they need to present their ID and a green health code generated from mobile apps that track people’s movements and whether they are subject to virus quarantine.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press in Beijing, China.