This was reflected in state media, as the city which once characterized China’s failures to contain the coronavirus now symbolized the country’s recovery, in stark contrast to the chaos that is rapidly unfolding in much of the rest of the world.
“Like a phoenix, Wuhan reemerges from dark coronavirus lockdown in warm spring,” read a headline in the state-backed Global Times, while other outlets ran stories about the city “gradually getting back to normal,” including a boom in weddings.
But under that confident facade, there were signs of a concern felt across Asia: that any recovery from the virus may be fleeting, and a new wave of infections — and the lockdowns, death and misery that follow in their wake — may be just over the horizon.
Speaking at a meeting of Communist Party leaders this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged “unremitting efforts in guarding against imported cases from abroad and preventing a resurgence of the outbreak at home.”
For all the talk of getting back to normal, strict containment measures will remain in place in many parts of the country, most notably the capital, Beijing, where transport has been severely limited and foreigners have faced restrictions on their movement over fears of imported cases.
In the northern city of Suifenhe, on the border with Russia, a new makeshift hospital has been built and residents ordered to remain in their homes, after a spike in cases believed to have come from the neighboring country. As of April 9, there were a total of 123 imported cases and 137 asymptomatic cases in Suifenhe according to state run People’s Daily.
Hubei, the province of which Wuhan is the capital, will continue to maintain the highest level emergency response measures, and officials said Tuesday that zero new growth in cases “does not mean zero risk.”
Railway stations and train operators have stepped up disinfection and inspection protocols across the country, as tens of thousands of Wuhan residents are expected to leave the city this week.
Many found themselves trapped in the city after returning to see family during the Lunar New Year, and will now be headed to their homes in other parts of China. Multiple cities, including Guangzhou and Shenzhen, have already stated they will have to undergo self-quarantine measures and regular testing to ensure they don’t bring the virus with them.
In Wuhan itself, residents who have undergone testing have been issued QR codes through a government app. Only those with green codes — meaning they are symptom free and passed a coronavirus test — have been permitted to leave their homes. Anyone without such a code will still face restrictions on their movement.
People are also still facing regular temperature checks going in and out of businesses, and suspicion remains that some “healthy” people could still be infectious.
“Don’t you know there are asymptomatic patients? Do you think those measures can help detect them? The virus is so canny, we have to always be on high alert,” one Wuhan shopkeeper was quoted as saying by state media.
No time to relax
Compared to Europe and the US, China and other Asian countries at the forefront of the pandemic can seem to be living in the future, several steps ahead of the west in terms of response.
So many will be watching with bated breath whether the region can successfully get back to work now many of the worst hit countries appear to have come through the virus storm — or whether relaxed restrictions will result in a new wave of infections.
In a study published in the Lancet this week, researchers warned against just that.
Noting that China’s lockdowns and restrictions on travel had been successful in reducing “the number of infections to very low levels,” they added that without a vaccine or “herd immunity,” the virus “could easily resurge as businesses, factory operations, and schools gradually resume and increase social mixing, particularly given the increasing risk of imported cases from overseas.”
“Even in the most prosperous and well-resourced megacities like Beijing and Shanghai, health care resources are finite, and services will struggle with a sudden increase in demand,” senior author Professor Gabriel Leung, from the University of Hong Kong, said in a release accompanying the Lancet report. “Our findings highlight the importance of ensuring that local health-care systems have adequate staffing and resources to minimize Covid-related deaths.”
Beyond China, other countries in Asia are also wary about letting their guard down too soon.
Singapore on Friday reported 287 new cases of the virus, the city-state’s largest single-day increase since the pandemic began. Only three of the cases were imported, pointing to a major new domestic outbreak.
Earlier this week, Singaporean authorities banned all social gatherings until May 4, and new laws designed to act as a “circuit breaker” have imposed draconian new punishments on anyone found breaching social-distancing or quarantine orders.
The semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong saw a similar spike in cases after it relaxed restrictions, with many infections imported from overseas. Officials have since ramped up controls again, and urged people to be more stringent in exercising social distancing and infection control. While this has shown some success, health officials said Thursday that vigilance is still required.
“It looks like many of us were perhaps too complacent,” Bernard Chan, a senior official, wrote this week of the renewed increase in cases. “Now is the time for everyone to do every single thing they can to help keep the virus from spreading. Let’s not look back one day and remember a ‘third wave’ of infections.”
South Korea, which has been hailed for its effective response to the virus, is taking no such risks. Speaking Thursday, Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said that despite a prolonged drop in new cases, restrictions on large gatherings will remain in place through Easter and the country should “continue efforts to cut off any links for sporadic cluster transmissions.”
China has suffered the economic and health effects of the virus longer than any other country, and borne the brunt of the lockdowns. The desire to finally get back to normal is understandable. Citizens and the rest of the world will now have to watch with bated breath whether the country can actually pull it off.