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Life In Wuhan, 1 Year After The COVID-19 Outbreak Began


Exactly one year ago today, the Chinese city of Wuhan went into a total lockdown. For 76 days, more than 11 million people were ordered not to leave their apartments, even to get food or medicine, to prevent a novel coronavirus from spreading further. Today, China is still discovering dozens of new coronavirus cases each day, but Wuhan has gone months without reporting a new case, and life has mostly gone back to normal. NPR's Emily Feng has spent the last few days in the city and joins us now. Emily, thanks so much for being with us.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You were in Wuhan during the lockdown last year. What's it like now?

FENG: It's completely different. Last year it was a ghost town. There were no people on the streets. When people did venture outside, many still decided to wear full hazmat suits. But the last few days I was back in Wuhan, the commercial areas were full again. Traffic was back. People were eating out in restaurants. Of course, there are still restrictions. You have to wear face masks, and you cannot gather in numbers of more than a dozen. You do have to get COVID tests when traveling. But residents have this bittersweet kind of pride. They've been able to turn the tables. And now, unfortunately, it's other places in China that are bracing for a second wave because dozens of new cases are showing up there, but not in Wuhan.

SIMON: The World Health Organization has a team of scientists in Wuhan right now. And this coming week, I gather, they'll begin an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. What will they be looking for?

FENG: They'll be looking to understand how that virus made its leap to humans, and they're going to be visiting sites like the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan where they think the first infection clusters in humans appeared. But it's not clear how much they're going to find. That seafood market, for example, has already been mostly incinerated, and the WHO team is going to have to deal with political pressure from both the U.S. and China because there's this one particular virus conspiracy theory that's really taken hold in China, particularly among Wuhan seafood vendors. Here's one of them that I spoke to at a market many Huanan people have relocated to.


FENG: So this vendor is saying, I saw a social media video that said the virus began in the U.S., but they called it the seasonal flu. Then it came to China, and they called it the coronavirus. Now Chinese media says the virus is coming into China on the package of imported food. Cut off all imports, I say. And he's not the only one who believes in this. Chinese officials have been actively supporting the theory that the virus is American. And meanwhile, the Trump administration had blamed China for the pandemic, and they suggested it might have leaked from a Wuhan lab. So you have this unscientific pressure from both governments on the WHO.

SIMON: Emily, we all remember your vivid reports from a year ago about life in the city, and it sounded forbidding and chilling. How do residents there remember it?

FENG: They're divided. Many people want to move on, but other people are still very much grieving. And one of those people is a woman who wanted to be called Ms. Zhong. Her son died early last February because no hospitals could take him.

MS ZHONG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: She's saying, officials should serve the people, but they were not transparent of how serious the virus was. And if only they had told us, we would have the right health precautions and maybe my son would still be alive. And what also is clear is that Beijing is very sensitive about this type of criticism, that it messed up early on in the lockdown. It's arrested people who have criticized it. One person, Fang Bin, a local businessman who documented some of these mishaps, has simply gone missing.

SIMON: NPR's Emily Feng, thanks very much.

FENG: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.