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Inside Wuhan: How China’s ground zero for covid hit its zero-covid tipping point

Wuhan has seen some of covid’s worst trauma, fury over lockdowns and now a sudden pivot away from zero-covid.

Wuhan, the city held up as a proof point of China’s success in fighting covid, was among them. People tore down fences that had gone up to lock down their neighborhoods and took to the streets to demand freedom from the lockdowns and other zero-covid restrictions. There had been nothing like this in Wuhan since the pandemic began.

“These three years, do you know how we have lived? You have your gold rice bowls, your iron rice bowls, and you tell us to cooperate — you want us to sacrifice everything to comply,” she says, referring to government workers and the job security they enjoy. “What’s the final result? … You want to drive us down a road to ruin before you give in, is that right?”

Birth of the virus, birth of the zero-covid lockdown

Wuhan’s original lockdown was born of necessity, in a climate of uncertainty and fear. In those first days, cases and deaths were soaring, and doctors were still scrambling to figure out how to treat the new virus.

Ivy, a 35-year-old woman who works for an education company, was born in Wuhan and has lived in the city most of her life. In January 2020, she saw the bustling metropolis transformed into a ghost town, sealed off from the outside world. “I even felt it’s like in those sci-fi movies — like the air has poison,” she told Grid. She was on the verge of tears as she checked the news, and heard about people dying.

As the youngest member of the household, Ivy felt she had to be strong, venturing out to buy groceries for her parents and grandmother. But putting on a brave face was harder. “I never thought I would have some psychological issues until that time,” Ivy said. (She asked Grid to use her English first name only due to the sensitivity of the subject.)

After Wuhan lifted its lockdown in April 2020, the mood improved. The restrictions had allowed China to keep covid from spreading out of control, and the people of Wuhan were celebrated as heroes. While China’s borders remained shut and strict masking and testing policies were kept in place, many people returned to a relatively covid-free life.

In the meantime, conditions only worsened across the rest of the world. The Wuhan lockdowns had worked. “Zero-covid” looked like a winner. And the city’s residents celebrated.

“In 2021, you didn’t feel that you were a prisoner or something,” said Ivy. She viewed the restrictions that were kept in place as reasonable; after all, they would protect her elderly family members and other senior citizens.

Enter omicron

It was about this time last year that the delta and omicron variants ended that honeymoon period.

Small outbreaks that would have hardly raised eyebrows in other parts of the world were met with harsh lockdowns. The fact that omicron was different — it spread more easily and was less likely to be fatal — didn’t the change the approach. The operative word, and aim, was still “zero.” Every effort had to be made to stop the spread. All over China, from Xi’an to Shanghai to Urumqi, people struggled within the confines of the lockdowns, losing jobs, losing touch with friends, and losing sight of any end point.

For Palvin, who was a senior at a Wuhan university and now works in the finance industry, the difference between 2022 and 2021 was stark. Her final semester was spent under lockdown; a student trying to leave campus would have to go high up the chain of command to get approval, she said, and that approval rarely came. Every other day, students had to line up on the athletic fields to get tested, even though the campus was essentially sealed off from the rest of the city; a negative test wouldn’t allow a student to go anywhere.

The restrictions meant that Palvin, who also asked to use her English first name, couldn’t finish her required off-campus internship. That made graduating much more difficult.

“The mental state of the entire city, including many of my classmates who were all together at the time, was very bad,” she said.

The seemingly endless restrictions were particularly hard on Wuhan, given that its residents had the longest experience with lockdowns. The Wuhan woman whose video was shared on Douyin spoke for many: “From the lockdown on Jan. 23 [in 2020] to the lifting of the lockdown on April 8, in total 76 days, the people of Wuhan cooperated with you … now it’s almost 2023 and the whole city is essentially locked down; we’re back to 2020!”

When patience ran out

By now, Wuhan was fertile ground for dissent. On Nov. 27, in several Wuhan neighborhoods, including Palvin’s, people began tearing down the iron-sheet fences that had been built to keep their communities from going anywhere. Quite literally, a zero-covid barrier was coming down.

Palvin caught wind of the protest via videos circulating on WeChat, the Chinese social media app. She had never participated in any kind of protest, but she had felt the same frustrations that had driven people to the streets. And as she watched the scenes on her phone, she decided she needed to see for herself. So Palvin set out for Hanzheng.

By the time she got there, police had cleared the intersection where the demonstrators had gathered, but people were still talking in small groups and calling out slogans — to end the lockdowns and speak with local leaders. She chatted with shopkeepers from the Hanzheng stores who told her that their main demand was ending the lockdowns so they could restart business in earnest.

Palvin told Grid she got swept up in the event and decided to join a vigil for the victims of the Urumqi fire. She had gone to the protest alone — assuming few of her friends had heard about it — but she said she felt the power of the crowds.

“When everyone was walking in that direction, we were all exchanging subtle looks of mutual understanding, probably thinking that we’re all headed for the same place,” she said. “So even though none of us knew one another, there was still this kind of feeling.”

RELATED: China’s zero-covid policy is failing. But there’s no easy way out.

The vigil started peacefully. Police officers weren’t interfering. But after a while, as one woman was lighting a candle, a man Palvin guessed was a plainclothes police officer charged in and tried to disrupt the vigil. In a video of the scene shared with Grid, the man tries to snatch a phone one of the vigil attendees is using to record him; the person recording then pushes him back. Finally the police and other people at the gathering pull the two apart.

It was a heady and at times chaotic day, but Palvin told Grid she had felt a new faith in her generation, which she’d written off as largely apolitical. “I was surprised — and am still surprised — that these protests could suddenly erupt. It was unimaginable,” she said. “There was a feeling of, has everyone really woken up?”

“I think it makes sense that Wuhan was part of the first wave of protests. People in Wuhan have suffered the longest,” she added.

Ivy didn’t go to the vigil or the protests. But she heard about them — and what she heard was something of a revelation: “It’s maybe our first time in this generation to see people trying to, you know, say no to the government.”

Will the reopening last?

It turns out that when people in Wuhan and elsewhere said “no” to the government, officials actually listened — at least to some extent.

On Wednesday, the national government went further with its new 10-point plan. Two of the biggest changes: Mass, citywide testing would no longer be required — cities are now instructed to conduct mass tests only in high-risk areas; and close contacts of infected people can quarantine at home instead of the centralized facilities that many have come to fear and loathe.

“China is moving away from zero-covid thanks to the protesters, which sent a strong signal to the top decision makers that they could no longer tolerate the excessiveness of the policy,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“We are now seeing the rapid shift toward reopening, although the transition will still be characterized by setbacks and crosscurrents,” Huang said, “depending on the changing infection and mortality levels and policy dynamics on the ground.”

Palvin said that she has heard about police checking the phones of people who had participated in protests in other cities, and detaining them for questioning. But she also said she is prepared to go back to the streets, to protest again. She has taken precautionary measures, like carrying two phones so that if she’s stopped by the police, they won’t see that she has Telegram — an app that protesters have used to communicate with one another.

For her part, Ivy has had a change of heart. Before the pandemic, she said, she largely accepted the way things were done — specifically, the idea that China’s government would make decisions on behalf of the collective. But now she sees a need to be part of that process.

“I realized that the disappointment is also very important, like you can’t just walk away because you’re disappointed about the government,” she said. “Even if they have a good purpose to do the things, like to protect older people or something like that, that doesn’t mean they will have the right way. So we should be involved and try to express ourselves. … It’s not only one person or one government who decides. They need our voice.”

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