At ground zero of the global pandemic, life goes on

Students dance at Changchun Street Primary School of Wuhan during a government-organized media tour following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, September 4, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song - RC2FRI938279

Students dance at Changchun Street Primary School of Wuhan during a government-organized media tour, September 4, 2020. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song - RC2FRI938279

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Wuhan, the Chinese city where the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded, has largely returned to normal.
  • The city’s recovery points to the effectiveness of draconian measures in combatting the spread of the disease.
  • China’s broader reset has built hopes that it will lead the global economy out of its malaise.

The eyeglasses shops above the former Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market have reopened, tourists are flocking to the Yellow Crane Tower, and mask-less revelers are packing into the city’s clubs.

Wuhan – the Chinese metropolis believed to be ground zero for a pandemic still ravaging economies and claiming lives around the world – seems to have largely returned to a kind of normal.

The city of roughly 11 million people suffered dearly in the first months of COVID-19. But the official case count for Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital, has hardly budged since April. By August, thousands of people in Wuhan were gathering at massive pool parties. Students have now returned to closely monitored schools where teachers are encouraged to demonstrate an “anti-epidemic spirit.” And a well-known local punk band recently managed to release a new album.

Wuhan’s experience may not necessarily be reassuring. While it’s proof that COVID-19 can be checked even in the hardest-hit places, doing so in this city involved the sort of draconian measures that governments elsewhere have only flirted with.

In January, Wuhan went into such a severe lockdown that much of it remains a mystery to the outside world. What is known is that on the morning of 23 January all transportation in and out of the city was blocked, and house-to-house searches were subsequently conducted to round up the sick and quarantine them. The artist Ai Weiwei has made a documentary film about the “brutally efficient” effort.

Image: World Economic Forum

Research has suggested that without Wuhan's strict lockdown, COVID-19 cases in the 347 Chinese cities outside of Hubei province would have been 65% higher during those early days of the outbreak.

The country’s National Health Commission announced that China had passed the peak of the pandemic on 12 March – a point when countries including Turkey and Honduras were reporting their first cases, and the US had reported less than 1,000 in total (the US has recently been registering an average of roughly 60,000 new cases per day).

After 11 weeks of lockdown, Wuhan began emerging in April. Its residents were at last allowed to leave without special authorization, after they’d downloaded a mandatory smartphone application tracking their health and proximity to anyone found to have the virus.

While containment attempts in the US and other countries have been widely panned, official government figures in China point to a remarkably effective and enduring effort to prevent the coronavirus from spreading widely outside of Hubei province.

Image: World Economic Forum

Earlier this week, China reported that its economy grew by 4.9% in the third quarter, compared with a 6.8% contraction in the first quarter. The country’s post-pandemic rebuild has raised hopes that it may now be able to help pull the rest of the world out of its economic malaise – though some economists are skeptical.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Don’t begrudge Wuhan its pool parties – the images of festive crowds that started to gather at the Wuhan Maya Beach Water Park over the summer drew some criticism as insensitive, but according to this analysis that narrative overlooks the immense human suffering endured by the city. (The Diplomat)
  • Countries that have handled the pandemic well at home have generally seen their competence rewarded with improved standing abroad. China has been the lone exception, according to this analysis. (Lowy Institute)
  • The Wuhan band SMZB, which recently released a new album, played an integral role in building the local punk community, according to this report. A line in the band’s song “Great Wuhan” translates as, “she will be beautiful, she will get freedom/it won’t be a prison here forever.” (RADII)
  • The pandemic placed an uncomfortable spotlight on the head of a group that studies bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, following speculation that the coronavirus escaped from her lab. In this report, she tries to set the record straight. (Science)
  • A correspondent for a German publication living in China finds the stringent measures implemented to contain COVID-19 are so integrated into daily life he hardly notices them anymore, though he doubts democracies will have the will or desire to reproduce them. (Der Spiegel)
  • At least some of the decline in China-US relations is attributable to the pandemic – in particular to China’s reluctance to allow an independent investigation of its origins, and the potential for the country to “weaponize” vaccines it develops – according to this US-based scholar. (The Diplomat)
  • Wuhan’s efforts to reinvigorate its economy have included distributing nearly $12 million in vouchers to residents to try and boost local tourism, paying monthly supplements to tour guides, and offering subsidies to cultural and tourism firms, according to this report. (Yicai Global)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Vaccination and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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