Foreign Policy

A 12 months On, Wuhan Victims Are Nonetheless Scarred and Nonetheless Censored

On Jan. 23, 2021, one year after the city of Wuhan, China, was forced into lockdown due to COVID-19, Sun, an intensive care unit doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital, wrote on his WeChat account, “Maybe the world is not made for good people to live in, but if darkness is unavoidable, then the only thing we can do is to remain true to our original aspiration, instead of being swallowed by the darkness around us.”

When I interviewed Sun, who asked that only his family name be used for fear of repercussions, last year, we could only speak briefly, because he was busy running between rooms, monitoring complicated medications, plugging in breathing equipment, and writing prescriptions.

He had never heard of his colleague Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who tried to warn of the coronavirus outbreak, until Li’s story became headline news all over the globe. And when Sun actually saw him, Li was lying in a hospital bed while another doctor tried to hook him up to an ECMO machine. That was the last day of Li’s life.

The pressure of being a doctor escalated phenomenally during the pandemic. Sun lived in his office from late January to mid-February, sleeping on a camp bed, and was overwhelmed by mental and physical stress. He wanted to save lives, and he also wanted to disclose the truth, so that the rest of the world could learn and do better. The death of Li inspired him to become a whistleblower, to report incidents of negligence in handling the COVID-19 outbreak to a number of Chinese media outlets, different government officials, and China’s State Council. However, the dossiers he sent to reporters were never published; instead, hospital leaders tried to convince him to focus on his academic research instead of fighting against the government.

His family and friends never understood why he would endanger his promising career and risk being detained. He eventually stopped trying—but found it hard to reckon with his own conscience. For months, he drowned in his self-loathing, until he came to accept his own, as he saw it, failings.

Sun was one of several individuals from Wuhan I’ve been talking with over this last year—or whom, in one case, other journalists in China talked to but were unable to write about due to censorship at home, and passed the materials on to me. They range from doctors to relatives of the dead, on the front lines of the virus’s first devastating outbreak. I refer to some of them by pseudonyms or shortened versions of their real name, because the cost of speaking out in China, as Sun found, is still high.

A memorial to Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan ophthalmologist who was a whistleblower about the severity of the coronavirus outbreak before dying of COVID-19, outside the UCLA campus in Westwood, California, on Feb. 15, 2020.

A memorial to Li Wenliang, the Wuhan ophthalmologist who was a whistleblower about the severity of the coronavirus outbreak before dying of COVID-19, outside the University of California, Los Angeles, campus in Westwood, California, on Feb. 15, 2020. MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Like Sun, Ai Fen, also a doctor and colleague of Li Wenliang, blamed herself for not doing enough during the pandemic. On Dec. 30, 2019, Ai received the copy of lab results of a patient with severe flu-like symptoms, with the report marked “SARS coronavirus.” She took a photo of the report and sent it to her colleagues, and the photo spread throughout the hospital. A day later, Li sent this photo to more people.

On Jan. 2, 2020, Ai was summoned by Cai Li, the party chief of Wuhan Central Hospital, who terrified her into silence with verbal threats. Cai would later be fired for her role in the cover-up.

Ai became famous in March when a Renwu magazine article recognized her as one of the first people to ring the alarm about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Recently, she spoke up again about her experience at Wuhan’s AIER Eye hospital, where she underwent surgery last May that, she alleges, resulted in her losing vision in her right eye. All three of the ophthalmologists in her own hospital, including Li, died during the pandemic. She had to stop working and had a mental breakdown after not being able to hold her own baby due to being unable to hold any significant weight during her recovery.

A year after the pandemic began, she still blames herself for not speaking up enough. She told me in correspondence that if she could relive her life, she would sacrifice her own career and inform more people about the virus. The testing company sent her the original copy of the lab results as a memorial, and she keeps that report on her desk, as a reminder.

This time, she refused to reconcile with AIER Eye Hospital in private. She isn’t just fighting for herself but for many other patients who had conflicts with private medical providers in China. She says she will not allow herself to be silenced again.

Xinyi Zhongze feels upset as everyone around her is celebrating the “victory” of China’s fight against COVID-19.

On Feb. 19, 2020, her father, Wu Zhongze, who worked at Tianan Hospital, fainted in the office due to a cerebral hemorrhage. When a colleague found him, he used his last scraps of strength to remind the people who came to rescue him to “wear a mask.” Colleagues sent him to several hospitals including Tongji Hospital and Xiehe Hospital, but all the doctors were busy diagnosing and treating COVID-19 patients, leaving no one to perform urgently needed surgery on Wu. He died soon after.

Chinese media outlets have been calling Wuhan the “Hero City” for a while, and they call the people of Wuhan “heroic people.” But Xinyi has never considered herself “heroic.” She doesn’t think she is any tougher or braver than other people; in fact, she still hasn’t moved on from grieving her loss. After her father’s death, leaders at Tianan hospital helped her to apply for grants and allowances, a few organizations awarded her dad money and trophies, and unknown people sent over gifts. Her dad was also featured in a documentary produced by the Chinese tech company Tencent. She says she is very grateful for these kind gestures, but she hasn’t yet been able to process her emotions.

She is also afraid that people like her father will be forgotten. In Wuhan, life appears to have returned to normal. People are going out with their friends and enjoying social activities. She feels like a part of her was left behind in that cold rainy winter, and nothing can fill up the void in her heart. There is no victory for her.

Medical staff cheer themselves up before going into an intesive care ward for COVID-19 patients at the Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on March 16, 2020.

Medical staff cheer themselves up before going into an intensive care ward for COVID-19 patients at the Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on March 16, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

Li, a doctor at Wuhan No. 4 Hospital, says the coronavirus fight really was a “victory,” because so many people survived.

His hospital was among the first batch of hospitals that were accepting COVID-19 patients, and he was among the first batch of medical workers treating them. The day before he entered the COVID-19 ward, he obtained drugs such as Arbidol, which were considered useful for treatment at the time. He was mentally prepared to be infected and believed there would not be sufficient medical resources for him to be treated. But two days later, he gave the medicine away for free to an old couple pleading for help online.

Those days were rough. He had a mental breakdown when seeing funeral home workers throwing corpses onto a cargo truck—before the pandemic, they used to use a small minivan to transport corpses. Calling family members of decreased patients was extremely difficult. He apologized many times for not keeping their loved ones alive and explained there was really nothing else the medical team could do.

A year after the lockdown, he says he still wakes in the middle of the night from nightmares and can only fall back asleep after he looks at his daughter’s face.

Zhang Wu, a teacher, canceled the train ticket back to his hometown for Spring Festival just before the lockdown in Wuhan. He originally thought that he could work as a delivery worker during the lockdown and make some extra money to send to his daughter studying in the United States. Later, he began to volunteer. He delivered medicines to people who couldn’t get medical help in time, he transported medical supplies to hospitals, and he gave free rides to medical workers to and from work.

Wuhan under lockdown was a “ghost town,” he said, and he often drove alone on roads that were once crowded. There were no pedestrians and no vehicles around—just sometimes police checking people’s ID. He once saw a wild boar running on the highway.

He said that even though the city has returned to normalcy, something has changed permanently. People in Wuhan are nicer, kinder, and more family-oriented than before. They don’t get upset because the delivery person is 10 minutes late, and in public places, people are more friendly toward each other.

But they are also still afraid. Zhang wears masks wherever he goes, and he uses his car key to press the elevator button.

His latest challenge is to get his daughter back home for the upcoming Lunar New Year. Ticket prices have surged dramatically, and many flights have been canceled. Many travelers who met the COVID-19 testing requirements still weren’t able to get permission to board their flights, and they only received arbitrary and confusing answers from the Chinese consulates in the United States despite recent government policy changes

“I feel very conflicted. On the one hand, I think that as long as they are Chinese, they should be allowed to come back. On the other hand, I understand the government’s intention to take precautions,” Zhang said. After a moment of thinking, he added, “but I believe everything will be fine. I believe in humanity.”

While the Chinese government wants to conclude that the battle against COVID-19 is over, Ma knows that many stories still remain untold.

Working as an investigative journalist for a Chinese state-affiliated media outlet, she spent three months in Wuhan, interviewing doctors inside hospital wards and receiving phone calls from desperate people begging for help.

She published a couple of well-circulated articles—and also offended some government officials by telling the truth. She was accused of “talking too much.” She had interviewed people from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but those articles were never able to make it through the censorship system. Many stories she found remain untold.

Workers move the body of a COVID-19 victim in a hospital in Wuhan on Feb. 16, 2020. Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Some conflicts remain unresolved, including Zhang Hai’s lawsuit against the Wuhan government. After spending a year seeking justice for the death over his father, he is no closer to getting an explanation. Zhang Hai firmly believes that if the Wuhan government had been transparent about COVID-19 cases in late December 2019 and early January 2020, he would not have driven all the way from Shenzhen to Wuhan on Jan. 16, 2020, with Zhang Lifa, his 76-year-old military veteran father, to get him what he believed was the best medical treatment possible for a broken bone at the General Hospital of the Central Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army. Zhang Lifa was hospitalized on Jan. 17, tested positive for the coronavirus on Jan. 23, and died on the first day of February.

Zhang Hai and others who lost loved ones due to COVID-19 formed a group on the social platform Weibo to hold the local government accountable for covering up the outbreak. They were warned by the local government not to talk to foreign media, and some of them were summoned by the police. Lots of people gave up, as they felt like they were fighting an impossible battle, but Zhang Hai did not. He sued local government and the Central Theater Command Hospital on June 10, 2020,  for  2 million yuan, around $300,000, only to be told to drop the case by the authorities. He kept filing.

In the past year, he has been silenced many times. He created four Weibo accounts to speak out online, and all four accounts were blocked.

In the past year, he has been silenced many times. He created four Weibo accounts to speak out online, and all four accounts were blocked. But he still hasn’t given up. He still hasn’t even managed to retrieve his father’s remains—he uses that as an inspiration to keep fighting.

A reflector shows the Chinese national flag at half-staff in Shanghai on April 4 during a national day of mourning for victims of the pandemic.

A reflector shows the Chinese national flag at half-staff in Shanghai on April 4, 2020, during a national day of mourning for victims of the pandemic. Yifan Ding/Getty Images

Last month, on the night of Jan. 23, public condemnation and criticism mounted on Weibo and WeChat as residents of Tonghua—a small city in northeastern China—complained about a lack of food, essentials, and prescribed medication during the lockdown imposed on Jan. 18. I received messages from local people who were begging for food, clean water, diapers, and insulin. People were unable to stock up, because the lockdown was announced out of the blue and their doors were immediately taped up after the announcement. There were scenes of similar chaos in Shijiazhuang earlier in the month, and in Urumqi in July 2020, when these cities were under lockdown.

A year after the Wuhan outbreak, and the terror of the virus still lingers.

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