Foreign Policy

A 12 months later, Wuhan victims are nonetheless scarred and censored

On January 23, 2021, a year after the city of Wuhan, China was forced into lockdown due to COVID-19, Sun, a doctor in the intensive care unit at Wuhan Central Hospital, wrote on his WeChat account, “Maybe the world is So Not made for good people to live in, but when darkness is inevitable, we can only stay true to our original pursuit instead of being swallowed up by the darkness around us. "

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

He had never heard of his colleague Li Wenliang, one of the doctors trying to warn of the coronavirus outbreak, until Li's story hit headlines around the world. 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 to be a doctor escalated phenomenally during the pandemic. Sun lived in his office from late January to mid-February, slept on a cot, and was overwhelmed by mental and physical stress. He wanted to save lives and he also wanted to reveal the truth so the rest of the world could learn and do better. Li's death inspired him to become a whistleblower and report negligent handling of the COVID-19 outbreak to a range of Chinese media outlets, various government officials and the Chinese State Council. However, the dossiers he sent to reporters were never made public. Instead, the hospital directors tried to convince him to focus on his academic research rather than fighting the government.

His family and friends never understood why he would jeopardize his promising career and risk imprisonment. He finally stopped trying – but found it difficult to count on his own conscience. For months he drowned in self-loathing until he accepted his own mistakes as he saw it.

Sun was one of several people from Wuhan I spoke to over the past year – or, in one case, other journalists in China spoke to but were unable to write about and sent the material to because of the censorship at home passed on to me. They range from doctors to relatives of the dead on the front lines of the virus' first devastating outbreak. I am referring to some of them by pseudonyms or shortened versions of their real names because the cost of pronouncing them in China, Sun noted, is still high.

A memorial to Li Wenliang, the Wuhan ophthalmologist who whistled in front of the University of California, Los Angeles, on the Westwood, California campus on February 15, 2020, about the severity of the coronavirus outbreak prior to the death of COVID-19 reported. MARK RALSTON / AFP via Getty Images

Like Sun, Ai Fen, a doctor and colleague of Li Wenliang's, accused herself of not doing enough during the pandemic. On December 30, 2019, Ai received a copy of the laboratory results from a patient with severe flu-like symptoms with the "SARS Coronavirus" report. She took a photo of the report and sent it to her colleagues. The photo spread throughout the hospital. A day later, Li sent this photo to more people.

On January 2, 2020, Ai was called by Cai Li, the party leader at Wuhan Central Hospital, who silenced her with verbal threats. Cai was later fired for her role in the cover-up.

Ai rose to fame in March when an article in Renwu magazine recognized her as one of the first to set off the alarm about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. She recently spoke again about her experience at the AIER Eye Clinic in Wuhan, where she had an operation last May that allegedly resulted in loss of vision in her right eye. All three ophthalmologists in their own hospital, including Li, died during the pandemic. She had to stop working and had a nervous breakdown after being unable to hold her own baby because she was unable to hold significant weight during her recovery.

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

This time she refused to make a private reconciliation with the AIER Eye Clinic. She is fighting not only for herself but for many other patients who have had conflicts with private medical providers in China. She says she won't be silenced again.

Excavators will begin work on a new hospital to treat patients with coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan on January 24, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

Workers set up beds at an exhibition center that was converted into a hospital in Wuhan on February 4, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

Xinyi Zhongze is upset when everyone around her celebrates the "victory" of China's fight against COVID-19.

On February 19, 2020, her father Wu Zhongze, who worked at the Tianan Hospital, passed out in the office due to a brain hemorrhage. When a colleague found him, he used the last scraps of his strength to remind those who wanted to save 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 so that no one could do the much-needed surgery on Wu. He died soon after.

Chinese media have been calling Wuhan the "hero city" for some time and the people of Wuhan as "heroes". But Xinyi never considered himself "heroic". She doesn't think she's tougher or braver than other people. In fact, she still hasn't complained about her loss. After her father passed away, Tianan Hospital leaders helped her apply for grants and allowances, some organizations gave her father money and trophies, and unknown people sent gifts. Her father was also featured in a documentary for Chinese tech company Tencent. She says that she is very grateful for these kind gestures, but she has not yet been able to process her feelings.

She is also afraid that people like her father will be forgotten. In Wuhan, life seems to have returned to normal. People go out with their friends and enjoy social activities. She feels that part of her has been left behind in this cold, rainy winter and nothing can fill the void in her heart. There is no victory for them.

Medical staff cheer themselves up before going to an intensive care unit 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 was really a "victory" because so many people survived.

His hospital was among the first to admit COVID-19 patients, and he was among the first doctors to treat them. The day before he joined the COVID-19 department, he was given medications like Arbidol, which at the time were considered useful for treatment. He was mentally prepared to get infected and believed that there would not be enough medical resources to be treated. But two days later, he gave the medicine for free to an old couple who asked for help online.

Those days were tough. He had a nervous breakdown when he saw funeral directors dump bodies on a truck – prior to the pandemic, they used a small minivan to haul bodies. It was extremely difficult to call family members of diminished patients. He often apologized for not keeping loved ones alive, stating that there was really nothing else the medical team could do.

A year after the lockdown, he says he still wakes up from nightmares in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep until he looks at his daughter's face.

Empty roads and bridges during the coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan on February 3, 2020. Getty Images

Two residents are walking in an otherwise empty Jiangtan park on the fourth day of lockdown during the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan on Jan. 27, 2020. Getty Images

Zhang Wu, a teacher, canceled the Spring Festival train ticket to his hometown shortly before the lockdown in Wuhan. He originally thought he could work as a delivery worker during the lockdown and make some extra money to send to his daughter who is studying in the US. He later started volunteering. He delivered medicines to people who couldn't get medical help on time, transported medical supplies to hospitals, and gave medical workers free trips to and from work.

Wuhan was a "ghost town" under lockdown, he said, and he often drove alone on streets that were once overcrowded. There were no pedestrians or vehicles nearby – the police only checked ID cards sometimes. He once saw a wild boar running on the highway.

He said that although the city has returned to normal, something has changed permanently. The people in Wuhan are nicer, friendlier and more family-oriented than before. You don't get angry because the delivery person is 10 minutes late and people are more friendly to each other in public places.

But they're still scared too. Zhang wears masks everywhere and presses the elevator button with his car key.

His final challenge is to get his daughter home for the upcoming lunar new year. Ticket prices have risen dramatically and many flights have been canceled. Many travelers who met COVID-19 testing requirements were still unable to get permission to board their flights, and despite recent changes in government policy, they received only arbitrary and confusing responses from Chinese consulates in the United States

“I feel very conflicted. On the one hand, I think they can come back as long as they are Chinese. On the other hand, I understand the government's intention to take precautionary measures, ”said Zhang. After a moment of reflection, he added, “But I think everything will be fine. I believe in humanity. "

While the Chinese government wants to conclude that the fight against COVID-19 is over, Ma knows that many stories have not yet been told.

She worked as an investigative journalist for a Chinese state-owned media company, spent three months in Wuhan interviewing doctors in hospital wards and received calls from desperate people begging for help.

She published some well-circulated articles – and also insulted 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 the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but those articles never made it through the censorship system. Many of the stories she found remain untold.

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

Some conflicts remain unresolved, including Zhang Hai's lawsuit against the Wuhan government. After a year of seeking justice for his father's death, he has come no closer to 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, it would not have driven Zhang Lifa all the way from Shenzhen to Wuhan on January 16, 2020 The 76-year-old father of a military veteran to bring him what he believed to be the best possible medical treatment for a broken bone at the General Hospital of the Central Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army. Zhang Lifa was hospitalized on January 17, tested positive for the coronavirus on January 23, and died on the first day of February.

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

He has been silenced many times over the past year. He created four Weibo accounts to comment online and all four accounts were suspended.

He has been silenced many times over the past year. He created four Weibo accounts to comment online and all four accounts were suspended. But he still hasn't given up. He still hasn't even managed to find the remains of his father – he uses this as inspiration to keep fighting.

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

Last month, on the night of January 23, Weibo and WeChat were publicly condemned and criticized as residents of Tonghua – a small town in northeast China – complained about a shortage of food, staples and prescribed medicines during Jan's lockdown Complained 18. I received messages from local people begging for food, clean water, diapers and insulin. People couldn't stock up because the lock was announced out of the blue and their doors were taped off immediately after the announcement. There were scenes of similar chaos in Shijiazhuang earlier this month and Urumqi in July 2020 when those cities were closed.

A year after the Wuhan outbreak, the terror of the virus is still lingering.

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