China ends Wuhan lockdown, but normal life is a distant dream

China on Wednesday ended its lockdown of Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus first emerged and a potent symbol in a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of people, shaken the global economy and thrown daily life into upheaval across the planet.

But the city that has reopened after more than 10 weeks is a profoundly damaged one, a place whose recovery will be watched worldwide for lessons on how populations move past pain and calamity of such staggering magnitude.

In Wuhan, sickness and death have touched hundreds of thousands of lives, imprinting them with trauma that could linger for decades. Businesses, even those that have reopened, face a wrenching road ahead, with sluggishness likely to persist. Neighborhood authorities continue to regulate people’s comings and goings, with no return to normalcy in sight.

The Chinese authorities sealed off Wuhan, an industrial hub of 11 million people, in late January, in a frantic attempt to limit the outbreak’s spread. At the time, many outsiders saw it as an extreme step, one that could be tried only in an authoritarian system like China’s. But as the epidemic has worsened, governments around the world have enacted a variety of stringent restrictions on their citizens’ movements.

Some 1.4 million infections and 80,000 deaths have been reported worldwide — figures that are rising fast, and that officials say vastly understate the true extent of the pandemic. The contagion has slowed in hard-hit countries like Italy and Spain, but it continues to spread quickly elsewhere around the globe, including in the United States, which is approaching 400,000 known infections.

News reports are filled with scenes of overflowing hospitals in New York City, uncollected bodies on streets in Ecuador, updates on the condition of Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who is hospitalized in intensive care, and expert warnings that the epidemic could be exploding, undetected, in the poorest parts of the world.

Most of Europe, India, much of the United States and many other places are under orders for businesses to close and most people to stay at home, abruptly crippling economies and throwing millions of people out of work.

The full measure of the sacrifice that such policies entail — in jobs and income lost, in lives disrupted — might first be taken in Wuhan.

Wednesday’s reopening came after only three new coronavirus cases were reported in the city in the previous three weeks, and a day after China reported no new deaths for the first time since January. Controls on outbound travel were officially lifted just after midnight in China.

People can now leave after presenting to the authorities a government-sanctioned phone app that indicates — based on their home addresses, recent travels and medical histories — whether they are contagion risks.

Footage from state-run news outlets early Wednesday showed a rush of cars traveling through toll stations on the outskirts of Wuhan immediately after the restrictions were lifted.

China’s national rail operator estimated that more than 55,000 people would leave Wuhan by train on Wednesday, according to a state-run broadcaster.

Within the city, however, tough rules on individuals and businesses are still in place to prevent the virus from regaining a foothold. Officials continue to urge everyone to stay at home as much as possible. Schools are still closed.

Many people in Wuhan do not need to be told to keep isolating themselves, to say nothing about leaving the city. The experience of death and near-death has left psychic wounds. Of mainland China’s more than 80,000 reported cases of the virus, nearly two-thirds have been in Wuhan.

“Wuhan people experienced it firsthand,” said Yan Hui, a Wuhan native and sales executive in her 50s who recovered from the coronavirus. “Their friends got sick. Their friends and friends’ relatives died. Right before their eyes, one by one, they left us.”

“Their understanding of this disaster is deeper compared to people in other cities,” she said.

Wuhan is already not the same metropolis where, not so long ago, the passage of time seemed to have ground to a halt.

In recent days, more shops have reopened, often setting up street-front counters so that customers can buy vegetables, alcohol, cigarettes and other goods without entering. In parks along the Yangtze River, growing numbers of families have ventured out to take in the sunshine and fresh air.

Older residents have started congregating again in small groups to chat or play rounds of Chinese chess. Children are a rarer sight, and always appear to be under the wary watch of parents.

Public buses and the subway system have restarted, although they often seem to have few passengers.

Mountains of cardboard boxes have sprouted up outside apartment complexes as online shopping picks up. According to JD.com, an e-retailer, delivery orders in Hubei Province, of which Wuhan is the capital, increased threefold in March compared with February.

And more people are treating themselves, the company said: They have shifted from buying daily necessities and home fitness equipment to buying clothing, cosmetics and travel accessories.

Companies in Wuhan have been cautiously calling their employees back to work, contributing to the revival of city life.

Across Wuhan, nearly 94 percent of businesses — almost 11,000 of them in total — have resumed operations, said Hu Yabo, the city’s deputy mayor, at a recent news briefing. For major industrial enterprises, the rate exceeded 97 percent. For service companies, it was 93 percent.

It is unclear how much business they are actually doing, however. At industrial companies in Wuhan, only 60 percent of employees are on the job, and electricity consumption is one-fifth less than what it was this time last year, said Dang Zhen, another city official, at the same briefing.

Honda’s local venture is back to producing at full capacity, Mr. Hu said. Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, said on social media that employees at its Wuhan research center were eagerly returning to work “as a fresh wave of positivity pulsates around the building.”

Yet gloom about the local economy remains widespread. Much of China’s factory sector is suffering as the pandemic dampens overseas demand for exports. As businesses pull back their spending on equipment and offices, the effects will ripple through the rest of the economy.

During the whole of February, when the epidemic was at its peak in China, not a single residential real-estate deal was made in Wuhan, neither for new properties nor for ones already built, according to government statistics.

Helen Ding, 47, works at an architectural design company in the city. While her firm’s existing projects are mostly large enough that they cannot be easily canceled, her bosses are concerned about future business and future clients.

“The whole world is in a bad state, and as far as the future goes, nobody has much confidence,” Ms. Ding said.

For many small businesses, the loss of income could lead to further trouble. Short on cash, companies that have laid off workers may not be able to rehire them right away. Others worry about backed-up inventories of unsold goods, maintenance costs for equipment and customs disputes as the pandemic continues to snarl commerce around the world.

This month, a large group of restaurateurs in Wuhan wrote a letter to the city government pleading for rent relief, subsidized loans and wage support. The epidemic, they said, had been a “total disaster” for the industry.

At the height of the epidemic, Liu Dongzhou thought about giving up on his company, which makes fish balls, shredded chicken, and other frozen and processed foods. Now, he hopes to restart operations next week — but expects to lay off a fifth of his 80 employees.

Mr. Liu, 45, has heard much talk of government policies to help small enterprises. But he does not think any will be available to him in the short term.

Even if the authorities are allowing people to leave Wuhan, Mr. Liu said his own neighborhood had recently tightened its restrictions on residents’ movements. Wednesday does not feel like much of a milestone.

“To an ordinary person, if you lift or don’t lift the lockdown, there isn’t that big of a difference,” he said.

Ms. Yan, the sales executive, works in Wuhan for a unit of General Electric. Her bosses are wary of bringing too many employees back to work, fearing contagion.

“They’ll grit their teeth and carry on,” she said. “It’s such a big company, after all.”

Gritting one’s teeth and carrying on has characterized much about life in Wuhan these past months.

In February, Ms. Yan spent 15 days fighting the virus in Huoshenshan, one of the city’s newly built coronavirus hospitals. After the outbreak began, she stockpiled food in her apartment. When she got home from the hospital, all of it had gone bad.

She remains on sick leave, helping with company business when she can, but mostly resting at home. She has not seen her parents in two months, even though they live in the apartment complex next to hers.

An experience like that changes things, and for Ms. Yan it has reshuffled her priorities: Health and family first. Work, career, success — all of that second.

She has long talked about adjusting her life in that way. “But I never actually did it.”

The ordeal has also helped her see her home city in a new light.

The grass looks greener, the trees more luxuriant. There even seem to be more little songbirds in the garden outside her apartment.

“Before this epidemic, Wuhan was a city with a lot of vitality,” Ms. Yan said. “Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are already economically mature. But Wuhan has just gotten started.”

Wang Yiwei and Coral Yang contributed research.

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