The Lingering Effects of Lockdown
For Wuhan, the period of full closure and containment has passed. But the actions taken to respond to the epidemic, including the mobilizing of new technologies and mass monitoring of the population, will have a lasting impact on people’s lives.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic in the city of Wuhan in January 2020 coincided with the Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival. For Chinese, Spring Festival is the most important holiday of the year. This is true not only because it is a time of celebration during which family and friends come together, but also because it brings the world’s largest migration of people, what Chinese refer to as the “Spring Festival travel rush,” or chunyun (春运). Within just a few weeks, hundreds of millions of people flow across China.
On January 20, as health experts in China notified the public that COVID-19, then known only as a “new coronavirus,” was capable of human-to-human transmission, and that 14 healthcare workers had been infected in Wuhan, other provinces and cities in China began reporting their own confirmed cases. Almost all of the cases reported in these areas, which included Beijing, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Shanghai, originated in Wuhan. All at once this became a national epidemic, and Wuhan, the largest transportation hub in China's interior, was regarded as the "eye of the storm."
* There were no warning signs before the complete lock down of Wuhan in January, which included a ban on public transport and motor vehicles. Using social media platforms, Wuhan residents showed a strong spirit of volunteerism, building driver networks and offering hotel facilities to support medical staff.
* As a “close off and manage” policy was put into effect for Wuhan, and eventually the rest of the country, China relied on an existing social control system, so-called "grid management," which divides each local jurisdiction into discrete "grids" that can be monitored by millions of low-level officials nationwide.
* Wuhan residents were the first in the country to experience an early invention to deal with COVID-19 – the smartphone-based “health code.” The "health code" system has been pursued in China without any public discussion, and could have long-term implications for data privacy in China.
Three days later, in the early hours of January 23, the Wuhan government announced that from 10AM the same day it would prevent all departures from the city, including from train stations, airports, highways, and ferries, and that it would shut down public transportation such as buses and subways. On January 26, motor vehicles were banned from the streets of Wuhan. Authorities had hit the pause button on a city of over 10 million people.
The news of the lockdown of the city came as a surprise to everyone. By the evening of January 22, Hubei Province had announced 444 confirmed cases of COVID-19, most of which were in Wuhan. Nearly all of the confirmed cases in other cities across the country were identified as having been imported from Wuhan.
But was this enough to justify the wholesale shutdown of a city with a population of 10 million? So far no news has indicated where the closure order came from, but there is no doubt that such a major decision must ultimately have gone through the highest-level of decision-making in China, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee.
The lockdown of the city of Wuhan, and eventually of the entire country, was like a potent injection of painkillers. This rapid response also left behind serious residual effects. For the people of Wuhan, the weeks spent in isolation were not just one of the most difficult and unforgettable periods of their lives, but they have also, in the “new normal” that has followed and in the midst of what is now a global pandemic, had a lasting impact on the lives of everyone.
The City Shuts Down
There were strong winds in Wuhan on January 26, 2020, and that morning the temperature in the city dropped to below zero. Mr. Lin, a hospital employee in this 50s, rushed off to work on a bicycle he rented through a bicycle-sharing service. Previously, it had taken him usually just half an hour by subway or bus to reach the hospital. Now, with public transportation suspended and private cars also ordered off the roads, the journey took him three hours. Hospital personnel like Mr. Lin were among those most keenly affected by the transportation ban.
Fortunately for Lin, his daughter was able to put him in contact with a volunteer driver she located through a group on the popular Chinese social platform WeChat. Many such volunteer drivers emerged in Wuhan after the quarantine order came down, and all were ordinary Wuhan citizens who formed ad hoc chat groups that brought together drivers and medical personnel. Under this improvised system, medical personnel would post their transport requests within the chat group, where drivers would then accept them. These groups were never registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the usual practice for volunteer activities, but were given special treatment considering the circumstances, including entry-exit permits for residential areas. Once Mr. Lin’s shift was finished, the driver, as agreed, picked up him at the hospital entrance.
One such volunteer driver under the Wuhan quarantine was Mr. Zhang, a Wuhan native who works in the education industry. Zhang began picking up medical staff on January 23, the very same day the quarantine took effect. In his WeChat group, there are hundreds of volunteer drivers, all ordinary Wuhan citizens. From late January up through the final end of the quarantine in March, when public transportation was resumed, they delivered not just medical personnel but also key supplies to hospitals, including protective equipment and disinfectants.
As working in hospitals put them in close contact with infectious patients may be in close contact with infected patients, many medical staff dared not return home after work for fear of infecting family members. To address this challenge, the “Hotel Medical Support Alliance” (酒店医护支援联盟) was organized among various hotel operators in Wuhan in order to provide free accommodation for medical staff. According to numbers provided by the alliance, it provided accommodation for more than 40,000 overnight stays within just the first week of quarantine.
For both volunteer drivers and hotels, these were risky acts of altruism. In the midst of the epidemic, the hospital was a dangerous place, and all medical staff were high-risk due to their regular contact with infected patients. Many volunteer drivers, in order to prevent the circulation of air in the cramped space, put up plastic film between the front and rear of their vehicles. Medical staff were asked to sit in the back, and the seats and door handles were disinfected with alcohol after each journey.
These efforts from the local hotel industry came at a time when the industry itself was under tremendous pressure. The closure of the city naturally meant the closure of all businesses and related travel, which meant hotels were largely vacant. But even as they hosted medical staff free of charge, these hotels continued to take on operational costs, including employee wages. Eventually, as more and more medical assistance teams arrived from other cities and provinces, the government offered remuneration to hotels, even requisitioning some facilities outright to help in the anti-epidemic effort.
But the spirit of volunteerism encouraged the earliest efforts of drivers, hotel operators and other Wuhan citizens. "It’s my city, and I will save it," was a quote circulating widely among the volunteers.
There were no warning signs at all before the complete closure of Wuhan. News of the decision was announced by the government in the middle of the night. By that time it was too late to prepare plans to deal with such problems as how to transport medical staff to and from hospitals. It was for this reason that popular initiatives and volunteerism came to play such an important role. The sudden closure of Wuhan also caused many people from outside the city to become trapped there. According to official Wuhan data, there were about 9 million people actually living in the city through the quarantine.
"It’s my city, and I will save it," was a quote circulating widely among the volunteers.
The lockdown of the city not only meant Wuhan was isolated from the outside world. Within the city, too, between communities and between residential buildings, strict containment policies were in place. From February 10 onward, a policy of “close off and manage” was implemented for all residential compounds in Wuhan.
Most of the residential compounds in the city were built in the process of rapid urban development and construction spanning the past two decades. A so-called “compound” consists generally of anywhere from just a few to scores of high-rise apartment buildings, often separated by just a few meters, on a centralized grid surrounded by a wall or fence. This enclosed design makes such compounds relatively easy to manage. The entrances and exits of the compounds can be sealed off with barriers or gates, leaving just one point of entry. Older streets or lanes can, if necessary, also be sealed off with barriers of shared bicycles, making it difficult for residents to leave.
Almost overnight in Wuhan, plastic barriers were visible everywhere on roads and lanes, and blocking entrances to residential compounds. Additionally, the Chinese government also had sufficient personnel at their disposal to dispatch “imbedded cadres” to residential districts who could implement “close off and manage” policies. In Wuhan, a pair of “imbedded cadres” was sent to each residential compound. These were made up of civil servants from various government agencies and government units, and others working in various capacities within the party-state system.
Every day, these “imbedded cadres” held their posts at tents set up at the entrance of compounds, questioning everyone entering or exiting, and prohibiting unauthorized movement. In this way, most residents were completely contained to their compounds. Generally, each family was allowed one person who could go outside and purchase food and supplies every two or three days. All outsiders, those not actually living in the compound, were strictly prohibited from entering.