SINGAPORE: After being at home for over 70 days, residents in Wuhan, the initial epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, are emerging cautiously from their residences this week.
There is a newfound sense of optimism in the city of 11 million, whose sacrifices and stoicism in putting up with the lockdown have been credited for saving millions of lives and helping the country get through some of its darkest days in battling a deadly infectious disease.
But it was not that long ago when the unprecedented move to seal off an entire city took the world by surprise.
If anything now, Wuhan stands as a shining example, giving the rest of the globe hope when billions more have been put in some form of physical isolation.
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Wuhan’s experience is particularly relevant and revealing in showing how the situation can make a turn for the worse in a matter of weeks if little is done.
Yet, the Hubei megacity also demonstrates the possibility of a turn-around with extra efforts and measures in place.
WUHAN STARTED ON A WRONG FOOTING
In the early stages of the outbreak, Wuhan’s ability to deal with the true magnitude of the situation was hampered by cover-ups and exacerbated by an ill-prepared and inexperienced emergency response up to mid-February.
Wuhan’s healthcare system came close to the brink of collapse when the numbers started to swell and doctors had to turn away patients with respiratory illnesses in mid-January.
The mood shifted a number of unlinked cases popped up a few days later. The central government stepped in with a lockdown of the city in late January and the building of makeshift hospitals began.
There was a decisive determination in the air, as people understood and accepted these restrictions.
Still, taking no chances, officials also slapped citywide screening and replaced local leaders in mid-February.
By late March, Wuhan had brought the number of new infections down to zero or near zero.
EXPERTS CONTRIBUTED ADVICE TO THE FIGHT
Much of Wuhan’s quick turnaround has been attributed to strong actions by the Chinese central government, which was able to muster and concentrate nation-wide resources.
But the city’s tale is also one of experts rising to the occasion to contribute advice and expertise in furthering understanding about a new virus, which informed public healthcare responses.
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Zhong Nanshan, a renowned epidemiologist based in Guangdong, first raised the spectre of the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the virus on Jan 20, and alerted the epidemiology community and officials to the potentially explosive growth in the infectious disease.
Li Lanjuan, another renowned epidemiologist based in Zhejiang, had proposed to impose a lockdown of Wuhan, a measure that may have helped prevent an estimated 744,000 infections in the rest of China by mid-February, according to a recent study published in the journal Science.
Wang Chen, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and president of the Peking Union Medical College, proposed to build makeshift hospitals, which the medical journal Lancet regards as a novel public health concept that can be a powerful component in national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in ensuring health systems are not overwhelmed.
BIG TECH SWOOPED IN
The COVID-19 outbreak was also the first time China’s Big Tech companies moved to the forefront of efforts to boost connectivity and logistics, crucial to sustain 11 million Wuhan residents under lockdown.
Tencent and Alibaba not only led China’s corporate philanthropy with donations in the realm of billions of yuan to purchase masks, medicine and other medical supplies for Hubei, and the creation of green passages from factories around China into Wuhan.
They also provided platforms and apps for millions of communities, workplaces and schools across the country to manage health information, organise teleconferencing and conduct e-learning, so that work, school and as much of life could continue despite the city isolating households.
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These Internet giants have pledged further investments into the city as it lifted the lockdown restrictions this past week.
Other players, including ride-hailing companies, private couriers and food delivery platforms, joined to provide manpower for deliveries and other essential services so that people could stay at home.
HELP FROM THE REST OF CHINA
Help also came from ordinary individuals, despite great inconvenience, including those who helped out as truck drivers to Wuhan, construction workers, technicians or engineers at the site of makeshift hospitals, charity organisers, participants aiding in Wuhan’s frontline workers, or even from concerned citizens who cared about Wuhan’s situation and urged others to comply with the lockdown.
People not working during this period channelled their efforts towards aiding the city’s fight against the coronavirus.
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Private help — either emotional or material — from friends or family members staying in Wuhan also shored up the city’s resilience during this difficult period.
The Chinese government had capitalised on social sentiments and values to fight the virus in a “whole-of-society” manner.
Provinces around China dispatched medical staff and supplies to designated cities and prefectures in Hubei, helping it to tide over the rise in cases to eventually make a remarkable comeback.
A total of 344 medical teams have been sent to Wuhan and other cities in Hubei, involving 11,416 doctors and 28,679 nurses, according to local news reports. Remarkably, about 10 per cent of China’s total workforce in the intensive care units was dispatched to Hubei.
Government-led grass-roots organisations was another major pillar, as volunteers undertook frontline tasks to enforce quarantines, monitor residents’ health, send patients to clinics and hospitals, and deliver food and other supplies to vulnerable residents.
Like hospitals, grass-roots organisations had been overwhelmed by a flood of requests for help but were able to re-group when more manpower and goods were deployed to the frontlines.
In this, self-organised groups and volunteers in the city helped by taking to WeChat groups to work with either government-led grass-roots organisations or on their own to “bulk purchase” groceries and arrange deliveries. Online counselling, a new form of volunteerism, flourished.
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A RECOVERY IN PROGRESS
How Wuhan residents continue to deal with the psychological and emotional stresses of this extraordinary lockdown is a question that will need more research.
The virus has imprinted varying degrees of trauma on the population, with some losing family members or close friends, many more infected, and the vast majority reeling from this lockdown.
Wuhan is now in the recovery phase. There is much work to be done, including providing counselling services, helping vulnerable families and groups, re-starting the economy and revitalising society, and ensuring importation of the virus is kept under control.
Wuhan’s turn-around is remarkable. The city is a beacon of hope for cities around the world in the eye of the COVID-19 storm.
Where many are among the most industrialised and developed economies, hopefully Wuhan has provided a useful reference point on how to mobilise people, communities and companies to get past a lockdown.
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Zhao Litao is Senior Research Fellow, East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. Kong Tuan Yuen is Visiting Research Fellow at the same institute. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the East Asian Institute, or its Board Members.