May 21, 2020 / 3:44 AM / 13 days ago

Backstory: Relief, and fear, at ground zero of the coronavirus

WUHAN, China (Reuters) - Back in March when I was in Wuhan as it opened up after over two months in lockdown, I often went past the Minyi vegetable market. Blocked by 2-metre-high yellow barricades, it was a constant reminder of how the city’s life had come to a crashing halt during the pandemic. 

FILE PHOTO: File picture of a woman wearing a face mask looking on in front of others standing in a queue for nucleic acid testings in Wuhan, the Chinese city hit hardest by the coronavirus disease on May 16, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

    Last week, the barricades were gone and the locksmith and egg shops that fronted it were open as Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, celebrated emerging from the worst of the pandemic. The street was filled with hawkers selling turnips and fresh pork.

Traffic jams have returned in the city of 11 million and there is mass dancing in its open-air plazas by the Yangtze River. The hotel where I stayed, which used to spray me from head to toe with disinfectant before entering, has done away with the practice.

Restaurants have resumed allowing patrons to dine in and the city has launched an ambitious plan to test all its residents for the virus.

But amid the relief that the worst was over, it was in the snaking queues of people lining up before hazmat-suit clad medical workers that I encountered a lingering fear.

Wuhan officially kicked off a campaign on May 14 to look for asymptomatic carriers - infected people who show no outward sign of illness - after confirming its first cluster of COVID-19 infections in early May for the first time since it was released from the lockdown. In the largest such exercise in the world, over 2 million people have been tested since it started and 71 have been found to be virus carriers.

Some people fretted that the clustering and long queues at test sites could expose them to the virus again.

In March, many neighbourhood community workers, perhaps overcome with relief and exhaustion after the virus battle, were generally friendly and open to talking about what life had been like.

This time, community organisers dressed in bright red vests were reluctant to talk to journalists and told us to leave a test site where a packed queue of migrant workers stood in line to get tested.

Wuhan city officials did not respond when asked why reporters were being told to leave the sites. 

Despite the return of some public life and commerce, many Wuhan residents spoke of a continued fear of a second wave of the virus, saying they were going out less than before.

“You can say that there are two types of people now in Wuhan,” said one resident, who, like others, declined to be named on a topic that remains sensitive.

“The first are no longer that worried and some even go out without wearing masks. Others, like me, remain careful. We only want to meet in open-air areas and we ask if it might return.”

China has confirmed 82,967 cases of COVID-19 and 4,634 deaths, with about 80 percent of them in Wuhan.

Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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