Friday, September 22, 2023

Wuhan at the heart of a battle over the roots of the coronavirus

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Boxes of imported steak arriving at Wuhan’s Baishazhou Wholesale Market go through an elaborate ritual before being placed in the freezers that line one of the city’s largest wholesale markets.

Behind a tall red fence, men in hazmat suits test packages for the coronavirus, spray them with clouds of disinfectant and add a QR code to track goods before they can be taken on a forklift.

But a stand owner selling Argentinian beef rejects a theory proposed by Beijing that imported frozen food could have spread the coronavirus epidemic in the city last year, marking the start of the pandemic. Instead, he points to a different hypothesis, sometimes propagated by some Chinese officials that has not been supported by credible evidence.

“It was definitely the military games that introduced the virus,” he said, referring to a sporting event held in Wuhan in October 2019.

Frozen foods – and the fringe theories some market merchants believe – are at the center of a fight to define the narrative of the origins of the pandemic a year after it first emerged in central China.

Many of the inconsistencies that prevent the Communist Party from spreading a totally triumphant tale can be found in Wuhan. The city offers clues to the origins of the virus, as well as lasting trauma, sadness and resentment from those who challenge the carefully disinfected narrative spread by Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades.

A team from the World Health Organization landed on Thursday, six months after launching an investigation into how the virus passed from animals to humans. Virologists, whose arrival was postponed by a week after Chinese authorities delayed visa approval, will have to look into the theory of frozen products.

They will also be pressed to rule out the possibility that the virus has leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a hypothesis particularly popular among Chinese hawks in the United States and sometimes pushed by Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, and President Donald Trump.

Medical staff transport a patient to a hospital in Wuhan in January 2020, at the very start of the coronavirus epidemic © Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images

Most Wuhan residents who spoke to the Financial Times expressed deep ambivalence about remaining at the center of a politically charged debate over the start of the pandemic. Some support marginal theories. Others still believe that the wildlife sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the location of the city’s first super-spreading event which is now closed and surrounded by a metal barrier, was the source.

Many were less concerned with how the pandemic started and instead focused on managing its legacy.

“Back then there were all kinds of rumors, with people saying it was poison or it came from the lab,” said a young professional nicknamed Tang. “I can’t really believe any government would have developed the disease and released it.”

Even so, anger remains high among those who believe that the Communist Party should do more to admit the early mistakes and properly explain the failure to intervene more quickly.

A team from the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan this week to investigate the origins of the pandemic, six months after the investigation began and a week later than expected after China denied them the entrance © Ng Han Guan / AP

Documentary filmmaker and writer Ai Xiaoming said publicly raising questions about the origins of the coronavirus would likely elicit a harsh response from authorities, given the sensitivity of the issue. She believes the priority should be to record and preserve evidence of how mismanagement has resulted in unnecessary deaths.

“The government cannot say, ‘The work we did was so great, that everyone is happy and that we have met everyone’s needs,” she said.

Ms. Ai collects stories from those in Wuhan whose plight has been taken from official accounts. “Citizens cannot decide for themselves if they talk about what happened. It’s something the public service decides, ”she said.

Beijing prefers to stress how it largely quelled the contagion in the spring and has since imposed lockdowns on Wuhan, even for small outbreaks. For example, authorities reimposed restrictions on more than 20 million people after the discovery of a few hundred case in northern China these last weeks.

China’s success has not gone unnoticed in Wuhan, where the speed of the recovery – the 11m-high city hosted raves at water parks in August and crowded New Year’s fireworks – compared favorably to the responses. hesitant in many other countries.

The takeover of Wuhan was announced by Beijing, with the pandemic largely under control in the spring. Packed parties and events took place as other countries endured the lockdown © AFP via Getty Images

China’s official narrative is on display in full in an elegant installation on the Party’s response housed in an exhibit hall that was previously used as a temporary quarantine room.

Young professionals taken by bus by their employers are greeted by an exhibition that begins and ends with Xi, leaving no doubt about the responsibility for Wuhan’s success.

This achievement breaks down into a step-by-step model of fighting the epidemic. Party leadership is seen as essential for mass lockdowns and the rapid construction of temporary hospital wards.

For some visitors, this official account is a true picture of what they experienced. “It triggered a lot of deep feelings when I went there,” said Meimei, an employee of a state-owned company.

Meimei speaks with pride of the work she did to help local communities during the lockdown order and deliver groceries and was involved in building fully-built hospitals in a matter of weeks.

Zhong Hanneng, whose son died from coronavirus, continues to fight the government for compensation and an acknowledgment of liability © Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images

“Now that all over the world there are infections and many places cannot control them, I think the response back then was not bad. There has definitely been a change in my psychology, ”she says.

Meimei used to regularly talk to friends about the origins of the pandemic but “it really feels like no one is talking about it anymore because everyone knows the subject is escalating and becoming political”. She added: “You are doing your best to look ahead, do whatever you have to do, go to work, study, try to minimize the impact of the virus on everyone.”

Moving forward is not so easy for bereaved families, who remain aggrieved by official failures. Zhong Hanneng has demanded restitution after the death of his 39-year-old son from Covid-19. But Wuhan courts have repeatedly refused to register his lawsuits seeking further compensation and an acknowledgment of liability.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Peng Yi, an elementary school teacher and Ms. Zhong’s only child, was asked to go into mass quarantine after contracting the virus. Instead of receiving treatment, he was sent to different hospitals, she said, providing videos and messages from her son’s phone to detail the confused situation.

“We thought going to the hospital saved him, but it sent him on a no-return road,” she said.

Ms. Zhong’s sense of grievance stems in part from the Chinese government’s efforts to control the narrative.

“Most ordinary people in Wuhan don’t understand how this epidemic got here all of a sudden,” she said. “The government continues to sing its own praises and smile as if it has won a great victory. It really isn’t like that at all.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Wuhan and Robin Yu in Hong Kong

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