More than a year after the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in Wuhan, China, Go There travels back to the city of 11 million people to hear about the lessons learned from the pandemic. David Culver was in Wuhan in January 2020 — when he had to leave hours before a massive lockdown — and has since revisited the city twice, getting to know the stories of ordinary residents who were the first to experience a once-in-a-100-years virus outbreak that has since swept the world.
We asked readers to submit questions about his experience.
What surprised you the most when you went back to Wuhan?
David Culver: The biggest takeaway for me was the amount of grief, sorrow and anger that’s still there. And I think others were obviously hesitant and doubtful that the government was going to be able to be fully transparent at the local level in what was going to be transpiring. And then in April, when we went back, it was kind of the shock of coming out of the 76-day lockdown. And so I think that shock was still in place. So you didn’t really get to the authentic truth of what people were experiencing. It’s beyond the numbers. And I think it had become so highly politicized. And when you set aside the geopolitical and you look at the human faces who are deeply affected by this, I think that struck straight to my heart. To be quite honest, it broke me and my team down emotionally to be experiencing that, to realize, “Wow. These are moms, sons, or a sister.” The individuals are being impacted. And it was an awakening moment for me.
If Wuhan returned to normal, then why are people still wearing masks?
Culver: So, Wuhan, I will say, is near normal and almost like life pre-Covid. I think the exception there is obviously the measures that are in place to keep life here in China, back to some sort of pre-Covid to atmosphere. And that is the contact tracing and the mass testing that’s still in place — and these kinds of soft lockdowns that will go in place if there’s a cluster outbreak. But Wuhan, in particular, you saw all of the summer, there were mass pool parties. People were coming together in Vegas-like style, shoulder to shoulder. Over New Year’s, there was the normal New Year’s (Eve). There were big celebrations where people likewise were crowded in and together without masks. What’s happened recently in China, over the past month and a half or so, has been these cluster outbreaks in the North. And perhaps it’s the PTSD effect of what they experienced with their own lockdown and their own experience in the original epicenter that folks here started to say, “All right. Masks back on. Let’s just be cautious.”
Were you nervous about going back to Wuhan initially?
Culver: My first time was obviously January of last year and we had planned a week to be there. And, as you guys know, that was cut short and we were only there about 36 hours, because of the 3 a.m. phone call to say, “Hey. It’s going on lockdown, you got to get out or you may not get out and we don’t know when.” So, I think, when we think about it, we think about that experience. But then going in April, you just didn’t know what you were going to encounter post-lockdown. And it was the shell-shocked society. You saw businesses were really hurting. Many of the small businesses to this day have not reopened. So people there have just changed careers altogether. And then there’s a lot of government focus on Wuhan and international focus on Wuhan. You’ve got the WHO field team, which is now there. And when we were going back, they were in quarantine in Wuhan already.
So what’s the vaccine situation like in Wuhan?
Culver: In Wuhan, the vaccine’s being distributed much like it is around the rest of the country. And that is, still the focus is frontline workers, but China came up with this number of 50 million people that they wanted vaccinated before February 12th, with the Chinese New Year. And so it looks like that number is on track and it’s not surprising because I’m sure if the government is the only one with that number, it will hit that 50 million. But I think also realistically, if there’s a country that can do that, China has the power to not only require people to receive it, these frontline workers, which now includes teachers and people in schools. I think China’s capable to do it. And the rollout in Wuhan is much the same. They have these clinics and people are designated frontline workers, then they can go in and get it and people are doing so. For the most part willingly. It’s interesting some of the teachers here in Shanghai have told me they have a lot of doubts around the Chinese vaccines. So they’re hesitant because they’ve heard friends who’ve had reactions. They’re curious if the efficacy rates are going to be an issue in actually preventing them from getting Covid-19. So it’s a range of different mentalities. But if you’re a frontline worker, if you’re customs or border, if you’re police, if you deal with a lot of people day-to-day and China says you need to get it, well the Chinese are going to get it.
What’s China’s plan for the Lunar New Year this month? Are they allowing people to travel? Are there going to be any large celebrations?
Culver: So this obviously is the annual mass migration. It’s the largest mass migration of humans each and every year. Hundreds of millions of people, not just in China, but across the region. In China, it’s particularly important because you have a lot of migrant workers and folks who really now are perhaps even middle-class workers in the cities, like here in Shanghai or in Beijing, who go to their home provinces. This year, the government is saying, in some cases, ordering people to stay put, not travel. So they don’t want to see the crowds. And we are experiencing that as we’ve gone to the rail stations and the airports. Far thinner crowds even than we saw in the back half of last year. So normally it’s very difficult to get a train ticket this time of year (as) there’s just massive crowds. And we saw last year leading up to the Chinese New Year, those same crowds. And a lot of people weren’t wearing masks and all of that was happening as the virus was obviously rapidly spreading. So it was that perfect storm.
They’re trying to avoid a repeat of that, but I think there’s genuine concern that while the cases are in the hundreds in some of these cluster outbreak regions that (it) could spread with the amount of people that are likely to travel in a traditional Chinese New Year. So they’re trying to avoid that. If I were to go to Beijing (I’d need) and have to go with a negative nucleic acid test from the past seven days. (And) on the seventh day of my being in Beijing, I’d have to get another test. On the 14th day another test — and throughout that period consider self-monitoring or health monitoring, but really your community is going to be checking in on you quite regularly. So that’s how they’re making (it) a bit more difficult even if you want to travel to get around. And then ultimately I think they’re looking post-Chinese New Year to start opening things back up again with travel.
What’s life like for kids? Are schools open?
Culver: So, because of these cluster outbreaks, a lot of the schools and particularly in Beijing and in places in the North right now, they were cutting school early. So they were trying to get a lot of the students out of the in-person classrooms. Some of them would go back to digital learning but (for) the most part there was, “Let’s just call it an early start to the Chinese New Year holiday and kids can be at home with families.” The other thing is families who are still wanting to travel. This is happening I know that in Shanghai, in particular, (where they) have been pulling some of their kids out of school and going places now. Because what happens is on the back end if they’re to return to the city (is) they have to give two-weeks quarantine in the city. So some of the parents are adjusting summer break or adjusting the break to accommodate going to travel. And yet still coming back and having time for their kids to do their quarantine. And that’s just what people associated with schools. But you have local amusements that are still up and going. Shanghai Disney is still operating here. I was talking to the trip.com CEO. The staycation effect is really strong. Hotels have gotten really creative in that they’re opening up their pools to swim classes for kids. So they’re trying to come up with these packages, these day packages that not only accommodate parents in the spa but kids in the pool and recreational areas.
Where did you stay when you were in Wuhan? Are hotels open? Were the restaurants open? What’s it like?
Culver: So we stayed in a Western-brand hotel. They do have major brands there. It’s such a massive city of 11 million people. So it was a transportation-type hub, before the outbreak. So it’s used to having a lot of international folks there. Obviously, it took a big hit during the lockdown. We had no issue staying there.
Last question: What is one everyday safety measure the Chinese instituted to curb the spread of Covid-19 that you thought was clever and should be instituted around the world?
Culver: Without question, I think it’s contact tracing. I think beyond anything else, it’s the contact tracing, the QR codes. And I say that because each city in each province tends to have their own. So, if I’m traveling to Wuhan, I have to register for a new one. I’ll have that linked to my passport and cell phone number. In Shanghai, I have a distinct one. (For) Beijing, it’s different. And so it would be nice if it was a universal one and could encapsulate the entire country. But for now, you’re going from different region (to) different city to download a new one and figure out how to operate it. But it is your green ticket to get into places. And so I think that has been rolled out overall quite effectively in most cities. And it’s reassuring because if you pull it up on your phone and you know you’re green, you know you’ll be able to get into shopping malls and Ikea or a restaurant.