Before the coronavirus outbreak, very few Americans had ever heard of the Chinese city of Wuhan, even though it is home to more than 11 million people. Yet there is so much more to Wuhan than being the epicenter of a deadly virus.
Wuhan has a long history. Archeological findings date the city back 3,500 years. It’s centrally located and sits on the confluence of two rivers: the Yangtze (the longest river in China) and the Han River (the largest tributary to the Yangtze, also where Wuhan drew its name). The two rivers divide the city into three towns: Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang.
Hanyang is an industrial and manufacturing center. Before there was “made in China,” there was “made in Hanyang.” The Hanyang Arsenal, founded in 1891 by a Qing dynasty official, was the oldest and largest arsenal in Chinese history. Wuchang is the home of famous universities, research institutes, and high-tech startups.
The river port of Hankou began to engage in foreign trade as early as the mid-19th century, after gunboats from France and Great Britain forced China’s Manchu government to open. Walking down the streets of Hankou alongside the river bank, you will find many charming European-style buildings and churches. Today, Hankou hosts numerous international and domestic businesses, as well as financial institutions. It’s also the home to a train station where you can catch a train to anywhere in China.
A Snapshot of Wuhan
Although Wuhan is the center of many things, I have to admit it takes some time to like this city. It’s known for its bad weather. It is cold and wet in the winter, but it is also known as one of the three “oven cities” in China for its unbearable summer heat, in the form of consecutive 100-degree days accompanied by intolerable humidity.
Wuhan is always crowded, and its traffic has only gotten worse as more people have switched from bicycles to cars. The last time I was there, I saw four cars side by side on a three-lane road, a normal sight. I did my best to refrain from deep panic whenever I was on the road.
People in Wuhan have the reputation of being hot-tempered and quick to quarrel and fight. Some say their temperament has a lot to do with the combination of summer heat and their fondness of spicy food. Speaking of food, some famous local dishes in Wuhan often seem strange to out-of-towners. Have you heard of stinky tofu? It smells like dirty socks that haven’t been washed for ages, and you can smell it from miles away, but man, does it taste good.
Wuhan has plenty of shortcomings, but like New York City, beneath the chaos, traffic jams, and dirty sidewalks, Wuhan is full of energy and creativity. Not to mention, Wuhanese are some of the most forward-thinking people.
On Oct. 10, 1911, armed rebels launched the Wuchang Uprising against the ruling Manchu government. The Wuchang uprising gave birth to the Xinhai Revolution that eventually overthrew the Qing dynasty and led to the founding of the Republic of China. Oct. 10 has now become one of the few dates in China’s modern history that is commemorated in both mainland China and Taiwan.
Today, Wuhan is known for its many talented people. Famous Wuhanese include Fu Mingxia, the multiple Olympic gold medalist and world champion diver, and the 2011 French Open winner Li Na. Wuhanese people are are also very passionate, quick to start a feud but the first by your side in times of need.
Missed Opportunities to Halt the Coronavirus
It is heartbreaking to see the millions of Wuhanese who are being cut off from the outside world as the result of the Chinese government’s unprecedented lockdown procedure. My weekend has been consumed by nonstop updates about the coronavirus outbreak in China. Based on journalist reports and eyewitness accounts, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the Chinese government, both central and local, utterly failed the people of Wuhan.
Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) of a series of pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan on Dec. 31, 2019. However, a study authored by Chinese doctors and researchers, published Jan. 24 in The Lancet, shows, “[T]he virus, and its spread among humans, took off weeks earlier than Chinese officials said.”
Rather than taking the initial report of the virus seriously and informing the public right away, Wuhan’s government spent those early crucial days of the epidemic harassing journalists who wanted to cover the outbreak and even detained people who discussed the virus on social media, charging them with “spreading rumors.” Government censors scrubbed the internet for weeks following, deleting discussions and images about the virus. Even after the Chinese government alerted the WHO, officials went about their business as usual, attending large gatherings of Chinese New Year celebration galas as the hospitals in Wuhan became overwhelmed with patients.
According to epidemic experts, Chinese authorities’ outbreak cover-up in the early weeks led them to miss a “golden time period” that could have been used to implement robust emergency measures. Uninformed citizens were largely unaware of the coronavirus and therefore took no precautions against it. When the city finally implemented the lockdown on Jan. 23, more than 5 million people had already left Wuhan.
Unsurprisingly, the number of infections and deaths in China keep spiking every day. As of Jan. 23, Chinese authorities claimed 17 people had died and more than 500 had been infected. As of Jan. 28, however, the death toll jumped to more than 100, and confirmed cases rose to 4,500 in China. Outside China, more and more countries, including the United States, are reporting new cases by the day. Since scientists confirmed the coronavirus is contagious even during its incubation period, we can only imagine the worst is yet to come.
Wuhan Is Suffering Under the Government
In a recent interview, Wuhan’s embattled mayor said his hands “were tied by rules that require Beijing’s approval before releasing sensitive information.” He is no doubt trying to shift the blame, but what he said retains some truth. Nothing in China can be done without the personal approval of its powerful leader Xi Jinping. The entire country began mobilizing to contain the virus only after Xi hosted an emergency meeting with the Chinese Communist Party’s top leaders and issued a decree.
China vows to quarantine more cities and has taken draconian measures, such as digging large ditches and putting physical barriers on its highways, to prevent people from leaving Wuhan, but its efforts may be too late. The Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorial system is responsible for turning a containable situation into a worldwide health disaster.
The people of Wuhan deserve better, but they are suffering the worst. All public transportation has stopped. The once-lively streets are now silent and barren. Shelves in supermarkets are empty as people frantically stock up on supplies. The prices of whatever goods are still available have skyrocketed. Gasoline is in short supply, leaving infected people unable to drive themselves to hospitals, which are so overcrowded they have to turn away sick people due to the lack of beds and medical supplies.
A heartbreaking video was shared online, in which a Wuhanese showed symptoms of coronavirus and was begging to be treated, but the hospital turned him away. He is currently homeless because he doesn’t want to pass the virus on to his family.
More and more Wuhanese are starting to speak up, expressing their anger and frustration toward the government, such as the woman in this video, who blasted outrage at the Chinese Communist Party: “You have promised us prosperity by 2020. All we got is the loss of our family! You are living the high life while we are dying!” I hope she is safe from government persecution since she didn’t even bother to cover her face.
Among the most touching images out of Wuhan is this video of people living in high-rises, turning on their lights and cheering each other up through their windows, chanting, “Wuhan, fight on. Wuhan, stay strong.” This recording and their voices gave me chills.
Wuhanese are known to be tough and resilient. I pray for their survival through this outbreak. I also pray the rest of the world won’t forget about them and will do what we can to help.