“People Woke Up”: Finding Answers to Covid-19 in Wuhan
IIn early January, Hu Aizhen, 65, learned that a new coronavirus had appeared in his hometown, Wuhan. She was not worried – officials said it was not contagious – so she did her days as usual and prepared for the Lunar New Year at the end of the month.
Just before the city was locked, Hu developed symptoms of pneumonia. After days of waiting and searching for a hospital, she was tested for the virus. Her result was negative, but the tests were then inaccurate and she showed obvious signs of the virus. However, six hospitals refused him treatment.
Hu, who had always been in good health, stayed at home for 10 days, unable to drink or eat, while his health deteriorated. When she took another turn for the worse, her son tried to take her to hospital in another district, but the police arrested them. Under foreclosure orders, they could not enter another district. Her desperate son shouted to the traffic police, “Aren’t you people?”
When Hu was finally admitted to hospital on February 8, she was having trouble breathing. The doctor ordered another test, but it was too late. She briefly regained consciousness, asking her son to pour water for her. Then she died.
Hu’s son is currently suing the Wuhan municipal government for allegedly concealing the severity of the virus, among other complaints, according to court documents prepared by Funeng, a Public welfare NGO based in Changsha. Hu’s son is part of a small but large group of residents seeking answers, compensation or just an apology from officials who have spent weeks informing the public about the threat of a virus that has cost lives at least 4,000 people in China, according to government figures, most in Wuhan.
Other cases include an official suing the provincial government in Hubei, a mother demanding that officials be punished after seeing her 24-year-old daughter die from the virus, and a son who precipitated his mother, who quickly faded into a Wuhan suburban hospital where he was able to get her admitted to intensive care. When he went to get supplies for her, he received a phone call from the hospital. Her mother had died.
“None of this would have happened if they had told us. So many people should not have died, “said a relative involved in one of the trials. Another said, “I want an answer. I want those responsible to be punished under the law. “
As the epidemic spread to China, with thousands of confirmed cases a day at its peak, public anger reached levels not seen in decades, posing a serious threat to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. When the whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang died of the virus in February, the censors could not follow the flood of indignation online. It was a moment compared to the outpouring of the death of Hu Yaobang which precipitated the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
A little more than two months later, the resentment is much less visible. Accounts like Hu Aizhen’s have been replaced with positive stories of the country coming together to defeat the virus, sending needed supplies to the rest of the world and fighting malicious attacks from the United States and other countries accusing Beijing of the epidemic.
“People are easily ruled by propaganda,” said Shi, a human rights activist based in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. “While the epidemic situation has improved and the propaganda machine is working, there has been a reversal. Now people are saying that the strong leadership of the party is a good thing. “
As Wuhan and the rest of the country slowly return to normal, authorities are carefully monitoring those who may be resentful. Zhang Hai, 50, whose father died of the virus in February, was part of a WeChat group of more than 100 people who lost loved ones to the virus.
At the end of March, they were told that they could collect the remains of their loved ones from funeral homes. No more than five could go together at the same time, and they had to be accompanied by a local government representative. Zhang refused to leave. The group’s host was later called by the police, and the WeChat group was removed.
“Now everyone is trying to be very careful,” said Zhang, who is calling on the government to apologize. “I know a lot of families who are incredibly angry.”
Tan Jun, an official from Yichang in Hubei province, filed a complaint this month accusing the provincial government of Hubei of hiding the epidemic, according to copies of the trial posted online. Tan confirmed the trial but refused to be questioned. Other Wuhan residents who spoke to the Guardian said they were intimidated by local police and forced to promise not to speak.
“People have to take responsibility. As a resident of Hubei, I think it is necessary to stand up and call on the Hubei government to take responsibility, “said Tan, according to an article published in several WeChat accounts which now deleted.
While Beijing officials have punished local officials by replacing them – what observers say is an age-old tactic to divert blame from the central government – residents say it is not enough.
“It is not responsibility. It’s a big change, ”said Wu, 49, who said he contracted the virus in January, but was only officially diagnosed in March. At the hospital, she saw people around her die, including a woman in the next bed. Recently, she learned that one of her classmates who had fallen ill at the same time had died.
“When I was lying in bed thinking that I might die soon, I thought, how did it happen?” said Wu, who is suing her hospital for not confirming her as a coronavirus patient when she was released. “Ordinary people have limited access to real information. We are counting on the government. We believe what the government says. “
Dissent has spread in other ways. Dozens of store owners in a Wuhan mall protested this month, demanding rent reductions after months of being unable to open their stores. In Yingcheng, a city west of Wuhan, the isolated residents protested the high food prices imposed by community management. One of the protesters, Zeng Chunzhi, is said to have been detained.
“People have been woken up. Sure, “said Xie Yanyi, a Beijing-based rights lawyer. Xie has made a request for information to the government, including the origins of the virus and the reasons for the delay in informing the public of the epidemic. “It may not be many people, but history shows that it is the few who change society and who change history,” said Xie.
In Wuhan, most residents are relieved that the worst of the epidemic seems to be over as they watch other countries struggle to contain it. Employees wait in queues outside office buildings to have their throats stamped, to make sure they don’t have the virus before returning to work.
On the shore of Hankou district, a couple is kissing in front of what has become a nighttime spectacle of skyscrapers illuminated with messages of congratulations. Many residents say they appreciate what their country has done for them.
According to Yan Zhanqing, co-founder of Funeng, the chances of cases like Hu’s being accepted and referred to the courts are not numerous. More likely, those involved will be bullied or harassed. But in some cases, particularly determined complainants can obtain compensation, which is a form of excuse.
“These cases put pressure on the government and help more people understand their rights and the responsibility of the government,” said Yan. “It is also a way to document the story, to bring the truth to more people, not just the government version of what happened in Wuhan.”