Coping with Covid-19: Wuhan

Tens of thousands leave Wuhan as two-month-plus lockdown due to Covid-19 outbreak lifts

As the coronavirus cuts a swathe through Asia, The Straits Times bureaus report on how governments, hospitals and the man in the street are rising to the battle. In the fourth of a multi-part series, China Correspondent Elizabeth Law chronicles the reopening of Wuhan, China's worst-hit city that yesterday emerged from a 76-day lockdown.

Tens of thousands are expected to leave Wuhan via rail on Wednesday (April 8), the first day major transport links reopened in the city.

Tens of thousands of people left Wuhan by rail and air yesterday, the first day major transport links reopened in the city after a major lockdown to contain a coronavirus outbreak was lifted at midnight.

The city of 11 million people was closed off, with no one allowed to leave, on Jan 23 after the virus, which first surfaced in the central Chinese city late last year, had spread quickly.

Most of the nearly 82,000 confirmed infections and 3,331 deaths in China were in Wuhan.

An estimated 55,000 were expected to leave the city by rail yesterday, many of them going back to work elsewhere across China, officials said. About 21,000 would leave from Hankou, the city's oldest railway station a stone's throw away from the Huanan Seafood Market, which was an early focal point of infections.

At 6am, dozens were waiting patiently to board the first train out of Wuhan - a high-speed rail to Jingzhou, about 200km away.

Many were holding gift packs containing masks that had been given out by station management, who also arranged for staff to stand at the platform holding up red signs that read "Hankou Station welcomes you".

In a sign that life has yet to return entirely to normal, everyone sported a mask and at least a dozen were clad in the white full-body protective suits that have become a familiar sight in the city.

"I'm just very happy that we can finally leave, it's been too long," said a man who gave his name only as Mr Zheng, anxiously eyeing the line to board.

He had arrived two hours early, having asked a friend to drive him as public transport was not yet running at that hour.

At exactly 6.25am, D9301 pulled out of Hankou, travelling westward with about 60 passengers.

Along with railways, major highways and the city's Tianhe International Airport have reopened while taxis are allowed to ply the roads again.

 EPA-EFE People in white full-bod
Passengers, some in protective gear, queueing at Tianhe International Airport yesterday after the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan. Airport officials said 96 flights were scheduled to take off from Wuhan yesterday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

  • 55,000 

    Estimated number of people expected to leave the city by rail yesterday, many of them going back to work elsewhere across China.

    21,000 

    Number of people expected to leave from Hankou, the city's oldest railway station a stone's throw away from the Huanan Seafood Market, which was an early focal point of infections. 

Public transport has been operational for some time but requires passengers to have a green "health code" to be allowed on board. This is a phone app that tracks one's activity and self-reported temperatures as proof of health.

The airport was a hive of activity. The first flight, at 7.25am, flew to Hainan's Sanya city with 49 people on board. By about 9am, hundreds had streamed to the airport where a positive health code was also required for entry.

Travellers had to show the same code before they were allowed to approach the check-in counter, and once more at the boarding gate.

Airport officials said 96 flights were scheduled to take off from Wuhan yesterday alone, with 11,855 travellers expected to come through the airport.

It was a far cry from the 600 flights and more than 80,000 travellers during normal times, but the airport is working to get operations back on track.

As of now, there are no direct flights to Beijing or on international routes.

Dressed in full-body personal protective equipment, with one in kids' size on her three-year-old son, a woman going back home to Chongqing told The Straits Times that it all felt "surreal".

"We've been stuck at home for more than two months so while it's nice to come out, it doesn't feel real," she said.

At the riverside Hanjie shopping area yesterday afternoon, scores of people milled around enjoying the pleasant 24 deg C spring weather while browsing international brands like Levi's, Nike and Uniqlo.

But as with the airport, shoppers had to scan a QR code as proof of health and have their temperatures taken before they could enter the outdoor plaza. An amphitheatre and a mega cineplex remained closed, while restaurants were still take-out only.

 EPA-EFE People in white full-bod
Passengers, in face masks, in the first official train departing from a railway station in Wuhan after the lockdown was lifted yesterday. Major highways have reopened as well, while taxis are allowed to ply the roads again. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Yet, that did little to deter residents from enjoying their favourite snacks.

A popular skewers shop, Weibatou, had at least a dozen people patiently waiting in line for sticks of barbecue while a bubble tea stall across had a similar queue.

"I initially came to try and shop but Adidas was closed by the time I got here just before 6pm, so I'm buying some skewers to take home instead," said Ms Wang Yunxing, who works in finance and is in her 20s.

Yesterday was the first time she had left home in weeks. "I just wanted to enjoy the nice weather," she said.

 EPA-EFE People in white full-bod
People in white full-body protective suits queueing to check-in at Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan, which reopened to departing passengers yesterday, after being closed for over two months. ST PHOTO: ELIZABETH LAW

Another two shoppers spotted with Singapore shoe brand Charles and Keith paper bags said they were nurses who were finally having a day out.

Other businesses such as bars and gyms remain closed.

On Hubei state television on Tuesday night, multiple programmes counted down to the reopening of Wuhan at midnight, with interviews of front-line crowd control staff at toll booths, airports and railway stations.

By 11.40pm, there was a 4km-long queue at the main toll booth leaving Wuhan. Along with the cars were about two dozen traffic police officers in formation on motorbikes, footage on Hubei provincial TV showed.

The four people in the second car in line said they were going back to Hunan province.

"We work in hotel management and haven't gone back at all this year. We were supposed to go back for the Chinese New Year but we didn't manage to," the unnamed driver said.

 EPA-EFE People in white full-bod
Vehicles travelling through a toll station of an expressway moments after travel restrictions to leave Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and China’s epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, were lifted, early yesterday. By 11.40pm on Tuesday, there was a 4km-long queue at the main toll booth leaving Wuhan. PHOTO: REUTERS

At the stroke of midnight, the officers moved to open a barricade as cars zipped through.

Across the city, buildings lit up in celebration with a laser light show as boats on the Yangtze River sounded their horns.

On some buildings were the slogan "Wuhan city of heroes" while others simply said "Wuhan, hello".


Virus epicentre's Covid-19 battle

The Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic first broke out ended its two-month-plus lockdown yesterday, even as another northern Chinese city ordered restrictions on residents amid concerns about a second wave of infections.

• China sealed off Wuhan, a central city of 11 million people, on Jan 23, in a drastic step that came to symbolise its aggressive management of the virus.

• More than 50,000 people in Wuhan were infected, and more than 2,500 died, about 80 per cent of all deaths in China, according to official figures.

• Wuhan has slowly been returning to normalcy, with people officially allowed to enter the city from March 28, although restrictions remain. Until yesterday, residents had been urged not to leave Wuhan or Hubei province, or even their neighbourhood, unless absolutely necessary.

• Wuhan has reported just three new confirmed infections in the past 21 days and only two in the past two weeks.

• As of Tuesday, the total number of confirmed cases in mainland China stood at 81,802, including 3,333 fatalities, the National Health Commission said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2020, with the headline 'Tens of thousands leave Wuhan as two-month-plus lockdown lifts'. Subscribe