BEIJING - As the clock struck midnight, Wuhan's skyline lit up in a riot of colours as moving images bounced off buildings in a spectacular light show to mark, oddly enough, the end of a brutal clampdown that forcibly sealed in 11 million people for more than two months.
The images, beamed live across the country on state television, symbolised the city's victory in a hard-won battle against the coronavirus outbreak that began in this central Chinese metropolis in December and which has since spread to all continents except Antarctica.
Yet, senior officials and state media were just as quick to urge caution over celebrating too soon, even as city authorities put on the dazzling countdown show.
Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan, while inspecting preparations in Wuhan on Tuesday night (March 7) before the lockdown was lifted, ordered public transport workers not to let their guard down, and "leave absolutely no loopholes", she was reported to have said.
State media began promoting a slew of slogans such as: "Lifting the lockdown does not mean liberation, zero infections is not zero risks. Let us anticipate the final victory."
Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times said in an editorial on Wednesday that the government should keep up stringent control measures to prevent a resurgence of infections, even as it attempts to normalise life in Wuhan.
"Chinese people don't feel completely relieved to see Wuhan open. New infection cases did emerge after restrictions on Hubei were removed. We are moving forward with ambivalence," it said.
As the city loosens its grip on people's movements and shops reopen, there is fear that the authorities have not completely eradicated the virus despite Wuhan reporting just two new cases in the past two weeks.
The National Health Commission declared no new infections there on Wednesday. The 62 new cases it recorded for the rest of the country included 59 from overseas.
Yet there is a worry over the emergence of asymptomatic carriers, which until last week, were largely kept out of view by the authorities.
Health officials grudgingly agreed to disclose data on these "silent carriers" under public pressure, yet still refuse to include them in the official tally of those infected unless they begin to display symptoms.
The numbers released by the health commission, too, are hazy at best and do not give a clear picture of the extent of the problem.
Over 50,000 people in Wuhan have been afflicted with the virus, and more than 2,500 have died, accounting for 80 per cent of all fatalities in the country.
The travel restrictions that lasted 76 days may be gone, but life in Wuhan is still some way from being back to normal.
Not everyone is allowed to leave the city; only those who have tested negative for Covid-19. Most of them will also have to be tested again in their destination city a week later and be quarantined for 14 days.
Beijing said yesterday that it would allow up to just 1,000 people from Wuhan a day to enter the capital.
Residential compounds in the city will still be subjected to strict control, as will public venues such as parks and malls.
Only people with a "green code", which shows a clean bill of health, are allowed to go out. Schools remain shut for now.
Residents have been told, unless necessary, not to “leave your compound, the city or the province” and to “ minimise travel, do not participate in gatherings and wear masks in public places”.
Even so, the Chinese government is eager to showcase Wuhan as a success story of the country's battle against the outbreak and to be vindicated for its choice of draconian methods which other countries had once cast aspersions on.
Official news agency Xinhua described Wuhan's milestone in a commentary on Wednesday as offering "a glimpse of hope to the world, as almost half the global population is confined to some degree".
"Wuhan's cautious unblocking is far from a final victory over the health threat, but it leads us to believe that with determination, persistence and concerted efforts, a global victory will eventually be secured."
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