It all began in Wuhan: An inside story

A child rides a bike in Hanjie street of Wuhan (Photo: Cui Meng/Global Times)

A child rides a bike in Hanjie street of Wuhan (Photo: Cui Meng/Global Times)

 By Crispin Maslog
Chair of the Board,
Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC)

 WUHAN: “Around 9:30 a.m. on 22 January 2020, my brother and I were walking on the street to the library in Wuhan,” Ling Zhu said. Ling is a young Chinese from Wuhan who just finished her master’s degree in English and Chinese journalism from the Communication University of China (CUC) in Beijing.

“As we walked, my mother excitedly called and told me that the library had decided to shut down because of an infectious virus. Then I heard the air defense warning system blast, and the public radio announce that all public transportation would be closed at 10 o’clock,” Ling Zhu continued.”

  “There were few people in the streets at the time because it was the last working day before the traditional Chinese Spring Festival. Many people had left Wuhan to go back to their hometowns to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Wuhan (population: 11 million) is the bustling capital city of Hubei province in eastern China.

“I felt surprised but not shocked and thought it might be a temporary policy. I went back home immediately and searched for news and tried to figure out what was going on. At that time, what I could get was that there was a high-infective virus, and everybody shall wear a facial mask and better stay at home,” Ling said in her reasonably good but broken English. What follows is an inside story of how the Covid-19 pandemic began in Wuhan.

(Ling did community journalism back in her hometown. She was my student assistant and guide for two weeks when I was a visiting professor at CUC in September 2018, a year before the Covid-19 pandemic began. All quotes in this story are from Ling Zhou. Explanatory texts in italics are mine. (In a letter to me reminiscing about how the Covid-19 pandemic started a year ago, Ling referred to the virus that had reportedly escaped from a laboratory in her hometown of Wuhan.

 Wuhan watershed

“When I looked back from now, it was the watershed (moment) when everything starts breaking down. No one would have thought a metropolitan city like Wuhan would lockdown for near half year (in 2020), and so many people were infected or killed.”

“Advice to wear facial masks and wash hands was widely spread on various media platforms. In the beginning, the information was a mess. There were a lot of rumors. My friends . . . outside Wuhan described the false news they heard about Wuhan . . . that there were a lot of dead bodies in the hospitals. I felt that they were even more scared than me. I felt like I was in the eye of a rumor storm. (Ling went on in her broken English.”

(Wuhan went under strict lockdown on Jan. 23. By April 17 media reported 50,333 Covid-19 cases and 1,290 deaths in the city.)

(WHO reports that the first human cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus subsequently named SARS-CoV-2, were first reported by officials in Wuhan City in December 2019. While some of the earliest known cases had a links to a wholesale food market in Wuhan, some did not.

(Many of the first patients were either stall owners, market employees, or regular visitors to this market. Environmental samples taken from the Wuhan market in December 2019 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, suggesting that the market was the source of this outbreak. The market was closed on 1 January 2020.

Wuhaners wear masks

Ling Zhu continued in her letter to me: “Many residents believed that the pandemic would have been controlled had the government taken action earlier. . . Since the city was locked down, the citizens’ anger and opinions were expressed on social media platforms. The social media like Weibo, Weixin, Bilibili, etc. became very active civic spaces,”

 “Many Hubei, especially Wuhan senior officers, like governor and mayor, were removed from office, for apparent mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis. This happened during the middle of the quarantine. At that time, I felt hopeless. I didn’t know when the lockdown would be over, and the infected cases grew fast and more day by day. There was no cure for the virus. It was so desperate, and the news made me even tenser. I stopped reading the news for a long time, almost till the end of quarantine.

“As a Wuhan resident, what I need is local news, especially what is going on in my local community, and how I can buy living materials (translation: groceries and daily needs) when all markets closed. I need that information to survive. I made many phone calls to local officers to figure this out.

“The only way I could get to know what’s going on in my community was a paper notice about the infected cases, stuck on the apartment ground door of my apartment every seven days. But most of the time, I was afraid of going downstairs. When the quarantine was over . . . my life (went) back to normal temporarily. . . Wuhan is not a heroic city but a traumatized city.

“Wuhan is my hometown, and I have stayed home for quarantine for 75 days. Luckily, the government had announced the city will open two days from now. I hope my hometown would gradually go back to life. These days are like a magical realism fiction (translation: drama series on tv). When the epidemic first started, Chinese people outside Wuhan mocked Wuhan-ers and after the virus spread across countries, foreigners slander Chinese. Now, China recovers while other countries suffer.

 Wuhan returns to normal

“Wuhan has re-opened on April 7 and many people celebrated this moment. However, there are still many people (who) stay at home. Wuhan has come back to life again. Walking on the street, you would feel it is thriving. The stores and markets have opened to business. My father and I came back to work just like many other Wuhan-ers. We have to wear facial masks all-time in the workplace.

“But my mother, a teacher, and my brother, a university student, still stay at home because all educational institutions, except the graduating classes in high school and junior high, still shut down. Wuhan tried to re-open all schools last month but the second wave of the pandemic in Beijing threatened and Wuhan decided to cancel all recovery work for this spring semester. Hopefully, it would re-open safely in  September.

“A green health code is indispensable for daily life. Entering or leaving any places, we need to scan the QR code to demonstrate our health. But we haven’t heard about Covid-19 case in Wuhan for nearly 40 days. I can see people without facial masks more often. The last few months of lockdown feel like a nightmare to me now, especially when I walk on the street, and I see the city looks as if it has never suffered. The social media are back to entertaining shows and fewer news covering Covid-19,” Ling Zhu concludes her inside story about the pandemic in Wuhan.

International guessing game: who started Covid-19 pandemic?

December 1 marks one year since the first known patient showed symptoms of the disease in Wuhan. The international guessing game now asks where did the Covid-19 corona virus come from?

Hypothesis one: The first cases were reported in Wuhan a year ago, as early as start of December, before other countries  began to record infections. But where an epidemic is first detected does not necessarily reflect where it started, says WHO.

Scientists agree that the disease has come from animals. The question is how it jumped  to humans. Major suspects are bats, but there would have been an intermediary animal to shepherd SARS-CoV-2 into people. The pangolin—a mammal subject to rampant regional wildlife smuggling—was identified as a likely carrier based on genetic analysis. But the case is not settled.

Hypothesis two is a conspiracy theory–that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was involved in the outbreak—that the virus could have accidentally leaked from the biosafety lab due to negligence and with the knowledge of local scientists. China has rejected the accusation but other scientists have not ruled it out. Although there seems to be no evidence of a deliberate attempt to mislead, leaked documents reveal inconsistencies in what authorities believed to be happening and what was revealed to the public.

The virus has been linked to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), nestled in the hilly outskirts of Wuhan. Chinese scientists have said the virus likely jumped from an animal to humans in a market that sold wildlife in Wuhan, but the existence of the lab has fueled conspiracy theories that the germ spread from the facility.

WHO says understanding how an epidemic began is essential but warns that the process of tracing how a disease jumped from animals to human “is a riddle that can take years to solve.”


  • Crispin Maslog is a former journalist with Agence France-Presse and science journalism professor at Silliman University and UP Los Banos. He is now Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC)

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