Leaving Wuhan: Getting into virus-hit city was the easy part

Sam McNeil

BEIJING (AP) – Getting into Wuhan was the easy part.

New virus infections had fallen to almost zero and travel restrictions were easing. As a 76-day lockdown neared its end, journalists and others were allowed to enter the city in central China where the pandemic started.

Getting out was more challenging. Hundreds of thousands of people were also trying to leave after being stuck for months in the metropolis of 11 million. The bureaucracy had yet to finalise how they would safely organise their return. Three official documents were needed: A green health code, home neighbourhood approval and a recent nucleic acid test.

Wuhan has gained notoriety as the origin of the disease but it has a long history as a fulcrum of change in China, a nation of 1.4 billion and the world’s second largest economy.

On October 10, 1911, an “outbreak of serious revolutionary movement” erupted in the port city spread on either side of the Yangtze, China’s mightiest river. As word spread, Associated Press correspondent JR Kennedy left Tokyo for Shanghai, then travelled upriver to cover the uprising against the Manchu Empire.

This April 8, 2020 file photo shows exhausted AP staffers Olivia Zhang and Sam McNeil resting on the banks of the Yangtze River in Wuhan. PHOTO: AP

“The city was a scene of desolation,” read one AP report.

“Corpses piled everywhere,” said another.

Insurgencies soon broke out across China, and the tumultuous decades that followed saw occupation by Japan, civil war, and the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.

In 2020, international journalists came back to see once again how events in Wuhan might shape the entire world.

Few hotels were accepting foreigners and each neighbourhood had different regulations. Some forced multiple nucleic acid tests on journalists and 48 hours of quarantine.

Ours did not, and as the final hours closed on Wuhan’s lockdown, AP video producer Olivia Zhang and I climbed atop the steel 1957 Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge to watch the countdown.

Skyscrapers and bridges radiated animated images of health workers aiding patients, along with one building displaying the words “heroic city”, a title bestowed on Wuhan by President Xi Jinping.

Along the embankments and bridges, citizens waved flags, chanted “Wuhan, let’s go!” and sang acapella renditions of China’s national anthem.

One recently freed resident told us, “I haven’t been outside for more than 70 days… Being indoors for so long drove me crazy.” He seemed shell-shocked, yet happy.

The next day we went to Hankou Railway Station and filmed the first train departing for Beijing. In between government-arranged media trips over subsequent days, I donned a mask, laced up and ran to the river.

The sky was icy blue, the air warm. A guard let me into a riverside park, but only after checking my phone for the green health code.

Before returning to Beijing there was a ritual.

The first stop was a local hospital where we stepped through a box of grey decon-taminant gas similar to an airlock.

We then paid about USD40 to spit in a test tube that would return results in 48 hours.

Neighbourhood permission was harder. Some allowed home quarantine, others required re-turnees to spend about USD700 on a 14-day quarantine in small hotel rooms.

As soon as I got home, I put my clothes in the wash and myself in the shower, thanking my wife for volunteering to quarantine with me and handing me a cold drink.

Eventually we will undergo nucleic acid tests to prove we’re virus-free, but no symptoms have appeared so far.

A cool breeze blows in from our windows as the last days of springs slowly pass.