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Virus epicenter Wuhan returns to normal as world remains battling pandemic

Chinese city marks 1 year since world’s first coronavirus lockdown, as WHO experts set to begin investigating origins

People walk along a pedestrian street in Wuhan, China's central Hubei province on January 23, 2021, one year after the city went into lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
People walk along a pedestrian street in Wuhan, China's central Hubei province on January 23, 2021, one year after the city went into lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

The Chinese city of Wuhan marked one year since the start of its traumatic 76-day coronavirus lockdown Saturday, while the pandemic raged elsewhere and governments scrambled to put in place new measures.

Around the world, more than 2.1 million people have died of COVID-19 since it emerged in China in December 2019, with over 98 million infected.

But the picture was vastly different in Wuhan, where humming traffic, bustling sidewalks, and citizens packing parks and public transport underscored the scale of the recovery in the metropolis of 11 million where the pathogen first emerged before going global.

“I think Wuhan is quite safe now, safer than my hometown and most places in China,” 21-year-old resident Wang Yizhe said.

Life has largely returned to normal in the city of 11 million, even as the rest of the world grapples with the spread of the virus’ more contagious variants. Efforts to vaccinate people for COVID-19 have been frustrated by disarray and limited supplies in some places. The scourge has killed more than 2 million people worldwide.

Traffic was light in Wuhan but there was no sign of the barriers that a year ago isolated neighborhoods, prevented movement around the city and confined people to their housing compounds and even apartments.

People dance in a park in Wuhan, China’s central Hubei province on January 23, 2021, one year after the city went into lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Wuhan accounted for the bulk of China’s 4,635 deaths from COVID-19, a number that has largely stayed static for months. The city has been largely free of further outbreaks since the lockdown was lifted on April 8 last year, but questions persist as to where the virus originated and whether Wuhan and Chinese authorities acted fast enough and with sufficient transparency to allow the world to prepare for a pandemic that has sickened more than 98 million.

Wuhan has been praised for its sacrifice in the service of the nation, turning it into a sort of Stalingrad in China’s war against the virus, commemorated in books, documentaries, TV shows and florid panegyrics from officials including the head of state and leader of the Communist Party Xi Jinping.

“We think Wuhan is a heroic city. After all, it stopped its economy to help China deal with the pandemic. This is a noble act,” said resident Chen Jiali, 24, who works at an internet shopping company.

Elsewhere in China, new outbreaks have prompted harsh responses.

China on Saturday announced another 107 cases, bringing its total since the start of the pandemic to 88,911. Of those, the northern province of Heilongjiang accounted for the largest number at 56. Beijing and the eastern financial hub of Shanghai both reported three new cases amid mass testing and lockdowns of hospitals and housing units linked to recent outbreaks.

Authorities are wary of the potential for a new surge surrounding next month’s Lunar New Year holiday and are telling people not to travel and to avoid gatherings as much as possible. Schools are being let out a week early and many have already shifted to online classes. Mask wearing remains virtually universal indoors and on public transport. Mobile phone apps are used to trace people’s movements and prove they are both virus-free and have not been to areas where suspected cases have been found.

Since the end of the lockdown, Wuhan has largely been spared further outbreaks, something residents such as chemistry teacher Yao Dongyu attribute to heightened awareness resulting from the traumatic experience of last year.

“At that time, people were very nervous, but the government gave us huge support. It was a very powerful guarantee, so we got through this together,” said Yao, 24. “Since Wuhan people went through the pandemic, they’ve done better in personal precautions than people in other regions.”

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, thousands of residents were locked down Saturday in an unprecedented move to contain a worsening outbreak in the city.

Health workers conduct testing in the Jordan area of Hong Kong on January 23, 2021, after thousands were ordered to stay in their homes for the city’s first COVID-19 lockdown, as authorities battle an outbreak in one of its poorest and most densely packed districts. (Peter Parks/AFP)

Hong Kong has been grappling to contain a fresh wave of the coronavirus since November. More than 4,300 cases have been recorded in the last two months, making up nearly 40% of the city’s total.

Authorities said in a statement that an area comprising 16 buildings in the working-class Yau Tsim Mong district will be locked down until all residents have been tested.

‘Deep dissatisfaction’

AstraZeneca told AFP late Friday that “lower yield” at one of its vaccine-making sites would affect deliveries across Europe.

Lithuania estimated it would receive 80 percent fewer AstraZeneca doses than hoped in the first quarter, although German and French ministers tried to reassure the public of a steady supply.

Deliveries of Pfizer-made shots to the continent’s countries are already behind schedule as the US firm upgrades capacity at a Belgian plant.

At a meeting with AstraZeneca representatives, the EU Commission “insisted on a precise delivery schedule on the basis of which member states should be planning their vaccination programs”, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides tweeted.

Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Portage, Michigan, Dec. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool, File)

Already cleared for use in Britain, EU authorities are expected to give the vaccine the green light at the end of January.

On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there was “some evidence” the new strain first detected in the country “may be associated with a higher degree of mortality” as well as being more infectious.

At 95,981 as of Friday, the UK death toll is the highest in Europe.

The World Health Organization reassured that fabric masks should still work in hindering the spread of new variants from Britain, South Africa and Brazil.

However, Norwegian capital Oslo toughened health restrictions after the British variant was found in a retirement home, closing all but essential shops and asking people to restrict movements.

A French government source told AFP a new lockdown in the country looked increasingly likely with the more transmissible strain.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands introduced its first curfew since World War II, from 9 pm until 4:30 am.

 ‘Surging’

Across the Atlantic, newly-inaugurated US President Joe Biden stepped up federal aid even as he gave his highest estimate yet of the eventual toll.

“The virus is surging,” he said. “We’re at 400,000 dead, expected to reach well over 600,000.”

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House, January 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

And in the Colombian capital of Bogota, residents were under their third weekend quarantine in a row, meaning the closure of all non-essential shops in the city of eight million from Friday at 8 pm until Monday at 4 am.

In Mexico, where hospitals have been overwhelmed and over 146,000 have died, people are queueing for hours to buy oxygen to care for the growing numbers fighting coronavirus at home.

Brazilian scientists have meanwhile warned that the country faces running out of vaccine doses and basic equipment like syringes, just as its vaccination campaign gets underway — with some blaming government for the shortages.

Origins probe

In Wuhan, a team of World Health Organization experts was still in hotel quarantine ahead of a mission to investigate the source of the virus.

Members of the WHO team gather after arriving at the airport in Wuhan, in central China’s Hubei province, on January 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

“All hypotheses are on the table,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told a press conference in Geneva.

“And it is definitely too early to come to a conclusion of exactly where this virus started, either within or without China.”

But there was good news Friday for poorer nations, as the WHO and pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer announced a deal for up to 40 million initial doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be made available to them through the Covax global pool.

A separate deal, brokered by international agencies working with the WHO, will supply developing nations with tens of millions of rapid antigen tests at half the usual $5 price.

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