“Patient zero” has not been identified, but many of the first cases detected were in people associated with the Huanan seafood market, where wildlife was traded among others. There was a suspicion that this was where the coronavirus attacked people for the first time, but to this day it has not been absolutely confirmed.
Suspicions also fell on the laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), one of the largest research centers on bat coronaviruses in the world. The first-class biosafety laboratory operates approximately 30 kilometers from Huanan Market, on the other side of the Yangtze River that flows through Wuhan.
They tried to cover up the epidemic
The researchers found that the first known patient may have been a seafood saleswoman at Huanan Market, who had symptoms on December 10. The Hong Kong daily “South China Morning Post” wrote, however, citing classified government data that the first person fell ill on November 17, or perhaps earlier.
The local Wuhan authorities initially tried to cover up the epidemic. Local police silenced a group of doctors who tried to warn colleagues about the virus in late December. The most famous of them, ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, later died of COVID-19, causing a huge stir in Chinese society. It was only after his death that Li was rehabilitated and hailed as a national hero.
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The news of the new disease hit the world on December 31, when the World Health Organization (WHO) caught a message from the Wuhan health committee about cases of “atypical pneumonia”. The Chinese authorities then reported 27 detected cases, but according to documents cited by “SCMP”, by the end of the year there were to be almost ten times more.
Wuhan authorities later admitted they could have responded to the epidemic faster. According to critics, their neglect and attempts to cover up the crisis led to the virus being spread across China, and later around the world.
Controversial WHO decision
The WHO reaction, which announced on January 14 that the Chinese authorities “have not found compelling evidence of human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus,” remains controversial. The organization warned of “potential contagion” between people, but this statement of lack of evidence drew the most attention.
Meanwhile, in Wuhan, the epidemic was rapidly gaining momentum, overwhelming the health service. On January 11, the Chinese media reported the first fatal case. By the end of this month, the official death toll has exceeded 300.
On January 23, the Chinese government announced a decision to introduce a severe lockdown in Wuhan, and later in other cities of Hubei province. Factories, offices, offices and public transport were suspended. Leaving housing estates was forbidden, and exit roads from cities were blocked. These measures, considered unprecedented at the time, were in force in Wuhan for almost three months.
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The situation in the city was dramatic at first. Western newspapers reported stories of people with high fever and pneumonia who were sent from hospital to hospital for lack of places. Many people died before they were tested for the coronavirus. The hospitals also lacked equipment and staff.
The sick were placed in conference and sports centers converted into field hospitals. In early February, patients were admitted to the first hospital built specifically for people with COVID-19, built and equipped in just 10 days. Wuhan was visited by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who announced the supply of equipment and the support of personnel from all over the country.
Journalists reported on the fight against the pandemic
Independent Chinese journalists also reported on the fight against the epidemic in Wuhan, risking repercussions from the authorities. At least a few were later detained, and one of them, former lawyer Zhang Zhan, was sentenced to four years in prison for “causing trouble.” According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), Zhang went on a hunger strike in prison and in November 2021 she was “close to death”, weighing less than 40 kilograms at a height of 178 cm.
Thanks to the strict restrictions and organized efforts of the whole country, China mastered the biggest wave of the pandemic in March 2020, and the coronavirus has been essentially under control there since then. Despite vaccinating about three-quarters of the population, the Chinese authorities still apply the “zero covid” principle and react vigorously even to individual cases of infection in order to nip sporadic outbreaks in the bud.
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Restrictions on entry to China are among the toughest in the world. From March 2020, the borders are closed to most foreigners, and Chinese returning and people who are allowed entry by the authorities are subject to compulsory quarantine for at least two weeks, and in some cities – up to 56 days.
The origin of the coronavirus has become a political issue and a source of tension in China’s relations with the US and other Western countries. Beijing says the coronavirus does not necessarily come from China and may have arrived there on imported frozen foods. There were also studies suggesting that the pathogen was circulating around the world before it was discovered in Wuhan.
ac / PAP