Travel in and out of ground zero Wuhan returns to normal

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The lockdown that served as a model for countries battling the coronavirus around the world has ended after 11 weeks: Chinese authorities are allowing residents of Wuhan to once again travel in and out of the sprawling city where the pandemic began.

As of just after midnight Wednesday, the city’s 11 million residents are now permitted to leave without special authorisation as long as a mandatory smartphone application powered by a mix of data-tracking and government surveillance shows they are healthy and have not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus.

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The occasion was marked with a light show on either side of the broad Yangtze river, with skyscrapers and bridges radiating animated images of health workers aiding patients, along with one displaying the words “heroic city,” a title bestowed on Wuhan by president and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. Along the embankments and bridges, citizens waved flags, chanted “Wuhan, let’s go!” and sang a capella renditions of China’s national anthem.

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“I haven’t been outside for more than 70 days,” said an emotional Tong Zhengkun, who was watching the display from a bridge. Residents in his apartment complex had contracted COVID-19, so the entire building was shut down. He couldn’t go out even to buy groceries, which neighborhood workers brought to his door.

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“Being indoors for so long drove me crazy,” he said.

It didn’t take long for traffic to begin moving swiftly through the newly reopened bridges, tunnels and highway toll booths, while hundreds waited for the first trains and flights out of the city, many hoping to return to jobs elsewhere.

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A city worker removes barriers used to seal off a community as the city of Wuhan slowly loosens up ahead of a lifting of the two month long lockdown. AP Photo / Ng Han Guan

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A woman wearing a mask holds a Chinese national flag near the site of a national moment of mourning for victims of the coronavirus in Wuhan. AP Photo / Ng Han Guan

In anticipation of the lockdown’s lifting, SWAT teams and staff in white hazmat suits had patrolled outside the city’s Hankou railway station, while guards attended a security briefing under the marble arches of its entrance.

Tickets for trains out of Wuhan to cities across China already were advertised on electronic billboards, with the first train leaving for Beijing at 6.25am. A line designated for passengers headed to the capital was roped off, while loudspeakers blared announcements about pandemic control measures, such as keeping safe distances and wearing masks.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government’s official Covid-19 advisory website

Wuhan is a major center for heavy industry, particularly autos, and while many major plants have restarted production, the small and medium-sized businesses that provide the most employment are still hurting from both a lack of workers and demand. Measures are being instituted to get them back on their feet, including 20 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) in preferential loans, according to the city government.

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Travelers with their luggage walk past the Hankou railway station on the eve of its resuming outbound traffic in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. AP Photo / Ng Han Guan

China blocked people from leaving or entering Wuhan starting Jan. 23 in a surprise middle-of-the-night announcement and expanded the lockdown to most of the province in succeeding days. Train service and flights were canceled and checkpoints were set up on roads into the central province.

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The drastic steps came as the coronavirus began spreading to the rest of China and overseas during the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, when many Chinese travel.
The exact source of the virus remains under investigation, though it is thought to be linked to an outdoor food market in the city.

In preparation for the end of the lockdown, Party Secretary Wang Zhonglin, the city’s highest-ranking official, inspected the city’s airport and train stations Monday to ensure they were ready. The city must “enforce prevention while opening up, maintain safety and orderliness and the assurance of stability,” Wang said.

Mission one: to make sure the epidemic doesn’t resurge, he said.

— Associated Press producer Olivia Zhang in Wuhan, China, contributed to this report.

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