A year after the outbreak in Wuhan, and with the epidemic under control despite the latest outbreaks, the risk of the coronavirus for China is not health, but political. In both lives and economic damage, the pandemic is such a serious global catastrophe that Beijing is attempting to discharge any responsibility for its origins. While the propaganda tries to rewrite the story pointing to other countries as a possible origin and suggests that the virus entered China through frozen food imported from abroad, the censorship leaks all sensitive information.
The most delicate is the number of 89,000 infected and 4,635 deaths, which raises doubts due to the usual opacity of the regime and its initial concealment of the epidemic. In addition, the doctors themselves have recognized that many patients perished during the first weeks without being tested for the coronavirus. In April, just one day after insisting on the reliability of the data, authorities revised the death toll in Wuhan up 50 percent. But since then they have not moved despite the fact that antibody studies suggest that in this city there were between three and ten times more than the 50,000 officially recognized infected.
For foreign journalists, considered little less than spies in this country, coming to Wuhan to report on the coronavirus is to face a veritable “Great Wall”, as is often the case with any controversial subject. While the authorities warn the families of the victims not to speak, the police prevent taking photos even of the hotel where the experts of the World Health Organization (WHO) are quarantined, as happened to this correspondent this week. All in order to “kill history” so that there are no images or leaks that crack the official story about the coronavirus.
But there is always someone willing to talk. As an employee of the Jinyintan Hospital, where the first cases were treated in December 2019 and then a good part of the avalanche of patients that unleashed the epidemic in Wuhan at the end of January last year. “This was one of the medical centers that received the most patients and we were working for three months without a break,” explains the worker, whose identity we keep anonymous for his safety. In that time, he claims to have seen everything … and nothing good. “There were so many dead to take to the crematoriums that the funeral parlor vans were not enough and it was necessary to resort to minibuses, where the bodies were piled up in yellow bags,” he recalls those tragic days. How many deaths were there? We asked him point-blank. Ugh, I saw too many corpses to count! I don’t remember, “he exclaims, throwing his head back as if he had looked into hell itself. But he does not dare to give a figure or comment on the official data.
Despite such a traumatic experience, he assures that he did not feel fear because he protected himself conscientiously to fulfill his mission and, in addition, the security measures to avoid contagions were improving as the epidemic stabilized and there were more resources. For months, hospital staff have been tested for the coronavirus every week and, in addition, they have already received the first dose of the vaccine and are waiting for the second.
“They told us not to shower that day and I did not have any significant adverse reaction, except for severe pain in my arm that prevented me from moving it for a while,” he acknowledges, gesturing. Although the Jinyintan Hospital is under construction, the reason for vaccinating its staff is that it has a score of coronavirus patients admitted. “All are imported cases, including Chinese workers who have returned from Pakistan, and are divided between those already confirmed, who are in one wing, and asymptomatic or suspected, in the other,” he says in detail.
The hardest part of his story are those minibuses loaded with bodies that were taken to be cremated without any family or friend to fire them, since everyone was confined in Wuhan and the ashes were not delivered until shortly before the Qingming Festival, the All Souls Day in China, which is celebrated every April 4. His testimony fits with the images recorded in another hospital by Fang Bin, a Wuhan businessman who documented the epidemic and was arrested for spreading his videos on the internet. Like blogger Chen Qiushi, who also reported on the coronavirus, he has been “missing” since February. Along with them, another video blogger, Zhang Zhan, was sentenced in December to four years in prison for also filming in hospitals and crematoriums.
In Wuhan, the death toll from the coronavirus is such a sensitive issue that cemetery guards prevent foreigners from entering, suspecting, and surely guessing, that they are journalists. “Hey, a ‘laowai’!” Says one, using the colloquial term to refer to foreigners, seeing me walk through the gate of the Biandanshan cemetery, one of the largest in the city. “Foreigners cannot enter because many have come to do interviews,” he explains, referring to the many correspondents who have fallen on the city to cover the anniversary of the outbreak of the coronavirus.
When I show him the flowers that I am going to take to the grave of a friend who passed away last year, he allows me to pass, but notes my name and accompanies me at all times so that I am not left alone in the cemetery. We head to the Garden of the Crowned Crane, the area where the ashes of those who died last year in Wuhan rest. With gleaming black marble headstones arranged in tiers between a long pavilion of columbariums and a small road, it is estimated that there are about a thousand dated in the harshest months of the epidemic: January, February and March. Taking advantage of an oversight by the guard, we can take a couple of photos of the graves that contain the ashes. An image that is one of the most repeated around the world, but that the Chinese regime does not want you to see so as not to question its figures and thus “kill” any story that is not the official one.