Just as a year ago today, Chinese doctor Li Wenliang sent a message in a Wechat group to several of his colleagues alerting them to the appearance of a new coronavirus in Wuhan. In it, the ophthalmologist recommended that they wear protective suits to avoid contracting a pathogen that was not yet known either the extent it would acquire or the name that would be repeated so many times in this 2020. One year after those words, SARS-CoV-2 has claimed the lives of nearly 1.8 million people worldwide. Among them, this toilet that the police accused of spreading false rumors.
It is paradoxical, to say the least, that one day after Li sent that message, Beijing decided to report the first cases of pneumonia detected in Wuhan to the World Health Organization (WHO). The fact that this toilet was brought forward -even in a private group- did not sit well with authorities used to controlling everything and against which, surprisingly, many publicly charged when Li died precisely after contracting the same virus he had detected.
The WHO informed that on January 1st the Huanan market was ordered to be closed after 70% of the first 41 confirmed cases were found to be related to this souk. Since then, this market of supplies and wild life in which domestic and wild animals such as snakes, raccoons, civets or pangolins were traded has remained closed.
Researchers wearing white coveralls, goggles, gloves and masks were, for months, the only ones authorized to enter the enclosure to disinfect it and collect samples. Today in Huanan there is no trace of them or of the traders and customers who came downstairs to visit the “wet market”, where in China it is common to find everything from fruits and vegetables to fresh meat, seafood, herbs and spices in the open air.
Only the establishments on its second floor, which reopened in June, are still active. It is a wide gallery that shelters a hundred opticians.
It is precisely there where the team of international experts is expected to start its research, landing in January in the Asian giant to try to find the answers to all the questions that one year later remain unresolved. Ten Chinese and ten other international researchers, including public health experts, virologists, zoologists and epidemiologists from countries such as Japan, Russia, Denmark and the United Kingdom, will try to find out which was the first animal from which the coronavirus jumped, the route the pathogen subsequently followed to reach humans, or whether the origin of the covid-19 actually emerged in China or another country, as they defend in Beijing. A mission that will be carried out in two phases and will last about six weeks.
Another of the tasks of this committee of experts will be to try to shed some light on the reliability of the data offered by China, which many countries do not fully believe. Even more so when it was learned yesterday that the cases of covid-19 in Wuhan could be almost ten times more than the nearly 50,000 that were declared, according to an official Chinese seroprevalence study. The published report explains that samples were taken from some 34,000 people and antibodies were found in 4.4% of them, so if this figure is extrapolated to the eleven million inhabitants that the Chinese city has, we would be talking about almost 500,000 people infected.
In fact, experts agree that the two weeks following the closure of the market triggered infections within the country and the rest of the world, since at that time there were still no restrictions to mobility. It was not until the 27,000 infected and 80 dead when such drastic measures as quarantining more than 40 million people in and around Hubei province and stopping production at the world’s factory were imposed.
Thanks to these strict confinements and quarantines, absolute border closures and a capacity for massive testing, China managed to encircle the pathogen and began to lift the boom as the virus began to wreak havoc elsewhere. For this reason, Beijing now boasts of its management of the crisis and does not hesitate to act with the same forcefulness in the face of the slightest suspicion of a new outbreak, as happened this week in the Chinese capital. However, this triumphalist speech is full of shadows.
Some with names and surnames, like that of the citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, sentenced the day before yesterday to four years in prison for her criticism of the authorities and her reports from Wuhan. Or that of Chen Qiushi, a former lawyer who disappeared from Wuhan without a trace; and that of Li Zehua, a blogger who, after being arrested in February, had to return to his hometown with his family.
All of these are disturbing elements for a regime that has tried to control the narrative of its response to the virus since the beginning. Even now, when there is very little left to close a 2020 in which the nation has come out stronger in some ways by becoming one of the few countries worldwide that has managed to control the pathogen and grow economically, it has also put all its machinery to work. This time, to blame others for the origin of the pandemic.