Flight crew members check the temperature of passengers at Wuhan’s Tianhe Airport. Photo: Xinhua

After Wuhan banished the virus more than a year ago, the central Chinese urban center has been hit by arguably China’s largest cluster of imported cases this month.

Many see this as a sign of the heightened risks, as well as irony – Covid-19 has returned to its original breeding ground, where it first emerged and killed an uncertain number of people at the end of 2019 before beginning its global spread.

A notice posted on Tuesday by Wuhan’s Municipal Health Commission put the city back in the news after at least 56 infected people, both with and without symptoms, were identified and hastily rushed to special wards from the city’s Tianhe Airport in the past week. 

The commission noted 52 of them were Chinese expats returning from Afghanistan onboard the same chartered flight, MF8008, operated by Xiamen Air on July 2 – part of Beijing’s ongoing operations to pluck its nationals out of the Central Asian country teetering on the brink of full-blown civil war.

The other cases were flown in from Indonesia by Lion Airlines and from Pakistan by China Southern, the reports said. 

Wuhan has also traced and isolated close contacts and secondary contacts totaling 711, mostly passengers and crews of those flights, as well as some airport staff members and health inspectors.  

Questions were instantly raised by Wuhan residents who still harbor vivid memories of how the virus spread through their city and the ordeals they suffered in the 76-day lockdown between January and April 2020. Many asked over social media why it took so many days for Wuhan’s health authority to report the spike in imported cases.

Their concerns were whether isolation and testing at the airport were adequate enough to prevent the pathogen from creeping back into local communities. 

Authorities have provided scant details about the imported cases, including whether the more virulent and transmissible Delta strain was detected among those infected. Wuhan residents have started wearing masks again when going out and taking public transport.

The city’s metro operator has also reinstated rules to check the health codes of all passengers. 

A man walks in front of a drawing of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a wall at the Leishenshan Hospital that had offered beds for coronavirus patients in Wuhan, in China’s central Hubei province, on April 11, 2020. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

Some Wuhan residents took to social media to complain that the lack of official transparency harked to how Wuhan cadres sought to withhold information and doctors’ warnings about a fast-spreading respiratory disease that let the virus spin of control at the end of 2019. 

In reply, Chen Honghui, Wuhan’s deputy mayor in charge of public health affairs, denied any hiding or underreporting. He told reporters that it took time to confirm infections and that the cluster of imported cases may continue to grow as some passengers could still be in their incubation stages and the figures could be revised upwards. 

Wuhan’s official tally of local cases, 50,340, has remained unchanged for more than a year after the city whittled down infections and cured its last patients in early June 2020. There has since been no trace of local infections, at least according to the city’s health authority. 

Still, fear of a relapse of the pandemic is clearly in the minds of Wuhan residents. The airlift operation flight from Afghanistan is now referred to by Wuhan netizens as a “flying den of Covid,” with some people fuming over why Wuhan was chosen to receive these returning Chinese. 

Airport staff in protective suits disinfect facilities used by passengers returning from overseas at Wuhan’s airport. Wuhan is among the handful of hubs still receiving flights from abroad. Photos: Xinhua

All patients are now reportedly receiving treatment at a field hospital built during the height of Wuhan’s contagion. The city is again organizing experts from different hospitals to form a panel to give guidance.   

Wuhan’s official Yangtze Daily reported on Tuesday that none of the 3,140 environmental samples collected city-wide and tested by Wuhan’s Center for Disease Control earlier this week had returned positive results. The paper has appealed for calm, stressing the city’s experience and strong “track record” in handling the disease. 

In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that more Chinese expats and diplomats would be evacuated from Afghanistan due to the worsening security and pandemic situation there, urging support and understanding from residents in cities receiving those flights. 

Beijing has designated a small number of key aviation hubs including Wuhan to receive flights from countries still in the grip of the virus and will provide local treatment for infected arrivals.

Airports in the Chinese capital city, however, are not on the list of hubs still open to international travel. The Civil Aviation Administration of China, meanwhile, has introduced “circuit breaker” policies to suspend incoming overseas flights if more than 10 passengers or crew members test positive for Covid.  

Zhong Nanshan, China’s top pulmonologist who advises Beijing on the disease, told Xinhua that China’s border protection and airports’ handling of passengers and goods from overseas had been proven to be nearly “impregnable” and additional measures like a ban on flights from certain high-risk countries were in place to fortify China’s Covid firewall. 

He said Wuhan would still be safe as long as facilities and personnel receiving international flights would be placed in isolation and tested repeatedly. 

Seventeen local infections were reported on Tuesday throughout the rest of China, all in the border city of Ruili in the southwestern province of Yunnan. Officials there blame the viral spillover from Myanmar for the moderate outbreak, as illegal Burmese migrants have been caught and tested positive.

Ruili is now under a lockdown for city-wide testing, marking the third time since the start of the pandemic. 

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