In early January, Hu Aizhen, 65, heard that a new coronavirus had emerged in her home city, Wuhan. She was not worried – officials said it was not contagious – so she went about her days as usual and prepared for the lunar new year at the end of the month.
Just before the city was put under lockdown, Hu developed pneumonia symptoms. After days of waiting and searching for a hospital, she was tested for the virus. Her result was negative, but tests at the time were known to be inaccurate and she showed obvious signs of the virus. Nevertheless, she was refused treatment by six hospitals.
Hu, who had always been healthy, stayed at home for 10 days, unable to drink or eat, while her health deteriorated. When she took a further turn for the worse, her son tried to get her to a hospital in another district but police stopped them. Under lockdown orders they could not cross into another district. Her son, desperate, shouted at the traffic officers: “Are you not people?”
When Hu was finally admitted to a hospital on 8 February, she was struggling to breathe. The doctor ordered another test, but it was too late. She regained consciousness briefly, asking her son to pour her some water. Then she died.
Hu’s son is now suing the Wuhan municipal government for allegedly concealing the seriousness of the virus, among other complaints, according to court documents prepared by Funeng, a public welfare NGO based in Changsha. Hu’s son is among a small but significant group of residents seeking answers, compensation or simply an apology from officials who took weeks to notify the public of the threat from a virus that went on to claim the lives of at least 4,000 people in China, according to government figures, most of them in Wuhan.
Other cases include a civil servant suing the Hubei provincial government, a mother petitioning for officials to be punished after watching her 24-year-old daughter die of the virus, and a son who rushed his quickly fading mother to a hospital in the suburbs of Wuhan where he was able to get her admitted to intensive care. When he went to pick up supplies for her, he received a phone call from the hospital. His mother had died.
“None of this would have happened if they had told us. So many people would not have had to die,” said a relative involved in one of the lawsuits. Another said: “I want an answer. I want those responsible to be punished under the law.”
As the outbreak spread in China, with thousands of confirmed cases a day at its peak, public anger reached levels not seen in decades, posing a serious threat to the ruling Chinese communist party. When the whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang died from the virus in February, censors could not keep up with the flood of outrage online. It was a moment some compared to the outpouring over the death of Hu Yaobang that precipitated the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
A little more than two months on, the resentment is much less visible. Accounts like Hu Aizhen’s have been replaced by positive stories of the country coming together to defeat the virus, sending needed supplies to the rest of the world and fighting malicious attacks from the US and other countries blaming Beijing for the outbreak.
“People are easily led by propaganda,” said Shi, a human rights activist based in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. “As the epidemic situation has improved and the propaganda machine works, there has been a reversal. Now people are saying the strong leadership of the party is a good thing.”
As Wuhan and the rest of the country slowly return to normal, authorities are carefully monitoring those who might harbour resentment. Zhang Hai, 50, whose father died from the virus in February, was part of a WeChat group of more than 100 people who lost relatives to the virus.
In late March they were told they could retrieve their loved ones’ remains from funeral homes. No more than five could go together at one time, and they had to be accompanied by a local government representative. Zhang refused to go. Later, the group’s host was called in by the police and the WeChat group was deleted.
“Now everyone is trying to be very careful,” said Zhang, who is calling for the government to issue an apology. “I know a lot of families who are incredibly angry.”
Tan Jun, a civil servant in Yichang in Hubei province, filed a complaint this month accusing the Hubei provincial government of concealing the outbreak, according to copies of the lawsuit posted online. Tan confirmed the lawsuit but declined to be interviewed. Other residents in Wuhan who spoke to the Guardian said they had been intimidated by local police and forced to promise not to speak out.
“People must take responsibility. As a resident of Hubei, I believe it is necessary to stand up and call on the Hubei government to take responsibility,” Tan said, according to an article posted on several WeChat accounts that has now been deleted.
While authorities in Beijing have punished local officials by replacing them – what observers say is an age-old tactic for deflecting blame from the central government – residents say this is not enough.
“That is not accountability. That is switching hats,” said Wu, 49, who says she contracted the virus in January but was not officially diagnosed until March. In hospital she watched people around her die, including a woman in the next bed. Recently she learned that a classmate of hers who got sick around the same time had passed away.
“When I was laying in bed thinking I might soon die, I thought: how did this happen?” said Wu, who is suing her hospital for not confirming her as a coronavirus patient when she was released. “Regular people have limited access to real information. We rely on the government. We believe what the government says.”
Dissent has spread in other ways. Dozens of shop owners at a shopping mall in Wuhan demonstrated this month, demanding rent reductions after months of not being able to open their stores. In Yingcheng, a city west of Wuhan, residents put under lockdown protested against the high prices for food imposed by community management. One of the protesters, Zeng Chunzhi, has reportedly been detained.
“People have been awakened. That’s for sure,” said Xie Yanyi, a rights lawyer based in Beijing. Xie has filed a request for information from the government, including the origins of the virus and reasons for the delay in informing the public of the outbreak. “It may not be many people, but history shows that it is the few who change society and who change history,” Xie said.
In Wuhan, most residents are relieved that the worst of the epidemic appears to be over as they watch other countries struggle to contain it. Employees wait in lines outside of office buildings to have their throats swabbed, to make sure they do not have the virus before going back to work.
On the riverbank in Hankou district, a couple kiss in front of what has become a nightly light show of skyscrapers lit up with congratulatory messages. Many residents say they appreciate what their country has done for them.
The chance that cases such as Hu’s will be accepted and go to court are not high, according to Yan Zhanqing, a co-founder of Funeng. More likely, those involved will be intimidated or harassed. But in some cases, especially determined plaintiffs can get compensation, which is one form of apology.
“These cases apply pressure on the government and help more people understand their rights and the government’s responsibility,” Yan said. “This is also a way of documenting history, letting more people know the truth, and not just the government’s version of what happened in Wuhan.”