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For Wuhan’s COVID Mourners, Little Has Been Laid to Rest

On May 10, as Mother’s Day—which has been celebrated in China since 1990s—dawned on the city of Wuhan, Yang Min opened her Weibo account to pour out her grief: “Today is Mother’s Day. When I woke up this morning, my pillow was soaked with tears. Daughter, who am I without you on this day? Can you feel my tears? . . When you were sick, you said you couldn’t find me in your dreams, and so you looked around for me. Mama must be in your dreams now because I miss you every day!”

In a conversation on Weibo the first week of April, Yang, 50, told me about the loss of her 24-year-old daughter, Yuxi, her only child, to COVID-19. She was grieving, of course, but she was also seeking justice for what she viewed as an avoidable death. She showed me a petition she had been sending to various government agencies, reporters, and lawyers. In it, she explained that her daughter had contracted COVID-19 on January 16, during a visit to a local hospital. By then, many medical workers in Wuhan’s hospitals had already been infected. But it would be another three days before China’s government confirmed that the virus was spreading through human-to-human transmission. Had Yuxi been warned, Yang believes, she might still be alive.

“During the early stage of the epidemic, officials attended only to their self-interest,” she said. “They covered up the outbreak, tricked the people, and turned a blind eye to whether they lived or died.” Yang herself had contracted the virus while caring for her daughter, Yuxi, and on February 6, the day Yuxi died, Yang had been in the hospital delirious with a fever. In her petition, she wrote of Wuhan’s officials: “Their inaction and chaotic response directly led to my daughter’s death and took the lives of countless innocent people.”

On May 11, the day after Mother’s Day, Yang tried a new tactic. She left her house holding a picture of her daughter and wearing a cardboard sign on her back on which was written a single character, “冤,” “INJUSTICE.” In no time, four national security officials dragged her away. She told me they took her to a local petitioning office, the government organ in charge of receiving citizens’ petitions, and there several policemen questioned her and then told her not to spread rumors online or offline, before releasing her with instructions not to leave her house the next day. The next day, police guarded the gates of her apartment complex.

Yang is not the only mourner in Wuhan whose expressions of grief and calls for accountability have been met with police action. As the outbreak began to recede in the city this spring, many angry relatives of the disease’s first victims found themselves looking for outlets for their feelings of loss and sense of injustice. As they have tried to organize online, seek legal assistance, and talk to the media, their efforts have been thwarted again and again, with pressure from government authorities to abandon the cause.

On April 3, just before Qingming, China’s annual grave-sweeping holiday, Wuhan authorities banned people from freely gathering at cemeteries and crematoriums. Instead, they urged mourners to participate in a nationally organized three minutes of silence and countrywide “wail of grief.” Seven people who had recently lost family members told me that around Qingming, they were either approached by police or had the impression they were being followed or watched.

I first met Zhang Hai, who hails from Wuhan but now lives in Shenzhen, in March after he became vocal online because of the death of his father. Zhang’s 76-year-old father was a military veteran who had participated in nuclear weapons tests in the 1960s when China was developing its first atomic bomb. The tests exposed Zhang Lifa, then a young man, to radiation, and he suffered permanent damage to his health as a result. Still, Zhang Lifa was very patriotic. On China’s National Day last year, while the family was watching the annual military parade on TV, he had stood and saluted the TV screen in silence.

Zhang Hai brought his father to Wuhan on January 16 after the elder Zhang, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, had broken a bone. As a veteran, he could receive free treatment at the General Hospital of the Central Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army. At the time, Zhang Hai had not heard the online chatter about a mysterious pneumonia that was spreading in Wuhan. Father and son drove 680 miles from Shenzhen to Wuhan. On January 17, his father was hospitalized for a surgery to repair the fracture. Doctors initially said that the operation was successful. But within a few days, his father began to show symptoms of what was by then becoming recognizable as COVID-19. He tested positive on January 23, the day Wuhan began its lockdown. He died on February 1.

After his father’s death, Zhang posted his father’s death certificate on social media; it described the cause of death as, “pneumonia caused by a novel coronavirus, respiratory failure,” and noted that the elder Zhang had died one week after testing positive for COVID.

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In early February, at the peak of the outbreak in Wuhan, the lockdown prevented family members from conducting usual funerary rituals. At the end of March, some mourners reported that neighborhood officials had notified them that they could collect their relatives’ ashes but they would need to meet with government staff in their districts beforehand. A government representative would also need to escort them to claim the ashes. Zhang told me he believed collecting his father’s ashes was his private business, and a compulsory government chaperone made him uncomfortable. So he argued with both the funeral home and officials on the neighborhood committee of his father’s former residence in the Hankou district of Wuhan that he should be able to collect his father’s ashes by himself, all to no avail. On April 8, the day Wuhan ended its 76-day lockdown, Zhang returned to Shenzhen without his father’s remains.

There, he poured out his frustrations on social media. On the evening of April 29, police in Shenzhen summoned him and requested that he not post “inappropriate remarks” online. Afterwards, he wrote on social media: “Everything I have said is true. If they think I’ve committed a crime, then let them arrest me. I am not afraid of that. But my father is a victim and I won’t silently submit when the people responsible for this man-made disaster go unpunished.”

Since then, he has gained influence on Weibo for his audacity and built a follower group (微博粉丝群) of around 200 people, gathering many netizens who support his quest for accountability. I am also a member of the group. Many of his posts attract hundreds of comments and re-posts. On May 4, Zhang used Weibo to announce a fundraising campaign to commemorate those who lost their lives to COVID. His plan, as he described it, was to “erect monuments for all the people of Wuhan who died tragically from the novel Coronavirus, engraving their names and faces, so that more people can learn about the tragedies the Wuhan government caused by concealing the extent of the epidemic, and so that, hopefully, many more will commemorate the victims.” Soon after he posted the announcement, censors took it down. He tried a few more times, but the post kept disappearing. That night, police again summoned him to their office. This time, they fingerprinted him and forced him to sign an agreement that he would not keep pursuing government accountability and that he would not petition.

On May 7, Zhang announced on Weibo that he’d given up his idea to erect monuments and returned the donations. But he says he still hasn’t given up. He wants three things, he told me on May 17: a formal apology issued by the Wuhan municipal government; a jail term of at least 10 years for the officials involved in the initial concealment of the severity of the crisis; and financial compensation for those who lost their loved ones to the epidemic.

Another 100 COVID mourners seeking government accountability formed a group, separate from Zhang’s, on WeChat. Both Zhang and Yang were initially part of the group, too. Some of its members had lost their family’s main source of income and faced financial hardships. Some couldn’t pay rent. Others had lost several relatives, and were suffering from overwhelming grief with no opportunity for counseling. Many had tried voicing their grievances through the Wuhan mayor’s hotline or the Hubei provincial governor’s hotline, but nothing had changed. Some people had brought their stories to the local media, but found even if reporters interviewed them, the articles couldn’t run.

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As more people joined the WeChat group in May, their discussions clearly began to attract closer official scrutiny. Some members were summoned by police. They told me that police showed them printouts of their group chats and demanded they sign letters promising not to seek justice or petition the government. In my communications with seven of the members, they told me the police had accused some of them of “causing disruption to social order,” and warned others not to talk to foreign media. Amid mounting government pressure on individual members, the group’s cohesiveness began to fray. Although members tended to agree that culpability for their misfortunes lay with the Wuhan government, they disagreed on the best way to redress their grievances.

Li, a man in the group in his late 50s, told me his mother’s neighborhood committee promised him compensation of 3,000 renminbi but he hasn’t received it. Li is unemployed, and the loss of his younger brother left him and his elderly mother without their main source of income. In late June, he told me his mother’s landlord had evicted her after she couldn’t pay rent. Li says he has followed the recommendations of various local offices in Wuhan to call the recommended hotlines, but none of his problems have been resolved.

A respiratory specialist surnamed Wu who worked on the frontlines of the COVID response at Wuhan Union Hospital told me he sympathized with the family members of the deceased. “I saw families that lost two, three, even four members of their household to COVID. It was unbearable.” Wu describes himself as patriotic, and he’s proud China eventually got the epidemic under control. But like other frontline doctors I have talked to, he finds the lack of accountability for the early cover-up of the outbreak confounding. “The achievements don’t just cancel out the errors,” he told me. “Those who did their job well ought to be rewarded, and those who didn’t should be punished.”

At the end of June, the seven family members of deceased coronavirus patients told me their Weibo accounts were no longer working properly. No one seemed to be able to see their posts. Three of them were called by police when trying to book flights or hotels for business trips, and asked to confirm the purpose of their travel.

On June 3, Zhang told me he had found a policeman stationed outside his door and that he planned to stop posting on Weibo. Zhang blames authorities in Wuhan for his situation, but holds onto hope that the nation’s leaders would be on his side if only he could make them aware of his plight. “If the central government knew about my situation, they’d definitely rectify it.” On June 10, he filed a lawsuit seeking an apology and 2 million renminbi from the Wuhan government, the Hubei government, and the Central Theater Command Hospital. He also requested an official apology be published in the newspaper. Wuhan security authorities told him to drop the lawsuit. He then filed a separate suit on June 28 to the Hubei Provincial Court. He says relatives of four other people who died from COVID are filing similar suits, and another eight families he knows are trying to negotiate with the Wuhan government for compensation.

These days, while publicizing the seriousness of the epidemic in Western countries, China’s government is also vigorously promoting consumerism—encouraging its citizens to dine out, go to movies, and travel. But for people grieving their relatives and forced to nurse grievances in silence, a return to normal life feels further away than ever.

In the meantime, Zhang still hasn’t retrieved his father’s remains. He won’t accede to the government’s involvement in his mourning, and as recently June, when he last contacted officials in Wuhan, they wouldn’t relent. And so the ashes of the old solider await burial in Wuhan, but like so much about the outbreak of COVID, it seems unlikely they will soon be laid to rest.