Residents of China's Wuhan said Monday they were hopeful for the future and no longer afraid of Covid-19, three years after the city was locked down over what was then a mysterious virus

Wuhan (China) (AFP) - Residents of China’s Wuhan said Monday they were hopeful for the future and no longer afraid of Covid-19, three years after the city was locked down over what was then a mysterious virus.

Since Beijing ordered Wuhan sealed off in a bid to suffocate the outbreak in January 2020, Covid has spread around the globe, killing millions and plunging the world economy into turmoil.

But life is now back to normal for many, and after almost three years of gruelling lockdowns and mandatory mass testing, Beijing last month lifted its hardline zero-Covid policy.

As China celebrated Lunar New Year this week, Wuhan was unrecognisable compared to the apocalyptic scenes that gripped the city of 11 million in early 2020

As China celebrated Lunar New Year this week, Wuhan was unrecognisable compared with the apocalyptic scenes that gripped the city of 11 million in early 2020.

Locals crowded into busy markets, and families – some not wearing masks – bought toys and threw stones along the Yangtze River.

As evening fell, colourful animations lit up the facades of the buildings that dominate the skyline, as firecrackers celebrating the Lunar New Year exploded in the distance.

Many flocked to Guiyuan Temple, one of Wuhan’s most famed sites – open for a Lunar New Year holiday for the first time in three years.

Others enjoyed snacks and local delicacies on Hubu Alley, a popular historic thoroughfare bustling with stalls and small restaurants.

Locals told AFP they were elated that life was returning to normal.

“The new year will of course be better,” Yan Dongju, a cleaner in her sixties, told AFP.

“We are not afraid of the virus any more… we don’t have that fear in our heart any more, as long as we protect ourselves and wear our masks,” she added.

People on the banks of the Yangtze River in Wuhan

“Now that we have opened up, everyone is quite happy,” said delivery driver Liang Feicheng, wearing glasses and a black mask to keep warm.

Health restrictions that lasted almost three years “were hard”, he said.

“If I said it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be true. It was a difficult time,” he said.

“A lot of our worries and depression have all slowly been resolved,” the driver told AFP between orders.

“People are going about their lives, coming together with family and friends, going out to play and travel and being happy.”

- ‘House of hope’-

A January 30, 2020 photo shows officials checking on an elderly man who died on a street, while the bottom photo of the same street is taken January 23, 2023

The January 2020 decision to lock down the city, announced in the middle of the night, took Wuhan’s residents by surprise as the world watched on with uncertainty.

For 76 days, Wuhan was cut off from the world, with residents holed up in their homes for fear of being infected as hospitals overflowed with patients.

But the horrifying scenes which marked the world’s first Covid lockdown are now a thing of the past.

Outside a shop where AFP captured the scene of a man who lay dying in the street in January 2020 – in an image that would become a symbol of the world’s fight against Covid – a sign for a new school on the second floor reads “House of Hope”.

And a makeshift hospital built in just 10 days during the early days of the pandemic lay abandoned, now featuring a triumphant banner hailing China’s battle against the virus.

Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market -- once suspected of being the epicentre of the outbreak -- remains closed

But Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market – once suspected of being the epicentre of the outbreak – remains closed.

The area around the once-bustling wet market was desolate when AFP visited Monday, though a police car kept watch.

- Over a billion infected -

China, relatively unscathed for years after its initial outbreaks thanks to draconian zero-Covid measures, has faced its biggest-ever case surge in recent weeks.

About 80 percent of the population is believed to have contracted Covid since health restrictions were lifted in December, according to leading epidemiologist Wu Zunyou.

On Saturday, China reported at least 13,000 Covid-related deaths in just under a week.

This figure, which only includes deaths reported in hospitals, adds to the approximately 60,000 deaths since December that were previously reported by authorities.

But it is likely a huge underestimate for a population of 1.4 billion, and Beijing’s official case tally is no longer believed to reflect reality.