A Year After Outbreak, Wuhan Kin Struggle To Move On


Wuhan native Liu Pei’en shut down his investment business and converted to Buddhism to try to make sense of his father’s death last January from suspected Covid-19.

Zhong Hanneng still struggles to sleep or eat following the death of her son from the disease nearly 10 months ago, and says friends and relatives are shunning her family because of lingering fears of infection.

One year after the coronavirus began spreading from the city, they and other Wuhan next-of-kin are no nearer to closure, as the Chinese government’s refusal to take responsibility for early failures in the outbreak complicates the task of coming to terms with their loss.





Liu Pei’en’s 78-year-old father developed Covid-19 symptoms after checking in to a hospital for a routine health exam in Wuhan
 AFP / Hector RETAMAL

Liu’s 78-year-old father, Liu Ouqing, a career public servant and former Communist Party secretary of Wuhan’s grain bureau, developed Covid-19 symptoms after checking in to a hospital for a routine health exam, unaware of the rapidly spreading danger.

His diagnosis was never confirmed as test kits were scarce then. He died on January 29.

“You could say I also died January 29,” Liu, 44, said in an interview on his father’s birthday at the family apartment in an upscale Wuhan neighbourhood.



Wuhan native Liu Pei'en shut down his business and converted to Buddhism to try to make sense of his father's death last January from suspected Covid-19


Wuhan native Liu Pei’en shut down his business and converted to Buddhism to try to make sense of his father’s death last January from suspected Covid-19
 AFP / Hector RETAMAL

Liu spent much of 2020 in “a kind of madness,” using social media to channel his anger over the government’s handling of the outbreak.

“I was extremely angry. I wanted revenge,” Liu said.

Families accuse the city government of initially concealing the outbreak’s emergence in December 2019, pressuring doctors to keep quiet and denying human-to-human transmission.



Zhong Hanneng blames city authorities for the death of her son Peng Yi, a 39-year-old primary school teacher


Zhong Hanneng blames city authorities for the death of her son Peng Yi, a 39-year-old primary school teacher
 AFP / Hector RETAMAL

The danger was hidden from citizens for weeks, allowing the virus to explode into a global pandemic.

Nearly 4,000 people died in Wuhan, according to official figures, the vast majority of China’s deaths.

Exhausted and frustrated, Liu later focused his energy on Buddhist philosophy. He now shuns meat, alcohol, and social gatherings.



Wuhan is clawing back to normal, but fear of the virus lingers, especially with another winter setting in


Wuhan is clawing back to normal, but fear of the virus lingers, especially with another winter setting in
 AFP / Hector RETAMAL

He mothballed his successful investment business, saying money has “no meaning” any longer.

Liu is now on a spiritual quest for the “objective truth of the universe,” marking his father’s birthday at a stately temple, where he lit candles and prayed before a towering three-metre (10-foot) golden Buddha.

China’s government is notoriously allergic to criticism and its initial missteps in Wuhan are among the country’s most politically sensitive topics.



Zhong Hanneng still struggles to sleep or eat following the death of her son from Covid-19 nearly 10 months ago in Wuhan


Zhong Hanneng still struggles to sleep or eat following the death of her son from Covid-19 nearly 10 months ago in Wuhan
 AFP / Hector RETAMAL

Several next-of-kin declined AFP interview requests or abruptly cancelled.

The government continues to dodge responsibility, instead promoting unproven theories that the pathogen originated elsewhere, while trumpeting its subsequent success in suppressing it.

But Zhong, a 67-year-old retiree, blames city authorities for the death of her son Peng Yi, a 39-year-old primary school teacher.





 AFPTV / Leo RAMIREZ

He died in mid-February after a frustrating two-week quest to get admitted to overcrowded hospitals, leaving behind a wife and young daughter.

Zhong is among a handful of Wuhan residents who have tried to sue the city. Courts have refused to accept the suits.

Her family talk daily to a framed portrait of Peng, filling him in on family matters, and set out chopsticks and a bowl of food each night for him at dinner. The pain at the table is often unbearable, she says.

She remains haunted by the image of her son dying alone in an ICU ward.

“I worry that I will get depression. I feel very irritable and uncomfortable every day,” she said, as a bone-chilling rain drenched the grey and dreary city.

Wuhan is clawing back to normal, but fear of the virus lingers, especially with another winter setting in.

Zhong believes she and her husband also had the virus but recovered and voices suspicions, widespread in Wuhan, that case numbers and deaths are actually far higher as many went undiagnosed.

Fear of catching the virus from Zhong’s family has caused a rift with other friends and relatives.

“No one wants to associate with us. We are very lonely. Very lonely,” Zhong said.

Dozens of next-of-kin have joined social media groups for mutual support and to discuss legal options.

But the groups have been infiltrated by police, who harass and threaten participants, say members.

And there is infighting, with more litigious group members accusing others of cowardice for not pursuing lawsuits, Liu said.

“There’s a Chinese saying, ‘sadden your own people, and you gladden the enemy,'” Liu said.

“The police are very happy to see this abuse between family members.”

Wuhan’s government did not respond to AFP requests for comment.

“We didn’t know it was so serious,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Like Zhong, she complains that friends and relatives are resisting contact and feels depressed about her loss and the government “whitewash.”

“Life will go on, but there is no way to wipe away this shadow.”





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Jobs for kin of those killed in conflict with wildlife in Bengal


434 to be appointed home guard volunteers in police dept.

The West Bengal government has announced that 434 next of kin of persons killed in conflict with wildlife will get jobs with the State police.

According to a government notification released on Friday, 584 persons were killed in the State in human-wildlife conflict over the past five years.

The 434 next of kin will be appointed as home guard volunteers in the West Bengal police.

The decision to provide jobs to 74.3% of families of those killed in conflict with wildlife comes just months ahead of the Assembly polls in the State. More than the timing, the decision is likely to have an impact on wildlife conservation and raises concerns over whether giving jobs to victims’ families, can lead to better wildlife management and mitigating the conflict.

Jumbo problem

The data on human deaths provided by the State government seems to be in consonance with data tabled in Rajya Sabha earlier this year, where it was pointed out that three States account to almost half (48%) of human deaths when it comes to human-elephant conflict over the past five years from 2014-15 to 2018-19. West Bengal has the highest number of human casualties at 403, followed by Odisha with 397 and Assam with 332 deaths due to elephant attacks, as per the data tabled in the Upper House in February, 2020.

Human-elephant conflict is acute in certain districts of north and south Bengal because of the fragmented nature of forests and landscape resulting in frequent encounters.

While Friday’s notification does not specify which animals led to human deaths, forest officials are certain that in most cases the deaths have resulted from human-elephant conflict.

According to the State government’s notification 434 people from 11 districts will be appointed of which 205 persons are from five north Bengal districts.

Most candidates from the families of those killed are from Jalpaiguri (96), followed by Alipurduar (73) in north Bengal. Twenty-six people in Darjeeling will get jobs followed by eight in Kalimpong and two in Coochbehar. Districts like Jalpiaguri and Alipurduar where forests are intersected by tea gardens with habitations on its fringes are hot spots of encounters with elephants.

Similarly, in south Bengal districts, Bankura where 62 candidates have been selected, Paschim Medinipur (47) and Jhargram (46) are other areas of human-elephant conflict.

Scientists and researchers say the forests are very fragmented, not suitable for elephant habitation and surrounded by agricultural fields which increases chances of conflict. Well known elephant expert Raman Sukumar has been pointing out that forests of south Bengal cannot sustain elephants and emphasised that human-elephant conflict is the most pressing issue in the region.

According to Professor Sukumar a drought played a role in the initial largescale dispersal of elephants from Jharkhand to southern West Bengal during 1986-87. The region now hosts 150 to 180 elephants, while north Bengal has another 450 elephants.

Tiger in Sunderbans

The notification also points out that 66 persons whose family members died in South 24 Parganas will be given jobs. Senior forest officials said most of these deaths are due to human-tiger encounters in the Sunderbans region, the mangrove forests home to Royal Bengal Tigers.

“There may be one or two deaths due to crocodile deaths but most deaths are due to tiger attacks,” a forest official said. In most cases these deaths take place when people enter restricted tiger areas for fishing or honey collection.

While the decision on jobs will come as succour to many poor families who have lost kin due attacks by wildlife, the question which wildlife conservation experts are asking is how will the decision aid conservation. “The decision to give employment to people is humane one and will give relief to the poor families. But the more pressing issue remains that the human-wildlife conflict should be mitigated and deaths should be avoided,” Ajanta Dey, joint secretary Nature Environment and Wildlife Society ( NEWS) , an organization working for environment and wildlife conservation said.



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