WUHAN : For more than six years, 38-year-old Wuhan restaurant owner Lai Yun started almost every day the same way: with a trip to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, just a ten-minute walk from his House.
“I would send the kids to school, have breakfast, and then walk to the market. It was very convenient,” he said.
That changed on December 31, 2019, after four cases of a mystery pneumonia were linked to the market and it was closed overnight. By the end of the month, the city had begun a grueling 76-day lockdown that came just hours in advance and prohibited people from leaving their homes.
Nearly a year since the outbreak began, COVID-19 has claimed more than 1.5 million lives, and the Wuhan wet market where it was initially detected remains empty even as the city around it has come to life.
It has become a symbol of the fierce political and scientific battle that is being waged over the origin of the virus with Beijing that continues to fight with the United States and other countries, accusing them of bias.
A team of experts from the World Health Organization has yet to visit Wuhan, much less the market. Health authorities in China and abroad have warned that origin tracing efforts could take years and yield inconclusive results.
In Wuhan, where the stigma of being the first epicenter of the coronavirus weighs, more than a dozen residents and business owners told Reuters they do not believe the virus started in the city.
“It certainly couldn’t have been Wuhan … surely someone else brought it. Or it surely came from some other product brought from abroad. There were only certain conditions for it to appear here,” said a vendor from the wet market in the city center who gave his name as Chen.
In recent months, Chinese diplomats and state media have said they believe the market is not the origin but the victim of the disease, and have supported theories that the virus potentially originated in another country.
Experts say that the market still plays a role in the investigation and is therefore unlikely to be demolished, although much of that investigation will be based on samples taken immediately after the outbreak began.
“The first group of cases was there, so it would at least be interesting to find out the origin of those and come up with some hypotheses, like if it’s more likely from wild animals or maybe it points to a human super-propagator,” he said. Jin Dong-Yan, professor of virology at the University of Hong Kong.
Access to the area remains severely restricted. People who visited before closing recall a bustling building with hundreds of stalls divided into sections for red meat, seafood and vegetables.
Recently, the local government has added lush green plants and traditional Chinese paintings to the semi-permanent blue barricades that surround the area. Inside, wooden boards cover the stalls and windows.
On the second floor above the empty market, stores selling glasses and optometry equipment reopened in June.
This week, a guard at the entrance to the glasses market took the temperatures and warned journalists not to take videos or photos from inside the building.
“Maybe some people have bad feelings about it, but now it’s just an empty building … who is anxious about an empty building?” said a sales clerk who sold contact lenses, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.
While Wuhan has not reported any new cases of locally transmitted COVID-19 since May, for some who were confident the market would make it to the end of the month it is still a struggle.
Lai, who reopened his Japanese restaurant in June, says the market closure and subsequent public panic over the safety of imported seafood has increased the cost of purchasing some ingredients by five.
“Our goal for next year is just to survive.”