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One year since coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, Americans there look home

"I would be very afraid if I were living in the States," said Benjamin Wilson, an American who has lived in Wuhan for almost two decades.
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WUHAN, China — Benjamin Wilson, a Louisiana native who lives in the Chinese city where the Covid-19 virus was first identified a year ago, is watching the unfolding crisis back home with disappointment.

"I would be very afraid if I were living in the States," said Wilson, who has lived in Wuhan, the sprawling capital of Hubei province, for almost two decades. "I didn't really think that I would be where I'm at now, worried more about my family than myself."

The contrast between his homeland and his adopted home is stark, the English teacher said. Although he endured more than 70 days of strict lockdown, that at times made him feel almost "imprisoned," being shuttered indoors was a sacrifice that has paid off, he said.

Now, Wuhan is "one of the safest places in the world," he added.

Image: Christopher Suzanne with his wife and son in the U.S.
Christopher Suzanne with his wife and son in the U.S.NBC News

More than 338,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the United States so far, more than anywhere else in the world and more Americans than were killed in battle during World War II, according to data from the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

While many health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have warned the outbreak in the U.S. is only set to get worse.

President Donald Trump's government has been criticized for bungling the response to the public health crisis that has defined 2020. Trump held mask-free gatherings, appeared to promote unproven virus treatments, and later tested positive himself.

Trump has maintained that he took early steps to stem the spread of the virus, including barring entry to some foreigners, among them those travelling from China. Despite this, America remains out front with both the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths on the planet.

Wuhan, meanwhile, mass tested its entire population of 11 million in June and has recently begun vaccinating key groups in the city, according to state media.

In China overall, a country of some 1.4 billion people, the government says the virus has killed over 4,600 people, the majority in Wuhan — although experts say the statistics should be treated with caution.

Earlier this week, a national study of blood anti-bodies showed that more than 4 percent of Wuhan's 11 million people may have been exposed to the coronavirus — 10 times the number recorded officially by mid-April.

It's undeniable, however, that the virus has exacted a much more devastating toll on America.

Epidemic 'well handled'

One year later, Wuhan's streets are humming with activity. A new exhibition filled with photos and interactive displays that pay tribute to how Wuhan fought the virus has attracted thousands of visitors.

Meanwhile, residents say they have government authorities to thank for the return of quotidian life.

Image: People wearing protective masks walk at a street market almost a year after the start of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Wuhan, Hubei province
People wearing protective masks walk through a street market almost a year after the start of the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China.Aly Song / Reuters

"Now that the epidemic has been well-handled, our lives gradually are getting back on the normal track," a retiree, Yang Xiuhua, 67, told NBC News.

China funneled national resources and expertise into the city, mobilizing nearly 43,000 medical staff from January to March, according to the state-owned Global Times, in the country's largest medical support operation since 1949.

But the specter of the virus still looms in Wuhan. Li Chuanbi, 70, said that while he can now exercise in the park and meet with friends, he remains cautious.

"It'd be a lie if I tell you I'm not concerned," he said. "People are worried that the pandemic will come back."

Many in Wuhan still don masks and businesses check temperatures and offer sanitizer, in this city hugging the Yangtze River. But shops and restaurants are buzzing, schools are open and streets crowded once again.

Startling photos demonstrating the swift bounce back have gone viral on social media.

Image: People enjoy a music party inside a swimming pool at the Wuhan Maya Beach Park, in Wuhan, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Hubei province, China
People enjoy a music party inside a swimming pool at the Wuhan Maya Beach Park, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China in August.Reuters file

One depicted swimmers packed inside a Wuhan water park, as a DJ took to the stage — an arresting image from the original virus epicenter, as Covid-19 continues to upend life for billions around the world.

Not without criticism

Still, China's handling of the pandemic has not been without fierce criticism.

The timeline of early eventshas faced intense scrutiny, and raised questions about whether Beijing acted quickly enough to alert the World Health Organization to evidence of human transmission.

The first clusters of an unexplained illness were reported to the WHO's office in Beijing on Dec. 31. Detailed information about the "viral-pneumonia of unknown cause" was provided Jan. 3, according to the WHO, with 44 patients identified.

Reports also emerged that the ruling Chinese Communist Party suppressed information about the virus, with police disciplining a doctor, Li Wenliang, after he raised alarms in a chat group. Li later died of Covid-19, sparking a public outcry. The government posthumously hailed him a "martyr."

On Jan. 23, local authorities sealed off Wuhan, while other parts of China were also locked down. The drastic response seemingly worked, as the city unlocked months later in April.

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Another casualty of the coronavirus has been the already fractious U.S.-China relations, with the pandemic accelerating their decline.

Trump has accused the WHO of acting as a "puppet of China" and failing to adequately warn the world about the virus, claims the global health body denies. In July, the U.S. officially notified the United Nations of its withdrawal from the WHO.

Trump has further fueled resentment, often through racist rhetoric, by referring to the pathogen as the "China virus" or the "Wuhan virus."

The White House has also cast aspersions, without providing proof, that the virus may have been manufactured or accidentally leaked from a Wuhan lab, claims China denies.

In January 2021, the WHO will lead a mission of 10 international Covid-19 investigators into China, with a visit to Wuhan scheduled, officials from the health body said. Among other issues, the fact-finding mission will probe into the origins of the virus.

However, with divisions over trade to technology, relations between the world's two biggest economies have plummeted since the outbreak. In September, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned Washington and Beijing to "do everything to avoid a new Cold War."

'Horror story'

Amid the worsening relations between the two superpowers, Christopher Suzanne, an American, said he "unequivocally" made the right choice to return to Wuhan during the pandemic, as several of his family members in the U.S. have since contracted the virus.

The 34-year-old teacher who has lived in Wuhan since 2009, returned to the city with his family in March after baptizing his infant son in upstate New York.

"Just the feeling of being in Wuhan, it's like it's such a success story in the middle of a horror story," he told NBC News.

"For the family, it was extremely difficult saying goodbye, not knowing when or how I'd be able to go home and see them again. But the decision in my heart was very easy," he said, eager to return to his wife's family in Wuhan.

Although the lockdown was tough on his mental health, Suzanne said he is now back at work and feels life is returning to normal.

But he acknowledged the virus had soured relations between Washington and Beijing.

Looking at the U.S. from a distance, Suzanne said his American compatriots seemed "so divided," that whoever was in the White House was irrelevant, if people couldn't agree on the basics of whether to wear a mask.

"I worry about my family," he said. "That takes a toll on me."

Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Wuhan; Adela Suliman reported from London.