“Time flies over us but leaves its shadow behind.”
One year has passed since unprecedented lockdown of 76 days in Wuhan (武汉), the first city in the world brought to its knees by Covid-19.
A lot has happened since then: we learnt more about the virus; vaccines have been developed; life in some countries largely resumed normalcy while the rest of us are getting used to a new normal.
Meanwhile, a year of pandemic news overload left us all so mentally exhausted that I had started to grow numb towards ever rising cases and casualties reported.
Until I watched the documentary “76 Days” (76天).
Tears started to well up in my eyes, as the film unfolded with a wailing daughter, who had to be restrained as her deceased father’s body wrapped up in a yellow body bag being carried away. This torturous scene, replayed times after times in the darkest 76 days of Wuhan, instantly brought back memories of horror and despair in the beginning of 2020.
And this raw pain stayed with me for the remaining 90 minutes of viewing. Occasionally, I felt heartened as the camera zoomed in on makeshift balloons made out of inflated surgical gloves with handwritten “get well soon”, as well as on PPE decorations from blossoming flowers to one’s favourite dish. At times, I felt an urge to reach out into my TV screen to give each of those faces hidden behind protective gears a big big hug.
To pull off something like 76 Days is no small feat. Many of the scenes were harrowing footages from “The Sixth Floor: Wuhan Critical Care Unit” (武汉·重症区六层), a video special published by Esquire China in May 2020.
With perseverance and a bit of luck, Esquire video journalist Chen Weixi (陈玮曦) was able to make use of a short window of media openness at early stage of the pandemic to secure consent from four Wuhan hospitals. Braving the virus with full hazmat suits on, Chen and his team spent one whole month tirelessly filming in these ICUs. He was later approached by like-minded documentary director Wu Hao (吴皓) from New York to turn it into a longer form documentary.
Arguably, for those who experienced the tragedy in Wuhan first hand, “76 Days”, through the lens of a handful of medical professionals and patients, does not have the breadth to reveal the full scale of disorder and distraught in the city. Nonetheless, for the extraordinary circumstance at the time, I feel we can all look past its minor imperfections. All else aside, the team’s bravery and tenacity, in director Wu Hao’s own words, to “provide a historical record” of part of the struggle in this unforeseen catastrophe is invaluable enough to me.
Besides, after so much acrimony and blame games in the past year, I find it deeply refreshing to watch something apolitical.
It is clear to me that “76 Days” has a single mission in mind – to depict unvarnished struggles of individuals and humanity in face of such calamity.
Those looking for grand political narratives would be disappointed as it does not offer any. And the directors deliberately refrained from taking sides or forcing through their own opinions.
Because of that, instead of precipitating another politically charged debate, 76 Days humanised China and Chinese people in this brutal war against the virus, which in my view is an achievement in itself.
There were moments though, where I worried it might get in a line of fire from both sides of the China narratives. For example, one man was shown cheering up his grandfather by reminding him that he is a CCP member. In another scene, an elderly man praised doctors’s heroism by calling them “soldiers marching to the enemy’s fire”.
In all honesty, these are just very old-fashioned expressions characteristic of older generations. There is absolutely nothing beyond that. Personally I find it heart-warming to have these shown. However, in today’s polarised world, there is little surprise that these details will one day get singled out as evidence of communism indoctrination by some and appeasement of prejudices of the west by others.
While “76 Days” is careful not to point fingers for the crisis, it throws the conclusion back to our own hands. My personal takeaways – from heeding both what it says and what it doesn’t – come in two folds.
First and foremost, as much as I would like to draw a line under the Covid-19 chapter and its associated trauma, let’s not “forget the pain after a scar heals” (好了伤疤忘了疼) as the Chinese saying goes.
For the record, it pains me to witness the west’s inability to recognise and learn from China’s effective pandemic control out of geopolitical and ideological reasons. It is like insisting something staring right in your face is not real. As an overseas Chinese I feel victimised on many occasions because of the skewed portrait of China in this crisis.
That said, it does trouble me that the nation appears to be a bit carried away by our relative success. Don’t get me wrong – people have every right to feel proud of how the city and the country came through. And it is natural to wanting to move on and to embrace a nationalistic sense of triumph as antidote to a grim post-pandemic reality. Yet it is vital to give the disaster in Wuhan an appropriate place in our history, as it is my belief that facing the past will ultimately make it possible for all of us to heal and to build a cohesive future.
Nor should we indulge ourselves in claiming victory unless we have answers to some uncomfortable questions. How did the pandemic start in Wuhan? What have we done wrong that led to the initial mis-handling of the crisis?
Grappling with split realities of the west’s singular obsession with early cover-up in Wuhan and the Chinese media’s focus on rallying the flag around the subsequent success, the alternative perspective I subscribe to is that both play equally important and indispensable roles in telling the Wuhan story.
It is folly to imagine that there won’t be another pandemic around the corner. Not seeking complete and truthful answers to these questions, at best, deprives the bereft of the closure they desperately need. At worse, it risks having history repeated itself in the not so distant future.
“The other issue was the level at which the decision was made not to broadcast what was happening. At the time, the finger was pointed at the provincial and municipal governments…But we don’t know if the buck stops there, or if the central government knew what was going on in December. The way Chinese politics operates, it is almost impossible to know, so I did not want to point fingers.”(Quote from 76 Days Director Wu Hao’s interview with the Guardian)
“It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”
“76 Days” ended with a piercing siren over Wuhan and a striking image of boxes of belongings left behind by the perished. Every orphaned mobile phone and car key have their own stories. But sadly we will never have the chance to find them out.
I wish more people in the west get to watch this raw account of devastation in Wuhan, as it is as much a story of Wuhan or China as it is about the world’s shared struggle against a virus that is borderless. Now that 76 Days received an Oscar nomination, I am glad that it has finally got the international reach it deserves.