More than 11,000 students gathered in Wuhan on Sunday for a massive graduation ceremony over a year since the city was battered by the first global outbreak of Covid-19.
Students in navy gowns and mortarboards sat in crowded rows, without social distancing or face masks, at the ceremony, held in a sports stadium at Central China Normal University.
The graduation ceremony came amid the resurgence of a hypothesis about Covid-19's origins that was initially dismissed as a conspiracy theory.
A huge red banner welcomed the graduates, more than 2,200 of whom were students who could not attend their graduation last year due to tight coronavirus restrictions.
'Welcoming the graduates of 2020 back home. We wish you all a great future,' the banner read.
Nearly 9,000 students in Wuhan have gathered for a massive mask-free graduation ceremony over a year after the city was battered by the first global outbreak of COVID-19.https://t.co/0Ra2q5m12b— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) June 15, 2021
Quoting a line of ancient Chinese poetry, it offered students advice for the future: 'The ocean is boundless for leaping fish.'
Covid-19 first emerged in late 2019 in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei province, sending the city of 11 million into one of the world's strictest lockdowns.
Restrictions were not eased until April when the city started to re-open after 76 days locked down, although schools remained shut for longer.
The city held limited graduation ceremonies last year, with Wuhan University hosting a mostly-online event in June 2020. The students and teachers who did attend all in masks.
China has since largely contained the outbreak while keeping precautions high, including tight border controls, quarantines, mandatory online 'health codes' and varying restrictions on domestic travel.
There were 20 new cases on Tuesday, including 18 imported from overseas and two in a local outbreak in southern Guangdong province.
There have been 4,636 deaths officially reported, the majority in Wuhan.
There has been mounting controversy over how the virus first emerged in humans - whether through contact with animals at a wet market in Wuhan or leakage from The Wuhan Institute of Virology - a highly secure research laboratory in the same city - as some have suggested.
China says it is not responsible for the pandemic and has dismissed suggestions that the disease might have been man made as conspiracy theories.
Masks off, mortarboards on: 11,000 students cram into graduation ceremony in Wuhan https://t.co/dEVTlxjXYw— Daily Mail Online (@MailOnline) June 15, 2021
However, last month U.S. President Joe Biden ordered US intelligence agencies to report in the next three months on whether the Covid-19 virus first emerged in China from an animal or from a laboratory accident.
UK ministers have also demanded China cooperate fully with probes into the origins of the disease.
On Saturday, the head of the World Health Organization insisted the 'lab leak' theory has not been ruled out - as he said China should help solve the mystery out of 'respect' for the dead.
Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus suggested that Beijing had not cooperated fully as he urged more 'transparency' in the continuing investigation.
'We need cooperation from the Chinese side. We need transparency to understand and know or find the origins of this virus,' he added.
'There were difficulties in data sharing, especially raw data… (we) hope the next phase there will be better cooperation and transparency,' he told a press conference.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.