China locks down cities to curb virus outbreak

Updated January 24, 2020

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WUHAN (China): A few people wearing masks walk in a largely deserted street on Thursday.—AFP
WUHAN (China): A few people wearing masks walk in a largely deserted street on Thursday.—AFP

WUHAN: China locked down some 20 million people at the epicentre of a deadly virus outbreak on Thursday, banning planes and trains from leaving in an unprecedented move aimed at containing the disease which has already spread to other countries.

The respiratory virus has claimed 17 lives since emerging from a seafood and animal market in the central city of Wuhan, infected hundreds of other people and been detected as far away as the United States.

And as efforts to contain the virus spread across China, Beijing cancelled massive gatherings that usually attract throngs at temples during the New Year holiday, while the historic Forbidden City will close from Saturday.

Streets and shopping centres in Wuhan were eerily quiet after authorities told residents not to leave the major city of 11 million people, where most of the cases have been identified.

Trains and planes out of Wuhan were indefinitely suspended and toll booths on roads leading out of the city were closed, leading to fear and panic for those who were trapped.

“We are feeling as though it is the end of the world,” said one Wuhan resident on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, voicing concerns about shortages of food and disinfectant.

Hours later, authorities in neighbouring Huanggang announced public transport and train services would be suspended at midnight, while people were told to not leave the city of 7.5m.

All of Huanggang’s cinemas, internet cafes and the central market were closed.

A third city in Hubei province — Ezhou, which has a population of 1.1m — announced the train station had been closed earlier in the day.

And highways were closed in neighbouring Xiantao, while public transport was suspended from midnight in nearby Chibi. The two cities have a combined population of around 2m.

Wuhan’s train station and airport, which should have been packed with people travelling for holiday family reunions, were almost empty except for workers on Thursday afternoon.

The governor of Hubei province, Wang Xiaodong, told state broadcaster CCTV that closing off Wuhan was a “very difficult decision”. “The greatest worry is bringing inconvenience to the lives of people,” he said.

More than 570 people have been infected with the virus across China — with most cases found in Wuhan, where a market that illegally sold wild animals has been identified as the epicentre.

The coronavirus has caused alarm because of its similarity to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

Like SARS, it can be passed among people thro­ugh the respiratory tract.

The first case of the new virus was confirmed on Dec 31, and it has since been detected in Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States, plus the first confirmed cases in Singapore and Vietnam on Thursday.

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2020