Wuhan virus: China prepares for spike in infections during travel crunch

Workers disinfecting an area in Wuhan, Hubei province, on Wednesday. The public transport authorities have set up a system to deal with the spread of the virus amid the upcoming travel crunch after the week-long break.
Workers disinfecting an area in Wuhan, Hubei province, on Wednesday. The public transport authorities have set up a system to deal with the spread of the virus amid the upcoming travel crunch after the week-long break.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Fever screenings, on-site quarantine facilities among measures to curb spread of virus

As the week-long Chinese New Year break comes to an end and millions of Chinese travel back to the cities for work, the Chinese authorities are sparing no effort in trying to curb what could potentially be another spike in infections.

The various public transport authorities have set up a system to deal with the spread of the Wuhan virus during the upcoming travel crunch, from temperature screenings and on-site quarantine facilities, to disinfection.

Yesterday, Transport Ministry spokesman Wu Chungeng told reporters that the agency's priority was keeping the transmission of the coronavirus in check.

Spread of the respiratory disease has gained speed rapidly over the past week, but experts have put the spike in numbers partially down to better testing.

At a World Health Organisation news conference yesterday, its health emergencies chief praised China's efforts in trying to contain the epidemic.

"We are at an important juncture in this event. We believe that these chains of transmission can still be interrupted," said Dr Mike Ryan.

Even so, hospitals in the epicentre that is Hubei province are facing an acute shortage of medical supplies - specifically protective suits - while face masks remain elusive in many cities from Beijing to Shanghai.

Hubei Governor Wang Xiaodong said the shortage was so severe that some medical workers have resorted to wearing raincoats and using garbage bags as shoe covers. "In the isolation ward of a county-level hospital in the city of Huanggang, doctors said they usually stay there for hours without coming out because they have to save supplies," he said.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said it expects the production of face masks to resume to the normal 20 million a day from Monday, when the week-long holiday ends.

Currently, Chinese factories produce about eight million masks a day, and the ministry has been trying to make up for the shortfall by importing more.

China is responsible for half of the global supply of face masks, making it the world's largest producer and exporter.

 
 
 

Even as Chinese workers prepare to return to work this weekend, some companies and factories are remaining shut. Swedish furniture giant Ikea said yesterday that all of its stores in China are closed until further notice. It has 30 stores across the country and a staff of 14,000, who will stay at home with paid leave.

As the country battles to contain the virus, it has been unable to keep a lid on the online furore over officials dragging their feet or downplaying the outbreak in its early days.

China's highest court took Wuhan police officers to task this week for silencing a group of doctors early this month who had first alerted a chat group on messaging app WeChat about a spate of pneumonia infections. The eight were made an example of for supposedly spreading rumours.

Noted political scientist Dali Yang: "Imagine if the Wuhan authorities had acted on the information from these professional doctors to contain the emerging epidemic rather than punishing them. Alas, this is one more example of the growing costs of the Chinese leadership's preoccupation with stability maintenance."

Yesterday, Huanggang's health chief Tang Zhihong was sacked after she could not tell visiting central government officials the capacity of her city's hospital. Huanggang has the highest number of infections after Wuhan at nearly 500.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2020, with the headline 'China prepares for spike in infections during travel crunch'. Print Edition | Subscribe