Wuhan virus: Beijing, Shanghai urge people from outbreak areas to stay at home for 14 days as toll in China hits 26

Medical staff attending to a patient at the Central Hospital of Wuhan.
Medical staff attending to a patient at the Central Hospital of Wuhan.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG, AFP, NYTIMES, REUTERS) -  Beijing city government has urged residents returning from coronavirus outbreak areas to stay at home for 14 days to prevent its spread, the Beijing Daily said on Friday (Jan 24). 

Shanghai government also urged people coming to the city from “key areas” to stay at home or under centralized quarantine for 14 days.

China reported that deaths from the new coronavirus rose to 26, from 18, as it rushes to halt the Sars-like disease. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stopped short of calling the infection a global health emergency.

The 26 deaths included 24 in central China’s Hubei province, where Wuhan is its provincial capital, one in northern China’s Hebei province, and one in Heilongjiang province, also in northern China, according to China's national health commission.

The commission also said on Friday (Jan 24) that the number of confirmed cases has leapt to 830.

It said the authorities were also examining 1,072 suspected cases of the virus.

Restrictions on travel and public gatherings have been implemented in Wuhan, the city in central China where the virus was first detected, as well as in several nearby areas.

Hong Kong and Beijing are cancelling planned holiday activities, according to local officials and state media.

The virus originated in Wuhan city last month and has spread to Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Singapore. South Korea on Friday just confirmed its second case. 

Chinese authorities drastically expanded a travel lockdown in central China on Thursday, essentially penning in 20 million residents to contain the virus that is overwhelming hospitals and fueling fears of a pandemic.

The new limits – abruptly decreed ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, China’s busiest travel season – were an extraordinary step that underscored the ruling Communist Party’s deepening fears about the outbreak of the little understood coronavirus.

In Wuhan, anxiety and anger prevailed as worried residents crowded into hospitals and teams of medical workers in hazmat suits sought to identify the infected.

“They can’t take proper care of all the people here,” said Sun Ansheng, a man in his 50s who was waiting outside a hospital while his wife was tested for the coronavirus, so named because of the spiky halo around the microorganism.

“The city government told us there was a virus, but they didn’t explain enough what we should do,” Sun said. “They left it sounding too minor. Now look.”

Even as the Chinese authorities imposed the new restrictions – blocking expressways, cutting flights and warning residents to stay put – experts warned that the country risked a repeat of the SARS epidemic, which broke out in China in late 2002 and spread for months while officials played down its severity. 

However, the WHO’s emergency committee, meeting in Geneva on Thursday for the second consecutive day, said it was too early to declare an international health emergency though it would reconvene in 10 days or less to reassess the outbreak.

 
 
 
 

Even so, a sense of anxiety was deepening across China. In Beijing, officials announced that they would temporarily close the Forbidden City.

On Thursday morning, the authorities imposed a travel lockdown in Wuhan. Airlines cancelled hundreds of flights to Wuhan, leaving thousands of people stranded.

12 HUBEI CITIES SUSPENDED PUBLIC TRANSPORT SERVICES

At least 12 cities in Hubei province have suspended some public transportation over the outbreak, according to the People’s Daily.

The other cities include Huanggang, Xianning, Qianjiang, Xiantao, Ezhou, Chibi, Huangshi, Enshi and Zhijiang.

Some residents in Wuhan spoke speculatively of trying to skirt the blockade by driving on rural back roads to evade police checkpoints.

“It’s serious, but not that serious,” said Wang Mengkai, a worker in an electronics parts factory who was stuck at the Wuhan Railway Station, hoping to figure out a way to join his family in Henan province for Chinese New Year celebrations. “If we can’t get out on a train, we’ll try putting together a car with a driver,” he said.

Anger and frustration spread among Wuhan residents lined up at hospitals seeking diagnosis and treatment for coughs and fevers. Most residents interviewed said they could see the logic of travel restrictions. But many accused officials of having failed to ensure that enough medical workers were properly trained, while medical workers reported shortfalls of critical protective gear such as masks and goggles. 


A militia member checks the body temperature of a passenger on a vehicle at an expressway toll gate in Wuhan on Jan 23, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

“I’m willing to accept that we have to stay in Wuhan, OK, but the medical care needs to keep up,” said Yang Lin, 28, who had come seeking treatment for what she described as a cold. “You shouldn’t tell us we can’t leave, and then give us second-rate medical care. That’s unfair.”

Several residents said they had gone from hospital to hospital and lined up for hours, only to be sent home with medicine and instructions to seek further treatment if symptoms persisted. 

Doctors told some patients of insufficient hospital beds and testing kits.

Some residents worry officials are under-reporting the number of people ill with the virus, although the government has warned of dire consequences for those who hide or delay reporting cases.

 “The government did not fulfill its duty,” Du Hanrong, 56, a retiree, said by telephone. “They just are doing things hastily and carelessly.”


A photo taken on Jan 22, 2020, shows medical staff members wearing protective suits at the Zhongnan hospital in Wuhan. PHOTO: AFP

Wuhan city government acknowledged that crowds were forming at hospitals, and it came under intensifying criticism from scientists and the public, who described the response as too little, too late. 

Experts said that the mass travel restrictions, while understandable, would do little to stop the spread of the virus outside China, as many infected people had already left Wuhan.

“The horse is already out of the barn,” said Dr W. Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, who had assisted Chinese authorities in the response to SARS.

 
 
 
 

In an unusually blunt rebuke, Dr Guan Yi, a prominent Hong Kong scientist who also assisted in the SARS crisis, said officials had obstructed his efforts to investigate the outbreak during a trip to Wuhan this week.

“I consider myself a veteran in battles,” he said in an interview published on Thursday by influential magazine Caixin, citing his experience with bird flu, SARS, and other outbreaks. “But with this Wuhan pneumonia, I feel extremely powerless.”

On Thursday, in what experts described as a somewhat reassuring sign, Chinese authorities released details about the 18 people who have died in the outbreak, showing that the disease has so far largely killed older men, many with underlying health problems. But the 18th victim was the first to have died hundreds of kilometres from the Wuhan epicenter, punctuating the risk of fatal cases far from where the virus was first reported. 

MONITORING POSSIBLE EPICENTRES

Experts said the severity of the outbreak would depend on whether other epicentres develop, as happened during the SARS crisis. But they acknowledged that much remains unknown, including how easily the new virus spreads between people.

Wuhan sits astride the mighty Yangtze River, and the restaurants and hotels along its banks – usually busy in the holiday season – were mostly shut. Retail streets were desolate, and the roads were often eerily empty.  But cars crowded around seven hospitals across Wuhan that have been designated as reception points for residents with high fevers that may have been caused by the new coronavirus.


A man wearing a protective facemask walks along a street in Beijing on Jan 23, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Some people waiting outside clinics in a drizzly rain said that their family members had lined up for much of the day to be checked by a doctor. 

After Sars broke out nearly 20 years ago, the Chinese government took steps to improve its public health system, including monitoring infectious diseases. But the lingering public distrust created by cover-ups of SARS and other health threats appears to have undercut those achievements. 

 
 
 
 

Yang Dali, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said that while the current response has benefited from China’s improved technical capabilities since the Sars crisis, “what I find astounding was how the Wuhan authorities consistently downplayed the seriousness of the situation”.

The lessons from Sars, he said in an email, were “that it’s important to let the public know and get the public to modify their behaviour.”

Still, China’s leaders maintained an unruffled face.

The Communist Party’s most influential news outlets did not feature the crisis, choosing instead to promote Chinese President Xi Jinping’s New Year speech and cheery reports about the holiday season.

On Thursday, China Central Television, the state broadcaster, treated the situation in Wuhan as a footnote in its evening newscast, one of the most watched television programmes in China, airing a roughly one-minute report on the outbreak.

Experts said Xi appeared to be trying to prevent a sense of panic and to limit criticism of the party’s response. 

“The top priority will be to keep coverage from asking more probing questions about how China’s institutions have responded, questions that might lead to criticism of the government,” said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, a group affiliated with the University of Hong Kong. 


A hotel employee takes the temperature of a person who has just arrived at the hotel in Wuhan on Jan 24, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Some internet users found ways around government censorship to criticise the response by local officials, saying on social media that they worried about a repeat of the SARS crisis.

Many said they were also concerned about possible food shortages and higher prices on everyday goods. 

Mao Shoulong, a professor of public administration at Renmin University in Beijing, said the Wuhan government had made a series of missteps that had eroded public confidence.

“They failed the test,” Mao said. “They just copied the SARS situation, making small things turn into a big problem.”