Wuhan virus: Chinese farmers, supermarkets race to supply food to locked-down Wuhan

Customers with face masks on shopping at a supermarket on the second day of the Chinese New Year on Jan 26, 2020, in Wuhan, China. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China has told farmers to step up vegetable production, opened roads for delivery trucks and is punishing those trying to profit in order to keep feeding residents of the locked-down city of Wuhan at the centre of the new coronavirus outbreak.

The authorities cut most transport links to the central Chinese city last week to try to halt the spread of the flu-like virus.

Thousands of cases have been reported in China, with a small number in countries including the United States, Thailand and Singapore.

The unprecedented move prompted people in the city of 11 million to rush to supermarkets to stock up on instant noodles, vegetables and whatever else they could put their hands on.

Residents say there has yet to be an acute shortage of food, although shelves are cleared quickly when goods arrive.

Shouguang, the country's biggest vegetable production base, in the eastern Shandong province, has been asked to deliver 600 tonnes of fresh vegetables to Wuhan every day in the next 10 to 15 days, said an official in Sunjiaji, one of Shouguang's villages.

Sunjiaji, whose main crop is cucumber, was tasked with sending 60 tonnes in less than seven hours.

"We got the order from our city government at 11pm on Monday (Jan 27) and we immediately contacted our farmers, asking them to pick cucumbers overnight and bring their harvest to us before 6am," the official, who only gave her surname, Li, told Reuters by phone.

"We sent 70 tonnes in the end," she said. "We are waiting for the next order."

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs issued a notice last Thursday, urging related departments to coordinate to maintain ample supplies of vegetables and stable prices.

Other areas like Xinjiang are also sending supplies. Delivery trucks carrying food are exempt from travel restrictions if they have government permits.

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The authorities have cracked down on cases of price hikes and publicised them to warn others. On Tuesday, a supermarket in Zhengzhou in Henan Province was fined 500,000 yuan (S$98,000) for selling Chinese cabbage at 63 yuan, instead of the usual 17 yuan, according to local media.

"The green channel into Wuhan is smooth," said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a visit to the city this week.


Others in Wuhan said it was far from smooth.

Worries over how long the city's quarantine might last are spurring many to stockpile, a Wuhan resident said. People across China have been told to stay away from public areas to lower the risk of infection and many stay indoors.

"In the morning, there are vegetables in supermarkets but the shelves are cleared quickly as a lot of people buy large amounts," she said, describing stores as "war zones".

"You buy whatever's left on the shelf because that will be gone too."

Wushang Group, the largest local supermarket in Wuhan, with nearly 30 stores, said its biggest challenge was a lack of staff and almost all company employees had become delivery personnel, opting to use their private cars to transport goods.

Their cars are sometimes stopped by police due to the travel restrictions, but are usually let go if they explain that they are transporting supplies, said a company official who would only give her surname as Gan.

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"On the night of Jan 25, 400 tonnes of vegetables arrived in Wuhan from Chongqing and we were given 120 tonnes," she said.

About a hundred Wushang employees volunteered to unload and transport the goods, she said.

"On average, every person unloaded more than a tonne of vegetables that night."

The lack of staff and delivery services is plaguing other parts of the food supply chain in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, others said.

A number of smaller cities in Hubei have also been locked down due to the outbreak.

Wuhan's largest wholesale grocery outlet, the Baishazhou Agricultural Products Market, supplies supermarkets and big restaurants in neighbouring cities in Hubei province, such as Huangshi and Jiujiang, but is seeing fewer customers due to the restrictions.

"We have plenty of vegetables," said Yuan, an employee in the market's vegetable department. "But a lot are going rotten."

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