China has locked down Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak

Keeping a close watch.
Keeping a close watch.
Image: China Daily via Reuters
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The notice came at 2am this morning (Jan. 23): The city of Wuhan would be shutting down all its public transportation systems by 10am. That meant those who wanted to leave the city had eight hours to do so—and so the scramble began. The local airport and railway stations were crowded even in the dead of night as people jostled to get on the last trains and flights out of the city, scrambling to change travel plans and buy remaining tickets.

“So long as I can get out of Wuhan, any train ticket to whichever destination will do,” one traveler at Wuhan’s Hankou railway station told business publication Caixin (link in Chinese). Another traveller at the station said that he had packed his bags within minutes of seeing the lockdown order. “I’m a tourist, I can’t get stuck here, I have to leave at night,” he said.

In the statement (link in Chinese), the city’s special office set up to oversee handling of the deadly coronavirus outbreak said that in order to best tackle the disease, the airport and all mass transit would be suspended indefinitely. Departures at railway stations and the airport would also be temporarily put on hold, and authorities urged people to refrain from leaving Wuhan unless they had a “special reason.”

The sudden order came just hours after the official death toll nearly doubled between morning and evening on Wednesday (Jan. 22), rising to 17 from the previously reported 9. More than 570 people have been confirmed to be infected with the novel coronavirus as of late Wednesday, according to state television. Cases have now also been confirmed in multiple places outside China, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and the United States.

The new virus comes from the same family as the SARS virus that hit mainland China and Hong Kong in 2003, leading to nearly 800 deaths. However, scientists who have sequenced the current strain said earlier this month that it is quite distant from that virus; health officials have also noted that it is nevertheless “highly infectious” and still mutating. While authorities are still investigating the exact origin of the virus, they have confirmed that the outbreak traces back to a wholesale fish and live animal market in Wuhan that also sold illegal wildlife. The market has since been disinfected and shut down.

Earlier yesterday evening, the Wuhan government also mandated that everyone must wear face masks in public places, including restaurants, bars, cinemas, parks, and public transportation. To cope with an upsurge in demand for the face coverings, the central government is taking emergency measures to coordinate mask production across all provinces, according to state media China Daily.

Online, the hashtag #Wuhan on lockdown# has been viewed more than 300 million times on Weibo as of this morning. Some Wuhan citizens said they understood why the government made the decision, but also urged the authorities to step up supplies of medical equipment, especially face masks. “I couldn’t find any face mask at my nearby drug stores, while the ones I ordered online will take days to be delivered,” said one user.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Wuhan is struggling to keep up with the deluge of patients, with some reporting a shortage of beds in hospitals. A staff member at Wuhan’s No. 4 Hospital, one of the city’s designated hospitals for receiving coronavirus patients, confirmed to Quartz that they could not receive or test new patients due to a shortage of beds. Wuhan Lung Hospital told Quartz it was able to test patients, but not to admit them. “Only those who have shown very serious symptoms, who have been screened by an expert team, may be admitted,” a hospital employee said.

When asked what a patient confirmed to have the virus who can’t be admitted should do instead, the hospital staffer said the patient should quarantine themselves at home, “following the many tips posted online.”

Caixin (link in Chinese), citing multiple doctors, also reported a shortage of testing kits for diagnosing potential infected cases.

On Chinese social media network Weibo, some complained that their family members, who had shown symptoms of being infected with the virus, did not receive proper care.

“My 63-year-old father has had a fever since Jan. 13 and went to two major hospitals in Wuhan for treatment. However, although he was diagnosed with pneumonia, after seven days’ of treatment of using antibiotics, his situation became worse. The hospitals would not confirm whether he was infected with the coronavirus using the testing kit and neither would it receive him,” wrote user Rebecca Zhang Xiaodai (link in Chinese) in a post on Jan. 22, garnering over 30,000 shares. Phone calls Quartz made to Zhang’s mobile phone went unanswered.