China has put on lockdown two cities at the epicentre of a new coronavirus outbreak that has killed 17 people and infected nearly 600, as health authorities around the world scramble to prevent a global pandemic.
Health officials fear the transmission rate will accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad during week-long holidays for the Lunar New Year, which begin on Saturday.
Most transport in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was suspended on Thursday morning and people were told not to leave.
Hours later, state media in neighbouring Huanggang, a city of some 6 million people, said it was imposing a similar lockdown.
Police, SWAT teams and paramilitary troops guarded the Wuhan’s train station, where metal barriers blocked the entrances at 10am sharp. Only travellers holding tickets for the last trains were allowed to enter, with those booked for later trains being turned away. Virtually everyone at the scene was wearing masks, news website The Paper‘s live broadcast showed.
Normally bustling streets, shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces in Wuhan were eerily quiet. Social media users posted that movie theatres were cancelling showings and complained that food vendors were exploiting the situation with huge price increases on fresh produce.
Images of the city posted online following the closure showed long lines and empty shelves at supermarkets as residents stocked up for what could be weeks of relative isolation.
“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” Gauden Galea, the World Health Organisation’s representative in China, told The Associated Press in an interview at the WHO’s Beijing office. “It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”
Local authorities have demanded all residents wear masks in public places and urged government staff to wear them at work and for shopkeepers to post signs for their visitors, Xinhua news agency quoted a government notice as saying.
Train stations, the airport, subways, ferries and long-distance shuttle buses were stopped in the city, an industrial and transportation hub in central China’s Hubei province. Xinhua cited the city’s anti-virus task force as saying the measures were taken in an attempt to “effectively cut off the virus spread, resolutely curb the outbreak and guarantee the people’s health and safety.”
Measures similar to those enacted in Wuhan were being taken at nearby cities in Hubei province, with public transport suspended and theatres, internet cafes and other entertainment centers closed beginning Friday, according to state media reports. That stands to prevent travel by millions more Chinese, potentially increasing the economic costs of the outbreak considerably.