China locks down two cities to curb virus outbreak

WUHAN, CHINA (AFP) – China locked down nearly 20 million in two cities at the centre of a deadly virus outbreak yesterday, banning planes and trains from leaving in an unprecedented move aimed at containing the disease which has already spread to other countries.

The respiratory virus has claimed 17 lives since emerging from a seafood and animal market in Wuhan, infected hundreds of other people nationwide and been detected as far away as the United States (US).

Streets and shopping centres in Wuhan, a major port city in central Hubei province with a population of 11 million people, were eerily quiet after authorities told residents not to leave town “without a special reason”. Trains and planes out of Wuhan were indefinitely suspended, tollways on roads out the city were closed, leading to fear and panic for those who were trapped.

Hours later, authorities in neighbouring Huanggang announced that public transport and train services would be suspended at midnight, while people were told to not leave the city of 7.5 million.

All of Huanggang’s cinemas, Internet cafes, and the central market will close.

Pedestrians wear face masks as they walk outside the New Orient Landmark hotel in Macau on January 22 after it reported its first case of the new SARS-like virus that originated from Wuhan. PHOTO: AFP

A third city, 1.1 million-population Ezhou, announced the train station had been temporarily closed earlier in the day.

“We are feeling as though it is the end of the world,” said one Wuhan resident on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, voicing concerns about shortages of food and disinfectant. Another described being on the “verge of tears” when the de facto quarantine was announced, with the misery compounded by it coming on the eve of the Lunar New Year holiday.

In Beijing, the government cancelled massive gatherings that usually attract throngs at temples during the New Year holiday.

Wuhan’s train station and airport, which should have been packed with people coming travelling for holiday family reunions, were almost empty except for workers yesterday afternoon. The few people wandering in the streets of the city were wearing masks as mandated by police.

At a shopping centre that would have been packed in normal times, a man who works there said he understood the government’s measures.

“Even if we can’t celebrate the New Year this year, there’s always next year,” said the man surnamed Sun.

Taxis in Wuhan tripled their fares, a driver admitted. “It’s very dangerous to be outside at this moment but we need to earn money,” the driver told AFP.