Chinese coronavirus prompts lockdown unlike anything seen before

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Chinese coronavirus prompts lockdown unlike anything seen before

A worker gestures at a construction site of a hospital to treat patients during a virus outbreak in Wuhan, January 24, 2020. China is rushing to build a new hospital at the epicentre of a deadly virus outbreak that has stricken hundreds of people.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

In the midst of a lockdown unlike any the world has seen before, some 35 million people in China spent the year’s most important holiday in a state of confusion, dread and anger at a late but heavy-handed government action to curb the spread of a SARS-like virus that has already reached to the distant corners of the country.

Further fears arose when authorities disclosed the death of a 36-year-old man in Wuhan, the city of 11 million that is the epicentre of the new coronavirus — and two deaths far from the city, in Hebei and Heilongjiang, a province that borders Russia.

Until now, only older people have died from the fast-spreading 2019-nCoV virus, which by early Friday evening had killed 26 in China and infected 886, including high-speed rail workers in Tianjin, 1,000 kilometres from Wuhan. It is killing 14 per cent of those hospitalized, according to new research published by the University of Hong Kong, and has reached a growing number of other countries, including newly-confirmed cases in Vietnam and Singapore.

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But much remained unknown about the virus, including who is most at risk — or why, exactly, Chinese authorities have now locked down Wuhan and numerous surrounding cities. Transportation has now been restricted in 14 cities and public spaces like theatres and cafes closed in some areas. Flights and trains have been cancelled, commercial vehicles barred from entering Wuhan, highways and tunnels closed and ride-hailing services curbed across the broader region surrounding Wuhan as cities tightened controls to keep people from moving in and out of a huge area at the heart of the viral spread. In Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities, health authorities raised their emergency preparedness alert to its top level. Authorities ordered airlines and train services to provide ticket cancellations without penalties.

Officials shut down large Lunar New Year gatherings in Beijing, closed the Forbidden City, barred access to parts of the Great Wall and, Bloomberg reported, ordered a halt to all sales in China of domestic and international tours. Shanghai Disney closes its gates and cinemas closed their doors during what China calls the Spring Festival season.

The lockdowns, infectious diseases experts said, constitute an unprecedented response to isolate a large population, but one that only served to raise the anxiety among local residents about the trustworthiness of information provided by Chinese authorities, who have begun a more rigorous clampdown on unauthorized information after a few days in which censors exercised a comparatively light touch.

“I am absolutely scared. This is a question of our lives,” said Huang Zhengjun, 27, a hotel worker in Ezhou, one of the cities around Wuhan where roads and transportation services were, with little notice, shut down. “It’s not fair,” he said. “Locking people up before the city is prepared, and before people have a chance to react, isn’t fair anywhere.”

He also suspected that authorities knew more than they were letting on. Why had Ezhou, which is 70 kilometres southeast of Wuhan, been locked down when there were no official reports of people infected there? There must be “many buried cases,” Mr. Huang said. He was aware that authorities had arrested people for spreading rumours when they posted information about the virus, which began to draw attention in mid-December, before its seriousness was formally acknowledged. “As an ordinary resident here, I have to say that I don’t think the government has fulfilled its responsibilities on this matter.”

Even on Friday, “we can only get updates from WeChat and social media, half-believing and half-doubting what information we have. It feels terrible,” Mr. Huang said. Videos circulating on social media channels showed scenes of desperation and fear among medical workers and local residents alike. But because officials had provided assurances until this week that the problem was not serious, Mr. Huang said, “we missed the best point in time to take preventative measures. Now we know how it tastes when everything is covered up.”

Meanwhile, people in China took to social media with detailed stories about loved ones refused treatment or diagnosis by overwhelmed hospitals, raising questions not only about the effectiveness of the Chinese health care response but also about the accuracy of statistics on the numbers of affected people. China’s State Council, the country’s national Cabinet, on Friday pledged serious consequences for concealment or under-reporting about the epidemic.

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Construction has already begun on a thousand-bed medical facility that, authorities said, would use prefabricated components to allow its completion within a week. Journalists in Wuhan posted images of long queues at hospitals and patients attached to intravenous drips on the streets, an indication of an overwhelmed health care system.

Two lawyers who spoke to The Globe and Mail said they had received copies of a notice from Shandong province describing a need to “strengthen the positive guidance of lawyers in the region and ensure that lawyers do not take the opportunity to speculate and do not have a negative impact on the overall situation.” The notice urged the deletion of negative remarks and promised to deal seriously with lawyers who made improper remarks.

Some virologists have questioned the value of the lockdown, which was imposed long after many had left Wuhan for hometowns around the country. Only two Chinese provinces and regions remain formally unaffected: Qinghai and Tibet.

The last major quarantine of an entire urban area took place “in Sierra Leone surrounding the 2014 Ebola epidemic,” said Raina MacIntyre, a doctor and epidemiologist who leads the biosecurity research program at the University of New South Wales. What China is doing is “unprecedented,” she said. “We haven’t seen a lockdown at this level before.”

But it’s a measure that could help prevent a Chinese health crisis from becoming a global one, she said. The World Health Organization has held back from declaring the Wuhan virus an international emergency, with spokesman Tarik Jasarevic saying Friday, “It’s still too early to draw conclusions on how severe the virus is.”

By halting air travel from the region, “it will instantly reduce the risk of cases ending up in other countries,” Dr. MacIntyre said. “Perhaps while there’s so much uncertainty about what’s the source of this infection, what’s the exact mode of transmission — we need to know those things to control the disease — then it’s probably a good strategy.”

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Early data show a fatality rate of 14 per cent among those hospitalized for the Wuhan virus, a study published by University of Hong Kong researchers. That compares to roughly 12 per cent of all cases in SARS, and 24 per cent for the subsequent Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERCS), also a coronavirus.

Those figures show that the Wuhan virus does not appear to be as serious as SARS or MERS, since hospitalized cases tend to be the most serious, Dr. MacIntyre said. But the Wuhan virus remains “a serious infection.”

She also raised questions about the information coming from Chinese authorities. “Was there really an increase from 40 to 800 cases in a period of two weeks?” she said. “It’s really hard to say whether the cases just weren’t reported, or whether they just began testing more actively.”

Such questions, however, did little to ease the restrictions on life for those inside the lockdown zone. Liu Nan, 24, lives in Tuanfeng County, a small district in Huanggang City. Officials cut off roads in the area at 10 a.m. Friday, she said, and “we can’t go anywhere now.”

There, too, there were no officially reported cases. “The problem is we have a right to be informed about the real situation,” Ms. Liu said. “The fact that our county is blocked suggests that there are cases of infection, but the government has not disclosed anything. This is making people more nervous and more scared.”

There was, too, a sense of bleakness over a festive season poisoned. Mr. Huang had abandoned plans to return to his hometown, and most of his friends were refusing to go out.

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It’s “a nightmare,” he said.

“This was supposed to be one of the happiest festivals for Chinese people. But it has turned out to be so miserable.”

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