In Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak of a deadly Sars-like virus, dozens of vendors line up for compensation after officials shut down the local market.
“Many people here got infected,” said one vendor, referring to the virus that originated in the market and has now spread across the globe. Stallholders queueing outside the blue-shuttered stalls of the market were each receiving Rmb10,000 ($1,445) for lost business.
“We had live animals but nothing illegal,” insisted another vendor, amid reports that the virus jumped from wild animals such as civet cats that were reportedly sold at the market.
Nearly two months after the first reports of a new virus emerged in Wuhan, authorities have shut down air-and-rail transport links into and out of the central city, China’s seventh largest, which also acts as a transport hub to most of the country’s metropolises.
People swarmed the city’s airport and train station on Wednesday night to try to beat the travel ban. As the death toll mounted to 17 and the number of infected rose to 599 across China and cases were reported throughout Asia as well as the US, worried residents descended on Wuhan’s hospitals.
City authorities claim the air-and-rail travel ban and the closure of the market were evidence of decisive action to combat the spread of the disease. But with more than 100m Chinese about to travel for the lunar new year holiday, analysts question whether the slow release of information worsened the spread of the disease.
China only began a determined national drive after President Xi Jinping on Monday urged an all-out effort to curb the spread of the virus, and the Communist party threatened local officials who tried to cover it up, analysts said.
“The government has been trying to monopolise disease-related information from the very beginning,” said Yanzhong Huang, a fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in the US.
The Chinese government’s dissemination of information on the Wuhan virus is a dramatic improvement on 2003, when authorities covered up the Sars outbreak. This time, health authorities have released regular updates on the virus after patients began showing symptoms in late December.
Chinese authorities have isolated suspected patients, checked their contacts for infection, and identified and shared the virus’ genetic profile with overseas researchers. “China seems to be following best practices,” said Jeffrey Koplan, a global disease expert at Emory University in the US.
The problem was the slow dissemination of this information, analysts said.
When Chinese state media reported 27 cases of an unknown type of pneumonia in Wuhan on December 31, city authorities closed the market the next day, according to staff. Over the following two weeks, authorities in the city identified dozens of infections and said the cause was a virus similar to Sars.
But the city’s bestselling commercial newspaper, the Wuhan Evening News, did not feature the outbreak on its front page for two weeks, between January 6 and January 19.
Chinese censors also initially instructed media to stick to reprinting official reports on the virus from central government-controlled media, severely restricting independent reporting, according to multiple journalists.
In one example, a Chinese reporter said this month that they were told by a medical professional that hospitals in the city were given a target of “zero infections” among staff, with hospital deans liable to be fired for failing to meet the target. As a result, medical staff were slow to report infections among nurses.
But the journalist’s media outlet did not follow up on the information, the reporter said. This week, the Wuhan government suddenly admitted that 15 medical staff had been infected — a development normally considered an important indicator of the virality of a disease.
“Until recently the government was saying [there were] no such infections. Does that mean the infection happened all at once?” said the Council of Foreign Relations’ Mr Huang of the medical staff cases.
Part of the reason for the tightly controlled release of information was that Wuhan, a provincial capital, was hosting annual meetings of the top municipal and provincial officials from January 7 to 17.
“This is a major factor that the authorities in Wuhan city sought to project an air of calm and most likely delayed taking action to stop the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus,” said Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese bureaucracy at the University of Chicago.
Since Sars, China has built a world class network of disease control centres in all its big cities. Yet several cases were confirmed overseas in Thailand and Japan before infections were reported in Chinese cities other than Wuhan.
“The strength of the Chinese system, that [it] gets right down to the front line, was ultimately what got Sars under control,” said a public health expert who declined to be named. “There is a question of whether the alert [was] in place sufficiently quickly this time”.
Following Mr Xi’s statement, there have been stronger warnings on social media. “Anyone who deliberately delays and hides the reporting of cases out of self-interest will be nailed on a pillar of shame for eternity,” the ruling party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission said on a social media account.
In Wuhan on Thursday, those who were unable to get away before the quarantine flocked to supermarkets and convenience stores to gather supplies while others crowded hospitals, worried they might have caught the disease. The atmosphere was of a city preparing for a siege rather than Spring Festival celebrations.
“I wouldn’t normally visit a hospital with mild symptoms,” said a 25-year-old woman surnamed Liu outside one of the city’s hospitals. “But I am more cautious after hearing about the virus.”
Additional reporting by Sue-Lin Wong and Qianer Liu in Shenzhen and Robin Yu in Hong Kong