Residents of Wuhan have overwhelmed hospitals as authorities shut down air and rail travel into and out of the central Chinese city in a bid to contain the country’s worst viral outbreak since the Sars epidemic 17 years ago.
The measures, which include closing all public transport in the city of more than 10m, went into effect at 10am local time ahead of China’s lunar new year holiday, the busiest period of travel in the country when hundreds of millions travel across the country.
The quarantine of Wuhan is the first time in recent memory that a major Chinese city has stopped its public transport links to the outside world. During the Sars outbreak in 2003, thousands of individuals in Beijing were quarantined to their homes for many days but a city-level travel ban was not imposed.
The deadly Sars-like virus has killed 17 people and infected nearly 600 in 13 provinces in China while cases have been confirmed in the US, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Macau and Thailand.
China’s benchmark CSI 300 index closed 3.1 per cent lower, marking its worst one-day performance since May in the final session before the week-long lunar new year holiday. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng fell 1.9 per cent.
The quarantine measures came as the World Health Organisation was set to meet in Geneva on Thursday to decide whether to declare a global emergency over the outbreak. If it goes ahead with the measure, it would only be the sixth international health emergency to be declared in the past decade.
Streets in Wuhan were deserted on Thursday with some residents saying they had attempted to depart before the ban was implemented but were unable to leave.
“I heard about the train cancellations in the middle of the night, but came to the station anyway in case I could change my ticket. It looks like that’s not possible,” said Li Lei, a 24-year-old who spoke to the Financial Times outside Hankou station in Wuhan. He planned to travel to his home city of Chongqing for the new year holiday.
One Wuhan resident said her 57-year-old mother had been experiencing symptoms of the virus for a week but was turned away from several hospitals.
“When we arrived at the hospital in the morning, staff said the pulmonology department was closed after four doctors had been diagnosed with coronavirus,” said the person, who asked not to be named.
A relative of a medical worker in Wuhan said the city lacked enough medical supplies to deal with the outbreak. “There are not enough isolation wards and test kits,” said a relative of a medical worker in Wuhan, who asked not to be named.
The move to lock down the city on the eve of the world’s biggest annual mass migration underlines the mounting pressure on Beijing to prevent a repeat of the Sars crisis in 2003, when nearly 800 people died.
Beijing’s reaction this time has been considered somewhat better than during the Sars outbreak, when the virus is thought to have emerged in late 2002 but was only reported officially in February 2003 — a delay gave that it ample time to spread.
Elsewhere in Asia, India was screening travellers arriving on flights from China and Hong Kong for symptoms of the virus but no cases had been identified.
Japan’s Kobe Steel, which has operations in Wuhan, has issued a ban on travel to the city for employees. Japanese retailer Aeon, which operates five stores in Wuhan, is asking its employees to check their body temperature before coming to work and strengthening measures to disinfect stores.
The Indonesian health ministry’s spokesperson told local media the government had taken safety measures at 19 ports with direct links to China.
Blocking movement during the new year period can cause social instability because it is the only time of year that many Chinese can see their families. A total of 3bn trips will be made over the new year period from January 10 to February 18, according to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency.
In 2008, a snowstorm prevented more than 100,000 migrant workers from leaving a train station in the southern city of Guangzhou and authorities struggled to control the subsequent violence.
Chinese internet users took to social media to discuss how authorities in mainland China and Hong Kong were handling the outbreak, commending the rapid response from the Hong Kong government and condemning the lack of transparency and openness from the mainland authorities.
The People’s Daily, the official Chinese Communist party’s mouthpiece, reported the outbreak well down on its homepage on Thursday, far below news about President Xi Jinping wishing all Chinese a happy Lunar New Year. A report on the Wuhan virus only appeared 34 minutes into Chinese state television’s nightly news programme the previous day.
Residents of Hong Kong, which was hard hit during the Sars outbreak, rushed to buy face masks on Wednesday evening as news broke of the first confirmed case in the city. One pharmacy on Hong Kong island said it had sold out of its latest order of 200 boxes of masks within half an hour.
Authorities in the city confirmed a second case in the city on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Sun Yu in Beijing, Alice Woodhouse, Nicolle Liu, Robin Yu and Sue-Lin Wong in Hong Kong, Xueqiao Wang in Shanghai and Qianer Liu in Shenzhen