Chinese authorities are taking dramatic new measures to cut off the spread of the Wuhan virus, including a travel ban beginning on Thursday morning that will effectively quarantine its place of origin, a city of 11 million people.
The World Health Organization on Wednesday night said it would take an extra day to decide whether the Wuhan virus, which now has 570 confirmed cases and 17 deaths in China, and a handful in other countries, constitutes a global health emergency.
But in China, where millions are travelling in the days before Friday’s formal beginning of the Lunar New Year vacation season, authorities are becoming more serious than they were even days ago in their response to the SARS-like virus, officially known as 2019-nCoV, which causes pneumonia-like symptoms and is believed to have originated at a market that sold wild game.
Beginning on Thursday at 10 a.m., all public transit in Wuhan – including buses, subways and ferries – will be halted, local authorities said. Flights and trains for outgoing passengers will also be suspended until further notice. The government said the measures were needed to “effectively cut off the virus spread, resolutely curb the outbreak and guarantee the people’s health and safety.”
Local media reported a crush of people at train stations attempting to leave before the ban, fearful it could last many weeks.
It wasn’t immediately clear what would happen with private cars, although authorities have been conducting random health checks on highways. Earlier on Wednesday, all residents of Wuhan were ordered to wear masks in public.
But the People’s Daily, a central organ of the country’s state media, said in a tweet that ”No people in #Wuhan … will be allowed to leave the city starting 10 a.m. of Jan. 23.”
The severe steps to isolate Wuhan, a major transportation hub, underscored the depth of concern in China about the spread of the virus during the holiday season, known as Spring Festival, during which the country expects three billion trips.
“We are now facing an increased risk of epidemic spread and more difficulties in our prevention and control work. We must take it seriously and be highly vigilant,” Li Bin, Vice-Minister of China’s Health Commission, said in Beijing on Wednesday morning.
In Hong Kong and Macau, authorities reported their first confirmed cases on Wednesday. In mainland China, people in 24 provinces have been diagnosed with the virus or are suspected of carrying it. Macau’s casinos have boosted screening measures. Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and the United States have also confirmed cases.
Chinese authorities said this week there is evidence the virus can be transmitted from human to human, citing the infection of medical workers who treated the sick and family members who have not been to Wuhan. Mr. Li said it is mainly spreading through respiratory means and warned that mutations could help it infect new people.
As the virus reaches far beyond Wuhan, so, too, does the anxiety. North Korea has banned foreign visitors, tour groups reported. In Taiwan, authorities halted group tours from Wuhan, and the Centers for Disease Control instructed people travelling in China to wear masks. Terry Gou, the Taiwanese founder of iPhone manufacturing giant Foxconn Technology Group, said he counselled his employees to refrain from holiday visits to China. Airports around the world set up tougher screening measures for passengers from China, with Hong Kong threatening to jail arrivals from Wuhan who do not declare medical symptoms. People on Chinese social media have posted about cancelled trips, some saying they would remain abroad rather than risk infection.
Those still travelling, meanwhile, did so with a sense of dread and uncertainty. In Thailand, which saw 11 million Chinese visitors last year, crowds of tourists continued to arrive on Wednesday from Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, Xi’an, Harbin – and Wuhan itself.
“More than 400 people are infected now. It’s like a sudden breakout – it’s so scary,” said Cheng Xiaoyan, 24, who is from Fuzhou and was with her husband on their first trip away from their children, aged 3 and 1. She scrolled through her phone, showing social-media feeds filled with videos and pictures of airport and medical personnel in white coats conducting health checks. She had told family members to keep her children at home.
Leaving China didn’t assuage fears for Miko Jin, who arrived in Bangkok with her husband and four-year-old daughter on Wednesday. Thailand reported two confirmed cases, and she was surrounded by people from China as she looked for a bus at the Suvarnabhumi Airport. “There might be visitors from Wuhan here in Thailand. So we need to take protective measures,” she said. She had bought health insurance and “all the necessary equipment, including an ear thermometer and medicine. If anything goes wrong, we will go to the hospital right away,” she said.
Many travellers returning to China covered their faces, while some tucked boxes of masks into duty-free bags, a sign of shortages at home.
Wen Fuyuan, a Taiwanese professor, wore a mask on orders from family members. “They are worried that I might bring back this virus, and that’s understandable.”
But there were also indications that China’s leaders had calmed the waters with a sudden embrace of transparency this week that has involved hourly updates on the viral spread and measures to contain it.
“The Chinese government’s ability to contain such disease is pretty strong. If the government is determined, it will be curbed and cured very soon,” said Zhou Guoxi, a retiree from Xiamen travelling with his 11-year-old grandson.
He said the availability of information eased his concerns.
“The government is quite transparent at the moment about the number of cases. They will let us know when new cases are spotted,” he said.
Besides, he added, ”China is such a big country. All you need to do is to avoid those supersized cities. Things are okay in the countryside and middle-size cities.”
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