BEIJING — China decided Thursday to lock down three cities that are home to more than 18 million people in an unprecedented effort to try to contain a deadly new viral illness that has sickened hundreds and spread to other cities and countries in the Lunar New Year travel rush.
Police, SWAT teams and paramilitary troops guarded Wuhan’s train station, where metal barriers blocked the entrances at 10 a.m. local time. Only travellers holding tickets for the last trains were allowed to enter, with those booked for later trains being turned away.
Normally bustling streets, shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces in the city of 11 million people were eerily quiet. In addition to the train station, airport, ferry, subway and bus services were also halted.
Similar measures will take effect from Friday in the nearby cities of Huanggang and Ezhou. Theaters, internet cafes and other entertainment centres were also ordered closed, further increasing the economic costs of the response to the outbreak.
“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s representative in China, told The Associated Press in an interview at the WHO’s Beijing office. “It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”
Local authorities have demanded all residents wear masks in public places and urged government staff to wear them at work and for shopkeepers to post signs for their visitors, Xinhua news agency quoted a government notice as saying.
Train stations, the airport, subways, ferries and long-distance shuttle buses were stopped in the city, an industrial and transportation hub in central China’s Hubei province. Xinhua cited the city’s anti-virus task force as saying the measures were taken in an attempt to “effectively cut off the virus spread, resolutely curb the outbreak and guarantee the people’s health and safety.”
Measures similar to those enacted in Wuhan were being taken at nearby cities in Hubei province, with public transport suspended and theatres, internet cafes and other entertainment centres closed beginning Friday, according to state media reports. That stands to prevent travel by millions more Chinese, potentially increasing the economic costs of the outbreak considerably.
Cake Liu left Wuhan last Friday after visiting her boyfriend there. She said everything was normal then, before human-to-human transmission of the virus was confirmed. But things have changed rapidly.
“(My boyfriend) didn’t sleep much yesterday. He disinfected his house and stocked up on instant noodles,” Liu said. “He’s not really going out. If he does he wears a mask.”
At least 17 deaths reported
The illnesses from a newly identified coronavirus first appeared last month in Wuhan, and the vast majority of mainland China’s 571 cases have been in the city. Other cases have been reported in the Thailand, the United States, Japan and South Korea. One case was confirmed Thursday in Hong Kong after one was earlier confirmed in Macao. Most cases outside China were people from Wuhan or who had recently travelled there.
A total of 17 people have died, all of them in and around Wuhan. Their average age was 73, with the oldest 89 and the youngest 48.
The significant increase in illnesses reported just this week come as millions of Chinese travel for the Lunar New Year, one of the world’s largest annual migrations of people. Chinese are expected to take an estimated three billion trips during the 40-day spike in travel.
While state broadcaster CCTV has largely ignored the outbreak to emphasize traditional observances of the festival, reports have filtered in of events such as temple fairs being cancelled in cities including Beijing.
Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels must put people’s lives and health first.Chinese President Xi Jinping
Analysts have predicted the reported cases will continue to multiply.
“Even if (the number of cases) are in the thousands, this would not surprise us,” the WHO’s Galea said, adding, however, that the number of cases is not an indicator of the outbreak’s severity, so long as the mortality rate remains low.
The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that cause more serious illnesses, such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003 and killed about 800 people, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, which developed from camels.
China is keen to avoid repeating mistakes with its handling of SARS. For months, even after the illness had spread around the world, China parked patients in hotels and drove them around in ambulances to conceal the true number of cases and avoid WHO experts.
In the current outbreak, China has been credited with sharing information rapidly, and President Xi Jinping has emphasized that as a priority.
“Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels must put people’s lives and health first,” Xi said Monday. “It is necessary to release epidemic information in a timely manner and deepen international co-operation.”
Not a global emergency: WHO
Health authorities were taking extraordinary measures to prevent additional person-to-person transmissions, placing those suspected to be infected in plastic tubes and wheeled boxes where air passed through filters.
The first cases in the Wuhan outbreak were connected to people who worked at or visited a seafood market, which has since been closed for an investigation. Experts suspect the virus was first transmitted from wild animals but the virus also may be mutating. Mutations can make it deadlier or more contagious.
On Thursday, the WHO said the new viral illness is not yet a global health emergency.
The United Nations health agency announced the decision after independent experts spent two days assessing information about the spread of the newly identified coronavirus.
The WHO defines a global emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a co-ordinated international response.
Previous global emergencies have been declared for the emergence of Zika virus in the Americas, the swine flu pandemic, and polio.
A declaration of a global emergency typically brings greater money and resources, but may also prompt nervous foreign governments to restrict travel and trade to affected countries. Deciding whether an outbreak amounts to an international crisis therefore can also be politically fraught.
Many countries are screening travellers from China for illness, especially those arriving from Wuhan. North Korea has banned foreign tourists, a step it also took during the SARS outbreak and in recent years due to Ebola. Most foreigners going to North Korea are Chinese or travel there through neighbouring China.
No cases reported in Canada
In Canada, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said several people are under observation for signs they may have contracted the coronavirus.
Hajdu said five or six people are being monitored in Canada, including at least one in Vancouver and another Quebec.
She said one person was cleared of having the virus, but health officials are monitoring the others.
“At this point, there has not been a positive case in Canada,” Hajdu told reporters ahead of a meeting of Liberal MPs on Parliament Hill on Thursday. “The risk is low to Canadians.”
With files from Shanshan Wang and The Canadian Press