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China locks down 14 cities as Wuhan coronavirus spreads

Nicola Smith
A patient is treated at the Zhongnan hospital in Wuhan - REUTERS

China on Friday confirmed it has now imposed travel restrictions on 14 cities, home to tens of millions of people, and pledged to build a new hospital within six days in Wuhan, the epicentre of a deadly virus that is sweeping across the country and through Asia. 

The number of cases of the new coronavirus, which causes respiratory problems, has jumped to 830 and the death toll risen to at least 26, with two fatalities now reported outside of Wuhan, in Hubei province and the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, which borders Russia and Mongolia. 

Wuhan, a city of 11 million, was suddenly quarantined on Thursday morning, with residents given a 10am deadline before road, rail and air transport links were severed indefinitely in an effort to contain the virus, which is a similar pathogen to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and can spread between humans. 

A day later, a total of 18 cities in central Hubei province suspended some public transportation over the coronavirus outbreak, the Global Times reported on Friday.

Buses in cities of Chibi, Xiantao, Zhijiang, Qianjiang, Xianning, Huangshi and Enshi have suspended services. Ezhou city has shut its train stations. From 2pm on Friday, Yichang became the 14th city in Hubei province to impose public transport restrictions. 

In Zhijiang city, all public venues have been shut down except hospitals, supermarkets, farmers' market, gas stations and drug stores, said Hubei Daily.

Indoor entertainment venues in Enshi city have also been shut down, it said.

All 70,000 of the country's cinemas will remain closed this weekend and the premieres of seven blockbuster movies postponed. Shanghai's Disneyland also announced that it would not open its gates. 

The respiratory disease is believed to have emerged from an animal source but key questions about numbers infected and the transmission rate remain unanswered. 

The World Health Organisation on Thursday declared it an emergency but stopped short of announcing an epidemic of international concern despite non-fatal cases being discovered in at least eight other countries in Asia and as far off as the United States. The UK is currently treating 14 suspected cases.

In China, many people took heed of official appeals to curb their travel plans during this week’s Lunar New Year holiday, when hundreds of millions traditionally cram into public transport to visit families. 

Those who continued with their journeys remained on high alert, wearing protected face masks and being subjected to additional health checks at transport hubs. 

Locals in Wuhan are wearing masks to protect themselves Credit: Hector Retamal/AFP

On one flight from Beijing to Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, passengers were visibly on edge, refusing to accept the in-flight meal. A mother was overheard scolding her young daughter when she removed her mask. “Do you want to die?” she asked. 

In Wuhan, streets remained eerily quiet as residents bunkered down to protect themselves after emptying shop shelves to stock up for possibly weeks of containment at home. 

Shops have been emptied in Wuhan as people bunker down Credit: Getty Images

Video emerged on social media of travellers being blocked by police officers from entering the railway station or leaving by road, while desperate scenes emerged of overcrowded hospital corridors as possible victims awaited treatment from overwhelmed staff. 

State media reported that the city would throw its resources into building a brand-new 1000-bed hospital within six days, specifically to contain and treat the virus. 

It said the facilities would be based on the Xiaotangshan hospital near Beijing, which began as a hastily built 1000-bed field hospital at during the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 which killed some 800 people. 

The Chinese Centre for Disease Control has identified 15 hospital staff as being infected, but two sources told the South China Morning Post that doctors and nurses were being stricken at a much faster pace, raising fears about how contagious the virus may be. 

In the initial stages of the outbreak, medical staff were reportedly treating patients with no knowledge of human-to-human transmission. 

A Wuhan doctor claimed at least one dormitory building at a hospital in the city was being used to house quarantined medical workers.

“Even now we don’t have enough protective gear, test kits and other supplies,” he told the paper. “There is no other option but to carry on.”

People queue for receiving treatment at the fever outpatient department at the Wuhan Tongji Hospital  Credit: Reuters

 

Hong Kong, which has two confirmed cases of the Wuhan virus so far but 236 patients under surveillance, has turned two holiday camps including a former British military barracks, into quarantine zones for people who may have come into contact with carriers. 

The same sites were used during the deadly SARS epidemic 17 years ago, which killed nearly 300 people in the Chinese-ruled city, and left deep psychological scars.  

“We will have a full team of staff to operate the quarantine camps,” Wong Ka-hing, the director of the Centre for Health Protection, told reporters.

However, Dr Arisina Ma, president of the Hong Kong Public Doctor's Association, told The Telegraph that medical staff were nervous as they feared China was concealing the true extent of the crisis. 

“The data from China, the clinical characteristics of patients. We don’t know much about it. We do need to get correct figures about the scale of the epidemic in the mainland so that we can predict what our scale will be,” she said. 

The Hong Kong government had reacted with “indecisiveness” and was trying to “avoid anything that touches the political side,” she added.

More than 260 hospital rooms have been made available for staff who do not wish to go home for fear of infecting their families. 

Asia remained vigilant and continued to step up health checks at airports as new confirmed cases emerged from Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore overnight. 

Taiwan has announced that its immigration authorities will deny entry to Wuhan residents, and the Philippines pledged to repatriate 145 Wuhan tourists who arrived on Thursday. 

There are 18 confirmed patients globally. In Asia -  two in Japan, two in South Korea, two in Vietnam, three in Singapore, one in Taiwan, two in Macau and four in Thailand.

The US has reported one case and is monitoring dozens of suspected victims, including a student in Texas who has been isolated at home. Italy revealed on Friday that a singer who had been in Wuhan has tested positive for the disease.

Vellamvelly Muraleedharan, India’s external affairs minister, said on Twitter that an infected Indian nurse was currently being treated in hospital in Saudi Arabia.