China coronavirus: Travellers cancel Lunar New Year trips as illness spreads globally

Phoebe Zhang

After much thought, Chen Mi, a 31-year-old Shanghai data analyst, finally decided to cancel her train ticket back home to Wuhan, Hubei province, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

Chen had been following the virus’ progression since December, but never thought things would get so bad that she would have to cancel her trip home for the Lunar New Year holiday.

China coronavirus: as travel ban issued for Wuhan, many rush to escape city

This week, however, Chen’s mother urged her not to come home. A local doctor friend told her the situation was becoming increasingly worrisome amid limited public awareness about the outbreak.

“My grandfather is 80 years old. If we had brought the virus home, young people might be quarantined for a bit, but it would be deadly for the elderly,” Chen said. “My mother was like a transportation director; she used that reason to convince my aunt and uncle not to come home also.”

As of Thursday morning, China has confirmed 17 deaths and 571 infections from the virus, with a few cases overseas. On Tuesday, the US Centres for Disease Control and protection confirmed that the first known case of Wuhan coronavirus had been identified in the United States.

Chen is certainly not alone in having her New Year travel plans disrupted by the virus. As China’s epidemic spreads during the biggest human migration of the year, many were cancelling trips or taking extra precautions.

Chinese officials estimated 3 billion trips would be made around the country in the 40-day peak travel season from January 10 to February 18, known as chunyun , with 2.43 billion going by road, 440 million by rail, 79 million by air and 45 million by ship.

Journalist Sarah Wang, who returned home from Beijing to central China’s Chongqing municipality on Wednesday, told the South China Morning Post that most people on her plane were wearing face masks; so were the passengers she met in Chongqing, as well as taxi drivers.

She had advised her family to cancel unnecessary outings and stopped using public transport.

“If my father proposes eating wild game at restaurants, I will go on a hunger strike,” she said. Wild game sold at a Wuhan market has been blamed for spreading the virus initially.

Wuhan coronavirus: a visual explainer

Official measures have been stepped up to ensure safe trips for the public – a change from authorities’ earlier effort to play down the outbreak’s seriousness.

Wuhan officials announced a complete travel ban on the city’s residents, effective from Thursday morning. Flights and trains departing from Wuhan will also be temporarily suspended.

Multiple infrared thermometers were installed in airports, railway stations and long-distance bus stations in cities such as Wuhan, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where multiple cases of coronavirus were found. The Hubei government imposed restrictions on large public events and is closely monitoring people’s movements.

As public awareness gradually increases, many were taking to the internet, sharing posts and updates about preventing the illness and finding data and maps that track its spread.

China coronavirus: death toll doubles as Hong Kong reports its first cases

However, some online visitors were complaining about the difficulty of getting the elderly to care or to grasp the situation’s gravity. A popular post online asked, “How do you get your parents to wear masks?”

Many commented that their parents were still buying live chickens at markets and going to square dances in public. They also were refusing to wear masks, to keep people from thinking they are sick.

Chen said that although her family was vigilantly taking precautions as the illness spreads, some friends back home found it hard to communicate with their loved ones about the issue.

When they were sent news links and other information about the outbreak, the family members resisted, saying educating themselves about the matter and taking precautions was too much trouble.

One cousin recently called a classmate an hour away from Wuhan to ask if the situation in the city was serious. The classmate replied: “I went to Wuhan two days ago. It was bustling and exciting.”

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