People at centre of China's virus outbreak say time to end lockdown

Beiyi SEOW
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Nearly 60 million residents in Hubei province have been under lockdown since late January

For days now, several cities at the heart of China's deadly coronavirus epidemic have not recorded any new infections -- so residents such as factory worker Tang Wushan have a message for the authorities: it's time to lift their quarantine.

Tang lives in central Hubei province, whose nearly 60 million residents have been under lockdown since late January as the government rushed to put a lid on a virus that first emerged in the regional capital, Wuhan.

He has not stepped out of his home in rural Xiangyang for more than 40 days.

"It's been too long," the 30-year-old told AFP over the phone, adding that he felt like he was "going to have a breakdown".

On Sunday, there were no new cases in the province for a third consecutive day except in Wuhan, which recorded 41 fresh infections. It is the first time that has happened since daily figures were released in January.

There have been no new cases in Xiangyang for 12 consecutive days.

Xianning city and Shennongjia Forest District have not had new confirmed patients for 15 straight days.

"There are some areas with no virus cases since the start of the outbreak. I think these areas could gradually reopen," Tang said.

The hashtag "When will Hubei be unblocked" has been read more than 100 million times on China's Twitter-like platform Weibo as of Sunday.

"This situation has messed up my plans," wrote one user. "Can't the province be inspected and people allowed out in batches?"

More than 3,000 people have died and over 80,600 have been infected in China.

The vast majority of deaths and cases have been in Wuhan, where health officials believe the virus first appeared in a market that sold wild animals before spreading around the world.

But the number of new cases has gradually fallen for weeks.

Following China's example, Italy plans to put large parts of the north of the country in lockdown to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

"China and other countries are demonstrating that spread of the virus can be slowed or even reversed through the implementation of robust containment and control activities," the World Health Organization said Saturday as the global number of cases passed 100,000.

- Treated like a 'tumour' -

In Hubei, a Weibo user called for officials to spare a thought for residents in less affected areas of the province.

"All of us from Hubei are being despised," the person wrote. "The situation is clearly severe in Wuhan, why are we treating all of Hubei as a tumour?"

A 23-year-old surnamed Jiang told AFP she has been paying thousands of yuan to rent a home she cannot return to -- in Shenzhen near Hong Kong.

"Even if I'm not staying there for a few months, I have to pay the rent," said Jiang, who has been trapped in Enshi since travelling there for the Lunar New Year.

Beyond financial pressure, she has another major worry.

"My cat is still in the (Shenzhen) home, and I'd only left half a month's food for it," she said.

Others report dire situations from the travel restrictions.

One Weibo user outside Wuhan said her grandmother was seriously ill and had been told to go to a provincial level hospital, but none would take her in.

"Apart from coronavirus patients, do others not have (valued) lives?" she asked.

- 'Going to lose it' -

A Xiangyang woman in her 20s told AFP it has been tough to buy daily necessities with a lack of delivery services. Her family has been surviving on vegetables they grow themselves.

She desperately needs to return to her job in another province, as her employer has not paid her since the lockdown. She has credit card bills and a mortgage to pay.

"There is a huge amount of pressure every day," she said.

"If things remain the same this month, with the province sealed off and both the healthy and ill cooped up, many people are going to lose it and might do extreme things."

But there are early signs of loosening restrictions.

Chibi, south of Wuhan, removed roadblocks on Friday after 19 days without new infections, allowing freer movement of traffic inside -- but not out of -- the city.

Wuhan, with tens of thousands of cases, seems far from being liberated, with officials last month retracting a notice that had suggested that some people would be allowed to leave under certain conditions.

In a sign of built-up frustration in Wuhan, a video circulating online on Thursday showed a resident yelling "it's all fake" when a vice premier visited her apartment complex, suggesting the property management put on a show to pretend that volunteers were bringing food to residents.

On Friday an official had reassuring words for Hubei residents hoping to see the quarantines lifted.

"I believe the day everyone is waiting for will not be too far away," said Ding Xiangyang, deputy secretary-general of China's State Council.