A handful of people wearing surgical masks and lugging bags of groceries were the only ones to be seen on the streets of Wuhan on Sunday. “It felt like everyone was observing everybody, to make sure no one was sick,” said Ashwini, who is Indian and moved to Wuhan last year, and who like most interviewees did not wish to give her full name.
Sellers who could not afford to stop working could be seen wearing two face masks to try to protect themselves, Ashwini said. In the few bigger supermarkets that were still open, customers were being screened for fever before they entered. “This week was supposed to be the happy week,” said Ashwini.
On the first day of the Chinese year of the rat, there were no signs of celebration. The coronavirus outbreak, which is concentrated in Wuhan, has killed 56 people and infected almost 2,000. The mayor of Wuhan said on Sunday evening that he expected another 1,000 or so new cases.
“I have a cold right now and my family doesn’t allow me to go out,” said another Wuhan resident, who gave her name as Miss Huang. “I’m not calm at all right now, but at this time I can only keep telling myself to be confident.”
The initial symptoms of coronavirus are typically similar to those of a cold or flu, which means it is hard for people to know if they are infected, especially given that the outbreak has coincided with flu season. An article in the Lancet journal suggested it is possible to have the virus and experience no symptoms, creating even more confusion for people affected and for health authorities.
Huang, like many others, was reluctant to go to hospital about her cold because she feared picking up the new virus. But images and videos shared on social media showed hospitals that were overwhelmed. One photo circulating at the weekend appeared to show a sign at an entrance to Wuhan Fourth hospital that read: “Medical staff infected. All appointments cancelled.”
Work has begun to build a 1,000-bed hospital in a matter of days on the outskirts of Wuhan, and 1,000 additional medical staff have been deployed to the city. On Saturday it was announced that a second new hospital was to be built to treat affected patients.
Some in Wuhan and elsewhere in China have volunteered to assist doctors and nurses. Richard Xie, a businessman in Beijing, said he had rushed to his home town to help organise shipments of medical materials from abroad. “The main hospitals are now supplied after we brought in materials yesterday. The small and medium hospitals still have major needs,” he said.
Public transport in Wuhan has been suspended and almost all private cars have been banned from the roads. Other areas have also announced sweeping travel bans, including the suspension of long-distance bus services in the eastern province of Shandong, home to 100 million people. Long-distance bus services have been suspended in Beijing and Shanghai.
Warren, from Dallas, who has been staying for several months in Wuhan and who also did not give a full name, said he believed the authorities were right to quarantine the city. “The only thing we can know for certain is if we stop people from moving around and contacting each other then we can possibly stop the spread,” he said.
Some epidemiologists have criticised the response to the outbreak, arguing that announcing restrictions hours before they could be properly implemented allowed people to scatter and hide. In the long term, strict restrictions also risk causing resentment and distrust of authorities and the health messages they deliver.
There are also fears for vulnerable groups including elderly people who rely on regular visits from relatives, and foreign students who may be less likely to have stocked up on food. “The decision [to ban traffic from the roads] didn’t take medical staff, existing patients [or] pregnant people who need public transportation into consideration,” Huang said. Her friend had recently been bitten by a dog and was due to receive a third rabies vaccine but was still awaiting permission to get it.
The US, France and Japan are preparing to evacuate citizens from the city but Warren said he had decided against the idea, fearing he could pick up the virus at the airport and take it back to his mother. “I don’t feel safe doing that,” he said.
Others, though, were desperate to leave, including one British citizen who questioned why the UK government was not acting more quickly.
Among residents who do not have the option of flying out of the city, there was growing anger at the local government for not sharing information more quickly.
“They only said the epidemic was preventable and controllable. Middle-aged and elderly people would have felt that the official said that it’s OK, so they don’t need to wear masks or take any precautions,” said Huang. It is mostly older people who have died in the outbreak. “If the information is transparent, there won’t be so many rumours,” Huang added.
In Beijing on Sunday, officials said they still knew very little about the virus and the risks it poses. Residents cooped up at home in Wuhan were following updates on the news and social media, but no one knows how long the quarantine is going to last.