China is imposing tough measures to contain the Wuhan coronavirus – The Economist

A city in lockdown  —–  Almost all Chinese provinces now have confirmed cases

Editor’s note (January 27th): Some numbers in this article have been updated since publication.

IT IS THE third day of the Chinese new year, a time when families would normally still be celebrating. But Zhang Fang (not her real name) is keeping herself isolated in her bedroom. She probably has a mild infection typical of the season, but is not taking risks. Ms Zhang, a marketing manager in her 20s, lives with her husband and her in-laws in a central district of Wuhan, the Chinese city first affected by a newly identified coronavirus that has been causing global alarm.

Wuhan, a city of 11m people, has been in lockdown since January 23rd.       

This was on the eve of the week-long public holiday, with public transport suspended, roads out of the city blocked and flights cancelled. The streets would usually be quiet during the “spring festival” break. But they are more so now. Many residents of Wuhan are heeding government warnings to avoid moving around the city unless necessary. When one of Ms Zhang’s neighbours steps out to find a stray cat she has been feeding, her calls sound surprisingly loud.

Ms Zhang is among millions of residents of Wuhan and more than a dozen smaller cities in the central province of Hubei who are spending the holiday under government-imposed quarantine restrictions that have isolated swathes of Hubei from the rest of the country. On January 25th Wuhan said it was banning the use of private vehicles in central districts. Officials said 6,000 taxis would be mobilised to help deliver supplies and to transport people who have good reason to leave home. Many residents are unsure how to hail one, and how the criteria for using the taxis will be applied. Some say they assume they will be forgiven for driving their cars if they have a genuine emergency, and that rather than punish them the police will help.

Such measures have not stopped the virus from spreading. By January 26th, the second day of the year of the rat, the number of confirmed infections nationwide had risen to about 2,800, twice as many as were reported two days earlier. A further 28,000 people are under observation. So far 81 people are reported to have died from the virus.

For now, Wuhan and its environs appear worst affected. The central government has flown 450 military doctors to the city to help in hospitals there. Officials say more health-care workers will soon be sent to join them. The city is rushing to build two new hospitals using prefabricated sections. The first will have 1,000 beds and should be ready within ten days.

The holiday in China will be bleak. Many cities have cancelled their usual temple fairs. Many restaurants and entertainment venues have closed. Film companies have scrapped the release of new films, or have chosen to show them on streaming services rather than in cinemas. Couples are putting off or scaling down weddings.

Those who left Wuhan or other parts of Hubei before the start of the province’s sweeping travel restrictions are facing hassle elsewhere. Some hotels are refusing to admit them. Police sometimes pay unannounced visits to places where they are staying to take their temperatures and advise them to stay inside (their presence sometimes having been reported by vigilant neighbours). Everyone is on the lookout for cars with Hubei number plates.

On January 25th China’s leader, Xi Jinping, broke five days of public silence on the crisis. He told officials that the “accelerating spread” of cases was a “grave” problem, but that China was sure to bring it under control. Many people appear to support the central government’s moves to contain the spread; its efforts shifted into high gear around January 20th.

But many people are angry at the government in Wuhan. Netizens accuse it of initially downplaying the outbreak. The city’s lockdown came only a few days after officials there said there was little chance of sustained human-to-human-transmission, and after many people had set off on their new year’s holidays—some carrying the virus.

It is unclear how badly the local government mishandled the early stages. Most foreign experts say Chinese health officials identified the virus speedily and reported it punctually. But Wuhan’s leaders may end up proving to be useful scapegoats—the Communist Party often blames local officials for any crisis on their patch. The central government has set up a whistleblowing site allowing people to inform on officials they feel have not responded appropriately to the outbreak. It appears to have slightly loosened restrictions on Chinese media, allowing them to cover the emergency in unusual depth.

In theory, China should return to work on January 31st. But to prevent transmission of the virus, some schools and universities have delayed the resumption of classes. Beijing’s city government has said that state schools there will remain closed indefinitely. Ms Zhang says people in Wuhan are beginning to think that their trials could go on for weeks or even months.

RELATED

The Economist explains: What is the Wuhan coronavirus?

It has caused multiple deaths in China and led to the lock-down of about a dozen cities

Explaining the world, daily – BY A.B.

Editor’s note (January 27th): Some numbers in this article have been updated since publication.

THE WUHAN VIRUS, which can cause severe pneumonia and kidney failure, has killed 81 people in China. With about 2,800 cases detected, in every Chinese province and also abroad, efforts to contain the virus’s spread are accelerating. In Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have started, authorities have shut the airport and railway stations to outgoing passengers. About a dozen other cities are facing similar restrictions, in effect locking down more than 30m people at a time when many in China would normally be criss-crossing the country to visit family for the lunar new year holiday. China’s government has even extended the holiday by three days until February 2nd to delay anyone planning to travel. What is the virus at the centre of all this?

2019-nCoV, as the Wuhan bug is designated, is a form of coronavirus, a class that gets its name from the viruses’ vague resemblance to monarchical crowns when examined under an electron microscope. They infect many species of mammals and birds, as well as humans. The Wuhan infection is reckoned to have started in an animal market, where it made the jump from animal to human.

Before 2003, few outside the field of respiratory medicine would have heard of coronavirus. Then came SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—which infected more than 8,000 people and killed about 800. It resulted in $30bn-100bn of damage from disrupted trade and travel before the pandemic subsided after more than half a year.

Coronaviruses tend to cause either a respiratory illness or a gastrointestinal one. The two human examples known of before 2003 both cause colds, but are not regarded as life-threatening. A diligent search after the emergence of SARS discovered two others that had been circulating, previously unnoticed, in the human population. Then, in 2012, a sixth human coronavirus was discovered and shown to be responsible for newly described symptoms now called Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a disease which kills about a third of those infected. 2019-nCoV appears to be the seventh.

Several things are still unknown about the Wuhan bug: how easily it can be passed from person to person; how long it takes to incubate; and just how lethal it is. Close monitoring of people who have been infected, and of those in contact with them, should soon help answer some of these questions, and make it easier to forecast how dangerous the epidemic will prove to be. The 3% fatality rate among cases confirmed so far is alarming, for it is within the estimated range of the devastating Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918.

Still, the world seems better prepared to deal with the virus than it was at the time of SARS. For one thing, Chinese authorities have been quicker to acknowledge the problem, and to share information. SARS was hushed up for months, adding to the death toll. Despite some criticism, doctors in Wuhan appear to have sounded the alarm promptly about an unusual cluster of cases of pneumonia—thereby following a standard protocol for spotting new viruses. Chinese scientists quickly isolated the pathogen and shared its genomic details with the world. That, however, may not cheer those people stuck in Wuhan, where the hospitals are full and the lunar new year threatens to be grim.

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