Thu, Feb 13, 2020 - Page 13 News List

Eight days in Wuhan, cut off from the world

A reporter on the ground recounts what it’s like at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, witnessing how life in the Chinese city of Wuhan was turned upside down as it was cut off from the world

By Sebastien Ricci  /  AFP, WUHAN, China

Police officers and security guards on Jan. 24 stand outside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the new coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan.

Photo: AFP

For eight days, an AFP team lived and worked at the centre of a global health emergency, witnessing how life in the Chinese city of Wuhan was turned upside down as it was cut off from the world.

The city of 11 million was placed under an unprecedented quarantine to try and stop the spread of a deadly new coronavirus.

The virus, which has since gone on to kill more than 1,000 people across China, is believed to have crossed into humans from an animal market in Wuhan.

We arrived in Wuhan the day the city was place under lockdown, and over the next week captured remarkable images of shock and resignation, despair and bravery.

AFP re-publishes some of the team’s most compelling images, along with this new account of the harrowing events.


In the early hours of Jan. 23, China announces that all air, road and train links out of Wuhan will be suspended.

The virus has killed 17 people and infected more than 500, authorities say, just as millions of people are criss-crossing the country to reunite with friends and family for the Lunar New Year holiday.

The news comes as a shock, and most don’t even try to flee Wuhan before the order comes into force at 10am. But the few locals out on the streets do seem to be obeying the new rules that masks must be worn in public.

The railway station prepares to close later that day, with police chasing the last travelers out of the building. The usually bustling airport is deserted. Even the officials tasked a few hours ago with testing passengers for signs of fever have gone.

A handful of travelers are stuck, and an airport employee says she does not know when her shift will finish in the confusion.

The expressway into town is empty, as are the rest of the roads in the metropolis. Wuhan has just been cut off from the world and its people, terrified of being infected, are confining themselves to their homes.


Hours before the Lunar New Year, shops are closed and there is a ghostly silence hanging over the city. The police and security services — usually so prominent on Chinese city streets — are conspicuous by their absence.

The Qiaokou district and its famous Jinghan avenue look like they had been abandoned. All of the boutique shops inside an imposing business complex are shuttered by metal gates.

In a small apartment in a 20-storey building in the south of the city, Wang Yanhong, 53, welcomes a team of foreign journalists for the eve of the Lunar New Year.

Her husband Pen Lixin prepares a variety of dishes and a bottle of local red wine sits on the table. But the atmosphere is not one of celebration: the quarantining of Wuhan has meant that their son Andy, 25, was unable to make it home.

“This is the first time he hasn’t come home to celebrate New Year with us,” says Wang sadly.


The Guiyan temple, normally packed with hundreds of thousands of people welcoming in the New Year, is closed.

“No-one is allowed inside in order to prevent the virus spreading,” a uniformed man — who is not wearing the compulsory mask — says.

About town, the usual New Year visits are limited to a worried dash to the pharmacy, where customers are greeted by staff wearing full-body protective suits and double masks.

Anti-fever tablets are limited to two boxes per person.

The radio broadcasts on this first day of the Year of the Rat are hardly any more festive.

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