China yesterday expanded drastic travel restrictions to contain a viral epidemic that has killed 56 people and infected nearly 2,000, as the US, France and Japan prepared to evacuate their citizens from a quarantined city at the outbreak’s epicenter.
China has locked down the hard-hit province of Hubei in the nation’s center in an unprecedented operation affecting tens of millions of people to slow the spread of the respiratory illness.
The virus’ ability to spread appears to be “getting stronger,” though it is “not as powerful as SARS,” top Chinese health officials said at a press conference, adding that their knowledge of it was limited.
Photo: Chen Chih-chu, Taipei Times
The previously unknown virus has caused global concern because of its similarity to the SARS pathogen, which killed hundreds across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
Outside the epicenter, four cities — including Beijing and Shanghai — and the eastern province of Shandong announced bans on long-distance buses from entering or leaving their borders, a move that would affect millions of people traveling over the Lunar New Year holiday.
The southern province of Guangdong, Jiangxi in the center, and three cities made it mandatory for residents to wear masks in public.
Originating in Wuhan, Hubei’s capital, the virus has spread throughout China and around the world — with cases confirmed in Taiwan and about a dozen countries as far as the US.
The US Department of State yesterday said that it was arranging a flight from Wuhan to San Francisco for consulate staff and other Americans in the city.
The flight is schedueld for tomorrow, it said in an e-mail to Americans in China that warned of “extremely limited” capacity for private citizens.
The French government said it was formulating plans to evacuate staff and families, who would be quarantined in a city in a neighboring province.
Japan is coordinating with the Chinese government to swiftly evacuate its citizens, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.
South Korea’s consulate in Wuhan said it was conducting an online poll of its citizens there to gauge demand for a chartered flight out.
Instead of New Year revelry, Wuhan has been seized by an eerie calm that deepened yesterday, as new restrictions banned most road traffic in the metropolis of 11 million.
Loudspeakers broke the silence by offering tips slathered with bravado.
“Do not believe in rumors. Do not spread rumors. If you feel unwell, go to the hospital in time,” the message said.
The health emergency has overwhelmed Wuhan’s hospitals with patients, prompting authorities to send hundreds of medical reinforcements, including military doctors, and start construction on two field hospitals.
With non-essential vehicles banned from the road, volunteers stepped up to drive sick fellow citizens to hospitals.
“There has to be someone who does this,” Zhang Lin, 48, told reporters, as he waited for a patient to emerge from a clinic for the drive back home in nearly deserted streets.
The outbreak is suspected to have originated in a Wuhan market where animals, including rats, snakes and hedgehogs, were reportedly sold as exotic food.
Beijing said it was banning all trade in wildlife until the emergency is over, but conservationists complain that China has previously failed to deliver on pledges to get tough.
Health officials said the virus has since become transmissible between humans.
“From what we see now, this disease is indeed ... not as powerful as SARS,” China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention head Gao Fu (高福) said at a news briefing in Beijing.
However, it also appears that the “spreading ability of the virus is getting stronger,” China’s National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei (馬曉偉) said.
Shanghai yesterday reported its first death — an 88-year-old man who had pre-existing health problems.
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