WUHAN, China (Reuters) – A trickle of passengers at the train station in the Chinese city of Wuhan put on a brave face on Friday as they arrived in the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak that has killed 26 people, infected hundreds and raised fears of a pandemic.
Authorities have all but shut down Wuhan, a city of 11 million and a major transport hub, at what is normally the busiest time of year – the Lunar New Year holiday – when millions of people travel home to visit their families.
Millions of people in surrounding cities are virtually stranded after public transport networks were shut to stop the spread of the virus, believed to have originated at a Wuhan market illegally selling wildlife.
On one high-speed train carrying a Reuters journalist that stopped in Wuhan station on Friday afternoon, about 10 passengers got off and nobody got on before the train resumed its journey to Changsha.
Although it stopped there, Wuhan had been removed from the train’s schedule.
“What choice do I have? It’s Chinese New Year. We have to see our family,” said a man getting off the train who gave his family name Hu.
Wuhan’s airport is not closed, but nearly all flights have been canceled. Three international flights arriving on Friday would leave with no passengers, an airport official said.
China’s biggest ride-hailing company, Didi Chuxing, shut down all services in Wuhan from midday on Friday, adding that service resumption depended on government orders.
“Please reduce going out as much as possible, and look after yourselves and your families,” the company told its drivers in a statement.
A traffic control map on Baidu maps – China’s equivalent of Google maps – showed a swathe of highways into and around the city closed. Police at one highway checkpoint said special permission would be needed to leave the city.
Police also checked incoming vehicles for wild animals.
FACE MASKS, CANCELED PLANS
Lying on the banks of the mighty Yangtze River and historically prone to devastating floods, Wuhan stretches across 8,500 square kilometers (3,300 square miles) – five times the size of Greater London – and includes rural areas as well as the sprawling urban conurbation.
Some images circulated on social media showed packed hospital corridors, as people – all wearing face masks – waited for consultations. Hospitals made public appeals for supplies.
The government has pledged to ensure the city is properly equipped, and on Friday flew in two planes with 32 tonnes of supplies, mostly medical gear and masks.
China’s second-largest e-commerce firm, JD.com Inc, said it was donating one million medical masks and other supplies like disinfectant.
“My family has hoarded much food, and when we need something, we go downstairs to a supermarket nearby with masks on,” a 30-year-old city resident who works in financial services told Reuters via social media, declining to provide her name.
Authorities have warned against price-gouging.
Zou Tianjing, 30, an alcoholic drinks distributor, said she was resigned to spending the Lunar New Year at home, reading and watching movies.
“A lot of people did not realize how serious the situation was. Just the day before, people were wearing masks but would still go to bars,” she said, speaking on Thursday.
Hugo Guo, a 22-year-old university student who had returned home to Wuhan for the holiday, said the restrictions were not having much of an impact on him, although all his dinner plans with friends and family had been canceled.
“I’m most worried about whether I will be able to return to school at the right time,” he said, referring to the start of term next month at his university in Shanghai.
One foreign resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the transport lockdown was causing problems though he was able to get around, albeit slowly.
“I can go anywhere I want to go. I just can’t leave Wuhan.”
Reporting by David Stanway and Martin Pollard; Additional reporting by Huizhong Wu and Roxanne Liu in Beijing, Engen Tham in Shanghai and Shanghai newsroom; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Tony Munroe