China expanded an unprecedented quarantine effort against a contagious virus on Friday to corral more than 30 million people inside nine cities, as trapped residents voiced fear and the death toll climbed to 26.
While the World Health Organisation (WHO) held off on declaring a global emergency despite confirmed cases in half a dozen other countries, China expanded its lockdown to cover an area with a total population equivalent that of Peru.
A range of Lunar New Year festivities have been cancelled while Beijing’s Forbidden City and Shanghai’s Disneyland announced temporary closures to prevent the disease from spreading further.
The previously unknown virus has caused alarm because of its similarity to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed hundreds across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
The WHO said China faced a national emergency but stopped short of making a declaration that would have prompted greater global cooperation, including possible trade and travel restrictions.
The virus has hit China in the midst of its Lunar New Year holiday, typically marked by family gatherings and public celebrations.
The disease was first discovered in late December in Wuhan, an industrial and transport hub of 11 million people in the country’s centre and has since spread to several other countries including the United States.
On Friday Wuhan was a ghost town, its streets deserted and stores shuttered.
But hospitals visited by AFP journalists bustled as worried patients arrived to be screened by staff wearing full-body protective suits.
At a temperature-check station, a medical staffer in a white bodysuit, face mask and goggles took a thermometer from a middle-aged woman, pausing to examine the reading before quickly turning back to the patient.
“Have you registered? Then go and see the doctor,” the staffer said.
One 35-year-old man voiced the fears of many.
“I have a fever and cough, so I’m worried that I’m infected,” he said, giving only his surname, Li.
“I don’t know the results yet. I’m a bit worried.”
With hundreds of millions of people on the move across China for the holiday, the government has halted all travel out of Wuhan, shut down public transport and told residents to stay home. Deepening the isolation, there were few flights available to the city.
“This year we have a very scary Chinese New Year. People are not going outside because of the virus,” said a taxi driver in the city, who asked not to be named.
He was not concerned about potential food shortages in a prolonged shutdown.
“It’s Chinese New Year and people have already bought a lot of things to cook at home for several days,” he said.
But the pathogen, known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), has caused nationwide alarm, with surgical masks selling out at many outlets in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities.
Besides Wuhan, eight other smaller cities nearby have battened down the hatches.
In the latest, Jingzhou, a city of more than five million, on Friday shut down all rail services leaving the city as well as public buses and other transport.
Wuhan’s straitjacket also further tightened, with authorities limiting the number of taxis allowed on roads beginning Friday. Leading Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing also said it was temporarily suspending Wuhan services.
To discourage nationwide travel, the government also said all tickets for rail, air, road, or water transport could be exchanged for a refund.
Beijing has cancelled public events that usually attract throngs at temples during the New Year holiday, while the historic Forbidden City will close from Saturday.
On Friday, staff in full-body protective suits were seen checking the temperatures of people entering a subway station in Beijing.
Chinese authorities said the number of cases leapt overnight to more than 800, with 177 in serious condition. Authorities were also examining 1,072 suspected cases.
Beijing has been praised for its response, in contrast to SARS, when it took months to report the disease and initially denied WHO experts any access.
The strict measures in and around Wuhan are aimed at reducing the number of new cases coming out of the epicentre “to zero”, said Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Speaking on state television on Thursday, he asked citizens to forego New Year gatherings and confine themselves at home until all is clear.
“If we all work as one, we can contain the virus in Wuhan and add no more cases exported from Wuhan, so as to stem the virus nationwide,” Gao said.
China also on Friday confirmed the second virus death outside the Wuhan region, saying a patient died in Heilongjiang province, 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) to the northeast.
Shanghai Disneyland said it would close for an indefinite period beginning Saturday “in order to ensure the health and safety of our guests and cast”.