IT IS THE second 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, 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 2,000, twice as many as were reported two days earlier. A further 20,000 people are under observation. So far 56 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.
But almost all Chinese provinces have confirmed cases, and infections outside Hubei now make up about half the national total. The city government in Beijing, where there have been about 70 confirmed cases, has stopped accepting long-distance bus services, perhaps to prevent sick people from elsewhere seeking treatments in its good hospitals. Didi, China’s pre-eminent ride-hailing service, has said its drivers will no longer take people on intercity journeys that start or end in the capital. The government has banned group tours abroad (infected travellers from China have been found in ten countries, including France, Australia and America). Some villages have set up barricades to stop outsiders from entering. The same thing happened in 2003, when China was battling another dangerous epidemic, SARS.
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.