A sense of panic has spread in Wuhan as the central Chinese city was put on lockdown in an attempt to quarantine a deadly virus believed to have originated there.
On Thursday, authorities banned all transport links from the sprawling city of about 11 million people, suspending buses, the subway system, ferries and shutting the airport and train stations to outgoing passengers.
Supermarket shelves were empty and local markets sold out of produce as residents hoarded supplies and isolated themselves at home. Petrol stations were overwhelmed as drivers stocked up on fuel, exacerbated by rumours that reserves had run out. Local residents said pharmacies had sold out of face masks.
Few pedestrians were on the street and families cancelled plans to get together for the Chinese New Year holiday. Videos posted online showed highway routes out of the city had also been blocked. Special police forces were seen patrolling railway stations.
“When I saw the news when I woke up, I felt like I was going to go crazy. This is a little late now. The government’s measures are not enough,” said Xiao, 26, a primary school teacher in Wuhan, who asked not to give her full name.
Some residents posted photos of their newly bought supplies of instant noodles and snacks on social media. “No more going out … so I won’t get sick,” wrote one internet user on Weibo, adding: “Hope Wuhan can get some support soon.”
Others said the elevators in their apartment complexes were being disinfected, and that most of their friends and relatives in the city were also planning on staying in as much as possible.
The blockade comes as at least 571 people have been infected with the coronavirus, from the same family of viruses that gave rise to Sars. It has now reached more than half of the country’s provinces, as well as the US, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and possibly Hong Kong. Chinese authorities said on Thursday that 95 patients were in critical condition.
So far, 17 people have died since the virus was detected in late December, all of them in Wuhan, where a seafood market selling wild animals is the suspected source of the virus. Scientists believe it likely jumped from an animal to a human and is now transmissible from one person to another, and could mutate further.
On Thursday, some residents raced to leave Wuhan before the de-facto quarantine was put into effect at 10am, lining up at the airport and at train stations. Local authorities, announcing the emergency measure at around 2am on Thursday, said citizens would be notified later when the restrictions were lifted.
Anxiety has been exacerbated by reports that sick patients are being turned away from hospitals without enough room. “Infected people could be right beside you and you wouldn’t know. That is what is scarier,” said Xiao, who has not left home since 19 January.
Wuhan’s disease prevention and control centre released a statement on Thursday asking residents not to panic and not to stockpile. “At the present time, Wuhan’s reserves of food, medicine and other supplies are all enough,” it said.
Authorities have made an effort to update citizens regularly on the situation and state media have attempted to frame the current shutdown as a battle being waged by the people of Wuhan for the good of the country. The state-run People’s Daily posted on Weibo: “Come on Wuhan, let us win this disease prevention war together!”
But residents are wary of the information provided by their government, which in recent weeks repeatedly said the virus was not serious and was still “controllable”.
“I am a bit panicked because before the government said it wasn’t serious so no one thought it was a big deal,” said Wang Ying, 26, a government worker who described going out amid large crowds on New Year’s Eve, despite the virus being detected then.
“Then this morning, Wuhan was suddenly sealed off. I think the government’s early warnings were not enough.”
Additional reporting by Lillian Yang