Construction workers are putting together the final touches on the Changying coronavirus isolation ward in Beijing, drilling holes in a brick wall for a heavy gate and setting up CCTV cameras trained on each of the units – small rectangular rooms with a bathroom and a window. It took a week to build the facility for at least 40 people, workers said.

It is a hive of activity compared with the neighbourhood that surrounds it, known for its Hui Muslim restaurants and halal butchers. Next to the ward the Changying mosque has been shut, as has a local community centre. A few shoppers are stocking up on meat but many shops are closed.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

Justin McCurry

One pharmacy has barred its doors and drilled a hole in the window for customers to use to speak to the pharmacist, protected behind the glass. A sign on the door reads: “Face masks sold out.” Still, a couple, already in masks and goggles, runs up to the window asking if any masks are left.

In Beijing, shops and businesses are shuttered with quickly written signs explaining their temporary closure “due the epidemic”. The city’s perennially congested streets have for the past two weeks been nearly empty, made even quieter by recent snowfall, as residents continue quarantining themselves at home. Some restaurants, unsure when they can reopen, have started selling off their stores of produce and meat to residents stockpiling food.

Video calls and chat groups are what keep people sane

Across China, from the capital to rural villages, lives have been put on hold as the country grapples with the expanding coronavirus, whose death toll and infection rate show no signs of slowing. Residents from areas hundreds of miles from Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak, as well as smaller cities nearby, describe a state of limbo, amid suffocating quarantine measures, uncertainty about work and school, dwindling supplies of fresh food and medicine, and increased anxiety about the real extent of the virus – and how much authorities are doing to contain it.

In a residential compound of Ciyunsi in Beijing, tenants learned on Thursday that one of their neighbours had contracted the virus. The person, with suspected symptoms, had been taken away days earlier by police and health workers in hazmat suits, according to residents.

Wei, 36, who lives in the same building, was surprised it was not disinfected. The building is not on lockdown and residents were still seen coming and going on Friday. Worried about infection from the water supply, Wei and her parents do not turn on the fan in the bathroom.

While she is not anxious for herself, she says she is worried about her parents, who are in their 60s. Wei goes out once every two or so days to buy food. The longest she has stayed out since the outbreak began was two hours.

“I go and get everything. I don’t let them go out,” she said. “It’s useless to be nervous. We should just try our best to go out less.”

Factories have remained shut and the workers who staff them have been told they cannot leave their towns and villages to return to work. Some villages have begun to issue passes; others require those who want to leave to apply for a permit first.

In several areas, schools are not to reopen until the end of the month, prompting a flood of advice online for parents on how to keep their children engaged while under de facto house arrest. Families, used to seeing each other only a few times a year, have been hemmed in together for more than two weeks.

“People can’t go out and they are too bored, so they start fighting,” said Wei.

In Guiyi, Guangxi province, authorities have ordered everyone to stay home, except for one designated family member who can go out to purchase supplies – a trip that should last no longer than three hours.

The quarantine measures are worst for those in Hubei province, where officials have locked down Wuhan and neighbouring cities. Zhang, who is in her final year of university overseas, came back to Wuhan for the lunar new year to surprise her parents.

“Now my parents and I are trapped in our own home,” she said. “I cannot get out of the city, much less the province. I can only hope this disaster quickly passes and all the innocent people can return to normal life.”

Authorities have repeatedly stressed their commitment to sharing information, with daily updates about the number of cases and casualties.

If everyone is afraid, our country will be in trouble

But residents are aware of the government’s inclination to withhold information in the interest of maintaining social stability and already angry over the delay in reporting the current outbreak.

Many say they mistrust officially reported numbers in their own areas. The death of a doctor in Wuhan, who was punished for trying to warn colleagues about the virus, has only exacerbated public anger.

In Wenzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang province about 500 miles (800km) from Wuhan, one resident, Zheng, said: “We are completely disappointed. They are lying, we know they are lying. They also know that we know they are lying, and yet they are still lying.”

Another critical resident in Xuzhou, in the southern province of Jiangsu, said: “This is truly a manmade disaster.”

For many, fear of getting the virus is not their primary concern. “The psychological aspect of the isolation goes unseen from the outside,” said Liu, who lives outside of Xi’an in Shaanxi province. “Video calls and chat groups are what keep people sane.”

Across Beijing, various neighbourhoods and villages are shut to outsiders. Some areas have multiple checkpoints, where commuters must have their temperatures taken. Those detected with a fever are turned away.

But residents also describe a newfound sense of community as people pick up groceries for older neighbours. With compounds short on workers, residents have volunteered to clear the snow and ice themselves.

“Ordinary people can’t be afraid. If everyone is afraid, our country will be in trouble,” said a 42-year-old resident in Changying surnamed An, who lives near the new isolation ward.

As the crisis continues, others have grown tired of staying home. At April and Cafe in Beijing’s Hutong neighbourhood of Gulou, customers have started to return. On Thursday afternoon, with seven people in the bar, it is the busiest it has been since the outbreak began, according to its owner.

A group poses for a selfie wearing face masks and holding cocktails. A man nurses a drink while reading a book. A bottle of hand sanitiser sits on his table.

“There’s no need to be overly worried. If everyone works on improving their defence – like exercising more, eating better, washing their hands – we should be fine,” said Guo Song, 30, the bar’s owner.

Others say they have been through worse. Gao Wang, 75, lives in Gaobeidian in Beijing, sandwiched between two residential compounds that have recently had cases of the virus.

“Even during Sars when my family stayed at home, I still went out every day,” he says, standing in the snow outside his home doing exercises, rotating from the waist and stretching his arms – something he has been doing daily for years.

“If you catch the virus, there isn’t much you can do. I’m old now. What’s the point of worrying?”

Additional reporting by Lillian Yang and Michael Standaert

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