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Vigilantism takes hold in central China as coronavirus death toll rises

Passengers on a tram wear surgical masks on Jan. 24, 2020, in Hong Kong, China. (Willie Siau/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS)
January 29, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Residents of areas surrounding the virus-hit Chinese province of Hubei have walled off streets and highways with bricks and other obstructions in a bid to stop people fleeing areas worst-hit by the epidemic, as the death toll from the coronavirus passed 80 on Monday.

Tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people are under some kind of travel restriction imposed either by the authorities or by local residents trying to prevent infected people from fleeing the worst-hit areas of the epidemic.

A total of 2,737 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (nCoV) were reported in mainland China, according to a website set up by researchers at Johns Hopkins University to track the epidemic.

Of those cases, 1,423 were in Hubei, which also reported 76 out of the total of 81 deaths.

Meanwhile, 146 cases were confirmed in the southern province of Guangdong, with eight in neighboring Hong Kong and six in nearby Macau.

More than 100 cases have been reported in Henan province, Chongqing municipality, and Hunan province, all of which have borders with Hubei.

One of the road closures was in Hunan’s Sanghzi county, where piles of bricks blocked a highway leading from Hubei, sources told RFA.

A local journalist surnamed Li said the road closure wasn’t an isolated incident.

“This place [in Sanghzi county] is at the meeting point of three provinces with Hubei on one side, Chongqing on another, and Hunan on the other,” Li said. “People from Hubei will try to pass this way, and if people here prevent them, there will be conflict.”

“[This is happening] along the entire length of the border between Hunan and Hubei, as well as along the border between Hubei and Henan,” he said.

‘The situation is pretty bad’

A resident of Hubei’s Hefeng county surnamed Zhao said people are being prevented from traveling to nearby Sanghzi county along local roads by similar roadblocks, even though they are more than 1,000 kilometers from Wuhan.

“The road from Hefeng to Sangzhi is closed, blocked off with a wall at the intersection to stop people from going through,” Zhao said. “We are is Hefeng, a small county in a mountainous area more than 1,000 kilometers away from Wuhan.”

“None of the shops are allowed to open, provincial and national highways leaving the village and the county town are shut, and no vehicles or personnel are being allowed to use them,” he said.

“The situation is pretty bad.”

An official who answered the phone at the Sanghzi county government declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Monday, saying they were unaware of the situation.

A resident of Hubei’s Xianning city surnamed Wang reported similar scenes where he lives.

“Everything is under tight restriction around here,” Wang said. “The roads into town for each town have been blocked using excavators, and people aren’t being allowed to move between towns and villages.”

“They have dug up the road surfaces, so how are we supposed to get past?”

Chinese premier visits

Chinese premier Li Keqiang visited Wuhan on Monday, promising reinforcements amid growing public anger over the city government’s failure to respond adequately to a fast-changing public health emergency.

“Li … thanked frontline medical workers for their all-out efforts in treating patients and urged them to pay attention to their own protection,” state news agency Xinhua reported.

“He required efforts to guarantee medical resources supply, race against time to treat patients and ensure adequate market supply and stable prices.”

Li promised that 2,500 more medical workers would arrive in Wuhan, where workers are being pressed into service to complete a new hospital to house the overflowing caseload from the city’s overwhelmed hospitals.

Social media comments have been sharply critical of the Hubei authorities. The provincial governor corrected himself twice during a news conference over the number of face masks being produced in the province.

Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang told state broadcaster CCTV the city’s management of the crisis was “not good enough,” a rare public self-criticism for a Chinese official, and said he was willing to resign.

“Right now we are all beyond caring,” a resident of Wuhan told RFA on Monday. “When this whole thing started, they should at the very least have made us aware of how serious it was.”

“Also, it’s not just us who were ill-prepared. They don’t seem to have been well-prepared within their own ranks either,” he said.

Wuhan businessman Qin Daling said an estimated 300,000 people had left Wuhan before the lockdown.

“I saw it myself: the night before the city was cut off, 300,000 people left,” he said.

Provinces isolating themselves

Zhang Maolin, a resident of Lushan Scenic Area in Jiangxi province, which also borders Hubei, said similar road closures were also in force all around his home.

“Each province is isolating itself … and civilian drivers daren’t go anywhere,” Zhang said. “Anyone who is trying to run a business isn’t going to be able to operate.”

“The key now is to re-open the flow of materials, because prices are very high right now in Wuhan because the goods can’t get in,” he said. “Here in my town, there was no rice available yesterday, although there was some today.”

“There is no way you can get hold of a face mask,” he added.

Elsewhere in China, people who fled Wuhan before the lockdown are now being driven out of villages, denied food in eateries, and accommodation in hotels and guesthouses, according to posts on social media platforms Sina Weibo and WeChat seen by RFA.

One video posted to social media showed a group of people from Wuhan being told to turn around by local residents and police in the southwestern province of Yunnan, while a similar scene was posted from Chongqing.

Only authorities in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Hainan island, and Xuwen in Guangdong are running centralized resettlement and medical observation programs for residents of Hubei.

But neither the National Health Commission nor the Ministry of Civil Affairs responsible for rescue operations have commented on the crisis so far.

Global threat unclear

Health experts are still unsure how great a global threat is posed by the virus, which has spread to other countries, but only in single figures so far with no deaths reported.

National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei said on Sunday that the incubation period for nCoV could range from one to 14 days, and that the virus was infectious during incubation, which would allow it to spread while still undetected.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated an incubation period of two to 10 days.

Meanwhile, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has arrived in China to work with local officials.

The U.S. Consulate in Wuhan will operate a charter flight on Tuesday to evacuate its personnel and some other Americans from the city, while Japan is getting ready to fly out 560 of its nationals “as soon as possible,” the Associated Press reported.

French citizens who want to leave Wuhan will be taken on a direct flight to France in the middle of the week, and then held in quarantine for 14 days, while employees of Peugeot and Citroen carmaker PSA, said it was evacuating its expatriate employees and their families from Wuhan and quarantining them in another city.