This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in China has doubled in the past week, amid fears that the virus may now be capable of spreading very fast between people in casual contact in public places.
As of Thursday, there were 28,350 total confirmed cases of novel coronavirus (nCoV-2019 (Wuhan)) and 565 deaths reported globally, with 549 of the deaths in the worst-hit central Chinese province of Hubei, of which Wuhan is the capital.
While Japan has confirmed 45 cases, Singapore 28, Thailand 25 and Hong Kong 24, there has been no sign yet that the virus is being transmitted among the general population anywhere outside mainland China.
However, there are concerns that the coronavirus may have the potential to spread rapidly between people in public places, with ruling Chinese Communist Party newspaper the People’s Daily reporting that a 56-year-old man in the eastern province of Zhejiang was diagnosed with no contact with any previous cases, suggesting that he must have picked it up while shopping for food in a local supermarket or farmer’s market.
The paper published local surveillance footage showing the man in brief proximity to a known coronavirus patient on Jan. 23. Neither person was wearing a mask, and 19 of their contacts are now in islation, the paper said.
A resident of the eastern city of Hangzhou, who gave the surname Jiang, said the authorities have stepped up restrictions on people’s movements in the residential area where she lives.
“We’re still allowed out to buy groceries but each compound is cut off, and you have to get a pass to be allowed in or out,” Jiang said. “It’s still very tightly controlled.”
“Every residential area is isolated, and we don’t go out much, only to stock up on food once a week,” she said.
Meanwhile, a Chinese doctor widely reported to have died after warning in December of the virus’s potential spread is still alive, though in critical condition, Wuhan Central Hospital said on social media on Thursday, according to wire service reports.
Li Wenliang was among a group of eight local doctors reprimanded by authorities for “spreading rumors” as the outbreak took hold.
New cases confirmed
The lockdown came after 10 new cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the city, including a married couple who hadn’t traveled anywhere or met with known patients or their contacts, but who had been out in public on Jan. 22 without masks on. Their diagnoses were confirmed on Feb. 5.
Back in Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, the authorities have opened two new hospitals to cope with an overwhelming number of coronavirus patients: a new, 1,500-bed hospital specially built for virus patients and a 1,000-bed hospital with prefabricated wards and isolation rooms.
Tests of a new antiviral drug will also begin on a group of patients, as the authorities moved people with milder symptoms into makeshift hospitals at sports centers, exhibition halls and other public spaces.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology recently applied for a China patent for remdesivir, an antiviral made by U.S.-based pharmaceutical company Gilead, which has shown promising results in treating the virus.
But many patients can’t get hold of it, according to Xu Rong, a resident of Wuhan.
“I have a single lung infected and my husband and mother-in-law have both lungs,” Xu told RFA. “We haven’t had any difficulty breathing yet, and the kid has been sent to stay with a relative because he has no symptoms.”
“We haven’t had the results of the tests [for the virus] back yet. We are waiting to hear.”
Xu said the family had tried to get remdesivir delivered, but express delivery companies had declined to carry it to them.
Hospitals filling up
Meanwhile, another 132 quarantine sites with more than 12,500 beds have been set aside for patients’ contacts, state news agency Xinhua reported.
A Wuhan resident surnamed Feng said a huge number of people can’t get into any of the city’s hospitals.
“If you have pneumonia and your symptoms are relatively mild, there will be no bed for you,” Feng said. “Everyone has to line up, and beds are very scarce right now, let alone free treatment.”
“There aren’t even any beds if you have money to pay for treatment,” she said. “People in Wuhan are fending for themselves now.”
State broadcaster CCTV reported that two newborn babies at Wuhan Children’s Hospital were confirmed as having contracted the Wuhan coronavirus on Feb. 5. The babies were born on Jan. 13 and Jan. 22 to mothers who were already infected, the report said.
Cluster of infections
One of the largest clusters of community infection centered around a huge Lunar New Year banquet held on Jan. 19 in Wuhan’s Baibuting neighborhood, a resident surnamed Zhang told RFA.
More than 50 buildings in the residential community of 130,000 people have bee quarantined after thousands of people got together to welcome the Year of the Rat, the Economic Observer reported.
“There is a very high number of fever patients in the Baibuting community,” Zhang said. “All of the buildings have been sealed off, with notices saying that there is fever in the building.”
At least two photographers who took photos of the feast have since died, with reports of other deaths among those who attended, according to social media posts seen by RFA.
A local resident surnamed Liu said the authorities don’t seem to be tracking the Baibuting outbreak for data about the the route of infections, possibly because health officials and medics are simply overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the epidemic.
“I don’t think anyone has the ability to do this now,” Liu said. “Partly it’s due to the lack of professionals, and partly that there is no way that the government will let this happen.”
“This is not what they’re paying attention to right now.”
Repeated calls to the Baibuting residential community and to ruling Chinese Communist Party and government offices in the district rang unanswered on Thursday.
An official who answered the phone at the Wuhan municipal party committee propaganda department declined to comment.
Flight suspensions continue
International airlines Air France-KLM, Virgin, and Iberia said Thursday they would extend their initial suspension of flights to China.
“Air France is monitoring the situation in China in real time and has been working closely with national and international health authorities since the outbreak of the coronavirus,” the company said.
Virgin Atlantic said it would extend the suspension of its flights between London Heathrow and Shanghai until March 28.
“The health and safety of our customers and staff remains our absolute priority,” an airline spokesperson said, while Spain’s Iberia said it would now not fly to China again until the end of April at the earliest.
The outbreak has been declared a global health emergency, prompting several governments to warn against travel to China and ban new arrivals from the country.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Chinese authorities were using a “sledgehammer” approach to controlling the spread of the coronavirus.
“People need to be fed, they need to be housed, they need to get treatment and there are huge gaps in the Chinese government’s response to these individual needs,” HRW chief Kenneth Roth, who was recently turned away by immigration on arriving in Hong Kong, told reporters in Geneva.
“This is not a rights-oriented approach to public health. This is treating public health with a sledgehammer,” he said.
He said the mass lockdowns of cities affecting more than 56 million people currently in effect in China haven’t worked.
“Quarantines of this sort typically don’t work,” he said.
“Quarantines, the kind that public health officials advocate, are much more targeted. They’re aimed at people who have been identified as having the virus.”