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Wuhan lockdown ends despite concerns over asymptomatic infections

Residents wear surgical masks while crossing the road in order to prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020 in Hong Kong. (Geovien So/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS)
April 09, 2020

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

Millions of people in the central Chinese city of Wuhan were once more allowed to travel around and leave their city after 76 days in lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged in the city in late December.

Thousands of people were seen on the city’s main thoroughfares and crowding into railway stations and highway tollbooths on Wednesday, all of them wearing facemasks, and many in protective plastic clothing from head to toe.

The move to end travel restrictions in favor of an app monitoring people’s health status and social contacts came in spite of outbreaks in other parts of the country and warnings from experts that there could be a resurgence in coronavirus cases.

Tens of thousands of people stranded in the city after traveling there to spend Lunar New Year with loved ones in January were finally allowed to leave, piling back onto planes, trains and long-distances buses with their luggage.

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However, social distancing measures remain in place, with schools closed, masks strongly encouraged in public and temperature checks for anyone entering public spaces.

And anyone arriving elsewhere in China from Wuhan will likely face 14-day quarantines and coronavirus testing at their destination.

“It’s easy to get into Wuhan now, but it’s still pretty hard to get out,” aquaculture business owner Liu Shaoxin told RFA.

A green code “pass” allowing free travel out of the city requires a total of seven certificates, as well as the seal of the Center for Epidemic Control and Prevention, and approval by the local district-level government, he said.

Roadblocks remain in Hubei

He said road travel within Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, remains fraught with obstacles, as roadblocks thrown up by local people at the time of the lockdown have yet to be removed.

Authorities in some areas of China are still quarantining his goods, or simply denying entry to trucks with a Hubei registration plate, Liu said.

“We daren’t say that these fish are from Wuhan or Hubei … those names still cast a shadow on people’s minds, and they are still a little afraid of them,” he said.

A vegetable vendor in Wuhan’s Baishazhou market said business is now at around one-tenth of the turnover it was pre-lockdown, as fresh produce has a short shelf-life, and customers haven’t been able to visit the street markets.

The lockdown was lifted in spite of warnings from experts about a resurgence in COVID-19 cases as people start to come into contact with each other, and as authorities in some parts of China raised their epidemic threat levels.

Chinese University respiratory medicine expert David Hui said experts are watching closely to see what happens next in Wuhan.

“Everyone should watch closely to see if there is a second wave … because once you lift the lockdown, people go back to work and school, and crowds gather once more on public transportation and in restaurants,” Hui said.

But he said mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing could still cut the transmission rates of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the epidemic threat level has been raised from low to medium in two districts of the southern city of Guangzhou, Baiyun and Bao’an, while temporary travel restrictions are in place in Yuexiu district, while photos of roadblocks and shuttered businesses in Sanyuanli were posted to social media.

‘Many asymptomatic carriers and no transparency’

A local resident surnamed Huang confirmed the social media reports about Yaotai, the area near Sanyuli, in Yuexiu district.

“Residential compounds are closed over in Yaotai,” Huang said. “People are allowed to leave but not come in.”

“People are so worried because there are so many asymptomatic carriers and no transparency, so we can’t know the true situation,” he said. “Guangzhou is quite crowded, and we are back to work, but we have been careful.”

“Some people aren’t wearing masks, and some restaurants aren’t being too careful.”

An official who answered the phone at the Guangzhou Health Commission said controls are being stepped up in areas considered to be “at risk.”

“People need to be stepping up personal protection,” the official said. “Controls are stricter if there are foreigners coming into residential compounds, but … there have been no lockdowns.”

In Taiwan, Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) specialist panel convener Chang Shan-chwen said there are concerns about asymptomatic spreaders of the coronavirus.

“I have seen that asymptomatic people tend to have a large viral load from the outset, and there is definitely a chance they could infect others,” Chang told a news conference in Taipei. “Data from overseas also indicates that there is a high chance that people who are asymptomatic will still spread [COVID-19].”