A city of 11 million is put on lockdown.
Chinese authorities on Thursday morning closed off Wuhan — a major port city of more than 11 million people and the center of a pneumonia-like virus that has spread halfway around the world — by canceling planes and trains leaving the city, and suspending buses, subways and ferries within it.
In Wuhan, residents said that a sense of fear was growing as the city went into lockdown.
The new virus, which first emerged at the end of December, has killed at least 17 people and sickened more than 570, including in Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and the United States. It has raised the specter of a repeat of the SARS epidemic, which broke out in China in 2002 and 2003 and spread rapidly while officials obscured the seriousness of the crisis. That virus eventually killed more than 800 people worldwide.
Roughly 30,000 people fly out of Wuhan on an average day, according to air traffic data. Many more leave using ground transportation like trains and cars. The city is the hub of industry and commerce in central China, home to the region’s biggest airport and deepwater port.
The sudden restrictions could upend the travel plans of millions of Chinese citizens, who travel in huge numbers during the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on Friday. The government said it would close Wuhan’s airport and train stations to departures, and it urged residents not to leave the city — a major transportation hub — unless they had an urgent reason to do so.
Residents in Wuhan are nervous. Some are also angry.
Some residents were directing their anger at the local authorities, accusing them of not doing enough to contain the crisis.
“The government did not fulfill its duty,” Du Hanrong, 56, a retiree, said by telephone. “They just are doing things hastily and carelessly.”
Others said they were going about business as usual, and that people were still going out to shop for the New Year. Still, many residents were taking precautions, such as canceling plans to have dinner with friends and relatives for the holiday.
“We are all quarantining ourselves at home voluntarily now,” said Tony Li, 39. “Cutting off the city is necessary. Wuhan is the center of the epidemic, after all.”
The outbreak is testing Wuhan’s health care system. Several Wuhan residents said on social media websites that they had gone from hospital to hospital, waiting in lines for hours, only to be sent home with medicine and instructions to seek further treatment later if symptoms persisted in a few days.
Doctors told some patients that there was a shortage of hospital beds as well as testing kits, according to posts on Chinese social media sites. According to Chinese news reports, a patient flew to Dalian to seek treatment at hospitals there after he was sent home from a hospital in Wuhan. In Dalian, he tested positive for the coronavirus.
Calls to local hospitals in Wuhan rang unanswered Wednesday.
Many residents tried to leave the city before the shutdown.
The announcement that the city of Wuhan would be temporarily sealed off from the outside world starting at 10 a.m. on Thursday came while most residents were asleep at 2 a.m.
Some decided to flee the city.
Residents were seen hauling their luggage to a train station in the early hours before the citywide lockdown took effect, the Chinese news outlet Caixin reported. Several people said they would buy tickets for any destination as long as they could leave Wuhan, the magazine reported.
Lines of passengers in masks and down jackets, lugging suitcases, formed outside the major Hankou railway station just 20 minutes before the cutoff time, a live video by media outlet The Paper showed.
What is a coronavirus and why is it so deadly?
Coronaviruses are named for the spikes that protrude from their membranes, which resemble the sun’s corona. They can infect both animals and people, and cause illnesses of the respiratory tract, ranging from the common cold to severe conditions like SARS, which sickened thousands of people around the world — and killed nearly 800 — during a 2003 outbreak.
Symptoms of infection include a high fever, difficulty breathing and lung lesions. Milder cases may resemble the flu or a bad cold, making detection very difficult. The incubation period — the time from exposure to the onset of symptoms — is believed to be about two weeks.
Little is known about who is most at risk. Some of the nine patients who have died also suffered other illnesses.
Reporting was contributed by Amy Qin, Vivian Wang, Russell Goldman, Christopher Buckley, Javier Hernández, Austin Ramzy, Steven Lee Myers, Tiffany May and Elaine Yu. Amber Wang, Albee Zhang, Claire Fu, Elsie Chen and Zoe Mou contributed research.