China Locks Down 40 Million People as Anger Grows Over Virus
China is struggling to contain rising public anger over its response to a spreading coronavirus even as it took unprecedented steps to slow the outbreak, restricting travel for 40 million people on the eve of Lunar New Year.
The government ordered travel agencies to suspend sales of domestic and international package tours after imposing transport curbs on cities near the center of the outbreak.
The turmoil comes as the virus stymies efforts to track infected patients. While the death toll continues to rise - and now includes someone as young as 36 - some infected patients aren’t showing a fever, a symptom governments around the world have been using to screen for the pathogen.
The pressure is rising on China as it tries to come to grips with a disease that some fear could rival SARS, which 17 years ago claimed almost 800 lives. While global experts have mostly praised efforts to contain the virus, Chinese citizens are increasingly critical and anxious as travel restrictions grow to encompass a population bigger than Australia.
Beyond the restricted area at the epicenter of the outbreak, major closures took place across the country amid the health fears. Public events to mark the new year were canceled, Shanghai Disneyland announced that it was closing indefinitely, and cinema chains canceled movie screenings. The halt to activity comes during what is usually a peak period for spending, putting China’s economic stabilization at risk.
“This is unprecedented in China, and maybe even in the history of modern health,” said Yanzhong Huang, director of the center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, of the widening travel restrictions. “It’s a tremendous legal, institutional, not to mention logistical challenge.”
The death toll rose to 25, even as the World Health Organization stopped short of calling the virus a global health emergency. The number of confirmed cases in mainland China rose to more than 800 as of Jan. 23, the National Health Commission said in a statement. At least one patient is as young as 10 years old.
Patients with the infection have been found in countries across Asia, including Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Outside the region, the U.S. has reported one case. Chinese tourists spent $130 billion overseas in 2018, so the restriction on package tours could have significant economic ramifications elsewhere.
In China, what should have been a day of celebration and reunion was colored by growing panic and anger. Local media issued sharp criticisms of the slow response from officials in Hubei province, whose capital city is Wuhan, the center of the outbreak. Rumors have spread rapidly on social media, encompassing everything from a shortage of hospital beds to the spraying of disinfectant from planes.
Chinese officials led by President Xi Jinping pledged “all-out” efforts to contain the outbreak this week. The government on Friday vowed to punish officials who delay virus information, with the State Council setting up an online platform to allow the public to report disclosure problems.