China's efforts to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus with a transportation lockdown are sparking confusion among residents who are unsure of what steps to take.
Some 20 million people living in four cities are impacted by the lockdown, with authorities in Hubei province's Wuhan, canceling flights and trains, and closing roads to prevent people from entering or leaving the metropolitan area, where hundreds have been infected with the pneumonia-like virus.
But with few independent journalists operating in Wuhan, and Beijing maintaining tight control over information, many Chinese are relying on anecdotal reports from inside the quarantined city for information about how severe the situation has become.
A resident, who scrambled to flee before the lockdown, said that he was surprised to find the city’s airport screening measures at the last minute were looser than expected.
“Upon my arrival [in another Chinese city], I had to go through stricter screening measures, which were not available before I flew out of Wuhan. This is so ridiculous that a stronger action is taken in a city, which isn’t hit as hard as Wuhan,” the resident told VOA on the condition of anonymity.
The resident, who lives a few kilometers away from the outbreak’s suspected first infection site, the Huanan Seafood Market, said that he had to take his aging in-laws and grandmother out of Wuhan for fear that they may fall victim to the deadly virus.
The airport was jam-packed with people trying to flee Wuhan when he and his family managed to make it to their flight in early dawn, he said.
He said the city government had initially tried to cover up the outbreak after the first suspected cases were reported December 31. He said he had learned about several infected cases from his circle of friends through social media before they were made public this week.
According to local media reports, lawyer Shang Manqing’ aunt and lawyer Gan Weidong’s uncle in Wuhan respectively died of pneumonia-like symptoms on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
Both families accused health authorities of rushing to cremate their loved ones before the actual cause of their death was pronounced.
Rising Death Toll
Wuhan’s lockdown comes as China braces for New Year celebrations, when hundreds of millions of Chinese travel to gather with family.
In Wuhan, there remained uncertainty about the impact of the quarantine, even among hoteliers bracing for a busy week.
A five-star hotel, that is a 30-minute drive from the seafood market, was still accepting tourists at around the noon time Thursday.
“If you have developed no symptoms, you can still enter Wuhan via taxi. Ma’am, it’s very safe. I assure you,” a hotel staff said.
Meanwhile, another hotel, close to the hardest-hit market area, advised outsiders not to travel into the city, adding that no one is staying with the hotel except long-term guests.
Weighing Economic Impact
The province’s four other cities – Huangang, Ezhou, Xiantao and Chibi – have shut down their partial public transportation systems.
With many cities having canceled New Year celebrations, the nation’s tourism sector will see an immediate impact, economists say. Quarantine measures could have broader impacts on the economy if they continue.
“This first quarter’s numbers with respect to retail sales and restaurants and hospitality industries and the transportation industries will be affected as well,” said Raymond Yeung, senior economist of Greater China at the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group.
“But fortunately, if you look at the Chinese economy on the back of this phase 1 deal and the overall improvement of the trade sectors whereas the tech cycles seem to be very supportive ahead of the 5G rollout this year. That seems to boost the trade numbers in the first quarter. That can offset the impact of this new SARS epidemic,” the Hong Kong-based economist added.
When the stock markets reopen in a week, investors will be keeping a close eye on any news, that may fluctuate shares prices, he said.
If the outbreak is quickly contained, the impact will be limited. However, if it protracts and quickly spreads, the regional economy will take a hit as it had during the 2003 SARS outbreak, Yeung said.
You Shibing, an economics professor at Wuhan University, said he agreed, noting the city’s tourism sector will suffer a big loss at least during the week-long New Year vacation.
In recent years, Wuhan has been one of the most popular cities among domestic travelers with annual tourism income reaching $43.25 billion (300 billion yuan). In the previous National Day vacation last October, Wuhan attracted a record-high of 22.6 million travelers.
Professor You said that the city’s manufacturing sectors may face a various degree of workforce challenges.
“The high-tech industries such as the manufacturing of electronic and opto-electronics products mostly hire local people. But the service sector including the agricultural reprocessing industry mostly hire migrant workers, who have left the city and may not be able to return,” the professor said.
Any worker shortages could force local businesses to shut down future production, he added.