/Wuhan facing wartime conditions as China tries to contain coronavirus

Wuhan facing wartime conditions as China tries to contain coronavirus

Increasingly desperate officials in the quarantined centre of the coronavirus outbreak have tightened controls on an already frightened population, likening the growing crisis to “wartime conditions”.

Authorities in Wuhan city have started going door to door checking temperatures, rounding up suspected coronavirus patients for forcible quarantine in stadiums and exhibition centres that are serving as warehouses for the sick, the New York Times reported.

The city and country face “wartime conditions”, the paper quoted vice-premier, Sun Chunlun, who has been put in charge of the national campaign against the virus, saying on a visit to Wuhan: “There must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever.”

More than 31,000 people have now been infected around the world, the vast majority inside China and two thirds of them in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province. There have been 638 deaths, all but two of them in China.

Chinese scientists claimed they may have found the animal source of the outbreak, based on genetic analysis, though their results have yet to be published. The coronavirus is thought to have originated in bats but passed through an intermediate host before infecting humans. The researchers identified a coronavirus in pangolins which is 99% similar to the one causing the current outbreak.

A pangolin

Researchers have identified a coronavirus in pangolins. Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images

The only scaly mammal, pangolins are endangered, but the long-snouted, ant-eating animals are often hunted for meat or use in Chinese medicine.

The World Health Organization on Friday hailed a fall in the number of new infections, for a second consecutive day, which could signal some progress in containing the outbreak.

But Sun’s dramatic visit to Wuhan, stepping up efforts on the ground there, and promises of more help from Beijing, suggest that party officials in China fear the epidemic is still not under control.

Containment efforts across Hubei province should be stepped up, with efforts to increase the number of hospital beds and medical staff, top communist party officials agreed at a meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang.

The death rate in Wuhan was 4.1%, the New York Times reported, far higher than the 2.8% across Hubei province, and a national rate around 2%.

Some in Wuhan fear they are being sacrificed for the national good, and the death of a whistleblower doctor from the virus has stirred up popular anger across China.

Li Wenliang was reprimanded by security officials for warning fellow doctors in late December about a mystery new disease; he then caught the coronavirus from one of his own patients in January and despite youth and apparent good health he died early on Friday morning.

A security guard looks out of the window of a sentry box in Wuhan.

A security guard looks out of the window of a sentry box in Wuhan. Photograph: Stringer/Getty Images

The hashtag “we want free speech” was briefly circulating on social media, amid memorials and tributes to Li, before it was wiped by censors.

There have been thousands of cases in other parts of China, where increasing numbers of cities, towns and even remote villages are locking themselves down.

Two weeks into the crisis, however, it is clear that Beijing cannot afford to keep all the country closed for business indefinitely.

When the growing scale of the outbreak was first made public in mid-January the country was on holiday for the most important celebration on the Chinese calendar, the lunar new year festival.

But after festivities that normally bring in a large slice of retail and service sector income was effectively cancelled, and the nationwide holiday was prolonged by a week, the cost of shuttered shops, factories, restaurants and other businesses has started mounting.

Small businesses have warned about problems with everything from keeping livestock fed, to paying rent, and staff salaries for shops that can’t make any sales.

The impact of the shutdown has also been felt beyond China’s borders, since the world’s second-largest economy is now so integrated into international markets.

South Korea’s Hyundai has shuttered the most productive car factory in the world, a five-plant network that can make 1.4m cars a year, as the shutdown in China meant it ran out of a key component.

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples – severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. 

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission, and there have been human-to-human transmissions in the US and in Germany. As of 7 February, the death toll stands at 636 inside China, one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. Infections inside China stand at 31,161 and global infections have passed 280 in 28 countries. The mortality rate is 2%.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, and a third person was diagnosed with it in Brighton, after more than 400 were tested and found negative. The Foreign Office has urged UK citizens to leave China if they can.

The number of people to have contracted the virus could be far higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by World Health Organization (WHO) experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate since many more people are likely to have been infected by the virus but not suffered severe enough symptoms to attend hospital, and so have not been counted. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that people should call 111 instead of visiting the GP’s surgery as there is a risk they may infect others.

Is this a pandemic and should we panic?

Health experts are starting to say it could become a pandemic, but right now it falls short of what the WHO would consider to be one. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in about 25 countries outside China, but by no means in all 195 on the WHO’s list.

There is no need to panic. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern, and says there is a “window of opportunity” to halt the spread of the disease. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

Authorities may initially have planned only a short quarantine, hoping the disease would be brought under control as Sars was over a decade ago.

But it is clear China cannot afford to delay most of its population going back to work, and a meeting of top Chinese leaders has called on businesses to “resume operation in an orderly manner”, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

It suggested adapting working methods to reduce the risk of infections; options could include remote working or staggered shifts. Foxconn, the electronics company that supplies Apple, has begun manufacturing its own surgical masks, allowing Chinese workers to churn out iPhones uninterrupted.

As people gear up to return home there are special regulations on trains and planes to try to reduce the risk of infection.

Ticket sales will be capped at under half the usual numbers so passengers can sit further apart to reduce the risk of infections, the South China Morning Post reported. There will also be more temperature checks and quarantine areas at train stations.

The effort to get people back to work might be complicated by childcare problems if schools do not reopen; authorities said only that they should “postpone the start of new semester in an appropriate manner”, Xinhua reported.

In a sign of growing worries overseas, Hong Kong has announced fines and jail terms of up to six months for quarantine breaches, and Singapore has upgraded its coronavirus alert level, sparking panic-buying of essentials.

Original Source