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Beijing struggles to keep up with a virus  — and a nation on the move

China effectively quarantined Wuhan, cutting air and rail service to the city of 11 million people and closing down public transit within it. A government edict said citizens should not leave Wuhan unless they had "special conditions." 

Tens of millions of people travelling across China and abroad for Lunar New Year 

Travellers try to protect themselves from the coronavirus at the Beijing railway station, as they leave for China’s Lunar New Year holiday (Sasa Petricic/CBC News)

At Beijing's central railway station, the crowds stream in, ticket in hand, suitcase in tow, surgical mask in place. This last item has become an integral part of this year's Lunar New Year celebrations.

"I'm very worried about the virus," said Zhang Luyao, a twenty-something on her way home to China's north. "It's spreading really fast, and there are so many people around me."

Indeed, tens of millions of people are on the move this week, travelling across China and abroad. 

It's the largest annual human migration on earth. And this year, it may exacerbate a very human vulnerability: infection from the new strain of coronavirus, now potentially being spread by all the travellers. 

On Wednesday, the Chinese National Health Commission underlined the "risk of further spread of the epidemic" by all the movement of people. The virus would have opportunities to infect many more people, through coughing, sneezing or breathing, said the Deputy Director of the Commission, Li Bin — and would alter and mutate.

Tens of millions of people are on the move this week, travelling across China and abroad.  (Sasa Petricic/CBC News)

The new coronavirus likely came from wild animals, almost certainly transferring to humans at a wholesale seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December. Many of those initially infected had been at the market, and the vast majority of confirmed cases now are still in Wuhan and the province around it, Hubei.

Jaime Santirso finds people confident in government's approach. 'People have faith,' he says. 6:40

In a dramatic move on Thursday, China effectively quarantined Wuhan, cutting air and rail service to the city of 11 million people and closing down public transit within it. A government edict said citizens should not leave Wuhan unless they had "special conditions." 

The World Health Organization commended China for "minimizing risks locally and abroad" with the move.

Infection spreading globally

But is it too late? Infections have already been showing up in many parts of the country, from Beijing to Macau, Shanghai to Shenzhen. And abroad in Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. The first North American case is in Washington State, a man who recently travelled to China.

The number of these cases has grown by hundreds this week, and some days, the deaths attributed to the virus has doubled. Unusually for China, the number of cases have all been announced in daily briefings and hourly updates, and carried in state media over the past days.

Some people have been left reeling, feeling numb from the speed and scale of the outbreak — and helpless.

Travellers try to protect themselves from the coronavirus at the Beijing railway station, as they leave for China’s Lunar New Year holiday. (Sasa Petricic/CBC News)

Pang Zifen sat on a suitcase Wednesday in front of the Beijing railway station with her young son. Both wore masks. 

"We don't normally wear these," she said with a sigh, "and I'm not sure how useful they are. But I want to protect my son and I just don't know what else to do." 

As the easiest form of protection, masks have been selling out at stores across China. 

Still, there are those who don't believe they are being told the whole story.

"I don't that trust what I see," said He Wen, a 27 year-old traveller at the Shanghai railway station. "I think the number of the infected could be far more than that reported."

Online, there's been anger as well, though censors have been removing many negative comments on China's controlled internet.

One post under the name 'Phoenix' said "hiding the virulence of the virus or the number of people infected is a cover-up! We must hold them accountable, no matter how high the responsibility goes."

China hid SARS

There is reason for suspicion. 

In 2002, when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) appeared in China's southern Guangdong province, it took three months for state media to report on it. And even then, the message was to reassure people that it wasn't a serious problem. 

Meanwhile, the country was dealing with more than 1,800 confirmed cases and close to 80 deaths. SARS went on to kill almost 800 people worldwide, with experts blaming China's slow response for making the problem worse.

SARS is also a coronavirus, closely related to the new strain. 

Pang Zifen and her son try to protect themselves from the coronavirus at the Beijing railway station, as they wait for their train. (Sasa Petricic/CBC News)

Beijing eventually admitted it was a mistake to try to hide the SARS outbreak, and China's Health Minister and the mayor of Beijing were removed from their positions.

There was little news about the current coronavirus in its early days as well, until this week when Chinese state media reported that President Xi Jinping told his officials that "people's lives and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed."

Information began to flow. But so has China's mass migration.

The crowds at the Beijing railway station are as big as ever. So is the demand for masks… and the sense of worry on the faces of those who wear them. 

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is the CBC's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. He has covered China as well as reported from North and South Korea. He previously reported on the Middle East, from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic

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