Nfld. & Labrador

Tense times for Newfoundlander in China as fears of coronavirus rise

Chris Walsh has seen his city of 12 million people turn into a ghost town. Masks have become mandatory and police in hazmat suits are sweeping the streets.

Chris Walsh is on lockdown in a city of 12 million people

Police in Xi'an wear protective suits while conducting traffic stops at a checkpoint near a major highway. (Submitted by Chris Walsh)

Chris Walsh has seen his city of 12 million people turn into a ghost town, as surgical masks have become mandatory and police in hazmat suits are sweeping the streets.

Originally from St. John's, Walsh lives in the Chinese city of Xi'an. Situated one province to the south is Hubei, whose capital city, Wuhan, is considered the epicentre of the recent coronavirus outbreak.

"It's a bit tense," Walsh told The St. John's Morning Show. "There's a lot of people who are afraid. Everybody is staying inside, staying at home, trying to be safe."

Walsh, who is married to a Chinese woman, moved to Xi'an eight months ago with their two-year-old son.

Chris Walsh, his wife Yiyi Li and their son Montgomery Walsh live in Xi'an, China, about 780 kilometres from Wuhan. (Submitted by Chris Walsh)

They've found themselves in a state of fear around a potentially deadly virus. As of Wednesday, 6,000 people had been infected, and 132 people are confirmed dead.

Coronaviruses are a broad group of viruses that can include the common cold but also more severe respiratory illnesses like SARS. The recent outbreak involves a specific strain known as 2019-nCoV.

Millions of people fled Wuhan before the city was locked down. Authorities are now stopping people on buses and at checkpoints around Xi'an, looking for people who may have left.

"They're looking for Wuhan people, or from the province of Hubei," Walsh said. 

The last time they attempted to take the highway, Walsh and his family were stuck at a checkpoint for two hours as authorities checked the temperatures of each person passing through. He watched as they took a person out of the car behind them, alleging he was from Wuhan.

A person in protective equipment sanitizes a playground in Xi'an, China. (Submitted by Chris Walsh)

Walsh's temperature had a high reading on the first test, but registered as normal on a second test. They were allowed to pass through.

He drew comparisons to the state of emergency in Newfoundland last week, saying all stores are closed except for essential retailers, like grocery stores and gas stations.

While only 56 people have been infected in his entire province, Walsh said the concerns are still rising as they watch the numbers increase day after day in the neighbouring province of Hubei.

"You don't know how quickly this is going to spread and you don't know how deadly it can be."

People wear masks as a precaution due to the coronavirus outbreak as they arrive at the International terminal at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Saturday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The family has an important decision to make this week. They had planned a vacation to Japan for the first week of February, but are now considering whether it's safer to leave the country, or if going to the busy airport will only put them at a greater risk.

"We have to make a big decision on what is safest for our family," he said.

In Canada, the risk remains low. A husband and wife in Ontario are the only two confirmed cases in Canada, while there is one presumptive case in British Columbia.

On Wednesday afternoon, Air Canada announced it was suspending flights to Beijing and Shanghai.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show