As It Happens

Anxiety and fear as China struggles to contain deadly coronavirus

To contain the spread of the coronavirus in China, the government has asked residents of Wuhan — where the outbreak is believed to have originated — not to leave. Transportation to and from the city is being shut down. Meanwhile, the virus has already spread to at least six other countries.

Face masks, hand sanitizer selling out on mainland and in neighbouring countries, says William Yang

Travellers wearing face masks walk with their luggage at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan, in southern China's Hubei province on Tuesday. The U.S. on Tuesday reported its first case of the virus, after a Washington state resident who returned last week from the outbreak's epicentre was hospitalized near Seattle. (Chinatopix/The Associated Press)


In Wuhan, China, authorities are taking drastic measures to try to contain the outbreak of coronavirus.

More than 500 cases have been confirmed in mainland China as of Wednesday, and the death toll has risen to 17.

The city is closing its airport and train stations to outgoing passengers, and suspending its transportation networks. People are being asked not to leave the city starting tomorrow.

But is it too little, too late?

William Yang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He's the East Asia correspondent for Deutsche-Welle's English service. He spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about what he's hearing from his sources in Wuhan.

William, what are people in Wuhan telling you about the mood in the city, right now?

My sources on the ground are telling me that the mood right now in this city is just pure anxiety. And also a lot of fear about what exactly is going to develop — because currently, all the information that they're getting are kind of like coming directly from the government.

But what happened is that [it was] only three days ago that they finally started getting official confirmation from the government.

So they are considering the handling of the government a little bit too late for the outbreak.

And so what are people doing? What precautions are they taking?

The government actually just introduced an official law that required every citizen in the city to wear masks at public places — so movie theatres and department stores. Or even if they go to government buildings, they are required to wear masks.

Also …hand sanitizers and … sanitizing wipes are basically all sold out in Wuhan, right now.

But this is already spread from Wuhan, and spread from China. One case of it now in the United States that's been confirmed. What are you hearing about what efforts there are to try and contain the virus?

So right now, at least in East Asia where I am based — and also we are in the region where a lot of the first few key overseas cases popped up — governments are co-ordinating among themselves, and also frantically communicating with the Chinese officials to try to get the latest information about the virus … including the personal source of the virus and also how exactly are the virus being transmitted.

Staff move bio-waste containers past the entrance of the Wuhan Medical Treatment Centre, where some infected with a new virus are being treated in Wuhan on Wednesday. (Dake Kang/The Associated Press)

It seems to have originated in one specific market in Wuhan. Do we know what was in that market that might have been the source of the virus?

One of my sources lived not too far from the market itself.

And what he said is that the market has been known for selling not just [fish], but also wild animals.… A lot of them are actually illegally being sold on the market. But because the local official never actually cracked down on that behaviour, so the local residents are just very used to going there and [getting] all the rare delicacy that these businessmen [caught] or imported from different parts of China.

What kind of animals?

Animals include, like, large rats, and also some birds — including ostrich. So basically, it's like all different kinds of animals that a lot of times we don't imagine … being sold on the local market. But they apparently are all available at that single market.

And so they've narrowed it down to that. But then they didn't close the market immediately. What did your source tell you about how slow it was for them to actually act on that market?

Information or rumours about the mysterious infection started circulating in Wuhan at the end of December. And at least at some of the biggest local newspapers in Hubei province … were just simply telling the local residents that these are non-transmittable infections, and so they don't need to worry about it too much. And the market was still operating for at least a week until the outbreak really got out of control.

A box of masks imported from Japan sits inside a Yifeng Pharmacy in Wuhan on Wednesday. Pharmacies there are restricting customers to buying one mask at a time amid high demand and worries over an outbreak of a new coronavirus. (Dake Kang/The Associated Press)

Do you know when they first realized that this was transmittable and the fact that it could be passed human-to-human?

So it was when, like, dozens — or like over 100 people suddenly all had the same symptoms, the pneumonia symptoms. And a lot of them being hospitalized.

Some local residents who are more … connected to social media started frantically searching for relevant information on local social media.

And in fact, these symptoms reminded them of the SARS epidemic, that was really damaging in a story plaguing China back in 2003.

Are people comparing then, the way the Chinese government has responded to this outbreak to the SARS outbreak?

Yeah, some of the local residents were really dissatisfied with how the government was responding so late. And neighbouring governments are also reminded of how the Chinese government was really not being responsible during the SARS epidemic.

So, I think the peer pressure from neighbouring countries have really forced China to really be more transparent about this, this time around.

But also just the fact that China has never been a society that is very good, you know, revealing some of the more negative information or news about itself. So a lot of the times, how they handled this is that they try to see if they can contain it by themselves. And when things really got out of control, they would then realize that they had no choice but to disclose and be very transparent about what's actually happening.

You live in Taipei in Taiwan. What personal concerns do you have —  for you and your family. Are you worried about this?

Yeah, so people here are actually also very worried about the spread of this virus, because we have hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese people working in China. And in fact … starting tomorrow is the Lunar New Year holiday. And most of them are going to fly back from China. And Wuhan alone had thousands of Taiwanese people working there.

And we actually already have one confirmed case that's actually a lady in her 50s, who worked in Wuhan on a daily basis. So right now, at the local store drugstores and everywhere all this hand sanitizers and masks are all sold out. And there are no stockpiles at many of the local places here.

Experts are predicting that the next two weeks are going to be very crucial when it comes to whether this virus is going to have an outbreak in Taiwan or not.

Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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