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More Than 35 Million People In China Are On Travel Lockdown


More than 35 million people in China are now on a travel lockdown. More than 800 have been sickened, and 26 have died. The threat of the mysterious pneumonia-like ailment called coronavirus has Chinese authorities scrambling to prevent it from spreading. NPR's Emily Feng is on the line from Beijing this morning.

Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the government in China has restricted travel in large parts of a province that has the population of Canada. I mean, how is that even going to work?

FENG: Well, there's varying levels of strictness, but they've done it by cutting down the lines of transport one by one. There are about eight cities that are officially on lockdown right now, the strictest is Wuhan. This is the industrial port city of 11 million people where the virus started. Their soldiers have been guarding the train station to stop people from leaving. Even taxis within the city have had to stop service completely. They've barricaded the highways.

But then a lot of the smaller cities around Wuhan have had more relaxed of a quarantine. They've had to close down their train stations, their buses, but they're a little bit more porous. They're still allowing cars out as long as passengers are screened. So it's bit by bit, but they've had to use some security as well to make sure that people don't violate the quarantine.

MARTIN: Right.

FENG: Notably, in Wuhan, they've started building a makeshift hospital and treatment center on the outskirts today. It's going to fit 1,000 people by the time it's done. And astonishingly, it's going to take six days only. They're breaking ground as we speak. This mirrors what they did during the SARS epidemic in 2003. Authorities built this makeshift hospital on the outskirts of Beijing then to quarantine patients. And it was widely seen as an extreme, but crucial move towards curbing the outbreak that you're.

MARTIN: Right. So it really just underscores the urgency of all of this. And this is all happening, of course, ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, which is a time when Chinese travel a whole lot. That's obviously going to create all kinds of concerns about spreading it.

FENG: That's in part why they have been so much more aggressive this week in trying to contain the virus. The week before, the numbers of confirmed cases were very low, suspiciously low, some people may say. This week, we've seen Beijing and Shanghai, plus a number of other provinces, declare the highest level of emergency. And what that really means is control over the response to this public health crisis now transfers from local governments to the central government.

China's State Council - or its Cabinet - is now going to be calling the shots. And that's important because not only is this outbreak all across the country, but local governments historically have this incentive to hide the true gravity of crises because they fear punishment from the top.

MARTIN: And what about Wuhan? This is the city - the massive city, population wise - where the outbreak started. I mean, the government restricted travel there as of yesterday?

FENG: Right. So I'm in Beijing right now because they've cut off all travel in and out of the city. But people have been prolific, sharing their experiences on social media. The streets in Wuhan - as they are in Beijing, actually - are really calm because they're totally deserted. People who are still in the cities are staying at home. The scenes in the hospitals are quite different. There, it seems quite chaotic, quite desperate.

People have been really outraged at just how thinly resourced China's medical staff are in Hubei Province. All the top posts in all of my Chinese social media feeds are these videos showing doctors working either without facemasks or shoddy facemasks because of low supplies. And it's just a sign of how overstretched China's hospitals are right now.

MARTIN: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Thank you.

FENG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.