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Coronavirus: A View From China

photo of chinese shoppers wearing masks
January 24, 2020

As the Chinese Lunar New Year begins, more than 30 million of its residents are restricted from traveling due to an outbreak of a new coronavirus. While the outbreak started in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, cases have now been diagnosed in every province in China except Tibet. The virus, a relative of the one that causes SARS and MERS, has left more than 800 sick and 26 dead. Chinese officials have imposed travel bans on 11 cities in the past several days, starting with Wuhan on Jan. 23.

To get a better understanding of conditions in China, WebMD talked to the staff of the South China Morning Post's (SCMP) China Desk by email.

WebMD: How are people in China reacting to the outbreak? What is their mood?

SCMP: Wuhan City in central China is where this outbreak started. But the disease has spread across the country and confirmed cases are now reported in all provinces and regions except Tibet. There are also confirmed cases in the US, Japan and Thailand. The mood in China is very worried and there is some anger. The spread of the outbreak could not have come at a worse time: the eve of the Chinese New Year, when hundreds of millions of people - often dubbed the biggest migration in human history - would normally travel across the country to reunite with their families. Lots of Wuhan residents on social media are sharing videos and testimony of chaotic and under-resourced hospitals that are unable to effectively deal with the influx of sick patients. Many social media commenters are demanding that the government release more up-to-date information on the number of infected people and deaths, as there is widespread mistrust of official government data.

WebMD: What has been the response to the travel bans and quarantines? How are people in Wuhan handling the quarantine?

SCMP: The travel bans have definitely heightened the sense of panic - 13 cities and counties in surrounding Hubei province have followed suit with similar measures after Wuhan. Some people tried to rush out of Wuhan by train and plane before the lockdown took effect at 10am on Thursday, but many others are now stranded in the city with no way of returning to their families via public transport. Some Wuhan residents said the city had turned into a 'ghost town', reporting shortages of food and medical supplies such as surgical masks, gloves and protective goggles. Experts have also warned that the lockdown may increase the risk of cross-infection among Wuhan citizens.

WebMD: What types of precautions, if any, are people taking to protect themselves as they travel and get together for Chinese New Year?

SCMP: Instead of celebrating this happy occasion together, many Chinese people are now reconsidering their travel plans altogether. Many will have to make the painful and difficult choice of prioritising public health over their personal family obligations. In Wuhan, many families will be forced to spend Lunar New Year apart because of the lockdown and quarantine measures for suspected patients and their close contacts. Health officials have also warned on nationwide TV that people should stay indoors and not meet relatives and friends for the Lunar New Year, as is the traditional custom.

WebMD: Besides the travel bans, what else are health officials telling people to keep the virus contained?

SCMP: There has been a nationwide publicity campaign to urge people to wear masks in public places, frequently wash their hands and limit going out. Theme parks have been shut down, film screenings called off and mass public events cancelled across the country.

WebMD: Is there any sense of how quickly the virus can spread among people?

SCMP: At the moment, exact transmission patterns of the virus remain unclear, though judging from the existing mortality rate it seems less lethal than SARS. We know that it can be transmitted through close contact, but there is yet no evidence that it is airborne, according to David Heymann, professor of disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. China has revealed that there was one case in Wuhan who infected 14 other medical workers, but no other so-called "super-spreaders" have been identified.

WebMD: Do you know any more details about "patient zero?"

SCMP: According to a China CDC report, the outbreak was first discovered when a hospital in Wuhan admitted four individuals with pneumonia on 29 December 2019. The four all worked at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the city, which sells live poultry, aquatic products and several kinds of wild animals. The CDC report only said the hospital reported their cases to the local CDC. We do not know what's the latest of these cases.

WebMD: Is there any new information about the source of the virus?

SCMP: No. We know that it was likely an animal from the Wuhan seafood and wildlife market whose stallholders were first infected with viral pneumonia. In recent days, scientists have debated whether the likely source of the coronavirus was bats or snakes. Some Chinese scientists have found that the new coronavirus genome is 96 per cent similar to that of a certain bat coronavirus, but the virus could have been hosted by other animals before making the jump to humans.

WebMD: Have you talked to anyone who has had the illness or had a family member who has had it and what that has been like?

SCMP: No, we have not been able to speak to patients since all those who have been confirmed infected were quarantined. However, we have spoken to relatives of patients and doctors treating them. One 29-year-old Wuhan resident said that doctors took a week to diagnose their grandmother with the virus, even though a CAT scan showed that they had common symptoms of the type of pneumonia it causes.

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