A week into the lockdown of 50 million people in central China, the spread of the coronavirus is showing no signs of slowing down, and residents are beginning to vent their anger.
At a hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, a man whose father-in-law had just died from the virus attacked a doctor, pulling and damaging the doctor’s mask and protective clothing and potentially exposing him to the virus, state-run CCTV reported. The man was detained by police.
The incident highlights the growing frustration among citizens in Wuhan and across Hubei province, where tens of millions of people are closed off from the rest of the country in the Chinese government’s radical effort to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.
So far, that effort is not working.
The Chinese health commission announced that the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak has reached 213, with 43 new deaths announced Friday, the worst 24-hour period since the crisis began.
There are 9,810 confirmed cases globally, with more than 15,000 suspected cases in China alone.
Hospitals, doctors, and officials in Hubei continue to appeal for more supplies and resources to deal with the crisis. The supply shortage led some doctors in Huanggang, a city of 7 million people close to Wuhan, to wear raincoats rather than protective suits and garbage bags as shoe covers, according to the financial news website Yicai.
People trapped in Hubei are angry at the government’s delayed reaction to the crisis, and that anger escalated on Thursday after the New England Journal of Medicine published a paper that revealed that human-to-human transmission of the virus “has occurred among close contacts since the middle of December 2019.”
The government largely ignored the spread of the virus until the middle of January, and now Chinese citizens are outraged by what they see as Beijing’s cover-up of the severity of the situation.
“I am more than outraged, and literally speechless,” Wang Liming, a biology professor at Zhejiang University, wrote on Weibo. “This is the first solid proof that human transmission was intentionally hidden from the public.”
Wang’s post was later deleted, the South China Morning Post reported.
Throughout the growing crisis, Beijing has tried to downplay the severity of the situation and to silence those seeking to raise awareness of the new virus.
In early January police arrested eight frontline doctors who tried to raise the alarm by sharing details in a private messaging group, though a court in Beijing this week slammed the detentions, saying, “It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumor’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitization measures.”
One of those doctors subsequently contracted the virus and remains in a critical condition.
Internationally, the virus continues to spread, with the U.K. confirming its first two cases on Friday morning. In the U.S. and Thailand, authorities reported their first cases of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus.
The situation led the World Health Organization to declare the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” following a meeting in Geneva. The declaration means countries can close their borders, cancel flights, and screen people arriving at ports of entry.
“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China but because of what is happening in other countries,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, told reporters in Geneva on Thursday. “Our greatest concern is the potential for this virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems which are ill-prepared to deal with it.”
“This declaration is not a vote of non-confidence in China,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “On the contrary, WHO continues to have the confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”
On Thursday evening, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 travel advisory, its highest risk assessment, urging all Americans not to travel to China.
It also issued an “authorized departure” notice to all diplomatic staff. The designation, which is one step down from a mandatory evacuation, means that the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the Consulates General in four other cities, along with their family members and all non-emergency U.S. government employees, are permitted to leave the country.
More than a dozen countries have begun repatriation flights for citizens who are trapped in Hubei province. Conversely, the Chinese government has chartered flights to bring Wuhan residents trapped abroad home.
Cover: People wearing masks are seen at Beijing Station in Beijing on January 31, 2020 (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images ).