COVID-19: China's Wuhan city lifts lockdown but is it too soon?
The original epicentre of the now global pandemic has lifted lockdown after 76 days. Trains and flights have resumed and highway entrances reopened. But some restrictions are still in place amid fears of a second wave of infection.
China’s central city of Wuhan -- the original epicentre of the coronavirus crisis -- ended its lockdown on Wednesday, allowing people to leave for the first time since the city was put under strict restrictions 76 days ago to contain the spread of the deadly virus that has engulfed the world. But with lockdown being eased, there are fears of a second wave of infection.
China sealed off Wuhan – the capital of Hubei province and the metropolis of 11 million people on January 23 after it became clear that the flu-like virus that had emerged there late last year was highly contagious and potentially deadly.
Now, healthy residents and visitors will finally be allowed to leave Wuhan. Trains and flights have resumed and highway entrances reopened.
According to state broadcaster CCTV, Wuhan's railway authority estimated more than 55,000 passengers will leave Wuhan by train on Wednesday, with about 40% bound for the Pearl River Delta region, a major manufacturing hub in China.
That is slightly more than the number of people who have caught the virus in Wuhan since December. The death toll in the city has reached 2,571, about 80% of the total fatalities in China, according to official figures.
The first train to carry departing passengers out of the city left at 00.50 am (1650 GMT), and outbound highways were opened to vehicular traffic around the same time.
“I’m very happy, I’m going home today,” migrant worker Liu Xiaomin told Reuters as she stood with her suitcases inside Wuhan’s Hankou railway station, bound for Xiangyang city.
The topic “Wuhan lifts lockdown” quickly became the top trending topic on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform, with posters leaving comments such as “welcome back Wuhan”.
At its peak, the lockdown saw people forcibly confined to their homes and the transport and industrial hub resembled a ghost town, with streets deserted except for police patrols and emergency vehicles.
But such restrictions have eased in recent days as new infections dropped to a trickle. Mainland China reported no coronavirus deaths for the first time on Tuesday, and Wuhan has counted only two new infections in the past fortnight.
Authorities are walking a fine line between allowing greater freedom of movement and economic activity while also guarding against a second wave of infection, with particular concern around imported cases and people who show no symptoms but can still pass on the virus.
Wuhan residents are still urged not to leave their neighbourhoods, the city and even the province unless necessary, health officials said on Tuesday. Some restrictions within the city will remain in place.
Chinese health experts have also urged the public to continue to practice caution. Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told the state-run Health Times on Thursday that the epidemic in China was far from over.
"China is not near the end, but has entered a new stage. With the global epidemic raging, China has not reached the end," Zeng Guang said.
TOO SOON TO LIFT RESTRICTIONS?
Many people remain fearful of catching the disease as China's National Health Commission reported 62 new confirmed cases - of which 59 were imported - and 137 new asymptomatic cases on Tuesday.
This is quite a significant jump from the previous day - which saw 32 confirmed cases and just 30 asymptomatic cases.
Asymptomatic patients -- that's people who have none of the signs of the coronavirus but have it and can pass it on -- had not until recently been recorded in China.
China also recorded two deaths on Tuesday - one in Shanghai and one in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. There had been no deaths recorded the day before for the first time since China began publishing its figures.
“The number of asymptomatic patients has been slowly going up, I’m worried about this,” said Yang Chengjun, who was leaving Wuhan by train to get back to his design job in Fuzhou. He was wearing a knee-length raincoat and speaking through a mask.
Tall barriers continue to surround housing compounds in Wuhan and residents can only leave if they have a green health code or documents showing a valid reason.
Migrant worker Liu said she and her husband would still be careful about going outside even when they get home to Xiangyang city.
“My mood will be better but when I get back I still won’t go out too much,” she said.
Over the past two weeks, Wuhan has started returning to normal. Its residents with a government-assigned green QR code on their mobile phones -- meaning they're healthy and safe to travel -- have been allowed to go back to work as long as their employers issue them a letter.
In residential communities where no new cases have been reported for 14 days, one person per household with a green QR code can leave the compounds two hours per day.
On March 25, public buses started to resume service; three days later, underground trains began running too. Businesses and shops gradually reopened, and cars and pedestrians returned to the city's once-deserted streets.
However, Luo Ping -- an epidemic control official in Wuhan -- told CCTV that now the city faces an arduous task preventing imported cases and a recurrence of local infections.
"After work and production resumed, the movement of people increased and so did the risk of cross-infections from mass gatherings. Some residents have dropped their guard and don't wear masks when they go on the streets," he told the broadcaster.
"The reopening of Wuhan does not mean the all-clear, neither does it mean a relaxing of epidemic prevention and control measures (within the city)," he said.