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China Shuts Down More Cities Amid Virus01/23 06:11

   China decided Thursday to lock down three cities that are home to more than 
18 million people in an unprecedented effort to try to contain a deadly new 
viral illness that has sickened hundreds and spread to other cities and 
countries in the Lunar New Year travel rush. 

   BEIJING (AP) -- China decided Thursday to lock down three cities that are 
home to more than 18 million people in an unprecedented effort to try to 
contain a deadly new viral illness that has sickened hundreds and spread to 
other cities and countries in the Lunar New Year travel rush. 

   Police, SWAT teams and paramilitary troops guarded Wuhan's train station, 
where metal barriers blocked the entrances at 10 a.m. sharp. Only travelers 
holding tickets for the last trains were allowed to enter, with those booked 
for later trains being turned away. 

   Normally bustling streets, shopping malls, restaurants and other public 
spaces in the city of 11 million people were eerily quiet. In addition to the 
train station, airport, ferry, subway and bus services were also halted. 

   Similar measures will take effect from Friday in the nearby cities of 
Huanggang and Ezhou. Theaters, internet cafes and other entertainment centers 
were also ordered closed, further increasing the economic costs of the response 
to the outbreak. 

   "To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to 
science," Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization's representative in 
China, told The Associated Press in an interview at the WHO's Beijing office. 
"It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this 
stage say it will or it will not work."

   The illnesses from a newly identified coronavirus first appeared last month 
in Wuhan, an industrial and transportation hub in central China's Hubei 
province. The vast majority of mainland China's 571 cases have been in the city.

   Other cases have been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and 
Thailand. One case was confirmed Thursday in Hong Kong after one was earlier 
confirmed in Macao. Most cases outside China were people from Wuhan or who had 
recently traveled there. 

   A total of 17 people have died, all of them in and around Wuhan. Their 
average age was 73, with the oldest 89 and the youngest 48. 

   Images obtained from inside Wuhan following the closure showed long lines 
and empty shelves at supermarkets, as residents stocked up for what could be 
weeks of relative isolation. That appeared to be an over-reaction, since no 
restrictions have been placed on trucks carrying supplies into the city, 
although many Chinese still have strong memories of shortages and privations in 
the years before the country's recent economic boom. 

   Such sweeping measures are typical of China's authoritarian communist 
government, although their effectiveness in containing the outbreak remains 
uncertain. 

   Local authorities in Wuhan have demanded all residents wear masks in public 
places and urged government staff to wear them at work and for shopkeepers to 
post signs for their visitors, Xinhua news agency quoted a government notice as 
saying. 

   Xinhua cited the city's anti-virus task force as saying the measures were 
taken in an attempt to "effectively cut off the virus spread, resolutely curb 
the outbreak and guarantee the people's health and safety." 

   Liu Haihan  left Wuhan last Friday after visiting her boyfriend there. She 
said everything was normal then, before human-to-human transmission of the 
virus was confirmed. But things have changed rapidly.

   "(My boyfriend) didn't sleep much yesterday. He disinfected his house and 
stocked up on instant noodles," Liu said. "He's not really going out. If he 
does he wears a mask." 

   The significant increase in illnesses reported just this week come as 
millions of Chinese travel for the Lunar New Year, one of the world's largest 
annual migrations of people. Chinese are expected to take an estimated 3 
billion trips during the 40-day spike in travel. 

   While state broadcaster CCTV has largely ignored the outbreak to emphasize 
traditional observances of the festival, reports have filtered in of events 
such as temple fairs being canceled in cities including Beijing. 

   Analysts have predicted the reported cases will continue to multiply.

   "Even if (the number of cases) are in the thousands, this would not surprise 
us," the WHO's Galea said, adding, however, that the number of cases is not an 
indicator of the outbreak's severity, so long as the mortality rate remains low.

   The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that 
cause more serious illnesses, such as the SARS outbreak that spread from China 
to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003 and killed about 800 people, and 
Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, which developed from camels.

   China is keen to avoid repeating mistakes with its handling of SARS. For 
months, even after the illness had spread around the world, China parked 
patients in hotels and drove them around in ambulances to conceal the true 
number of cases and avoid WHO experts. 

   In the current outbreak, China has been credited with sharing information 
rapidly, and President Xi Jinping has emphasized that as a priority.

   "Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels must 
put people's lives and health first," Xi said Monday. "It is necessary to 
release epidemic information in a timely manner and deepen international 
cooperation."

   Health authorities were taking extraordinary measures to prevent additional 
person-to-person transmissions, placing those suspected to be infected in 
plastic tubes and wheeled boxes where air passed through filters. 

   The first cases in the Wuhan outbreak were connected to people who worked at 
or visited a seafood market, which has since been closed for an investigation. 
Experts suspect the virus was first transmitted from wild animals but the virus 
also may be mutating. Mutations can make it deadlier or more contagious. 

   WHO plans another meeting of scientific experts Thursday on whether to 
recommend declaring the outbreak a global health emergency, which it defines as 
an "extraordinary event" that constitutes a risk to other countries and 
requires a coordinated international response.

   Many countries are screening travelers from China for illness, especially 
those arriving from Wuhan. North Korea has banned foreign tourists, a step it 
also took during the SARS outbreak and in recent years due to Ebola. Most 
foreigners going to North Korea are Chinese or travel there through neighboring 
China.


(KR)

 
 
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