China extended the drastic travel restrictions on Sunday to contain a viral contagion that killed 56 people and infected nearly 2,000, while the United States and France were preparing to evacuate their citizens from a quarantined city at the epicenter of the outbreak.
China has blocked Hubei province in the center of the country in an unprecedented operation that affects tens of millions of people to stop the spread of a respiratory illness that President Xi Jinping said posed a “serious” threat.
Outside the epicenter, three cities, including Beijing, and an eastern province announced prohibitions of long-distance buses entering or leaving their borders.
Originated in the capital of Hubei, Wuhan, the virus has spread throughout China and around the world, with confirmed cases in about a dozen countries as distant as France, Australia and the United States.
The State Department said Sunday that it was organizing a flight to repatriate personnel at its Wuhan consulate and other US citizens trapped in the city.
The flight leaves Wuhan on Tuesday for San Francisco, he said in an email to the Americans in China, while warning about “extremely limited” capacity for private citizens.
The French government and the French automaker PSA, which has a considerable presence in Wuhan, also said they were formulating plans to evacuate staff and family members, who would be taken to a city in a neighboring province for a quarantine period.
Sri Lanka said its Beijing embassy was considering taking action regarding its citizens in Wuhan.
– Travel bans –
China would normally celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday this week, but Wuhan’s haunting quarantine calm intensified on Sunday when the new restrictions banned most traffic in the 11 million metropolis.
The speakers offered advice covered in bravery.
“Do not believe in rumors. Do not spread rumors. If you don’t feel well, go to the hospital on time, ”the message said.
“Wuhan is a city that dares to face difficulties and continues to overcome them,” the female voice added, mentioning the deadly SARS epidemic 2002-03 and the flooding of the Yangtze River in 1998.
Israt Zahan, a Bangladeshi PhD candidate who lives in Wuhan, said she and other students were staying in their homes as it was “too risky” to leave.
“The bustling city looks like a ghost town from my window. The stores are closed. I am rationing the food in my house. It will last two days. So I don’t know what I would do, “he told AFP by phone.
Despite the anxious scenes in crowded hospitals in recent days, there were no signs of panic in the city.
But the defenses were reinforced in other parts of the country.
Beijing suspended long-distance bus services in and out of the capital starting Sunday. Similar suspensions are planned for the entire eastern province of Shandong, home to 100 million people, plus the cities of northern Tianjin and Xi’an.
The southern city of Shantou had announced the ban on vehicles entering its jurisdiction after detecting two cases, but authorities later reversed the decision.
Chinese tourist groups abroad will be suspended as of Monday, while domestic travel has already stopped since Friday.
In the semi-autonomous city of southern Hong Kong, Disneyland announced Sunday that it had closed as a precaution after the government’s declaration of an emergency to combat the crisis. Shanghai Disneyland Park had already closed on Saturday.
– The virus spreads “accelerating” –
The number of deaths across the country increased to 56 after 15 new deaths, most of them in Hubei.
Shanghai reported its first death on Sunday: an 88-year-old man who had pre-existing health problems.
It was the first death reported in an important Chinese city connected internationally to the outskirts of Wuhan, where it is believed that the outbreak originated in a market where animals such as rats, snakes and hedgehogs were sold as food.
The government says that the majority of deaths involved the elderly or people already weakened by pre-existing health conditions.
Fearing a repeat SARS, China has drastically reduced the celebrations and trips associated with New Year’s holidays, which began on Friday, while tourist sites such as the Forbidden City of Beijing and a section of the Great Wall have closed as a precaution .
Xi said at a meeting of Communist Party leaders about the crisis that China was “facing the serious situation of an accelerated spread” of the virus, and called for further prevention.
Measures have been ordered throughout the country to detect and isolate people who carry the virus on airplanes, trains and buses.
In Wuhan, the Chinese army sent 450 doctors, many with experience in the fight against infectious diseases, to help treat patients in the city, many of whom reported waiting for hours in overwhelmed hospitals.
Wuhan is competing to build two makeshift field hospitals focused on viruses within a fortnight to relieve pressure. The first one could be ready in just over a week.