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Wuhan hospitals overwhelmed as China fights coronavirus

Hospitals in Wuhan were overwhelmed by anxious patients on Thursday as the authorities shut down air and rail travel in the Chinese city in a bid to contain a viral outbreak that is sparking growing global alarm.

The lockdown to curb the outbreak — China’s worst since the Sars epidemic 17 years ago — includes closing all public transport in and out of the city of more than 10m. The measures went into effect at 10am local time ahead of China’s lunar new year holiday, when hundreds of millions travel across the country.

The authorities later extended similar restrictions to Huanggang city, south-east of Wuhan, where residents were told not to leave without a special reason, according to an announcement on a city government website.

The quarantine of Wuhan is the first time in recent memory that a big Chinese city has frozen public transport. Its streets were mostly deserted, but a line of several dozen people stretched outside the front gates of the Red Cross Hospital, where hundreds filled its corridors waiting to see doctors, who were dressed in full hazard protection suits.

The new virus has killed 17 people and infected more than 600 in China. Chinese state television reported three new confirmed cases in the northwestern province of Shaanxi on Thursday afternoon. Cases have been confirmed in the US, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Residents of Hong Kong, which was hard hit during the Sars outbreak, rushed to buy face masks on Wednesday evening as news broke of the first confirmed case in the city. One pharmacy on Hong Kong island said it had sold out of its latest order of 200 boxes of masks within half an hour. Authorities in the city confirmed a second case in the city on Thursday.

Taiwan stepped up border control measures. Chinese citizens who were Wuhan residents would be blocked from entering Taiwan with immediate effect, said Chen Shih-chung, health minister. In addition, daily monitoring of people with respiratory symptoms is being broadened from recent arrivals from Wuhan to travellers from anywhere in China, including Hong Kong and Macau. The government also said it was probing the distribution of false reports about new infections via a messaging app.

Malaysia’s ministry of health said it had identified four suspected cases so far, but three tested negative. One patient is still waiting to receive test results but remains stable.

WHO will decide on Thursday whether to declare the outbreak a global emergency © AFP, Getty Images, Bloomberg and AP

China’s benchmark CSI 300 index closed 3.1 per cent lower, marking its worst one-day performance since May in the final session before the week-long lunar new year holiday. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng fell 1.9 per cent.

The World Health Organization was set to meet in Geneva on Thursday to decide whether to declare a global emergency over the outbreak. If it goes ahead with the measure, it would be just the sixth such instance in the past decade.

During the Sars outbreak in 2003, thousands of individuals in Beijing were quarantined to their homes, but a city-level travel ban was not imposed.

In Wuhan some residents said they had attempted to depart before the ban was implemented but were unable to leave.

“I heard about the train cancellations in the middle of the night, but came to the station anyway in case I could change my ticket. It looks like that’s not possible,” said Li Lei, a 24-year-old who planned to travel to Chongqing. Private road transport was still allowed.

One Wuhan resident said her 57-year-old mother had been experiencing symptoms of the virus for a week but was turned away from several hospitals.

“When we arrived at the hospital in the morning, staff said the pulmonology department was closed after four doctors had been diagnosed with coronavirus,” said the person, who asked not to be named.

In the nearby city of Ezhou, trains were stopped from leaving or entering the city.

Beijing is under mounting pressure to prevent a repeat of the Sars crisis, when nearly 800 people died.

The reaction this time has been considered somewhat better than during the Sars outbreak, when the virus was thought to have emerged in late 2002 but was only reported officially in February 2003 — a delay that gave it more time to spread.

Chinese internet users took to social media to discuss how authorities in mainland China and Hong Kong were handling the outbreak, commenting on the rapid response from the Hong Kong government and condemning the lack of transparency and openness from the mainland authorities.

The People’s Daily, the official Chinese Communist party’s mouthpiece, reported the outbreak well down on its homepage on Thursday, far below news about President Xi Jinping wishing all Chinese a happy lunar new year. A report on the Wuhan virus only appeared 34 minutes into Chinese state television’s nightly news programme the previous day.

Additional reporting by Sun Yu and Christian Shepherd in Beijing, Alice Woodhouse, Nicolle Liu, Robin Yu and Sue-Lin Wong in Hong Kong, Xueqiao Wang in Shanghai and Qianer Liu in Shenzhen, Kathrin Hille in Taipei, Stefania Palma in Singapore

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