explainer

"This city is like Chernobyl." What it's like for the 11 million people in coronavirus ground zero.

The city of Wuhan, in central China, has been in lockdown for six days now.

It’s ground zero. Where the deadly 2019 novel coronavirus first started in a local food market, before quickly spreading into a potentially global health crisis in a matter of weeks.

At the time of writing, 106 people are dead.

Close to six-thousand are infected, in 12 countries, including five people who are infected here in Australia.

400 people are in a critical condition.

NSW Health has this message about coronavirus for Australians. Post continues after video.

Video by NSW Health

What’s it like in a city of 11 million people that’s in complete lockdown?

On January 22, all plane, train and bus services and private cars were suspended in Wuhan, a city that’s five times the size of Greater London.

Wuhan authorities say they’ve installed 35 infrared temperature scanners and more than 300 portable thermometers in the city’s transport hubs to monitor those moving in and around these areas.

Before the travel restrictions were imposed, the local Mayor says five million people managed to flee, leaving 11 million trapped in the infected city.

Now, 17 neighbouring cities are also in lockdown, affecting a combined population of more than 50 million people.

Hong Kong’s city leader Carrie Lam has declared a state of emergency, closing all primary and secondary schools until at least February 17.

coronavirus australia
50 million people are in shutdown. Image: Getty.
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In China right now it's Lunar New Year, the country's biggest and busiest time of year, and a time when many people travel home to visit their families. Hundreds of Australians remain trapped in the lockdown, including 100 kids, reports the ABC.

Most public celebrations have been cancelled and many of China's big retail chains are temporarily closed. The economic effects have already been felt across Asia with markets and the Chinese Yuan tumbling.

This tweet gives an eerie insight into what it's like right now in the streets of Wuhan.

The chanting means "keep going" and it's being yelled from the streets and the balconies.

China's version of Uber, called "DiDi" is lending its services to medical staff, ferrying them into Wuhan and putting drivers' lives at risk by doing so.

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Drivers have been getting their temperatures checked by police before being allowed to enter suspended transport areas.

The hallways of hospitals and the waiting rooms of doctors' surgeries are overflowing with potential patients.

Anyone with the slightest sign of a sniffle is presenting, fearing the worst.

There are devastating scenes doing the rounds on social media showing relatives in tears as they say goodbye to medical staff as they depart to the quarantine zone in Wuhan from other Chinese provinces to help.

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"You have to feel for the doctors - they have had to beg for proper medical equipment. Several medical workers have had to cut plastic folders to jury-rig goggles," tweeted a reporter for the NY Times, alongside a video of an exhausted crying medical professional.

Doctors are going to great lengths to protect themselves.

This nurse cut off her long hair so she can "protect myself and do my best to save more people," she told Global Times.

For many of the millions trapped right now, life has taken on a feeling of imprisonment and boredom. They've been stuck in their homes for days now, at what's supposed to be the most festive and social time of the year.

"I was quite panicked in the first few days, but now I’m getting used to it and in a better mental situation given that the death number looks small compared to the total confirmed cases. I think it’s quite safe for me if I just isolate myself at home,” Alen Chen told Bloomberg.

Are they going to run out of supplies?

With 50 million people to feed and look after, running out of supplies is front of mind.

The government has pledged to ensure the city is properly equipped and on Friday flew in two planes with 32 tonnes of supplies, mostly medical gear and masks.

China's e-commerce firm JD.com has also donated $1 million worth of medical supplies.

A video has circulated online of a man expressing his frustration at medical staff because his relative is dying, and there are no more beds or oxygen tanks available to help them.

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As the number of patients grows, Chinese authorities are frantically building another hospital to house them.

This week dozens of excavators descended on a construction site that the government has pledged to build and open by February 3 (that's a two-week build.)

It's being modelled on an emergency hospital built in Beijing during the SARS epidemic in 2003.

China rushes to build a new hospital in Wuhan
Dozens of diggers work to build a new hospital in Wuhan, China on January 25, 2020. Image: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.
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In video footage provided to SBS, Wuhan resident Lin Wenhua shows empty rows in local supermarkets as residents frantically stockpile, fearing they'll run out.

Many report they've been rationing, unaware of how long they'll be trapped for.

Wuhan supermarket
A Wuhan supermarket stripped of fresh produce. Image: SBS.

However, speaking to Reuters, Communist Party Chief Ma Guoqiang said on Monday that food supplies including meat, eggs, and milk in the Chinese city of Wuhan are ample.

Hubei's governor added that the city has 5 million kilograms of rice, 4 million kilograms of cooking oil and more than 10,000 tonnes of pork and beef.

"I didn’t see the governor’s remarks, but all the supermarkets I went to were empty. The employees said that maybe tomorrow or the next day there will be deliveries, but no one is getting their hopes up,” resident Li Xiaoshan told the South China Morning Post.

“I buy what I can. This city is like Chernobyl,” he said. “The traffic in the city is blocked, and our relatives can’t get to the hospital for treatment. We are really anxious."

Anger is brewing.

As millions are forced to sit and wait out the danger, anger is brewing in Wuhan against the city's authorities.

The public doesn't think they were informed early enough about the potential risks posed by the outbreak, which is believed to have actually started back in December.

TIME reports that the government, at least initially, was censoring some posts on social media about the outbreak with locals in Wuhan reduced to asking foreign friends for updates on international press reports.

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Wearing a face mask for protection, Mayor Zhou Zianwang addressed residents via Chinese state broadcaster CCTV to admit his handling of the situation was not up to scratch.

“We haven’t disclosed information in a timely manner and also did not use effective information to improve our work," he admitted, reports The Guardian.

The publication points out that many experts are questioning whether the quarantine measures are, in fact, helpful given the restrictions were announced hours before they were introduced allowing residents to scatter (and therefore potentially spread the virus.)

Protests have erupted in the streets of Hong Kong as it emerged patients were to be quarantined in a recently finished public housing estate in the city.

Riot police were called in to contain the situation.

A group of protestors set the lobby of the new building alight with a Molotov cocktail.

“We are dissatisfied with the government selecting this housing estate as a (quarantine) separation village as it’s very close to a residential area and a primary school,” resident surnamed Tsang told Reuters, as tensions continue to simmer.

Feature image: Getty/Twitter.

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