Chinese authorities Thursday moved to lock down at least three cities with a combined population of more than 18 million in an unprecedented effort to contain the deadly new virus that has sickened hundreds of people and spread to other parts of the world during the busy Lunar New Year travel period.
The open-ended lockdowns are unmatched in size, embracing more people than New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago put together.
The train station and airport in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, were shut down, and ferry, subway and bus services were halted. Normally bustling streets, shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces in the city of 11 million were eerily quiet. Police checked all incoming vehicles but did not close off the roads.
Authorities announced similar measures would take effect Friday in the nearby cities of Huanggang and Ezhou. In Huanggang, theaters, internet cafes and other entertainment centers were also ordered closed.
In the capital, Beijing, officials canceled “major events” indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of holiday celebrations, in order to “execute epidemic prevention and control.” The Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing that is now a museum, announced it will close indefinitely on Saturday.
Seventeen people have died in the outbreak, all of them in and around Wuhan. Close to 600 have been infected, the vast majority of them in Wuhan, and many countries have begun screening travelers from China for symptoms of the virus, which can cause fever, coughing, breathing trouble and pneumonia.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization decided against declaring the outbreak a global health emergency for now. Such a declaration can bring more money and other resources to fight a threat but can also trigger economically damaging restrictions on trade and travel in the affected countries, making the decision a politically fraught one.
The decision “should not be taken as a sign that WHO does not think the situation is serious or that we’re not taking it seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day.”
But while the epidemic was clearly a crisis in China, “it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” he added.
Chinese officials have not said how long the shutdowns will last. While sweeping measures are typical of China’s communist government, large-scale quarantines are rare around the world, even in deadly epidemics, because of concerns about infringing on people’s liberties. And the effectiveness of such measures is unclear.
“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” said Gauden Galea, WHO’s representative in China. “It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”
Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said the lockdowns appear to be justified scientifically.
“Until there’s a better understanding of what the situation is, I think it’s not an unreasonable thing to do,” he said. “Anything that limits people’s travels during an outbreak would obviously work.”