Chinese villages build barricades to keep coronavirus at bay
Communities sealed off as authorities struggle to contain outbreak Officials have blocked access to cities in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus
The sight of a strange car pulling up outside Suyukou village draws a small crowd of masked sentries. A glimpse of a foreigner emerging from the back seat sends them scurrying back behind a barrier meant to ward off the deadly coronavirus. All roads leading to the small peach-growing community nestled into a hillside near Beijing have been under the 24-hour guard since late January. “At this time, no outsiders can come in and we don’t want our residents to go out,” said a local official in a black suit and face mask. The focus of the epidemic has fallen on the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected and 40m people have been quarantined. But far more people in villages, towns and smaller cities across China — such as the residents of Suyukou — have been trapped as local authorities close highways and cut off bus transport in an attempt to curtail the disease’s spread. Many of those stranded in villages throughout the country are among the more than 100m people who travelled home for the lunar new year holiday that began on January 24. Some local governments have told residents to remain in their homes for days. Heilongjiang province in northern China has threatened the death penalty for anyone caught intentionally spreading the bug.
By Friday, more than 600 people had died from the outbreak, most of them in China. The freezing of normal life has raised many questions for authorities: over the livelihoods of those trapped in villages, of access to food and medical supplies, and the ethical considerations around forcing tens of millions of people to stay put with no end in sight. “In the absence of constitutional safeguards . . . Chinese citizens only have the binary choice of either giving in to the quarantine demands of the relevant authorities or to resist such orders and risk heavy punishment,” said Andreas Fulda, a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute. Reports have trickled in from around the country on the severity of informal measures taken to prevent the movement of people. Villages such as Suyukou, on the outskirts of Beijing, have been blockaded as coronavirus extends its reach across China © Don Weinland/FT
More than 900km from Wuhan, the metropolis of Wenzhou has been put in virtual lockdown over the past few days. Local regulations permit only one person per family to leave the house every two days to buy food. Zhuozhou, a city of more than 600,000 people in Hebei province, announced on January 31 that it would shut its freeways after officials discovered a case of coronavirus in the area. Poyang county in Jiangxi province turned all traffic lights red on Monday and barred any travel on roads, as its neighbouring counties closed all transportation links. The scale of the lockdown measures are unprecedented in the modern world. Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s country representative in China, called the situation “new to science”. Coronavirus: how far will it spread? Crisis experts said villages that have been closed may eventually need rescue services from the government. “If the outbreak persists for more than a month, self-isolated villages should get support from the provincial government,” said Gordon Woo, a catastrophist at consultant Risk Management Solutions. Economists have struggled to assess the full implications of the crisis, which is expected to shave up to 2 percentage points off gross domestic product growth in the first quarter of the year, according to economists at Macquarie, a bank. Restrictions on personal movement are expected to hurt many companies when their employees fail to return to work. “Small and medium-size enterprises absorb over 80 per cent of urban employment,” said Mo Ji, AllianceBernstein’s chief greater China economist. “Delay in resumption of normal operations will put many SMEs at risk of earlier-than-expected default.”
In a rural county of Hubei province, Zeng Cong, a 29-year-old video producer at an advertising company in Wuhan, said being stuck in his home village could cost him his job. Mr Zeng returned to Sui county, about 200km north of Wuhan, on January 21 to celebrate the Chinese new year with his parents. Following the outbreak, villagers dumped sand and mud in the middle of access roads, preventing him from leaving. The local village committee also started checking Mr Zeng’s temperature daily, fearful he might be carrying the deadly bug from Wuhan. Mr Zeng said he was worried about the safety of his family and also the lack of information provided by the local government. But he also had longer-term concerns over his job and his income. “If the disease drags on for two months, the start-up I work for will go under and I’ll lose my job,” he said. “There is nothing I can do about this except hope the epidemic will end soon. I am ready to spend a few months in Sui County.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing