Wuhan, Center of Coronavirus Outbreak, Is Being Cut Off by Chinese Authorities

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Extreme measures during outbreaks have been imposed elsewhere before. During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014, Sierra Leone ordered everyone in the nation to stay home for three days as the authorities went door-to-door checking for new cases, retrieving dead bodies and trying to stop the disease from spreading further. In Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, a sprawling neighborhood with tens of thousands of people was put under strict quarantine by the government and guarded by police officers in riot gear, setting off violent clashes with penned-in residents.

During the 2003 SARS outbreak, anyone in China who displayed symptoms of the disease was hospitalized, and students were examined daily. In Singapore, people suspected of having SARS were confined to their homes and monitored with webcams and electronic bracelets.

Still, medical experts were startled by the scale of the shutdown in Wuhan, which has more people than the entire country of Sierra Leone. Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that a city the size of Wuhan has “tens of thousands of connections with the outside world that are coming and going all the time, bringing food and medicine.”

”The complexity and downside cost of that will be potentially very high,” he said.

The sudden restrictions on Wuhan could upend the travel plans of millions of Chinese citizens, who travel in huge numbers during the Lunar New Year holiday. The government said it would shut down airports and train stations to departures, and urged residents not to leave the city — a major transportation hub — unless they had an urgent reason to do so.

The Lunar New Year in China is the world’s largest annual migration of people, with hundreds of millions of travelers fanning out across the country and the world, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on hotels, restaurants and shopping.

Now, with the new coronavirus, the mass migration is also an epidemiologist’s nightmare.

The authorities are scrambling to control the disease, which has spread around the region, even reaching North America. The World Health Organization met on Wednesday to discuss whether to declare the outbreak an international health emergency, which would escalate the global response. Chinese officials had already classified the virus as a class B infectious disease, a category that includes SARS.

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