Authorities in central China's Hubei province on Thursday locked down the provincial capital Wuhan and two neighboring cities, leaving some 18 million people with no way to leave amid the ongoing coronavirus epidemic.
Outbound trains and planes were indefinitely suspended in Wuhan, while tollbooths were shut down, blocking roads out of the city ahead of Lunar New Year's Eve on Jan. 24.
The usually bustling Hankou railway station at the heart of Wuhan, a conurbation of three major cities on the Yangtze River, was sealed off behind barricades and under guard by the People's Armed Police, according to news photographs from the city.
Police clad in fatigues were shown checking the body temperature of drivers at a tollgate in Wuhan ahead of the deadline to leave, as the city government told residents not to leave without a very good reason.
The neighboring Hubei cities of Huanggang and Ezhou saw similar measures implemented at midnight, while tourist authorities in Beijing shut down the capital's iconic Forbidden City, as well as a number of other tourism hotspots and temple markets usually thronging with crowds during the Lunar New Year break.
The lockdowns have left more than 18 million people under restrictions, as international health experts estimated that between 1,300 and 1,700 people in Wuhan have likely been infected with the novel coronavirus (nCoV) that is spreading between people and causing pneumonia.
Local residents said routes out of the city were blocked with vehicles trying to flee ahead of the 10.00 a.m. deadline on Thursday.
A man who was trying to leave via Hankou railway station said people had been turned away, even if they had tickets.
"I am at Hankou railway station, and there are armed police everywhere," the man said. "They're not letting anyone into the station to board trains out of Wuhan if their tickets show departure times after 10 o'clock."
Panic buying was visible at gas stations, supermarkets, and fresh vegetable markets as people tried to stockpile food and daily necessities, unsure of when supplies would be restocked.
"Private cars are rushing to fill up with gas, and the prices in the supermarket have skyrocketed," a resident surnamed Liu said.
"Garlic shoots usually sell for a few yuan per pound, but the price in the supermarket is now at 80 yuan a pound," he said. "There is a supermarket in our office building, but everything in it has gone."
An employee who answered the phone at a supermarket in Wuhan said they had sold out of surgical masks and disinfectant on Thursday, and confirmed that prices were rising.
"Prices have risen in line with market economics, and masks are selling for 10 times their previous price," the employee said. "They used to sell for 10 yuan a pack, but now they are selling for 70, 80, 100 yuan a pack."
Sources in Wuhan have indicated that hospitals are now at overcapacity, and are turning patients with flu-like symptoms away.
"Family members are saying that many patients haven't been admitted at all because the [hospitals] were at capacity," a resident surnamed Zhao said. "People were told not to go out after 5:00 p.m. today because they were starting to transfer fever patients to designated hospitals at that time."
Repeated calls to the Wuhan municipal government rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Social stability, practical measures
However, a statement on the official website of the Hubei provincial government said there were enough supplies, and that people didn't need to hoard anything.
It said the Hubei Red Cross had taken delivery of a shipment of medical supplies to fight the epidemic.
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported on Thursday that 634 cases of the novel coronavirus (nCoV) have been confirmed in China, with 18 confirmed deaths reported.
President Xi Jinping has called on government at every level to "strengthen propaganda work ... and resolutely maintain overall social stability."
Premier Li Keqiang has apparently been given a different focus: practical measures to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus epidemic.
"[We need] early detection, early reporting, early isolation, early treatment and centralized treatment procedures," Li was quoted as saying by state media on Thursday.
The finance ministry said on Thursday it was allocating one billion yuan (U.S.$145 million) in funding to the Hubei provincial government to help with efforts to contain the outbreak.
'Out of control'
But veteran rights activist Hu Jia said he believes the epidemic is now out of the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, because it is impossible to set up a task force that can assess the situation independently of political considerations.
"An independent investigation team is just never going to happen in China," Hu said. "That's because there is nothing in China that is independent [of the ruling party] ... it just doesn't exist."
"If such an independent body were to be set up, it would be regarded as subversive, or a rebellious conspiracy."
Hu said the media—which is generally expected to stick to government-approved, syndicated copy in times of breaking news—is even less likely to carry out any independent investigation.
"If any media were to try [it], they would be attacked and shut down," Hu said.
Health screening and body temperature scans have been stepped up at airports around the world, with three confirmed cases of nCoV in Hong Kong and Macau, one in Japan, and one each in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.
As of Thursday Thailand had confirmed two nCoV cases, and the U.S. one case, while Vietnam reported the infection of a Chinese father, who had traveled from Wuhan to Hanoi on Jan.13, and his son, who was already living in Vietnam.
The two had traveled together widely in Vietnam and are now in quarantine in Ho Chi Minh City, state media said on Thursday.
The majority of cases reported internationally were in people who had recently been in Wuhan.
Reported by Wong Siu-san, Sing Man, Qiao Long, Li Zhizhi and Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.