Build-up to coronavirus lockdown: inside China’s decision to close Wuhan

Echo Xie

As China’s new confirmed Covid-19 cases have dropped to double digits for weeks and life is gradually returning to normal, one of the country’s top doctors and a member of the national expert team has revealed for the first time how the decision was made in Beijing to put the city of Wuhan, the ground zero of the coronavirus pandemic, under lockdown in January.

In two recent interviews with Chinese media, Li Lanjuan, a member of the high-level expert team convened by the National Health Commission, disclosed details of experts’ discoveries in hospitals in Wuhan and their reports to Chinese leaders in Beijing between January 17 and January 23, the day Wuhan had lockdown imposed.

Though the decision – sealing off a city with 11 million people and, one day later, 60 million in Hubei province – was deemed highly controversial, subsequent studies have found that it was a life-saving move that helped delay the arrival of the disease in other Chinese cities by at least three days. And it may have helped prevent 744,000 infections in the rest of the country by mid-February, according to a recent study published in Science magazine on Tuesday.

Dr Li, a 72-year-old expert in epidemiology, told Global People, a People’s Daily-affiliated magazine, that on January 17 she had learned from private channels that medical staff in Wuhan had been infected with an unknown pneumonia-like disease.

By January 28, when this photo was taken, Wuhan appeared almost deserted, after lockdown was imposed on January 23. Photo: AP

On the same day, Li contacted the National Health Commission in Beijing and asked for permission to go to Wuhan. The next day, China sent a six-member expert team, including Li and respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan, to Wuhan.

On the morning of January 19, the experts visited hospitals, the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which was linked to early cases of the novel coronavirus.

After the meetings, the experts were convinced that human-to-human transmissions had occurred, according to the interview published in Global People  on Thursday.

In a closed-door meeting that afternoon with fellow experts, Li said that because hospital staff had been infected, the government should raise the infectious diseases alarm from category B to the highest level A, the level used for plague and cholera.

Meanwhile, Li also suggested that Wuhan should be put under lockdown.

“Many of the infectious patients are still in Wuhan, but as the Lunar New Year is just around the corner, [we will soon] see a sharp increase of the movement of people [if nothing is done], and that may spread the disease to the whole country,” Li was quoted as saying in the meeting.

“Wuhan should do one thing right now: people who are outside should not be allowed to enter, and the people from Wuhan should not be allowed to leave so to contain the epidemic within Wuhan and help avoid a nationwide outbreak,” she said.

In an interview with another magazine, China Health, which is affiliated with the National Health Commission, last Thursday, Li said that after the meeting, health officials immediately relayed the experts’ suggestions to the NHC, and to the State Council, China’s cabinet.

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The team of experts then returned to Beijing in the evening of January 19. At around midnight, Li and Zhong Nanshan met Ma Xiaowei, the minister in charge of the NHC, and together they decided to report the experts’ findings the next morning to Sun Chunlan, the vice-premier in charge of public health.

At 8.30am on January 20, the six experts took part in a cabinet meeting at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, and reported to Sun. After the meeting, the State Council decided to adopt the experts’ suggestions and take prevention measures of category A infectious disease on the novel coronavirus, which was technically classified as a category B disease under Chinese law.

Li Xingwang, a member of the national medical expert team, told China Daily on February 10 that the decision to launch category A prevention and control measures was crucial in China’s battle against Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as such classification required faster reporting and stronger isolation measures.

It was on the same day that Zhong Nanshan confirmed human-to-human transmission in a press conference broadcast on state television.

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Li Lanjuan, a professor at Zhejiang University’s school of medicine, told China Health  that when she later returned to Hangzhou, she was alarmed to learn that many people had arrived in Zhejiang province from Wuhan, raising fears that these travellers would spur local transmissions in the east China province.

According to Li, she immediately contacted officials in Beijing and urged them to put Wuhan under lockdown.

“The lockdown must occur before January 24, the Lunar New Year Eve [when there would be mass movement of the population], otherwise, the disease will spread to the whole country on a very large scale,” she warned.

Blocked road in Wuhan on January 25. Photo: AFP

At 2am on January 23, the Wuhan government announced it would impose a lockdown of the city from 10am that day.

“Lockdown is a last-resort decision by [the government],” Li said. “The Lunar New Year is approaching and there will be mass movement of people in and out of Wuhan. If there’s no lockdown and more cities fall just like Wuhan, it will have a huge impact on the safety of the people, economic development and social stability.”

On March 24, the government in Wuhan declared that the two-month lockdown would end on April 8.

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