Thousands of people from Wuhan, the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, had flown to Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Japan before the mainland Chinese city was locked down last week, mainland media reported – although the five most popular destinations of those leaving Wuhan were in neighbouring Henan province.
Fears of a global pandemic were raised by the number of people leaving Wuhan in the 24 days between the first cases of infection being reported on December 30 and the decision to suspend travel out of the city on Thursday.
Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang said on Sunday that about 5 million residents – nearly half of the city’s 11 million population – had left before the lockdown began as part of the emergency measures to try to contain the spread of the virus.
The exodus was consistent with a 2018 survey that suggested 48 per cent of Wuhan’s population had left the city during the Lunar New Year.
Figures from Wuhan’s culture and tourism bureau suggested that as of Sunday there were 4,096 people from the city still staying outside mainland China and planning to return to Wuhan in the next few days. The bureau has called for help from airlines and hotels in other parts of the country to accommodate them away from Wuhan.
Mainland financial newspaper China Business News reported that Thailand was the most popular foreign destination for people from Wuhan between December 30 and January 22, the day before the lockdown was enforced.
Citing figures from Flight Master, a travel platform popular in China, it reported that during that period more than 11,000 people flew from Wuhan to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and another 9,000 to the Thai capital’s Don Mueang International Airport.
Singapore Changi Airport and Narita International Airport in Tokyo respectively received 10,680 and 9,080 passengers from Wuhan, while more than 7,000 flew to Hong Kong, the report said.
Domestically, the central Chinese provinces of Henan, Hunan and Anhui had received the most people from Wuhan since January 10, figures from Baidu Maps showed.
The five top domestic destinations for Wuhan residents during that period were all in neighbouring Henan province: Xinyang, Nanyang, Zhumadian, Zhoukou and Shangqiu. In Hubei – of which Wuhan is the capital – Xiaogan and Huanggang were the most popular.
January 10 was the first day of a 40-day annual homecoming rush that is considered the largest annual human migration, with hundreds of millions of people visiting relatives across China during Lunar New Year – heightening concerns that the pneumonia-like illness could spread rapidly.
During the holiday season Chinese citizens also visit extended family overseas, with many travelling to Southeast Asian countries that have large Chinese communities, such as Thailand and Singapore. China’s embassy in Thailand has warned its citizens to expect checks and quarantines at Thai airports, and to be ready to make new travel plans because many flights between the two countries have been cancelled.
An important transport hub in central China, Wuhan has traditionally been home to immigrants. Besides those leaving to visit relatives for Lunar New Year, it also has more than 1.3 million students at its 89 universities and colleges, including several thousand from abroad and some from Hong Kong who were heading home for the holiday.
The coronavirus outbreak, first reported in Wuhan in late December, had by Monday killed 80 people in China and infected more than 2,700, including 461 who were in critical condition. Countries including the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea, France, Singapore, Thailand and Nepal have also reported confirmed cases.
As a preventive measure, the Wuhan government imposed tight traffic restrictions on Thursday, with the city’s railway stations and airport closed, public transport suspended and road closures. Residents were urged to not leave Wuhan.
The National Immigration Administration said on Monday that the public security bureau in Hubei had already suspended passport applications, as well as permits for visits to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, although applications could still be handled for emergency purposes. No Chinese citizens had left Wuhan through its airport or river port in the previous four days, the administration said.
It remained unclear whether the lockdown of Wuhan and 13 nearby cities was effective in reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
China on Monday further restricted travel by suspending sales of flights and hotels abroad to Chinese and overseas tour groups. Domestic tours and sales of domestic flights and hotels for tour groups were suspended last week.
Several major cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, the two largest, also suspended all inter-province buses from Sunday, limiting inward road travel.
China is the world’s largest source of tourists, and its people made more than 6.3 million trips abroad during the Lunar New Year holiday last year.
The Chinese government has been making efforts to prevent a repeat of a case in France in which a woman from Wuhan passed undetected through airport fever checks by taking medication to suppress her symptoms, then boasted about it on social media, posting photographs of herself eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Lyon.
The woman was tracked down by the Chinese embassy in Paris, which later issued a stern warning to its citizens in France, telling them to “avoid the limelight” and giving hygiene advice on how to avoid spreading the virus. Three cases of infection have been confirmed in France.
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi on Saturday told diplomats to work with foreign governments and international bodies to help curb the spread of the disease.
The Chinese embassy in Portugal has specified three hospitals citizens should visit if they experience symptoms, and told them to call its 24-hour hotline and that of Portugal’s national health service. China’s embassy in Canberra, Australia, has also instructed Chinese visitors with symptoms to seek medical attention.
Some of the strictest measures in response to the outbreak have come from Pacific island nations. The Marshall Islands has said anyone arriving from or transiting through China must, before being allowed entry, spend at least 14 days in a country not affected by the coronavirus, Radio New Zealand reported.
Samoa has imposed the same 14-day stipulation, and six Chinese citizens were refused entry on Friday after failing to meet the requirement. Last year an outbreak of measles killed 83 people, most of them children, in the island nation, which has a population of about 200,000.
The six Chinese travelled on to Fiji, where they were being held in quarantine. Authorities in Fiji said all six were from Fujian province in southeast China, had no fever and had not been to Hubei since the outbreak was discovered.
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This article China coronavirus: thousands left Wuhan for Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore or Tokyo before lockdown first appeared on South China Morning Post