Wuhan residents start Year of the Rat in scramble to stockpile food, medical supplies amid coronavirus lockdown

Keegan Elmer

China ushered in the Lunar Year of the Rat on Saturday, which in the country’s folklore is an animal that symbolises wealth and surplus.

That is far from the mood in the city of Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. Frustrated and increasingly angry residents will welcome in the new year without the festive traditional feasts, and more with concern about shortages of food and medical supplies on the second day of a citywide lockdown to try and stop the spread of a deadly coronavirus.

The previously unknown virus surfaced almost four weeks ago and has now killed 26 people in China and infected 922 across the country, according to the latest statistics released by China’s authorities.

The number of infections is expected to rise and Wuhan is the epicentre, which prompted Beijing to take the drastic move to effectively ban travel in and out of the city of 11 million people.

Everyone in the neighbourhood is facing the same problem: if someone gets sick, we don’t dare take them to the hospital. We’re afraid they’ll get infected

Chen Xue, a Wuhan resident

The lockdown started at 10am on Thursday with flights, trains and other public transport out of the city ceasing. But that was just the start. Wuhan is now just one of 12 cities and counties under similar lockdowns in the local Hubei province.

On Friday the province declared a “Grade I health emergency”, the highest level of emergency response. Other provinces quickly did the same, including Sichuan and Anhui, followed by Beijing and Shanghai.

The coronavirus has now spread to every Chinese province but Tibet, and to nine other locations overseas. Nearly all of the 24 deaths occurred in Hubei, with one reported in Hebei near Beijing and another in Heilongjiang in the far northeast.

Health authorities and officials tried to calm worried citizens on Friday.

Zeng Guang, chief scientist at China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), took to Weibo on Friday night to say that the coming week would be the key to containing the epidemic, and that the effects of putting Wuhan on lockdown would show in the next five to 10 days.

He questioned some forecasts that the epidemic might continue until May.

Hubei governor Wang Xiaodong tried to assure a jittery population that things were under control.

He told local media on Thursday that food supplies to Wuhan were “sufficient” and that the city had 5 million kilograms (11 million pounds) of rice, 4 million kilograms of cooking oil and more than 10,000 tonnes (11,023 short tons) of pork and beef. Wang said food from nearby provinces like Yunnan and Hainan were being shipped in regularly.

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Nevertheless, Wuhan residents say they are stockpiling and rationing food, and that many supermarkets are running out. They are also frustrated and annoyed with local officials’ management of the emergency.

“I didn’t see the governor’s remarks, but the all the supermarkets I went to were empty. The employees said that maybe tomorrow or the next day there will be deliveries, but no one is getting their hopes up,” said Li Xiaoshan, a Wuhan resident, who added that the city streets were deserted.

“I buy what I can. This city is like Chernobyl,” he said. “The traffic in the city is blocked, and our relatives can’t get to the hospital for treatment. We are really anxious.”

Another Wuhan resident, Mo Gu, whose wife works at a local hospital, said medical supplies were in very short supply.

“At my wife’s hospital they haven’t had enough face masks for many days. Each doctor has only been given two surgical masks that they have to use over several days. Do you think that’s OK?” he said.

“The government doesn’t know what it’s doing, and still they go on TV to brag when frontline medical staff don’t even have a change of protective clothing.”

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Mo said some medical staff who spoke to the media about the situation on the ground were later tracked down by police and warned to keep quiet.

“No one thought to stock up on masks and prepare for more medical supplies,” he said. “They parrot their slogans, and once the disease came around, they found themselves running around naked.”

Provincial officials have been on the defensive.

The number of fever patients has entered its “second wave” of confirmed and suspected cases, and authorities were working quickly to take care of a rising number of sick people, said Liu Dongru, deputy director of the Hubei Provincial Health Committee, during a press conference in Wuhan on Friday afternoon.

Liu blamed other causes for the high number of patients at clinics, including the peak flu season and “false information” about the coronavirus. There were 549 medical facilities with fever clinics around the province, with 61 in Wuhan, he said.

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“A small number of patients have been influenced by false information and sought treatment out of panic, which has made it difficult for other patients to go to the clinics,” Liu said.

The conference ended abruptly after just one question from journalists, who were told to speak to other officials after the meeting.

A local reporter asked if medical products made in Hubei for export would be kept for use in the province.

Deng Xiaochuan, director of the Hubei provincial medical products administration, said products like face masks and protective clothing made for export were being checked to ensure they met local safety standards.

The nation is poised to bring in the Year of the Rat with state broadcaster CCTV’s New Year’s Eve gala broadcast on Friday evening, which it says is the most watched programme in the world with more than 1 billion viewers.

One item on the show was listed as a poem recital about the virus in Wuhan. It mostly consisted of the hosts thanking citizens of the world for their concern for China.

“Viruses don’t need passports. We are a community of common destiny for humanity. Loving yourself is loving everyone in every corner of the globe,” one host said.

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That did not go down well with one viewer.

“What the hell is CCTV doing? What use is a poetry reading? Shouldn’t they be doing deep digging on what’s happened in Wuhan to cause this situation?,” said Chen Xue, a Wuhan resident.

She said she had stored 100kg (220 pounds) of rice and 15kg of cooking oil at her home, bought at supermarkets over the past few days.

“For my New Year’s Eve feast, I’ll just fry some eggs and tomatoes. I don’t dare cook a bunch of meat or fish. I’ll have to save some ribs and eat them slowly,” she said.

Chen said her children had caught colds but she was not taking them to hospital for fear that they might get infected.

“Everyone in the neighbourhood is facing the same problem: if someone gets sick, we don’t dare take them to the hospital. We’re afraid they’ll get infected,” she said.

“If I hear of someone without enough food, I drop it off outside their door. Nobody dares meet face to face.”

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