NOEL KING, HOST:
Officials in Beijing are canceling some major public events that are intended to mark the Lunar New Year. They're trying to stop the spread of a deadly coronavirus outbreak.
Here's the latest on the virus. It's now reached Singapore, with a case confirmed there this morning. The outbreak started in the city of Wuhan in central China. Authorities there say they are in a state of war to keep it from spreading. They've stopped all public transportation within the city, and they've canceled flights and trains that are leaving the city. Eleven million people live in Wuhan, so this might seem extreme. But more than 600 people are now infected, and 17 have died.
NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng has been following all of this closely. I talked to her earlier this morning.
Good morning, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: So 11 million people in Wuhan - that, as you have pointed out, is bigger than New York by, like, 3 million. How does this quarantine work?
FENG: By cutting off the transport lines one by one. So this morning, there were lines at the airport because they were - started canceling outbound flights starting at 10 a.m. Soldiers marched up to the train station in Wuhan. They were wearing face masks, but they stood in front of the doors to prevent passengers without tickets from entering and leaving the city.
And then that then funneled everyone to the highways. People could get out by car in the early morning, but now they're sealing off the highways as well. And we've just received reports that three smaller cities in the same province that Wuhan is in have also shut down their train stations or airports. So now they're shutting off transportation in the surrounding area of Wuhan as well.
NPR talked to a number of people in Wuhan today. One of them gave his surname as Wang (ph), and he says this sudden, much more aggressive approach to this public health crisis has really raised public anxiety.
WANG: (Through interpreter) Back then, people weren't taking things seriously at all. They still gathered to play cards or go to clubs. But gradually, as more cases were announced, you could feel the public beginning to care.
FENG: The suspension of public transport, though, means that fresh produce food is also now more scarce in Wuhan. And Wang says that prices are twice what they normally are.
WANG: (Through interpreter) Local residents did not know some produce markets were going to close. But because it's almost the new year, they have to buy something for their family to eat.
FENG: And as he mentioned, it's a holiday, so life goes on. I talked to another person in Wuhan. His name is Jan Robert Go. He's a Filipino doctoral student from Wuhan's Central China Normal University, and this is what he had to say.
JAN ROBERT GO: The attitude is to cheer each other that we can overcome this particular challenge and Wuhan will be better - at least from the conversations I am seeing among my Chinese friends.
FENG: But authorities are actually a little more grim. A commission of Wuhan's top health and government officials said that they needed to, quote, "man the battle stations and take wartime methods to avert disaster." By just quarantining Hubei province and Wuhan, it's not clear how effective that will be because there are cases in other cities.
KING: OK, including some of China's biggest cities. Do authorities there yet know why this disease is spreading so quickly?
FENG: It's because humans can pass it to humans. Before they thought animals could only pass it to humans, so it's spreading more quickly than expected. That's led to another problem, which is there just aren't enough doctors to screen all the suspected cases in Wuhan right now.
KING: During the SARS outbreak some years back, China was really criticized for not being as transparent as it might have been. So with this new strain of coronavirus, it does bring up a really, really relevant question, which is - have the authorities learned a lesson? Are they being more open and more transparent now?
FENG: To some extent, they have. They pledged this week to report every case publicly as it comes in confirmed. But online, there are still a number of accusations - though quickly taken down - from relatives who say their relatives died from a pneumonia-like illness and were not listed officially as a virus victim.
But Xi Jinping has come out - China's leader - he called on cadres personally to put public health first, implying that covering up these coronavirus cases for political expediency this time around is going to be a big no-no. But of course, there's a lot of public suspicion. Last year, there was African swine flu, which authorities delayed reporting the severity of, and of course the SARS outbreak of 2003 - so distrust runs really deep.
KING: OK. NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Thanks, Emily.
FENG: Thank you.
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