With two days until the Chinese New Year, the railway station in Wuhan should be full.
Across the country, millions of people head home to see their loved ones. But in China’s seventh largest city, home of the coronavirus, most of the platforms are deserted.
Starting at 10:00 on Thursday (02:00 GMT), the departure of the city from buses, trains, underground trains and ferries was stopped.
The flights were also suspended. The roads are not officially closed, but roadblocks were reported and residents were told not to leave.
So the question is: can you quarantine an entire city? And if you can, does it work?
Wuhan is a huge place, the 42nd largest city in the world, according to UN data, and cannot easily become an isolation room.
More than 20 main roads reach Wuhan, in addition to dozens of smaller roads. Even with public transportation closed, sealing the city would require a massive military effort.
“The only way to do it, realistically, would be to surround the city with the PLA [Chinese military]”says Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, health security expert at the University of Sydney.
But even if they do, where would they literally draw the line? Like most modern cities, Wuhan extends to smaller cities and towns.
“Cities have unorthodox forms,” says Professor Mikhail Prokopenko, a pandemic expert also from the University of Sydney,
“You can’t really block all roads and all connections. It may be possible to some extent … but it’s not an infallible measure.”
Gauden Galea, the representative of the World Health Organization in China, expresses it bluntly.
“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” he told the Associated Press. “At this time we cannot say that it will work or that it will not work.”
And, even if it is possible to close the stable door in Wuhan, the horse may have already shot out.
The Wuhan virus was reported to WHO on December 31. It was not until January 20 that officials in China confirmed that it could be transmitted from person to person.
By then, tens of thousands of people had left the city. Since then, the virus has been reported in China and Asia, and even in the US. UU., All in people who had recently been to Wuhan.
But, despite the fact that the virus is spreading throughout the world, Professor Kamradt-Scott says that the domestic situation is more worrisome.
“In each of the [other] In countries where we have seen cases arise, there have only been one or two, or four in Thailand, “says Professor Kamradt-Scott.
“They are a very small number of cases. It seems that they have indeed been detected in time to avoid further local transmission. Therefore, the greatest concern is in China.”
Of the 571 cases reported for Thursday, 375 were in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is the capital. But there were another 26 in Guangdong, 10 in Beijing, plus 38 possible cases in Hong Kong.
“If the virus is already there, and there is already transmission from the local community, then the measures in Wuhan are too late,” says Professor Kamradt-Scott.
Professor Prokopenko agrees that the international response has been good. Passengers on the last plane from Wuhan to Sydney, for example, were met by biosafety officials.
The problem, says the professor, is that many people could have the virus and not even know it.
“There is a difference between infected and infectious,” he warns.
“Infected people have a virus in their body, but they are not yet infectious. They show no symptoms. They look completely normal until they have already been in contact with other people.”
The normal incubation period for the flu, he says, is two or three days. But for a coronavirus, it could be five to six days, a week or even more.
That is, someone could have contracted the virus last week, taken it all over the world, infected others and still doesn’t know that he is sick.
“And when they start to show symptoms, it can be confused with the common cold or the flu,” says Professor Prokopenko. “That is the difficulty.”
None of this means that China is wrong in trying to contain the virus. The OMS he has praised his efforts, and there are some precedents of what experts call “social distancing.”
In April 2009, Mexico City closed bars, cinemas, theaters, soccer fields and even churches in an attempt to stop swine flu. Restaurants were only allowed to serve take-away food.
“It apparently slowed the transmission of the virus in Mexico City and helped the authorities to handle the situation,” says Professor Kamradt-Scott. “Did you stop it completely? No.”
So, in general, is it worth it to close Wuhan?
“China has only reported confirmed cases,” says Professor Kamradt-Scott.
“Based on those numbers [571 cases, with 17 dead], if it was me, I probably wouldn’t. But if there are thousands of suspicious cases, that would change the equation considerably. “