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45 Million Chinese Now Under Quarantine As Officials Try To Halt Coronavirus Spread

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The spread of a new virus has put China in lockdown mode. The country has quarantined multiple cities with a total population of more than 45 million. China has also extended the Lunar New Year holiday to stop people from going to work. It has delayed the start of the academic spring semester and sent health workers to major roads to check travelers' temperatures. There are now more than 2,700 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in China alone. More than 80 people have died.

NPR's Emily Feng is in Jiangxi Province.

Hi there, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. So tell me exactly where you are. You're right across from the city where all this began - right? - from the epicenter.

FENG: I'm right across the river. I'm in a city called Jiujiang, and it's right across the Yangtze River from Wuhan.

KELLY: And that is the epicenter. And what's it like? What can you see?

FENG: Today, Jiujiang was a ghost town. It's not officially in the quarantine zone, but it's effectively under a soft lockdown. The bridges and highways connecting the city to Wuhan had been sealed off, and there are these makeshift roadblocks set up where people are doing mandatory temperature checks.

KELLY: When you say mandatory, everyone? I mean, were you checked when you came in?

FENG: Yeah, including me when I drove in. They aimed this white plastic gun thing at your head, which takes an immediate reading of your temperature. I was actually told that my temperature was a little higher than average, but it turns out I'm totally fine. I was just wearing too much clothing.

KELLY: Oh, good.

FENG: One thing I did learn today, though, is it's not just cities like Jiujiang that are under this effective lockdown; it's rural areas, too. I drove to a cluster of villages right outside the city, and their authorities and local residents said that more than 1,700 people who had worked in Wuhan, the epicenter where this disease started, had returned to these villages during the Lunar New Year last weekend, before the official quarantine was put in place.

And so tonight, the villagers said that they are voluntarily and unofficially sealing themselves off to outsiders, and they're stopping residents from leaving. And they say this is necessary because villagers have far fewer resources to treat people than in cities, and very soon, millions are going to be returning to the cities when that holiday ends. It's the kinds of partial unofficial lockdowns that are being replicated across China on top of the official lockdowns like that happening in Wuhan.

KELLY: I'm trying to imagine just how this is affecting daily lives of so many people in these places, including where you are. And I'm curious - do they support these quarantine measures?

FENG: The quarantines have made people really nervous. They're staying home as a precaution. But overwhelmingly, people support these measures. I talked to one Jiujiang resident, a state electric grid worker really Mr. Chen (ph), about what he thought about the scale of the quarantine.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's saying before the People's Republic of China, before the Communist Party, such a thing would not have been possible. To seal off an entire city is no laughing matter, and it shows just how strong China's government is. I should note, he only gave his last name despite being a fan of the quarantine because people have been criticized and intimidated for criticizing the state response.

KELLY: Thank you for explaining that. It does all prompt the question of how are they going to know if these measures are working, if they are preventing the spread of coronavirus?

FENG: It may be too late, according to officials from Wuhan. Yesterday, the mayor from that city admitted that before he put a quarantine on the city, 5 million people were already able to escape, meaning they could have brought the virus with them elsewhere. And then today, he made this extraordinary admission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU XIANWANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's saying, in really convoluted Chinese, basically, he didn't tell the public enough about the outbreak at the outset, and this is extraordinary because leaders in China almost never admit they messed up.

KELLY: Extraordinary reporting there from NPR's Emily Feng. She is in a Chinese province near the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

Emily, thanks very much.

FENG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.