On 20 January, the Chinese government announced that a new type of coronavirus could be transmitted human-to-human, sparking a wave of panic in the country and unnerving neighbouring countries. In the days following the announcement, videos of doctors in protective suits starting circulating on social media. Our team reached out to our Observers across China to find out how they were dealing with the climate of fear and what protective measures they were taking.

By Wednesday this week, at least 17 people had died from a kind of pneumonia caused by the virus and authorities reported a further 500 cases across the country. Cases of the virus were also reported in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Macao, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the United States.
 

People left frightened and anguished comments on online videos of doctors wearing protective suits, with some saying that these videos looked like scenes from science fiction films about the end of the world or the extinction of the human race. The posts gave no indication of when and where most of these videos had been filmed, but our team was able to uncover the origins of a few.
 

"Coronavirus in Huizhou, Guangdong! This is only the beginning!” tweeted a social media user alongside a video showing what seems to be a patient with a highly infectious illness being loaded into an ambulance in an isolator.
 

In the video in this tweet, the word 惠州 (Huizhou) and the number 120 are written on the side of the ambulance, which indicates that this emergency vehicle is from the town of Huizhou, which is in southern China near Hong Kong. Our team ran the video through a reverse image search, and there was no indication that this video had been posted online before the outbreak began in late December 2019. So it is fairly safe to assume that this video likely does show the kind of isolator that medical teams are using to transport people who might be infected with this type of virus. 
 

Wuhan, the supercity where the virus was first identified


The virus appeared in late December in Wuhan, a city in central China and the country’s seventh largest city. This virus is in the same family of viruses as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which caused 800 deaths during an outbreak in China in 2002 and 2003. Authorities traced this virus to a covered market where seafood and live animals were sold; in early January, they shut down the market to clean it and disinfect it.

To avoid the spread of the virus, authorities also banned public gatherings during the Lunar New Year, a festive period that starts on January 24 when many people across China travel to be with family. The National Commission of Health said that travellers should avoid Wuhan and that people in Wuhan shouldn’t travel to other places. People on flights from Wuhan are now being screened for any symptoms when they land in airports around the globe.

“Passengers screened for coronavirus symptoms on a domestic flight out of Wuhan,” tweeted journalist David Paulk.

Our team was unable to independently verify the video above, which was widely shared. However, there is another video showing the same type of procedure and equipment that Chinese media WeVideo, a branch of the The Beijing News with links to the Chinese Communist Party, claims to have verified.

Journalists at WeVideo say they spoke to Mrs Cheng, who filmed the video when she was travelling on a flight between Wuhan and Macao on January 12. After landing, the passengers were subject to a screening on board. According to Mrs. Cheng, the screening took about ten minutes.

"At first, no one realized how serious this epidemic was"

Our Observer Lu Haitao lives and works in Beijing but he is from a town about 50 kilometres from Wuhan. His family still lives there.

I went to Wuhan two weeks ago. The outbreak had already started, but no one was really talking about it. Everything was normal. No one was wearing masks and no one really knew that there was an epidemic going on, they just thought that there had been a sudden increase in pneumonia cases. I remember that on January 1, the police actually called in eight people for having apparently spread rumours about the virus.

It was only when the government made an announcement the weekend of January 18 that people really started to understand how serious the situation was. Before that, we had only heard about cases detected abroad, in Thailand or Japan. In fact, quite a few people were making jokes on social media about how it was a “very patriotic virus” that only attacked foreigners, not Chinese people. 

Chinese government accused of withholding information 

When the SARS outbreak occurred in 2002 and 2003, the Chinese government minimised the seriousness of the situation and hid facts from the Chinese population. Worried that the same situation might occur again, several scientists have spoken out about their fears.

The former spokesman for the World Health Organization during the SARS outbreak, Peter Cordingley, took to Facebook on January 20 to accuse the Chinese government of “lying" about the spread of coronavirus and exhibiting “the same reckless behaviour”.

This time, however, the Chinese government did make an announcement that it wouldn’t tolerate the withholding of any important information about the virus. The South China Morning Post reported that officials from the Chinese Communist Party were instructed to share information in a timely manner.

However, our Observer Lu Haitao remains fearful and has been taking precautions to keep himself and his family from contracting the virus.

"My family lives near Wuhan; I’m worried about them”
 
I have family about 60 kilometres from Wuhan and I’m really worried about them. There is very little information circulating about the cases detected in the province. Thankfully, my parents don’t leave their town much. I asked them to take all possible precautions and to avoid crowds.

Because of the virus, it’s also dangerous for me to visit them during the New Year holidays. There will be a lot more people in the stations and the chance of contracting the virus will increase. I’m still not sure but I might cancel my trip.

Here in Beijing, there have been five cases and lots of people have started wearing masks. In fact, some pharmacies have run out of them. On Sunday, I started wearing a mask every time I go out.

"I cancelled my travel plans for the New Year holiday”

A Chinese social media user who goes by the name Hazel Bront on Twitter posted a photo of the Wuhan train station, practically empty, along with a commentary.

“I got a call from my company today and everyone who isn’t already on vacation is supposed to work from home. On Taobao [Editor’s note: A Chinese e-commerce site], they are out of masks. Today, when I took the train through Wuhan, I was a little nervous.

Our team reached out to this social media user, who lives in Hangzhou, a town located more than 700km to the east of Wuhan. She said she stayed in the train and didn’t disembark in Wuhan that day.

My family and I had planned to travel during the Lunar New Year, but we cancelled and are going to stay with family in Chengdu instead, which is the town where I am from [Editor’s note: Chengdu is more than 1,200km west of Wuhan]. I took the photo from the train. I told my parents that they shouldn’t come to collect us at the station and to wear masks every time they go out. My mother has cancer and I’m really afraid that she’ll catch the virus. During the holiday season, we are going to avoid any crowded areas.

Article by Liselotte Mas.