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Amid coronavirus outbreak, Wuhan residents confront fear, government distrust

China's coronavirus outbreak continues, as concerns mount that the virus may be spreading faster than previously assessed. The Chinese city of Wuhan remains the epicenter of the outbreak, and its 11 million residents are currently living in a state of partial lockdown. William Brangham reports and talks to The New York Times’ Christopher Buckley, a China-based correspondent reporting from Wuhan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the coronavirus outbreak in China continues. Of great concern now is that the virus may be spreading even faster than previously thought.

    William Brangham has the latest.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, while at least 14 other nations are monitoring people who've arrived from affected areas in China, the epicenter for this outbreak remains the city of Wuhan.

    Wuhan is bigger than any American city, and its 11 million residents are living in semi-lockdown. Nearly all modes of transportation in and out of the city are closed off.

    Christopher Buckley is a China-based correspondent for The New York Times. He's in Wuhan. And he joins us now.

    Chris Buckley, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.

    Can you give us a sense of what it is like in Wuhan today?

  • Chris Buckley:

    Well, today, on the streets of Wuhan, the mood was extremely subdued.

    Ever since last week, the city has been on a lockdown, with these vast restrictions on travel, people not being allowed to leave the city. Fewer people are on the streets.

    So, all you see when you walk out is a very empty cityscape. People tend to stay in their homes. They come out very rarely to buy food, for occasional exercise, but, most of the time, people are staying at home.

    And the only other reason people are going out is if they have a fever or a cold and feel they should be visiting a hospital just in case it's the virus.

  • William Brangham:

    I know it's difficult to visit the hospitals in Wuhan. For those that you have seen, can you give us a sense of what it's like there?

  • Chris Buckley:

    I should emphasize that it's very difficult for us to get around, especially with these traffic restrictions. So, it's very difficult to visit all of the hospitals. We only have a partial view.

    But what I have seen is crowded fever clinics which have been taking in dozens and hundreds of people, residents who are worried that the fever they have might be a symptom of this coronavirus.

    I believe, over the past few days, it has eased a little, partly because of the traffic restrictions, perhaps partly because of better management of the hospitals as well and more available resources. Things have eased off a bit, but there's still a great need for medical attention in the city.

  • William Brangham:

    What instructions are people getting from the government? Are they being told how to behave, where to go, what to do?

  • Chris Buckley:

    Well, what most people are hearing are general rules to stay inside, to wear masks if they go outside or have contact with other people, to regularly wash their hands and disinfect, and to stay calm.

    Now, it's pretty easy to do most of those things on the list, but staying calm is much more difficult when there is this deadly virus out around the city, when people have been dying by the dozens at least. And people aren't sure how long this lockdown will last.

    Psychologically, that's very difficult, especially as I have realized, for residents who have children as well or elderly people they need to take care of.

  • William Brangham:

    We have seen some reports of distrust that people have on social media towards the government.

    What is your sense of that? Are people believing the things the government is telling them?

  • Chris Buckley:

    Among many residents, you find there is distrust and anger with their government now, borne by the belief that city leaders should have told residents about this expanding viral outbreak much earlier and much more fully.

    It's interesting to talk to people who will tell you that they had no idea that this was so serious until, suddenly, there's this announcement that the whole city will be shut down.

    At the same time, I think there's sort of this practical recognition now that the city and its residents have to somehow get through this. And, in order to do that, they have to stop the spread of the disease, and that requires at least some level of cooperation of all of these demands that the — that the government has imposed on residents, about not going outdoors, for example.

  • William Brangham:

    We also know that the government is trying to keep people from moving in and out of the city.

    Has that affected people's ability to buy food or supplies? Are stores running low?

  • Chris Buckley:

    There is concern, but, at the same time, the stores that I have been able to visit over the past few days, there's food available. There's fresh produce on the shelves.

    Today, I went to buy some oranges for myself and didn't have any trouble. And there were other residents flowing out to buy turnips, carrots, cucumbers, apples, and also a load of tinned food as well, not so much meat.

    So, food supply seems OK. Now, again, I think the experience of residents might vary a bit though. But I think, if you're elderly, for example, and you used to go to the shop downstairs to buy your food, now you might have to walk one or two miles or a mile or two in some areas to buy your groceries. And that's going to be difficult.

    You might have friends and family who can help, but they're also going to be have a lot — having a lot of difficulty moving around town.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Chris Buckley of The New York Times, thank you very much.

  • Chris Buckley:

    OK. Thank you.

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