By Agence France-Presse
WUHAN, China – The Chinese city of 11 million people that was Ground Zero for what became the global coronavirus pandemic partly reopened on Saturday after more than two months of almost total isolation.
Wuhan was placed under lockdown in January with residents forbidden to leave, roadblocks ring fencing the city’s outskirts and drastic restrictions on daily life.
But the major transport and industrial hub has now signaled the end of its long isolation, with state media showing the first officially sanctioned passenger train arriving back into the city just after midnight.
People are now allowed to enter but not leave, and many trains arriving Saturday had been fully booked days in advance.
Some had managed to slip back into the city a day earlier on rail services that were stopping in the city — but nominally banned passengers from disembarking — as enforcement of the travel ban began to ease.
One woman who arrived on Friday said she and her daughter had been away from her husband for nearly 10 weeks. ”
As the train neared Wuhan, my child and I were both very excited,” the 36-year-old told AFP on Saturday.
“It felt like the train was moving faster than before, and my daughter said the driver must know we really want to go home.
“She rushed toward her father, and watching them from behind I couldn’t help but cry,” she added.
Staff at Wuhan station were all clad in full protective gear with reception desks lined up ready to process returnees who had been overseas.
China is now battling to control a wave of imported cases as infections soar abroad.
All arrivals in Wuhan have to show a green code on a mobile app to prove that they are healthy.
Elsewhere in China long lines of travelers queued up at train stations to board high-speed services back to Wuhan.
Passengers in Shanghai had their temperatures checked by staff in goggles and masks after boarding their Saturday morning service.
Restrictions on residents heading out of Wuhan will not be lifted until April 8, when the airport will also reopen for domestic flights.
Zero cases, not zero risk
The new coronavirus was detected in December and has been linked to a market in the city that sold wild animals for human consumption.
The city has paid a heavy price for the outbreak, with more than 50,000 people infected and more COVID-19 deaths than any other city in China.
There were three more deaths in the city on Saturday, health officials reported.
Most of Wuhan’s subway network restarted on Saturday, while some shopping center will open their doors next week.
Banks reopened earlier this week and bus routes started operations — but residents have been warned against unnecessary travel and those over 65 have been told to avoid public transport.
A study this week found that the lockdown in Wuhan succeeded in stopping the fast-spreading virus in its tracks and gave health care facilities crucial breathing room — but warned against opening up the city too soon.
More than 2,500 people are still hospitalized with the disease in Wuhan, including nearly 900 “severe” cases.
More than 26,000 deaths worldwide
Italy on Friday recorded the most daily deaths of any country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and Spain had its deadliest day, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the first major world leader to test positive.
Italy reported 969 new deaths, Spain 769 and France 299 as Europe reeled from a crisis that led the United States on Friday to finalize an unprecedented $2 trillion stimulus package.
In other grim milestones, AFP tallies showed more than 26,000 deaths worldwide, and a total of 300,000 cases now recorded in Europe, after the United States overtook China as the country with the most infections.
Italy showed a continuing downward trend in infection rates and Spain said its rate appeared to be slowing, but other countries were bracing for the virus’s full impact.
Ireland announced it was imposing a lockdown, with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar imploring his citizens to “stay at home, in all circumstances.”
The World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa warned the continent faced a “dramatic evolution” of the pandemic, as South Africa also began life under lockdown and reported its first COVID-19 death.
Johnson, whose country has seen more than 14,000 declared coronavirus cases and 759 deaths, said he had developed mild symptoms and tested positive.
“I am now self-isolating, but I will continue to lead the government’s response via video-conference as we fight this virus,” Johnson, who had initially resisted calls for a nationwide lockdown before changing course, wrote on Twitter.
In France, where nearly 2,000 people have died, the government announced it was extending its stay-at-home order until at least April 15.
While severe, the 299 new deaths it recorded Friday were lower than the 365 reported the previous day. The death of a 16-year-old girl from the virus has particularly shaken France, shattering the belief of many young people that they were immune.
The girl’s mother Sabine told AFP that Julie “just had a cough” at first but deteriorated quickly. She died Wednesday, less than a week later.
“It’s unbearable,” Sabine said. “We were supposed to have a normal life.”
In the United States, known infections jumped past 100,000, surpassing China and Italy, with more than 1,500 deaths, according to a tracker at the Johns Hopkins University.
In New York City, the US epicenter of the crisis, health workers battled a surging toll, including an increasing number of younger patients.
“Now it’s 50-year-olds, 40- year-olds, 30-year-olds,” said one respiratory therapist at the Jewish Medical Center in Queens.
They “didn’t listen about not going out or protecting themselves and washing their hands,” he said.
The WHO’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual news conference in Geneva the dire lack of protective gear for frontline health workers was “one of the most urgent threats to our collective ability to save lives.”
The chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said the coronavirus pandemic has driven the global economy into a downturn that will require massive funding to help developing nations.
“It is clear that we have entered a recession” that will be worse than in 2009 following the global financial crisis, IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said in an online press briefing Friday after a virtual meeting with the Washington-based lender’s steering committee, where she also requested an increase in the fund’s fast-deploying emergency facilities from their current level of around $50 billion.
With the worldwide economic “sudden stop,” Georgieva said the fund’s estimate “for the overall financial needs of emerging markets is $2.5 trillion.” But warned that estimate “is on the lower end.”
Over 80 countries, mostly of low incomes, have already requested emergency aid from the IMF, she said.
“We do know that their own reserves and domestic resources will not be sufficient,” Georgieva said, adding that the fund is aiming to beef up its response “to do more, do it better, do it faster than ever before.”