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Silent streets: Canadians describe life in China during coronavirus outbreak

Albertan in Wuhan waits to hear evacuation plan from Canadian government
WATCH: An Albertan in Wuhan waits to hear evacuation plan from Canadian government

It’s been just over a week since Wuhan, China — the epicenter of a new viral outbreak — was quarantined. For the Canadians stuck within the borders, it’s been difficult trying to lead a normal life.

Since Jan. 23, the central Chinese city of more than 11 million has been on lockdown. The new strain of coronavirus is believed to have emerged at a wet market in the city, where meat, fish and other perishable items were sold.

As of Friday, it has led to more than 200 deaths and and infected nearly 10,000 people worldwide.

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Patterson Wu was visiting Wuhan from Vancouver when the quarantine order came down.

He said the once-bustling city became a ghost town overnight. The silence in the streets has been the most jarring to him.

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“I live near a very popular area and it’s been really quiet,” he said. “There’s no cars, no sound, just nothing.”

General view of a street in Wuhan on Jan. 26, 2020, a city at the epicentre of a viral outbreak. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
General view of a street in Wuhan on Jan. 26, 2020, a city at the epicentre of a viral outbreak. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Wu is hunkered down in a home with six others. He said food supply hasn’t been a concern.

“We have a lot of food stocked up because of Chinese New Year and family members not coming here to celebrate since the breakout. So we have quite a bit of food for the next few weeks,” he said.

While grocery stores and shops remain open, many of the people still in Wuhan are choosing to stay inside — Wu included.

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“Generally, no one in the house goes outside.”

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“We stay at home, try to entertain ourselves and keep positive,” Wu said.

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It has become a massive effort to keep Wuhan and nearby cities at the center of the outbreak supplied with enough food and other necessities.

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A number of shipping trucks have been granted permits to leave the quarantine to collect food and bring it back to the 17 locked-down cities. Food is being brought in from as far as Yunnan province, about 1,700 kilometres west of Wuhan, according to Hubei government officials, as reported by the Associated Press.

In Chinese state media, photos show the trucks lined up at checkpoints. Police examine the mask-wearing drivers for symptoms of the virus — particularly fever — before letting them pass.

Trucks in Hefei City in eastern China loaded with vegetables for Wuhan.
Trucks in Hefei City in eastern China loaded with vegetables for Wuhan. (REUTERS, screenshot of video)

The government has vowed to upkeep adequate supplies of vegetables, rice, and meat.

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“Please do not panic, do not hoard, so as not to cause waste,” a government bulletin said.

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To keep people in their homes, Wuhan and other cities have opted to close schools, cinemas and restaurants. Public transportation services have also been cut off. In the downtown area specifically, private vehicle use is currently banned.

Wu said it has been difficult to cope under the circumstances some days.

“The numbers [of cases] keep rising while everybody is inside watching the news,” he said. “It’s easy to entertain yourself inside, but harder to keep a positive mindset.”
An empty street is seen in Wuhan, Hubei province, China Jan. 29, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media. (INSTAGRAM/EMILIA via REUTERS)
An empty street is seen in Wuhan, Hubei province, China Jan. 29, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media. (INSTAGRAM/EMILIA via REUTERS)

Wayne Duplessis is just outside Wuhan’s city centre with his wife and 15-year-old son, where they’ve lived for the past three years. The Ontario-born teacher has no intention of evacuating his family out of the country, in fact, he considers himself relatively lucky.

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“It’s quiet where we are. We have the markets near us, small supermarkets, and they’re being replenished,” he told Global News earlier this week.

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At one point, costs for food skyrocketed, but the government has since clamped down on price-gouging.

“China has gotten better about bringing large truckloads of food here, but there was a while there where supplies were going down and there was a great rush to have everything.”

A market in Wuhan City, Hubei province, China on Jan. 29, 2020.
A market in Wuhan City, Hubei province, China on Jan. 29, 2020. (REUTERS, screenshot from video)

Duplessis was also living in China during the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, which killed nearly 800 people. He’s taken some of his experiences from that and applied it to the outbreak now.

Keeping a routine and continuity is important to get through a difficult situation like this, he said.

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“We make sure we have lunch at the same time, dinner at the same time,” Duplessis said. “It’s important.”

Confirmed novel coronavirus cases in China soaring
Confirmed novel coronavirus cases in China soaring

For Isabelle Mathieu, who is originally from a small town near Quebec City, being in China over the past few weeks has been a whirlwind. She moved to Chongqing, west of Hubei, in November for a teaching contract.

While Chongqing is not under lockdown, Mathieu said local authorities are taking a number of preventative measures to stave off the spread.

Schools in Chongqing are expected to remain closed well into February, Mathieu said, including the one she works at. In Wuhan, public schools were ordered to resume teaching but online-only. The city’s main university is also organizing online classes.

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“They do take our temperatures in any public area. So if we entered a subway station and are not wearing a mask or found to have a temperature, we will be denied access and directed to the right authorities,” she said. “It’s also happening at grocery stores and things like that. So that’s good.”

The elevated screening procedures are also happening at municipal and provincial borders, according to Mathieu.

“If the person is from the Hubei province, they’re denied access to our city,” she said.

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Mathieu is among dozens of Canadians who are hoping to be evacuated from China on a government-chartered plane. Canada is seeking Chinese approval to send a plane to Wuhan to collect 196 Canadians who have asked for help to leave. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that his government is coordinating evacuation efforts with other countries, many of which have already brought a number of citizens home.

Ottawa secures plane to fly Canadians out of China
Ottawa secures plane to fly Canadians out of China

Mathieu told Global News that she’s heard very little from the embassy about the plan.

“Even friends in Wuhan, who I’m in communication with, they haven’t received anything either,” she said.

“We expected more communication from them. Even if it was just to say, ‘Hey guys, just letting you know that we know that you’re in China, we’re there for you and we’re working on something right now.’ Or, ‘Here’s a number or an email address if something happens.’  We have nothing. We’ve heard nothing about that.”

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She said, so far, Chinese authorities have been “quite transparent” about the severity of the situation.

“I feel like I’m getting a lot of information from the Chinese government and nothing from the Canadian government,” she said.

Wu echoed Mathieu’s concerns. He said Canada’s response to those stuck in China has been surprisingly slow.

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He claims he tried multiple times to reach a consular official, but was unsuccessful.

“We’re supposed to be one of the most modern countries in the world and it’s kind of sad to see other countries mobilize so fast, but we’re so slow.”

— With files from Global News’ Abigail Bimman, the Associated Press and the Canadian Press