By Huizhong Wu and Sophie Yu
BEIJING (Reuters) – Bundled up in winter clothes as they head home for the Lunar New Year holiday amid a health scare over a mystery new virus, Chinese travelers on the teeming concourse of Beijing West station were evenly split between the masked and the barefaced.
Covering up was clearly the best decision for many of the passengers waiting to board the packed train carriages for the 5-1/2 hour journey to Wuhan, the epicenter of an outbreak that has sent shivers through the world’s most populous country.
Going back to her hometown, 28-year-old Tan Jie has been ribbed at work about the danger of contracting the new coronavirus, but the blue surgical mask on her face shows she is taking the risk seriously.
“My Beijing colleagues joked and said ‘when you come back to work, we’ll have to quarantine you for two weeks,'” Tan said, trying to make light of the dampener the scare has put on the most important holiday for Chinese families.
So far three people have died, and authorities globally have counted more than 200 reported cases. On Monday, China confirmed the first cases in the country outside Wuhan, in Beijing and the southern city of Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong.
Liao Guang and her husband are looking forward to being reunited with their two-year-old child in Yichang, a city in the same province as Wuhan, and rushed to buy masks before traveling, as alarm spread on social media after the number of confirmed cases tripled over the weekend.
“All the trending items were about this pneumonia outbreak, so I thought we should buy a mask and take some kind of a preventative measure,” said Liao, a petite 26-year-old, trailing a wheelie bag.
“I think during this (holiday), we’re not going to go out too much, and probably won’t go to places with a lot of people, like the movie theater.”
Little remains known about the virus, including its source, how easily it can spread, or its severity, though some experts say it is less deadly than the earlier Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, which killed nearly 800 people in 37 countries after an outbreak in southern China in 2002-2003.
Symptoms include fever and difficulty in breathing, like many other respiratory diseases. While it is unclear whether masks provide effective protection, for people with no other information they are the most obvious precaution.
Drug stores in Wuhan reported mask sales have surged.
“Today we’ve sold out all the single-use masks, and I need to prepare for tomorrow’s supply,” said a worker at a branch of Beike Drug Store. “Demand has surged ten times compared with before the disease broke out.”
Beijing has said the outbreak is controllable and vowed to step up efforts to prevent its spread ahead of the holidays, which begin late this week, when hundreds of millions of Chinese will be travel domestically and abroad.
At Beijing West railway station the number of people wearing masks was pretty well matched by those without anything covering their faces, and there were no visible infrared temperature cameras for detecting elevated body temperatures.
The outbreak, as well as disclosures from local governments about patients under quarantine pending a confirmed diagnosis, were among the top trending topics on social media platforms Monday. Some users expressed anger at a lack of clear guidance from authorities on precautions that could be taken.
“I have to search on Weibo by myself for all the new developments – no notice from schools, companies or the compound where I live,” one user of Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, complained.
Another took aim as people going without masks for not taking the outbreak seriously.
“So ignorant, so fearless, so arrogant,” another user said.
(Reporting by Huizhong Wu, Sophie Yu, Lusha Zhang and Roxanne Liu; writing by Se Young Lee; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)