China virus fears prompt homemade barricades and online shaming

Jing Xuan TENG
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Unofficial checkpoints have been set up outside villages -- like this one in Zouping -- to stop outsiders bringing in the deadly virus

Unofficial checkpoints have been set up outside villages -- like this one in Zouping -- to stop outsiders bringing in the deadly virus (AFP Photo/STR)

Villages and apartment complexes across China are taking the fight against a deadly viral epidemic into their own hands with improvised barricades and the online shaming of potentially-infected strangers.

The government has taken drastic measures to contain the spread of 2019-nCoV since it emerged at the end of December in a market where wild animals were sold.

More than 50 million people in and around the epicentre of Wuhan have been confined to their cities, while nationwide travel has been heavily curtailed.

Alarmed by daily reports of new cases across the country, ordinary citizens and local officials have buttressed these efforts with their own blockades, fearful that travellers from Hubei will infect their communities.

In one Beijing residential compound, a motley stack of shared bicycles have been haphazardly woven together and wired to a wooden ladder, blocking a side gate and forcing visitors to register with guards at the main entrance.

Staff at the Zhongfangli complex said the bike barrier was built at the start of the week to help them control the flow of people into the compound and stop the virus spreading to residents inside.

Photos of homemade roadblocks elsewhere in China have been shared widely on the microblogging platform Weibo.

In one image, a man wearing a surgical mask and brandishing a traditional martial arts weapon squats on a barricade in front of a village. A hand-written sign on the structure reads: "Outsiders forbidden from entering".

Another shows two elderly men in surgical masks, purportedly in coastal Shandong province, standing behind a cardboard notice instructing visitors to turn around and not enter the community.

A truck has been used to block the road into one section of Lianyungang city near Shanghai since Tuesday, a nearby resident said.

"Don't come back once you've left," locals were instructed, the 30-year-old told AFP.

In nearby Yancheng, a car ambled around apartment blocks blaring a recorded message that warned against contact with arrivals from the epicentre of the outbreak.

"If you discover someone who has returned from Hubei, notify the residents' committee immediately," a loudspeaker on the car warned.

Numerous residential compounds in Beijing have also asked their inhabitants to report any visitors from Wuhan, the city where the virus first appeared -- or simply anyone from out of town.

- 'I promise to self-quarantine' -

Hotels around China have refused entry to travellers from Hubei province, while people from Wuhan currently in other parts of the country have been the victims of targeted harassment, according to Human Rights Watch.

Several Wuhan-based students who returned to their home provinces for the Lunar New Year holiday reportedly saw their personal details leaked and shared in online chat groups.

"I am a university student in Wuhan," one student wrote online, according to HRW. "I promise I will self-quarantine, please do not treat us as enemies."

In addition to transport restrictions, authorities are rapidly erecting pre-fabricated hospitals in Wuhan to treat infected residents and are monitoring more than 80,000 people for signs they have the virus.

Officials also warned Thursday that suspected carriers who refused quarantine or otherwise helped spread the disease would be treated as threats to public safety.

But they have taken a dim view of local efforts to stop the spread of the epidemic.

On Thursday authorities ordered the removal of unauthorised roadblocks disrupting long-distance travel, saying the barricades threatened to disrupt the supply of agricultural goods.

Food prices this week have risen to their highest point in nearly four years, according to a widely-used index of produce costs reported by state news agency Xinhua.