From Chris Buckley, our chief China correspondent, on the ground in Wuhan:
In the mornings, Wuhan is so quiet that bird calls sound down once busy streets. Stray dogs trot in the middle of empty expressways. Residents wrapped in masks creep out of their homes, anxiety flitting across their eyes.
They line up at hospitals overwhelmed by a virus that most had not heard of until a few weeks ago.
They line up outside pharmacies despite the door signs declaring they have sold out of protective masks, disinfectant, surgical gloves and thermometers. They line up to buy rice, fruit and vegetables from food stores that keep operating, while nearly all other shops are closed.
Then they shuffle home to wait out this 21st-century siege. The unluckiest ones lie at home or in a hospital, stricken by pneumonia fevers that could spell death linked to coronavirus 2019-nCoV.
“I’ve started to lose track of the days,” said Yang Dechao, a burly 34-year-old factory worker trapped in Wuhan. “Is it Sunday or Monday? You forget because all normal activity has stopped. Ordinary people have just their families and their phones.”
Soothing recorded messages playing over loudspeakers say that the government cares, and admonish residents to wear masks and minimize outings. Red banners hang on road barriers and walls, telling residents not to heed hearsay about miracle cures.
“Don’t panic,” says one banner. “Don’t allow rumors to make a mess of things.”
But after Wuhan officials silenced early talk of the virus outbreak as “rumor mongering,” many residents are skeptical about the reassuring official message.
“First, we need honesty and transparency now,” said Mao Shuo, a 26-year-old engineering company worker who had briefly tugged down her mask outside for a cigarette. “Who’s to blame, who gets punished, that must come, but now we just want to survive.”
Reporting was contributed by Daniel Victor, Sui-Lee Wee and Chris Buckley.