WUHAN, China (Reuters) – The central Chinese city of Wuhan began allowing people to leave on Wednesday for the first time since it was locked down 76 days ago to contain the novel coronavirus, despite fears of a second wave of infection if such restrictions are eased too soon.
China sealed off the city of 11 million people on Jan. 23 after it became clear that the flu-like virus that had emerged in the city in late 2019 was highly contagious and potentially deadly.
The first train to carry departing passengers out of the city left at 00:50 a.m. (1650 GMT), and outbound highways were opened to vehicular traffic around the same time.
The topic “Wuhan lifts lockdown” quickly became the top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, with posters leaving comments such as “welcome back Wuhan”.
Based on ticket sales, 55,000 people will leave Wuhan by train on Wednesday, state broadcaster CCTV reported, citing the railway authority.
More than 50,000 people have caught the virus in Wuhan and the death toll in the city has reached 2,571, about 80% of the total fatalities in China, according to official figures.
At its peak, the lockdown saw people forcibly confined to their homes and the transport and industrial hub resembled a ghost town with streets deserted except for police patrols and emergency vehicles.
But such restrictions have eased in recent days as new infections dropped to a trickle. Mainland China reported no coronavirus deaths on Tuesday for the first time since the pandemic began, and Wuhan has counted only two new infections in the past fortnight. [nL4N2BV1XW]
Authorities are walking a fine line between allowing greater freedom of movement while also preventing a second wave of infection, with particular concern around imported cases and people who show no symptoms but can still pass on the virus.
Wuhan residents are still urged not to leave their neighborhood, the city and even the province unless necessary, health officials said on Tuesday.
Tall barriers continue to surround housing compounds and residents can only leave only if they have a green health code or documents showing a valid reason.
One person leaving the city on Wednesday, Liu Xiaomin, said she and her husband had traveled to Wuhan to spend the Lunar New Year holiday with her daughter and was caught in the lockdown.
A migrant worker who is usually based in Guangdong, she was heading back to her hometown of Xiangyang city.
“I’m very happy, I’m going home today,” she told Reuters inside Wuhan’s Hankou railway station as she stood with her suitcases.
“My mood will be better but when I get back I still won’t go out too much.”
Reporting by Brenda Goh; Editing by Stephen Coates