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Travellers beat China virus lockdown via bridge over the Yangtze

JIUJIANG, China (Reuters) - People are leaving and entering China’s Hubei province on foot over a bridge spanning the Yangtze river, despite a virtual lockdown on vehicle traffic due to a coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 200 people.

A mother and her son arrive from Hubei province at a checkpoint at the Jiujiang Yangtze River Bridge in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of a new coronavirus, January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The Yangtze divides Jiujiang in Jiangxi province and Huanggang in neighbouring Hubei, one of the cities hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak and now sealed off from the rest of China to try to contain it.

But the foot traffic over the Yangtze shows gaps in the lockdown, adding to doubts over its effectiveness and providing a glimpse of life inside the epicentre of what the World Health Organization (WHO) has called a global emergency.

Wu Minzhou, a 40-year-old business owner who was fishing near the bridge on the Jiangxi side, said he was worried about exceptions being made for people leaving Hubei.

“Because there’s an ... incubation period at play here, if they head out, for example, to cities in the north of China, then it’s highly possible they will infect those areas too,” he said.

While vehicles are not allowed over the bridge, it is open to some pedestrians. Police explained that people were still entering Hubei and they could still get out, but only in “special circumstances”.

Those included people who were in Hubei but booked train tickets to leave from Jiujiang before the Lunar New Year.

“Everyone’s panicking right now, but I think things are not that bad,” migrant worker Guan, 45, told Reuters after crossing from Hubei.

A 40-year-old woman, who only gave her surname as Li, said she was heading back to her home in Huizhou, Guangdong province, with her son.

She had to show their plane tickets at the checkpoint and get their temperatures taken on the Hubei side of the bridge before being allowed to make the long trek into Jiangxi.

Another man told Reuters that he had driven to the bridge from Jiujiang with his friend, who was going the other way home to Hubei, a province of about 60 million people.

“But once you get back you cannot come out again,” said the man, who gave his surname as Tian. “You have to stay there, stay at home. You can’t come out.”

The epidemic, believed to have originated in a seafood market in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan, prompted the WHO to declare a global emergency on Thursday, only the sixth time it has done so.

Trains and other public transportation have been suspended, roads have been sealed off and checkpoints established at tollgates around Wuhan. The special measures have been extended to other cities in Hubei province.

Though Jiujiang itself has not officially been locked down, its streets were mostly deserted and its tourist sites closed on what was officially the last day of China’s Lunar New Year celebrations on Thursday.

“This year ... we are all just following what the government has asked us to do. That is, we’re at home almost all the time,” said local taxi driver Guo Dongbo, 59. “We don’t go out and nobody else is out on the streets either.”

In one of the residential areas of Jiujiang, a city of nearly five million people, a man carried a loudspeaker playing a recorded message ordering anyone who has been to Hubei recently to go and register with the local residents’ committee.

By Friday, the city had 42 confirmed cases of infection.

Elsewhere, shops were mostly shuttered, and the few restaurants that remained open were nearly empty.

“Normally at this time of year a lot of people come here. Now there’s nobody,” said a vegetarian restaurant owner near the Donglin Buddhist temple in Jiujiang.

Reporting by Martin Pollard and Thomas Peter in Jiujiang; Writing by David Stanway in Shanghai; Editing by Stephen Coates and Mike Collett-White