Outcasts in their own country, the people of Wuhan are the unwanted faces of China’s coronavirus outbreak

CNN  — 

In China, Wuhan used to be known as a city of cherry blossoms, an economic engine of the central heartland, and the birthplace of a century-old revolution that brought down the country’s last imperial dynasty.

But now, the metropolis of approximately 11 million people in Hubei province has become the face of a deadly new coronavirus outbreak – a stigma the people of Wuhan increasingly find themselves unable to shake off.

With the death toll surging past 300 and 14,300 confirmed cases spreading all over China, local authorities across the country have activated the highest public health emergency response, stepping up screening of arrivals from Wuhan.

However, fears over the spread of the outbreak have fueled resentment and discrimination against people from Wuhan. Some have become outcasts in their own country, shunned by hotels, neighbors and – in some areas – placed under controversial quarantine measures.

Wuhan officials estimate about 5 million people had left the city for the annual Lunar New Year holiday before authorities canceled all outbound flights, trains and buses in an unprecedented lockdown on January 23.

Many of them are migrant workers or university students returning to their hometowns for new year family reunions. Others are holidaymakers taking advantage of the long annual break.

China only declared that the coronavirus could be transmitted from person to person on January 20, following a sudden jump in confirmed cases. Until then, authorities had said the outbreak was “preventable and controllable.”

“Many of my friends who left Wuhan did not realize (how severe) the situation was,” April Pin, a Wuhan resident, wrote in a widely circulated open letter pleading her countrymen to forgive those who left without knowing.

Pin, one of the millions of people who had stayed in Wuhan, told CNN she wrote the letter because “there are too many comments online hurling abuse and denunciation at Wuhan people.”

“I feel wronged,” she added.

Persona non grata

Following the lockdown, Wuhan residents traveling in other parts of China soon found themselves no longer welcomed by local hotels and guesthouses, nor were they able to return to Wuhan due to the newly imposed travel restrictions.

They were stranded in their own country.

On social media, posts of Wuhan tourists seeking help for a place to stay sprang up. One user on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, claimed in a post last Sunday that she was kicked out by her guesthouse in Changsha, Hunan province, because guests from neighboring Hubei province were no longer allowed.

“I’m only asking for help here because I’m really at the end of my rope,” wrote the user, Ludougao, who said she left Wuhan on January 20, three days before the lockdown.

Chinese passengers, most wearing masks, arrive to board trains before the Lunar New Year at a Beijing railway station.

She went to the train station, only to find out that no trains will stop at Wuhan anymore. She called the police, but was told to go to a “relief station” – shelter for homeless people. She called the Wuhan mayor’s hotline, to no avail. She even went to the hospital to get a health check, but still no hotels would take her. By then, she had already contacted more than 10 hotels and guesthouses, but was rejected by all, according to her post.

“I don’t understand it. Even if all of us Wuhan people are ‘walking dead,’ to contain the outbreak’s spread, shouldn’t I be allowed to stay indoors? Now I’m forced to go out, and I’ve got nowhere to go,” she wrote.

The post – which was later deleted – went viral, so much so that it drew the attention of the Changsha “internet police,” or censors, who then alerted authorities about her case, the city’s internet regulator said in a statement on Weibo. She finally managed to check into a hotel later that evening, according to the regulator and her own subsequent posts.

When contacted by CNN, Ludougao said she stood by her deleted post. She declined to comment further, saying she has been contacted by the government.

Ludougao’s plight was echoed by many others across the country. In southern Yunnan province, popular for its balmy weather and nature, there were so many Hubei tourists with nowhere to stay calling authorities for help that the provincial culture and tourism bureau issued a notice last Sunday ordering every city to designate at least one hotel to accommodate them.

Other provinces and cities in China, such as southern Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, soon followed suit, reserving hotels for tourists from Wuhan and other parts of Hubei province, according to state media. The Wuhan Culture and Tourism Bureau also complied a list of hotels designated for Wuhan tourists acriss the country. But it remains unclear how many travelers from Wuhan know about them.

With a growing number of international airlines canceling their flights to Wuhan, many tourists from the city have also been stranded outside China. As of January 27, there were still more than 4,000 Wuhan tourists overseas, according to the Wuhan Culture and Tourism Bureau.

China’s foreign ministry announced Friday that charter flights will be arranged to take them home.

“In view of the practical difficulties Chinese citizens from Hubei province, especially Wuhan, have faced overseas, the Chinese government has decided to send charter flights to take them directly back to Wuhan as soon as possible,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

According to the ministry, two flights chartered by the Chinese government landed at the Wuhan international airport on Friday night, bringing Hubei travelers home from southeast Asia.

One flight from Bangkok, Thailand, carried 76 passengers, the ministry said. it is unclear how many people were aboard the other flight from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Authorities had earlier said that the two flights were expected to carry more than 200 Hubei residents.

A woman wears a protective mask as she walks by Chinese flags in Beijing during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Blocked roads, barricaded homes

Apart from tourists, local authorities have also been on high alert for people who have returned to their hometowns from Wuhan for the Lunar New Year.

In some cities, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, neighborhood committees have been tasked with searching for Wuhan returnees door by door, and reporting their information to authorities, according to state media.

Eric Chen, a 33-year-old from Jingzhou, Hubei, who lives and works in the coastal province of Zhejiang, said some are so wary of Wuhan people that a neighbor called police upon spotting a car with a number plate from Wuhan in their gated community.

“It turned out that the car owner had not been to Wuhan recently at all. He got a Wuhan number plate because license plates in Hangzhou are too difficult to come by, having to go through a lottery,” Chen told CNN.

In rural areas, some villages have dispatched villagers to guard the entrance, blocking anyone returning from Wuhan from entering. Unverified images on social media show roads leading to villages blocked by trucks, excavators, rocks, felled trees – and in some cases dug up – to prevent people from entering.

The roadblocks were so prevalent that the country’s ministry of transport had to issue a notice on Wednesday warning people against unauthorized blockage of roads, especially digging up roads to block rural traffic.

A motorbiker turns around at a road blockage and checkpoint in Huaibei in central China's Anhui province on January 29.

In some places, returnees from Wuhan were put under controversial – and potentially dangerous – quarantine measures. Videos purportedly showing homes of Wuhan returnees sealed off by banners – and in some cases, barricaded by wooden planks or metal bars – have gone viral online.

In one video, a red notice is apparently being plastered next to the front door of an apartment. It reads: “This household has Wuhan returnees, please do not come into contact with them.” The door – still decorated with traditional red couplets for the Lunar New Year – is being barricaded with multiple metal bars by several men in medical masks.

CNN cannot independently verify the video, or where it was taken.

The resentment and discrimination faced by Wuhan people has even caught the attention of People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official mouthpiece.

In an opinion piece published on its mobile app Monday, the People’s Daily acknowledged the online abuse targeting people from Wuhan and the wider Hubei province, as well as the control measures adopted by local authorities that had denied them entry from hotels and even their hometowns.

“The majority of the 5 million people (who left Wuhan) did not ‘flee’ deliberately, nor does it mean that they all ‘carry the virus’,” the article read.

“No matter where they have gone, we should not hold prejudice against them, or treat them cold-heartedly… In the face of the outbreak, they’re the victims and they wish more than anyone else to eliminate the outbreak, and they desire safety, assurance and care more than anyone else. At this moment, what they need is understanding, not misconception.”