For a couple of weeks after the first reports of a new and deadly virus had been reported, millions of people poured out of the central Chinese city, Wuhan, cramming onto buses, trains and planes as the first wave of China’s great Lunar New Year migration broke across the nation. Dr. Li Wenliang had reported on social media to his colleagues about the strange new virus, but the Chinese government censured him for spreading rumors.
The government was slow in reacting. It did not want to create the impression that it had lost control of the growing epidemic. When it finally began to seal the borders on January 23, it was already too late. Speaking to reporters a few days after the city was put under quarantine, the mayor estimated that 5 million people had already left the city. Where did they go? Your guess is as good as mine, but that is probably why there has been such a rapid increase in the number of infections and in the number of deaths from the coronavirus.
The Associated Press analysis of domestic travel patterns using map location data from the Chinese tech giant Baidu shows that in the two weeks before Wuhan’s lockdown, nearly 70 percent of trips out of the central Chinese city were within Hubei province. Another 14 percent of the trips went to the neighboring provinces of Henan, Hunan, Anui, and Jiangxi. Nearly 2 percent slipped down to Guandong province, the coastal manufacturing powerhouse across from Hong Kong, and the rest fanned out across China. The cities outside Hubei province that were top designations for trips from Wuhan between January 10 and January 24 were Chongqing, a municipality next to Hubei province, Beijing, and Shanghai. These travel patterns broadly track with the early spread of the virus. The majority of confirmed cases and deaths have occurred in China, within Hubei province, followed by high numbers of cases in central China, with pockets of infections in Chongqing, Shanghai, and Beijing as well.
“It’s definitely too late,” said Jin Dong-Yan, a molecular virologist at Hong Kong University’s School of Biomedical Sciences. “Five million out. That’s a very big challenge.”