Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus epidemic first broke out, ended a 76-day lockdown on Wednesday, and thousands of people voiced joy and excitement as they left the city.
Previously quiet train and bus stations bustled as an exodus began from the city of 11 million, with some passengers wearing hazmat suits.
China had sealed off Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, in late January to stop the spread of the virus. Over 50,000 people in Wuhan caught the virus, and more than 2,500 of them died, about 80 per cent of all deaths in China, according to official figures.
Restrictions have eased in recent days as the capital of Hubei province saw just three new confirmed infections in the past 21 days and only two new infections in the past fortnight.
“You have no idea! I was already up around 4 am. I felt so good. My kids are so excited. Mum is finally coming home,” 39-year-old Hao Mei told news agency AFP as she waited to board a train. Mei, a single parent from the nearby city of Enshi, said her two children had been home alone since she got stuck in Wuhan, where she works in a school kitchen.
Up to 55,000 people are expected to leave Wuhan on Wednesday just by train, according to government estimates.
Buses and cars were also on roads out of the city on Wednesday morning, after barricades on its outskirts were dismantled with the ban on outbound travel being lifted at midnight.
“Wuhan has lost a lot in this epidemic, and Wuhan people have paid a big price,” a 21-year-old man surnamed Yao, who was heading back to his restaurant job in Shanghai, told AFP.
“Now that the lockdown has been lifted, I think we’re all pretty happy.”
“Wuhan deserves to be called the city of heroes,” blared an announcement over the passenger announcement system at one of the city’s train stations on Wednesday.
But even as people leave Wuhan, new imported cases in the northern province of Heilongjiang surged to a daily high of 25, fuelled by a continued influx of infected travellers arriving from Russia, which shares a land border with the province.
Suifenhe City in Heilongjiang restricted the movement of its citizens on Wednesday in a similar fashion to that of Wuhan.
Residents must stay in their residential compounds and one person from a family can leave once every three days to buy necessities and must return on the same day, said state-run CCTV.
In Jiaozhou City in the eastern province of Shandong the risk level had risen from low to medium, according to a post on an official website, but it gave no details why.
The state-run People’s Daily newspaper warned on Wednesday that opening up of Wuhan “does not mean releasing control”.
Wuhan residents have been urged not to leave their neighbourhood, their city and even the province unless absolutely necessary.
People from Wuhan arriving in the Chinese capital Beijing will have to undergo two rounds of testing for the virus.
China maintains strict screening protocols, concerned about any resurgence in domestic transmissions due to virus carriers who exhibit no symptoms and infected travellers arriving from overseas.