WUHAN, CHINA – A gray-haired man wearing a face mask lay dead on a sidewalk at ground zero of China’s virus epidemic, a plastic shopping bag in one hand.
On what would typically be a crowded street in Wuhan, an industrial city of 11 million under quarantine, there were only a few passers-by, and they dared not go near him.
Journalists saw the body Thursday morning, not long before an emergency vehicle arrived carrying police and medical staffers in full-body protective suits.
The man lay straight on his back in front of a closed furniture store. Medical staffers in blue overalls gently shrouded his body with a blue blanket.
The ambulance left, and police stacked supermarket cardboard boxes to hide the scene.
AFP could not determine how the man, who appeared to be in his 60s, had died. AFP contacted police and local health officials afterward but could not get details on his case.
But the reaction of the police and medical staff members in hazmat suits, as well as some of the bystanders, highlighted the fear pervading the city.
A woman standing near the man, wearing pink pajamas and a Mao cap, said she believed he had died from the virus.
“It’s terrible,” she said. “These days many people have died.”
Wuhan is the epicenter of the outbreak of the new coronavirus, which is believed to have jumped from wild animals at a city market into humans.
The virus, which emerged late last year, has a death toll that has now risen above 200, with about three-quarters of the dead in Wuhan alone.
With the virus spreading to other countries, the World Health Organization has now declared the crisis a global health emergency.
Authorities have imposed an unprecedented lockdown of Wuhan, blocking off roads out of the city and banning flights in a bid to stop the virus spreading.
Those who are trapped are enduring a tormenting wait for the lockdown to end, for a cure to be found or even just for checkups at overwhelmed hospitals.
AFP reporters in Wuhan have seen long lines at hospitals, with some patients saying they had lined up for two days to see a doctor.
Many brought their own chairs for the wait.
With most traffic banned, people who venture outside have to walk or bike everywhere in the huge city.
The dead man on the street Thursday lay one block from the Wuhan No. 6 Hospital, one of the main medical centers for treating those with virus symptoms.
A team of forensic experts who examined him were immediately sprayed with disinfectant by colleagues after removing their hazardous material suits.
One man smoking near the scene was told sharply by police to put out his cigarette and don a face mask.
He quickly followed their orders.
In the two hours that AFP observed the scene, at least 15 ambulances passed by, attending other calls.
Finally, a white van with blacked-out windows arrived to take away the man.
The body was zipped into a yellow surgical bag, and carried into the van on a stretcher.
Staff members immediately began to clean the ground as the van drove away, disinfecting the streets where the old man’s body had lain.