"Please let me get out," I repeated in my head as I sat in the departure lounge of Wuhan airport on Wednesday night. The public address system announced another flight delay or cancellation every other minute.

I had heard rumours that the city was shortly to be locked down entirely and on a Whatsapp group for British expats, one panicked member had told me his flight out the next day had been cancelled. "The rumours are true, they're locking us down!" he said. I was hit by a wave of relief as I finally sank into my seat on my plane to Shanghai. My face was sore and sweaty from the clammy face mask I'd been wearing all day, but I'd made it out in time - just.

When I had arrived a couple of days earlier Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was eerily deserted. A few residents with basic face masks were casually finishing up their Spring Festival shopping as the country wound down for the Lunar New Year holiday this weekend. There had been dozens of confirmed cases by that point and a handful of deaths linked to the coronavirus.

China's coronavirus outbreak: Infection number could be much higher than official figures
Government rolls out pandemic response plan following China's coronavirus outbreak
International students set to start school in NZ stuck in Wuhan over coronavirus fears
Food market at centre of deadly coronavirus outbreak admits selling live koalas, snakes, rats and wolves


A token string of police tape flapped in the wind at the shuttered market where the virus was first discovered on December 31. A camouflage containment tent and a pile of used face masks on the floor beyond the barricade was the only hint that I was at ground zero of an international epidemic.

According to residents the market sold live wolf pups, porcupines and other exotic animals. Fresh game killed 'warm' in front of shoppers has been partly blamed for creating prime breeding grounds for diseases like the coronavirus.

A worker hoses down benches outside the closed Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan. Photo / AP
A worker hoses down benches outside the closed Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan. Photo / AP

A mile away I stumbled across another similar market, stacked high with colorful fruit and veg, and fat cuts of raw meat swinging on hooks in the stiff breeze. "It's quiet today because a lot of people have left for Chinese New Year," Rong Bao, a 27-year-old stall holder told me. "The virus is serious but it's under control."

At the airport the flight cancellations were stacking up and the rumours were mounting that a lockdown was imminent. But as I dashed for my plane I still breezed through security with no additional screening.

Hours after I got out authorities ordered a total and unprecedented shutdown of Wuhan and two surrounding cities. All trains were cancelled, flights were grounded and roads were blocked in and out.

People shop for vegetables at a market in Wuhan. Photo / AP
People shop for vegetables at a market in Wuhan. Photo / AP

As I sat on the Shanghai metro after arriving home, tussles were breaking out over the last bag of rice or the final bottle of milk in Wuhan's supermarkets. The streets were once again abandoned. By mid-morning on Thursday, trucks were slowly roaming the streets spraying disinfectant into every crevice while lines of soldiers stood stoic, masked and silent outside the entrances of all major transport hubs with a looped recording on loud speakers warning residents to stay away.

A rare silence blanketed my metro carriage as I looked up to see a sea of face masks and furrowed brows glued to phones. The death toll was climbing and new cases appearing around the country - and as far away as the US. Wuhan may have been quarantined but the deadly disease has not stopped at the city limits.