NOEL KING, HOST:
There are 6,000 cases of the coronavirus in China. The death toll is rising. It's now at 132 worldwide. Some big airlines, including British Airways, are suspending flights to and from the Chinese mainland. And hundreds of Americans have been flown by charter plane out of Wuhan, the city where the virus originated. Everyone in that city is now under quarantine. But the mayor admits that 5 million people left Wuhan before the transportation out of the city was cut. NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Hi, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: The latest news we have is about the cancellation of flights to and from China. What do you know about that?
FENG: Some airlines have said that they've canceled flights. Notably, Kazakhstan, an entire country, said today that it cut all rail, bus and air links to China, meaning there are no flights to and from China to that country anymore. And the State Department had confirmed a few days ago that they'd be flying American diplomats out of Wuhan. Today, that plane took off. They'll make a transfer in Alaska. And they're screening everyone on board before they can come into the U.S.
KING: I want to step back for a second because as time goes on, as the days pass, we get more information about what happened very early on when this virus was first discovered. And the Chinese government had to respond in an official capacity. What do we know about the early days and how things have proceeded?
FENG: It's clear now that there was delay in the early days. To give you a brief overview of how things unfolded, by January 6, doctors in China were saying that they were seeing an uptick in the number of possible coronavirus cases coming in. But it wasn't until 10 days later that screening kits got sent out to hospitals in Wuhan. And then finally on January 20, a top Chinese scientist who was instrumental in the last outbreak in China, 2003 SARS epidemic, finally confirmed in interview that human-to-human transmission of the virus was possible. This was something that people had already suspected. They'd heard that doctors were getting sick. But it took the scientist to come on television to confirm that as true. And then three days later, Wuhan goes into a complete quarantine.
So people here are really upset about two things. One is that January 20 was the turning point, but it took the scientist to go on television to say that this virus was a real problem. And the second is because this news came out so late, people had already traveled home for the holidays, possibly bringing the virus with them.
KING: So to your first point there, the point of contention is that a scientist was the one who sort of sent up the alarm, not officials. Why did it take longer than expected for the Chinese government to leap into action here?
FENG: They have been faster than in 2003's SARS epidemic. They actually passed laws after the epidemic to prevent the kind of cover-up and delay in cooperation between local and central governments. But this time around, the coronavirus struck during a really bad time. In January, local level provincial meetings happen. It's where they review the past year's achievements, and they plan for the next year. I talked to a professor at the University of Chicago, Dali Yang. He studies Chinese politics, and he explains why these meetings are so sensitive.
DALI YANG: January is the time when those big meetings are being held. They want to project to be seen as doing everything almost perfectly well.
FENG: And the national version of that meeting is supposed to be held the first week of March. There's talk now of canceling that, which would be a huge embarrassment. And that's why local officials at the beginning were incentivized to keep quiet about the coronavirus. Here's Dr. Yang again.
YANG: So I think actually typically local authorities engage in this kind of actions, trying to contain the information, in the meantime hoping that things actually would be worked out so that it doesn't blow out into the open in a big way.
FENG: But now things have blown out in a big way. Things have crossed a threshold where the central government stepped in, and they're pursuing more aggressive measures. But we're starting to see some of these tensions between the local and central governments start to emerge.
KING: In the meantime, there are millions of people in Wuhan city and in other places who are essentially under lockdown. Are you getting a sense - have people been told of when these quarantines might be lifted?
FENG: Not at all. There's no sense of when the quarantine might be lifted, and a big problem is people are going to have to return to work soon when the Lunar New Year is over. Many of them are coming from villages where there are very few screening measures for the virus.
KING: OK. So in a way, there's been a grace period because of the holiday, but that is over. NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks so much.
FENG: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.