Dead man lies on an empty street at China's virus ground zero

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A grey-haired man wearing a face mask lies dead on the pavement 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 are only a few passersby and they dare not go near him.

AFP journalists saw the body on Thursday morning, not long before an emergency vehicle arrived carrying police and medical staff in full-body protective suits.

The man lay straight on his back in front of a closed furniture store. Medical staff 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 aged in his 60s, had died. AFP contacted police and local health officials afterwards but could not get details on his case.

MUST READ | The Wuhan coronavirus has officially spread to every single region in China

But the reaction of the police and medical staff in hazmat suits, as well as some of the bystanders, highlighted the fear pervading the city.

A woman standing near the man, wearing pink pyjamas 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 epicentre 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 claimed at least 213 lives and infected thousands in China, with at least 159 deaths in Wuhan alone.

ALSO READ | China's quarantine-hit Olympic football qualifiers to go ahead

With the virus spreading to other countries, the World Health Organisation has declared the crisis a global health emergency.

Torment

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 check-ups at overwhelmed hospitals.

AFP reporters in Wuhan have seen long queues at hospitals, with some patients saying they had queued 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 on Thursday lay one block from the Wuhan Number Six Hospital, one of the main medical centres 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.

ALSO READ | Cape Town teacher living in 'eerie' Wuhan: 'Some expats refuse to go out at all'

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 immediately began to clean the ground as the van drove away, disinfecting the streets where the body had lain.

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