April 8 (UPI) -- Chinese officials ended the nearly 80-day lockdown on the former COVID-19 epicenter of Wuhan on Wednesday, as leaders in Asia warned against nations adopting authoritarian rules to combat the pandemic.
With the lifting of the lockdown, cars, trains and other forms of transportation were allowed to leave the central Chinese city of 11 million people for the first time since it was placed under lock and key 76 days ago on Jan. 23, when the infectious coronavirus had only sickened 584 people worldwide, including 575 people in China, and killed 17.
After the lockdown was lifted at midnight, nearly 450 people on a passenger train departed for Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, with expectations that more than 55,000 people would leave Wuhan by train before the day was out, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Officials announced March 24 that the lockdown would be lifted Wednesday from Wuhan, home to a seafood and wild animal market where the virus is believed to have emerged in early December.
Since the outbreak began, more than 77 percent of the country's 3,333 deaths and more than 61 percent of its 81,802 infections were recorded in Wuhan, according to data from Beijing's National Health Commission.
On Wednesday, the commission reported an increase of 62 cases over the previous day, 59 of which were imported, and two deaths. On Tuesday, the country reported no deaths for the first time since late January when it began publishing daily statistics on the outbreak.
Meanwhile, as China lifted its strict measures, politicians throughout Southeast Asia warned governments against using the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on dissent, steal power or threaten democracy.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said the declarations of emergency issued by the Philippines and Thailand and the one expected to be adopted by Cambodia all contain provisions that restrict their citizens' human rights or hand over powers unchecked to leaders.
"Using a global pandemic, and times of grief and worry, to grab more or satisfy thirst for unlimited powers is appalling," Malaysian APHR Chairman Charles Santiago said Wednesday in a statement.
"While these are extraordinary times that may require extraordinary measures, we must guard against the authoritarian turn of some governments' responses to COVID-19, or the next casualty could be our rights and democracies."
The association of current and former Southeast Asian parliamentarians expressed specific concern over the Philippines' declaration that allows for the imprisonment of those who spread false information and the emergency regulation in Thailand that permits the prime minister to censor media. A draft law in Cambodia, which has yet to be declared, would grant authorities the power to monitor and collect information from telecommunications companies and ban information that could stoke fear among the public, it said.
"No one should trick themselves into believing that the intention behind these provisions is to ensure the free flow of accurate information about the pandemic. All of these governments already have a pretty appalling record when it comes to tolerance for critics," said APHR board member Teddy Baguilat, citing recent reports of arrests in Cambodia and Thailand of people who criticized their governments' response to the crisis.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus on Wednesday called on world leaders not to politicize the pandemic. His comments come one day after U.S. President Donald Trump said he was considering defunding WHO after accusing it of being "China-centric."
"The focus of all political parties should be to save their people," Ghebreyesus said.
"The unity of your country will be very important to defeat this dangerous virus," he added, not singling out a specific country.
Singapore on Wednesday implemented the new COVID-19 Temporary Measures Act that bans all public and private gatherings, the country's health ministry said in a news release.
The order bars residents from leaving their home unless to work for an essential service provider, procure goods, obtain medical treatment or to engage in recreation outdoors.
However, the ban on social gatherings prohibits them from meeting "another individual not living in the same place of residence for any social purpose."
In New Zealand, where residents are halfway through a monthlong strict lockdown, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was "cautiously optimistic" that the lockdown was working as the country posted its fewest number of cases on Wednesday in two weeks with 50.
"We may yet see bumps along the way but ... I remain cautiously optimistic that we are starting to turn a corner," she said during a press conference. "It is all the more reason to stay the course of our self-isolation."