Workers try to flee Vietnam's biggest city as coronavirus crisis worsens

FILE PHOTO: Medical workers in protective suits stand outside a quarantined building amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Hanoi

HANOI (Reuters) - Thousands of jobless workers in Vietnam's biggest city are trying to flee to their hometowns, many on motorcycles piled high with belongings, following an extension of restrictions in the epicentre of the country's worst coronavirus outbreak yet.

But authorities are anxious to prevent them leaving Ho Chi Minh City and potentially spreading the virus to other parts of the country. Waves of motorbikes could be seen being halted at roadblocks around the city since Sunday.

Television footage from nearby industrialised provinces showed factory workers on Monday dressed head-to-toe in protective clothing and rushing to board trains and buses in a similar attempt to flee the most affected areas.

Authorities with loudspeakers appealed to people to maintain social distancing and return to their homes amid a cacophony of horns and shouting as people tried desperately to leave.

Ho Chi Minh City accounts for most of the 6,141 coronavirus deaths and more than 283,000 infections in Vietnam, about a third of which is now under lockdowns. The city of 9 million people is seeing on average 241 deaths every day.

Many people are struggling to make ends meet after losing jobs due to coronavirus-related suspensions of factory operations. The government has announced assistance packages.

"This is not my first attempt. I tried to leave the city weeks ago but was ordered to return to my place," said Nguyen Van Hoan, who was heading to the central province of Ha Tinh, about 1,200 km (746 miles) away by road.

Hoan lost his job two months ago. On the back of his motorbike he had piled a suitcase, a supply of instant noodles, water and spare petrol.

"Many people in my neighbourhood have died. If I stay, I'll die either from hunger and stress or from the virus," Hoan told Reuters by phone, adding he had not received any state help.

Healthcare facilities are also overwhelmed, with hospitals overrun and shortages of staff. The government has ordered medical facilities not to turn away patients.

(Editing by Martin Petty and Gareth Jones)