• Saturday, Feb 29, 2020
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Global concerns grow as China virus toll hits 81

  • Published at 09:14 am January 27th, 2020
China-coronavirus
Pedestrians wearing face masks in Hong Kong on January 27, 2020, as a preventative measure following a coronavirus outbreak which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan AFP

The city of 11 million people is in virtual lockdown and much of Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, is under some kind of travel curb

The rapid spread of a deadly virus in China caused growing global alarm yesterday, with Germany advising citizens to avoid the country, Mongolia closing its border and other nations racing to evacuate citizens trapped at the epicentre of the health emergency.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will "inspect and direct" efforts to control a virus outbreak in the central city of Wuhan and promised reinforcements, as provincial authorities faced accusations from the public of a failure to respond in time.

Li, clad in a blue protective suit and mask, thanked medical workers in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the epicentre of the outbreak, as the death toll rose to 81 yesterday.

He said 2,500 more medical workers would arrive in the next two days.

On China's heavily censored social media, where dissent is typically suppressed, local officials have borne the brunt of mounting public anger about the handling of the virus.

Some lashed out at the Hubei governor, who had to correct himself twice during a news conference over the number of face masks being produced in the province.

"If he can mess up the data multiple times, no wonder the disease has spread so severely," one Weibo user said.

Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang told state broadcaster CCTV the city's management of the crisis was "not good enough" - rare public self-criticism for a Chinese official - and said he was willing to resign.

The city of 11 million people is in virtual lockdown and much of Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, is under some kind of travel curb.

People from Hubei have come under scrutiny within mainland China as well, with many facing suspicion from officials about their recent travels.

"Hubei people are getting discriminated against," a Wuhan resident complained on the Weibo social media platform.

A county in northern China is offering $145 to tipsters who report the presence of anyone from Wuhan who has not registered with authorities, local government TV said.

A small number of cases linked to people who travelled from Wuhan have been confirmed in more than 10 countries, including Thailand, France, Japan and the United States, but no deaths have been reported outside China. Cambodia confirmed its first case yesterday.

Investors are worried about the impact on travel, tourism and broader economic activity. The consensus is that in the short term, economic output will be hit as Chinese authorities impose travel restrictions and extend the Lunar New Year holiday to limit the spread of the virus.

The total number of confirmed cases in China rose to 2,835, with about half in the central province of Hubei. But some experts suspect the number of infected people is much higher.

As worry grew around the world, Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, which has had eight confirmed cases, banned entry to people who had visited Hubei in the past 14 days.

China extended the week-long Lunar New Year holiday by three days to February 2. The Lunar New Year is usually a time for travel by millions, but many have had to cancel plans.

Lock-down strands millions

Authorities have all but shut down Wuhan, a city of 11 million and a major transport hub, at what is normally the busiest time of year - the Lunar New Year holiday - when millions of people travel home to visit their families.

Millions of people in surrounding cities are virtually stranded after public transport networks were shut to stop the spread of the virus, believed to have originated at a Wuhan market illegally selling wildlife.

On one high-speed train carrying a Reuters journalist that stopped in Wuhan station on Friday afternoon, about 10 passengers got off and nobody got on before the train resumed its journey to Changsha.

Although it stopped there, Wuhan had been removed from the train’s schedule.

“What choice do I have? It’s Chinese New Year. We have to see our family,” said a man getting off the train who gave his family name Hu.

Wuhan’s airport is not closed, but nearly all flights have been cancelled. Three international flights arriving on Friday would leave with no passengers, an airport official said.

China’s biggest ride-hailing company, Didi Chuxing, shut down all services in Wuhan from midday on Friday, adding that service resumption depended on government orders.

A traffic control map on Baidu maps - China’s equivalent of Google maps - showed a swathe of highways into and around the city closed. Police at one highway checkpoint said special permission would be needed to leave the city.

Police also checked incoming vehicles for wild animals.

Lying on the banks of the mighty Yangtze River and historically prone to devastating floods, Wuhan stretches across 8,500 square kilometres - five times the size of Greater London - and includes rural areas as well as the sprawling urban conurbation.

Some images circulated on social media showed packed hospital corridors, as people - all wearing face masks - waited for consultations. Hospitals made public appeals for supplies.

The government has pledged to ensure the city is properly equipped, and on Friday flew in two planes with 32 tons of supplies, mostly medical gear and masks.

One foreign resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the transport lockdown was causing problems though he was able to get around, albeit slowly.

“I can go anywhere I want to go. I just can’t leave Wuhan.”

WHO director arrives in China

The newly identified coronavirus is believed to have originated late last year in a Wuhan market illegally selling wildlife. Much is not known, including how easily it spreads and just how deadly it is.

National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei said on Sunday the incubation period could range from one to 14 days, and the virus was infectious during incubation, unlike SARS.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated an incubation period of two to 10 days.

Last week, the WHO stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can contain the epidemic.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had arrived in China and would meet officials working on the response, his agency said.

Australia confirmed its fifth case yesterday involving a woman on the last flight out of Wuhan to Sydney before China's travel ban.

Several Western countries including the United States and Australia, are working to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan.