Xi declares ‘grave situation’ as China’s coronavirus death toll at 41

City of Wuhan to ban non-essential vehicles from downtown area starting from Sunday

The Chinese city of Wuhan is rushing to build a new hospital in just 10 days to treat patients suspected of contracting coronavirus. The city remains in virtual lockdown as flights are cancelled and checkpoints set up. Video: Reuters

 

President Xi Jinping has said China faces a “grave situation” as the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak jumped to 41, overshadowing the occasion of the Lunar New Year that began on Saturday.

With more than 1,400 people known to be infected by the virus worldwide, most of them in China, Hong Kong has declared a viral emergency, scrapped the planned new year celebrations and restricted links to mainland China.

Australia confirmed its first four cases on Saturday, Malaysia confirmed three and France reported Europe’s first cases on Friday, as health authorities around the world scrambled to prevent a pandemic.

The United States is arranging a charter flight on Sunday to bring its citizens and diplomats back from Wuhan, the central Chinese city that is the epicentre of the outbreak, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In Hong Kong, with five confirmed cases, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said flights and high speed rail trips between the city and Wuhan will be halted. Schools in Hong Kong that are currently on Lunar New Year holidays will remain closed until February 17th.

Chinese military medics arrive with medical supplies at Wuhan Tianhe Airport in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on Saturday. Photograph: ETA
Chinese military medics arrive with medical supplies at Wuhan Tianhe Airport in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on Saturday. Photograph: ETA

Xi held a politburo meeting on Saturday on measures to fight the “accelerating” outbreak, state television reported.

The death toll in China has risen to 41, authorities reported on Saturday, from 26 a day earlier. As of 6pm local time, 1,372 people in China were known to have been infected with the virus, the origination of which has been traced back to a seafood market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife.

The virus has also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, and the US.

In Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, officials appealed for masks and protective suits.

‘Extremely severe’ crisis

“We are steadily pushing forward the disease control and prevention ... But right now we are facing an extremely severe public health crisis,” Hu Yinghai, deputy director-general of the Civil Affairs Department, told a news briefing.

Vehicles carrying emergency supplies and medical staff for Wuhan would be exempted from tolls and given traffic priority, China’s transportation ministry said on Saturday.

Shoppers wearing masks wait to check out of a supermarket in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Saturday, January 25th, 2020. The city, struck by the coronavirus outbreak, will ban private traffic in the downtown area starting from Sunday, prompting citizens to go on a shopping spree for necessities. Photograph: Yuan Zheng/EPA
Shoppers wearing masks wait to check out of a supermarket in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Saturday, January 25th, 2020. The city, struck by the coronavirus outbreak, will ban private traffic in the downtown area starting from Sunday, prompting citizens to go on a shopping spree for necessities. Photograph: Yuan Zheng/EPA

Wuhan said it would ban non-essential vehicles from its downtown area starting from Sunday, further paralysing a city of 11 million that has been on virtual lockdown since Thursday, with nearly all flights cancelled and checkpoints blocking the main roads leading out of town.

Authorities have since imposed transport restrictions on nearly all of Hubei province, which has a population of 59 million.

The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are still many unknowns surrounding it, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it can spread between humans. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.

Popular destination

Australia confirmed its first four cases in two different cities on Saturday, and the country’s chief health official said he expected more cases as Australia is a popular destination for Chinese tourists.

State-run China Global Television Network reported on Saturday that a doctor who had been treating patients in Wuhan, 62-year-old Liang Wudong, had died from the virus.

It was not immediately clear whether his death was already counted in the official toll of 41, of which 39 were in the central province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located.

US coffee chain Starbucks said it was closing all its outlets in Hubei province for the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, following a similar move by McDonald’s in five Hubei cities.

Workers in white protective suits checked temperatures of passengers entering the subway at Beijing’s central railway station on Saturday, while some train services in the eastern Yangtze River Delta region were suspended, the local railway operator said.

State-owned CCTV, citing an announcement from China’s tourism industry association, said the country would halt all group tours, both at home and abroad, from January 27th.

There are fears transmission could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel during the Lunar New Year holiday, although many have cancelled their plans.

Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, though some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of such screenings.

The World Health Organisation this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency.

A report by infectious disease specialists at Imperial College, London on Saturday said that despite this, the epidemic “represents a clear and ongoing global health threat” adding: “It is uncertain at the current time whether it is possible to contain the continuing epidemic within China.”

While China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after the coverering up of the 2002/2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, officials in Wuhan have be criticised for their handling of the current outbreak.

In rare public dissent, a senior journalist at a Hubei newspaper run by the ruling Communist Party called on Friday for a “immediate” change of leadership in Wuhan on the Twitter-like Weibo. The post was later removed.

1,000-bed hospital

Hubei province, where authorities are rushing to build a 1,000-bed hospital in six days to treat patients, announced on Saturday that there were 658 patients affected by the virus in treatment, 57 of whom were critically ill.

Security personnel wearing hazardous material suits measure body temperatures of passenger at the entrance of a subway station in Beijing, China, January 25th 2020. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA
Security personnel wearing hazardous material suits measure body temperatures of passenger at the entrance of a subway station in Beijing, China, January 25th 2020. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA

At a normally festive time of year in China, Sanya, a popular resort destination on the southern island of Hainan, announced that it was shutting all tourist sites. The island’s capital city, Haikou, said visitors from Wuhan would be placed under 14-day quarantine in a hotel.

Shanghai Disneyland was closed from Saturday. Beijing’s Lama Temple, where people traditionally make offerings for the new year, has also closed, as have some other temples. – Reuters