SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited Wuhan, the epicenter of an outbreak of a new coronavirus, killing 80 people and infecting more than 2,700 people on Monday. Beijing tried to signal how serious it should be in response to the emerging crisis.
The number of deaths from the flu-like virus in Hubei Province, including the city of Wuhan, rose from 56 to 76 overnight, according to officials from the Health Commission, with four deaths recorded in other parts of China. A small number of cases have been confirmed in more than 10 countries, but no deaths have been reported in other countries.
The total number of confirmed cases in China increased by 30% to 2,744, of which about half were in Hubei.
Li, the oldest leader who has been visiting Wuhan since the outbreak began, went to the city to review ongoing efforts to curb the epidemic and spoke to patients and medical personnel, the Chinese government said in a statement.
China’s cabinet said on Sunday that it would add three days to the week’s New Year holiday until February 2 to slow the spread of the virus. The new lunar year is usually a travel season for millions of Chinese, but many have had to cancel their vacation plans due to virus-related travel restrictions.
Wuhan is already in a virtual block, and strict movement restrictions apply in several other Chinese cities.
The city of 11 million people was further pinched on Monday and announced the immediate suspension of visa and passport services for Chinese nationals until January 30. Despite the restrictions, the Mayor of Wuhan said on Sunday that five million people had left the city on holidays and other reasons.
Images from Wuhan showing hospital corridors with people who want to be treated were circulating on Chinese social media, as well as complaints about rising prices for essentials such as vegetables.
GRAPHIC: Number of confirmed missile cases – https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH/0100B56G2WC/coronavirus.jpg
Incubation period 1-14 days
Chinese leaders have called for transparency in coping with the crisis after public confidence has been masked by the spread of serious acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a coronavirus that originated in China and nearly 800 people worldwide in 2002 and 2003 killed, was undermined.
The newly identified corona virus has raised the alarm because much of it remains unknown how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads. It can cause pneumonia, which was fatal in some cases.
Minister of the Chinese National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, said on Sunday that the incubation period could be between one and 14 days and the virus was infectious during the incubation, which was not the case with SARS.
The virus is believed to have appeared at a fish market in Wuhan where wildlife was sold illegally at the end of last year. It has spread beyond Wuhan to the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai and more than 10 countries, including France, Japan and the United States.
Airports around the world have increased the screening of passengers from China, although some health experts have questioned the effectiveness of these efforts.
The World Health Organization (WHO) stopped calling the outbreak a global health emergency last week, but some health experts are asking if China can contain the epidemic.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Saturday that he had traveled to Beijing to meet coronavirus officials and health professionals.
WUHAN EVACUATION PLANS
Hong Kong, which is ruled by Chinese, has eight confirmed cases and said it would prohibit people who have visited Hubei in the past 14 days from entering Monday. The ban did not apply to Hong Kong residents.
France, Italy, Japan, Australia and the United States have all stated that they are working to evacuate Wuhan citizens.
According to the Kyodo news agency, Japan is scheduled to organize a charter flight for citizens who want to return from Wuhan on Tuesday. In the meantime, France had announced that it would repatriate up to a few hundred of its 800 citizens living in the Wuhan area.
Hubei governor Wang Xiaodong said at a press conference on Sunday that he was “tormented” and responsible for the outbreak, despite the fact that his comments caused anger on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.
“He believes that a single apology will be enough to solve the problem? Let’s wait for the verdict of the country’s people,” wrote one user.
It is rare for Chinese authorities to allow such criticism of officials on the country’s tightly controlled social media.
The outbreak further messed up global markets on Monday. Stocks fell, demand for safe havens increased, and Singapore warned of negative impacts on economic, business and consumer confidence.
Some of the largest Chinese companies were affected by the outbreak. The hotpot restaurant chain Haidilao International Holding closed stores across China from January 26th to 31st.
Gaming giant Tencent Holdings Ltd advised employees to work from home by February 7, and e-commerce company Alibaba removed selling overpriced face masks from its online marketplace in Taobao as prices rose.
(Reporting by Winni Zhou, Wu Huizhong and Josh Horwitz; Additional reporting by Hideyuki Sano in Tokyo; Letter from Stephen Coates; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)