China seals off more cities as virus toll climbs

TOPSHOT - A passenger stands after arriving at the nearly-deserted Wuhan train station, usually full of passengers ahead of the Lunar New Year, in Wuhan on January 23, 2020, described as the "main battlefield" for a SARS-like disease has killed at least 17 people and left more than 500 sick so far. - China banned trains and planes from leaving a major city at the centre of a virus outbreak on January 23, seeking to seal off its 11 million people to contain the contagious disease that has claimed 17 lives, infected hundreds and spread to other countries. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP)

WUHAN, CHINA—China sealed off millions more people near the epicenter of a virus outbreak on Friday, shutting down public transport in an eighth city in an unprecedented quarantine effort as the death toll from the disease climbed to 25. While the World Heath Organization (WHO) held off on declaring a global emergency, despite confirmed cases in half a dozen other counties, China expanded a lockdown now covering some 26 million people and canceled some Lunar New Year celebrations to prevent the disease spreading further.

The virus that emerged in the city of Wuhan took eight more lives, the government said in its latest update, as the number of confirmed cases also leaped to 830. The new virus has caused alarm because of its similarity to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002 to 2003.

The WHO said China was in a state of emergency, but it stopped short of making a declaration that would have prompted greater international cooperation, including possible trade and travel restrictions.

The normally bustling metropolis of Wuhan, a major industrial and transport hub in the center of the country, slid deeper into surreal isolation as the government halted all travel out of the city, suspended municipal public transport and ordered residents not to leave home.

The measures have rendered the city of 11 million an eerie ghost town, with streets and shopping centers deserted, and stores shuttered at a time normally marked by festive gatherings and shoppers out enjoying China’s most important festival.

Potential food shortages“This year we have a very scary Chinese New Year. People are not going outside because of the virus,” a taxi driver in the city, who asked not to be named, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

But he was not concerned about potential food shortages in a prolonged shutdown.

“No, because it’s Chinese New Year and people have already bought a lot of things to cook at home for several days.”

But the pathogen, known by its technical name 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), has caused alarm throughout the country, with surgical masks selling out at pharmacies and stores in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities.

Besides Wuhan, seven other smaller cities nearby have taken measures to batten down the hatches.

In the latest, the city of Huangshi announced Friday it had halted public transport and closed a major bridge. On Thursday, Huanggang announced that public transport and train services were suspended and citizens were told to not leave the city.

To discourage nationwide holiday travel, the government said beginning Friday anyone who bought a ticket for rail, air, long-distance coach, or water transport could receive a refund upon cancellation.

Beijing has canceled massive gatherings that usually attract throngs at temples during the New Year holiday, while the historic Forbidden City will close from Saturday.

The respiratory virus emerged from a seafood and animal market in Wuhan in late December. It has spread to several other countries including the United States.

The National Health Commission said that of the 830 cases in China so far, 177 are in serious condition. Authorities were also examining 1,072 suspected cases.

“This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters after two days of talks in Geneva.

Tedros hailed China for taking the preventive measures but added “we hope that they will be both effective and short in their duration.”

China has been praised for its response, in contrast to the SARS epidemic when it took months to report the disease and initially denied WHO experts any access.

China confirmed Thursday the first virus death outside the Wuhan epicenter, an 80-year-old man in Hebei province, near Beijing.

Health authorities had said most fatalities had been aged between 48 and 89 and already suffered from preexisting health conditions.

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