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China’s virus death toll spikes, more than SARS

/ 04:57 AM February 04, 2020

BEIJING — China’s death toll from a new coronavirus jumped above 360 on Monday to surpass the number of fatalities of its SARS crisis two decades ago, with dozens of people dying in the epicenter’s quarantined ground-zero.

The 57 confirmed new deaths was the single-biggest increase since the virus was detected late last year in the central city of Wuhan, where it is believed to have jumped from animals at a market into humans.

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The virus has since spread to more than 24 countries, despite many governments imposing unprecedented travel bans on people coming from China.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the crisis a global health emergency, and the first foreign death from the virus was reported in the Philippines on Sunday.

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In China, all but one of the 57 new deaths were reported Monday in Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province, most of which has been under lockdown for almost two weeks to stop people leaving and transmitting the virus.

The national death toll reached 361, exceeding the 349 mainland fatalities from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-2003.

SARS, caused by a pathogen similar to the new coronavirus and also originated in China, killed 774 people — with most of the other deaths in Hong Kong.

Economic woes

The virus is also having an increasingly heavy economic impact, shutting down businesses across China, curbing international travel and impacting production lines of major international brands.

Stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen plunged by nearly 9 percent on Monday morning as investors returned from a Lunar New Year holiday that had been extended to stop people traveling around China.

In Wuhan, which has been transformed from a bustling industrial hub into a near-ghost town, residents have been living in deep fear of catching the virus.

Its medical facilities have been overwhelmed, and the government has been racing to build two new hospitals in extraordinarily quick time frames.

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The first of those, a 1,000-bed hospital, was due to open on Monday, just 10 days after construction began.

About 1,400 military medics will treat patients at the hospital, dubbed “Fire God Mountain,” according to state media.

But with the death toll surging in Wuhan and elsewhere in Hubei province, it was not immediately clear what overall impact the hospitals would have on the virus spreading elsewhere.

In a worrying signal about it already spreading in significant numbers to other parts of China, the eastern industrial city of Wenzhou was on Sunday placed under a similar lockdown to Wuhan.

Roads in Wenzhou, 800 kilometers to the east, were closed and its 9 million people were ordered to stay indoors.

Only one resident per household in Wenzhou is allowed to go out every two days to buy necessities, authorities announced.

Travel curbs

The emergence of the virus coincided with the Lunar New Year, when hundreds of millions travel across the country in planes, trains and buses for family reunions.

The holiday — originally scheduled to end last Friday — was extended by three days to give authorities more time to deal with the crisis.

But some major cities — including Shanghai — extended the holiday again, and many schools and universities delayed the start of new terms.

Road traffic on Sunday, when hundreds of millions of people would have been expected to return to their cities of work, was down 80 percent, the transport ministry said.

The number of infections in China also jumped significantly on Monday, passing 17,200.

The first person to die overseas from the virus was a 44-year-old man from Wuhan who traveled to the Philippines, the WHO said.

The G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — have all confirmed cases of the virus.

They will discuss a joint response, Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn said on Sunday.

Thirty-six of 254 people aboard an evacuation flight from China that landed in France on Sunday showed symptoms, Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said.

Tests were carried out to establish whether they had the coronavirus and the results would be known on Monday, the health ministry said.

The United States, Australia, New Zealand and Israel have banned foreign nationals from visiting if they have been in China recently, and they have also warned their own citizens against traveling there.

Mongolia, Russia and Nepal have closed their land borders.

Hong Kong strike

In Hong Kong, hundreds of medical workers walked off their jobs on Monday, demanding the city close its border with China to reduce the chances of the coronavirus spreading — with frontline staff threatening to follow suit in the coming days.

The financial hub has 15 confirmed cases of the disease, many of them brought over from the Chinese mainland.

The action by nonessential medical staff comes as the city’s pro-Beijing leadership resists completely sealing the border.

Authorities have argued that doing so would be discriminatory, economically damaging and go against advice from WHO.

Instead, the city government has closed down some crossings with arrivals down some 50 percent since last week.

But there is a growing public anger in a city that maintains a deep historical mistrust of the mainland after the SARS outbreak — which was initially covered up by Beijing — killed nearly 300 Hong Kongers.

Thousands of members of a newly formed medical worker union voted to strike on Saturday unless their demand for the border to be closed was met, with the first group walking out on Monday.

Talks with the government broke down on Sunday after the union said city leader Carrie Lam had decided to not attend discussions in person.

The union said frontline workers, including doctors and nurses, would walk out on Tuesday if their demands were not met.

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