China extends holiday, businesses shut as virus toll rises to 81

A man wearing a face mask looks at a board at a bus stop, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China. [Reuters]
The death toll from a coronavirus outbreak in China rose to 81 on Monday, as the government extended the Lunar New Year holiday and more big businesses shut down or told staff to work from home in an effort to curb the spread.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the central city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, as the government sought to signal it was responding seriously to the crisis.

The total number of confirmed cases in China rose about 30% to 2,744, about half of them in Hubei province, whose capital is Wuhan.

As worries 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. The ban did not cover Hong Kong residents.

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The number of deaths from the flu-like virus in Hubei climbed to 76 from 56, health officials said, with five deaths elsewhere in China, including the southern island province of Hainan, which reported its first fatality on Monday.

While a small number of cases have been confirmed in more than 10 countries, linked to people who traveled from Wuhan, no deaths have been reported elsewhere.

Li is the most senior leader to visit Wuhan since the outbreak began. Clad in a blue protective suit and mask, he inspected efforts to contain the epidemic and spoke to patients and medical staff, the government said.

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The government is extending the week-long Lunar New Year holiday by three days to Feb. 2, in a bid to slow the spread of the virus. The Lunar New Year is usually a time for millions of people to travel, but many have had to cancel their plans because of travel curbs over the virus.

Wuhan is already in virtual lockdown and severe limits on movement are in place in several other Chinese cities.

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The city of 11 million clamped down further on Monday, announcing the suspension of visa and passport services until Jan. 30.

Despite the curbs, the mayor of Wuhan said on Sunday that five million people had left the city for holidays and other reasons.

Images from Wuhan showing hospital corridors packed with people seeking treatment have circulated on social media, along with complaints of soaring prices for essentials such as vegetables.

Graphic: Number of confirmed cases rockets - tmsnrt.rs/2Rgj92F

INCUBATION PERIOD 1-14 DAYS

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Chinese leaders have called for transparency in the crisis, after public trust was eroded by the cover-up of the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a coronavirus that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.

Much is not known about the newly identified coronavirus, including how easily it spreads and just how dangerous it is. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.

Chinese 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 virus is believed to have originated late last year in a Wuhan market illegally selling wildlife. It has spread to other cities including Beijing and Shanghai, as well as more than 10 countries including France, Japan and the United States.

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

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Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health experts have questioned the effectiveness.

The World Health Organization (WHO) last week 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 is due to travel to Beijing to meet officials and health experts.

‘JUDGEMENT OF THE PEOPLE’

Australia, France, Italy, Japan and the United States have all said they are working to evacuate citizens from Wuhan.

Japan is expected to arrange a charter flight as early as Tuesday for citizens who wish to return from Wuhan, Kyodo news agency said. France said it expected to repatriate up to a few hundred of its 800 citizens living in the Wuhan area.

Hubei Governor Wang Xiaodong told a Sunday news conference he felt “agonized” and responsible for the outbreak, but his comments sparked anger on social media.

“He thinks one sentence of apology will be enough to solve the problem? Let’s await the judgment of the people,” one user said in on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.

It is rare for Chinese authorities to allow such criticism of public officials on tightly controlled social media.

The outbreak has upset global markets, with stocks tumbling on Monday, while demand for safe-haven assets spiked and Singapore warned of negative impact on its economy.

Some of China’s biggest companies have been affected, with hotpot restaurant chain Haidilao International Holding shutting branches nationwide from Sunday to Friday.

Gaming giant Tencent Holdings Ltd advised staff to work from home until Feb. 7, and e-commerce firm Alibaba removed sales of overpriced face masks from its online Taobao marketplace as prices surged.

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