By Sébastien Ricci | AFP
WUHAN, China, 30 January 2020
China reported its biggest single-day jump in novel coronavirus deaths on Thursday, as global fears deepened with more infections confirmed overseas including three Japanese evacuated from the outbreak’s epicentre.
The World Health Organization, which initially downplayed a disease that has now killed 170 in China, was readying to meet Thursday to decide whether to declare it a global emergency.
But governments, companies and people around the world were already escalating efforts to contain the illness, which is believed to have emerged from an animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Many governments have urged their citizens not to visit China, while some have banned entry for travellers from Wuhan.
At least 15 countries have confirmed infections, with India reporting its first case on Thursday.
Airlines began cancelling flights servicing China on Wednesday, and more followed suit on Thursday.
Russia said it was closing its far estern border with China over the outbreak.
Beijing has taken extraordinary steps to arrest the spread of the virus, including effectively quarantining more than 50 million people in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province.
The government on Thursday reported 38 new deaths in the preceding 24 hours, the highest one-day total since the virus was detected late last year.
All but one of the new deaths were in Hubei.
The number of confirmed new cases also grew steadily to 7,711, the National Health Commission said. Another 81,000 people were under observation for possible infection.
The pathogen is believed to have emerged in a market that sold wild game, and spread by a Lunar New Year holiday season in which hundreds of millions of Chinese travel domestically or abroad.
Truly new situation
Thousands of foreigners have been trapped in Wuhan since it was sealed off last week.
Massive cities like Beijing and Shanghai were also eerily quiet as countless people followed advice to stay indoors, or at least wear masks when venturing out.
Japan and the United States on Wednesday became the first countries to organise airlifts from Wuhan for their citizens. A second US flight is planned in coming days.
Australia and New Zealand were among others organizing similar operations.
Tokyo on Thursday reported that three people who were aboard the first evacuation flight had tested positive for the virus after landing back home.
Two of the three infected passengers showed no symptoms, according to Japanese authorities, underscoring the difficulty detecting the coronavirus.
Compounding fears, Japan was allowing the arrivals — more than 400 have been repatriated after a second flight on Thursday — to “self-quarantine”.
The government said it could not legally compel testing or quarantining, and two people on the first flight refused testing.
That is despite Japanese officials already confirming two cases in which patients tested positive without having visited China.
In contrast, other countries organising evacuations said they were all planning to quarantine.
“We are in a truly new situation,” Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told parliament as his government faced criticism.
The WHO also has come under fire after it last week decided not to declare a global health emergency.
A meeting Thursday will decide whether to reverse that decision, possibly leading to travel or trade barriers.
“The whole world needs to take action,” Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, told reporters in Geneva.
The virus is similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which also began in China and eventually killed nearly 800 people worldwide in 2002-03.
Major airlines that have suspended or reduced service to China include British Airways, German flag carrier Lufthansa, American Airlines, KLM, and United.
Chinese efforts to halt the virus have seen the suspension of classes nationwide and an extension of the Lunar New Year holiday.
All football matches across the country also would be postponed, the Chinese Football Association said, including the top-tier Chinese Super League.
Asian stock markets tumbled again Thursday on fears that trouble in the “world’s factory” would upset global supply chains and dent profits.
Toyota, IKEA, Starbucks, Tesla, McDonald’s and tech giant Foxconn were among corporate giants to temporarily freeze production or close large numbers of outlets in China.
US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the coronavirus posed a fresh risk to the world economy.
“There will clearly be implications at least in the near term for Chinese output and I would guess for some of their close neighbours,” he said.
Throughout China, signs of paranoia multiplied, with residents of some Beijing residential compounds erecting makeshift barriers to their premises.
In one of many similar photos posted online, a man wearing a surgical mask and brandishing a traditional martial arts weapon squatted on a barricade outside a Chinese village, near a sign saying: “Outsiders forbidden from entering”.
The crisis has caused food prices to spike, and the central government on Thursday blamed this partly on overzealous preventive measures, issuing a directive banning any roadblocks or other hindrances to food shipments.