Wuhan virus: Chinese Premier visits ground zero of virus outbreak

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (centre) addressing workers at the construction site of a new hospital being built to treat patients of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, yesterday. During a visit to several sites in Wuhan yesterda
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (centre) addressing workers at the construction site of a new hospital being built to treat patients of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, yesterday. During a visit to several sites in Wuhan yesterday including a supermarket, he pledged that the government would ensure ample supplies and stable prices for necessities.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

He is most senior govt official to visit Wuhan since outbreak; China reports 769 new cases

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang paid his first visit to Wuhan yesterday as the government said it had allocated 60.33 billion yuan (S$11.8 billion) to help contain the viral outbreak that has spread across the country and sparked global concern.

The death toll from China's epidemic spiked to 81 yesterday with hundreds of new infections despite unprecedented travel lockdowns as foreign governments scrambled to extricate trapped citizens.

There were 769 new infections reported in mainland China on Sunday, the National Health Commission said yesterday, bringing the total confirmed cases to 2,744, including 461 in a serious condition.

There were also 25 more deaths, including a local government official, and 5,794 suspected cases across the country.

Mr Wang Xianliang, the 62-year-old director of Wuhan's religious and ethnic affairs bureau, died on Sunday. He is the first government official to die from the infection, reported Chinese news outlet Caixin.

Premier Li, the most senior government official to visit Wuhan since the outbreak started, was there to inspect efforts to contain the epidemic, the government said.

Official images showed Mr Li, who heads a committee coordinating the government's response to the virus, wearing a green face mask and a blue protective gown over a dark suit as he spoke to medical workers in similar garb.

He was visiting the Jinyintan Hospital, one of the designated hospitals for treating infected patients. Mr Li later visited a supermarket where he pledged the government would ensure ample supplies and stable prices for necessities, reported state broadcaster CCTV.

China's Finance Ministry and National Health Commission allocated 60.33 billion yuan to help contain the spreading virus, according to a statement on the ministry's website.

World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a tweet early yesterday morning that he was travelling to China to meet government and health experts.

"My WHO colleagues and I would like to understand the latest developments and strengthen our partnership with (China) in providing further protection against the outbreak," he wrote in a tweet.

Some have criticised the WHO for not declaring the outbreak an international public health emergency.

While a small number of cases have been reported in about a dozen other countries, including five in Singapore, there have been no fatalities outside of China.

The State Council, China's Cabinet, said on Sunday that it would extend the Chinese New Year holidays by three days in a bid to curb the spread of the virus through reducing human movement.

The week-long holiday is usually a time for hundreds of millions to travel - either back home to see relatives or on vacations - but many cancelled their plans either due to virus-related travel restrictions or for fear of contracting the disease.

Wuhan and several cities in Hubei province are under lockdown, with severe restrictions in place, including the suspension of public transport services.

Wuhan further tightened measures yesterday when the city said it would shut down passport and visa services until Jan 30. But Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang said that before the lockdown on Jan 23, five million people were able to leave the city for holidays and other reasons.

Mr Zhou said shutting off the city was a "very difficult decision" and that he and Wuhan's Communist Party chief were willing to take responsibility for the decision. "If people want to pursue accountability (about the lockdown) and the public has a strong opinion, we are willing to step down," he told CCTV, adding that the city's disclosure of information had been "unsatisfactory".

There has been widespread public anger about the city's initial sluggish response, which many believe led to the massive spread of the virus.

Images from Hubei province have shown overwhelmed hospitals and long lines for treatment with dwindling medical supplies, which provincial officials admitted last Saturday was the city's biggest problem.

Smaller provincial hospitals had earlier put out a call for donations for medical equipment including masks, goggles and protective suits.

Supplies have gradually streamed into the province while the army has mobilised 450 medics and the National Health Commission has sent in 1,230 medical experts to reinforce overwhelmed hospitals.

Chinese leaders have called for transparency in managing the crisis, after public trust was eroded by the cover-up of the spread of Sars in 2002 and 2003, which originated in China and killed nearly 800 globally, including 33 in Singapore.

US stocks opened sharply lower on concerns about the financial fallout from the virus outbreak in China. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 447.24 points, or 1.54 per cent, at the open to 28,542.49, while the Nasdaq Composite dropped 222.45 points, or 2.39 per cent, to 9,092.46 at the opening bell.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2020, with the headline 'Chinese Premier visits ground zero of virus outbreak'. Print Edition | Subscribe