Coronavirus: China accuses US of 'creating, spreading panic' amid outbreak

Chinese citizens wearing face masks check in to their Air China flight to Beijing, at Los Angeles International Airport, on Feb 2, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - China accused the United States on Monday (Feb 3) of "creating and spreading panic" amid an outbreak of a coronavirus which originated in Wuhan and has infected more than 17,000 people worldwide and killed over 360, mostly in China.

China and the US - the world's two biggest economies - emerged from months of tormenting negotiations to reach and sign a deal on Jan 15 and avoid an all-out trade war just days before infections and deaths from the virus spiked.

"The US government has not provided any substantial assistance to the Chinese side so far, but it was the first to evacuate diplomats" from its consulate in Wuhan and embassy in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told reporters in an online briefing.

Washington also announced travel curbs on all Chinese in the wake of the outbreak, "creating and spreading panic and taking the lead in a very bad" example, Ms Hua added.

The total number of infections has passed 17,200 nationwide, with 2,829 new cases confirmed, the National Health Commission said on Monday. The virus has spread to at least 25 other countries and regions.

In its daily update, the commission said there had been 57 new deaths from the virus - all in hardest-hit Hubei province in central China except one, bringing the national toll to 361, exceeding the country's death toll from the Sars outbreak which killed 349 people in mainland China in 2002 and 2003.

Ms Hua said 475 people infected by the coronavirus have recuperated, without giving further details. She said China "has the confidence and the ability to win this battle at an early date".

In a short interview broadcast on Sunday, US President Donald Trump defended the travel curbs. "We can't have thousands of people coming in who may have this problem - the coronavirus," Mr Trump told Fox.

Mr Trump said US officials had offered China "tremendous help" in dealing with the epidemic without elaborating.

Ms Hua singled out but stopped short of praising Canada for refusing to follow in America's footsteps and denying entry to all foreigners who have been to China recently.

China and Canada have been bickering over the arrest of Ms Meng Wanzhou, vice-chairman and chief financial officer of China's private telecoms giant Huawei, in Vancouver in December 2018 and her possible extradition to the US for violating sanctions on Iran.

Ms Meng turns 47 this month and is the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei. In an apparent tit-for-tat, China has arrested two Canadians.

The Straits Times reached out to more than 10 Beijing-based foreign diplomats, eight of whom said their countries did not come under pressure from China to avoid following America's lead and banning all inbound foreigners who have been to China recently. The others did not reply.

Ms Hua had earlier described as "unkind" US commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' comments that the epidemic will accelerate the return of jobs from China to the US.

She called US travel curbs on foreigners who have been to China within 14 days of their arrival "truly mean" and "certainly not a gesture of goodwill".

The US imposed the travel restrictions despite the World Health Organisation's recommendation not to place travel bans on China.

The WHO has said the epidemic constituted a public health emergency of international concern, a designation that triggers tighter global containment measures and coordination.

Three major US airlines have suspended flights to China.

Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei and the epicentre of the outbreak, has been under lockdown since Jan 23. The unprecedented lockdown has been extended to almost the entire province, which has a population of about 60 million.

Several countries have been evacuating their citizens from Hubei and putting them in quarantine upon their return home. Airports around the world have been screening visitors from China for fever.

Economists fear that the impact of the coronavirus could be bigger than Sars, which killed about 800 people worldwide at an estimated cost of US$33 billion to the global economy, since China's share of the world economy is now far greater, according to Reuters.

The US is not alone. Israel, Australia, and New Zealand have also banned foreign nationals from visiting if they have been to China recently.

In Tel Aviv, China's acting ambassador to Israel, Mr Dai Yuming, caused a stir on Sunday when he noted that China had let Jews into the country during the Holocaust and expressed hope that Israel would not close the door to his countrymen in the face of the spread of the virus, according to the Times of Israel.

The Chinese Embassy later apologised, saying it never intended to compare Israel's travel restrictions for Chinese travellers to the Holocaust, The Times reported.

About 30,000 European Jews escaped Nazi persecution by travelling to Shanghai between 1933 and 1941, according to UN figures, citing the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

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