Coronavirus: China accuses US of spreading fear, says it 'urgently needs' masks

Medical staff of Concorde hospital offloading medical supplies from a helicopter in Wuhan, China, Feb 1, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - China said Monday (Feb 3) the US "inappropriately overreacted" to the deadly virus that originated there and hasn't provided much help to counter the outbreak, disputing the Trump administration's claim that it offered assistance.

"The US government hasn't provided any substantial assistance to us, but it was the first to evacuate personnel from its consulate in Wuhan, the first to suggest partial withdrawal of its embassy staff, and the first to impose a travel ban on Chinese travellers," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told reporters on Monday.

The US has offered its top public health experts to help China with the coronavirus outbreak but so far Beijing hasn't responded, National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said Sunday.

Beijing's harsh words bring the tensions between the two countries back into focus, after they spent the last two years engaged in a trade war that undermined growth in the world's two biggest economies. China's death toll has climbed to 361 and its confirmed cases now top 17,000, fuelling skepticism about the government's ability to constrain it.

International efforts to halt its spread are intensifying as the US confirmed new infections and the Philippines reported the first death outside China over the weekend, with airlines in Asia, Europe and the Middle East stopping service to the mainland.

Ms Hua said the US was "turning from overconfidence to fear and overreaction." She said banning the entry of foreigners who travelled to China in the past 14 days could be in violation of civil rights, rather than reduce the risk of the novel coronavirus spreading.

The US will send a "handful more" flights to bring out citizens from Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told reporters Monday, according to a pool report. Mr Pompeo said the US may also bring in medical supplies.

Ms Hua, the foreign ministry spokesman, said that China would still cooperate with the US even as she criticised its response to the virus.

"Most countries appreciate and support China's efforts to fight against the novel coronavirus, and we understand and respect them when they adopt or enhance quarantine measures at border entry," Ms Hua said. "But in the meantime, some countries, the US in particular, have inappropriately overreacted, which certainly runs counter to WHO advice."

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China on Monday was grappling with the financial impact of the outbreak as it returned from normally-joyous Chinese New Year holidays, with millions of citizens quarantined during a week that usually sees people travel back to their hometowns.

Its fast spread has rattled global governments, travellers and markets, with Chinese stocks on Monday falling the most since 2015 and commodity markets collapsing as trading resumed after the break. US equity futures rose as China moved to cushion the financial blow.

Health chiefs from both sides - Ma Xiaowei, Director of China's National Health Committee, and Alex M. Azar II, the US's Secretary of Health and Human Services - also held a phone call on Jan 27. Azar was appointed by President Donald Trump to lead a task force to coordinate Washington's response to the coronavirus.

Azar told his Chinese counterpart that he and Trump - who signed a historic phase-one trade accord with Beijing only weeks ago - had expressed appreciation for the transparency shown by China in the prevention and control of the outbreak, and the ongoing health cooperation between the two countries.

Ms Hua on Monday also said it "urgently needs" protective medical equipment as the death toll from the virus passed that of the 2002-2003 Sars crisis.

Fears of the virus have spurred people in the densely-populated country of 1.4 billion to stock up on single-use surgical masks, while front-line medical personnel at the centre of the outbreak have reported equipment shortages.

"What China urgently needs at present are medical masks, protective suits, and safety goggles," she told an online news briefing.

At full capacity, China's factories are only able to produce around 20 million masks a day, according to the ministry of industry.

The foreign ministry said countries, including South Korea, Japan, Kazakhstan and Hungary, have donated medical supplies.

Mr Tian Yulong of the industry ministry said earlier on Monday that the authorities were taking steps to bring in masks from Europe, Japan and the US, adding that supply and demand in China remained in "tight equilibrium" as factories returned to production after the Chinese New Year lull.

He said they were now operating at "between 60 and 70 per cent capacity".

In addition to Hubei, the province of more than 50 million people at the centre of the outbreak, several other provinces and cities across China have made it compulsory to wear masks in public as virus fears have grown.

These include Guangdong - China's most populous province - plus Sichuan, Jiangxi, Liaoning and the city of Nanjing, with a combined population of more than 300 million.

The death toll from the coronavirus soared past 360 on Monday, exceeding the 349 mainland fatalities from the 2002-03 Sars outbreak, although Sars killed a higher percentage of people infected.

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