Coronavirus: Death toll surges as virus-hit Hubei sacks health chief

Medical workers in protective suits attend to a coronavirus patient at an isolated ward of a designated hospital in Wuhan, on Feb 6, 2020.
Medical workers in protective suits attend to a coronavirus patient at an isolated ward of a designated hospital in Wuhan, on Feb 6, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS/CHINA DAILY

SHANGHAI (AFP, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - The death toll from the coronavirus epidemic in mainland China soared past 1,000 on Tuesday (Feb 11) with a record daily rise in fatalities. 

Hundreds of Chinese firms say they will need billions of dollars in loans to stay afloat and layoffs have begun, despite assurances by President Xi Jinping that widespread sackings would be avoided.

Another 108 new coronavirus deaths were reported on Tuesday, a daily record, bringing the total number of people killed in the country to 1,016, the National Health Commission said. 

There were 2,478 new confirmed cases on the mainland on Monday, down from 3,062 on the previous day, bringing the total to 42,638.

It was the second time in the past two weeks that authorities recorded a daily drop in new cases, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) has cautioned the spread of cases outside of China could be “the spark that becomes a bigger fire”.

So far only 319 cases have been confirmed in 24 other countries and territories, according to WHO and Chinese health officials, with two deaths outside mainland China in Hong Kong and the Philippines. 

HUBEI HEALTH CHIEF SACKED

China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, reported 2,097 new cases and 103 new deaths on Monday, the local health authority said. 

More people died from the disease on Monday than any other day since the flu-like virus emerged from a wildlife market in the Hubei provincial capital Wuhan in December. 

The number of reported cases however fell almost 20 per cent compared to the previous day.

Hubei’s government dismissed the provincial health commission’s Communist Party boss, Zhang Jin, and director Liu Yingzi, state media CCTV reported, amid public anger over local authorities’ handling of the outbreak.

President Xi met medical workers and patients affected at a hospital in Beijing on Monday, where he called for “more decisive measures” to contain the outbreak, said state broadcaster CCTV.  

During a meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang on Monday, a group of leaders tasked with beating the virus said it would work to solve raw material and labour shortages and boost supplies of masks and protective clothing.

They said nearly 20,000 medical personnel from around the country had already been sent to Wuhan, and more medical teams were also on the way.

Hubei remains in virtual lockdown, with its train stations and airports shut and roads blocked. 

One Beijing government official, Zhang Gewho, said it would be harder to curb the spread of the 
virus as people return to work.

“The capacity of communities and flow of people will greatly increase the difficulty,” he said. 

About 160 million people are expected to return to their homes across China over the next week following the end of their holidays, a transport ministry official said. 

SACKINGS START

More than 300 Chinese companies are seeking bank loans totalling at least 57.4 billion yuan (S$11.4 billion) to help cope with the disruption caused by locked down cities, closed factories and crippled supply lines, two banking sources said.

Among the prospective borrowers are food delivery giant Meituan Dianping, smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp and ride-hailing provider Didi Chuxing Technology, the sources said. 

Chinese firm Xinchao Media said on Monday it had laid off 500 people, or just over 10 per cent of its workforce, and restaurant chain Xibei said it was worried about how to pay the wages of its roughly 20,000 workers.

Authorities said on Tuesday they will roll out measures to stabilise jobs, in addition to previously announced cuts to interest rates and fiscal stimulus designed to keep any economic downturn to a minimum.

One Chinese government think-tank forecast the virus would wipe one percentage point off annual economic growth in China and analysts fear a prolonged disruption could have negative consequences for global growth. 

“The coronavirus outbreak completely changed the dynamics of the Chinese economy,” JPMorgan analysts said in a note to clients as they again downgraded forecasts for Chinese growth this quarter.

An advance team of international WHO experts has arrived in China to investigate the outbreak. Its death toll has now surpassed that of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), which killed hundreds worldwide in 2002/2003.

Ahead of the team’s arrival, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned there had been some “concerning instances” of cases overseas in people with no travel history to China.

“It could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire,” Dr Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.  

“But for now it is only a spark. Our objective remains containment,” he said, adding that a concerted global effort was needed “to fight this virus before it gets out of control”.

MORE CASES ON CRUISE SHIP

The Diamond Princess cruise ship with 3,700 passengers and crew remained quarantined in the Japanese port of Yokohama, with 65 more cases detected, taking the number of confirmed cases from the Carnival Corp-owned vessel to 135.  
 
 
Thailand said it had barred passengers from disembarking another Carnival Corp ship, Holland America Line’s MS Westerdam, the latest country to turn the vessel away due to coronavirus fears although no confirmed infections have been found aboard. 
 
The company had said passengers would disembark in Bangkok on Feb 13 and that there was no reason to believe anybody aboard had the virus. It has already been turned away from countries including Japan, the Philippines and Thailand. 
 
British Airways cancelled all its flights to mainland China until the end of March, while Philippine airlines cancelled flights to Taiwan after the government expanded a travel ban to include all foreigners from the island.  
 

As scientists race to develop tests and treatments, the WHO says 168 labs globally have the right technology to diagnose the virus. More companies have been struggling to find clinical virus samples to validate the tests they have developed.