SHANGHAI (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AFP) - China raised the death toll from the coronavirus epidemic to 811 on Sunday (Feb 9), passing the number killed globally by the Sars epidemic in 2002/2003 and raising anxiety among people preparing to return to work after an extended Chinese New Year break.
Struggling to contain the spread of the disease, authorities had told businesses to tack up to 10 extra days onto holidays that had been due to finish at the end of January as the rising numbers of dead and infected cast a pall over the country.
Many of China's usually teeming cities have almost become ghost towns during the past two weeks, as the Communist Party rulers ordered virtual lockdowns, cancelled flights, closed factories and kept schools shut.
The sight of an economy regarded as a workshop to the world laid so low has also taken a toll on international financial markets, as shares slumped and investors switched into safe-havens like gold, bonds and the Japanese yen.
Even on Monday, a large number of workplaces will remain closed and many white-collar workers will continue to work from home.
The new deaths on Saturday reached another daily record at 89, data from the National Health Commission showed, pushing the total well over the 774 who died from Sars, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).
An American hospitalised in the central city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, became the first confirmed non-Chinese victim of the disease. The Washington Post identified him as Hong Ling, a 53-year old geneticist who studied rare diseases at Berkeley. A Japanese man who also died in Wuhan was another suspected victim.
As millions of Chinese prepared to go back to work, the public dismay and mistrust of official numbers was evident on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.
"What's even more frustrating is that these are only the'official' data," said one user. "Don't say anything else. We all know we can't purchase masks anywhere, why are we still going back to work?" said a second.
"More than 20,000 doctors and nurses around the country have been sent to Hubei, but why are the numbers still rising?" asked a third.
In a statement on Sunday, China's National Health Commission called for the "reasonable use" of protective suits and cautioned against "excessive and disorderly" use of the clothing that would waste resources and could also increase infection.
Of the coronavirus deaths, 81 were in China's central Hubei province, where the virus has infected most people by far. New deaths in Hubei's capital Wuhan saw a rare decline.
New infection cases on Saturday recorded the first drop since Feb 1, falling back below 3,000 to 2,656 cases. Of those, 2,147 cases were in Hubei province.
The total of confirmed coronavirus cases in China stood at 37,198 cases, the commission data showed.
Joseph Eisenberg, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, said it was too early to say whether the epidemic was peaking.
"Even if reported cases might be peaking, we don't know what is happening with unreported cases," he said. "This is especially an issue in some of the more rural areas."
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also warned against misinformation about the virus, saying it made the work of healthcare staff harder.
"We're not just battling the virus, we're also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response," he said.
The virus has spread to 27 countries and regions, according to a Reuters count based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China - in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Both victims were Chinese nationals.
ALARM IN EUROPE, UNITED STATES AND ASIA
The latest patients outside China include five British nationals staying in the same chalet at a ski village in Haute-Savoie in the Alps, French health officials said, raising fears of further infections at a busy period in the ski season.
The five, including a child, had been lodged in the same chalet with a British man believed to have contracted the virus in Singapore. They were not in serious condition, the officials said.
France issued a new travel advisory for its citizens, saying it did not recommend travelling to China unless there was an"imperative" reason. Italy asked children travelling from China to stay away from school for two weeks voluntarily.
England's chief medical officer said on Sunday a fourth person in the country has tested positive for coronavirus, having contracted the illness from a previously confirmed British patient in France.
"The patient has been transferred to a specialist NHS centre at The Royal Free Hospital, and we are now using robust infection control measures to prevent any possible further spread of the virus," Dr Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England said in a statement.
Spain's National Centre for Microbiology confirmed on Sunday the country's second case of new coronavirus, after tests on one of four people suspected of having the virus in Mallorca came back positive. The other three were negative.
The patient is one of four people taken into observation in Mallorca on Friday after coming into contact with someone in France who was subsequently diagnosed with the virus.
There have also been 64 confirmed cased from a cruise ship held in quarantine off Japan.
Hong Kong began enforcing a two-week quarantine for anyone arriving from mainland China on Saturday, under threat of both fines and jail terms.
Most people will be able to be quarantined at home or in hotels but they will face daily phone calls and spot checks.
The financial hub has 25 confirmed cases with one patient who died earlier this week.
In the last week, Hong Kong has been hit by a wave of panic-buying with supermarket shelves frequently emptied of staple goods such as toilet paper, hand sanitiser, rice and pasta.
China has expanded its own measures, with cities far from Hubei telling residents that only one person per household can leave the house every two days to buy supplies.
Singapore has reported 40 cases of coronavirus, putting it among the hardest hit countries, along with Japan, outside of China.
On Friday, the Singapore government raised its response level on the virus to "orange," a level also adopted during Sars and the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 influenza.
Singaporeans reacted by clearing out supermarket shelves of rice, noodles and toilet paper. On Sunday, the central bank in the Asian financial hub advised financial institutions to step up precautions for staff.
The government also said it had organised a second evacuation flight for 174 Singaporeans and their family members in Wuhan.
The 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, killed 774 people and sickened almost 8,100 others, in 26 countries, over eight months, the WHO said.
Mainland China accounted for about 45 per cent of Sars deaths.