Death toll climbs, more Chinese cities on lockdown

Commuters being checked by security personnel wearing hazardous material suits at the entrance to an underground train station in Beijing yesterday.
Commuters being checked by security personnel wearing hazardous material suits at the entrance to an underground train station in Beijing yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Above: A woman riding a scooter through a market in Wuhan, China's Hubei province, yesterday. Most of the deaths so far have been in Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak.
Above: A woman riding a scooter through a market in Wuhan, China's Hubei province, yesterday. Most of the deaths so far have been in Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Above: Medical staff transferring a patient at the Hospital of Wuhan Red Cross Society on Thursday. Wuhan has said it is rapidly building a new 1,000-bed hospital to treat patients affected by the virus.
Above: Medical staff transferring a patient at the Hospital of Wuhan Red Cross Society on Thursday. Wuhan has said it is rapidly building a new 1,000-bed hospital to treat patients affected by the virus. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Wuhan hospitals struggle to cope with surge in patients; local media criticises slow responses

Chinese officials yesterday reported eight more deaths from a Sars-like virus, bringing the death toll to 26 as more cities were put under lockdown in a bid to contain the virus amid public anger at the government's perceived delayed reaction.

Most of the deaths were in central China's Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, but two others were thousands of kilometres away in Hebei province and Heilongjiang in the far north, said the National Health Commission.

It also confirmed a spike in the number of cases to more than 880, from just over 630 on Thursday.

In addition to Wuhan, travel restrictions were placed on four other cities in Hubei province yesterday. Public transport has been restricted in 10 cities in total, affecting at least 20 million people.

The Beijing city government has urged residents returning from outbreak areas to stay at home for 14 days, the Beijing Daily said.

The Shanghai government also urged a similar quarantine period for people going there from "key areas".

In Wuhan, controls were increased, with the city limiting the number of taxis on the road from noon yesterday and ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing saying it would be suspending service in the city.

But hospitals in Wuhan have been overwhelmed and struggling to cope with the surge of patients - those afflicted with the virus as well as those suffering from a fever, a symptom of the novel coronavirus.

Some hospitals have put out an appeal asking for donations of masks and other supplies, saying they had enough supplies to last only a few more days. Online retailer JD.com said in a statement that it would donate one million masks and about 60,000 medical supplies to Wuhan.

China's military yesterday said it is sending 40 members of its medical core to reinforce healthcare workers in Wuhan.

According to Hubei province health commissioner Liu Dongru, the virus is now in its "second wave", which has led to a spike in patients complaining of fever.

"A small number (of people) have also been misled by untruthful information and thus consulted the doctor in a panic, leading to a spike in fever patients," he said.

Wuhan has also said it is rapidly building a new 1,000-bed hospital to treat patients of the virus, hoping to complete it by next Monday.

Images on state media showed machinery digging in grounds around a lakeside holiday complex intended for workers.

Located on the outskirts of the city, the hospital will be built using prefabricated buildings.

"The construction of this project is to solve the shortage of existing medical resources," said a report in the official Changjiang Daily.

"Because it will be prefabricated buildings, it will not only be built fast but it also won't cost much."

The city is hoping to replicate the experience of Beijing, which rapidly built the Xiaotangshan hospital in its northern suburbs in just a week in 2003 when battling Sars.

Nearly 800 people died in the Sars epidemic, which spread to nearly 30 countries.

To discourage nationwide holiday travel, the government said yesterday that anyone who bought a ticket for rail, air, long-distance coach, or water transport could receive a refund upon cancellation. Beijing has cancelled massive gatherings that usually attract throngs at temples during the Chinese New Year holiday, while the historic Forbidden City, which traditionally attracts large crowds during the new year, will also be shut from today.

Several other tourist attractions, including Disneyland in Shanghai, will also be shut.

As the number of infections grew, there was a rare show of public anger as local media criticised the slow response of officials in Hubei.

Rumours have rapidly spread on social media and censors have allowed criticisms to remain. Most of them were directed at Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang.

He has faced calls to quit after acknowledging in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV earlier this week that the city "didn't have sufficient warnings" about the risk.

Mr Zhou said the government did not realise the severity of the disease when the first cluster of cases was discovered last month.

Chinese officials led by President Xi Jinping pledged "all-out" efforts to contain the outbreak this week. The government yesterday vowed to punish officials who delay information on the outbreak, with the State Council setting up an online platform to allow the public to report disclosure problems.

Several provinces including Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin have raised their emergency response level to the maximum Level 1, allowing for greater resources and coordination between departments in response to an emergency.

The country has gone from a muted response to a near state of panic over the outbreak. Pharmacies in major cities have run out of masks and disinfectant, while local governments have issued a directive saying that any merchants found to jack up prices will be severely dealt with.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2020, with the headline 'Death toll climbs, more Chinese cities on lockdown'. Print Edition | Subscribe