Wuhan sees zero new cases for first time since outbreak

A medical worker (right) embraces a member of a medical assistance team from Jiangsu province at a ceremony marking their departure after helping with the coronavirus recovery effort, in Wuhan, on March 19, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

Wuhan, the epicentre of China's coronavirus outbreak, has reported no new infections for the first time, marking a milestone in the country's aggressive battle against the contagious disease which has now spread across the world.

But even as the authorities successfully curb local transmission of Covid-19 through a wide range of means, including the draconian lockdown of cities and closure of businesses and schools, the country is now coping with mounting imported cases of infection.

There were 34 such cases from overseas on Wednesday, a jump from just 12 the day before. Of these, 21 were reported in the capital city of Beijing, which has ordered all incoming travellers into 14-day quarantine at designated hotels.

The number of deaths in the country also fell into single-digit territory on Wednesday, with eight fatalities, all in Hubei province, bringing the death toll since the beginning of the outbreak to 3,245.

The number of the infected nationwide stands at 80,928, the National Health Commission said yesterday.

The improving situation has given the government confidence to gradually ease the lockdown in the epicentre.

Wuhan officials have let businesses resume and some shops and markets reopen. Residents in communities deemed "epidemic free" are also allowed out into the compound, although they cannot gather in groups.

On Wednesday, the city of Ezhou in Hubei went a step further by letting non-residents leave the city in a move to help them return home or to work. But they are not allowed to travel to Beijing, which is now bearing the brunt of imported infections.

Even so, Chinese leaders have sounded cautious. In a meeting on Wednesday, President Xi Jinping acknowledged the growing risk of a rebound in infections as people return to work and restrictions ease.

"We should never allow the hard-won and continuous positive trend to be reversed," he said, as reported by official news agency Xinhua.

As cases have continued to fall dramatically, sceptics have cast doubt on the official numbers released by the National Health Commission, especially since Beijing is intent on declaring victory over the outbreak.

Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso yesterday said the number of Covid-19 cases announced by China "cannot be trusted".

Speaking about the impact of the coronavirus on the economy, Mr Aso, who is also Finance Minister, told the Upper House Finance Committee: "The current situation began in China. It is better not to trust the numbers coming out of the country where it all began."

Associate Professor Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies believes the data to be reliable.

"Having experienced the mistakes committed by the Wuhan government and perhaps some in the public health sector in the early part of the outbreak, I think people in China have learnt their lesson," he said, adding that it would be counterproductive for officials to fudge the figures.

"It could cause another round of small-scale infection, and that will be a nightmare for the country."

Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor said there is no doubt infection numbers have tumbled significantly. "I treat the figures on the virus and new infections much like I treat GDP (gross domestic product) figures. They are not accurate to the dot, but broadly indicative of the trend."

China's sweeping, hard-hitting measures to stem the spread of the disease come at significant cost to its economy, which has been at a standstill for much of the last two months.

There are expectations that Beijing will lower its growth forecast this year from 6 per cent to possibly 5 per cent.

• Additional reporting by Walter Sim in Tokyo

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2020, with the headline Wuhan sees zero new cases for first time since outbreak. Subscribe