Chinese premier Li Keqiang on Monday (Jan 27) visited Wuhan, the epicentre of a Sars-like virus outbreak, as the death toll climbed to 81 including one government official.
On Sunday, there were 769 new infections reported in mainland China, the National Health Commission said early Monday, bringing the total confirmed cases to 2,744, including 461 in serious condition.
There were also 25 more deaths and 5,794 suspected cases across the country.
Reuters reported that Hainan province confirmed an 80-year-old woman died after being infected, marking the province’s first fatality in the rapidly spreading outbreak, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
Mr Li, the most senior government official to visit Wuhan since the outbreak started, was there to inspect efforts to contain the pandemic and spoke with patients and medical staff, the Chinese government said in a statement.
Official images show Mr Li wearing a green face mask and a blue protective gown over a dark suit as he spoke to medical workers in similar garb.
He was visiting the Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan, where most patients infected with mysterious coronavirus had been warded.
“As you put in all your effort to heal (patients), you must protect yourselves too,” he told hospital staff, according to local official newspaper Changjiang Daily.
China’s finance ministry and National Health Commission extended 60.33 billion yuan (S$11.8 billion) to help contain the spreading virus, according to a statement on the ministry’s website seen by Reuters.
Wang Xianliang, director of Wuhan's religious and ethnic affairs bureau, on Jan 26 became the first government official to die from the coronavirus infection, reported Chinese financial news outlet, Caixin. He was 62.
While a small number of cases have been reported in about a dozen other countries, including four in Singapore, there have been no fatalities.
Most of the patients infected were either from Hubei province, where Wuhan city is located, or had travelled to the area in recent weeks.
The State Council, China’s cabinet, said on Sunday that it would extend the Chinese New Year holidays by three days in a bid to curb the spread of the virus through reducing human movement.
Schools, including kindergartens, will also be delaying the start of term.
The week-long Chinese New Year holiday is usually a time for hundreds of millions to travel -- either back home to see relatives or on vacations -- but many cancelled their plans either due to virus-related travel restrictions, or for fear of contracting the disease.
Wuhan and several cities in Hubei province are under a virtual lockdown, with severe restrictions in place including the suspension of public transport services.
This further tightened on Monday when the city said it would be shutting down passport and visa services till Jan 30. But the city’s mayor said that before the lock down on Jan 23, 5 million people were able to leave the city for holidays and other reasons.
In an interview with state broadcaster CCTV, Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang said shutting off the city was a “very difficult decision”.
Wearing a mask the right way up this time — he came under fire on Sunday for wearing the protective gear incorrectly — Mr Zhou said containing the virus has been the city’s top priority.
“But we know it’s for the good of the country in this very urgent time. If it can help stop the spread of the disease, it doesn’t matter if my name goes down in infamy,” he said.
Some in Wuhan have volunteered their own vehicles to ferry patients to hospitals while others have volunteered to cook for hospital staff who have been shunned by food delivery services for fear of contracting the virus.
But some villages in Hebei province have taken things into their own hands by preventing outsiders from entering, even going as far as to build mud walls as barriers, showed images on the Twitter-like Weibo. The Straits Times has been unable to independently verify the pictures.
Images from Hubei province have shown overwhelmed hospitals and long lines for treatment with dwindling medical supplies. Smaller provincial hospitals had earlier put out a call for donations for medical equipment including masks, goggles and protective suits.
Supplies have gradually streamed in and the army also mobilised close to 1,000 medics to reinforce overwhelmed hospitals.
Chinese leaders have called for transparency in managing the crisis, after public trust was eroded by the cover-up of the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), a coronavirus that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because much about it remains unknown, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Saturday he was travelling to Beijing to meet officials and health experts dealing with the coronavirus.
While the WHO has stopped short of declaring it a global health emergency, many question whether China can contain the epidemic, which has already spread to four continents.
Hubei Governor Wang Xiaodong said at a news conference on Sunday he felt “agonised” and responsible for the outbreak, although his comments sparked anger on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.
“He thinks one sentence of apology will be enough to solve the problem? Let’s await the judgment of the people of the country,” one user posted.
Some of China’s biggest companies have been affected by the outbreak, with hotpot restaurant chain Haidilao International Holding shutting stores across China from Jan 26 to Jan 31.
Gaming giant Tencent advised staff to work from home until Feb 7, and e-commerce firm Alibaba removed sales of overpriced face masks from its online Taobao marketplace as prices surged.
Reuters reported that the Shanghai government said companies in the city are not allowed to resume operations before Feb 9, an official at the municipality announced at a press conference on Monday.
The measure is applicable to government and private companies but is not applicable to utilities and some other firms such as medical equipment companies and pharmaceutical companies, the official said.
EVACUATIONS AND SCREENING
Reuters reported that airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health experts have questioned the effectiveness.
Australia, France, Italy, Japan and the United States have all said they are working to evacuate citizens from Wuhan.
And Japan is expected to arrange a charter flight as early as Tuesday for citizens who wish to return from Wuhan, Kyodo news agency said.
France said it expected to repatriate up to a few hundred of its 800 citizens living in the Wuhan area, Reuters reported.
The Spanish government is working with China and the European Union to repatriate Spanish nationals from Wuhan, Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said on Monday, while the British Foreign Office said that it was working to offer British nationals in Hubei province an option to leave, Reuters reported.
AFP reported that anxious foreigners in the locked-down city say they are stranded at home, running out of food and desperate to leave, as governments scrambled to draw up evacuation plans.
“In the past week we’ve not been able to go out and buy anything to eat,” said Mashal Jamalzai, a political science student from Afghanistan at Central China Normal University.
He told AFP that he and his classmates had been living on biscuits, and his embassy had not responded to requests for help.
“We want to be evacuated as soon as possible, because either the virus, the hunger or the fear will kill us,” Jamalzai said.
Thousands of foreign students and other international residents live in Wuhan, a normally bustling transport hub in central China home to a huge steel and auto industry.
Mainland Chinese travellers from Hubei province and its capital Wuhan city will be barred from entering Malaysia temporarily, the Prime Minister's Office said Monday.
"Based on the latest information, the Malaysian government has decided to temporarily suspend the (no visa) entry, Visa on Arrival, e-visa and manual visas to Chinese citizens from Wuhan and Hubei," the PMO said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Macau said it will deny entry to visitors from Hubei province or those who visited the province 14 days prior to arrival unless they can provide documentation showing they are not infected with the virus.
Mongolia has closed its border crossing with China to cars and pedestrians and shut schools, AFP reported.
“Pedestrians and cars are prohibited to cross the Chinese border,” said Vice Prime Minister Enkhtuvishin Ulziisaikhan on Sunday, saying the schools and universities would stay shut until March 2, along with other public places.
On Monday, Australia confirmed its fifth case on Monday involving a woman on the last flight out of Wuhan to Sydney before China’s travel ban.