Coronavirus: Death toll in China rises to 361, exceeding country's Sars fatalities

Funeral parlour staff in protective suits help a colleague with disinfection after they transferred a body at a hospital, following the outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on Jan 30, 2020.
Funeral parlour staff in protective suits help a colleague with disinfection after they transferred a body at a hospital, following the outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on Jan 30, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS, AFP) - The economic and diplomatic costs of China’s coronavirus epidemic mounted on Monday (Feb 3) with investors knocking US$400 billion (S$547 billion) off the value of stocks as the death toll from the virus passed that of the 2002-2003 Sars crisis.

The Chinese government on Monday also accused the United States of over-reacting to the outbreak and whipping up panic.

The number of total infections in China’s coronavirus outbreak has passed 17,200 nationwide, with 2,829 new cases confirmed, the National Health Commission said on Monday (Feb 3).

In its daily update, the commission said there had been 57 new deaths from the virus – all in hardest-hit Hubei province except one, bringing the national toll to 361, exceeding the country’s death toll from the 2002-03 Sars outbreak, which killed 349 people in mainland China.

China’s markets plunged at the open in their first session after an extended Chinese New Year break that began on Jan 23, when the virus had claimed only 17 lives in Wuhan.

Since then, the flu-like virus has been declared a global emergency and spread to about two dozen other countries and regions, with the first death outside of China reported on Sunday, that of a 44-year-old Chinese man who died in the Philippines after travelling from Wuhan.

Jittery investors erased almost US$400 billion from Chinese stocks, with the Shanghai Composite index down almost 8 per cent, its worst daily drop in four years. The yuan had its worst day since August and Shanghai-traded commodities from oil to copper hit their maximum down limits.

The wipeout came even as the central bank made its biggest cash input into financial markets since 2004 – with an injection of 1.2 trillion yuan (US$233.8 billion) of liquidity into the markets via reverse repo operations – and despite apparent regulatory moves to curb selling.

Beijing also said it would help firms that produce vital goods resume work as soon as possible, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

While stock markets reopened, most provinces have extended the holiday to try to contain the virus, with workers in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, not scheduled to return until after Feb 13.

Wuhan and some other cities remain in virtual lockdown with travel severely restricted, and China is facing increasing international isolation as well due to restrictions on flights to and from the country, and bans on travellers from China.

Beijing pointed a finger of blame at the United States saying it had acted to create and spread fear instead of offering any significant assistance.

The United States was the first country to suggest the partial withdrawal of its embassy staff, and the first to impose a travel ban on Chinese travellers, said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying.

“All it has done could only create and spread fear, which is a bad example,” Hua told an online news briefing, adding that China hoped countries would make judgements and responses that were reasonable, calm and based on science.

Relations with the United States have been strained over the past year, largely over trade.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, but said global trade and travel restrictions are not needed.

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.”

The WHO reported at least 151 confirmed cases have been reported in 23 other countries and regions, including the United States, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Britain.

However, several countries have ramped up border controls including bans on foreign nationals who had recently been to China from entering their territories.

The new virus is believed to have emerged in December from a market that sold wild game in the Hubei provincial capital Wuhan. 

Hubei has been under virtual quarantine, with roads sealed off and public transport shut down. Elsewhere, China has placed growing restrictions on travel and business. The province extended its Chinese New Year holiday break to Feb 13 in a bid to contain the outbreak.

A 1,000-bed hospital built in just eight days to treat people with the virus in Wuhan will begin to take patients on Monday, state media said. More than 7,500 workers took part in the project, launched on Jan. 25 and finished this weekend.

A second hospital in Wuhan with 1,600 beds is due to be ready on Feb 5.

The Group of Seven countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States, all of which have confirmed cases of the virus – will discuss a joint response to the outbreak, Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn said later in the day.

While countries have been trying to block the virus with travel bans, they have also been getting stranded citizens out of Wuhan.

The United States, which flew people out last week, is planning “a handful more flights” while Russia is due to start evacuating its citizens from Wuhan on Monday. It has also suspended direct passenger trains link.

Australia evacuated 243 people, many of them children, from Wuhan on Monday and will quarantine them on a remote island.

Australia on Saturday followed the United States in barring entry to all foreign nationals travelling from mainland China.