Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 February 2020

President Xi: ‘accelerating’ virus puts China in ‘grave situation’

It is still unclear how dangerous the Sars-like coronavirus is as 1,600 people across the country are infected and the death toll hits 54

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday warned that China was facing a "grave situation" given the "accelerating spread" of a new Sars-like virus that has infected nearly 1,975 people across the country and killed 56.

“Faced with the grave situation of an accelerating spread of the new coronavirus... it is necessary to strengthen the centralised and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee," Mr Xi said, according to official news agency Xinhua.

The comments come as Chinese authorities scramble to contain the new virus, which first emerged in central Wuhan city, but has spread to at least 30 regions and provinces in China.

Wuhan authorities put the city and its 11 million inhabitants under effective quarantine on Thursday – with provincial authorities in Hubei later expanding the transport ban to at least 18 cities.

Regions far from the epidemic epicentre, such as Beijing, have also started to clamp down on the flow of people, as the death toll from the virus rises to at least 56.

On Saturday, the country's capital said it would suspend buses that entered and exited the city boundary, on top of closing tourist attractions and cancelling large-scale events during the Lunar New Year holiday.

"As long as we have steadfast confidence, work together, scientific prevention and cures, and precise policies, we will definitely be able to win the battle," Mr Xi told a meeting of the elite Politburo Standing Committee, according to Xinhua.

In a sign of the growing strain on Wuhan’s health care system, the official Xinhua news agency reported that the city planned to build a second makeshift hospital with about 1,000 beds. The city previously announced that construction of a hospital of the same size was underway and expected to be completed February 3.

The vast majority of the infections and all the deaths have been in mainland China, but fresh cases are popping up. Australia and Malaysia reported their first cases Saturday and Japan, its third. France confirmed three cases Friday, the first in Europe, and the US identified its second, a woman in Chicago who had returned from China.

The United States on Saturday chartered a flight to bring home 230 diplomats, US citizens and their families after it shut the country’s consulate in Wuhan, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. It causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever and, in more severe case, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Most of China’s provinces and cities activated a Level 1 public health alert, the highest in a four-tier system, the state-owned China Daily newspaper reported on Saturday.

The National Health Commission reported a jump in the number of infected people to 1,975. The latest tally, from 29 provinces and cities across China, included 237 patients in serious condition. Of the deaths, 39 have been in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital city, and one each in Hebei and Heilongjiang provinces.

Most of the deaths have been older patients, though a 36-year-old man in Hubei died earlier this week.

The Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks including Sars and Ebola, who arrived in Wuhan late on Friday night to help treat the many patients hospitalized with viral pneumonia, Xinhua reported.

Xinhua also said that medical supplies are being rushed to the city, including 14,000 protective suits and 110,000 pairs of gloves from the central medical reserves as well as masks and goggles.

The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse, but could reflect better monitoring and reporting of the newly discovered virus.

It is not clear how lethal the new coronavirus is, or even whether it is as dangerous as the ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the US alone.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said it is expecting more Americans to be diagnosed with the virus.

The outbreak put a damper on Lunar New Year in China, the first day of the Year of the Rat.

Temples locked their doors, Beijing’s Forbidden City, Shanghai Disneyland and other major tourist destinations closed, and people cancelled restaurant reservations ahead of the holiday, normally a time of family reunions, sightseeing trips and other festivities in the country of 1.4 billion people.

“We originally planned to go back to my wife’s hometown and bought train tickets to depart this afternoon,” said Li Mengbin, who was on a stroll by the moat of the closed Forbidden City. “We ended up cancelling. But I’m still happy to celebrate the New Year in Beijing, which I hadn’t for several years.”

Updated: January 26, 2020 05:41 AM

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