A poster about precautions against the coronavirus virus at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: AFP/JUNG YEON-JE
A poster about precautions against the coronavirus virus at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: AFP/JUNG YEON-JE

Beijing — Workers began trickling back to offices and factories around China on Monday as the government eased some restrictions on working during a coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 900 people, most of them on the mainland.

The death toll of 97 on Sunday was the largest in a single day since the outbreak was detected in December. It has been linked to a market selling animals in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

Stocks and oil fell while safe-haven gold rose as the death toll from the outbreak surpassed that of another coronavirus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which brought a global epidemic in 2002/2003.

A team of experts headed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) was flying into Beijing on Monday to help assess the latest outbreak. China has borne the brunt of the disease with the vast majority of confirmed cases and all but two of the deaths but WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there had been “some concerning instances” of transmission from people who had not been to China.

“The detection of a small number of cases may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries; in short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he said on Twitter.

The virus has spread to at least 27 countries and territories, according to a Reuters count based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. The two deaths outside mainland China were in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Britain, which has had four cases of the virus, declared it a serious and imminent threat to public health, a step that gives the government additional powers to fight it.

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Sixty more cases have been found on a cruise ship off the Japanese port of Yokohama, media reported, taking the number to 130 out of some 3,700 people on board. The Diamond Princess was caught up in the epidemic when an 80-year-old man tested positive for the virus after disembarking in Hong Kong in January.

Across mainland China, there were 3,062 new confirmed infections on Sunday, bringing the total number to 40,171, according to the National Health Commission (NHC), with 908 dead. But Wu Fan, vice-dean of Shanghai Fudan University Medical school, said there was hope the spread might soon reach a turning point.

“The situation is stabilising,” she told a briefing when asked about the spread in Shanghai, which has had nearly 300 cases and one death.

Nervous commute

The epidemic has caused huge disruptions in China with usually teeming cities becoming virtual ghost towns during the past two weeks as Communist Party rulers ordered lockdowns, cancelled flights and closed factories and schools. Authorities told businesses to add up to 10 extra days onto Lunar New Year holidays that had been due to finish at the end of January.

Even on Monday, a large number of workplaces remained closed and many people worked from home. Few commuters were seen during the morning rush-hour on one of Beijing’s busiest subway lines. All were wearing masks.

Jin Yang, who works in a department of China’s state administration of foreign exchange, rode a bicycle to work instead of public transport. Staff were told to wear masks and avoid face-to-face meetings, and the canteen was closed.

Another employee surnamed Chen said the insurance company he worked for had barred people from taking public transport. “I usually take subways but this morning it cost me 200 yuan one way by cab,” he said.

Hubei, the province of 60-million people that is the hardest hit by the outbreak, remains in virtual lockdown, with its train stations and airports shut and its roads sealed off.

Companies try to resume work

The extended closure of factories in the world’s second-largest economy has raised concerns about disruptions cascading through global supply chains. China's central bank has taken a raft of steps to support the economy, including reducing interest rates and flushing the market with liquidity. From Monday, it will provide special funds for banks to relend to businesses combating the virus.

Taiwan’s Foxconn has received Chinese government approval to resume production at a key plant in the north China city of Zhengzhou, a source with direct knowledge of the situation told Reuters on Monday. But the southern city of Shenzhen rejected a company request to resume work at a plant there.

Tesla, Daimler and Ford Motor are among carmakers that have said that they will restart production at their factories on Monday. Gaming giant Tencent Holdings said it had asked staff to continue working from home until February 21.

Samsung Electronics resumed production at its home appliance factory in China on Monday, while it continues to run its chip factory there, a spokeswoman said. It extended the suspension of work at a television factory to February 17.

Hyundai said its suppliers in China resumed production but volume was negligible. Kia Motors is suspending production at all three Korean plants due to a shortage of parts, although one of them will resume production on Tuesday.

Reuters