Travellers wearing facemasks arrive from various provinces at the Beijing Railway Station on February 3 2020. Picture: AFP/NOEL CELIS
Travellers wearing facemasks arrive from various provinces at the Beijing Railway Station on February 3 2020. Picture: AFP/NOEL CELIS

Beijing/Shanghai — China accused the US on Monday of whipping up panic over a fast-spreading coronavirus with travel restrictions and evacuations, as Chinese stocks plunged on the first day back from the extended Lunar New Year holiday.

The death toll in China from the newly identified virus, which emerged in Wuhan, capital of the central province of Hubei, rose to 361 as of Sunday, up 57 from the previous day, the National Health Commission said.

Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the flu-like virus a global emergency and it has since spread to 23 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.

Wuhan and some other cities remain in virtual lockdown with travel severely restricted, and China is facing increasing international isolation.

China accused the US of spreading fear by pulling its nationals out and restricting travel instead of offering significant aid. Relations between the two sides had just begun to recover after a long and bruising trade war.

Washington has “unceasingly manufactured and spread panic”, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters, noting that the WHO had advised against trade and travel curbs.

“It is precisely developed countries like the US with strong epidemic prevention capabilities and facilities that have taken the lead in imposing excessive restrictions contrary to WHO recommendations,” she added, saying countries should make reasonable, calm and science-based judgments.

‘No reason’ for travel curbs

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking in Geneva, again said travel bans were unnecessary.

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he told the WHO's executive board.

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“We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.”

China's delegate said the international community needed to treat the new virus outbreak objectively, fairly and not “deliberately create panic” among the public.

China would continue to take a “responsible attitude” towards its people's health, rigorously implement control measures and work to halt the spread of the virus, he said.

Chinese stocks closed down almost 8%, the yuan currency had its worst day since August, and Shanghai-traded commodities from oil to copper hit their maximum downward 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 ($174bn) of liquidity into the markets via reverse repo operations — and despite apparent regulatory moves to curb selling.

Investors had been bracing for volatility when onshore trade in stocks, bonds, yuan and commodities resumed, following a steep global sell-down on fears about the effects of the virus on the world's second-biggest economy.

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

But while stock markets reopened, most provinces have extended the holiday to try to contain the virus, with workers in Hubei not scheduled to return until after February 13.

The number of new confirmed infections in China rose by 2,829, bringing the total to 17,205.

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

China opens fast-built hospital

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 January 25 and finished this weekend.

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

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

The US, 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 US in barring entry to all foreign nationals travelling from mainland China.

The virus is thought to have emerged late in 2019 in a Wuhan market illegally trading wildlife. It can cause pneumonia and spreads between people in droplets from coughs and sneezes.

It has created alarm because it is spreading quickly and there are still important unknowns surrounding it, such as its death rate and whether it is able to spread before any symptoms show.

The number of deaths in China has now passed the total Chinese toll from the 2002/2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that emerged from China and killed almost 800 people around the world.

Even so, Chinese data suggests the new coronavirus is less deadly than SARS, although such numbers can evolve rapidly.

Chinese authorities sacked two officials in Hubei over the death of a cerebral palsy patient whose father and sole caretaker was taken into quarantine.

Yan Cheng, 16, was found dead on Wednesday, a week after his father was taken away.


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