Death Toll From Wuhan Virus Mounts Amid Warnings of Further Spread

The death toll from the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak in China climbed to 56 on Sunday, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party continued to shut down public transportation routes to several major cities in a bid to contain the epidemic.

Nearly 2,000 cases have now been confirmed in mainland Chinese cities, with five in Hong Kong, seven in Thailand ,and three each in Malaysia and Singapore, according to a map set up by researchers tracking the virus at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

While Hubei’s provincial capital Wuhan remains at the center of the epidemic, with 1,052 cases confirmed, numbers are growing rapidly in other parts of China too.

By Sunday, the eastern province of Zhejiang had 104 confirmed cases, the southern province of Guangdong, which neighbors Hong Kong, had 98, while Henan, Chongqing, and Hunan reported 83, 75, and 69 cases respectively.

Shanghai has 40 confirmed cases and 72 suspected, while Beijing has confirmed 51.

Taiwan has four confirmed cases, the self-governing island’s Centers for Disease Control said on Sunday.

Australia has meanwhile reported four cases, with France, Japan, and the U.S. each reporting three, Vietnam and South Korea two each, and one each in Canada and Nepal.

Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service on Saturday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that three cases of infection have now been confirmed in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), with no deaths reported yet.

“We expect there will be more confirmed cases in China and other countries in the coming days and weeks,”  a spokesperson for WHO’s China media team said, adding,”This is to be expected in an outbreak of a respiratory disease.”

Long-distance rail and bus routes to Beijing, Tianjin, and Xi’an have meanwhile been shut down, following last week’s lockdown of Wuhan and neighboring cities in Hebei.

Spread getting stronger

China’s National Health Commission warned on Sunday that the Wuhan novel coronavirus (nCoV), which has many similarities to the SARS coronavirus that left hundreds dead in 2002-2003, is mutating and improving its ability to be transmitted between people.

But health minister Ma Xiaowei said China would intensify its efforts to contain the spread of the virus, which, unlike SARS, has an incubation period of one to 14 days, during which infection can occur.

“According to recent clinical information, the virus’ ability to spread seems to be getting somewhat stronger,” Ma told reporters on Sunday, saying that epidemic control is now at a “crucial stage.”

The U.S. said it was chartering a plane to fly out its consular staff and some civilians from the city, followed by similar announcements from France and Japan.

Beijing has also announced a temporary ban on the trade of wild animals, saying they will “severely investigate and punish” violators. Like SARS, which has been traced to bats and civet cats, nCoV is believed to have originated in a market in Wuhan where live, wild animals were on sale.

Food shortages, rising prices

A resident of Wuhan surnamed Liu said residents are now shut into the city amid food shortages and rising prices, with any thought of a traditional Lunar New Year family feast a distant fantasy for many of his friends.

“At the beginning of all this, they told us that it wasn’t transmissible between humans, and that it was totally controllable,” Liu told RFA. “They told us not to worry, and they even detained a few people for ‘spreading rumors’.”

“Now look at Wuhan: totally shut down; nobody allowed in or out. It’s pretty frightening,” he said.

He said that Wuhan didn’t start to act decisively until after a Monday directive from President Xi Jinping calling on governments at every level to do everything in their power to control the epidemic.

“The Wuhan municipal authorities didn’t really try that hard: they are basically shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted,” he said.

Fire bomb attack

Meanwhile, protesters in Hong Kong set fire to the lobby of a newly constructed housing project after the city’s government said it planned to use the buildings to quarantine people suspected of carrying the virus.

Several masked protesters, clad in black, rushed into the public housing block in the Fanling district near to the border with China, and set alight a Molotov cocktail before running out, Reuters reported.

Black smoke poured out of the building to the sound of fire alarms, as hundreds of riot police arived, arresting at least one person, the report said.

The petrol bombing incident came after protesters took to the streets warning against having a quarantine facility so close to other densely populated urban areas in Fanling district.

“We are dissatisfied with the government selecting this housing estate as a (quarantine) separation village as it’s very close to a residential area and a primary school,” Reuters quoted a 28-year-old resident surnamed Tsang as saying.

The Hong Kong government has announced a ban on travelers from Hubei province, but has stopped short of shutting down high-speed rail and other connections coming into the city from mainland China.

Lawmakers from the city’s Democratic Party petitioned chief executive Carrie Lam at her residence on Sunday, calling on her to shut Hong Kong’s borders to protect its seven million residents, who bore much of the brunt of the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003.

Lawmaker Helena Wong said there are fears that the city’s hospitals won’t be able to cope if they continue to allow daily arrivals of passengers from China.

Reported by RFA’s Cantonese, Mandarin, and Uyghur Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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