China virus toll hits 170 as countries step up evacuation plans

The coronavirus outbreak started in Wuhan in December and has now reached every corner of China.

People across Asia have rushed to buy face masks as the coronavirus has spread [Kin Cheung/AP Photo]
People across Asia have rushed to buy face masks as the coronavirus has spread [Kin Cheung/AP Photo]

China reported its biggest single-day jump in novel coronavirus deaths on Thursday as confirmation that three Japanese people evacuated from Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicentre, were infected deepened fears about a global contagion, and more countries announced plans to bring their citizens home from the hard-hit city.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which initially downplayed the severity of the disease that has now killed 170 people across the country, warned all governments to be “on alert” and will meet on Thursday to discuss whether to declare a global health emergency.

China has taken extraordinary steps to try and curb the spread of the virus, effectively sealing off Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei – an area that is home to more than 50 million people.

But the measures have yet to pay dividends, with the government reporting 38 new deaths in the 24 hours to Thursday, the highest one-day total. All but one were in Hubei.

The number of confirmed new cases also grew steadily to 7,711, the National Health Commission said. A further 81,000 people were under observation for possible infection.

The infection is believed to have started in Wuhan, and spread as people began travelling for the Lunar New Year or spring festival, the country’s busiest and most important holiday season. With a case confirmed in Tibet, it has now spread to every corner of the country.

Japan reported additional infections after three citizens among more than 200 on an evacuation flight from Wuhan on Wednesday tested positive for the infection. Two had shown no sign of the illness, adding to anxieties after two previous cases had already been confirmed in patients who had not even travelled to China.

“We are in a truly new situation,” Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told parliament.

‘Take action’

WHO’s Emergency Committee will meet in Geneva to decide whether to declare an emergency, which could lead to travel or trade barriers.

“The whole world needs to take action,” Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, told reporters in Geneva.

Medical staff in protective suits treat a patient with pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus at a hospital in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak; countries are moving to evacuate their citizens from the sealed-off city [China Daily via Reuters]

The United States has also begun evacuations of its citizens with the first charter flight touching down at a California military base with nearly 200 consular staff and other Americans on Wednesday.

All passengers were declared symptom-free but will remain isolated for days while they are monitored.

Some 250 French citizens and 100 other Europeans are expected to be flown out of Wuhan on board two French planes this week.

Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore have also announced they plan to bring home their nationals from the city, with a growing number of governments advising their citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to China.

China’s state broadcaster reported that the country’s Civil Aviation Authority had given its approval to some charter flights to bring home Wuhan residents who had travelled overseas on holiday.

Major airlines that have suspended or reduced their services to China include British Airways, German flag carrier Lufthansa, American Airlines, KLM, and United Airlines.

China’s efforts to halt the virus have included an extension of the Lunar New Year holiday and the closure of all schools and universities.

China’s football body meanwhile said it was postponing “all levels and all types of football matches across the country”, including the top-tier Chinese Super League as a result of the outbreak.

Shops have been closed in Hubei and elsewhere and production frozen at some major manufacturers.

US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the new coronavirus posed a fresh risk to a fragile world economy.

“There will clearly be implications at least in the near term for Chinese output and I would guess for some of their close neighbours,” Powell said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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