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Coronavirus cases in China exceed Sars as public anger rises

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Via Financial Times

The number of people in China infected with the coronavirus has reached 9,692, surpassing the worldwide total of the deadly Sars virus as public anger mounted within the country over the official response to the crisis.

The death toll from the coronavirus epidemic that originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan has risen to 213 with another 1,527 in serious condition, the country’s National Health Commission said on Friday. 

The US State Department issued a “do not travel” warning for China on Friday and advised citizens in the country to consider leaving. On Thursday, the World Health Organization declared the disease an international emergency. 

China has another 15,238 suspected cases, while 102,427 people who have had close contact with infected people are being monitored. 

The rapid spread of the virus has piqued discontent over the Communist party’s management of the outbreak, especially claims that local authorities concealed information on the disease in the early weeks of the epidemic. 

As is often the case in China, the anger has largely been directed at local officials, particularly the mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, who admitted officials did not “make a timely disclosure” of the outbreak. Officials allowed a 40,000 person banquet to go ahead on January 18 in one district of Wuhan. Mr Zhou also said 5m people had left the city before authorities quarantined the metropolis of 11m and surrounding cities. 

Now airlines from several countries are halting flights to China, allies and neighbours such as Russian and North Korea have shut their borders, and several countries have stopped issuing visas to Chinese citizens.

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Some 8,100 people were infected in the Sars outbreak in 2003 and 774 died after health authorities initially covered up the outbreak. Sars knocked quarterly economic growth in China down by 2 percentage points, from 11.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2003 to 9.1 per cent in the second quarter.

China’s January manufacturing PMI dropped to 50, snapping a run of growth after only two months. The survey covered the period before Jan 20, so “the impact of the novel coronavirus epidemic is not yet fully reflected” in the data, the national statistics bureau noted.

Many analysts regarded the WHO decision on Thursday evening to declare a public health emergency of international concern as overdue, as the number of confirmed cases has risen quickly in China and around the world. 

In practical terms, the declaration makes it easier for the WHO to co-ordinate the responses of governments. However, despite concerns about the speed of China’s response, the WHO applauded China’s handling of the outbreak. 

“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it.” 

Within China, where the Wuhan coronavirus has brought normal life to a standstill and supplies of face masks and other medical supplies are running low, public anger is growing at the authorities for failing to keep the population safe. 

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State broadcaster CCTV, which usually refrains from criticism of officials, ran a segment revealing the head of the health commission of Huanggang, a city of 7.5m with the second-largest number of coronavirus cases, failed to answer basic questions about the city’s response. 

The broadcaster posted the four-minute clip on Thursday showing health commission head Tang Zhihong and the head of the local centre for disease control and prevention Chen Mingxing unable to readily answer how many coronavirus patients, hospital beds and tested patients they had in the city. It has been viewed 36m times in the half day since it was posted on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.

“Our taxpayers’ money goes to support this group of good-for-nothings,” said a top comment on the video, garnering 100,000 likes. The city relieved Ms Tang of her duties hours after the video was posted.

In a village under the city of Huanggang’s administration, a 17-year-old with cerebral palsy died on Wednesday after being left at home alone for six days, state media reported. His father and caretaker Yan Xiaowen had developed a fever and was quarantined in a treatment facility. 

Mr Yan put out a call for help Tuesday on Weibo. My older son “cannot move his body, he cannot speak or look after himself, he has already been at home for six days with no one to care for him . . . I fear my child will not last much longer,” the post said, which included pictures of Mr Yan’s identity card and of his son. 

Wu Chengtao, a local official, said the village committee of Yanjia village, where the family lived, had helped care for the child but the cadres were busy with virus protection work, according to The Beijing News. Mr Yan’s Weibo post was deleted by Friday and WeChat said an in-depth report on the case by Damihexiaomi, a publisher focused on disabled people, violated its terms of service and could not be shared with others.

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Hudson Lockett and Alice Woodhouse contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

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