Coronavirus Update

The molecular structure of a coronavirus. Photo: AFP via Getty

China is being wheeled into the quarantine ward after the World Health Organization declared a global emergency following the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Crucial trading partners are evacuating their employees, major airlines are suspending flights and Beijing has finally started to bring back tourists from “virus” hit Hubei province because of “practical difficulties.”

The spectacular Wuhan Parrot Bridge winds across the Yangtze river in a glittering night-time shot. Photo: Creative Commons Zero

They will be airlifted “as soon as possible” Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed on Friday. “There have been practical difficulties that Hubei citizens, especially those from Wuhan, have faced overseas,” she said, referring to “anti-Chinese” sentiment.

As the death toll climbs to more than 200 with nearly 10,000 people infected by the “2019-nCoV” disease, the mood towards the world’s second-largest economy has changed across the region.

Students from the Dominican Republic are interviewed by AFP about the possibility of being evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of a viral outbreak, on January 26, 2020. Photo: Hector Retamel / AFP

In Singapore, more than 100,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the government to ban Chinese nationals from entering the country.

“All new visitors with recent travel history to China within the last 14 days will not be allowed to enter into Singapore or to transit through Singapore,” National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the administration’s special task force, said at a media briefing on Friday.

A police officer takes the temperature of a driver at a checkpoint on a street on the outskirts of Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on January 27, 2020, amid a deadly virus outbreak which began in the city. Photo: AFP/Hector Retamal

Elsewhere, hashtag “#ChineseDon’tComeToJapan” has been trending on Twitter, while in Hong Kong, South Korea and Vietnam, businesses have posted signs warning that mainland Chinese customers are “not welcome.”

The “relentless” spread of the disease, which started in a fish market in Wuhan, has finally forced the WHO to issue an international emergency alert. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, which is based in Geneva, said. “We must all act together now to limit further spread … We can only stop it together,” he added.

Before his announcement, the “global” community was already taking steps to contain the “outbreak” while China was ratcheting up the pressure at home. So far, isolating the “epidemic” has become the top priority:

  • Major airlines, including American Airlines, United Airlines, British Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, Air India and Turkish Airlines, have canceled or suspended flights to China.
  • Israel barred all flights from China, while Russia said it was closing its far eastern border with China over the outbreak. Reports say Russia would close 16 of its 25 border crossings with China.
  • Globe auto companies, such as Renault, Honda, Toyota, Tesla, and Volkswagen, have either evacuated foreign staff or announced that joint-venture plants in China will stay shut until February at the earliest when the extended Lunar New Year holiday finally ends.
  • Food and beverage giants Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut have closed selected outlets in the country. Retail brands such as GAP, H&M and Old Navy have followed suit.
  • High-tech group Foxconn, which manufactures iPhones, has frozen production in China while Apple has shut down stores. Amazon, Google and Microsoft have announced travel restrictions to and from the country.
  • Shanghai Disney Resort and the Inter Continental Hotels Group have temporarily suspended their operations in the country.
  • Major sports events, such as the World Indoor Athletics Championships in Nanjing, have been postponed while the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai in April is under threat.
  • The highly-popular and highly-lucrative Chinese Super League, one of the leading Asian football or soccer competitions, has been postponed indefinitely. The season was due to kick-off on February 22.
  • China is also starting to shut down most of its 70,000 movie theaters and that will hit the country’s US$9.2 billion box-office market, the second-largest in the world. New film releases have been put on ice.

The United States government chartered a Kalitta Air 747 to evacuate Americans in Wuhan, China. Credit: Freightwave.com.

Moreover, the economic “impact” will be substantial. “We can only speculate what [the] ultimate impact – both human and economic – the virus will have, depending on how far it ends up spreading. The most important channel will likely be the hit to Chinese consumer spending,” Roland Rajah, the director of the international economy program at the Lowy Institute, said.

Globally, the epidemic will stunt growth. At least 16 countries, including the United States, have reported cases of the “2019-nCoV” disease. The US State Department announced the highest travel warning. “All non-essential US government personnel should defer travel to China in light of the novel coronavirus,” it said.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visits a hospital in Wuhan to examine the response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak, January 26, 2020. Photo: AFP

Since the outbreak escalated last week in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province has been under “siege” and in a state of “lock-down.” The sprawling metropolis is home to more than 10 million people, nearly two million more than New York or London.

Beijing announced plans to “seal off” 15 cities. Up to 56 million people, which is nearly the population of South Africa, have been put into “quarantine” after a travel ban was imposed.

People wearing protective face masks inside a half-empty subway train in Beijing. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

With the battle intensifying, the state-run tabloid, Global Times, admitted in an editorial:

“The fight against the novel coronavirus-related pneumonia has reached a critical stage. At present, the most important thing is to stop the further spread of the virus and reach a point where the numbers of both new cases and deaths decrease. When a public health crisis occurs, there is bound to be some social panic. But this doesn’t mean the public has lost confidence. The majority of the Chinese people believe China can withstand this crisis and that the government can undertake various measures to ensure public safety.”

In this handout photo released by the Central Hospital of Wuhan, a member of the medical staff works at the Central Hospital in Wuhan, China.

Yet in the short term, the world’s most populous nation of nearly 1.4 billion people is facing “international isolation”, wrapped up in an “intensive care” unit.

The World Health Organization declared a “global emergency” over the new coronavirus, as the death toll had climbed to 213 with nearly 10,000 infections. The UN health agency based in Geneva had initially “downplayed” the threat posed by the disease but revised its “risk assessment” after crisis talks.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference. Photo: AFP

“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing in Geneva. “We must all act together now to limit further spread… We can only stop it together.”

Johns Hopkins University has developed this online dashboard (static snapshot shown above) to visualize and track the reported cases of the coronavirus on a daily timescale. The case data visualized is collected from various sources, including WHO, US CDC, ECDC China CDC (CCDC), NHC and DXY. DXY is a Chinese website that aggregates NHC and local CCDC situation reports in near real-time.

Tedros nevertheless said “travel and trade” restrictions with China were unnecessary to stem the “spread of the virus” which has spread to more than 15 other countries.

Many countries have already urged their citizens “not to visit” China, while some have “banned” entry for travelers from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus first surfaced. The US reported its first case of a person catching the virus from another person on American soil, a man in Chicago who contracted the illness from his wife, who had traveled to Wuhan.

A man puts on a protective mask in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province. Photo: AFP/Hector Retamal

In South Korea, four more cases were reported bringing the country’s total to 11. A national debate was underway on whether the country should close its borders to “incoming” Chinese, with the opposition calling for that measure and some lawmakers even suggesting that Chinese in-country be “deported.”

A charter flight bringing 368 Koreans home from Wuhan arrived and the passengers were taken to two “quarantine” centers south of Seoul, where they will be held for two weeks.

A security guard, right, checks the temperature of a food delivery worker in Beijing. Photo: AFP / Nicolas Asfouri

The arrivals were greeted by “protesters” who demanded the quarantine centers be “removed” from their neighborhoods. About 18 of the passengers showing “symptoms of the flu” were taken to hospitals and placed under monitoring.

  • North Korea, which has not reported any cases, will halt all trains from China and will suspend all flight connections from Saturday, according to reports citing diplomatic sources in Pyongyang. The country has already stopped all tourists entering the country from China.
  • Japan on Friday raised its travel advisory warning for trips to China, warned citizens not to take non-essential trips there. The Foreign Ministry also asked Japanese citizens in China to consider returning home.
  • More than 6,000 tourists were temporarily put under lock down aboard a cruise ship at an Italian port after two Chinese passengers were isolated over fears they could be carrying the virus. They later tested negative for the illness.

More than 6,000 tourists were under lock down aboard the Costa Smeralda cruise ship, docked near Rome, after two Chinese passengers were isolated over fears they could be carrying the coronavirus. Photo: Filippo Monteforte / AFP

Separately, the International Olympic Committee said it was in contact with the WHO over the virus. The Organizing Committee of the “2020 Summer Olympics” scheduled for Tokyo in August, said they are not considering a cancellation.

Beijing has taken extreme steps to stop the spread of the virus, including effectively quarantining more than 50 million people in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province. The government reported 38 new deaths in the preceding 24 hours, the highest one-day total since the virus was detected late last year. A day later, the government reported 43 new deaths, bringing the total to 213.

The “National Health Commission” said there were 1,982 new confirmed cases, bringing the total to just under 10,000. Another 102,000 people were under medical observation with possible symptoms of the respiratory ailment.

The pathogen is believed to have emerged in a market that sold wild game, and spread during the “Lunar New Year” holiday season in which hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home or abroad.

Commuters with protective face-masks cope with the rising demand following an outbreak of SARS-like virus in China. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)

  • Thousands of foreigners have been trapped in Wuhan since it was sealed off last week.
  • Japan and the United States on Wednesday became the first countries to organize airlifts from Wuhan for their citizens.
  • A second US flight is planned in the coming days.
  • Britain was planning an evacuation of around 200 of its citizens early Friday, after receiving the necessary clearance from Beijing.
  • A French plane also left Wuhan on Friday, according to an AFP journalist onboard the flight.
  • Australia and New Zealand were among others organizing similar operations.

Tokyo reported that three people who were aboard the first evacuation flight had tested “positive” for the virus after landing back in Japan. Two of the three “infected” passengers showed no “symptoms”, underscoring the difficulty detecting the coronavirus. Compounding fears, Japan was allowing the arrivals of more than on a second flight to “self-quarantine.”

In contrast, other countries organizing evacuations said they were all planning to quarantine.

The virus is similar to the “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome” (SARS) pathogen. That outbreak also began in China and eventually killed nearly 800 people worldwide in 2002-03.

Chinese efforts to halt the virus have included the suspension of classes nationwide and an extension of the Lunar New Year holiday. All football matches across the country also will be postponed, the Chinese Football Association, including games in the top-tier Chinese Super League.

Workers producing face masks at a factory in Handan in China’s northern Hebei province. Photo: AFP/Stringer

World stock markets tumbled again Thursday on fears that trouble in the “world’s factory” would upset global supply chains and dent profits.

Toyota, IKEA, Starbucks, Tesla, McDonald’s and tech giant Foxconn were among the corporate giants temporarily freezing production or closing large numbers of outlets in China.

Volkswagen announced its China joint-venture plants would not start production again before February 9. US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the coronavirus posed a fresh risk to the world economy.

Medical staff wheel out a patient suspected of having the coronavirus from an apartment in Wuhan. Photo: AFP / Hector Retamal

Throughout China, signs of “paranoia” multiplied, with residents of some Beijing residential compounds erecting makeshift “barriers” to their premises. In one of many similar photos posted online, a man wearing a surgical mask and brandishing a traditional martial arts weapon “squatted on a barricade” outside a Chinese village, near a sign saying: “Outsiders forbidden from entering.”

Mask culture has become part of everyday life in China as the coronavirus spreads across the whole country. Photo: AFP / Nicolas Asfouri

The crisis has caused food prices to spike, and the central government blamed this partly on overzealous preventive measures, issuing a directive banning any roadblocks or other hindrances to food shipments.

Medical staff wearing protective clothing accompanying a patient (2nd L) as they walk into a hospital in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province. Photo: AFP/Stringer

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