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Airlines cut flights to China as coronavirus infections spike

A British Airways plane. (BriYYZ/Flickr)
January 29, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

British Airways and other international airlines on Wednesday suspended all flights to mainland China after the number of coronavirus cases rose by more than 1,000 in a single day, surpassing the total number of reported cases in the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003.

“Following Foreign Office advice against all but essential travel to mainland China we have temporarily suspended our flights to and from Beijing and Shanghai with immediate effect, until Friday 31 January, while we assess the situation,” the flag-carrier said in a statement on its website.

The announcement came as the number of newly confirmed cases of the Wuhan coronavirus, officially termed nCoV-2019 (Wuhan) by the World Health Organization (WHO), jumped to 6,057 from 4,409 only a day earlier.

The virus has killed 132 people to date, with 125 of those deaths in the central Chinese province of Hubei, of which Wuhan is the provincial capital.

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The Chinese authorities have now shut down all public transportation to 17 cities, leaving more than 50 million people under quarantine.

Local governments and groups of residents have also taken it upon themselves to cut local road links between communities throughout Hubei and surrounding provinces, with many hotels refusing accommodation to anyone with a Hubei-based ID card.

Video posted to Twitter by one user showed several rows of people in the waiting room of a major hospital hooked up to drips.

The person shooting the video said he was doing it surreptitiously while pretending to make a phone call, and that most of the patients had presented with a fever or other symptoms that wouldn’t go away after several days, and were worried enough to seek help in a hospital.

Elderly at risk

A healthcare worker surnamed Zhang at Wuhan’s Xiehe Hospital said hospitals in the city are very short of supplies.

“Some people can’t be helped at all, and the doctors are in a panic because there’s just no medicine,” Zhang said. “There is no way to treat them: patients are just left on their own.”

“A lot of older people have underlying disease, such as high blood pressure or coronary heart disease. If they are infected, their immune system just gets destroyed and they die,” he said.

“Most [of the deaths] are elderly patients.”

Patients have been taking to China’s social media platforms to ask for help.

One WeChat user said he had had a fever for 15 days, and that an injection he received from a community clinic hadn’t helped.

A resident of Wuhan surnamed Hu said her father had been diagnosed with the coronavirus on Jan. 27, but was denied a bed in hospital. The rest of the family were beginning to show symptoms, but the hospital had ignored their calls, she said.

Hu said felt as if she and her family were just “waiting to die.”

Hubei residents shunned

There are signs that people who fled Hubei ahead of the lockdown are being excluded from social contact or even placed under house arrest by authorities wherever they end up.

A video clip seen by RFA showed the front door of a home in Hebei’s Langfang city nailed shut with iron bars and a notice in red warning that the occupants were from Hubei, and shouldn’t be contacted.

“You don’t have to isolate people like this,” a local resident surnamed Liu. “They are basically shutting them in to die.”

Authorities in Dandong city in the northeastern province of Liaoning meanwhile shut down all large shopping malls and markets in the city, citing a need for “epidemic prevention and control.”

Officials in Daozhen county in the southwestern province of Guizhou issued a noticing banning any vehicles from Hubei, Guangdong, Zhejiang and Chongqing from entering the county.

Local governments across China have issued notices and warnings calling on residents to be on the lookout for people from Hubei.

One notice read: “People who come from Hubei and don’t report [to authorities] are walking time bombs.”

“People who have a fever and don’t report it are class enemies of the people,” read another notice seen by RFA.

Senior officials die

In Hubei, high-ranking government official Yang Xiaobo, who headed the Hubei State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), died of pneumonia two days after taking part in the provincial People’s Congress meeting that ended on Jan. 15, sources told RFA.

News of his death emerged just three days after the death of another high-ranking provincial official, Wang Xianliang, of pneumonia at Wuhan Central Hospital on Jan. 26.

An official of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which advises the Hubei People’s Congress, said many officials have been told to work from home since the epidemic struck the city.

“We are on standby at home right now, not at the office,” the official said. “The situation is even more serious now … the possibility remains [that other officials were infected during the congress].”

A medical doctor who gave only her surname He said senior officials, if infected, will likely get priority when it comes to potentially life-saving medications.

“This will make effective antiviral drugs and immune-promoting globulins less accessible to ordinary people,” she said. “Senior officials will use imported globulins and thymosin to improve their immunity.”

“There are very few globulins available in China; they’re not available in hospitals and can only be bought direct from pharmaceutical suppliers,” He said.

“Ordinary people can’t get hold of them. Even I would have to go from pillar to post to get it, and it might not be available even then,” she said.

An official who answered the phone at a hospital providing healthcare to more than 180 provincial government officials denied that high-ranking officials have access to globulin injections.

He said the hospital wasn’t currently taking any fever or pneumonia patients because they hadn’t been designated as a hospital dealing with the epidemic.

Authorities in Hong Kong said there were 56 patients aged 13 months to 88 years old who met the reporting criteria of severe respiratory disease associated with a novel infectious agent as of Wednesday.

“Specimens of the patients concerned have been sent … for testing … Five patients are in a … serious condition,” the Hospital Authority said in a statement.

Foreign residents evacuated

BA isn’t the only airline to suspend or limit flights to mainland China. Lufthansa, Air India, South Korea’s Seoul Air, and Indonesia’s Lion Air said they would do the same, while Finnair, Cathay Pacific, and Singapore’s Jetstar Asia are cutting the number of flights to and from China.

Countries also began evacuating foreign nationals from Wuhan on Wednesday. Chartered flights carrying about 200 evacuees each arrived in Japan and the United States.

Four passengers on the evacuation flight to Japan had coughs and fevers, and two were diagnosed with pneumonia, the Associated Press reported.

But China has refused requests from the democratic island of Taiwan to evacuate its nationals.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) have requested permission to bring home Taiwan passport holders on charter flights, but China’s Taiwan Affairs Office has refused the request.

Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said in a statement that Taiwanese in Hubei are being well taken care of, and that there had been no reported infections among them.