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Coronavirus epidemic spreads across China as first overseas death reported

Mask Protection (3dman/Pixabay)
February 03, 2020

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

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases climbed to nearly 15,000 on Sunday, while the number of deaths rose to 305 worldwide, among them a 44-year-old Chinese man in the Philippines, a recent arrival from Wuhan and the first death outside China’s borders.

The majority of the 14,637 people infected with the novel coronavirus — called nCoV-2019 (Wuhan) by the World Health Organization (WHO) — remain concentrated in the central Chinese province of Hubei, of which Wuhan is the capital.

Hubei — where local residents have told RFA that those who get tested, diagnosed and treated in hospital are only a small proportion of suspected coronavirus cases — had reported a total of 9,074 cases and 294 out of 305 deaths worldwide by Sunday.

But the epidemic, which has been designated a global public health emergency by the WHO — continues to radiate outwards from Wuhan, with more than 600 cases confirmed in Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces, and more than 400 each in Hunan and Henan provinces.

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In Hong Kong, thousands of public healthcare workers said they would go on strike starting Monday after the city’s government refused to respond to their demands to close the border with mainland China to prevent a further influx of coronavirus cases.

“We declare that talks have broken down, and industrial action has officially begun,” Winnie Yu, chairman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, told journalists on Sunday.

“If there is no full border closure, there won’t be enough manpower, protective equipment, or isolation rooms, to combat the outbreak,” Yu said.

Strike vote

The announcement came after more than 3,000 of the union’s members voted for strike action on Saturday.

“We hospital staff are being forced into taking this desperate move of taking industrial action by those in power,” Yu said, offering to resume talks with the Hospital Authority at any time.

One of the eight confirmed coronavirus cases in Hong Kong could have been locally transmitted, raising fears that the epidemic may have made the jump from being an illness carried only by those traveling from China to one that is transmitted among the local population.

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung told government broadcaster RTHK: “Hong Kong [could] become another Wuhan.”

He called for increased border restrictions to reduce the flow of people, regardless of their nationality, coming to and from the mainland.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte approved a ban on the entry of all non-citizens from China on Sunday. The U.S., Japan, Singapore and Australia have imposed similar restrictions.

Much of China remains under lockdown, with the Lunar New Year holiday break extended and the start of the new semester postponed until further notice.

In the eastern province of Zhejiang, Wenzhou city was the latest to shut down, with businesses, government departments and schools remaining shuttered.

Schools and government departments are also staying closed in Shanghai, Beijing, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Guizhou, Hebei and Hunan.

Authorities in Wuhan on Sunday released local resident and citizen journalist Fang Bin after detaining him for posting video of several Wuhan hospitals to social media sites on Saturday.

Restrictions on travelers from China

One video he posted showed eight dead bodies leaving one hospital in the space of a few minutes.

He was released with a warning after an outcry on social media against the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s suppression of free speech.

While tens of millions of its own people are confined to their homes with roads blocked and public transportation shut down, China has criticized the United States and other countries for imposing restrictions on travelers from within its borders.

New Zealand on Sunday announced a temporary ban on travelers from China, with the exception of New Zealand residents.

South Korea, India, Indonesia, France, and Saudi Arabia each flew hundreds of their citizens out of Wuhan over the weekend.

The Group of Seven health ministers are preparing a teleconference to discuss how to handle the coronavirus.

But President Donald Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien said there was no need to raise the alarm in the U.S. — for now.

“Right now, there’s no reason for Americans to panic,” he added. “This is something that is a low risk we think in the U.S.”