Coronavirus: China declares ‘people’s war’ on outbreak

WHO says its too early to tell if the epidemic has reached its peak as businesses continue to suffer

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Beijing declared a “people’s war” on the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak as one of the first Chinese doctors to warn of the new virus died on Friday from the illness.

Li Wenliang, 34, was an ophthalmologist at a hospital in Wuhan, the city hardest hit by the virus. He and seven others were reprimanded by Wuhan police last month for spreading information about the coronavirus online.

Li had told a group of doctors on Chinese social media about seven cases he saw and posted a picture of a test result.

Li Wenliang / Weibo 
Li Wenliang / Weibo 

As the death toll in mainland China on Friday jumped to 636, with more than 31,000 infections, President Xi Jinping sought to reassure his citizens and the world that China would beat the coronavirus.

"The whole country has responded with all its strength to respond with the most thorough and strict prevention and control measures, starting a people's war for epidemic prevention and control," he told Saudi King Salman by phone, Xinhua news agency reported.

About 3,700 people moored off Japan on the Diamond Princess cruise liner faced testing and quarantine for at least two weeks on the ship, which has 20 cases.

YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 06: The Diamond Princess cruise ship approaches Daikoku Pier, where it will be resupplied and newly diagnosed coronavirus cases taken to hospital while it remains in quarantine off the port of Yokohama after a number of the 3,700 people on board were confirmed to have coronavirus, on February 6, 2020 in Yokohama, Japan. 20 passengers are confirmed to be infected with coronavirus as Japanese authorities continue screening people on board. The new cases bring the total number of confirmed infections to 45 in Japan, the largest number outside of China. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
The Diamond Princess cruise ship will remain in quarantine off the port of Yokohama after a number of the 3,700 people on board were confirmed to have coronavirus. Getty Images

In Hong Kong, another cruise ship with 3,600 passengers and crew was quarantined for a second day pending testing with three cases on board. Taiwan, which has 13 cases, banned international cruise ships from docking.

In China, sometimes dubbed the world's workshop, cities have been shut off, flights cancelled and factories closed, cutting off supply lines crucial to international businesses.

Too early to tell if outbreak at its peak

The World Health Organisation said it was too early to say whether the outbreak was peaking, but noted the country had recorded its first day of a drop in the number of new infections.

"We are still in the middle of an intense outbreak," said WHO emergencies expert Mike Ryan, calling it "a great worry".

WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove said the virus causes a full spectrum of disease, from what looks like the common cold to pneumonia, including multiple organ failure and death.

One Chinese official said the crisis could be nearing its peak, with just over 1,300 patients discharged from hospital, although the number of new patients diagnosed with coronavirus was still rising.

"The darkest time is before the dawn," the official said. "I have full confidence that we're going to get ahead of it.

"The biggest challenge is still to control the spread of the disease, and let all the suspected patients be cured in the hospital."

Devy, 38, from Shandong province, said he was among hundreds who had asked people with HIV for antiviral medicine.

"When you are left alone, seeing the blur shadow of death far away, I think no one can feel calm," Devy told Reuters.

People were also desperate for face masks. The city of Dali, in south-western Yunnan province, which has only eight confirmed cases of the virus, was accused of intercepting a shipment of masks bound for a municipality with 400 cases.

In the overwhelmed province of Hubei, of which Wuhan is the capital, authorities said they needed at least another 2,250 medical staff.

Around a nation unaccustomed to widespread working from home, the epidemic has forced millions of white-collar workers to get used to just that.

Corporate fallout

Companies including Hyundai, Tesla, Ford, Peugeot, Nissan, Airbus, Adidas and Foxconn are taking hits.

Financial analysts have cut China's growth outlook, with ratings agency Moody's flagging risks for auto sales and output.

Nintendo warned of delays to production and shipping of its Switch console and other goods to the Japan market.

Honda Motor was considering keeping operations suspended for longer than planned at its three plants in Wuhan, Japan's Nikkei newspaper reported.

Indonesia said it stood to lose $4 billion (Dh14.7bn) in tourism if travel from China were disrupted for the whole year.

More than two dozen large trade fairs and industry conferences in Asia, where billions of dollars worth of deals are usually done, have been delayed.

Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, hit by months of anti-mainland unrest, said the coronavirus was hurting its economy and urged banks to adopt a "sympathetic stance" with borrowers.

But US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he still expected China to maintain its commitment to boost purchases of US goods and services by at least $200bn over the next two years, as part of a Phase 1 trade deal.

And stock markets across the world rose, buoyed by record highs on Wall Street and a move by China to halve tariffs on some US goods that strengthened hopes that the global economy would avoid long-term damage from the virus.

China, which has bristled at being ostracised, was considering delaying an annual meeting of its highest legislative body, the National People's Congress, from March 5, sources said.