Deaths rise to at least 80 as China records thousands of new cases.
An outbreak of a new coronavirus that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan has already killed 80 people in China. Infections have been confirmed in many other countries. But of the nearly 3,000 people who have so far contracted the virus, the vast majority live in China.
◆ The death toll in China had risen to at least 80 by Monday. The majority of those deaths, 76 people, were in the central province of Hubei, the center of the outbreak. Shanghai, a city of 24 million, recorded its first death on Saturday.
◆ Across China there have been 2,744 confirmed cases, of which 1,423 cases were in Hubei. The youngest confirmed case is a 9-month-old girl in Beijing.
◆ The mayor of Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei, said there were about 3,000 patients in the city being treated for the virus. Half of those patients, he said, would eventually test positive for the disease.
◆ Thailand and Hong Kong have each reported eight cases of infection; the United States, Taiwan, Australia and Macau have five each; Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia each have reported four; France has three; Vietnam has two, and Nepal has one.
◆ There have been no deaths from the virus reported outside China.
China extends long Lunar New Year holiday to limit travel.
In an effort to temporarily limit travel, the Chinese government extended the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday by three days, meaning it will go through next Sunday rather than ending on Thursday.
The holiday, China’s biggest annual celebration, began on Saturday. Workers will now get an additional three days off, returning to work on Feb. 3.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel during the holiday, either for tourism or to visit family. The week, known in China as Spring Festival, typically includes large public events, but many festivities have been canceled this year.
Many tourist attractions have been shuttered including the Disney theme parks in Shanghai and Hong Kong, along with the Forbidden City and sections of the Great Wall in Beijing.
Wuhan mayor claims responsibility and offers to resign.
Wuhan’s top government and Communist Party officials offered to step down on Monday amid growing criticism in the city that the local authorities’ response to the outbreak was too slow.
Mayor Zhou Xianwang said in an interview with the state broadcaster CCTV that he and Ma Guoqiang, the city’s party secretary, would resign to “appease public indignation.”
Mr. Zhou said he and Mr. Ma took responsibility for the crisis.
“Our names will live in infamy, but as long as it is conducive to the control of the disease and to the people’s lives and safety, Comrade Ma Guoqiang and I will bear any responsibility,” Mr. Zhou said in the interview.
Medical workers in the city have accused the local government of reacting too slowly to the crisis, and residents have used social media to complain about an impromptu ban on travel that has made getting access to food and health care difficult.
The mayor defended the travel ban enacted last week, which effectively cut off the city of 11 million people. He called the restriction “unprecedented in human history.”
China’s No. 2 official visits Wuhan as anger at the government grows.
China’s second-highest ranking official, Premier Li Keqiang, on Monday visited Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, to inspect local efforts to contain the disease, the government said.
In pictures released by the state-run news media, Mr. Li is seen wearing a face mask and a blue protective gown while posing for photos with health workers. He was also seen speaking with a patient in an isolation ward via video conference.
The premier’s visit comes as the central government is under increasing pressure to prove it is adequately coping with the crisis. Videos circulating on Chinese social media, show doctors straining to handle the enormous workload and hospital corridors loaded with patients, some of whom appear to already be dead.
Rare signs of public anger have also percolated on social media, as Wuhan residents complained that an impromptu ban on cars in the city left many unable to get access to food and hospitals.
On Saturday, Xi Jinping, China’s leader, convened a meeting of the Politburo’s standing committee, the senior-most executive body of the Chinese Communist Party, as a demonstration of the government’s hands-on approach to the outbreak.
Hospitals in Wuhan have posted messages online urgently appealing for medical equipment. Mr. Li, who has been assigned to oversee the national response to the outbreak, pledged to provide Wuhan’s health centers with 20,000 pairs of safety goggles.
Businesses scramble to make sense of conflicting rules.
As Chinese cities continued to react to the spread of the virus with their own rules, some cities decided to go further than the national government in extending the Lunar New Year holiday, confusing businesses that employ thousands of workers in the world’s second-largest economy.
In Shanghai, China’s financial center, the authorities ordered businesses to stay closed until midnight on Feb. 9. In nearby Suzhou, a large manufacturing hub, businesses there were ordered to open as soon as Feb. 8.
As conflicting rules in some provinces and municipalities complicated life for foreign and domestic businesses, officials also sought to help firms and households affected by the outbreak.
The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission said in a notice dated Sunday that banks “must not blindly call in loans, cut off lending or hold off on lending.” Instead, the regulator urged lenders to lower interest rates and work with borrowers in cases of companies or industries hit by the outbreak.
On Monday, State Grid, the government controlled electricity provider, said it would halt the shut-off of electricity to residents whose bills fall into arrears while authorities dealt with the outbreak.
The authorities have long tried to clamp down on runaway lending in a country that has typically turned to borrowing to spur growth, leaving the country with huge and at times hidden debt piles. But the outbreak poses an immediate economic threat to a country that is already grappling with slowing growth. China has made moves that will hurt consumer spending, such as restricting travel. Theme parks have closed and movie studios have pulled potential blockbusters from theaters.
Investors on Monday were shaken over concerns about the coronavirus’s impact on global growth. Shares in Europe and Japan sank. (Many other Asian markets were closed for the holiday.) The price of oil dropped, on fears that demand could slip. China’s currency also fell, while investors moved into safe havens like gold.
A dark humor emerges on social media.
As health officials race to contain the dangerous virus, social media users in China are responding to the outbreak with dashes of gallows humor.
On the messaging platform WeChat, people circulated images of improvised face masks made of plastic water jugs. One video on WeChat and the social platform Weibo showed a group of people playing mah-jongg, the popular tile-based game, while wearing what appeared to be plastic bags over their heads. Another photo featured people sitting around a mah-jongg table in motorcycle helmets.
One video on WeChat appeared to show a person emerging from an airport baggage claim clad in a full-body space alien costume, complete with green skin and bulging eyes.
Masks are a common motif in virus-related memes. They have been added to traditional greetings exchanged for the Lunar New Year. They have been photoshopped into classic paintings such as Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” They appear in propaganda posters done in the style of the Mao era and updated to reflect the times.
A video on Twitter appeared to show a taxi driver wearing goggles and a hazmat suit while taking a woman to the airport.
The woman asks the driver whether his outfit might scare off potential fares. He replies serenely: “Safety first, right?”
Why is there so much concern?
Though the number of coronavirus cases and deaths is alarming, public health experts have so far warned against mass anxiety. After all, the common flu kills roughly 35,000 people a year and hospitalizes about 200,000 in the United States alone.
It is too soon to know the mortality rate of the virus in the new outbreak. But there are signs that this outbreak could be far more serious than the common flu. For one, the virus has been identified as a coronavirus, named for the microscopic spikes that protrude from its membrane. Other coronaviruses have far higher mortality rates than the common flu, and have also led to global outbreaks.
Chinese citizens are also haunted by the memory of the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003, a coronavirus outbreak that also started in China and eventually killed more than 800 people worldwide. During that epidemic, Beijing at first played down the crisis and withheld information, eventually drawing widespread criticism.
And conclusive evidence about how the outbreak started is lacking. While officials in Wuhan first traced it to a seafood market, some patients who have fallen ill never visited the market. Researchers have also offered disparate explanations for what animals may have transmitted the virus to humans.