Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has ordered authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan – the epicentre of a deadly coronavirus outbreak – to ensure that all patients with the illness are admitted to hospital, as countries around the world impose travel restrictions and start pulling their citizens out of the city.
Li inspected efforts to contain the outbreak in Wuhan on Monday, as the death toll rose to 82. So far all of the fatalities have been in mainland China, where there are also more than 2,800 confirmed cases.
The head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also arrived in Beijing on Monday to discuss ways to slow the spread.
Top Chinese leaders are scrambling to ensure that preventive measures are adequately implemented to minimise the risk of further expansion in an outbreak that has already seriously disrupted public life, and even politics.
Yunnan province and the city of Qingdao in Shandong province have cancelled annual legislative meetings planned for February, just weeks before the National People’s Congress was expected to convene in Beijing in March.
Li – who is heading the high-level group charged with fighting the outbreak – visited patients and medical personnel, while also directing virus prevention work in the city.
Inspecting the construction site of a temporary hospital that will have up to 1,000 beds, Li said China was racing against time to curb the coronavirus, which has spread to other countries and all parts of China with the exception of Tibet.
“Every effort should be made to ensure that all patients are admitted [to hospital],” Li said, adding that quality and safety standards would apply to the new facility irrespective of how quickly it would be built.
He said 2,000 more nurses would be sent to Wuhan over the next two days, along with 20,000 pairs of protective medical goggles.
“Authorities in Hubei and Wuhan are responsible for safeguarding the province, and should try their best to contain the spread. This is their top task,” Li said.
Addressing medical staff at Jinyintan hospital, one of the Wuhan facilities for treating infected patients, Li said: “You are trying every means to save lives. When you are putting your efforts towards saving lives, you have to protect yourselves too.”
In a written order, President Xi Jinping said cadres at all levels had to put the public’s interest “higher than anything” in the fight against the illness.
Public anger at authorities has mounted as the outbreak has grown and medical workers have reported shortages of everything from hospital beds to face masks. Medical facilities have been so overwhelmed that people with suspected symptoms have been turned back and told to isolate themselves at home.
Beyond the mainland, eight cases have been confirmed in Hong Kong, seven in Macau and five in Taiwan. Cambodia has reported its first case, taking the number of infections in the rest of Asia to 28. There are also five cases each in Australia and the United States, one in Canada and three in France. A suspected case has been identified in West Africa’s Ivory Coast.
Hong Kong infectious disease experts are urging the government to take “draconian” measures to stop the spread, with specialists at the University of Hong Kong estimating that 44,000 patients could be infected in Wuhan alone. Other experts, including those from the mainland, have suggested that, on average, one patient could infect 2.9 other people.
Other countries are planning contingency measures as they also confirm more cases of the disease.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany was considering evacuating its citizens from the affected area in China, while Spain is working with China and the European Union to repatriate about 20 of its citizens still in Wuhan.
Japan, South Korea and the US are planning charter flights to take citizens out of the city, while Britain says it is working on options for its citizens to leave Hubei.
In neighbouring Mongolia, state news agency Montsame said all universities and educational institutes would close until March 2 in a bid to contain the spread of the disease. Mongolia also closed its border crossings for cars and pedestrians, effective Monday, and called for all public gatherings to be cancelled.
China’s foreign ministry said on Monday that Kazakhstan had suspended its 72-hour transit visa-free arrangement for Chinese passport holders.
Malaysia, which has four confirmed infections, said it would stop issuing visas for Chinese citizens from Hubei.
Thai Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the Thai foreign ministry was coordinating evacuation plans.
“The Defence Ministry is ready to execute [an evacuation] at the first instance of Chinese authorities’ permission,” he said.
As part of the emergency measures, the Chinese government has locked down Wuhan and 13 nearby cities, banning travel there. China imposed further restrictions on Monday, suspending bookings for flights and accommodation packages abroad for Chinese.
China has also extended the Lunar New Year holiday from Friday to Sunday, and some companies will allow employees to work from home. The State Council, China’s cabinet, also said kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, and colleges would be closed until further notice.
He Qinghua, deputy director of the National Health Commission’s Disease Prevention and Control Bureau, said the large number of migrant workers returning to the countryside for Lunar New Year celebrations had been a major challenge in containing the spread of the disease.
He said the mobilisation of grass-roots party officials was key to the battle against the new coronavirus.
“The awareness [of prevention and control] is relatively low in the countryside,” He said.
“The most important thing now is mobilising our cadres at the grass-roots level so we can do better in our prevention and control work at the community level.”
China issued a blanket ban on wildlife trade on Sunday, and detected the coronavirus in 35 environmental samples collected from the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, indicating the virus originated from the wild animals sold at the market.
Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang said his administration’s handling of the crisis had not been good enough, but defended the decision to lock down the city as an effective way to curb the spread.
“If people want to pursue accountability [about the lockdown] and the public has a strong opinion, I and Wuhan Communist Party chief Ma Guoqiang are willing to step down,” he said in an interview with CCTV.
I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not trying.