World

China extends holiday to curb spread as virus death toll goes past 80

Chinese New Year holiday extended in bid to slow spread of virus

SHANGHAI: The death toll from a coronavirus outbreak in China rose to 81 yesterday, as the government extended the Chinese New Year holiday and more big businesses shut down or told staff to work from home in an effort to curb the spread.

Premier Li Keqiang visited Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, as the central government stepped up its response while city authorities faced growing accusations from the public of mismanagement and a failure to respond to the outbreak in time.

The total number of confirmed cases in China rose about 30 per cent from the previous day to 2,744, with about half in the central province of Hubei, the capital of which is Wuhan. But some experts suspect the number of infected people is much higher.

The number of deaths from the virus in Hubei climbed to 76 from 56, health officials said, with five deaths elsewhere in China.

While a small number of cases linked to people who travelled from Wuhan have been confirmed in more than 10 countries, including Thailand, France, Japan and the United States, no deaths have been reported elsewhere.

Mr Li is the most senior leader to visit Wuhan since the outbreak began. Clad in a blue protective suit and mask, he inspected efforts to contain the epidemic and was shown on state television leading medical workers in chants of encouragement.

On China's heavily censored social media, where dissent is typically suppressed, local officials have borne the brunt of mounting public anger.

Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang told state broadcaster CCTV that the city's management of the crisis was "not good enough" - rare self-criticism for a Chinese official - and said he was willing to resign.

PUBLIC WRATH

But many comments on Chinese social media focused instead on Mr Zhou's sideline remarks - made after the interview had finished but also recorded by CCTV and broadcast online - that he would rate himself at 80 out of 100 for his handling of the interview.

His self-evaluation further fuelled anger towards local officials.

"I now understand what shamelessness is," said one user on Weibo.

The city of 11 million people is in virtual lockdown and much of Hubei province, home to nearly 60 million people, is under some kind of travel curb.

The government is extending the week-long Chinese New Year holiday by three days to Feb 2, in a bid to slow the spread of the virus. Chinese New Year is usually a time for travel by millions, but many have had to cancel plans.

The coronavirus is believed to have originated late last year in a Wuhan market illegally selling wildlife.

Much is not known about it, including how easily it spreads and just how deadly it is.

National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei said on Sunday the incubation period could range from one to 14 days, and the virus was infectious during incubation, unlike the severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The World Health Organisation estimated an incubation period of two to 10 days.

Some of China's biggest companies have been affected, with hotpot restaurant chain Haidilao International Holding shutting branches nationwide from Sunday until Friday. - REUTERS

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