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China: Coronavirus cases surpass SARS as big economic hit looms

A doctor attends to a patient in an isolation ward at a hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. (AP)
A doctor attends to a patient in an isolation ward at a hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. (AP)

  • The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome also came from China, killing about 800 people and costing the global economy an estimated $33 billion
  • The vast majority of patients are in China where the virus originated in an illegal wildlife market in Wuhan city

BEIJING : Infections from China's coronavirus spread to more than 8,100 people globally on Thursday, surpassing the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic's total in a fast-spreading health crisis forecast to pummel the world's second-largest economy.

The vast majority of patients are in China where the virus originated in an illegal wildlife market in Wuhan city and has also claimed 170 lives, latest official data showed.

But more than 100 cases have emerged in other countries, from Japan to the United States, spurring anti-China sentiment and a wave of mask-buying.

Graphic by Sarvesh Kumar Sharma/Mint
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Graphic by Sarvesh Kumar Sharma/Mint

"There's only so much we can do," said an official at Kukje Pharma Co, a South Korean firm considering doubling or tripling shifts to cope with a rush of orders for "tens of millions" of masks.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which has so far held off declaring the flu-like coronavirus a global emergency, began another meeting in Geneva to reconsider.

Such a declaration would trigger tighter containment and information-sharing guidelines, but may disappoint Beijing, which had expressed confidence in defeating the "devil" virus.

It could also further spook markets, already shuddering at the ripple effects of damage to China's economy.

"The fear is that they (the WHO) might raise the alarm bells ... so people are taking money off the table," said Chris Weston, head of research at Melbourne brokerage Pepperstone.

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome also came from China, killing about 800 people and costing the global economy an estimated $33 billion.

Economists fear the impact could be bigger this time as China now accounts for a larger share of the world economy. One government analyst has forecast the crisis would lop a percentage point off China's first-quarter growth.

Global stocks tumbled on Thursday, while the yuan hit its lowest this year and oil prices slid.

LOCKDOWN IN WUHAN

Almost all the deaths have been in Hubei province - of which Wuhan is the capital - where 60 million people are living under virtual lockdown.

"Most of the shops are closed. We cannot go out and buy food," Si Thu Tun, one of 60 students from Myanmar trapped in Wuhan, told online news outlet the Democratic Voice of Burma.

"Honestly, I have one big potato and three packs of instant noodles and some rice," he said. Myanmar plans a special flight to get the students out within three days.

Australia, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and Indonesia were quarantining evacuees for at least two weeks, though the United States and Japan planned shorter, voluntary isolation.

Three Japanese, from 206 evacuated on Wednesday, were infected, and worryingly two of them had not shown symptoms, Tokyo said.

India was the latest nation to report a case, a student of Wuhan University. And South Koreans protested at facilities earmarked as quarantine centres, throwing eggs at a minister.

"The weapons that will protect us from the new coronavirus are not fear and aversion, but trust and cooperation," said South Korean President Moon Jae-in as Seoul prepared to evacuate the first of about 700 citizens from Wuhan.

The impact of the crisis even reached an Italian cruise ship, whose 6,000 passengers were kept on board while tests were held on two Chinese travellers.

'WHEN CHINA SLOWS, WE FEEL IT'

In the corporate world, Alphabet Inc's Google and Sweden's IKEA were the latest big names to close China operations. South Korea's Samsung Electronics extended holiday closure for some Chinese production facilities.

Airlines to suspend flights to mainland China include Lufthansa, Air Canada, American Airlines and British Airways. Air France cabin crew unions were demanding the same, sources said, though the company has already allowed pilots and crew to opt out of China flights.

"Certainly infections can and do spread fairly easily within a plane," said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia. While it was unwise to put confirmed patients on a plane, if needed, they could be kept a few rows and seats away from others, he added.

Fuelling concern over damage to China's productivity, thousands of factory workers on Lunar New Year holidays may struggle to get back to work next week due to travel restrictions.

Policymakers are anxious, with China dominating U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell's news conference on Wednesday. "When China's economy slows down we do feel that," he said.

Chinese cities were largely deserted, with tourist attractions shut and Starbucks coffee shops requiring temperature checks and masks.

With local officials facing a backlash from China's public, the health chief of Huanggang city - also in Hubei province, - was dismissed after being unable to answer basic questions on state television.

"I don't know, I'm unclear ... Don't ask me how many people are being treated," Tang Zhihong said on television, hours before her sacking was announced in a terse statement.

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