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Coronavirus death toll hits 26 as three cities shut down

World News | Published:

Chinese authorities have confirmed 830 cases of the deadly new virus, most in the city of Wuhan.

China Outbreak

The death toll in China’s coronavirus outbreak has risen to 26 with 830 cases confirmed, the country’s National Health Commission said on Friday.

The update also confirmed the first death outside the central province of Hubei, where the virus is thought to have originated.

The health commission in Hebei, a northern province bordering Beijing, said an 80-year-old man died after showing symptoms on his return from a two-month stay in Wuhan to see relatives.

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei and has been the epicentre of the outbreak, first detected last month.

The revised death toll came a day after Chinese authorities moved to lock down at least three cities with a combined population of more than 25 million people in an unprecedented effort to contain the deadly new virus, which has spread to other parts of the world during the busy Lunar New Year travel period.

Chinese authorities also announced on Friday a new 1,000-bed hospital would be quickly built, solely to treat patients with the virus.

The hospital, modelled on a facility the Chinese government had constructed during the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, is due to be finished in less than two weeks.

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The open-ended city lockdowns are unmatched in size, embracing more people than New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago put together.

The train station and airport in Wuhan were shut down, with ferry, subway and bus services also halted.

China Outbreak Stuck in Wuhan
A worker hoses down garbage bins outside the closed Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan on Thursday (Chinatopix/AP)

Normally bustling streets, shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces in the city of 11 million were eerily quiet.

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Police checked all incoming vehicles but did not close off the roads.

Authorities announced similar measures would take effect Friday in the nearby cities of Huanggang and Ezhou.

In Huanggang, theatres, internet cafes and other entertainment centres were also ordered closed.

In the capital, Beijing, officials cancelled major events indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of holiday celebrations, to help control the spread of the virus.

Hong Kong China Outbreak
Passengers wear protective face masks as they ride the subway in Hong Kong on Thursday as a protection against the virus (Kin Cheung/AP)

The Forbidden City, the palace complex in Beijing that is now a museum, announced it would close indefinitely on Saturday.

Many countries have begun screening travellers from China for symptoms of the virus, which can cause fever, coughing, breathing difficulties and pneumonia.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation on Thursday decided against declaring the outbreak a global emergency for now.

Such a declaration can bring more money and other resources to fight a threat but can also trigger economically damaging restrictions on trade and travel in the affected countries, making the decision politically fraught.

The decision “should not be taken as a sign that WHO does not think the situation is serious or that we’re not taking it seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day.”

Chinese officials have not said how long the shutdowns will last.

“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” said Gauden Galea, the WHO’s representative in China.

“It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”

Jonathan Ball, a professor of virology at molecular virology at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said the lockdowns appear to be justified scientifically.

“Until there’s a better understanding of what the situation is, I think it’s not an unreasonable thing to do,” he said. “Anything that limits people’s travels during an outbreak would obviously work.”

During the devastating West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, Sierra Leone imposed a national three-day quarantine as health workers went door to door, searching for hidden cases. Burial teams collecting corpses and people taking the sick to Ebola centres were the only ones allowed to move freely. Frustrated residents complained of food shortages.

In China, the illnesses from the newly identified coronavirus first appeared last month in Wuhan, an industrial and transportation hub. Other cases have turned up in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong reported their first cases Thursday.

Images from Wuhan showed long lines and empty shelves at supermarkets, as people stocked up for what could be weeks of isolation.

Local authorities in Wuhan demanded all residents wear masks in public places. Police, SWAT teams and paramilitary troops guarded Wuhan’s train station.

The sharp rise in illnesses comes as millions of Chinese travel for the Lunar New Year, the world’s largest annual migration of people. Chinese residents are expected to take an estimated three billion trips during the 40-day spike in travel.

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