By Kevin Yao and Winni Zhou
China accused the United States on Monday of whipping up panic over a fast-spreading coronavirus with travel restrictions and evacuations as Chinese stocks plunged on the first day back from the extended Lunar New Year holiday.
The death toll in China from the newly identified virus, which emerged in the city of Wuhan, rose to 361 as of Sunday, up 57 from the previous day, the National Health Commission said.
With Wuhan and some other cities in virtual lockdown, travel severely restricted and China facing increasing international isolation, fears of wider economic disruption are growing; sources at the OPEC oil cartel said producers were considering cutting output by almost a third to support prices.
The World Health Organization (WHO) last week declared the flu-like virus a global emergency, and it has since spread to 23 other countries and regions.
Airlines around the world have stopped flights to parts of China. A suspension by the United Arab Emirates on Monday will affect the Gulf airlines Etihad and Emirates.
China accused the United States of spreading fear by pulling its nationals out and restricting travel instead of offering significant aid.
Washington has “unceasingly manufactured and spread panic”, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, noting that the WHO had advised against trade and travel curbs.
“It is precisely developed countries like the United States with strong epidemic prevention capabilities and facilities that have taken the lead in imposing excessive restrictions contrary to WHO recommendations,” she added.
There was no immediate official comment from the United States, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the United States was still negotiating with China on an offer to send U.S. experts.
‘NO REASON’ FOR TRAVEL CURBS
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking in Geneva, again said travel bans were unnecessary.
“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he told the WHO’s executive board.
A WHO-led international team of experts could go to China this week and could include U.S. experts, a WHO spokesman said.
The outbreak is reminiscent of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a virus from the same family that emerged in China in 2002 and killed almost 800 people around the world out of the 8,000 or so who were infected.
Chinese data suggest that the new virus, while much more contagious than SARS, is significantly less lethal, although such numbers can evolve rapidly. The number of confirmed infections in China rose by 2,829, bringing the total to 17,205.
The WHO said at least 151 cases had been confirmed in 23 other countries and regions, including the United States, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Britain.
President Xi Jinping said controlling the virus was China’s most important task.
“Xi stated that the prevention and control of the pneumonia epidemic is directly related to the people’s life safety and fitness, directly related to the overall economic and social stability, and directly related to China’s opening,” Xinhua state news agency said.
Chinese stocks fell almost 8%, wiping $393 billion off the value of the Shanghai bourse, the yuan currency had its worst day since August, and Shanghai-traded commodities from oil to copper hit their lower limits — all despite the central bank’s injection of 1.2 trillion yuan ($174 billion) into money markets.
Fears for the effect of China’s lockdown on global growth have slashed more than 22% off the price of the Brent global crude oil benchmark since its recent peak on Jan. 8.
Economists are predicting world economic output will be cut by 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points.
OPEC sources told Reuters that members of the cartel and its allies were considering a coordinated output cut of 500,000 barrels per day, about 29% of the total – to support prices.
Taiwan’s Foxconn, which makes smartphones for Apple and other brands, has halted “almost all” of its production in China after companies were told to shut until at least Feb. 10, a source said. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While Chinese stock markets reopened, most provinces have extended the holiday to try to contain the virus, with workers in Hubei not scheduled to return until after Feb. 13.
HOSPITAL BUILT IN EIGHT DAYS
A 1,000-bed hospital built in eight days to treat people with the virus in Wuhan was due to receive its first patients on Monday, state media said. A second hospital with 1,600 beds is due to be ready on Feb. 5.
While countries have been trying to block the virus with travel bans, they have also been getting citizens out of Wuhan.
The United States, which flew people out last week, is planning “a handful more flights” while Russia was due to start evacuating its citizens from Wuhan on Monday.
Beijing said it had shared information about the virus with self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own. Shut out of the WHO, Taiwan is being included as a high-risk area as part of China but is unable to get epidemic information first-hand.
It has only 10 coronavirus cases compared with thousands in China.
Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, rocked by months of sometimes violent anti-China protests, announced the closure of four more border crossings with mainland China, leaving just three open.
China’s efforts to contain the virus have taken some unexpected, and some might say unnerving, forms.
A video clip posted on the microblogging website Weibo showed people playing mahjong in a village near the city of Chengdu being spotted by a camera mounted on a patrolling drone.
“Playing mahjong outside is banned during the epidemic!” an official tells the villagers through a loudspeaker as he watches footage transmitted by the drone. “You have been spotted. Stop playing and leave the site as soon as possible!”