China virus death toll hits 213

Beijing to bring overseas Wuhan citizens back to virus-hit city

By: AFP      Published: 09:50 AM, 31 Jan, 2020
Coronavirus in Wuhan city China
Staff members of a funeral parlour wearing protective suits disinfecting a colleague after they transferred a body at a hospital in Wuhan city. - AFP

The nationwide death toll in China's coronavirus outbreak has risen to 213, with nearly 2,000 new cases confirmed, the National Health Commission said on Friday.

In its daily update, the commission said 43 new deaths had occurred as a result of the virus, all but one of them in hardest-hit Hubei province where the virus first emerged.

The latest numbers indicate that the daily death count and the overall spread of the virus within China were continuing to grow steadily, despite unprecedented quarantine measures imposed on Hubei a week ago and other preventative steps nationwide.

On Thursday, Chinese health officials had reported a nationwide total of 38 new deaths, all but one of them in Hubei. The National Health Commission said there were 1,982 new confirmed cases, bringing the total to just under 10,000. Another 102,000 people were under medical observation with possible symptoms of the respiratory ailment.

The WHO had initially downplayed the threat posed by the disease, but revised its risk assessment after crisis talks on Thursday. "We must all act together now to limit further spread... We can only stop it together," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing in Geneva.

Tedros nevertheless said travel and trade restrictions with China were unnecessary to stem the spread of the virus, which has now been confirmed in more than 15 other countries across the globe.

Many countries have already urged their citizens not to visit China while some have banned entry for travellers from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus first surfaced.

Meanwhile, China is to send charter planes to bring citizens of virus-hit Wuhan city home from overseas "as soon as possible", the foreign ministry said Friday.

The move comes as a number of airlines announced they were halting or reducing flights to China as the country struggles to contain the spread of a deadly new virus.

Beijing has advised its citizens to postpone trips abroad and cancelled overseas group tours, while several countries including the US, Germany, Britain and Japan have urged their citizens to avoid travel to China. "In view of the practical difficulties that Chinese citizens from Hubei, especially Wuhan, have faced overseas, the Chinese government has decided to send charter flights to take them directly back to Wuhan as soon as possible," said the ministry of foreign affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

Wuhan -- where authorities have identified a market selling wild animals for food as the epicentre of the outbreak -- has experienced an unprecedented lockdown in a bid to stop the virus spreading.

The topic was trending online on Friday, with over 35 million views and 15,000 discussion posts on China's Twitter-like platform Weibo.

"These people probably don't want to go back (to Wuhan)," said one. Another questioned if they should be brought back if they were not infected.

When asked about the suspension of international flights at a press conference on Thursday, Zhu Tao of China's Civil Aviation Administration said authorities were coordinating arrangements to bring travellers home.

Hospitals have been overwhelmed in the city. AFP reporters saw long queues at hospitals, with some patients saying they queued for two days to see a doctor.

As fears of the outbreak have spread overseas, prominent figures in Chinese communities in Italy warned this week of episodes of "latent racism" against their compatriots by Italians fearful of catching the virus.