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China stiffens its defences against epidemic as death toll hits 56

26 January 2020, MVT 15:46
Medical staff wearing clothing to protect against a previously unknown virus walk outside a hospital in Wuhan on January 26, 2020, a city at the epicentre of a viral outbreak that has killed at least 56 people and infected nearly 2,000. - China on January 26 expanded drastic travel restrictions to contain the viral contagion, as the United States and France prepared to evacuate their citizens from the quarantined city at the outbreak's epicentre. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)
26 January 2020, MVT 15:46

China on Sunday expanded drastic travel restrictions to contain a viral epidemic that has killed 56 people and infected nearly 2,000, as the United States and France prepared to evacuate their citizens from a quarantined city at the outbreak's epicentre.

China has locked down the hard-hit province of Hubei in the country's centre in an unprecedented operation affecting tens of millions of people to slow the spread of a respiratory illness that President Xi Jinping said posed a "grave" threat.

Outside the epicentre, four cities -- including Beijing and Shanghai, and the eastern province of Shandong -- announced bans on long-distance buses from entering or leaving their borders, a move that will affect millions of people travelling over the Lunar New Year holiday.

Originating in Hubei's capital of Wuhan, the virus has spread throughout China and around the world -- with cases confirmed in around a dozen countries as distant as the United States.

The US State Department said Sunday it was arranging a flight from Wuhan to San Francisco for consulate staff and other Americans in the city.

The flight is on Tuesday, it said in an email to Americans in China that warned of "extremely limited" capacity for private citizens.

France's government and the French carmaker PSA also said they were formulating plans to evacuate staff and families, who will be quarantined in a city in a neighbouring province.

A Japanese official told AFP its government was exploring options for getting its nationals out, and South Korea's consulate in Wuhan said it was conducting an online poll of its citizens there to gauge demand for a chartered flight out.

Fear in Wuhan

Instead of New Year revelry, Wuhan has been seized by an eerie calm that deepened on Sunday as new restrictions banned most road traffic in the metropolis of 11 million.

Loudspeakers broke the silence by offering tips slathered with bravado.

"Do not believe in rumours. Do not spread rumours. If you feel unwell, go to the hospital in time," the message said.

"Wuhan is a city that dares to face difficulties and keeps overcoming them," the female voice added, mentioning the deadly 2002-03 SARS epidemic and 1998 Yangtze River flooding.

But some foreigners in Wuhan expressed deep concern, saying they feared going outside even though their food supplies were running low.

"The bustling city looks like a ghost town from my window. The shops are all shut down," Bangladeshi doctoral candidate Israt Zahan told AFP by phone.

"I am rationing the food at my home. It will last for two days, then I don't know what I will do."

The health emergency has overwhelmed Wuhan's hospitals with patients, prompting authorities to send hundreds of medical reinforcements, including military doctors, and start construction on two field hospitals.

Shanghai on Sunday reported its first death -- an 88-year-old man who had pre-existing health problems. The government says most deaths involved the elderly or people already suffering from other ailments.

The Shanghai fatality was the first confirmed in a major Chinese city outside Wuhan.

The outbreak is suspected to have originated in a Wuhan market where animals including rats, snakes and hedgehogs were reportedly sold as exotic food.

China said Sunday it was banning all trade in wildlife until the emergency is over, but conservationists complain that China has previously failed to deliver on pledges to get tough.

Virus 'accelerating'

Fearing a repeat of SARS, China has dramatically scaled back celebrations and travel associated with the New Year holiday, which began Friday, while tourist sites like Beijing's Forbidden City and a section of the Great Wall have closed as a precaution.

In Hong Kong, Disneyland announced Sunday it had closed as a precaution after the city declared an emergency to combat the crisis. Shanghai's Disneyland park had already closed Saturday.

Xi said at a Communist Party leadership meeting on the crisis that China faced "the grave situation of an accelerating spread" of the virus, calling for stepped-up prevention.

Measures have been ordered nationwide to detect and isolate people carrying the virus on planes, trains and buses.

Wuhan, China | AFP

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