By Agence France-Presse and Reuters
BEIJING – The toll from China’s deadly coronavirus outbreak has reached 1,016 on Tuesday as President Xi Jinping called for more “decisive” measures to tackle the outbreak in a rare visit to a frontline hospital.
The Chinese president donned a face mask and had his temperature checked while visiting medical workers and patients affected by the deadly coronavirus that has infected more than 42,000 in 25 countries.
The fatalities soared after hardest-hit Hubei province — the epicentre of the outbreak — reported another 103 deaths on Tuesday, the highest single-day toll since the virus emerged.
At a hospital treating infected patients in Beijing Monday, Xi called the situation at the epicenter “still very grave” and “more decisive measures” to contain the spread of the virus, said state broadcaster CCTV.
Xi has largely kept out of the public eye since the virus outbreak spiralled across the country from Hubei province.
He appointed Premier Li Keqiang to lead a group tackling the outbreak and it was Li who visited ground zero in Wuhan last month.
On Monday, Xi put on a blue mask and white surgical gown to meet doctors at Beijing Ditan hospital, observed the treatment of patients and spoke via video link to doctors in Wuhan, state media said.
He then visited a residential community in central Beijing to “investigate and guide” efforts to contain the epidemic, said CCTV.
Video footage showed Xi having his temperature taken with an infrared thermometer then speaking with community workers and waving at smiling residents leaning out of apartment windows.
The outbreak has prompted unprecedented action by the Chinese government, including locking down entire cities in Hubei as well as cutting transport links nationwide, closing tourist attractions and telling hundreds of millions of people to stay indoors.
The sweeping measures have turned cities into ghost towns — but there were some signs of normalcy returning as many went back to work this week.
Chinese authorities have dismissed two senior officials from Hubei, the central province where some 56 million people, including in its capital Wuhan, have been under lockdown since late last month.
The province sacked the Communist Party head and director of the provincial health commission.
Local authorities in Wuhan and Hubei have faced a torrent of criticism for hiding the extent of the outbreak in early January. Most deaths and cases are in Hubei.
The death of a whistleblowing doctor from Wuhan has sparked calls for political reform in China.
Roads in Beijing and the financial hub of Shanghai had significantly more traffic, while the southern city of Guangzhou said it would start to resume normal public transport.
However, many of those returning to work were uneasy.
“Of course we’re worried,” said a 25-year-old man surnamed Li in a Beijing beauty salon that reopened Monday.
“When customers come in, we first take their temperature, then use disinfectant and ask them to wash their hands.”
The Shanghai government suggested staggered work schedules, avoiding group meals and keeping at least one meter (three feet) away from colleagues.
Many were encouraged to work from home and some employers simply delayed opening for another week.
State media reported that passenger numbers on the Beijing subway were half that of a normal working day.
Large shopping malls in the capital were deserted and many banks closed.
One bank employee in Shanghai was heading to work for a half-day, with other workers due to take over in the afternoon.
The rest of the day he would work from home.
“It makes our work more difficult,” he told AFP.
Schools and universities across the country remained shut.
The toll has overtaken global fatalities in the 2002-03 SARS epidemic when China drew international condemnation for covering up cases, though Beijing has drawn praise from the World Health Organization this time.
Hurting the economy
President Xi warned top officials last week that efforts to contain the new coronavirus had gone too far, threatening the country’s economy, sources told Reuters, days before Beijing rolled out measures to soften the blow.
After reviewing reports on the outbreak from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and other economic departments, Xi told local officials during a Feb 3 meeting of the Politburo’s Standing Committee that some of the actions taken to contain the virus are harming the economy, said two people familiar with the meeting, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
He urged them to refrain from “more restrictive measures”, the two people said.
The official Xinhua News Agency, reporting on the Politburo meeting called the coronavirus outbreak “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.” It added, without details, that “party committees and governments of all levels were urged to achieve the targets of economic and social development this year.”
Since the meeting, China’s central bank has vowed to step up support for the economy and prepared policy tools to offset the damage.
The NDRC said at a weekend briefing that it was urging companies and factories to resume work, especially in “key industries” such as food and pharmaceuticals.
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