Beijing wages ‘people's war’ vs Covid-19 as death toll surges to 1,355

By Agence France-Presse and Reuters

BEIJING – China's Communist Party has tapped its propaganda powers to wage what President Xi Jinping has dubbed a ''people's war'' against the new coronavirus that has killed more than 1,300 people and infected nearly 60,000.

A man wearing a face mask looks at a board at a bus stop, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China January 27, 2020. (REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins / MANILA BULLETIN) A man wearing a face mask looks at a board at a bus stop, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China January 27, 2020. (REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins / MANILA BULLETIN)

Xi touted ''positive results'' Wednesday from efforts to contain the new coronavirus epidemic, but warned it still faced a ''large-scale war'' against the outbreak.

The hard-hit central province of Hubei reported 242 deaths in just one day and 14,840 new patients -- by far its biggest one-day tally since the crisis erupted last month.

The jump raised the death toll to 1,355 and the total number of nationwide infections to nearly 60,000.

Xi chaired a meeting of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee after figures showed that the number of new cases dropped for the second straight day, fuelling hopes the epidemic could peak later this month.

The number of deaths and new cases from China's coronavirus outbreak spiked dramatically on Thursday after authorities changed the way they count infections in a move that will likely fuel speculation that the severity of the outbreak has been under-reported.

The top political leaders of virus-stricken Hubei province and its capital Wuhan were sacked, the highest-profile figures to be removed so far in a crisis that has killed 1,355.

Jiang Chaoliang, Hubei's party secretary, will be replaced by Shanghai mayor Ying Yong, while Wuhan party chief Ma Guoqiang will be replaced by an official from Shandong, Xinhua news agency reported.

 ‘Too early’ to predict

In Geneva, World Health Organization (WHO) officials warned against reaching premature conclusions on the Chinese data.

''I think it's way too early to try to predict the beginning, the middle, or the end of this epidemic right now,'' said Michael Ryan, head of WHO's health emergencies program.

The number of newly reported cases from China has stabilized, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

''But that has to be interpreted with extreme caution,'' he warned. ''This outbreak could go in any direction.''

In Spain, organizers of the world's top mobile telecommunications trade fair, the World Mobile Congress, said the event would be cancelled following an exodus of industry heavyweights over coronavirus fears.

The GSMA, which organizes the annual show, set for Barcelona, said it was cancelled due to ''the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances.''

The announcement was made just hours after Vodafone, Nokia, Deutsche Telekom, Britain's BT and Rakuten of Japan had pulled out, following in the footsteps of Intel, Facebook, Cisco and China's Vivo.

The epidemic has threatened to harm the Chinese economy, the world's second-largest, with ANZ bank warning that China's first-quarter GDP growth would slow to 3.2-4.0 percent, down from a previous projection of 5.0 percent.

It has also disrupted sporting events in China: motorsport governing body FIA announced the suspension of the Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai, originally scheduled for April 19, due to the ''continued spread'' of the coronavirus.

And this week's Singapore Air Show -- Asia's biggest -- was badly hit by exhibitors withdrawing and low attendance.

Due to the impact of the virus, the OPEC oil cartel lowered its forecast for growth in global oil demand this year by nearly a fifth.

US plane maker Boeing warned that there was ''no question'' the outbreak would hammer the aviation industry and the broader economy.

 Cruise ship infections rise

The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off Japan's coast.

An additional 39 people on board the Diamond Princess have tested positive, raising the total number of cases to 174, while thousands of passengers and crew face a second week in quarantine.

Most of the deaths and majority of cases however have been in central Hubei province, whose capital, Wuhan, is the epicenter of the outbreak. Some 56 million have been placed under virtual quarantine in the province.

In a positive development, the number of new cases has fallen in Hubei for two straight days with some 1,600 reported, according to figures from the National Health Commission.

Outside the province, the number of new patients has declined every day for the past week.

In addition to locking down Hubei, authorities have restricted movements in several other cities far from the epicenter in its unprecedented effort to contain the virus.

Several countries have banned arrivals from China, while major airlines have halted flights to and from the country, as hundreds of people have now been infected in some two dozen countries.

The case of a British man who passed on the virus to at least 11 other people -- without having been in China -- has raised fears of a new phase of contagion abroad.

The 53-year-old man was infected while attending a conference in Singapore and then passed it on to several compatriots on holiday in the French Alps, before finally being diagnosed back in Britain.

Officials in Hubei said they were broadening their definition for COVID-19 cases by including people ''clinically diagnosed'' with the virus in the daily tally.

This means officials can use lung imaging on suspected cases to diagnose the virus, rather than the standard nucleic acid tests.

China has placed some 56 million in virtual quarantine in Hubei and its capital, Wuhan, since late last month and restricted movements of millions more in cities far from the epicentre in an unprecedented effort to contain the virus.

Vietnam announced Thursday that a commune of 10,000 people will be placed under quarantine due to fears over the spread of the new coronavirus.

''As of February 13, 2020, we will urgently implement the task of isolation and quarantine of the epidemic area in Son Loi commune,'' said a health ministry statement.

 Raise the Party flag

In China, political propaganda is never far away.

''Let us raise the Party flag in the face of the epidemic,'' demands one slogan shared on social media in Zhejiang, an eastern province with the second highest number of infections in the country.

In Hubei, the central province at the heart of the outbreak, the messages are downright threatening.

''Those who do not declare their fever are enemies,'' proclaims a banner photographed on a building in Yunmeng.

In the same quarantined district, another slogan deliberately sows fear.

''To visit each other is to kill each other,'' it reads. ''To get together is to commit suicide.''

Neighbors are also being encouraged to report on each other elsewhere in the country, especially if they suspect anyone is from Hubei.

The streets and parks where people usually gather in all weather to chat, dance, workout or play cards are hopelessly empty.

 US airlines extend China flight cancellations

United Airlines said late on Wednesday it will extend cancellations of all US flights to China through late April due to the coronavirus epidemic.

With the announcement by Chicago-based United, all US passenger carriers flying to China have now canceled flights into late April. Carriers say part of the reason is a dramatic drop-off in demand.

United said it was extending cancellations of flights to Hong Kong, which had been set to resume on Feb. 21, and for flights to mainland China, that had been set to resume on March 28. Flights will resume starting April 24.

United normally operates roughly 12 flights per day from the United States to mainland China and Hong Kong.

American Airlines Group Inc, the largest U.S. carrier, said on Tuesday it was extending the suspension of its China and Hong Kong flights through April 24, amid reduced demand due to the coronavirus outbreak. The carrier had earlier suspended its China and Hong Kong flights until March 27.

 Rio Carnival braces for coronavirus risk

In Brazil, preparing for Rio de Janeiro's Carnival, when well over 1 million visitors pour into the "Marvelous City" for round-the-clock revelry, will be just a little bit tougher thanks to the new coronavirus.

In the days leading up to Carnival, which falls Feb. 21 to Feb. 26 this year, Rio officials have been setting up a "city contingency plan," and training health workers in the metropolis of nearly 7 million people how to identify and contain the new threat.

"It's worrying because there a lot of people moving around and a lot of tourists coming into the country from all parts of the world," Patricia Guttman, a municipal health official, told Reuters.

Guttman said the city had freed up some 120 hospital beds that could be used for suspected coronavirus patients.

 CDC confirms 14th US case

In the United States, a second person evacuated from Wuhan, China, to a US Marine base near San Diego has been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, raising the tally of confirmed cases in the United States to 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on Wednesday.

The patient was among 232 individuals who had been placed under quarantine at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar after being airlifted from the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan earlier this month, CDC spokeswoman Ana Toro said.

A previous case of coronavirus was documented a few days earlier among the same group of evacuees, the CDC said.

CDC officials said it appeared that the two San Diego patients were separately exposed to the virus in China before arriving in the United States. The two arrived on different planes and were housed in separate facilities.