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China virus death toll rises as Xi warns of ‘grave situation’

A paramilitary police officer wearing a protective facemask stands guard at the exit of the Forbidden City in Beijing on January 25, 2020.
A paramilitary police officer wearing a protective facemask stands guard at the exit of the Forbidden City in Beijing on January 25, 2020. © Nicolas Asfouri, AFP

China extended long-distance travel curbs Sunday as the death toll from the new coronavirus rose to 56 with more than 2,000 people infected globally as foreign consulates and multinationals planned limited evacuations of personnel and citizens from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping called the outbreak a grave situation, and the government stepped up efforts to restrict travel and public gatherings while rushing medical staff and supplies to Wuhan, which remains on lockdown.

The latest figures reported in China Sunday morning cover the previous 24 hours and mark an increase of 15 deaths and 688 cases for a total of 1,975 infections.

The government also reported five cases in Hong Kong, two in Macao and three in Taiwan. Small numbers of cases have been found in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, France, the US, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal and Australia.

The outbreak has prompted widening curbs on movements within China, with Wuhan, a city of 11 million, on virtual lockdown, with transports links all-but severed except for emergency vehicles.

In France, the lead doctor at a Paris hospital treating two infected patients said the illness appears less serious than comparable outbreaks of the past. French officials on Friday reported three confirmed cases of the newly identified coronavirus in France, the first ones in Europe. The third patient is at a hospital in Bordeaux. The head of France’s health department, Jérôme Salomon, said Saturday evening that all three are doing “very well”.

French automaker PSA Group said it will evacuate its employees from Wuhan, quarantine them and then bring them to France. The Foreign Ministry said it was working on "eventual options" to evacuate French citizens from Wuhan “who want to leave”. It didn't elaborate.

Health authorities in Beijing urged people not to shake hands but instead salute using a traditional cupped-hand gesture. The advice was sent in a text message that went out to mobile phone users in the city on Sunday morning.

The outbreak has overshadowed the start of the Lunar New Year, which is typically a festive time of year, with public events cancelled and many tourist sites shut. Many people on social media have been calling for the week-long holiday to be extended to help prevent further spread of the virus.

Transportation curbs continued to widen, with the northern city of Tianjin to shut all inter-province shuttle buses from January 27, the official People's Daily reported on Sunday. It will halt all group tours, both at home and abroad, from Monday.

US consulate to evacuate personnel from Wuhan

The US State Department said on Sunday it will relocate personnel at its Wuhan consulate to the United States and will offer a limited number of seats to private US citizens on a January 28 flight to San Francisco.

Canada said it discovered its first case: the man is his 50s and recently flew from Wuhan to Guangzhou, China, and then on to Toronto.

In Hong Kong, with five confirmed cases, the city's leader Carrie Lam said flights and high-speed rail trips between the city and Wuhan will be halted. Schools in Hong Kong that are currently on Lunar New Year holidays will remain closed until February 17.

Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park closed on Sunday "out of consideration for the health and safety of our guests and cast members".

"We are in close contact with health authorities and the government about the situation and will announce a reopening date once they determine it is advisable," the park said in a statement.

Shanghai Disneyland, which expected 100,000 visitors daily through the Lunar New Year holidays, has already closed.

Stepped up screenings

The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are still many unknowns surrounding it, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.

There are fears transmission could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel during the holiday, although many have cancelled their plans, and airlines and railways in China are providing full refunds for tickets.

Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of such screenings.

A report by infectious disease specialists at Imperial College, London on Saturday said the epidemic "represents a clear and ongoing global health threat", adding: "It is uncertain at the current time whether it is possible to contain the continuing epidemic within China."

Wuhan is building two new hospitals with a combined 2,300 beds to treat patients.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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