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China on Monday expanded sweeping efforts to contain a viral disease by extending the Lunar New Year holiday to keep the public at home and avoid spreading infection as the death toll rose to 81.
Hong Kong announced it would bar entry to visitors from the mainland province at the centre of the outbreak following a warning the virus’s ability to spread was increasing. Travel agencies were ordered to cancel group tours nationwide, adding to the rising economic cost.
Increasingly drastic anti-disease efforts began with the Jan. 22 suspension of plane, train and bus links to Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in central China where the virus was first detected last month. That lockdown has expanded to a total of 17 cities with more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease-control measures ever imposed.
The end of the Lunar New Year holiday, China’s busiest travel season, was pushed back to Sunday from Thursday to “reduce mass gatherings” and “block the spread of the epidemic,” a Cabinet statement said.
Tens of millions of people were due to crowd into planes, trains and buses to return to work after visiting their hometowns or tourist sites for the holiday. Schools will postpone reopening until further notice, the Cabinet said.
Also Monday, China’s No. 2 leader, Premier Li Keqiang, visited Wuhan to “guide epidemic prevention work,” the Cabinet website said. Photos on the site showed Li, in a blue smock and green face mask, meeting hospital employees.
The U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, said it was arranging to evacuate its diplomats and some American citizens on Tuesday. The French government said it would fly its citizens in Wuhan to France and quarantine them there. Japan was preparing to fly its nationals out of Wuhan.
French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroen, which has a factory in Wuhan, said it was moving foreign employees and their families by bus to be quarantined in another city.
The disruption to business and consumer spending threaten to depress Chinese economic growth that Beijing is struggling to shore up after it sank to a multi-decade low of 6.1% last year. That could spread shockwaves to Asian economies that rely on China as a source of tourists and export markets.
Chinese regulators called on banks and insurers in a statement Monday to support to people and companies affected by the outbreak.
The biggest impact will be on travel, hotels and restaurants but Chinese retail spending, factory output and investment also might suffer if the outbreak and quarantines last, forecasters say.
The outbreak is a “notable downside risk” to growth, though it “could potentially be a high impact but short-lived event,” said Tommy Wu and Priyanka Kishore of Oxford Economics in a report.
They pointed to the example of the 2003 SARS outbreak, when economic activity plunged but recovered relatively quickly. The impact should be “less severe” than SARS because of faster official reaction and “increased transparency,” they said.
Abroad, economies including Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Philippines with big tourism industries that rely on Chinese travellers “seem most at risk,” said Wu and Kishore.
The National Health Commission said 2,744 cases were confirmed by midnight Sunday. There were 24 new deaths on Sunday, all in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located.
The youngest patient is a 9-month-old girl in Beijing. China also reported five cases in Hong Kong and two in Macao.
South Korea confirmed its fourth case Monday. Scattered cases also have been confirmed in Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, the U.S., Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, France, Canada and Australia.
The U.S. has confirmed cases in Washington state, Chicago, southern California and Arizona.
China’s health minister, Ma Xiaowei, said the country was entering a “crucial stage” as “it seems like the ability of the virus to spread is getting stronger.”
President Xi Jinping has called the outbreak a grave situation and said the government was stepping restrictions on travel and public gatherings while rushing medical staff and supplies to Wuhan.
The epidemic has revived memories of the 2002-03 SARS outbreak that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people.
Then, Chinese authorities were criticized for reacting slowly and failing to disclose information. The government has responded more aggressively to the latest outbreak.
The National Health Commission said anyone travelling from Wuhan is required to register with community health stations and quarantine themselves at home for 14 days — the virus’ maximum incubation period.
Hong Kong announced it would bar entry to travellers from Hubei, starting Monday. Hong Kong residents returning from the area will be allowed to the territory but were told to quarantine themselves at home.
Two of Hong Kong’s most popular tourist attractions, Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park, closed.
Also Sunday, Wuhan banned most vehicle use, including private cars, in downtown areas. The city will assign 6,000 taxis to neighbourhoods to help people get around if they need to.
Wuhan is building two hospitals, one with 1,500 beds and another with 1,000, for the growing number of patients. The first is scheduled to be finished next week.
The National Health Commission said it is sending extra medical teams to Wuhan. The Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks including SARS and Ebola.
The virus is from the coronavirus family that includes the common cold but also more severe illnesses like SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. The new virus causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath and pneumonia.
The virus is thought to have spread to people from wild animals sold at a market in Wuhan. On Sunday, authorities banned trade in wild animals and called on the public to refrain from eating meat from them.
With reports from Reuters
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