China accuses US of whipping up panic over coronavirus

China accused the United States on Monday of whipping up panic over a fast-spreading coronavirus with travel restrictions and evacuations as Chinese stocks plunged on the first day back from the extended Lunar New Year holiday.

The death toll in China from the newly identified virus, which emerged in Wuhan, capital of the central province of Hubei, rose to 361 as of Sunday, up 57 from the previous day, the National Health Commission said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) last week declared the flu-like virus a global emergency and it has since spread to 23 other countries and regions, with the first death outside of China reported on Sunday, that of a 44-year-old Chinese man who died in the Philippines after travelling from Wuhan.

Wuhan and some other cities remain in virtual lockdown with travel severely restricted, and China is facing increasing international isolation.

China accused the United States of spreading fear by pulling its nationals out and restricting travel instead of offering significant aid. Relations between the two sides had just begun to recover after a long and bruising trade war.

Washington has “unceasingly manufactured and spread panic”, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, noting that the WHO had advised against trade and travel curbs.

“It is precisely developed countries like the United States with strong epidemic prevention capabilities and facilities that have taken the lead in imposing excessive restrictions contrary to WHO recommendations,” she added, saying countries should make reasonable, calm and science-based judgements.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking in Geneva, again said travel bans were unnecessary.

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he told the WHO’s Executive Board. “We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.”

Chinese delegate Li Song said the international community needed to treat the new virus outbreak objectively, fairly and not “deliberately create panic” among the general public.

Li said China had shared information about the virus with self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as sovereign territory, but he criticised the Taiwanese authorities for what he described as their “lies and excuses” for not attending WHO meetings.

President Xi Jinping said controlling the virus was China’s most important task.

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“Xi stated that the prevention and control of the pneumonia epidemic is directly related to the people’s life safety and fitness, directly related to the overall economic and social stability, and directly related to China’s opening,” Xinhua state news agency said.

Chinese stocks closed down almost 8%, the yuan currency had its worst day since August, and Shanghai-traded commodities from oil to copper hit their lower limits. A gauge of global stocks was near seven-week lows.

The wipeout in China came even as the central bank made its biggest cash input into financial markets since 2004.

But while stock markets reopened, most provinces have extended the holiday to try to contain the virus, with workers in Hubei not scheduled to return until after Feb. 13.

The number of new confirmed infections in China rose by 2,829, bringing the total to 17,205.

The WHO reported at least 151 confirmed cases have been reported in 23 other countries and regions, including the United States, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Britain.

A 1,000-bed hospital built in eight days to treat people with the virus in Wuhan began to take patients yesterday, state media said. More than 7,500 workers took part in the project, launched on Jan. 25 and finished this weekend.

A second hospital in Wuhan with 1,600 beds is due to be ready on Feb. 5.

While countries have been trying to block the virus with travel bans, they have also been getting stranded citizens out of Wuhan.

The United States, which flew people out last week, is planning “a handful more flights” while Russia is due to start evacuating its citizens from Wuhan on Monday.

Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, rocked by months of sometimes violent anti-China protests, announced the closure of four more border crossings with mainland China, leaving just three open. It stopped short of demands for the entire border to be closed.

Australia evacuated 243 people from Wuhan on Monday and will quarantine them on a remote island. On Saturday it followed the United States in barring entry to all foreign nationals travelling from mainland China.

The virus is thought to have emerged late last year in a Wuhan market illegally trading wildlife. It can cause pneumonia and spreads between people in droplets from coughs and sneezes.

The number of deaths in China has now passed the total Chinese toll from the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that emerged from China and killed almost 800 people around the world.

Even so, Chinese data suggests the new coronavirus is less deadly than SARS, although such numbers can evolve rapidly.

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