China extends Lunar New Year holiday to contain deadly virus

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Chinese authorities on Sunday ordered the extension of a public holiday in an effort to contain the outbreak of a deadly virus that has killed 56 people and infected nearly 2,000 globally.

A working group chaired by Premier Li Keqiang to tackle the outbreak decided on Sunday "to reduce population flows" by extending the Lunar New Year holiday which had been scheduled to end on January 30, state news agency Xinhua said.

The holiday will be extended until February 2.

Earlier on Sunday, Chinese health officials said the virus appeared to be becoming more infectious.

"According to recent clinical information, the virus' ability to spread seems to be getting somewhat stronger," said Ma Xiaowei, head of China's national health commission, at a press briefing in Beijing.

Mr Ma said the virus was "contagious during the incubation period" which could last from one to 14 days.

This means that those infected could pass the virus to others even before they started to show symptoms, which Mr Ma said was not the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) – another illness caused by a coronavirus that emerged from China in 2002.

Sars killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003, with most of the deaths in China and Hong Kong, but the new illness does not appear to be as deadly.

"From what we see now, this disease is indeed ... not as powerful as Sars," said Gao Fu, head of China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medical staff members wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, work at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital. AFP

A medical staff member (L) wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, takes the temperature of a man (R) at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan. AFP

Medical staff wearing protective clothing to protect against a previously unknown coronavirus arrive with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital. AFP

People in Hong Kong wearing facemasks as a preventative measure, following a coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan, ride a travelator inside a train station on the second day of the Lunar New Year of the Rat. AFP

A worker wearing protective a facemask drives his tricycle past a mural in Beijing. AFP

Medical staff members wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, arrive with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan. AFP

A woman wears a mask following the outbreak of a new virus as people arrive from the international terminal at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. AP

A paramilitary police officer wearing a protective facemask to help stop the spread of a deadly SARS-like virus, which originated in the central city of Wuhan, stands guard at the exit of the Forbidden City in Beijing. AFP

Medical staff members wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, walk at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan. AFP

People wearing facemasks to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, wait for medical attention at Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan. AFP

People wearing facemasks to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, wait for medical attention at Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan. AFP

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, pauses during a news conference in Hong Kong. Bloomberg

A medical staff member (C) wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, walks at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan. AFP

Efforts to counter the spread of the disease have led to transport shutdowns in large areas of China and screening measures implemented at airports and other border points worldwide, including the UAE.

Health Minister Abdul Rahman Al Owais said on Sunday that no cases of had been found in the country and that all necessary precautions have been taken to protect the UAE from the disease.

In China, authorities on Sunday expanded the transport restrictions first imposed in the central city of Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, where the disease was first detected in late December.

All inter-provincial and inter-city bus routes and connections were shut in Hebei province, while the island province of Hainan also halted inter-provincial bus travel via ferries.

Authorities in Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces, as well as in the cities of Nanjing in Jiangsu province, Ma'anshan in Anhui province and Xinyang in Henan province, ordered everyone to wear face masks in public.

Mask factories that had shut for the Chinese New Year reopened and offered employees between three and four their normal wages to return to work during the holiday period as demand for face masks soars.

The United States, France, Japan and Australia announced plans to move their citizens out of Wuhan, while the Saudi embassy in Beijing advised citizens to either leave China or to remain in their homes.

Some foreigners stranded in Wuhan said they feared going outside even though their food supplies were running low.

"We want to be evacuated as soon as possible, because either the virus, the hunger or the fear will kill us," Mashal Jamalzai, a political science student from Afghanistan at Central China Normal University, told AFP.

The mayor of China's Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak said on Sunday he expects another 1,000 new patients in the city, highlighting the immense pressure on Wuhan's infrastructure.

Wuhan's city government will step up construction of specialised hospitals to deal with infected patients, Zhou Xianwang told reporters.

Wuhan, a city of about 11 million and capital of Hubei province, has been under virtual lockdown amid intensifying efforts to contain the outbreak.

Chinese state news agency Xinhua said medical supplies are being rushed to the city, including 14,000 protective suits, 110,000 pairs of gloves and masks and goggles.

The National Health Commission said it is bringing in medical teams to help handle the outbreak and the Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks, including SARS and Ebola, Xinhua reported.

Most of the cases detected so far have been in China, including five cases in Hong Kong and two in Macao. Small numbers of cases have been found in Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the US, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, France and Australia.

The US confirmed cases in Washington state, Chicago, and most recently southern California. The latest patient announced on Saturday night had travelled from Wuhan and was being kept in isolation at a hospital.

Canada said it discovered its first case, a man in his 50s who was in Wuhan before flying to Toronto. Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea each reported one new case Sunday, while Thailand reported three new cases, making it the country with the most infections outside China with eight.

Dr Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said the man had mild symptoms when he flew from Wuhan to Guangzhou, China, and then on to Toronto.

He was admitted to hospital a day after arriving on a China Southern Airlines flight on Thursday. Dr Tam said officials are locating passengers who were within a 2-metre radius of the man’s seat or anyone who may have served or helped him.

With the outbreak suspected to have originated in a Wuhan market where animals including rats, snakes and hedgehogs were reportedly sold, China on Sunday banned all trade in wildlife until the health emergency was over.

Wild and often poached animals packed together in Chinese markets are suspected to be incubators for viruses to evolve and jump the species barrier to humans.

The viral outbreak has severely affected celebrations of the lunar new year, China’s peak travel period. Tourist sites like Beijing's Forbidden City and a section of the Great Wall have closed. Shanghai's Disneyland closed on Saturday, and Hong Kong’s Disneyland and Ocean Park closed on Sunday.

Overall passenger travel declined by nearly 29 per cent on Saturday, the first day of the new year, from a year earlier, with air passengers down nearly 42 per cent, a transportation ministry official said.

A working group set up to tackle the epidemic, chaired by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, called for local authorities to make arrangements to consider extending the week-long holiday to prevent the movement of people.

Beijing's education authority said the start of the spring semester had been postponed until further notice for all education levels. Shanghai announced that middle and elementary schools and kindergartens would remain closed until February 17.

Updated: January 27, 2020 01:38 AM

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