China honours virus victims with three minutes of reflection

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - With air raid sirens wailing and flags at half-mast, China on Saturday held a three-minute nationwide moment of reflection to honour those who have died in the coronavirus outbreak, especially "martyrs" who fell while fighting what has become a global pandemic.

Commemorations took place at 10am in all major cities, but were particularly poignant in Wuhan, the industrial center where the virus was first detected in December.

Wuhan was placed under complete lockdown on January 23 in an effort to stem the spread of the virus and has been lauded as a "heroic city" by the nation's communist leadership for the sacrifices made by its 11 million citizens.

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People have gradually been allowed to travel in and out of Wuhan under strict conditions. The quarantine on the city is to be formally lifted on Wednesday.

In Beijing, President Xi Jinping led other top officials, all dressed in black suits with white carnations, as they bowed before a flag at half-mast in the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai.

On Saturday, China reported one new confirmed case in Wuhan and 18 among people arriving from abroad, along with four new deaths, all in Wuhan. China now has recorded a total of 81,639 cases and 3,326 deaths, although those figures are generally considered to be understated because of a lack of testing and a reluctance to report the scale of the original outbreak.

China's slow, cautious emergence from the global pandemic comes as the US is struggling to deal with the outbreak that has taken more than 1,860 lives in New York City alone. Hard-hit European nations Italy, Spain and France are also seeing rising numbers of cases and deaths, although strict social distancing measures such as those adopted by China appear to be having an effect.

Workers in protective wear paused silently beside barriers at one residential community - a reminder that there are still tight restrictions on everyday life across Wuhan.

In the capital's Tiananmen Square, the national flag flew at half-mast, surrounded by heavier-than-normal security.

Pedestrians in one of the city's busiest shopping districts stopped walking and kept their heads low in a silent tribute ceremony, while police patrolling stood at the side of the road with their riot shields down and bowed heads.

Park-goers paused their activities too, some holding badminton rackets by their sides, others with hands together in prayer.

Officials said the observance was a chance to mourn virus "martyrs" - an honorific title bestowed by the government this week on 14 medical workers who died fighting the outbreak.

They include Li Wenliang, a doctor and whistleblower in Wuhan who was reprimanded by authorities for trying to warn others in the early days of the contagion.

Li's death from Covid-19 in February prompted a national outpouring of grief as well as anger at the government's handling of the crisis.

The ruling Communist Party has sought to direct criticism to local authorities in Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, who have been accused of downplaying the severity of the virus, possibly contributing to its spread.

A central government investigation into Li's death concluded he was "inappropriately" punished by Wuhan police.

Despite drastic measures to lock down Hubei in late January, the epidemic has spiralled into a global pandemic with more than one million cases.

Some restrictions in Hubei have been eased in recent weeks after the officially stated number of new infections in China dropped to near zero.

Updated: April 4, 2020 10:03 AM

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