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China says US is whipping up panic

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

EVACUATED: The Egyptian Minister of Health, Hala Zayed, is seen here with a medical team at the Borg El Arab Airport, awaiting passengers that were evacuated from Wuhan, China. Picture: Egyptian Health Ministry

China yesterday accused the US 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 Organisation (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 US 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.”

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

“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.

Australia evacuated 243 people from Wuhan yesterday and will quarantine them on a remote island. 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.