SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will “inspect and direct” efforts to control a virus outbreak in the central city of Wuhan and promised reinforcements, as provincial authorities faced accusations from the public of a failure to respond in time.
Li, clad in a blue protective suit and mask, thanked medical workers in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the epicenter of the outbreak, as the death toll rose on Monday to 81.
“Li … thanked frontline medical workers for their all-out efforts in treating patients and urged them to pay attention to their own protection,” Xinhua news agency said.
“He required efforts to guarantee medical resources supply, race against time to treat patients and ensure adequate market supply and stable prices.”
He said 2,500 more medical workers would arrive in the next two days.
Li is the most senior leader to visit Wuhan since the outbreak began. He inspected efforts to contain the epidemic and was shown on state television leading medical workers in chants of “Wuhan jiayou!” – an exhortation to keep their strength up.
He also visited the construction site of a new hospital due to be built in days.
On China’s heavily censored social media, where dissent is typically suppressed, local officials have borne the brunt of mounting public anger about the handling of the virus.
Some lashed out at the Hubei governor, who had to correct himself twice during a news conference over the number of face masks being produced in the province.
“If he can mess up the data multiple times, no wonder the disease has spread so severely,” one Weibo user said.
Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang told state broadcaster CCTV the city’s management of the crisis was “not good enough” – rare public self-criticism for a Chinese official – and said he was willing to resign.
The city of 11 million people is in virtual lockdown and much of Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, is under some kind of travel curb.
People from Hubei have come under scrutiny within mainland China as well, with many facing suspicion from officials about their recent travels.
“Hubei people are getting discriminated against,” a Wuhan resident complained on the Weibo social media platform.
A county in northern China is offering 1,000 yuan ($145) to tipsters who report the presence of anyone from Wuhan who has not registered with authorities, local government TV said.
A small number of cases linked to people who traveled from Wuhan have been confirmed in more than 10 countries, including Thailand, France, Japan and the United States, but no deaths have been reported outside China. Cambodia confirmed its first case on Monday.
Investors are worried about the impact on travel, tourism and broader economic activity. The consensus is that in the short term, economic output will be hit as Chinese authorities impose travel restrictions and extend the Lunar New Year holiday to limit the spread of the virus.
Asian shares tumbled, with Japan’s Nikkei average sliding 2%, its biggest one-day fall in five months. Demand spiked for safe-haven assets such as the Japanese yen and Treasury notes. European stocks were down more than 2%.
During the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a coronavirus that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally, air passenger demand in Asia plunged 45%. The travel industry is more reliant on Chinese travelers now than it was then.
The total number of confirmed cases in China rose to 2,835, with about half in the central province of Hubei. But some experts suspect the number of infected people is much higher.
As worry grew around the world, Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, which has had eight confirmed cases, banned entry to people who had visited Hubei in the past 14 days.
China extended the week-long Lunar New Year holiday by three days to Feb. 2. The Lunar New Year is usually a time for travel by millions, but many have had to cancel plans.
The number of deaths from the virus in Hubei climbed to 76 from 56, officials said, with five deaths elsewhere in China.
WHO DIRECTOR ARRIVES IN CHINA
The newly identified coronavirus is believed to have originated late last year in a Wuhan market illegally selling wildlife. Much is not known, including how easily it spreads and just how deadly it is.
National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei said on Sunday the incubation period could range from one to 14 days, and the virus was infectious during incubation, unlike SARS.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated an incubation period of two to 10 days.
Last week, the WHO stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can contain the epidemic.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had arrived in China and would meet officials working on the response, his agency said.
Australia confirmed its fifth case on Monday involving a woman on the last flight out of Wuhan to Sydney before China’s travel ban.
Several Western countries including the United States and Australia, are working to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan.
Some of China’s biggest companies have been affected, with hotpot restaurant chain Haidilao International Holding shutting branches nationwide from Sunday until Friday.
Gaming giant Tencent Holdings Ltd advised staff to work from home until Feb. 7, and e-commerce firm Alibaba removed vendors’ offers of overpriced face masks from its online Taobao marketplace as prices surged.
Reporting by Winni Zhou, Wu Huizhong, Sun Yilei and Josh Horwitz; Additional reporting by Hideyuki Sano in Tokyo, Lidia Kelly in Sydney, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Robert Birsel, Tony Munroe and Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Alison Williams