The death toll from the novel coronavirus has reached 1,873, as almost half of China's 1.3 billion-strong population remain subject to varying forms of travel restrictions and other quarantine measures, reports CNN.
On Tuesday, Liu Zhiming, director of the Wuchang hospital in Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak, himself died of the virus, according to a statement released by local government authorities. Liu was a neurosurgeon and is the first hospital director to die as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. His death could renew criticism that the government has not done enough to protect frontline medical workers, many of whom are overworked and overstretched.
Also on Tuesday, state media reported that doctors and nurses who die while trying to contain the outbreak will officially be designated as "martyrs." All but five deaths from the virus have occurred inside mainland China, where an additional 98 fatal cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, were reported Tuesday morning. The number of confirmed cases in China increased by 1,886, bringing the global total to over 73,325.
The vast majority of those cases have been in China, but concern has been growing in the past week over much smaller but growing outbreaks in Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong. According to China's National Health Commission, since the outbreak began in December, more than 12,500 patients have recovered and been discharged from hospital.
Outside of Hubei, the province of which Wuhan is capital, the number of new cases has dropped for 14 consecutive days. Despite this apparent good news, stringent and often draconian measures are being ramped up in much of the country. This comes as authorities make an effort to return to something like normality in many major cities and commercial hubs, with the long break forced by the outbreak taking its toll on the country's economy.
On Monday, a committee headed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that a "greater outbreak of the epidemic has been avoided through strengthened prevention and control measures," adding that "a positive trend has emerged nationwide in curbing the epidemic."
China on lockdown
Despite the optimism expressed by Chinese officials and in state media, there are indications the authorities are not totally convinced of their success in reining in the virus. According to analysis by CNN of Chinese government orders, some 780 million people are still living under some form of restrictive movement, including all of Hubei, the northeastern province of Liaoning, and China's two most important cities, Beijing and Shanghai. Restrictions include everything from self-quarantines to limits on who can come and go from neighborhoods.
Some of the strictest measures can be found in four cities in Hubei province. The cities of Wuhan, Huanggang, Shiyan and Xiaogan have completely sealed off all residential complexes and communities. The use of non-essential vehicles on local roadways is also banned. Residents in each city receive daily necessities from neighborhood and community committees as they are not permitted to leave their homes.
In an almost unprecedented move, the central government announced late Monday that it was considering postponing its annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC), a gathering of the the country's nearly 3,000 national legislators, as it continues to deal with the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.
The full session of the NPC, the country's rubber-stamp parliament, was due to open on March 5. Instead, the NPC Standing Committee, a smaller group of fewer than 200 people, will meet in the capital on February 24 to review a proposal to postpone the plenary session, according to Chinese state media.
While figures appear to be trending in a positive direction in China and some other countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that new data must be analyzed with some degree of caution. "This trend must be interpreted very cautiously. Trends can change as new populations are affected. It's too early to tell if this reported decline will continue. Every scenario is still on the table," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, said during a press conference Monday.
Tedros added that the virus is not as deadly as SARS or MERS, both of which are related to the current coronavirus, and more than 80% of patients "have mild disease and will recover." "In about 14% of cases, the virus causes severe diseases including pneumonia and shortness of breath. And about 5% of patients have critical diseases including respiratory failure, septic shock and multiorgan failure," he said. "In 2% of reported cases, the virus is fatal, and the risk of death increases the older you are. We see relatively few cases among children. More research is needed to understand why."
Cruise ship passengers evacuated
Outside of mainland China, the worst single outbreak has been on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, under tight quarantine in the Japanese port of Yokohama, south of Tokyo. More than 350 of the 3,600 people on board have tested positive for the virus so far. On Monday, 99 new cases were reported.
Late Sunday, 328 American passengers were evacuated late Sunday on two US government-chartered planes to California and Texas. Spaces on the flights had been restricted to people who had not tested positive for the virus, or were not showing symptoms. However, as the planes were preparing to leave, 14 Americans tested positive during final screenings.
Those passengers were boarded nevertheless and held in special compartments on the plane, where they underwent tight observation and further testing. Speaking to reporters, William Walters, an official with the bureau of medical services at the US State Department, said that three additional people were found to have a fever on the flight to California, and moved to isolation. Two passengers on the flight to Texas were also found to have a fever and isolated.
Since landing in the US, 13 people from the Diamond Princess have been moved to Omaha to be treated at the University of Nebraska, Walters said. Those passengers who did not test positive or show symptoms will undergo a 14-day quarantine at military bases in California and Texas, doubling the amount of time they will have had their travel restricted, after almost two weeks trapped on board the Diamond Princess.
That decision had angered some passengers when it was first announced Saturday by US authorities. "It's like a prison sentence for something I did not do," Karey Mansicalco, who owns a real estate company in Utah, told CNN before she left. "They are holding us hostage for absolutely no reason."
For the minority of Americans who remained on the ship, choosing to wait out the 14-day period in Japan where they will be free to move around, rather than head to the US, the fact that new cases were confirmed on board the plane was a vindication.
"The decision not to be evacuated was the best decision ever," Sacramento resident Matthew Smith told CNN. He had previously criticized the plan, saying the US wanted to "take us off without testing, fly us back to the US with a bunch of other untested people, and then stick us in 2 more weeks of quarantine? How does that make any sense at all?"
With cases of the virus confirmed in more than two dozen countries around the world, and travel to and from China restricted and much of the country on lockdown, the toll is beginning to be felt by the global economy. Companies in some parts of China have been attempting to get back to work, with temperature checks for staff and work-from-home policies the most common solution for avoiding further spread of the virus.
Apple warned investors on Monday that the outbreak is hurting its business more than previously expected by limiting how many devices it can make and sell in China. The closing of Chinese plants has also disrupted supply chains globally, threatening to cause a recession in Germany and smartphone shortages worldwide.
Economists say the current level of disruption is manageable. If the number of new coronavirus cases begins to slow, and China's factories reopen soon, the result will be a fleeting hit to the Chinese economy in the first quarter and a dent in global growth.
If the virus continues to spread, however, the economic damage will increase rapidly. "This is continuing to grow in scope and magnitude," William Reinsch, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said last week. "It could end being really, really big, and really, really serious."