China orders ‘unprecedented’ lockdown of two cities at virus epicenter

China orders ‘unprecedented’ lockdown of two cities at virus epicenter
By Yawen Chen and Se Young Lee

BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Thursday locked down two cities at the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak that has killed 17 people and infected nearly 600, as health authorities around the world took action to prevent a global pandemic.

Health officials fear the transmission rate will accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad during week-long holidays for the Lunar New Year, which begins on Saturday.

The previously unknown virus strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Most transport in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was suspended on Thursday morning and people were told not to leave. Hours later, neighboring Huanggang, a city of about 7 million people, announced a similar lockdown.

“The lockdown of 11 million people is unprecedented in public health history, so it is certainly not a recommendation the WHO has made,” Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s representative in Beijing, told Reuters.

Other cities were also taking steps to restrict movement and contact. Nearby Ezhou shut its train stations. The capital Beijing canceled major public events, including two well-known Lunar New Year temple fairs, the state-run Beijing News said.

Airports worldwide were screening passengers arriving from China.

There is no vaccine for the virus, which can spread through respiratory transmission. Symptoms include fever, difficulty in breathing and cough, similar to many other respiratory illnesses.

Preliminary research suggested it was passed on to humans from snakes, but government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan has also identified badgers and rats as possible sources.

WHO MEETING

The WHO has said it will decide on Thursday whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, which would step up the international response.

If it does so, it will be the sixth international public health emergency to be declared in the last decade. A WHO news conference is expected some time after 1800 GMT.

Chinese authorities gave no new details on the numbers of virus infections but it has been reported in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Of eight known cases worldwide, Thailand has confirmed four, while Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States have reported one each.

Authorities had confirmed 571 cases and 17 deaths by the end of Wednesday, China’s National Health Commission said. Earlier, it said another 393 suspected cases had been reported.

In a report on Wednesday, Imperial College London said it estimated a total of 4,000 cases of the coronavirus in Wuhan alone as of Jan. 18, an infection rate based on the number of cases reported in China and elsewhere.

Wuhan shut down all urban transport networks and suspended outgoing flights from 10 a.m. (0200 GMT). Domestic media said some airlines were operating after the deadline, however.

Wuhan’s Hankou rail station was nearly deserted, with gates blocked, state broadcasts showed. The government urged citizens not to leave the city.

State media reported highway toll booths around Wuhan were closing down, which would effectively cut off road exits. Guards were patrolling highways, one resident told Reuters.

As the city slipped into isolation, residents thronged into hospitals for checks and scrambled for supplies, clearing out supermarket shelves and queuing for petrol.

Authorities in Huanggang ordered indoor entertainment venues including cinemas and internet cafes to close.

FACE MASKS

In contrast with its secrecy over the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed nearly 800 people, China’s Communist Party government has provided regular updates to avoid panic ahead of the holidays.

During a visit to Wuhan, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said authorities needed to be open about the virus and efforts to contain it, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Some experts believe the new virus is not as dangerous as previous coronaviruses such as SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has killed more than 700 people since 2012.

“The early evidence at this stage would suggest it’s not as severe,” Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told reporters.

Despite China’s response, world shares fell on Thursday, led by the biggest tumble in Chinese stocks in more than eight months, as concern mounted about the outbreak. China’s yuan fell to a two-week low. [MKTS/GLOB]

The economic impact of such outbreaks are hard to quantify but a 2006 estimate by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) calculated that SARS shaved just over 1 percentage point off the GDP of China in 2003.

InterContinental Hotels and Hyatt are allowing guests to change or cancel stays at most Chinese hotels.

A general view shows the monitors of thermal scanners that detect temperatures of passengers at the security check inside the airport in Guatemala City, Guatemala January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

Many Chinese were cancelling trips, buying face masks and avoiding shopping centers.

The release of seven movies over the Lunar New Year has been postponed. The holiday is the high season for distributors and cinemas attract huge crowds.

Airports globally, including in Britain, stepped up screening of passengers from China and the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said the further global spread of the virus was likely.

“All the fatalities have so far been contained to mainland China, however, this is a rapidly developing situation and the number of deaths and the number of cases is likely to be higher than those that have been confirmed so far and I expect them to rise further,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the British parliament.

(Reporting by Yawen Chen, Se Young Lee, Sophie Yu and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing, Sam Shen and Engen Tham in Shanghai, Ben Blanchard in Taiwan, Alison Lui and Donny Kwok in Hong Kong, John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland and Elizabeth Howcroft in London; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Stephen Coates and Clarence Fernandez and Alison Williams)

Masked Hong Kong students chant at graduation amid fears for elections

Masked Hong Kong students chant at graduation amid fears for elections
By Sarah Wu and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong students, many wearing banned black masks, chanted slogans at their graduation at the Chinese University on Thursday, with some holding up banners urging “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now”.

The students defied a ban on masks that the government imposed last month in a bid to curb sometimes violent unrest that has rocked the Chinese-ruled city for more than five months.

Dressed in formal graduation gowns, many of about 1,000 students chanted as they walked to the hill-top ceremony, near the New Territories town of Sha Tin, calling for the government to respond to protesters’ “five demands, not one less” that include universal suffrage in choosing the city’s leader.

A man singing the Chinese national anthem and holding a knife during the graduation ceremony was taken away by security officers.

The protests started over a now-scrapped extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but have evolved into calls for democracy, an end to Chinese meddling in the city’s promised freedoms and an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, among other things.

“Even though we are all exhausted, we should not give up,” said Kelvin, a 22-year-old information engineering graduate.

The university said it cut the ceremony short after the degrees were handed out.

The months of protests have plunged the former British colony into its biggest crisis in decades, with no sign the demonstrators plan to give up.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, allowing it colonial freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary and right to protest.

China denies interfering in Hong Kong has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble.

About 100 people, including candidates running in Nov. 24 district council elections, the lowest tier of voting, marched against violence on Thursday.

SAFE AND FAIR?

A man stabbed and wounded pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho on Wednesday. Jimmy Sham, a leader of Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front, was beaten by men with hammers in October after his group organized mass rallies against the extradition bill.

Pro-democracy district councilor Andrew Chiu had part of his ear bitten off by a knife-wielding man on Sunday.

District council candidate Clement Woo, who joined the march, said members of the pro-establishment camp had experienced violence and intimidation.

“How can the election be a fair one if the atmosphere is like this?” Woo told Reuters. “We support democracy in Hong Kong, but democracy is incomplete without safety and fairness.”

Executive Councilor Ip Kwok-him, speaking on RTHK radio, expressed doubts as to whether election campaigning could continue in a fair and peaceful manner. He suggested the government decide by Nov. 17 if the elections should go ahead.

China has offered the “one country, two systems” formula for self-ruled Taiwan, an island Beijing considers a breakaway province.

The unrest in Hong Kong had provided a lesson for Taiwan, its foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told Reuters in Taipei.

“People here understand that there’s something wrong (with)the way the ‘one country, two systems’ model is run in Hong Kong … Taiwan people don’t like to be in the same situation,” Wu said.

The unrest has helped push Hong Kong’s economy into recession for the first time in a decade. Retail and tourism sectors have been hit particularly hard as tourists stay away.

UNICEF Hong Kong called off its annual Run for Every Child charity road run on Nov. 24 “due to a range of ongoing and uncertain factors”.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Sarah Wu, Jiraporn Kuhakan and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong and Yimou Lee and Fabian Hamacher in Taipei; Writing by Farah Master and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Philippines raises volcano alert again; hazardous eruption seen imminent

An ash cloud hovers over the Mayon volcano, as seen from the Bicol Region, Philippines, in this still image taken from a January 21,2018 social media video. Randall Matthew Lorayes via REUTERS

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines raised the alert level at its Mayon volcano on Monday after a loud explosion in the wake of increased activity made a hazardous eruption likelier, prompting authorities to close all schools and urge residents to stay indoors.

Mayon, the country’s most active volcano, has been spewing ash, lava, and pyroclastic material since Jan. 13, displacing close to 40,000 residents in the central province of Albay.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) raised its alert on Mayon to level 4, signifying a hazardous eruption is imminent, from level 3, which warns that such an eruption could be “weeks or even days” away.

“We strongly advise all people, both residents and tourists, to avoid the danger zone, and airlines to avoid flying near the volcano summit,” agency chief Renato Solidum told a news conference.

The danger zone around the 2,462-metre (8,077-foot) volcano has been expanded to a radius of 8 km (5 miles), he added.

Solidum said the agency had recorded increased seismic activity and “lava fountaining and a summit explosion” from Sunday night, indicating more explosions ahead, including a hazardous eruption.

A level 5 alert signifies a hazardous eruption is underway.

Albay province has run out of emergency funds and more people would be evacuated once government financial help arrived, said provincial governor Al Francis Bichara.

He ordered schools to suspend classes, amid ash fall warnings following the explosion at the volcano.

“In some areas…it’s already zero visibility, especially along the foot of the volcano,” he told CNN Philippines, adding that strong winds could carry ash to distant towns.

“(People) have to stay home and if they intend to get out of their houses, they have to wear masks,” Bichara said.

 

(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez)