Beijing • China’s daily death toll from a new virus topped 100 for the first time and pushed the total past 1,000 dead, authorities said Tuesday after leader Xi Jinping visited a health center to rally public morale amid little sign the contagion is abating.
Though more offices and stores in China were reopening after the extended Lunar New Year break, many people appear to be staying home. Public health authorities are closely monitoring whether workers' returning to cities and businesses resuming worsens the spread of the virus.
In a bid to boost morale, Xi was featured on state broadcaster CCTV's main news report Tuesday night visiting a community health center in Beijing and expressing confidence in the “war against the disease.”
The country's president and leader of the ruling Communist Party was shown wearing a surgical mask and having his temperature taken before expressing his thanks to health workers on behalf of the party and government. "We will most definitely win this people's war," Xi said.
Xi's appearance comes amid questioning of the government's handling of the crisis, particularly the failure of local officials in the worst-hit city of Wuhan to clarify the extent of the crisis. Public anger has been inflamed over the death of a young doctor from the virus who had earlier been threatened along with seven others by police for warning online of the potential for a major outbreak as early as December.
Xi paid his respects to health workers, but much of his message was focused on calling for citizens to follow the party's dictates and aimed at minimizing the potentially massive economic impact of the outbreak.
“The fundamentals of China's long-term economic development remain unchanged and the impact of the novel coronavirus epidemic on the economy is short-lived," Xi was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.
Xi called for “greater efforts to minimize the impact of the epidemic on the economy" and for attention to be paid to "preventing large-scale layoffs," in a likely nod to the precarious situation of Chinese workers on the fringes of the economy with little security and few benefits.
The virus outbreak has become the latest political challenge for Xi, who despite accruing more political power to himself than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, has struggled to handle crises on multiple fronts, including a sharply slowing domestic economy, the trade with the U.S. and push-back on Chinese increasingly aggressive foreign policies.
The National Health Commission said in its daily update 108 deaths had been reported over the previous 24 hours, increasing the total to 1,016 deaths in mainland China since the illnesses began appearing in December. The total is well beyond the toll of the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which is caused by a different coronavirus related to the current pathogen.
The number of newly confirmed cases fell slightly to 2,478 from 3,062 the day before, bringing the total to 42,638 on the mainland, some of whom have since been cured and released from hospital.
The crossing of more grim thresholds is dimming optimism that the near-quarantine of some 60 million people and other disease-control measures might be working.
In Hong Kong, authorities evacuated an apartment block after two cases among its residents raised suspicion the virus may be spreading through the building's plumbing.
It was reminiscent of the SARS outbreak that killed hundreds in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. The biggest number of connected cases in that outbreak were in one apartment complex where the virus spread through sewage pipes.
Britain, meanwhile, declared the virus a “serious and imminent threat to public health” and said it would forcibly detain infected people if necessary. France tested scores of children and their parents after five British tourists contracted the virus at a ski resort.
The director-general of the World Health Organization said that the agency is still unable to predict where the outbreak is heading but that he believes there is still an opportunity to contain it.
“In recent days, we have seen some concerning instances of onward transmission from people with no travel history to China,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The detection of the small number of cases could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire, but for now, it’s only a spark.”
The Beijing city government told residential compounds in the capital to close their gates, check visitors for fever and record their identities. The government also warned people to strictly abide by regulations requiring wearing of masks in public and to avoid group activities.
More than 440 cases have been confirmed outside mainland China, including two deaths in Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Of those, 135 are from a cruise ship quarantined in Yokohama, near Tokyo. Japan's Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said the government was considering testing everyone remaining on board of the 3,711 passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess, which would require them to remain aboard until results were available.
Britain issued its “imminent threat" declaration after a British man who caught the virus in Singapore in January appeared linked to several other confirmed cases in Europe. Five Britons, including a 9-year-old boy, contracted the virus in the French Alpine ski town of Contamines-Montjoie after staying in the same chalet as the British man.
Jerome Salomon, head of France’s national health agency, said 61 people including the boy’s schoolmates were tested and proved negative for the virus.