By Kevin Yao and Winni Zhou
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The economic and diplomatic costs of China’s coronavirus epidemic mounted on Monday with investors knocking $400 billion off the value of stocks and the government accusing the United States of over-reacting to the outbreak and whipping up panic.
The number of deaths in China from the newly identified virus, which emerged in Wuhan city in the central province of Hubei in December, had risen to 361 as of Sunday, up 57 from the previous day, the National Health Commission said.
China’s markets plunged at the open in their first session after an extended Lunar New Year break that began on Jan. 23, when the virus had claimed only 17 lives in Wuhan.
Since then, the flu-like virus has been declared a global emergency and spread to about two dozen 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 as well due to restrictions on flights to and from the country, and bans on travellers from China.
The government pointed a finger of blame at the United States saying it had acted to create and spread fear instead of offering any significant assistance.
The United States was the first country to suggest the partial withdrawal of its embassy staff, and the first to impose a travel ban on Chinese travellers, said Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
“All it has done could only create and spread fear, which is a bad example,” Hua told an online news briefing, adding that China hoped countries would make judgements and responses that were reasonable, calm and based on science.
Relations with the United States have been strained over the past year, largely over trade.
TRAVEL AND TRADE
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern but it has also said travel bans are unnecessary.
“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.”
Jittery investors erased almost $400 billion from Chinese stocks, with the index down almost 8%, its worst daily drop in four years
The yuan had its worst day since August and Shanghai-traded commodities from oil to hit their maximum down limits.
The wipeout came even as the central bank made its biggest cash input into financial markets since 2004 – with an injection of 1.2 trillion yuan ($173.8 billion) of liquidity into the markets via reverse repo operations – and despite apparent regulatory moves to curb selling.
Investors had been bracing for volatility when onshore trade in stocks, bonds, yuan and commodities resumed, following a steep global selldown on fears about the impact of the virus on the world’s second-biggest economy.
Beijing also said it would help firms that produce vital goods resume work as soon as possible, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
But while stock markets reopened, most provinces have extended the holiday to try to contain the virus, with workers in Hubei not scheduled to return until after Feb. 13.
The number of new confirmed infections in China rose by 2,829, bringing the total to 17,205.
The WHO reported at least 151 confirmed cases have been reported in 23 other countries and regions, including the United States, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Britain.
CHINA OPENS FAST-BUILT HOSPITAL
A 1,000-bed hospital built in just eight days to treat people with the virus in Wuhan will begin to take patients on Monday, state media said. More than 7,500 workers took part in the project, launched on Jan. 25 and finished this weekend.
A second hospital in Wuhan with 1,600 beds is due to be ready on Feb. 5.
While countries have been trying to block the virus with travel bans, they have also been getting stranded citizens out of Wuhan.
The United States, which flew people out last week, is planning “a handful more flights” while Russia is due to start evacuating its citizens from Wuhan on Monday. It has also suspended direct passenger trains link.
Australia evacuated 243 people, many of them children, from Wuhan on Monday and will quarantine them on a remote island.
Australia on Saturday followed the United States in barring entry to all foreign nationals travelling from mainland China.
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.
It has created alarm because it is spreading quickly and there are still important unknowns surrounding it, such as its death rate and whether it is able to spread before any symptoms show.
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.
For a graphic comparing coronavirus outbreaks, see https://tmsnrt.rs/2GK6YVK