China has expanded its lockdown against the deadly new virus to an unprecedented 36 million people as it rushes to build a prefabricated, 1,000-bed hospital for victims, as the death toll from the outbreak continues to rise, casting a pall over Lunar New Year, the country’s biggest and most festive holiday.
The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus around the world climbed sharply to more than 1,287, with at least 41 deaths reported from China as of Saturday morning.
As the death toll continues to rise, the government in the southern city of Haikou announced on Saturday that beginning at noon, local time, it will start a 14-day centralised medical observation for all tourists coming from Hubei province, the epicentre of the virus.
Tourists from Hubei, especially from Wuhan city, are not allowed to leave the hotel where the medical observation will be held during the 14-day period, the announcement said.
Meanwhile, Australian authorities on Saturday confirmed its first case of the deadly infection.
In a news conference in Melbourne, Victoria’s state Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said a Chinese man aged in his 50s who last week returned from China had contracted the newly identified coronavirus.
Elsewhere, France announced late on Friday its third case of the virus – the first cases in Europe. And the United States reported its second case, involving a Chicago woman in her 60s who was hospitalised after returning from China.
In China, transportation was shut down in Wuhan – home to 11 million people and the epicentre of the outbreak – and at least 12 other cities in central China’s Hubei province, encompassing a population bigger than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.
Authorities in Beijing and other Chinese cities cancelled many public celebrations and other events marking the Lunar New Year, which falls on Saturday.
Hospitals in Wuhan grappled with a flood of patients and a lack of supplies. Videos circulating online showed throngs of frantic people in masks lined up for examinations, with some complaining their family members were turned away at hospitals that were at capacity.
Authorities in Wuhan and elsewhere put out calls for medicine, disinfection equipment, masks, goggles, gowns and other protective gear.
“I don’t think this virus has been properly controlled,” a woman in Beijing told Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler. “I am very afraid of getting infected.”
New hospital in 10 days
Wuhan authorities said they are rapidly constructing a new hospital to deal with the crisis, to be completed by February 3.
It will be modelled on a SARS hospital that was built in Beijing in just six days during the SARS outbreak.
The seriousness of the crisis was still an open question.
It was not clear just how lethal the virus is, or even whether it is as dangerous as ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the US alone.
Scientists say it is also not clear if it spreads as easily as SARS, its genetic cousin, which also originated in China and killed about 800 people in 2002-2003.
The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse. It could instead reflect better monitoring and reporting of the newly discovered virus, whose symptoms can initially resemble those of the cold and flu, including cough, fever and shortness of breath, but can worsen to pneumonia.
“It’s still too early to draw conclusions about how severe the virus is because, at the beginning of any outbreak, you would focus more on the severe cases,” said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva.
“And then maybe we are missing some mild cases because people will just be a little bit sick and will not have it tested. And they will recover.”
Tourism hit during festive season
With authorities afraid that public gatherings will hasten the spread of the virus, temples locked their doors while Beijing’s Forbidden City, Shanghai Disneyland and other major tourist destinations were closed.
People cancelled restaurant reservations before the Lunar New Year, normally a time of family reunions, sightseeing trips, fireworks displays and other festivities in the country of 1.4 billion people.
Wuhan’s usually bustling streets, malls and other public spaces were quiet on the second day of its lockdown, and masks were mandatory in public.
Shoppers emptied store shelves, stocking up for what could be an extended period of isolation. Karaoke bars, movie theatres and internet cafes around the region were shut down.
While most of the deaths have been older patients, a 36-year-old man in Hubei died on Thursday.
The vast majority of cases have been in and around Wuhan or involved people who visited the city or had personal connections to those infected.
About two dozen cases in all have been confirmed outside mainland China, most of them in Asia Hong Kong, Macao, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Many countries are screening travellers from China and isolating anyone with symptoms.
Chinese officials have not said how long the shutdowns of the cities will last.
Recalling the government’s initial cover-up of SARS, many Chinese are suspicious of the case numbers reported by officials. Authorities have promised transparency.
China’s cabinet, the State Council, announced it will be collecting information on government departments that have failed in their response to the outbreak, including “delays, concealment and under-reporting of the epidemic.”
The state broadcaster CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala program, which attracted more than a billion viewers last year, paid tribute to the medical workers fighting the outbreak.
“Please believe in China,” the hosts said. “With the most transparent public information … on the battlefront of the epidemic, we will definitely win.”