Hong Kong announces new border closures, as China’s coronavirus death toll overtakes SARS

Hong Kong CNN  — 

In a matter of weeks, the number of Wuhan coronavirus deaths in mainland China has overtaken the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in the country, as Beijing injected billions of dollars into an economy hit by effective shutdowns to major cities.

Since its outbreak in December, more than 360 people have died of the disease in China, the country’s health authorities said Monday. The total number of cases in mainland China stood at 17,205 as of Sunday evening, an increase of over 2,800 on the previous day, or almost 20%.

The 2003 outbreak of SARS – another coronavirus strand – infected 5,327 people in mainland China, with 349 deaths. There were 8,098 confirmed cases of SARS worldwide from November 2002 to July 2003, with 774 deaths globally.

The first death from the virus outside China was confirmed over the weekend. Philippine health officials said that a 44-year-old Chinese man died Saturday after flying into the country from Wuhan.

So far, more than 180 cases have been reported outside of China – the majority of them with a direct link to the country – across more than 25 countries and territories worldwide. Many countries have begun closing their borders to visitors from China, with major airlines canceling flights to and from the country.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Monday announced new border closures over the Wuhan virus, amid intense public pressure to stop anyone crossing into the city from mainland China. Lam said further measures were being taken “to ensure the control of the boundary control points to reduce people movement across the border,” but fell short of a complete sealing off of the city.

Germany confirmed its 10th case on Sunday, and there were also new cases reported in South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Macao and Hong Kong. The United States, Australia and New Zealand have all announced that they will not allow foreign nationals who have traveled from or transited through China to enter. Nationals from those countries will face mandatory quarantine on arrival.

The G7 nations will hold a joint telephone conference to discuss how to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, German Health Minister Jens Spahn announced after talking with his American counterpart Alex Azar on Sunday.

Economic pain

In China, Monday is supposed to be the first day back at work after an extended Lunar New Year holiday ended on February 2.

However much of the country will not be returning, with multiple local authorities extending the break in an attempt to avoid further spread of the virus. Hubei, the central Chinese province of which Wuhan is the capital, will lengthen its holiday by an “appropriate extent,” authorities said Saturday, while Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and the manufacturing provinces of Guangdong and Zhejiang will also reportedly remain on holiday until at least next week.

With much of China’s economic heartland still closed, concerns are growing over the impact to the Chinese economy. The Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets – which have been closed since January 24 – plunged by around 10% on opening Monday.

The People’s Bank of China said Sunday it would inject 1.2 trillion yuan ($173 billion) into the Chinese markets in order to ensure “reasonably ample liquidity” in the banking system and keep currency markets stable.

The net amount of liquidity being injected into the markets will be much lower, however. According to Reuters calculations using central bank data, more than 1 trillion yuan worth of other short-term bond sales will mature Monday. That brings the net amount of cash flooding into the markets down to 150 billion yuan ($21.4 billion).

State news agency Xinhua on Monday published a defiant commentary headlined “Chinese economy resilient enough to counter virus shock.”

“The epidemic will eventually come to an end, just like the winter will fade away. The negative implications of the virus on the Chinese economy will be short-lived, and the economic fundamentals are solid enough to withstand its blow,” Xinhua said. “Doomsayers take this chance to hype again the China-collapse theory. But seasoned observers disagree.”

It quoted a former chief economist at the Asian Development Bank saying that while the economic impact in the first quarter will likely be big, perhaps driving nationwide annual growth down a percentage point, “it will be substantially offset by above-the-trend growth in the rest of the year if the epidemic can be contained soon.”

Fight to control the virus

In Wuhan itself, the epicenter of the virus outbreak where most of the deaths have been reported, there was a glimmer of hope Monday, as the first of two purpose-built hospitals opened for business.

The hospitals, built in about a week by thousands of workers on round-the-clock shifts and based on a similar plan used during the 2003 SARS outbreak, will be run by People’s Liberation Army medical personnel.

They will add thousands of extra beds to Wuhan’s extremely strained medical system. Thousands of health workers, including PLA medics, have also been dispatched to help out in ordinary hospitals in the city and other parts of Hubei.

But while Wuhan should be seeing some additional capacity Monday, Hong Kong will be seeing the opposite. Health care workers in the semi-autonomous Chinese city began a five-day strike on Monday over what they see as the failure of the city’s government to fully shut the border with China. They are demanding a full border closure and greater support from the government.

In announcing the new border closures, Lam said further measures were being taken “to ensure the control of the boundary control points to reduce people movement across the border,” but fell short of completely sealing off the city.

Lam said the main land borders at Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau would shut as of midnight tonight, as would the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal.

That will leave all but three border crossings between Hong Kong and mainland China closed. Those which remain open are the city’s international airport, the Shenzhen Bay border and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.

There is widespread fear in Hong Kong – where 15 coronavirus cases have been confirmed so far – of a repeat of SARS, which infected more than 1,700 people and killed 286 in 2003.

Most front line medical workers will not strike, their unions said, in order to continue serving the public, but backroom and support staff will walk out.