China raised the death toll from its coronavirus outbreak to 811 on Sunday, passing the number killed globally by the SARS epidemic, as authorities made plans for millions of people returning to work after an extended Lunar New Year break.
Many of China’s usually teeming cities have almost become ghost towns during the past two weeks as Communist Party rulers ordered virtual lockdowns, canceled flights, closed factories and shut schools.
Even on Monday, a large number of workplaces and schools will remain closed and many white-collar employees will work from home.
The scale of the potential hit to an economy that has been the engine of global growth in recent years has taken a toll on financial markets, as shares slumped and investors switched into safe-havens such as gold, bonds and the Japanese yen.
China’s ambassador to Britain described the newly identified virus as “the enemy of mankind” in a BBC interview on Sunday, but added it “is controllable, is preventable, is curable”.
“At this moment is very difficult to predict when we are going to have an inflection point,” Liu Xiaoming said. “We certainly hope it will come soon, but the isolation and quarantine measures have been very effective.”
China’s cabinet said it would coordinate with transport authorities to ensure the smooth return to work of employees in key industries such as food and medicines.
The State Council’s special coronavirus group also said workers should return in “batches”, rather than all at once, in order to reduce infection risks.
China’s National Health Commission recorded another 89 deaths on Saturday, pushing the total well above the 774 who died from SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2002/2003.
Total confirmed coronavirus cases in China stood at 37,198, commission data showed. New infections recorded the first drop since Feb. 1, falling back below 3,000 to 2,656 cases. Of those, 2,147 cases were in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The virus has also spread to at least 27 countries and territories, according to a Reuters count based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China – both of Chinese nationals.
The latest patients outside China include a group of British nationals staying in a mountain village in Haute-Savoie in the Alps, French health officials said, raising fears of further infections at a busy period in the ski season.
A British man who contracted the virus while attending a conference in Singapore may have infected seven other people when he stopped off at a chalet in the French village on his way home, health experts said. Those infected include a British man diagnosed in Spain and a Briton found to have the disease in the UK, both of whom appeared to have been part of the chalet group.
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