As coronavirus spreads, Chinese president admits his country facing ‘grave situation’

People wearing facemasks walk through a train station on the second day of the Lunar New Year of the Rat in Hong Kong on January 26, 2020, as a preventative measure following a coronavirus outbreak which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. (AFP)
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Updated 26 January 2020

As coronavirus spreads, Chinese president admits his country facing ‘grave situation’

  • According to state broadcaster, virus death toll in China has reached 56
  • Experts question the effectiveness of airport screenings of passengers from China

SHANGHAI: More than 2,000 people have been infected with a new coronavirus, the vast majority in China where 56 people have died from it, and the United States said it will evacuate some of its citizens from the city at the center of the outbreak.
President Xi Jinping said during a politburo meeting on Saturday that China was facing a “grave situation,” as health authorities around the world scrambled to prevent a pandemic.
The virus, believed to have originated late last year in a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife, has spread to Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Australia, France, and Canada.
On Sunday, China announced a nationwide ban on the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants, and e-commerce platforms. Wild and often poached animals packed together in Chinese markets are blamed as incubators for viruses to evolve and jump the species barrier to humans.
Snakes, peacocks, crocodiles and other species can also be found for sale via Taobao, an e-commerce website run by Alibaba.
The US State Department said it will relocate personnel at its Wuhan consulate to the United States and will offer a limited number of seats to private US citizens on a Jan. 28 flight to San Francisco.
The World Health Organization this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can continue to contain the epidemic.
On Sunday, China confirmed 1,975 cases of patients infected with the new coronavirus as of Jan. 25, while the death toll from the virus has risen to 56, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The outbreak has prompted widening curbs on movements within China, with Wuhan, a city of 11 million, on virtual lockdown, with transports links all-but severed except for emergency vehicles.
Health authorities in Beijing urged people not to shake hands but instead salute using a traditional cupped-hand gesture. The advice was sent in a text message that went out to mobile phone users in the city on Sunday morning.
Cancellation and mistrust
The outbreak has overshadowed the start of the Lunar New Year, which is typically a festive time of year, with public events canceled and many tourist sites shut. Many people on social media have been calling for the week-long holiday to be extended to help prevent further spread of the virus.
WeChat, China’s ubiquitous messaging app, warned that it could ban accounts spreading rumors.
China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after a cover-up of the spread of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002/2003 eroded public trust, but officials in Wuhan have been criticized for their handling of the current outbreak.
“People in my hometown all suspect the real infected patients' number given by authorities,” said Violet Li, who lives in the Wuhan district where the seafood market is located.
“I go out with a mask twice a day to walk the dog — that’s the only outdoor activity,” she told Reuters by text message.
Many cinemas across China are also closed with major film premieres postponed, slashing revenues. Theaters in the country took in just 1.81 million yuan ($262,167) from tickets on Saturday, a tiny fraction of the 1.46 billion yuan on the Lunar New Year Day in 2019, according to data from movie-ticketing company Maoyan.
Cruise operators including Royal Caribbean Cruises, Costa Cruises, MSC Cruises, and Astro Ocean Cruises said that they canceled a combined 12 cruises that had been scheduled to embark from Chinese ports before February 2.
Virus spreading outside China
On Saturday, Hong Kong declared a virus emergency, scrapped celebrations and restricted links to mainland China.
Hong Kong Disneyland and the city’s Ocean Park theme park were closed on Sunday. Shanghai Disneyland, which expected 100,000 visitors daily through the Lunar New Year holidays, has already closed.
In Hong Kong, with five confirmed cases, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said on Saturday that flights and high-speed rail trips between the city and Wuhan will be halted. Schools in Hong Kong that are currently on Lunar New Year holidays will remain closed until Feb. 17.
On Saturday, Canada declared the first “presumptive” confirmed case of the virus in a resident who had returned from Wuhan. The patient, a male in his 50s, arrived in Toronto on Jan. 22 and was hospitalized the next day after developing symptoms of respiratory illness, officials said.
Australia confirmed its first four cases on Saturday, Malaysia confirmed four and France reported Europe’s first cases on Friday.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are still many unknowns surrounding it, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
There are fears transmission could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel during the holiday, although many have canceled their plans and airlines and railways in China are providing full refunds for tickets.
Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of such screenings.
In an illustration of how such efforts could miss cases, doctors at a Paris hospital said two of the three Chinese nationals in France who have been diagnosed with the virus had arrived in the country without showing any symptoms.
A report by infectious disease specialists at Imperial College, London on Saturday said the epidemic “represents a clear and ongoing global health threat,” adding: “It is uncertain at the current time whether it is possible to contain the continuing epidemic within China.”


Prayers at fire-bombed mosques as India’s riot toll grows

Updated 28 February 2020

Prayers at fire-bombed mosques as India’s riot toll grows

  • 180 men prayed on the rooftop of a mosque that was set on fire in the Tuesday unrest
  • The 72-hour clash between Hindus and Muslims left at least 38 dead and hundreds injured

NEW DELHI: Muslims in a northeastern neighborhood of India’s capital returned for weekly prayers at fire-bombed mosques on Friday, two days after a 72-hour clash between Hindus and Muslims that left at least 38 dead and hundreds injured.
Five days after they started, it was still unclear exactly what sparked the riots — the worst communal violence in New Delhi in decades — and the death toll at hospitals was continuing to rise.
“If they burn our mosques, we will rebuild them again and pray. It’s our religious right and nobody can stop us from practicing our religion,” said Mohammad Sulaiman, who was among about 180 men who prayed on the rooftop of a mosque that was set on fire in the unrest.
Tensions between Hindu hard-liners and Muslims protesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s Hindu-first policies had been building for months when they exploded Sunday night, on the eve of US President Donald Trump’s first state visit to India.
Kapil Mishra, a local leader of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party who lost his Delhi state assembly seat in recent elections, demanded at a rally Sunday that police shut down a Muslim-led protest in the city or else he and his followers would do it themselves.
And it appears they did.
Hindus and Muslims who had lived side by side for centuries attacked each other with guns and swords, metal rods and axes, leaving the streets where the rioting occurred resembling a war zone.
There was a heavy police presence in the neighborhood on Friday. On one riot-torn street, Hindus shouted “Jai Shri Ram,” or Long Live Ram, the Hindu god, as Muslims attempted to reach a mosque damaged in the riots.
Several Muslim residents told The Associated Press that most Muslim families had locked up their homes and fled the area.
The passage of a citizenship law in December that fast-tracks naturalization for some religious minorities from neighboring countries but not Muslims earlier spurred massive protests across India that left 23 dead.
The protest violence is the latest in a long line of periodic communal clashes that date to the British partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, when the country was split into secular, Hindu-majority India and the Islamic state of Pakistan.
The protection of India’s religious, cultural and linguistic diversity is enshrined in its constitution. But communal tensions have occasionally flared into deadly riots, beginning with partition itself, when Hindus living in what is now Pakistan migrated to India, and Muslims in modern India to Pakistan.
Clashes claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and people of other religions.
This week’s death toll marked the worst religiously motivated violence in New Delhi since 1984, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards, triggering a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 Sikhs in the capital and more than 8,000 nationwide.
In 1992, tens of thousands of Hindu extremists razed a 16th-century mosque in northern India, claiming that it stood on Ram’s birthplace. Nearly 2,000 people were killed across the country in the riots that followed.
The religious polarization that followed saw Modi’s right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party emerge as the single largest party in India’s Parliament.
In 2002, the western Indian state of Gujarat erupted in violence when a train filled with Hindu pilgrims was attacked by a Muslim mob. A fire erupted — it remains unclear whether it was arson — and 60 Hindus burned to death. In retaliation, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the state.
Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time. He was accused of tacit support for the rampage against Muslims, but a court ultimately cleared him of wrongdoing.
Violent large-scale clashes between Hindus and Muslims last took place in New Delhi in 2014, months after Modi’s party came to power, in a largely poor neighborhood close to where this week’s rioting occurred. That violence left three dozen people injured.
Ashutosh Varshney, a professor at Brown University who wrote a book about Indian riots, said the worst has been averted — at least for now.
“If it had reached the scale of Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2002, it would have doomed Indian politics for many years to come and brought India closer to the kind of Hindu-Muslim polarization that the current ruling party would ideally want, but is finding it hard to manufacture,” Varshney said.
BJP leaders, who have sought to demonize Muslim protesters as a threat to India, may see some gain from the violence, Varshney said.
But it comes at a cost, the international perception that India under Modi has become ungovernable, he said.
Government spokesman Raveesh Kumar denied the Modi government had inflamed religious tensions in India and failed to protect minority Muslims.
“These are factually inaccurate and misleading, and appear to be aimed at politicizing the issue,” he said. “Our law enforcement agencies are working on the ground to prevent violence and ensure restoration of confidence and normalcy.”
He added that Modi had “publicly appealed for peace and brotherhood.”
“We would urge that irresponsible comments are not made at this sensitive time,” he said.