China virus deaths near 1,400 mark; six medics among dead

15 Feb 2020

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HANGZHOU (China): A man holds a bouquet as he leaves a flower shop on Friday. Couples around China settled for a quiet Valentine’s Day in view of the deadly coronavirus outbreak in their country.—AFP
HANGZHOU (China): A man holds a bouquet as he leaves a flower shop on Friday. Couples around China settled for a quiet Valentine’s Day in view of the deadly coronavirus outbreak in their country.—AFP

BEIJING: The death toll from China’s virus epidemic neared 1,400 on Friday with six medical workers among the victims, underscoring the country’s struggle to contain a deepening health crisis.

Nearly 64,000 people are now recorded as having fallen ill from the virus in China, with officials revealing that 1,716 health workers had been infected as of Tuesday.

The grim figures come a week after grief and public anger erupted over the death of a whistleblowing doctor who had been reprimanded and silenced by police after raising the alarm about the virus in December.

The scale of the epidemic swelled this week after authorities in central Hubei province, the epicentre of the contagion, changed their criteria for counting cases, adding thousands of new patients to their tally.

The health emergency in China has caused fears of further global contagion, with more than two-dozen countries reporting hundreds of cases among them. Three people have died outside mainland China.

A majority of cases of infections among health workers was in Hubei’s capital, Wuhan, where many have lacked proper masks and gear to protect themselves in hospitals dealing with a deluge of patients.

After the death of whistleblower Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, 10 academics circulated an open letter calling for political reform and freedom of speech in the Communist-ruled country.

Under criticism over the handling of the crisis, the Communist Party sacked two top-ranking officials in Hubei, and replaced them with senior cadres with security backgrounds.

Battling the epidemic is a “big test for the country’s governance system and governance ability,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping, who chaired a political meeting on government reforms, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

The outbreak has exposed “shortcomings”, Xi acknowledged, adding that China needed to reform its public health and epidemic prevention and control systems.

Authorities in Hubei on Thursday started counting patients who were “clinically diagnosed” via lung imaging, in addition to those who undergo lab tests.

The revision added nearly 15,000 patients to Hubei’s count in a single day, with officials explaining that past cases were included.

On Friday, Hubei’s health commission said another 116 people had died and more than 4,800 new cases were reported. Of those cases, more than 3,000 were “clinically diagnosed”.

The WHO said the numbers included cases going back weeks.

The sharp one-day increase “does not represent a significant change in the trajectory of the outbreak,” said Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies programme.

The move will ensure patients get treated as early as possible, instead of having to wait for laboratory tests.

Published in Dawn, February 15th, 2020