Passengers wearing masks walk outside the Shanghai railway station in Shanghai, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of a new coronavirus on February 7. (REUTERS Photo)
SHANGHAI/BEIJING, February 9 (Reuters): China raised the death toll from the coronavirus epidemic to 811 on Sunday, passing the number killed globally by the SARS epidemic in 2002/2003, as millions prepare to return to work after an extended Lunar New Year break.
Authorities had told businesses to tack up to 10 extra days onto holidays that had been due to finish at the end of January as the rising numbers of dead and infected cast a pall over the country.
Many of China's usually teeming cities have almost become ghost towns during the past two weeks as Communist Party rulers ordered virtual lockdowns, cancelled flights, closed factories and shut schools.
The sight of an economy regarded as a workshop to the world laid so low has taken a toll on international financial markets, as shares slumped and investors switched into safe-havens like gold, bonds and the Japanese yen.
Even on Monday, a large number of workplaces and schools will remain closed and many white-collar employees will work from home.
China has blocked a plan by Apple Inc supplier Foxconn Technology Co Ltd to resume production in China from Monday, the Nikkei business daily reported.
Gaming giant Tencent Holdings Ltd said on Sunday it had asked staff to continue working from home until Feb. 21.
Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, will keep schools shut until March 1, the People's Daily newspaper said. Several provinces have shut schools until the end of February.
NEW DEATHS, DISMAY, MISTRUST
The new deaths on Saturday reached another daily record at 89, data from the National Health Commission showed, pushing the total well over the 774 who died from SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
An American hospitalised in the central city of Wuhan in Hubei province, where the outbreak began, became the first confirmed non-Chinese victim of the disease. The Washington Post identified him as Hong Ling, a 53-year old geneticist who studied rare diseases at Berkeley. A Japanese man who also died in Wuhan was another suspected victim.
As millions of Chinese prepared to go back to work, the public dismay and mistrust of official numbers was evident on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.
"What's even more frustrating is that these are only the 'official' data," said one user.
"Don't say anything else. We all know we can't purchase masks anywhere, why are we still going back to work?" said a second.
"More than 20,000 doctors and nurses around the country have been sent to Hubei, but why are the numbers still rising?" asked a third.
Among the latest deaths, 81 were in Hubei, where the virus has infected most people by far. New deaths in Wuhan, Hubei's capital, saw a rare decline.
New infection cases on Saturday recorded the first drop since Feb. 1, falling back below 3,000 to 2,656 cases. Of those, 2,147 cases were in Hubei.
Total confirmed coronavirus cases in China stood at 37,198, commission data showed.
Joseph Eisenberg, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, said it was too early to say whether the epidemic was peaking.
"Even if reported cases might be peaking, we don't know what is happening with unreported cases," he said. "This is especially an issue in some of the more rural areas."
The virus has spread to 27 countries and regions, according to a Reuters count based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China - in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Both victims were Chinese nationals.
ALARM IN EUROPE, UNITED STATES AND ASIA
Major cities and capitals announced new travel restrictions as concern over the spread of the virus increased.
Chinese-ruled Hong Kong introduced a two-week quarantine on Saturday for all people arriving from the mainland, or who have been there during the previous 14 days. Malaysia expanded its ban on visitors from China.
France issued a new travel advisory for its citizens, saying it did not recommend travelling to China unless there was an "imperative" reason. Italy asked children travelling from China to stay away from school for two weeks voluntarily.
The latest patients outside China include five British nationals staying in the same chalet at a ski village in Haute-Savoie in the Alps, French health officials said, raising fears of further infections at a busy period in the ski season.
Britain's final evacuation flight from Wuhan, landed at a Royal Air Force base in central England on Sunday with 200 people on board and a plane with 266 evacuees landed on Sunday in Darwin, Australia, SBS broadcaster said.
Singapore also said it had organised a second evacuation flight for 174 Singaporeans and their family members in Wuhan.
The island has reported 40 cases of coronavirus, putting it among the hardest hit countries, along with Japan, outside of China.
On Sunday, the central bank in the Asian financial hub advised financial institutions to step up precautions for staff, after the government raised its response to the virus on Friday to "orange", a level also adopted during SARS and the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 influenza.
Organisers of the Singapore Airshow 2020 expect this week's event to draw less than half the crowd seen on public days at the last show in 2018.
"It's getting worse & more scarier. I fear for my family, every Singaporean & ppl all over the world," Ramesha Beham posted on Facebook.