The deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that swept through China in 2002/2003 killed 774 people. The novel coronavirus passed that grim total this weekend, with the death toll now at 811.
Struggling to contain the spread of the disease, authorities had told businesses to tack up to 10 extra days onto the Lunar New Year holidays that had been due to finish at the end of January. But now they must go back to work or risk a greater negative impact on the national economy.
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 kept schools shut.
The slowdown in the second-largest economy on the planet, which is considered the workshop of the world, is taking its toll on international financial markets, as shares slumped and investors switched into safe-havens like gold, bonds and the Japanese yen.
An American hospitalized in the central city of Wuhan, 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.
Even with the rising numbers, many people don’t trust that the Chinese government is telling the truth.
One exchange on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, included the following exchange:
“What’s even more frustrating is that these are only the ‘official’ data.”
“Don’t say anything else. We all know we can’t purchase masks anywhere, why are we still going back to work?”
“More than 20,000 doctors and nurses around the country have been sent to Hubei, but why are the numbers still rising?”
The total of confirmed cases in China stood at 37,198.
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. This is especially an issue in some of the more rural areas.”
The virus has spread to 27 countries and regions, with 330 people infected outside of China.