China sends army medics to overwhelmed virus epicentre

China deploys army medics to overwhelmed virus epicentre

The virus emerged at a bad time for containment, with hundreds of millions of Chinese rushing home for the holiday

A woman wearing a protective facemask to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, walks on a street in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on January 25, 2020. (AFP Photo)

The Chinese army deployed medical specialists Saturday to the epicentre of a spiralling viral outbreak that has killed 41 people and spread around the world, as millions spent their normally festive Lunar New Year holiday under lockdown.

The country's most important celebration has been all but cancelled for some 56 million people as authorities expanded travel bans in central Hubei province, now affecting 18 cities.

On Saturday, when they should have been celebrating, citizens of Wuhan stood in line at a pharmacy to buy masks from employees in full-body protective suits and surgical gloves.

On the eastern outskirts of Wuhan -- Hubei's capital and the source of the previously unknown 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) -- police manning a roadblock turned away a handful of vehicles trying to exit the city.

"Nobody can leave," an officer told AFP.

But the police allowed some medical workers who had gone home for the holidays to re-enter the city to help at overwhelmed hospitals.

"They need us to go there, otherwise they will be too exhausted," said one of the women, pulling a suitcase.

But the respiratory contagion continues to spread.

The nationwide death toll has jumped to 41, the government said Saturday, after 15 more people died in Wuhan.

Confirmed infections also surged to 1,287, up from 830 reported 24 hours earlier. Most of the deaths and overall cases have been in Hubei.

In a dramatic escalation of the central government's involvement, China deployed 450 military medical staff to Wuhan, state media said.

The medics, who arrived on military aircraft late Friday, include doctors with experience combating SARS or Ebola and will be dispatched to hospitals that are reportedly short on beds due to a crush of infected patients and worried locals.

The National Health Commission also ordered nationwide measures to detect people carrying the virus on planes, trains and buses across the country.

"Everyone is just trying to protect themselves," said a man in a surgical mask at a Wuhan pharmacy where customers were stocking up on masks, gloves and disinfectant.

But the man, who declined to give his name, expressed confidence in Chinese authorities.

"The government is handling this. It's not a problem."

The virus has caused global concern because of its similarity to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed hundreds across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003 and spread to a number of other countries.

It has now spread nationwide and to a dozen other countries, with France saying three cases had been confirmed there -- the first known European infections.

Australia and Malaysia on Saturday became the latest countries to confirm infections.

Beijing's Forbidden City, Shanghai Disneyland, and a section of the Great Wall are among many attractions that have closed as a precaution.

The New Year is usually a joyous occasion for family reunions, but not for many in Wuhan.

"Usually we celebrate as a family. Now, because of the virus I'm not even visiting my parents," said Wang Fang, a 49-year-old Wuhan native.

"It'll be great just to be able to make it through (the outbreak)."

China's aggressive response has won praise, especially compared to its handling of SARS, when it was accused of reacting sluggishly and stonewalling the international community.

"China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus," US President Donald Trump tweeted, hours after the United States confirmed its second case.

"The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency," he added.

"It will all work out well."

The timing could limit the economic impact, however, since much of China normally shuts down anyway during the roughly week-long break.

The outbreak emerged in late December, traced to a Wuhan seafood and live animal market that sold a vast range of exotic animals and other bushmeat.

The World Health Organization on Thursday stopped short of declaring a global emergency, which would have prompted greater international cooperation, including possible trade and travel restrictions.

Wuhan resembles a ghost town due to the clampdown, but hospitals bustled with worried patients being screened by staff wearing full-body protective suits.

The city's Guiyuan Temple is normally thronged for the Lunar New Year with tens of thousands of devotees paying respects to a deity associated with wealth.

But police manning a roadblock on Saturday turned away AFP journalists, saying the temple was closed to prevent the virus's spread.

Authorities began building a new field hospital in Wuhan to deal with the outbreak, which state media said could be ready in 10 days.

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