Brutal blow for epicentre of coronavirus outbreak after weeks in lockdown

The epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak was delivered a brutal blow after residents thought their lockdown would be eased.

Chinese President Xi Jinping urged businesses to get back to work though he said the epidemic was still "severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage".

Yunnan, Guangdong, Shanxi and Guizhou provinces lowered their coronavirus emergency response measures from the most serious level, joining the provinces of Gansu and Liaoning to relax restrictions on movements.

Excluding central Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, mainland China reported 11 new cases, the lowest since the national health authority started publishing nationwide figures on January 20.

Volunteers in protective suits are being disinfected in a line in Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Source: China Daily/Reuters

In the Hubei capital of Wuhan, where its 11 million people have been under virtual lockdown for weeks, officials even said healthy people would be allowed to leave the city for crucial operations, but authorities later revoked that decision.

Fears of a coronavirus pandemic grew on Monday after sharp rises in new cases reported in Iran, Italy and South Korea but China relaxed restrictions on movements in several places including Beijing as its rates of new infections eased.

The surge of infections outside mainland China triggered steep falls in Asian shares and Wall Street stock futures as investors fled to safe havens such as gold. Oil prices tumbled and the Korean won fell to its lowest since August.

"There is lots of bad news on the coronavirus front," Shane Oliver, chief economist at Sydney-based wealth manager AMP, wrote in a note.

South Korea's fourth-largest city Daegu became more isolated due to a rapid increase in cases of infection, as Asiana Airlines and Korean Air suspended flights there until next month.

"If we cannot block the spread in the Daegu region in an effective way, there are high possibilities it would lead to a nationwide transmission," Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip told reporters.

Iran, which announced its first two cases on Wednesday, said it had confirmed 43 cases and eight deaths.

Most of the infections were in the Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Qom.

A businessman wears a face mask in the Central Business District in Beijing. Source: Reuters/Thomas Peter

More cases appeared in the Middle East with Bahrain reporting its first case, the state news agency said, and Kuwait reporting three cases in people who had been in Iran. Afghanistan also reported its first case.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan imposed travel and immigration restrictions on Iran.

In Europe, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said he would talk to his European counterparts soon to discuss how best to cope with a possible epidemic in Europe, after Italy reported a third death from the flu-like virus and 150 infections, from just three before Friday.

"Tonight, there is no epidemic in France. But there is a problematic situation at the door, in Italy, that we are watching with great attention," Veran told a news conference.

Epidemic is still ‘severe and complex’

In mainland China, where the virus originated late last year, more than 20 province-level jurisdictions, including Beijing and Shanghai, reported zero infections, the best showing since the outbreak began.

The coronavirus has infected nearly 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 in China, most in Hubei.

China reported 409 new cases on the mainland, down from 648 a day earlier, taking the total number of infections to 77,150 cases as of February 23. The death toll rose by 150 to 2592.

Xi said on Sunday the outbreak would have a relatively big, but short-term impact on the economy and the government would step up policy adjustments to help cushion the blow.

It was also allocated 99.5 billion yuan ($21.4 billion) to control the outbreak, a top official said.

People cross an empty street in the Central Business District in Beijing. Source: Reuters/Thomas Peter

Italian towns sealed off amid outbreak

Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to about 29 countries and territories, with a death toll of about two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

Italy sealed off the worst-affected towns and banned public gatherings in much of the north, including halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases, to try to contain the biggest outbreak in Europe.

Austria suspended train services over the Alps from Italy for about four hours after two travellers showed symptoms of fever. The train carrying about 300 passengers from Venice to Munich, in Germany, was allowed to continue after the two tested negative for the new coronavirus.

Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said a coronavirus task force would meet on Monday to discuss whether to introduce border controls with Italy.

A medical worker rests outside a hospital in Daegu, South Korea. Source: Yonhap/Reuters

In South Korea, authorities reported a seventh death and another 161 new cases on Monday, taking its total to 763. Of the new cases, 115 were linked to a church in the city of Daegu.

The government was conducting tests on about 9500 people who took part in services at a Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, also known as the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.

In Daegu and elsewhere, citizens flocked to supermarkets and pharmacies to buy surgical masks and supplies.

Japan had 773 cases as of late Sunday, mostly on a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo. A third passenger, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday.

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