BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The coronavirus death of a Chinese doctor who had been reprimanded for sounding an early warning about the disease triggered anger at the government on Friday, while a major cruise line took the extraordinary step of banning citizens of China regardless of when they were last there.
The death of Li Wenliang, 34, came as President Xi Jinping reassured the United States and the World Health Organization (WHO) of transparency and maximum effort to combat the virus.
Beijing’s communist leadership has sealed off cities, canceled flights and closed factories to limit an epidemic roiling the world’s second-biggest economy with ripple effects felt by global markets and businesses dependent on Chinese supply lines.
The epicenter province of Hubei and its capital Wuhan are in lockdown, and Beijing resembles a ghost town.
Deaths in mainland China reached 637 on Friday, with a total of 31,211 cases, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva, warning of a worldwide shortage of gowns, masks and other protective equipment.
“For the last two days there had been fewer reported infections in China, which is good news, but we caution against reading too much into that,” he told the WHO Executive Board.
“The numbers could go up again.” Graphic: Comparing new coronavirus to SARS and MERS – here
Global equity markets and government debt yields slumped on Friday, as growing concerns about the impact of the virus on global growth overshadowed a strong U.S. jobs report.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday said the State Department “has facilitated the transportation of nearly 17.8 tons of donated medical supplies to the Chinese people, including masks, gowns, gauze, respirators and other vital materials.”
Ophthalmologist Li was among eight people reprimanded by police in the city of Wuhan, which has suffered the brunt of the outbreak since the virus emerged there, for spreading “illegal and false” information.
Li was made to sign a letter on Jan. 3, saying he had “severely disrupted social order” and was threatened with charges.
Social media users called him a hero and shared a selfie of him lying on a hospital bed wearing an oxygen respirator and holding up his Chinese identification card. One image showed the message “farewell Li Wenliang” etched into snow on a riverbank.
“Wuhan indeed owes Li Wenliang an apology,” said Hu Xilinx, editor of the government-backed Global Times tabloid.
Rights group Amnesty International called his death a “tragic reminder” of how China’s preoccupation with stability made it suppress vital information.
China had been accused of trying to cover up the 2003 SARS outbreak that killed almost 800 people worldwide.
There were signs that discussion of Li’s death was being censored. Graphic: Tracking the novel coronavirus – here
After briefly trending on Weibo, the topics “the Wuhan government owes doctor Li Wenliang an apology” and “we want free speech” yielded no search results.
The virus has spread around the world, with 320 cases now in 27 countries and regions outside mainland China, a Reuters tally of official statements showed.
WHO emergency expert Mike Ryan called out a stigma being attached to the virus over reports of Asians being shunned in the West. “The unnecessary, unhelpful profiling of individuals based on ethnicity is utterly and completely unacceptable and it needs to stop,” he said.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd (RCL.N) issued a statement on Friday saying: “Any guest or crewmen traveling from, to, or through mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau less than 15 days prior to their sailing will be unable to board any of our ships.”
But it did not stop there. It also said, “Any guests holding a Chinese, Hong Kong or Macau passport, regardless of when they were there last, will not be allowed to board our ships.”
China has complained bitterly about bans and measures that go against WHO recommendations and accused governments and companies that take such actions of fear mongering.
Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China, in Hong Kong and the Philippines, but how deadly and contagious the virus is remains unclear, prompting countries to quarantine hundreds of people and cut travel links with China.
About two dozen sick passengers aboard a Royal Caribbean ship that arrived off New Jersey in the United States were screened for the coronavirus, with four sent to a local hospital out of “an abundance of caution,” the local mayor said.
There were 41 new cases among about 3,700 people quarantined in a cruise ship off Japan, taking the total to 61, while Chinese-ruled Hong Kong quarantined for a third day a cruise ship with 3,600 on board.
“A cruise ship is a very particular environment in which you can have higher levels of transmission even with a virus that isn’t very efficient at transmission,” WHO’s Ryan told a news conference in Geneva.
The outbreak could have spread from bats to humans via illegal traffic of pangolins, the world’s only scaly mammals, Chinese researchers said, sparking some scepticism.
The head of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice, Li Fuying, told reporters that people deliberately concealing contacts or refusing isolation could be punished with death.
Reporting by Se Young Lee and Brenda Goh; Additional reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing, Yilei Sun in Shanghai, Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru, Silvia Aloisi in Milan, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London, Gabriella Borter in New York and Stephanie Umer-Nebehay in Geneva ; Writing by Nick Macfie, Andrew Cawthorne and Bill Berkrot; Editing by Giles Elgood, Andrew Heavens and Cynthia Osterman