The Chinese government’s response to an outbreak of a new coronavirus escalated on Friday, with more than 830 confirmed cases in the country. Authorities closed multiple tunnels and highways and shut down all major forms of public transportation in 14 cities in Hubei province, including Wuhan, the capital. The travel ban now restricts the movement of 35 million people during Lunar New Year, which drives the largest annual human migration.
Public concern over the coronavirus, which likely originated at a Wuhan meat market in December, reached new heights this week as the death toll rose to 26. Although most victims have been older than 65, health authorities in Wuhan announced on Friday the death of a 36-year-old man who didn’t have preexisting medical conditions. With no known virus-specific treatments, only the symptoms of the infection can be treated, and hospitals in Wuhan with a shortage of beds have been turning away patients. Crews in the city are rushing to build a 1,000-bed hospital in just 10 days.
While the vast majority of cases are in Hubei province, cities throughout China have taken significant precautions against the virus. Major cities have banned public Lunar New Year celebrations, and Beijing’s Forbidden City, parts of the Great Wall, and cinemas throughout the country have closed until further notice.
Yet concern over the Chinese media downplaying the public health crisis is growing. According to the Washington Post, a midday news program on Friday from state broadcaster CCTV showed President Xi Jinping and other government officials without masks at a Lunar New Year celebration and didn’t mention the outbreak. While China’s quarantine response to Wuhan has been criticized for “violating people’s rights,” the government’s lack of transparency in addressing the outbreak has been another source of frustration.
At least 23 cases of the coronavirus have been diagnosed outside of mainland China, including two in France, the first for Europe. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed a second case of the coronavirus in the U.S. The first case was confirmed on Tuesday in Washington state. The second patient, a woman in her 60s, visited Wuhan in late December and is being treated in Chicago, where she is “clinically doing well,” said Allison Arwady, the commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health. The CDC is monitoring 63 other possible cases of the infection in 22 states.
Despite the heightened response from China, the World Health Organization decided not to declare the coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern, a designation of extraordinary public health risk. “Make no mistake,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO, said at a news conference in Geneva on Thursday, “this is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”