By Se Young Lee and Brenda Goh
BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Feb 7 – A major cruise line on Friday took the extraordinary step of banning citizens of China regardless of when they were last there, while there was sorrow and anger over the coronavirus death of a doctor from Wuhan who had been reprimanded for sounding an early warning about the disease.
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, cancelled 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 epicentre province of Hubei and its capital Wuhan are in lockdown, and Beijing resembles a ghost town.
Apple Inc, however, said it was working to reopen its China corporate offices and call centres next week, and was making preparations to reopen retail stores there.
After two days in which Hubei reported fewer new cases of coronavirus and deaths, spurring some optimism, there was an uptick on Friday.
The Hubei health commission website reported 82 new deaths and 2,841 new cases in the province, taking the mainland China totals to more than 700 deaths and over 34,000 infections
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking in Geneva, had cautioned earlier that “the numbers could go up again,” and warned of worldwide shortages of gowns, masks and other protective equipment.
Global equity markets and government debt yields slumped on Friday, as growing concerns about the virus’ impact on global growth overshadowed a strong U.S. jobs report.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday said the United States was prepared to spend up to $100 million to assist China and support coronavirus efforts by the WHO.
The United States has sent nearly 17.8 tons of medical supplies to China, including masks, gowns and respirators, a State Department official said.
The WHO said out of $675 million it is seeking for its coronavirus response through April, it has received pledges of $110 million, $100 million of that from the Gates Foundation.
‘A TRAGIC REMINDER’
Ophthalmologist Li was among eight people reprimanded by police in 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 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 Xijin, 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. 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.
CHINA CITIZENS BANNED
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 said reports of Asians being shunned in the West over a perceived connection to coronavirus was “utterly and completely unacceptable and it needs to stop.”
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd 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.
Four sick passengers aboard a Royal Caribbean ship that arrived off New Jersey in the United States were sent to a 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 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)