SHANGHAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump offered China whatever help it needed on Monday to control a coronavirus outbreak that has killed 81 people, stranded tens of millions during the biggest holiday of the year and rattled global markets.
With provincial authorities taking increasing flak from the public over their initial response, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Wuhan city, epicentre of the outbreak, to encourage medical workers and promise reinforcements.
Global stocks fell, oil prices hit three-month lows, and China’s yuan dipped to its weakest in 2020 as investors fretted about damage to the world’s second-biggest economy from travel bans and an extended Lunar New Year holiday.
“We are in very close communication with China concerning the virus,” tweeted Trump, who waged a bruising 18-month trade war with Beijing until a recent truce.
“We have offered China and President Xi (Jinping) any help that is necessary. Our experts are extraordinary!”
Visiting Wuhan in blue protective suit and mask, Li praised medics, said 2,500 more workers would join them in the next two days, and visited the site of a new hospital to be built in days.
The most senior leader to visit Wuhan since the outbreak, Li was shown on state TV leading medical workers in chants of “Wuhan jiayou!” – an exhortation to keep their strength up.
On China’s heavily censored social media, officials have faced mounting anger over the virus, which is thought to have come from a market where wildlife was sold illegally.
Some criticised the governor of Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, after he corrected himself twice during a news conference over the number of face masks being produced.
“If he can mess up the data multiple times, no wonder the disease has spread so severely,” said one user of the Weibo social media platform.
In rare public self-criticism, Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang said the city’s management of the crisis was “not good enough” and indicated he was willing to resign.
The central Chinese city of 11 million people is in virtual lockdown and much of Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, is under some kind of travel curb.
Elsewhere in China, people from the region faced questioning about their movements. “Hubei people are getting discriminated against,” a Wuhan resident complained on Weibo.
A few cases linked to people who travelled from Wuhan have been confirmed in a dozen countries, from Japan to the United States, where authorities said they had 110 people under investigation in 26 states.
Sri Lanka was the latest to confirm a case.
Investors are worried about the impact on travel, tourism and broader economic activity. The consensus is that in the short term, economic output will be hit as authorities limit travel and extend the week-long New Year holiday – when millions traditionally travel by rail, road and plane – by three days to limit the spread of the virus.
Asian and European shares tumbled, with Japan’s Nikkei average sliding 2%, its biggest one-day fall in five months. Demand spiked for safe-haven assets such as the Japanese yen and Treasury notes. European stocks fell more than 2%.
“China is the biggest driver of global growth so this couldn’t have started in a worse place,” said Alec Young, FTSE Russell’s managing director of global markets research.
During the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally, air passenger demand in Asia plunged 45%. The travel industry is more reliant on Chinese travellers now.
Latest official figures put the total number of confirmed cases in China at 2,835, about half in Hubei.
Some experts suspect a much higher number.
The number of deaths in Hubei climbed to 76 from 56, officials said, with five fatalities elsewhere in China including the first in Beijing.
Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, which has had eight cases, banned entry to people who had visited Hubei recently.
Some European tour operators cancelled trips to China, while governments round the world worked on repatriating nationals.
Officially known as 2019-nCoV, the newly identified coronavirus can cause pneumonia, but it is still too early to know just how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads.
“What we know about this virus it that transmission occurs through human contact but we are speaking of close contact, i.e. less than a meter,” said Jerome Salomon, a senior official with France’s health ministry.
“Crossing someone (infected) in the street poses no threat. The risk is low when you spend a little time near that person and becomes higher when you spend a lot of time near that person.”
Reporting by Winni Zhou, Sun Yilei, Cheng Leng and Josh Horwitz in Shanghai; Cate Cadell, Gabriel Crossley and Yawen Chen in Beijing; Additional reporting by Hideyuki Sano in Tokyo, Lidia Kelly in Sydney, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London, Ben Blanchard in Tapei, Waruna Karunatilake in Colombo, Matthias Blamont in Paris; Writing by Tony Munroe, Nick Macfie and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alison Williams, Lisa Shumaker and Giles Elgood