Chinese New Year celebrations subdued amid a national lockdown to contain coronavirus

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China’s most festive holiday has got underway in the shadow of the outbreak of coronavirus, as the death toll surpassed 40.

An unprecedented national lockdown that has kept people from travelling was expanded to more than 50 million residents, and authorities cancelled a host of Lunar New Year events.

The National Health Commission reported a jump in the number of infected people to 1,287, with 41 deaths.

The latest tally comes from 29 provinces and cities across China and includes 237 patients in serious condition.

China Outbreak
People wearing face masks walk under a canopy decorated for the Lunar New Year (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

All 41 deaths have been in China, including 39 in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, and one each in Hebei and Heilongjiang provinces.

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Health authorities in the city of Hechi in Guangxi province said that a two-year-old girl from Wuhan had been diagnosed with the illness after arriving in the city.

Australia announced its first case on Saturday, a Chinese man in his fifties who returned from China last week.

Malaysia said three people tested positive on Friday, all relatives of a father and son from Wuhan who had been diagnosed with the virus earlier in neighbouring Singapore.

France said that three people had fallen ill with the virus — the disease’s first appearance in Europe.

And the United States reported its second case, a Chicago woman in her 60s who was hospitalised in isolation after returning from China.

China added three cities to those cut off from transportation, bringing the total to 16 in Hubei province and covering a population greater than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.

Authorities are trying to limit further spread of the disease by preventing people from leaving Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the outbreak originated, and the surrounding area.

The Chinese military dispatched 450 medical staff, some with experience in past outbreaks including Sars and Ebola, who arrived in Wuhan late on Friday night to help treat the many patients hospitalised with viral pneumonia, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold.

Symptoms include cough and fever and in more severe cases shortness of breath and pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Sars, which started in China in late 2002 and killed more than 750 people, was a coronavirus.

It is not clear how lethal the new coronavirus is, or even whether it is as dangerous as the ordinary flu, which kills tens of thousands of people every year in the US alone.

China Outbreak
A man pushes a child in a stroller wearing a face mask past decorations for a cancelled Lunar New Year temple fair (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

The rapid increase in reported deaths and illnesses does not necessarily mean the crisis is getting worse.

It could instead reflect better monitoring and reporting of the newly discovered virus, which can cause cold and flu-like symptoms, including cough, fever and shortness of breath, but can worsen to pneumonia.

The National Health Commission said Saturday that it is bringing in medical teams from outside Hubei to help handle the outbreak, a day after videos circulating online showed frantic people in masks lined up for examinations and complaints that family members had been turned away at hospitals that were at capacity.

The Ministry of Commerce is coordinating an effort to supply more than two million masks and other products from elsewhere in the country, Xinhua said.

Wuhan is building a 1,000-bed prefab hospital to deal with the crisis, to be completed by 3 February.

It will be modelled on a Sars hospital that was built in Beijing in just six days during the 2003 outbreak.

With Chinese authorities afraid that public gatherings will hasten the spread of the virus, the outbreak put a damper on Lunar New Year.

Temples locked their doors, Beijing’s Forbidden City and other major tourist destinations closed, and people cancelled restaurant reservations ahead of the holiday, normally a time of family reunions, sightseeing trips, fireworks displays and other festivities in the country of 1.4 billion people.

The vast majority of cases have been in and around Wuhan or involved people who visited the city or had personal connections to those infected.

About two dozen cases in all have been confirmed outside mainland China, nearly all of them in Asia: Hong Kong, Macao, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Nepal, Australia and Malaysia.

While most of the deaths have been older patients, a 36-year-old man in Hubei died on 23 January.

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