China president makes rare visit to meet virus workers, patients

Some 135 people aboard the Diamond Princess moored off Japan have contracted the coronavirus

Chinese President Xi Jinping donned a face mask and had his temperature checked Monday while visiting medical workers and patients affected by the deadly coronavirus that has killed more than 900 people.

The Chinese president, who has called the virus a “demon”, made a rare visit Monday to meet frontline medical staff at a hospital treating infected patients.

Xi has largely kept out of the public eye since the virus outbreak spiralled across the country from the epicentre in Hubei province to infect more than 40,000 people.

He appointed Premier Li Keqiang to lead a working group tackling the outbreak, and it was Li who visited ground zero in Wuhan last month.

On Monday Xi donned a blue mask and white surgical gown to meet doctors at Beijing Ditan hospital, observe the treatment of patients and speak via video link to doctors in Wuhan, state media said.

He then visited a residential community in central Beijing to “investigate and guide” efforts to contain the epidemic, state broadcaster CCTV said.

The spread of the coronavirus

Video footage showed Xi having his temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, then speaking with community workers and waving at smiling residents leaning out of their apartment windows.

The outbreak has prompted unprecedented action by the Chinese government, including locking down entire cities in Hubei province as well as cutting transport links nationwide, closing tourist attractions and telling hundreds of millions of people to stay indoors.

The sweeping measures turned cities into ghost towns — but there were some signs of normality returning on Monday.

– Strike a balance –

Roads in Beijing and Shanghai had significantly more traffic and the southern city of Guangzhou said it would start to resume normal public transport.

However, for those at work, it was not an easy balance to strike.

Pedestrians in face masks walk past a closed restaurant in Beijing The virus is taking a toll on the country’s small businesses

“Of course we’re worried,” said a 25-year-old man surnamed Li in a Beijing beauty salon that reopened Monday.

“When customers come in, we first take their temperature, then use disinfectant and ask them to wash their hands.”

The Shanghai government suggested staggered work schedules, avoiding group meals and keeping at least one metre away from colleagues.

Many were encouraged to work from home and some employers simply delayed opening for another week.

State media reported that passenger numbers on the Beijing subway were down by about half on Monday compared to a normal work day.

Large shopping malls in the capital were deserted and many banks closed.

One bank employee in Shanghai was heading to work for a half-day, with other workers due to take over in the afternoon.

The rest of the day he would work from home.

Workers have lunch at a dining hall using boards to separate people to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Yantai in China’s eastern Shandong province

“It makes our work more difficult because we need to access the systems in our office,” he told AFP.

Schools and universities across the country remained shut.

The toll has overtaken global fatalities in the 2002-03 SARS epidemic when China drew international condemnation for covering up cases — though it has drawn praise from the WHO this time.

Chief of the UN health body, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said there had been some “concerning instances” of cases overseas in people with no travel history to China.

– Infections soar on cruise ship –

“We may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he tweeted, as a team of WHO experts departed for China.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, thousands of people stranded aboard the World Dream cruise ship for five days were allowed to disembark Sunday after its 1,800 crew tested negative for the coronavirus.

A man wearing a face mask talks on his mobile phone in front of a poster about precautions against the coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea

But another 65 people aboard the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship moored off Japan have been diagnosed with novel coronavirus, the health ministry said Monday, bringing the total number of known infections to 135.

The Diamond Princess has been in quarantine since arriving off the Japanese coast early last week after the virus was detected in a former passenger who got off the ship last month in Hong Kong.

In China, the eastern city of Wuxi said anyone trying to enter from provinces with high numbers of cases would be “persuaded to go back”, while Suzhou, near the financial hub of Shanghai, suspended all passenger transport to surrounding counties.

“I just checked and it would take 18 hours for me to go to work by bicycle,” wrote one frustrated commuter on China’s Twitter-like social media site Weibo.

Travel authorities said there had been 11 million journeys by train, road or plane Saturday — 84 percent down on the same day last year.

About 800 vehicles from “hard-hit areas” have been denied entry into Shanghai over the last month, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Beyond China, the tourism industry remains in the doldrums, with several countries banning arrivals from the mainland and major airlines suspending flights.

Online rental site Airbnb has suspended all bookings in Beijing until February 29.

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