China scrambles to contain ‘strengthening’ virus

Pedestrians wearing protective masks to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan, walk on a street in Tokyo's Ginza area on January 26, 2020. Japan's health authorities on January 26 confirmed the country's fourth case of the coronavirus which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. (AFP)
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Updated 26 January 2020

China scrambles to contain ‘strengthening’ virus

  • Coronavirus’ transmission ability getting stronger
  • China confirms 1,975 people infected, 56 dead

BEIJING/SHANGHAI: The ability of the new coronavirus to spread is strengthening and infections could continue to rise, China’s National Health Commission said on Sunday, with more than 2,000 people in China infected and 56 killed by the disease.
Health authorities around the world are racing to prevent a pandemic after a handful of cases of infection were reported outside China, including in Thailand, Australia, the United States and France.
The mayor of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, said he expected another 1,000 new patients in the city, which was stepping up construction of special hospitals.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because much about it is still unknown, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
China’s National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei said the incubation period for the virus can range from one to 14 days, during which infection can occur, which was not the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
SARS was a coronavirus that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.
“According to recent clinical information, the virus’ ability to spread seems to be getting somewhat stronger,” Ma told reporters.
The Lunar New Year holiday, traditionally celebrated by hundreds of millions of Chinese traveling around the country and abroad to see family, began on Friday but has been severely disrupted by the outbreak.
Ma said China would intensify its containment efforts, which have so far included transportation and travel curbs and the cancelation of big events.
The country may extend the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, state broadcaster CCTV reported, citing a meeting hosted by Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
The virus, believed to have originated late last year in a seafood market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife, has spread to cities including Beijing and Shanghai. Hong Kong has six confirmed cases.
The World Health Organization this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency, but some health experts question whether China can contain the epidemic.
Chinese President Xi Jinping described the situation as “grave” on Saturday.
China confirmed 2,051 cases of infection as of 7 p.m. (1100 GMT) on Jan. 26, while the death toll from the virus remained at 56, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Health officials in Orange County, California, reported that a third case had been registered in the United States in a traveler from Wuhan, who was in isolation and in good condition.
On Saturday, Canada declared a first “presumptive” confirmed case in a resident who had returned from Wuhan. Australia confirmed its first four cases.
No fatalities have been reported outside China.

WILDLIFE SALES BAN
On Sunday, China temporarily banned nationwide the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants, and e-commerce platforms. Wild and often poached animals packed together in Chinese markets are blamed as incubators for viruses to evolve and jump the species barrier to humans.
Snakes, peacocks, crocodiles and other species can also be found for sale via Taobao, an e-commerce website run by Alibaba.
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society called on China to make the ban permanent.
The US State Department said it will relocate personnel at its Wuhan consulate to the United States, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his government was working with China to arrange a charter flight for Japanese nationals to return from Wuhan.
The outbreak has prompted widening curbs on movements within China, with Wuhan, a city of 11 million, on virtual lockdown and transport links all-but severed except for emergency vehicles.

CANCELLATIONS AND MISTRUST
Health authorities in Beijing urged people not to shake hands but instead salute using a traditional cupped-hand gesture. The advice was sent in a text message that went out to mobile phone users in the city on Sunday morning.
Beijing also postponed the reopening of the city’s schools and universities after the Lunar New Year holiday, state radio reported. Hong Kong had already delayed the reopening of schools to Feb. 17.
China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after a cover-up of the spread of the SARS virus eroded public trust, but officials in Wuhan have been criticized for their handling of the current outbreak.
“People in my hometown all suspect the real infected patients number given by authorities,” said Violet Li, who lives in the Wuhan district where the seafood market is located.
Illustrating the extend of disruption to life in China, overall passenger travel declined by nearly 29% on Saturday, the first day of the Lunar New Year, from a year earlier, with air passengers down nearly 42%, a transportation ministry official said.
Many cinemas across China were closed with major film premieres postponed.
Cruise operators including Royal Caribbean Cruises, and Costa Cruises said they had canceled a combined 12 cruises that had been scheduled to embark from Chinese ports before Feb. 2.
Hong Kong Disneyland and the city’s Ocean Park were closed on Sunday. Shanghai Disneyland, which expected 100,000 visitors daily through the holiday period, has already closed.
Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of these efforts.


Afghan govt. vows to probe civilian deaths in Kunduz airstrike

Updated 20 September 2020

Afghan govt. vows to probe civilian deaths in Kunduz airstrike

  • There have been conflicting reports from lawmakers and residents about number of fatalities
  • Taliban says none of its fighters killed in attack

KABUL: Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry pledged on Sunday to probe “allegations” of at least 12 civilians being killed in an airstrike targeting Taliban fighters in the northern Kunduz province a day earlier.
The pledge followed inconsistencies about the number of casualties, with the insurgent group saying that none of its men had died in the attack.
“The Taliban were the target, and 30 of them were killed. Initial reports indicate no harm was inflicted upon civilians, but we are probing reports by locals about civilian casualties. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces take allegations of civilian harm seriously, and these claims will be investigated,” Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the defense ministry in Kabul, told Arab News.
He added that the ministry would “share any details” about civilian casualties “once the probe is over.”
If confirmed, Saturday’s airstrike in the Khan Abad district, which lies nearly 350 km from Kabul and is mostly controlled by the Taliban, will be the latest in a series of air raids killing civilians in several parts of the country.
It follows a week after crucial intra-Afghan talks between the government and Taliban officials began in Doha, Qatar on Saturday, to end the protracted war and plan a roadmap for peace in Afghanistan.
There were conflicting accounts from civilians and lawmakers in the area about the incident, with two provincial council members, Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani and Sayed Yusuf, saying that at least 12 civilians had died in Saturday’s air raid.
“Since the area is under Taliban’s control, we have not been able to find out exactly how the civilians were killed,” Rabbani told Arab News.
Meanwhile, Nilofar Jalali, a legislator from Kunduz, offered another version of the attack, which she said “hit a residential area before sunrise when people were still in their bed.”
“Children and women are among the dead, and 18 civilians have also been wounded. I informed the defense minister about it; he said he will check and get back to me, but has not,” she told Arab News. However, Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied the reports in a statement on Sunday, saying that “no fighter of the group was killed,” before placing the number of civilian deaths at 23.
Kunduz and other parts of the country have witnessed an escalation in attacks by both the government and the Taliban in recent weeks, despite their negotiators participating in the Qatar talks which are part of a US-facilitated process following 19 years of conflict in the country — Washington’s longest war in history.
The Qatar discussions are based on a historic accord signed between Washington and the Taliban in February this year which, among other things, paves the way for the complete withdrawal of US-led troops from the country by next spring, in return for a pledge from the Taliban not to allow use Afghanistan to harm any country’s, including US, interests.
Kabul’s negotiators in Qatar are pushing the Taliban to declare a cease-fire, while the Taliban say it can be included in the agenda and that both sides must first ascertain “the real cause” of the war.
Some analysts believe that while delegates of the parties are struggling to agree over the mechanism and agenda of the talks in Qatar, their fighters in Afghanistan are “focusing on military tactics to capture grounds” so that they can use it as a “bargaining chip” at the negotiation table.
“Both sides think that if they have more territory then they can argue their case from a position of strength during the talks and use it as leverage,” Shafiq Haqpal, an analyst and a former university teacher, told Arab News.
“The sides have not yet agreed on the mechanism of the talks despite the Qatar talks, which began on the 12th of September. So, this is an indication that things are not going the right way politically, and both sides are trying their luck on the battlefield here.”