Beijing blames the United States for sparking panic with its response to the 2019-nCoV as Taiwan accused "vile" China from blocking timely information from the World Health Organization about the outbreak.

A couple wears protective face masks at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia on February 4, 2020.
A couple wears protective face masks at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia on February 4, 2020. (Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

China's top leadership on Monday admitted "shortcomings and difficulties" in its response to the coronavirus outbreak, as state media said a new hospital built at breakneck pace began receiving patients in the epicentre of the crisis.

At least 57 new deaths were confirmed on Monday, the single-biggest daily increase since the 2019-nCoV virus was detected late last year in the central city of Wuhan.

The death toll in China stood at 425, exceeding the 349 mainland fatalities from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-03, which eventually killed nearly 800. 

Authorities confirmed 20,438 infections of the 2019-nCoV, up from 17,205 cases the previous day. Outside mainland China, at least 180 cases have been confirmed, including two fatalities, in Hong Kong and the Philippines.

The patient who died in Hong Kong was a 39-year-old man who had travelled to Wuhan, the mainland city that has been the epicentre of the outbreak, before being hospitalized. 

The government in Beijing nevertheless hit out at the United States for sparking "panic" with its response to the coronavirus, including a ban on foreigners who have recently been to China.

The 2019-nCoV has so far spread to more than 20 countries, and several other nations have instituted similarly tough travel rules.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the crisis a global health emergency, and the first death outside China was confirmed in the Philippines on Sunday. Hong Kong has also reported its first death.

China's elite Politburo Standing Committee called for improvements to the "national emergency management system" following "shortcoming and difficulties exposed in the response to the epidemic," according to the official Xinhua news agency.

"It is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade," it added.

Mask shortage

The government also said it "urgently" needed medical equipment and surgical masks, protective suits, and safety goggles as it battles to control the outbreak.

Authorities in provinces that are home to more than 300 million people –– including Guangdong, the country's most populous in south China –– have ordered everyone to wear masks in public.

But factories capable of producing around 20 million masks a day are only operating at 60 to 70 percent of capacity, industry department spokesman Tian Yulong said, adding that supply and demand remained in "tight equilibrium" as a result of the Lunar New Year break.

Tian said authorities were taking steps to bring in masks from Europe, Japan and the United States, while the foreign ministry said countries including South Korea, Japan, Kazakhstan and Hungary had donated medical supplies.

Taiwan calls China 'vile' for limiting WHO access 

Taiwan dramatically escalated its war of words with Beijing on Tuesday over the island's exclusion from the WHO, saying "vile" China was preventing Taiwan from getting timely information about the coronavirus outbreak.

Taiwan is not a WHO member because of China's objections. Beijing says the island is a wayward Chinese province and is adequately represented in the organisation by China.

Taiwan says it is not and has never been part of the People's Republic of China.

China told the WHO on Monday that it had shared full information about the coronavirus with Taiwan, and that outbreak communication had been "smooth" between the two sides.

But speaking in Taipei, Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said Taiwan has received has been very limited information and has been unable to get it quickly.

"Although the virus is really serious, they are still using the 'one China' principle to impede Taiwan from taking part in the WHO's technical meetings," she said.

Taiwan has reported 10 cases of the virus, compared with more than 20,000 in China, where the outbreak began in the city of Wuhan late last year.

"Internationally, the Chinese government rudely and unreasonably has been pressuring Taiwan and putting political considerations above human health. Disease has no national boundaries," Ou added. "Putting political considerations over people's health and safety, this, basically, is extremely vile."

Taiwan has been getting virus information from friendly countries such as the United States and Japan, she said, adding that Taiwan's epidemic prevention efforts seem to have worked well.

Taiwanese in China

China has repeatedly denied seeking to complicate Taiwan's efforts, and says it has no problems with giving Taiwan access to virus information.

The WHO also says Taiwan has been getting the information it needs.

China late on Monday allowed the first batch of an estimated 500 Taiwanese stranded in Wuhan, which has been locked down by the government as it tries to contain the spread of the virus, to return home.

Taiwan had complained that China had not responded to requests to fly out its citizens, even as Beijing gave such permission to other governments, including the United States and Britain.

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement on Tuesday that 247 people had arrived at Taipei's main international airport late on Monday.

Stopping the spread

Many nations have evacuated hundreds of their citizens from China –– with some forcing them into quarantine on their return –– and more airlines are cancelling services to the mainland.

China's foreign ministry on Monday criticised the US for being among the first to evacuate nationals without providing "substantial assistance" to China.

The US actions had caused "panic", said spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

Mongolia, Russia and Nepal have closed their land borders, while semi-autonomous Hong Kong announced Monday it was closing all but two land crossings.

Also on Monday, the Cruise Lines International Association, which represents some of the world's largest operators, said vessels will deny boarding to passengers and crew who have recently travelled to China. 

Travel curbs 

The emergence of the virus coincided with the Lunar New Year, when hundreds of millions travel across the country for family reunions.

Originally scheduled to end last Friday, the holiday was extended by three days to give authorities more time to deal with the crisis.

But some major cities –– including Shanghai –– extended it again, and many schools and universities have delayed the start of new terms.

More Chinese cities, including one just 175 kilometres (110 miles) from Shanghai, were put under lockdown on Tuesday.

Around 12 million people are affected by the new restrictions, adding to the tens of millions of people already quarantined in and around Wuhan, ground zero for 2019-nCoV.

The city of Taizhou, parts of Hangzhou –– including the district that is home to the headquarters of Chinese tech giant Alibaba –– and some of Ningbo will only allow one person per household to go outside every two days t o buy necessities, city officials said.

Road, train and air traffic were all way down on Sunday, when hundreds of millions of people would have been expected to return to their cities of work, the transport ministry said.

Many companies offered staff the option to work from home or defer travel, or simply remained closed.

Economic woes

The virus is taking an increasing economic toll, shutting down businesses, curbing international travel and impacting production lines of major global brands.

The Shanghai stock market plunged almost eight percent Monday on the first day of trading since the holiday as investors played catch-up with last week's global retreat.

But on Wall Street, stocks rebounded, with the Dow Jones industrial average gaining 0.5 percent.

In Wuhan, which has been transformed from a bustling industrial hub into a near-ghost town, residents have been living in deep fear of catching the virus.

The city's medical facilities have been overwhelmed, with Xinhua reporting that 68 medical teams of 8,300 staff had been sent to Hubei.

Source: AFP