Hong Kong records first virus death, Macau shuts casinos

Residents wearing masks and raincoats volunteer to take temperature of passengers following the outbreak of a new coronavirus at a bus stop at Tin Shui Wai, a border town in Hong Kong, China February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Hong Kong reported its first death from the newly identified coronavirus on Tuesday, the second outside mainland China from an outbreak that has killed more than 420 people, spread around the world and raised fears for global economic growth.

China’s markets steadied after anxiety erased some $400 billion in market value from Shanghai’s benchmark index the previous day, and global markets also staged a comeback after a sell-off last week, but the bad news kept coming.

Macau, the world’s biggest gambling hub, said it had asked all casino operators to suspend operations for two weeks to help curb the spread of the virus.

In another announcement that will compound worries about the economic impact, Hyundai Motor said it would gradually suspend production at its South Korean factories because of supply chain disruptions from the outbreak.

The Hong Kong death took to 427 the toll from the virus, including a man who died in the Philippines last week after visiting Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Chinese authorities said the toll in mainland China rose by a record 64 from the previous day to 425, mostly in Hubei, the virtually locked-down province whose capital is Wuhan.

Singapore reported six more cases, including four local transmissions, taking its tally of infections to 24, the health ministry said.

“Though four of these cases constitute a local transmission cluster, there is as yet no evidence of widespread sustained community transmission in Singapore,” it said in a statement.

New cases were reported in the United States, including a patient in California infected through close contact with someone in the same household who had been infected in China.

It was the second instance of person-to-person spread in the United States after a case reported last week in Illinois.

The total number of infections in mainland China rose by 3,235 to 20,438, and there were nearly 200 cases elsewhere across 24 countries and China’s special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the flu-like virus a global emergency and experts say much is still unknown about the pathogen, including its mortality rate and transmission routes.

Such uncertainties have spurred extreme measures by some countries to stem the spread.

Australia sent hundreds of evacuees from Wuhan to an island in the Indian Ocean, while Japan ordered the quarantine of a cruise ship with more than 3,000 aboard after a Hong Kong man who sailed on it last month tested positive for the virus.

ON STRIKE

In Hong Kong, hospital staff said the 39-year-old male victim had a pre-existing chronic illness and had visited Wuhan in January before falling ill.

Thousands of medical workers in the former British colony held a second day of strikes to press for the complete closure of its borders with mainland China, a day after embattled leader Carrie Lam left open three remaining checkpoints.

“We’re not threatening the government, we just want to prevent the outbreak,” said Cheng, a 26-year-old nurse among the strikers.

The Asian financial centre has confirmed 17 cases of the virus and its public hospital network is struggling to cope with a deluge of patients and measures to contain the epidemic.

Hong Kong was badly hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that emerged from China in 2002 to kill almost 800 people worldwide. WHO figures show SARS killed 299 people in Hong Kong then.

Chinese data suggest that the new virus, while much more contagious than SARS, is significantly less lethal, although such numbers can evolve rapidly.

In Wuhan, authorities started converting a gymnasium, exhibition centre and cultural complex into makeshift hospitals with more than 3,400 beds for patients with mild infections, the official Changjiang Daily said.

The United States said on Friday it would block nearly all foreign visitors who have been to China within the past 14 days, joining Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Vietnam and others with similar restrictions.

China accused the United States on Monday of scaremongering and said on Tuesday it would welcome its help to fight the outbreak.

The White House said China had accepted its offer of U.S. experts among a WHO mission to study and help combat the virus.

With Wuhan and some other cities in virtual lockdown, travel severely restricted and China facing increasing international isolation, fears of wider economic disruption are growing.

Many airlines have stopped flights to parts of China, with Japan’s biggest carrier, ANA Holdings, the latest to announce cuts, saying it would slash the number of flights to Beijing by two-thirds for at least seven weeks.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd plans to cut 30% of its global capacity over the short term, including 90% of capacity to mainland China.

Organisers of the Singapore Airshow said a meeting of about 300 international aviation officials had been cancelled although the show itself would go ahead this month.

Some economists predict world economic output will shrink by 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points due to China’s lockdown.