●France announced a patient with coronavirus had died, marking the first death outside of Asia.
●After protracted negotiations, a team of experts from the World Health Organization, including Americans, is due to arrive in Beijing this weekend.
●All residents returning to Beijing are now required to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days upon arrival.
●The National Health Commission reported 2,641 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday and 143 deaths. The total number of confirmed cases is now 66,492 and the death toll on the Chinese mainland stands at 1,523.
●The vast majority of the cases are in Hubei province, where the virus outbreak began in the capital of Wuhan. A total of 54,406 people in Hubei have been diagnosed with the pneumonia-like illness, and 1,457 have died.
BEIJING — Chinese authorities have implemented draconian new quarantine rules in cities across the country, including in the capital of Beijing, in a sign that existing measures to contain the coronavirus sweeping the country have been deemed insufficient.
This came as countries around the world continued to grapple with the pneumonia-like virus: France announced a patient had died from the illness, marking the first death outside Asia, while American passengers prepared to be evacuated from a virus-stricken cruise ship in Japan.
A team of experts from the World Health Organization is finally due to arrive in China this weekend, after prolonged negotiations with the Chinese government. They will travel to Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, and other badly-affected cities to see the efforts underway to contain the virus and treat the patients, China’s National Health Commission said Saturday.
China’s leaders — on the back foot after initially trying to suppress or play down the severity of the virus, and discovering that belated efforts to contain it were not working — are trying to show that they are on top of the epidemic, even as the number of infections continues to climb.
They are also increasingly worried about the impact on the economy, which was already undergoing a structural slowdown.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping acknowledged that the “black swan” of the coronavirus epidemic would make it difficult for the government to achieve its economic and social development goals for the year.
But he ordered Communist Party cadres to “resolutely win the blockade war” against the coronavirus and “keep the economy running smoothly and the society harmonious and stable,” according to a front-page article in the People’s Daily, the Party newspaper, Saturday morning.
As part of the new efforts, all residents returning to Beijing, a city of some 22 million people, are now required to stay at home “or submit to group observation” for 14 days and those who refuse “will be held accountable under law,” according to a notice issued by Beijing’s virus prevention working group late Friday night.
Analysts saw this as a sign both that the virus, which 274 people in Beijing have contracted, is still spreading, but also that the Communist Party rulers are growing increasingly nervous about political meetings due to be held in the first week of March. The “Two Sessions” attract thousands of Party members from around the country to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
Hundreds of millions people were on the move in the week leading up to the Lunar New Year holiday, as the virus raged undetected, and China’s transport ministry said some 283 million trips had been made since Jan. 25, after the first lockdowns began, as people returned from holidays in their hometowns.
As part of the new regulations, residential compounds in the capital gave residents papers to sign, pledging to register when they arrive back in Beijing and voluntarily quarantine themselves.
“I promise that I will not obstruct the normal diagnosis and treatment work of medical institutions and medical staff, not participate in various kinds of illegal criminal activities such as attacking medical staff, making trouble in hospitals,” one compound’s paperwork read.
Most residents in Chinese cities live in compounds with managers that oversee their operations, often with police-like vigor.
In Wuhan, at the epicenter of the outbreak, authorities moved to seal all residential compounds. The 11 million residents of Wuhan were under a kind of emergency law that stipulated only one member of each household could go out, and only once every three days, to buy groceries and other supplies.
Now, only people who are seeking medical treatment or working on epidemic prevention and control will be allowed to leave residential complexes.
Other cities in Hubei province — including Huanggang, Xiaogan and Honghu, combined population 11 million — have instituted “wartime measures” for the next 14 days, banning residents from leaving their homes unless they are directly involved in fighting the epidemic. Elsewhere in the province, Jingmen city banned people and vehicles from other places from entering the city from Saturday morning.
In Shanghai, population 24 million, current regulations stipulate only that people returning from areas “hit hard by the epidemic” require quarantine themselves. But the megacity is trying to dissuade those who don’t come from or work in the city from entering.
Every person arriving in Shanghai’s airports and train stations must have their temperature checked and registered against their name.
Separately, in Paris, Health Minister Agnès Buzyn said Saturday that 80-year-old man from Hubei province had succumbed to the illness, becoming the coronavirus patient to die outside Asia. He had been hospitalized at the Bichat-Claude Bernard Hospital in Paris, along with his daughter, since Jan. 25.
His daughter is expected to be discharged soon.
France has seen the largest number of coronavirus cases in Europe to date. But of the 11 cases confirmed in France, four patients have fully recovered and six remain hospitalized without life-threatening symptoms.
In Japan, the U.S. government Saturday told passengers onboard the virus-stricken cruise liner moored off the Japanese port of Yokohama that they will be evacuated from the ship, the Diamond Princess.
They will have to go into a 14-day quarantine once back in the United States, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo wrote in an email to Americans on board the ship. This is consistent with the isolation of Americans evacuated from Wuhan. The virus has a maximum incubation period of 14 days.
The Diamond Princess had been declared a quarantine zone on Feb. 5, so passengers had expected to be able to return home on Feb. 19.
But as more tests were carried out on passengers and crew, it became obvious that a high percentage had the virus, and experts warned there was a risk it could still be spreading on board the ship.
So far, 218 passengers and crew on board the ship has tested positive for the virus, out of 713 people who have been assessed. There were 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew on board the ship when it was placed in quarantine, but those found to have the virus have gradually been evacuated to hospitals around Japan.
The news of an additional quarantine period came as a body blow to some of the Americans on board, who had been repeatedly told by their government they would not have to serve out an additional quarantine period on their return home.
“It’s completely devastating,” said Karey Sells, 44, from St. George, Utah. “If they wanted to keep us under quarantine for additional period, they should have picked us up 10 days ago. They should have done their job.”
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said it was grateful to the cruise line and the Japanese government “for working diligently to contain and control the spread of the illness.”
However, to fulfill our government’s responsibilities to U.S. citizens under our rules and practices, as well as to reduce the burden on the Japanese health care system, the U.S. government recommends, out of an abundance of caution, that U.S. citizens disembark and return to the United States for further monitoring,” it said in the email.
It was a decision that some passengers said should have been taken much earlier.
“Why didn’t they test everybody (earlier) and it would have been over?” asked Melanie Haering, 58, from Tooele in Utah, echoing a question many people have asked right from the beginning.
Sells, who is self-employed, said her enforced absence would be “devastating” for her business. She believes people testing positive for the virus probably contracted it before the quarantine period began, but says the U.S. government should have sent experts to assess whether the quarantine on board the ship was effective or not, right from the start.
“They should have done this on the very first day,” she said, close to tears. “And now 400 American citizens are going to suffer because of their incompetence.”
Sells doesn’t even know if her husband, a Canadian citizen who owns a small business in the United States, will be able to travel with her.
“That’s basically a month of our lives we are being held captive,” she added. “And without just cause — we didn’t commit a crime.”
Japan had initially sought to isolate all the passengers who remained on the ship, but started evacuating some passengers before the quarantine period ended, beginning with people over 80 years old and with underlying health problems. It also stepped up its program of testing passengers.
After initially backing Japan’s approach toward the ship, the U.S. government has now also implicitly acknowledged that the Diamond Princess may not be the best place to keep its citizens.
The email said the State Department, working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies, will provide a chartered aircraft to take passengers directly from Japan to the Travis Air Force Base in California, and for some passengers on to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The aircraft will arrive in Japan on Sunday evening. Passengers will be screened for symptoms and then taken by bus to the aircraft. Any symptomatic passengers will receive the care in Japan if they cannot board the flight, the embassy said.
“We understand this is frustrating and an adjustment, but these measures are consistent with the careful policies we have instituted to limit the potential spread of the disease,” it said.
Any passengers who choose not to return on the evacuation flight will be unable to return to the United States “for a period of time,” the embassy wrote.
Denyer reported from Yokohama, Japan. Liu Yang in Beijing and James McAuley in Paris contributed reporting.