Mainland China’s death toll from the new virus outbreak has risen to 811, surpassing the number of fatalities in the 2002-2003 SARS pandemic , as authorities enforce ever-stricter measures to curb the further spread.
In a possibly hopeful sign, however, the number of new cases reported over the last 24 hours on Sunday fell significantly from the previous period. Another 89 deaths were reported, while 2,656 new cases were added for a total of 37,198.. On Saturday, 3,399 cases were counted for the previous 24 hours.
More than 300 cases in some two dozen countries and two fatalities have been confirmed outside the mainland.
SARS had killed 774 people and sickened 8,098, mainly in mainland China and Hong Kong. The response this time has been much quicker and countries around the world are enforcing tougher measures to contain the disease. China has placed around 50 million people under quarantine, mainly in and around Wuhan, the hardest-hit central Chinese city where the virus was first detected in December among people who had visited a food market where live wild animals were sold.
Thus far, the new virus that is of the same family of coronavirus as SARS, has proven far less deadly, killing around 2-3% of those infected, Chinese authorities say. SARS killed 9.6% of those who caught it, according to the World Health Organization.
A 60-year-old U.S. citizen was among the new fatalities in Wuhan, apparently the first American death in the outbreak. A Japanese citizen being treated in Wuhan who was a suspected case also died.
On Saturday, Japan reported three more cases aboard a quarantined cruise ship for a total of 64. There are 3,700 passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess who must remain on board for 14 days.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said foreign passengers on another ship, Holland America’s Westerdam, won’t be allowed into Japan because of suspected virus patients on board. The ship, with more than 2,000 people, was near Okinawa and was seeking another port.
Hong Kong began enforcing a 14-day quarantine for arrivals from mainland China on Saturday. The territory has refused to completely seal its border but hopes the quarantine will dissuade travelers from the mainland.
China’s leaders are trying to keep food flowing to crowded cities despite anti-disease controls and to quell fears of possible shortages and price spikes following panic buying after most access to Wuhan and nearby cities was cut off. Cities across the country have enforced travel bans and Beijing supermarkets have begun requiring customers register their personal information and have their temperatures taken before being allowed to enter.
Authorities have expressed their regrets over the death of 34-year-old Dr. Li Wenliang, who was threatened by police after trying to sound the alarm about the disease over a month ago and became infected himself. A team from Beijing is reportedly being sent to Wuhan to investigate “issues reported by the masses” related to the case.
That was an apparent attempt to stem public outrage after Li’s death crystallized doubts about the ruling Communist Party’s controls over information and complaints that officials lie about or hide disease outbreaks, chemical spills, dangerous consumer products or financial frauds, while intimidating and detaining whistleblowers.
The ophthalmologist died last week at Wuhan Central Hospital, where he worked and likely contracted the virus while treating patients in the early days of the outbreak.
Police in December had reprimanded eight doctors including Li for warning friends on social media about the emerging threat. China’s supreme court later criticized the police, but the ruling Communist Party has tightened its grip on information about the outbreak.
Users of China’s Weibo microblogging service have left hundreds of thousands of messages mourning Li’s death and criticizing how he and the other seven were dealt with. Civil rights lawyers, environmental activists, advocates for ethnic and sexual minorities and political dissidents routinely receive similar treatment.