China extends its week-long holiday by an extra three days to February 2 to help stem the coronavirus epidemic, as authorities announced that 2,744 people had fallen ill and at least 80 had died.

A paramilitary officer wearing a face mask stands guard at the Tiananmen Gate, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China. January 27, 2020.
A paramilitary officer wearing a face mask stands guard at the Tiananmen Gate, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China. January 27, 2020. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters)

Chinese officials at the epicentre of a health crisis are coming under fire for incompetence and being ridiculed for not properly wearing protective masks as anger mounts over the handling of a deadly virus.

Many Chinese netizens were incensed by what they perceived as a series of errors at a televised press conference Sunday by three local officials at the heart of the new virus outbreak.

Governor of central Hubei province Wang Xiaodong held the press conference without wearing a mask – in violation of the provincial capital Wuhan's own rules mandating masks in public spaces.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Wuhan was wearing his mask incorrectly by having it on inside out, pointed out Chinese users on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform.

"If the mayor doesn't even know how to wear a mask, how will everyday people know?" criticised one user.

"Incompetent and irresponsible politicians," wrote another in a scathing comment about the press briefing.

The comments are a rare instance of public anger outpacing the army of online censors in China, where criticism of government figures is usually scrubbed.

By Monday afternoon, a hashtag on the press briefing had more than 680 million views on Weibo.

Online users also zeroed in on Wang's repeated fumble of Hubei's annual mask production – giving three revisions to his answer from 10.8 billion to 1.8 billion, to 1.08 million.

"As the governor of Hubei province, how can you not know how many masks Hubei province produces?" asked one incredulous user.

This map by TRT World shows the countries which are currently reporting cases of the novel coronavirus, also known as the 2019-nCoV, as of 1300 GMT, January 27, 2020.
This map by TRT World shows the countries which are currently reporting cases of the novel coronavirus, also known as the 2019-nCoV, as of 1300 GMT, January 27, 2020. (TRTWorld)

Locking in Wuhan

Central Hubei province is at the heart of China's new virus outbreak, which has killed at least 81 people and infected more than 2,700 people across the country and has spread overseas, including Thailand, the United States, and Australia.

"We also feel very distressed and very guilty, and we also very much blame ourselves," said Wang at Sunday's press briefing.

In Hubei, Chinese authorities have stopped public transport in at least 18 cities in a bid to contain the deadly virus, while putting the capital –– a city of 11 million inhabitants –– under effective quarantine.

Closing transport out of Wuhan was a "very difficult decision," added Zhou Xianwang, Wuhan's mayor, in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV on Monday.

"We may have blocked the disease, but we will all go down in history with a bad name," he admitted.

The mayor of Wuhan has already faced scrutiny for allowing a massive Lunar New Year banquet –– involving 40,000 families –– to take place despite the spread of the virus.

Malaysia bans travellers from the virus-affected area

Malaysia's government has announced it will ban travellers from the central Chinese city of Wuhan and other parts of surrounding Hubei province beginning immediately.

A statement issued Monday by the Prime Minister's Department said Malaysia would stop issuing visas for Chinese travellers from those areas.

The statement said the decision was made after consultations with experts and following advice of the World Health Organization.

Normal visa procedures will resume once the “situation returns to normal.” 

Countries evaluate evacuation of citizens

Countries with citizens in the central Chinese city that's the epicentre of a viral outbreak are planning evacuations as the number of illnesses grow and China takes drastic measures to try to stop the spread of the virus.

A look at steps being taken:

China: The government cut transportation links to and from the city of Wuhan on January 22 and has since expanded those controls to several nearby cities. Anyone travelling from Wuhan is required to register and quarantine themselves for 14 days — the virus' maximum incubation period. Hong Kong barred entry to travellers from Hubei province and told Hong Kong residents returning from the area to quarantine themselves at home.

Japan: Chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said 560 Japanese citizens are confirmed in Hubei and chartered evacuation flights are being prepared to leave “ as soon as possible. " The Japanese Embassy in Beijing said the initial evacuation is limited to those in Wuhan. 

Evacuees are expected to include employees of Honda Motor Co., Tokyo Electron, Aeon Co. and other Japanese companies operating in Wuhan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his Cabinet will designate the new coronavirus as an infectious disease subject to forced hospitalisation and isolation.

Such preventative measures appear to be in preparation for the evacuation.

United States: The US Consulate in Wuhan plans a charter flight Tuesday to evacuate its personnel and some other Americans. The US Embassy in Beijing said the limited capacity on the flight to San Francisco meant priority will be given to individuals “at greater risk from coronavirus.”

France: Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said French citizens who want to leave Wuhan will be taken on a direct flight to France in the middle of the week, and then held in quarantine for 14 days.

French automaker PSA, which produces Peugeot and Citroen cars, said it was evacuating its expatriate employees and their families from Wuhan and quarantining them in another city. It didn't elaborate.

Sri Lanka: The embassy in Beijing has applied for a Sri Lankan Airlines plan to be allowed to land at the Wuhan airport to airlift home 32 Sri Lankan students and their family members. The foreign ministry also said it was working to bring back all other Sri Lankan students throughout China. About 860 Sri Lankan students are in China.

Australia: Foreign Minister Marise Payne said her government is “exploring all opportunities” to help with evacuation of a number of Australians reportedly in Wuhan. She did not elaborate. Australia does not have consular presence in Wuhan.

Germany: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that his country is considering evacuating its citizens from Wuhan, with a government crisis response committee meeting soon with medical experts to evaluate the situation. He said the number of German citizens in Wuhan is in the double digits. The foreign ministry currently advises Germans to refrain from or postpone "non-essential travel" to China.

Source: AFP