BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping wears a protective facemask as a health official checks his body temperature during an inspection of the novel coronavirus pneumonia prevention and control work at the Anhuali Community yesterday. – AFP

BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping donned a face mask and had his temperature checked yesterday while visiting medical workers and patients affected by the deadly coronavirus that has killed more than 900 people. The Chinese president, who has called the virus a “demon”, made a rare visit yesterday to meet frontline medical staff at a hospital treating infected patients. Calling the situation at the virus epicenter “still very grave”, Xi urged “more decisive measures” to contain the spread of the epidemic, said state broadcaster CCTV.

Xi has largely kept out of the public eye since the virus outbreak spiraled across the country from the epicenter in Hubei province to infect more than 40,000 people. He appointed Premier Li Keqiang to lead a working group tackling the outbreak, and it was Li who visited ground zero in Wuhan last month. Yesterday, Xi donned a blue mask and white surgical gown to meet doctors at Beijing Ditan hospital, observe the treatment of patients and speak via video link to doctors in Wuhan, state media said. He then visited a residential community in central Beijing to “investigate and guide” efforts to contain the epidemic, said CCTV.

Video footage showed Xi having his temperature taken with an infrared thermometer, then speaking with community workers and waving at smiling residents leaning out of their apartment windows. The outbreak has prompted unprecedented action by the Chinese government, including locking down entire cities in Hubei province as well as cutting transport links nationwide, closing tourist attractions and telling hundreds of millions of people to stay indoors. The sweeping measures turned cities into ghost towns – but there were some signs of normality returning yesterday.

Roads in Beijing and Shanghai had significantly more traffic and the southern city of Guangzhou said it would start to resume normal public transport. However, for those at work, it was not an easy balance to strike. “Of course we’re worried,” said a 25-year-old man surnamed Li in a Beijing beauty salon that reopened yesterday. “When customers come in, we first take their temperature, then use disinfectant and ask them to wash their hands.”

The Shanghai government suggested staggered work schedules, avoiding group meals and keeping at least one meter away from colleagues. Many were encouraged to work from home and some employers simply delayed opening for another week. State media reported that passenger numbers on the Beijing subway were down by about half yesterday compared to a normal work day. Large shopping malls in the capital were deserted and many banks closed.

One bank employee in Shanghai was heading to work for a half-day, with other workers due to take over in the afternoon. The rest of the day he would work from home. “It makes our work more difficult because we need to access the systems in our office,” he told AFP. Schools and universities across the country remained shut.

The toll has overtaken global fatalities in the 2002-03 SARS epidemic when China drew international condemnation for covering up cases – though it has drawn praise from the WHO this time. Chief of the UN health body, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said there had been some “concerning instances” of cases overseas in people with no travel history to China. “We may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he tweeted, as a team of WHO experts departed for China.

In Hong Kong, thousands of people stranded aboard the World Dream cruise ship for five days were allowed to disembark Sunday after its 1,800 crew tested negative for the coronavirus. But another 65 people aboard the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship moored off Japan have been diagnosed with novel coronavirus, the health ministry said Monday, bringing the total number of known infections to 135. The Diamond Princess has been in quarantine since arriving off the Japanese coast early last week after the virus was detected in a former passenger who got off the ship last month in Hong Kong.

In China, the eastern city of Wuxi said anyone trying to enter from provinces with high numbers of cases would be “persuaded to go back”, while Suzhou, near the financial hub of Shanghai, suspended all passenger transport to surrounding counties. “I just checked and it would take 18 hours for me to go to work by bicycle,” wrote one frustrated commuter on China’s Twitter-like social media site Weibo.

Travel authorities said there had been 11 million journeys by train, road or plane Saturday – 84 percent down on the same day last year. About 800 vehicles from “hard-hit areas” have been denied entry into Shanghai over the last month, according to state news agency Xinhua. Beyond China, the tourism industry remains in the doldrums, with several countries banning arrivals from the mainland and major airlines suspending flights. Online rental site Airbnb has suspended all bookings in Beijing until Feb 29. – AFP