Passengers watch as the Westerdam cruise ship arrives at the port in Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s southern coast yesterday where the liner had received permission to dock after being refused entry at other Asian ports due to fears of the COVID-19 coronavirus. – AFP

BEIJING: China’s official death toll from the new coronavirus spiked dramatically yesterday after authorities changed their counting methods, fuelling concern the epidemic is far worse than being reported.

As the figures soared in China, a troubling new front opened abroad as neighboring Vietnam placed 10,000 people under quarantine after six COVID-19 cases were discovered in a cluster of villages-the first such lockdown overseas. Under criticism at home over the handling of the crisis, China’s Communist Party sacked two top-ranking officials in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Meanwhile, a woman has died from the coronavirus in Japan, the first such death in the country since the epidemic spread from China, the health minister said yesterday. Two taxi drivers, one of them in the capital Tokyo, have also tested positive, raising the possibility that it could be passed on through their passengers. On the Diamond Princess cruise liner quarantined in the port of Yokohama, 44 new cases were confirmed.

In China, Xi Jinping claimed “positive results” from efforts to contain an epidemic that has now officially killed 1,367 people and infected nearly 60,000. But the World Health Organization warned it was too soon to declare victory. “I think it’s way too early to try to predict the beginning, the middle or the end of this epidemic right now,” said Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program. In Hubei and its capital Wuhan, where tens of millions of people are trapped as part of an unprecedented quarantine effort, 242 new deaths were reported yesterday. Another 14,840 people were confirmed to be infected in Hubei alone, with the new cases and deaths by far the biggest one-day increases since the crisis began.

Outside Hubei, there were 12 more deaths but the number of new cases fell for a ninth day in a row, with 312 extra patients. Hubei authorities said the increases were because they had broadened their definition for infection to include people “clinically diagnosed” via lung imaging.
Up until now, they had been documenting cases using a more sophisticated laboratory test.

Health officials said they looked into past suspected cases and revised their diagnoses, suggesting older cases were also included in yesterday’s numbers. China had been praised by the WHO for its transparent handling of the outbreak, in contrast to the way it concealed the extent of the deadly SARS virus epidemic in 2002-2003.

But it has faced continued skepticism among the global public, with fears that there may be similarities to the way it dealt with SARS. Authorities in Hubei have been accused of concealing the gravity of the outbreak.

Transparency
Analysts said Hubei’s new counting methodology might be a legitimate attempt to be more transparent, but the immediate impact was to sow more distrust. “Oddly, this now is a moment of greater transparency,” Sam Crane, political science professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, told AFP. “It is not clear if the problem up to now, on this issue, was lack of transparency or simply bad medical practice,” Crane said.

Global havoc
In Vietnam, authorities announced they were locking down the commune of Son Loi, a farming region about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Hanoi, for 20 days. Checkpoints were set up around the commune, according to AFP reporters in a district on the outskirts of Son Loi. Health officials wearing protective suits sprayed disinfectant on vehicles. The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off Japan’s coast, where 44 more people tested positive for COVID-19, raising the total number of infections on the Diamond Princess to 218.

Several countries have banned arrivals from China, while major airlines have halted flights to and from the country. Hundreds of people in some two dozen countries are infected. Japan is one of the counties worst affected by the epidemic outside China, with 251 confirmed cases, including those on the Diamond Princess.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told a news conference yesterday that a woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa prefecture, which borders Tokyo, had died. She was the first fatality in Japan, and the third outside mainland China. The woman fell ill in January but only later showed symptoms of pneumonia and was hospitalised, then transferred to another hospital when her condition worsened. Her infection with the coronavirus confirmed after her death, Kato said. The route of contagion was being investigated. — Reuters