Workers began trickling back to offices and factories around China on Monday as the government eased some restrictions on working during a coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 900 people, most of them on the mainland.
The death toll of 97 on Sunday was the largest in a single day since the outbreak was detected in December and linked to a market selling animals in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan. Stocks and oil fell while safe-haven gold rose as the death toll from the outbreak surpassed that of another coronavirus, which brought a global epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002/2003, raising alarm bells about its severity.
A team of experts headed by the World Health Organization (WHO) was flying into Beijing on Monday to help assess the outbreak.
Teeming Cities turning into ghost towns
The epidemic has caused huge disruptions in China with usually teeming cities becoming virtual ghost towns during the past two weeks as Communist Party rulers ordered virtual lockdowns, canceled flights, and closed factories and schools.
Authorities told businesses to add up to 10 extra days onto the Lunar New Year holidays that had been due to finish at the end of January. Even on Monday, a large number of workplaces will remain closed and many white-collar workers were working from home.
On one of the usually busiest subway lines in Beijing, trains were largely empty. The few commuters seen during peak-hour morning traffic were all wearing masks. Jin Yang, who works in a department of China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange, rode a bicycle to work instead of public transport. Staff was told to wear masks, avoid face-to-face meetings and the canteen was closed, he said.
Another employee surnamed Chen said the insurance company he worked for forbid people from taking public transport. "My home is in Huairou district which is far from downtown," he said. "I usually take subways but this morning it cost me 200 yuan one way by cab."
Hubei, the province hit hardest by the outbreak, remains in virtual lockdown, with its train stations and airports shut and its roads sealed off. Some restrictions on people entering and leaving residential compounds are in place in many cities across China, and schools in many regions will be shut until the end of February.
The virus has also spread to at least 27 countries and territories, according to a Reuters count based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China - both of them Chinese nationals - one in Hong Kong and the other in the Philippines.
Sixty more cases have been found on a cruise ship docked off the Japanese port of Yokohama, media reported, taking the number of cases to 130 out of some 3,700 people on board. Across mainland China, there were 3,062 new confirmed infections on Sunday, bringing the total number to 40,171, according to the National Health Commission (NHC), with 908 dead.
"Markets will be sensitive to coronavirus news as factories and ports in China reopen. The extent to which that is achievable will indicate the level of ongoing disruption," ANZ economists wrote in a note. The extended closure of factories in the world's second-largest economy has raised concerns for global supply chains.
China's central bank has taken a raft of steps to support the economy, including reducing interest rates and flushing the market with liquidity. From Monday, it will provide special funds for banks to re-lend to businesses combating the virus.
Impact on Asian markets
Taiwan's Foxconn has received Chinese government approval to resume production at a key plant in the north China city of Zhengzhou, a source with direct knowledge of the situation told Reuters on Monday.
Tesla, Daimler, and Ford Motor are among carmakers that have said that they will restart production at their factories on Monday. Gaming giant Tencent Holdings said it had asked staff to continue working from home until Feb. 21.
Samsung Electronics resumed production at its home appliance factory in China on Monday, while it continues to run its chip factory there, a spokeswoman said. It extended the suspension of work at a television factory to Feb. 17.
Hyundai said its suppliers in China resumed production but volume was negligible. Kia Motors is suspending production at all three Korean plants due to a shortage of parts, although one of will resume production on Tuesday.
Short-term rental company Airbnb said it was suspending its bookings in Beijing for check-ins to the end of the month. The WHO declared the outbreak a global emergency on Jan. 30, days after the Chinese central government imposed a lockdown on 60 million people in Hubei province.
The WHO took nearly two weeks to get the government's green light on the composition of its advance team of experts, which left Geneva on Sunday. On the weekend, an American died in a Wuhan hospital to became the first confirmed non-Chinese victim. A Japanese man who also died there was a suspected victim.