BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China reported its fewest new infections of coronavirus since January and its fewest deaths for a week, but the World Health Organization said data suggesting the epidemic had slowed should still be viewed with caution.
Apple Inc warned that its sales would suffer because of the epidemic, hurting both supply and demand, an announcement that cast a chill on global stock markets.
The head of a leading hospital in China’s central city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, died of the disease on Tuesday, becoming one of the most prominent victims since the disease first appeared at the end of last year.
Chinese officials reported 1,886 new cases – the first time the daily figure has fallen below 2,000 since Jan. 30 – bringing the mainland China total to 72,436. The figure of 98 new deaths marked the first time the daily toll had fallen below 100 since Feb. 11, bringing the overall toll to 1,886.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Chinese data “appears to show a decline in new cases” but any apparent trend “must be interpreted very cautiously”.
Outside China, there have been 827 cases in 26 countries and regions and five deaths, according to a Reuters count based on official statements. More than half of those cases have been on a cruise ship quarantined off Japan.
China says figures showing a slowdown in new cases in recent days are signs that aggressive steps it has taken to curb travel and commerce are slowing the spread of the disease beyond central Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan.
Epidemiologists say data needs to be treated with caution, and may fluctuate because of factors such as the resources available for testing.
“We can hope that the reports of falling numbers of new cases in China do show that the epidemic has peaked in Hubei province, but it is still too early to be sure,” said Jimmy Whitworth, a professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Chinese state television said Liu Zhiming, the director of Wuhan Wuchang Hospital, died on Tuesday, the seventh health worker to fall victim. The hospital was designated solely for treating virus-infected patients.
While China says its lockdown of cities and tough curbs on travel and movement have limited the spread of the virus, this has come at great cost to its economy, with repercussions for global businesses.
State television quoted President Xi Jinping as saying China could still meet its economic growth target for 2020 despite the epidemic.
In the latest in a series of emergency economic measures, state television reported companies in Hubei would be exempted from some pension and insurance payments. The minimum price for rice would be kept stable and the government would increase its reserves of frozen pork.
Apple became the latest company to warn of trouble, saying it would not meet its guidance for March-quarter revenue because of slower iPhone production and weaker demand in China.
Asian shares fell and Wall Street was poised to retreat from record highs on Tuesday after the news.
Economists are warning of mass layoffs in China later this year if the virus is not contained soon.
“The employment situation is OK in the first quarter, but if the virus is not contained by end-March, then from the second quarter, we’ll see a big round of layoffs,” said Dan Wang, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Job losses could run as high as 4.5 million, he forecast.
Firms in China’s services sector and small manufacturers are bearing the brunt of the impact so far.
When cameraman Mark Xia returned to his job this month after holidays, the Shanghai video production house where he worked told him to take three months’ leave with no pay. He is looking for a new job.
“I understand the company’s cash-flow is tight,” Xia, 25, told Reuters. “We postponed some shooting due to the coronavirus outbreak, and that’s had a huge impact on our revenues. That’s the reality.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the economy was in an emergency situation and required stimulus as the epidemic had disrupted demand for South Korean goods.
Singapore announced a $4.5 billion financial package to help contain the outbreak in the city-state and weather its economic impact.
In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam said the government would increase handouts to tackle the outbreak to HK$28 billion ($3.60 billion) from HK$25 billion, as it strives to ease the impact on the Chinese-ruled city’s protest-battered economy.
Singapore Airlines Ltd said it would temporarily cut flights in the three months to May, as the epidemic hits demand for services touching and transiting the key travel hub.
Japan, where the economy was already shrinking and the epidemic has created fears of recession, the spread of the virus has prompted Tokyo to put limits on public crowds while some companies are telling employees to work from home.
Reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing and Samuel Shen in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Lusha Zhang, Gabriel Crossley and Se Young Lee in Beijing; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Peter Graff; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie