BEIJING: A Chinese doctor who was punished after raising the alarm about China’s new coronavirus died from the pathogen yesterday, sparking an outpouring of grief and anger over a worsening crisis that has now killed more than 630 people.

At least 31,000 people have now been infected by a virus that ophthalmologist Li Wenliang and colleagues first brought to light in late December.

The disease has since spread across China, prompting the government to lock down cities of tens of millions of people, and panic has spiralled around the globe as more than 240 cases have emerged in two dozen countries.

A quarantined cruise ship in Japan now has 61 confirmed cases.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump, whose countries have tussled over trade and human rights, spoke on the phone about the health emergency yesterday.

Medical staff members leaving lunch boxes on the ground for patients to avoid cross infection at a quarantine zone in Wuhan, the epicentre of the new coronavirus outbreak, in China’s central Hubei province, in this photo taken on February 3. Photo: AF

Xi urged “the US side to respond reasonably to the novel coronavirus outbreak”, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Trump expressed his “confidence” in China’s ability to tackle the epidemic, the White House said.

Beijing has been angered by bans on arrivals from China instituted by the United States and other countries, accusing Washington of spreading “panic”.

Li, 34, died early yesterday, Wuhan Central Hospital said in a post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, an announcement that triggered grief on social media — over a doctor who was hailed a hero — and anger over the government’s handling of the crisis.

“He is a hero who warned others with his life,” a fellow Wuhan doctor wrote on Weibo.

“Those fat officials who live on public money, may you die from a snowstorm,” wrote one angry Weibo user in a comment that has since been censored.

In a sign that the criticism has shaken the Communist government, its anti-graft agency announced that it was sending a team to Wuhan to “conduct a comprehensive investigation into issues involving Dr. Li Wenliang reported by the masses”.

Li’s death has also highlighted the enormous risks that front-line doctors have taken to treat patients in overwhelmed and underequipped hospitals in Wuhan, the quarantined city of 11 million people where the virus emerged in December.

Medical staff are overstretched and lack sufficient protective gear, the deputy governor of Hubei province admitted Thursday. – AFP