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China faces isolation amid travel bans

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China faced deepening isolation on Saturday over its coronavirus epidemic as the death toll soared to 259, with the United States and Australia leading a growing list of nations to impose extraordinary Chinese travel bans.

READ: Nations take drastic steps to rim spread

With Britain, Russia, and Sweden among the countries confirming their first infections, the virus has now spread to more than two dozen nations, sending governments scurrying to limit their exposure.

The United States toughened its stance Friday by declaring a national emergency, temporarily barring entry to foreigners who had been in China within the past two weeks.

“Foreign nationals, other than immediate family of US citizens and permanent residents, who have traveled in China within the last 14 days will be denied entry into the United States,” Health Secretary Alex Azar said.

Australia said it was barring entry to non-citizens arriving from China, while Australian citizens who had traveled there would be required to go into “self-isolation” for two weeks.

Similar steps have been taken by countries including Italy, Singapore, and China’s northern neighbor Mongolia.

The United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, and other nations already had advised their citizens not to travel to China.

READ: US, Japan nationals lead escape from Wuhan; PH readies planes

‘Unkind’

Beijing, which insists it can contain the virus, began to show impatience over the growing ostracism, with the foreign ministry calling Washington’s earlier advice against travel to China “unkind”.

“Certainly it is not a gesture of goodwill,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

The US emergency declaration also requires Americans returning from the ground zero Chinese province of Hubei to be placed in mandatory 14-day quarantine, and health screening for US citizens coming from other parts of China.

The virus emerged in early December and has been traced to a market in Hubei’s capital Wuhan that sold wild animals.

The number of infections in China also rose, by 2,102, bringing the nationwide total to 11,791.

That’s despite unprecedented quarantine measures imposed last week on millions of people in Hubei and aggressive preventive steps elsewhere in the country.

It spread globally on the wings of a Lunar New Year holiday rush that sees hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel domestically and overseas.

Mea culpa

With public anger mounting in China, Wuhan’s top official admitted late Friday that authorities there had acted too slowly.

“If strict control measures had been taken earlier the result would have been better than now,” Ma Guoqiang, the Communist Party chief for Wuhan, told state media.

Ma said he was “in a state of guilt, remorse, and self-reproach”.

Wuhan officials have been criticized online for withholding information about the outbreak until late December despite knowing of it weeks earlier.

China finally lurched into action more than a week ago, effectively quarantining whole cities in Hubei and tens of millions of people.

Unprecedented safeguards have also been imposed nationwide include extending the holiday, postponing school restarts and tight health screening on travelers nationwide.

But the toll keeps mounting at an ever-increasing pace, with health authorities on Saturday saying 46 more people had died in the preceding 24 hours, all but one in Hubei.

Another 2,102 new infections also were confirmed, bringing the total to nearly 12,000″•far higher than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak of 2002-03.

SARS, which is caused by a pathogen similar to the new coronavirus and also originated in China, killed 774 people worldwide, most of them in China or Hong Kong.

The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global emergency on Thursday but did not advise international trade or travel restrictions.

READ: WHO: Virus global risks ‘high’

But three US airlines”•American, Delta and United”•said they would soon suspend all flights to China.

Airlines cancel flights

The requirement of people arriving in Australia from Hubei province to “self-isolate” for 14 days was expanded from Saturday to include anyone traveling from mainland China.

Australia’s foreign ministry also updated its travel advice for China to “do not travel.”

Qantas Airways, Australia’s flag carrier, said earlier Saturday it would suspend its two direct flights to mainland China”•Sydney to Beijing and Shanghai”•from Feb. 9 because of various virus-linked international restrictions.

Air New Zealand followed suit, announcing a suspension of its Auckland-Shanghai service from Feb. 9.

Vietnam has also suspended all China flights as part of “strengthening measures” against the coronavirus outbreak, its civil aviation authority said in a statement on Saturday.

The directive applies to all airlines “which have routes between Vietnam and China” and is effective from Saturday, it added.

Vietnam Airlines, the country’s national carrier, and budget airline Jetstar Pacific said they would stop flying to mainland China along with Hong Kong and Taiwan.

An AFP correspondent on a flight from Taiwan to Vietnam was among 98 passengers told to disembark just as the announcement went public.

“The decision is ridiculous and unacceptable,” Vietnamese tourist Doan Thi Ngoc Diep told AFP after leaving the plane.

At the same time, Apple announced on Saturday the closure of its stores, corporate offices and contact centers in mainland China until Feb. 9 due to the new coronavirus epidemic.

Lunar year extended

The virus has prompted the government to extend the Lunar New Year holiday through this weekend in a bid to contain its spread, but many provinces and cities have called on companies to delay their return to work.

“Our thoughts are with the people most immediately affected by the coronavirus and with those working around the clock to study and contain it,” Apple said in a statement.

It added the closure was decided “out of an abundance of caution and based on the latest advice from leading health experts”.

Apple’s online store remains open and the company said it would closely monitor the situation. 

China is home to the firm’s third-biggest consumer market and much of its supply chain.

But like every company in China, it has been affected by the virus.

WHO warned Friday that closing borders were probably ineffective in halting transmission and could accelerate the virus’s spread.

But authorities around the world pressed ahead with preventive measures.

‘Latent racism’ 

Citing a likely “sharper rise” in infections, Singapore on Friday barred arrivals and transit passengers from mainland China.

Mongolia on Saturday toughened earlier restrictions by implementing a ban on any arrivals from its huge southern neighbor until March 2.

Impoverished Papua New Guinea went so far as to bar all visitors from “Asian ports” last week.

Thai health officials on Friday said a taxi driver became the kingdom’s first case of human-to-human transmission.

Thailand joins China, Germany, Japan, France, and the United States with confirmed domestic infections.

The health crisis has dented China’s international image, putting Chinese nationals in difficult positions abroad, amid complaints of racism.

In one striking example, more than 40,000 workers at a vast Chinese-controlled industrial park in Indonesia”•which also employs 5,000 staff from China”•were put under quarantine, the facility said on Friday.

‘Practical difficulties’

On the same day, China flew overseas Hubei residents back to the center of the outbreak in Wuhan on chartered planes from Thailand and Malaysia, citing “practical difficulties” the passengers had encountered overseas.

World markets tumbled again on Friday due to the uncertainty hovering over the world’s second-largest economy, a key driver of global growth.

Growing numbers of major airlines have suspended or reduced China flights, while corporate names from Toyota to McDonald’s and Starbucks have shut Chinese stores or production lines.

Countries have scrambled to evacuate their nationals from Wuhan, with hundreds of US, Japanese, British, French, South Korean, Indian and Mongolian citizens evacuated so far, and more countries planning airlifts.

Russia said it would evacuate more than 2,500 of its citizens holidaying on China’s Hainan island, far from the epicenter. 

READ: China isolates 13 cities

READ: Public warned: No cure for n-CoV; only hygiene

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