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31.01.2020 Africa

Countries tighten China travel curbs as official admits mishandling virus

By Helen ROXBURGH
Officials in protective suits stand near an elderly man wearing a mask who collapsed and died on a street near a hospital in Wuhan.  By Hector RETAMAL (AFP)
LISTEN JAN 31, 2020
Officials in protective suits stand near an elderly man wearing a mask who collapsed and died on a street near a hospital in Wuhan. By Hector RETAMAL (AFP)

Countries expanded restrictions on travellers from China over a deadly virus epidemic Friday as an official admitted that a botched response worsened an outbreak that has grown into a global health emergency.

At least 213 people have died and nearly 10,000 people have been infected in China by the new coronavirus, while new cases were found abroad with more than 20 countries now affected by the disease.

The top Communist Party official in Wuhan, the central city of 11 million people where the virus first emerged in December, said Friday he felt "remorse" because local authorities had acted too slowly.

Last week, China's central government finally jumped into action, effectively sealing off Wuhan and its surrounding Hubei province, and curbing travel across the nation of 1.4 billion people.

But the epidemic has spread far and wide as Chinese people travelled across the country and abroad over the Lunar New Year holiday that started last week.

Graphic on the different evacuations plans for foreigners in China.  By  (AFP) Graphic on the different evacuations plans for foreigners in China. By (AFP)

The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the outbreak a global health emergency, but said it was not recommending any international trade or travel restrictions.

Countries nonetheless intensified travel curbs.

The United States told its citizens not to travel to China and urged those already there to leave -- drawing a sharp rebuke from China which said the move was "certainly not a gesture of goodwill."

Citing a likely "sharper rise" in the spread of the virus, Singapore's government barred arrivals and transit passengers who visited China in the past 14 days, and stopped issuing all forms of new visas to Chinese passport holders.

Mongolia will ban Chinese nationals and foreigners coming from the neighbouring country by plane, train or road from Saturday until March 2. Mongolians will be barred from going to China over the same period.

Vietnam ordered the suspension of new tourist visas for Chinese citizens and foreigners who have been in China over the last two weeks.

Japan, meanwhile, joined Britain, Germany, and other countries that have recommended that their citizens avoid China.

Flights suspended

The WHO's rare declaration allows the UN health body to issue recommendations that the international community is expected to follow.

But the UN body warned Friday that closing borders was probably ineffective in halting transmissions of the virus and could even accelerate its spread.

Commuters in masks wait to board a canal boat at Pratunam Pier in Bangkok.  By Mladen ANTONOV (AFP) Commuters in masks wait to board a canal boat at Pratunam Pier in Bangkok. By Mladen ANTONOV (AFP)

China's ambassador to Geneva also said his country was controlling the outbreak and insisted there was no need for "excessive measures".

Authorities, businesses and worried people around the world have been taking matters into their own hands, with airlines and countries suspending or reducing flights with China.

The virus is believed to have originated in a market that sold wild animals in Wuhan before jumping to humans.

Wuhan officials have been criticised online for withholding information about the infection until the end of last year, despite knowing about the new illness weeks earlier.

A doctor prepares to enter the isolation ward at a hospital in Wuhan, epicentre of the virus outbreak.  By STR (AFP) A doctor prepares to enter the isolation ward at a hospital in Wuhan, epicentre of the virus outbreak. By STR (AFP)

"Right now I'm in a state of guilt, remorse and self-reproach," said Ma Guoqiang, the municipal Communist Party secretary for Wuhan.

"If strict control measures had been taken earlier, the result would have been better than now," he told state broadcaster CCTV.

People in China have so far directed their anger at local officials in Wuhan and Hubei but the crisis could pose a challenge to President Xi Jinping, who has called the epidemic a "demon" that China can defeat.

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

One French evacuee was hospitalised with coronavirus symptoms.

A man wearing a mask, goggles and gloves buys beverages at a supermarket in Beijing.  By NICOLAS ASFOURI (AFP) A man wearing a mask, goggles and gloves buys beverages at a supermarket in Beijing. By NICOLAS ASFOURI (AFP)

Russia said it would evacuate more than 2,500 of its citizens holidaying on China's Hainan island, far from the epicentre of the outbreak, a day after sealing its remote far-eastern frontier.

The health crisis has also dented China's international image abroad and put Chinese people in difficult positions abroad, with Chinese communities complaining of "latent racism" in Italy.

China on Friday said it sent charter planes to Thailand and Malaysia to bring Hubei residents back to Wuhan, citing the "practical difficulties" that they have encountered overseas.

Global anxiety

In a sign of growing global anxiety, more than 6,000 tourists were temporarily confined to their cruise ship at an Italian port after two Chinese passengers fell ill.

Medical staff of the Ethiopian Ministry of Health prepare to screen passengers at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa.  By Michael Tewelde (AFP) Medical staff of the Ethiopian Ministry of Health prepare to screen passengers at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. By Michael Tewelde (AFP)

They later tested negative for the coronavirus.

More than 40,000 workers at a vast Chinese-controlled industrial complex in Indonesia's Sulawesi island have been quarantined, although Indonesia has not reported any cases.

Myanmar sent a plane back to China after a Chinese passenger was hospitalised with possible symptoms.

The US has reported its first case of person-to-person transmission of the virus on American soil -- a man in Chicago who got it from his wife, who had travelled to Wuhan.

Britain and Russia each reported their first two cases on Friday and Sweden announced its first infection.

The number of cases in China soared to nearly 9,700 on Friday -- exceeding the 8,096 cases from SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), a similar pathogen that spread to more than two dozen countries in 2002-03 and killed nearly 800 people, mostly in China and Hong Kong.

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