Facing ‘grave’ threat, China expands travel restrictions

China on Sunday expanded drastic travel restrictions to contain a viral contagion that has killed 56 people and infected nearly 2,000, as the United States and France prepared to evacuate their citizens from a quarantined city at the outbreak’s epicenter.

READ: China isolates 13 cities

Facing ‘grave’ threat, China expands travel restrictions
DEADLY OUTBREAK. A medical worker checks on a patient in the ICU  of Zhonghan Hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of a fast-spreading virus. AFP
China has locked down the hard-hit province of Hubei in the country’s centre in an unprecedented operation affecting tens of millions of people to slow the spread of a respiratory illness that President Xi Jinping said posed a “grave” threat.

A Filipino domestic worker in Hong Kong was quarantined after being exposed to two guests of her employer who tested positive for the new coronavirus. The Filipina, according to the consulate, is healthy and shows no sign of infection.

Outside the epicenter, three cities, including Beijing, and an eastern province announced bans on long-distance buses from entering or leaving their borders.

Originating in Hubei’s capital of Wuhan, the virus has spread throughout China and around the world, with cases confirmed in around a dozen countries as distant as France, Australia, and the United States.

READ: Major SARS-like outbreak feared amid third death outside of China

The US State Department said on Sunday it was arranging a flight to repatriate staff at its Wuhan consulate and other American citizens trapped in the city.

The flight departs Wuhan on Tuesday for San Francisco, it said in an email to Americans in China, while warning of “extremely limited” capacity for private citizens.

Citing unidentified people familiar with the effort, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier that the plane would seat around 230 people.

Around 1,000 American citizens are believed to be in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, the newspaper said.

France’s government and the French carmaker PSA -- which has a sizable presence in Wuhan -- also said they were formulating plans to evacuate staff and relatives, who would be taken to a city in a neighboring province for a quarantine period.

Sri Lanka said its Beijing embassy was considering action regarding its nationals in Wuhan.

China would normally be celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday this week, but Wuhan’s eerie quarantine calm deepened on Sunday as new restrictions banned most road traffic in the metropolis of 11 million.

Loudspeakers offered tips slathered with bravado.

“Do not believe in rumors. Do not spread rumors. If you feel unwell, go to the hospital in time,” the message said.

“Wuhan is a city that dares to face difficulties and keeps overcoming them,” the female voice added, mentioning the deadly 2002-03 SARS epidemic and 1998 Yangtze River flooding.

Israt Zahan, a Bangladeshi doctoral candidate living in Wuhan said she and other students were staying in their homes as it was “too risky” to go outside.

“The bustling city looks like a ghost town from my window. The shops are all shut down. I am rationing the food at my home. It will last for two days. Then I don’t know what I would do,” she said by phone.

Despite anxious scenes at crowded hospitals in recent days, there were no signs of panic in the city.

But defenses were bolstered elsewhere in the country.

Beijing suspended long-distance bus services into and out of the capital beginning Sunday. Similar suspensions are planned for the entire eastern province of Shandong -- home to 100 million people – plus the northern cities of Tianjin and Xi’an.

The southern city of Shantou had announced a ban on vehicles entering its jurisdiction after detecting two cases, but authorities later reversed the decision.

Overseas Chinese tour groups will be suspended from Monday while domestic trips have already been halted since Friday.

The nationwide death toll rose to 56 after 15 new deaths, most of them in Hubei.

Shanghai on Sunday reported its first death -- an 88-year-old man who had pre-existing health problems. It was the first death reported in an internationally connected major Chinese city outside of Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have originated in a market where animals like rats, snakes, and hedgehogs were sold as food.

READ: From bats to humans? Analysis shows possible sources of virus

The government says most deaths involved the elderly or people already weakened by pre-existing health conditions.

Fearing a repeat of SARS, China has dramatically scaled back celebrations and travel associated with the New Year holiday, which began Friday, while tourist sites like Beijing’s Forbidden City and a section of the Great Wall have closed as a precaution.

Xi said at a Communist Party leadership meeting on the crisis that China was “faced with the grave situation of an accelerating spread” of the virus, calling for stepped-up prevention.

Measures have been ordered nationwide to detect and isolate people carrying the virus on planes, trains and buses.

In Wuhan, China’s military has dispatched 450 medics, many with experience combating infectious diseases, to help treat patients in the city, many of whom reported hours-long waits at overwhelmed hospitals.

Wuhan is racing to build two makeshift virus-focused field hospitals within a fortnight to ease the pressure. The first could be ready in just over a week.

Also on Sunday, China ordered a temporary ban on the trade-in wild animals as the country struggles to contain a deadly virus believed to have been spawned in a market that sold wild animals as food.

Facing ‘grave’ threat, China expands travel restrictions
DEADLY OUTBREAK. Two medical staff members wearing protective gear walk next to patients waiting for medical attention at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital on January 25, 2020. AFP
Raising, transporting or selling all wild animal species is forbidden “from the date of the announcement until the national epidemic situation is over,” said a joint directive from three top agencies including the Ministry of Agriculture. 

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

Topics: Xi Jinping , Israt Zahan , Ministry of Agriculture , deadly virus
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