‘Demon virus’ sparks exodus

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

Hundreds of Americans and Japanese escaped the quarantined Chinese city of Wuhan aboard charter flights on Wednesday, as the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak soared to 132 and confirmed infections neared 6,000—exceeding that of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-2003.

‘Demon virus’ sparks exodus
PEOPLE IN GREY. Images of people seen on a display screen of a thermal scanner installed at a shopping mall in Bangkok on Wednesday. Thailand has detected 14 cases so far of the novel coronavirus, a virus similar to the SARS pathogen, an outbreak which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. AFP
Chinese President Xi Jinping, during talks with the head of the World Health Organization in Beijing, said his country is battling a “demon” virus.

“The epidemic is a demon, and we cannot let this demon hide,” the Chinese leader said, pledging that the government would be transparent and release information in a “timely” manner.

In Manila, a Foreign Affairs department official said two chartered flights were on standby to evacuate Filipinos who wish to return home.

The number of infections has exceeded that of the SARS outbreak, which killed 800 people around the world from 2002-2003. Most of those fatalities, however, were in China and in Hong Kong.

The new disease, called 2019-nCoV, has spread to more than 15 countries since it emerged out of Wuhan late last year, although all the confirmed fatalities have so far been in China.

Authorities last week imposed transport bans in and around Wuhan in an unprecedented quarantine effort, leaving more than 50 million people effectively trapped.

“We were not able to move freely, so we only had partial information,” said Takeo Aoyama, a Nippon Steel worker who was among the Japanese nationals airlifted early Wednesday.

“The number of patients began increasing rapidly at a certain point. That was very worrying.”

China has taken other extraordinary measures to try and stop the disease spreading, including bans on tour groups traveling overseas, suspending schools and extending the Lunar New Year holiday.

With global concerns mounting, the United States, Britain, and other countries have also advised their citizens against traveling to China.

Thousands of foreigners have been among those trapped in Wuhan, which has become a near ghost-town with car travel banned and residents staying indoors.

Countries have for days been scrambling to try and get their citizens out of Wuhan safely but have faced huge logistical, medical and bureaucratic hurdles.

About 200 people were aboard the Japanese flight which landed in Tokyo on Wednesday morning.

Medical professionals were on the plane to carry out checks but Japan’s health ministry said there were no plans to quarantine the passengers.

They would instead be asked to remain at home and avoid crowds at least until the results of the test were known.

A US charter flight also left Wuhan on Wednesday with about 200 Americans on board, including employees from the local American consulate.

The European Union will fly its citizens out aboard two French planes this week, and South Korea is due to do the same.

Australia said it would evacuate citizens from Wuhan and quarantine them on an island normally used to detain asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, the virus continued to spread and kill in China.

Authorities said Wednesday the number of cases in Hubei province, the epicenter of the virus of which Wuhan is the capital, soared by over 800 from the previous day.

The number of confirmed cases across the country climbed to 5,974, while the death toll nationwide jumped 26 to 132.

All of those new reported deaths were in Hubei except for one, in a province just to the north.

The virus is believed to have originated in a wild-animal market in Wuhan, where it jumped to humans before spreading across the country as the peak travel period for Lunar New Year festivities got underway.

WHO said it would send urgently dispatch international experts to China “to guide global response efforts.”

READ: WHO: Virus global risks ‘high’

“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO’s highest priority,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Until Tuesday, all reported cases in more than a dozen countries had involved people who had been in or around Wuhan.

But Japan and Germany then reported the first confirmed human-to-human transmission of the illness outside China. Vietnam is investigating another case.

Germany now has four confirmed cases, all of them employees at a Bavarian firm recently visited by a Chinese colleague, health officials said.

Some experts have praised Beijing for being more reactive and open about the new virus compared with its handling of the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic.

But others say local officials had earlier been more focused on projecting stability than responding to the outbreak when it began to spread earlier this month.

The US asked China on Tuesday to step up its cooperation with international health authorities over the epidemic.

Washington has offered China assistance three times so far without success, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters.

In Manila, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Brigido Dulay said the government is coordinating with Chinese authorities on the ground for clearance for the two charter flights to take Filipinos in Hubei home.

“Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. directed our consulate in Shanghai, China to immediately start processing Filipinos in Hubei province who wish to be repatriated to the Philippines,” Dulay said on his official Twitter account.

Officials said there were roughly 150 Filipinos in Wuhan and another 150 in other parts of Hubei. As of Tuesday night, about 50 had said they wanted to be repatriated.

READ: 50 OFWs in Wuhan homesick—Bong Go

The repatriates will be subjected to 14 days of mandatory quarantine upon arrival in the Philippines, based on guidelines set by an interagency task force led by the Department of Health.

There is no timeline yet as to when the repatriation will begin, which is subject to China’s rules on disease containment, including immigration clearance and quarantine processes.

“We can’t give a definite timeline as all movements in and out of Hubei have to be coordinated with Chinese authorities on the ground, based on their disease control protocols and immigration rules,” Dulay said in a text message.

In a separate statement, he said the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered to assist Filipinos and other foreign nationals with expired/expiring visas through their respective embassies and consulates.

Filipinos who want to avail of the special flights from Hubei to the Philippines are advised to contact the Philippine Consulate General in Shanghai.

Meanwhile, Filipinos who wish to stay in China are advised to heed advisories of local health authorities and cooperate with efforts to quell the further spread of 2019-nCoV.

Thousands of foreigners were among millions of people stuck in Wuhan.

Australia’s foreign ministry said Tuesday it was working on a plan to transport all Australian nationals home. Officials added they had received about 400 calls from Australians in China registering for evacuation.

The Indian government will request clearance from Beijing to take more than 250 citizens out of Wuhan with a Boeing 747 in Mumbai on standby.

Jakarta said there are more than 230 Indonesians in China—roughly 100 in Wuhan and the rest in Hubei province. The foreign ministry said Tuesday it has yet to decide on an evacuation plan.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Wednesday that Kuala Lumpur was keen to send a plane to Wuhan to evacuate some 78 Malaysians stranded in the city.

Sri Lanka said Tuesday there were roughly 860 Sri Lankan students in China. The foreign ministry said it is awaiting a response from the Chinese authorities to operate a Sri Lankan Airlines charter flight to Wuhan to evacuate some 32 Sri Lankan students and their relatives.

Seoul will send chartered planes to Wuhan this week, the foreign ministry said, to return hundreds of its citizens to South Korea on Thursday and Friday.

Thailand’s premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha said Tuesday the country was waiting for authorization from Chinese officials before evacuating 64 Thais—49 students and 15 workers or tourist—but that aircraft and doctors were on standby.

France‘s Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said a plane will be sent to Wuhan on Thursday, returning either Friday or Saturday. About 500 to 1,000 French citizens are eligible for repatriation there, and another flight is planned.

The European Union said it would co-fund an airlift effort at France’s request so that more than 100 nationals from other EU nations could be repatriated along with French citizens.

The European Commission said “only healthy or asymptomatic citizens will be authorized to travel” on the flights.

Berlin has not confirmed any evacuation plan but said it is considering options for roughly 90 citizens reportedly in Wuhan.

Spanish officials are working with China and the European Union to take Spanish nationals out of the area, the foreign minister said.

The Department of Justice on Wednesday said a special team of officers from the Bureau of Immigration will handle the immigration procedures for the returning Filipinos from Hubei Province in China, the capital of which is the epicenter of an outbreak of the new strain of the coronavirus.

Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said the team members have been briefed by the Bureau of Quarantine and will be provided the necessary protective gear as part of the country’s health security protocols at ports of entry. 

Senator Cynthia A. Villar said the government should ensure that Filipinos in China, who will be repatriated to the country in the wake of the 2019 nCoV outbreak, are free of the novel coronavirus.

“Before being airlifted, be sure they have no virus since they might be the carrier here,” she said.

Senator Richard J. Gordon, chairman and CEO of the Philippine Red Cross, called for intensified screening of all travelers entering through the country’s air and seaports.

He also proposed a separate lane for travelers from China and other countries where there are confirmed infections. With AFP

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

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READ: China isolates 13 cities

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

Topics: coronavirus outbreak , Xi Jinping , World Health Organization , European Union
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