China faces more border curbs as virus death toll rises

The number of deaths from a coronavirus epidemic in China has risen by 46 to 259, the country’s health authority said on Saturday, as the United States and other nations announced new border curbs on foreigners who have been in China.

The central province of Hubei, the center of the epidemic, is under a virtual quarantine, with roads sealed off and public transport shut down. Elsewhere in China, authorities have placed restrictions on travel and business activity.

In its latest figures, China’s National Health Commission said there were 2,102 new confirmed infections in China on Friday, bringing the cumulative total to 11,791. Around two dozen other countries have reported another 137 cases.

The Chinese data would suggest it is less deadly than the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people of the some 8,000 it infected, although such numbers can evolve rapidly.

In Beijing, counters were set up at the entrances of housing estates, where volunteers wearing red arm bands and masks noted down details of residents coming back from their hometowns after the Lunar New Year holiday.

“As long as I am properly protected and don’t go to crowded places, I don’t feel scared at all about my hometown or Beijing,” said a 58-year-old migrant worker surnamed Sun.

Others were more worried.

“There will be a huge number of people returning to the city, I think it will put Beijing at risk of more infections,” said Zhang Chunlei, 45, another returning migrant worker.

The World Health Organization, which this week declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, has said global trade and travel restrictions were not needed.

But Singapore and the United States announced measures on Friday to ban foreign nationals who have recently been in China from entering their territories.

EVACUATIONS
Australia followed suit, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying the country will deny entry to all foreign nationals traveling from mainland China from Saturday.

“We’re in fact operating with an abundance of caution in these circumstances,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney. “So Australians can go about their daily lives with confidence.”

Qantas Airways Ltd and Air New Zealand said travel bans forced them to suspend their direct flights to China from Feb. 9. All three major U.S. airlines said on Friday they would cancel flights to mainland China.

Nearly 10,000 flights have been suspended since the outbreak of the new coronavirus, according to travel and data analytics firm Cirium, illustrating concerns about a slowdown in economic activity in China and elsewhere.

Many nations have put on charter flights to repatriate citizens from China and then place in isolation for around two weeks, the incubation period of the virus. More than 300 South Koreans arrived home on Saturday and Indonesian officials said around 250 nationals were being evacuated from Hubei.

Britain said it was withdrawing some staff from its embassy and consulates in China.

“In the event that the situation deteriorates further, the ability of the British Embassy and Consulates to provide assistance to British nationals from within China may be limited,” the UK government said in a statement.

Many of the costly private clinics catering to foreigners in China have started to turn people with fevers away, raising concerns among expats that they would have to rely on crowded local facilities.

“I don’t want to go to the local hospital with a sore throat only to catch something else,” said Czech national Veronika Krubner in Tianjin, who is considering leaving the country with her 21-month-old daughter.

DISRUPTIONS

Infections have jumped in two cities flanking Wuhan, raising concerns that new hot spots are emerging despite strict travel restrictions.

In one of them, Huanggang, authorities asked households to designate one individual who can leave the home, a local newspaper said. The city has a population of about 7.5 million.

The northern city of Tianjin, home to some 15 million, suspended all schools and businesses until further notice.

Although the WHO has praised China’s efforts to contain the virus, the U.S.-based China Human Rights Defenders urged Beijing to ease restrictions on movement and counter discrimination against residents of Wuhan and Hubei.

“Human rights must not be a casualty of the government’s work to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has killed nearly 200 people and affected millions,” the group said.

Still, efforts to contain the virus have caused disruptions and risk exacerbating a slowdown in the world’s second-biggest economy.

Growth had already slowed in the fourth-quarter to a 30-year low of 6%. The virus impact prompted Capital Economics to almost halve its estimate for first-quarter growth to 3% from 5.7%.

China’s central bank said the impact was temporary and economic fundamentals remained sound, but it would increase monetary and credit support, including lowering lending costs for affected companies.

Apple Inc said on Saturday it would close all of its official stores and corporate offices in China until Feb. 9, the latest of dozens of major companies, including Sweden’s IKEA and Walmart Inc, restricting travel and operations due to the outbreak.

Source: News Agencies