Cordoning the Coronavirus: Countries Limit Travel to China

Cordoning the Coronavirus: Countries Limit Travel to China

HONG KONG — Countries, cities and businesses across the globe issued new travel warnings on Tuesday, vastly expanding a cordon intended to control the flow of people to and from China, where the authorities are struggling to contain the outbreak of the new coronavirus.

In the most drastic measure to limit travel, the Hong Kong authorities reduced by half the number of flights and shut down rail service to mainland China, and they also limited visas — moves that could inspire other governments to follow suit.

Measures to contain the outbreak of the virus to its epicenter in Hubei Province appear to have failed to stop the contagion.

On Wednesday morning, Chinese officials said the number of cases had increased by nearly a third overnight. Experts warned that the actual number of cases could be significantly higher and growing quickly. The number of deaths attributed to the virus also continued to grow.

The new travel restrictions put a deeper freeze on China’s contact with the world, cutting off business and tourism as China’s economy faces a potential slowdown.

With China’s Lunar New Year holiday nearing its end, companies ordered workers to stay home and avoid travel. The economic impact of such measures pointed to a deeper political crisis, with many people accusing the Chinese authorities online of failing to act quickly to contain the virus, even as the government continues to struggle to control its spread.

The travel advisories and bans came as the virus showed early signs of spreading outside China, with cases of transmission to people who had not recently traveled to China reported in Japan, Germany and Vietnam. Countries across the world may now be faced with the task of limiting the spread of the disease on their own soil, not simply seeking to identify and quarantine infected people who had been in China.

The World Health Organization revised its global risk assessment for the outbreak from “moderate” to “high,” although it noted this shift in a footnote buried in a report published on Monday. The change in the risk assessment, which coincided with a visit to China by the organization’s director general, risked confusing the public about the severity of the outbreak, which has killed more than 130 people in China and been diagnosed in at least 14 countries.

The World Health Organization was criticized after it refused twice in recent days to declare the outbreak a global emergency, despite its spread.

With other countries scrambling to evacuate their citizens from the locked-down epicenter of the outbreak in central China, the WHO said its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had discussed with Chinese officials “possible alternatives to evacuation of foreigners if there are ways to accommodate them and protect their health.”

Although Chinese medical workers have described a desperate need for more resources to treat thousands of new patients, state-run Chinese media reported that Dr. Tedros had spoken highly of the Chinese efforts to contain the virus. The Chinese authorities agreed on Tuesday to allow in teams of international experts, coordinated by the World Health Organization, to help with research and containment.

Chinese officials said Wednesday that 132 people had died from the virus, up from 106 the day before. The total number of confirmed cases rose sharply as well, to 5,974 on Wednesday, according to the National Health Commission.

The youngest confirmed patient is a 9-month-old girl in Beijing. While the majority of confirmed cases were in Hubei, where a number of cities have been put under effective lockdown, an additional 1,800 cases have been diagnosed outside the province, the authorities said.

In Wuhan, medical workers have cited a lack of masks and kits to test for the virus. China’s medical products administration said on Sunday it had approved new virus detection kits to speed detection, but three Chinese medical companies said they did not have the capacity to produce enough of them, according to local news media reports.

Many in Wuhan with symptoms of the virus have not been tested or have been told the hospitals did not have enough test kits, some local residents said.

During a visit to Wuhan on Monday, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, promised to provide more equipment, and the local government has begun building new hospitals that it hopes to open in a matter of weeks. But online, many people mocked the government’s efforts.

In indications of the virus’s spread beyond China’s borders, Thailand reported 14 cases of infection, while the United States and Australia have each confirmed five cases. Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia each said they had confirmed four cases.

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which has now confirmed six cases, said that the virus had been found in the first Japanese citizen. The ministry said he had worked as a bus driver for two different tour groups from Wuhan. He had no history of traveling to Wuhan.

The man, who had driven for the tours earlier this month, first reported experiencing chills, a cough and joint pain on Jan. 14. He visited a clinic three days later, but was sent home. On Jan. 22, his joint pain and cough grew worse, and he returned to a health clinic on Saturday, when a chest X-ray showed abnormalities and he was admitted to a hospital. A test confirmed the coronavirus on Tuesday.

German officials said Tuesday that they had identified what they believed was the first instance of the virus spreading within Europe. They said a man from Starnberg in Bavaria was infected and was being treated and kept in isolation. The health ministry described him as being in “good condition” medically and said it was also monitoring his family and other people who might have been exposed, including in his children’s day care center.

“It was to be expected that the virus would come to Germany,” Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister, said in a statement on Tuesday. “But the Bavarian case shows us that we are well prepared.” He said the risk to Germans remained low.

Japan planned to send a chartered plane to Wuhan on Tuesday night to bring back the first Japanese citizens who wish to be repatriated. At least 13 countries have said they would evacuate their citizens from Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have been transmitted from animals to humans.

Businesses that operate in China have issued warnings of their own. In a flurry of emails sent in recent days, General Motors, Honeywell, Bloomberg, Facebook and other companies have warned employees not to travel within mainland China.

Honeywell, which has offices and operations across China, said it had restricted travel to some regions, but did not specify which ones. A spokesman for General Motors said the company had issued a global travel ban to China, with only “business-critical” travel allowed and only after clearance from a doctor. Bloomberg told its employees in Hong Kong and mainland China to work remotely until further notice and it restricted travel to China and Hong Kong over the next 30 days, according to an email seen by The New York Times.

The Chinese government has extended the Lunar New Year holiday until Feb. 3, with some of China’s biggest cities telling businesses not to open until the following week. China’s biggest technology companies went further, notifying employees to work from home until Feb. 10. NetEase, an internet and entertainment platform, asked employees who were returning from another city to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Investors in Asia were gripped on Tuesday with fear about the health of the global economy for a second day, with a widespread sell-off continuing in the markets. Investors dumped stocks in companies thought to be most vulnerable to the effects of the virus.

“The coronavirus is the No. 1 threat to financial markets currently as global investors are becoming jittery on the uncertainty,” said Nigel Green, founder of an investment company, the deVere Group.

In Hong Kong, medical professionals called for additional border checkpoints.

“The next week or two will be a critical time for the development of the epidemic,” the faculty at the Chinese University of Hong Kong wrote on its Facebook page. “We must closely monitor whether there is a community outbreak outside Hubei Province, especially in Hong Kong’s neighboring regions.”

Reporting was contributed by Chris Buckley, Russell Goldman, Elaine Yu, Raymond Zhong, Austin Ramzy, Sui-Lee Wee, Alexandra Stevenson, Eimi Yamamitsu, Tiffany May, Joseph Goldstein, Jeffrey E. Singer, Peter S. Goodman, Motoko Rich, Christopher Schuetze, and Roni Caryn Rabin. Jin Wu, Zoe Mou, Albee Zhang, Amber Wang, Yiwei Wang and Claire Fu contributed research.

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