Coronavirus outbreak in China: From emergency flights to isolation; here's what India, USA, Japan, Australia, EU, and others are doing to evacuate citizens
Many Asian countries – Hong Kong, Thailand, Macau, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia – have people who have been infected.
A coronavirus respiratory infection that appears to have broken out in December last year in Wuhan, China is rapidly making its way around China and spreading to countries around the world. As of 29 January, the coronavirus infection has claimed the lives of 132 people in China and infected around 6,000 people, the vast majority (4,409) in Mainland China. Tourists travelling out of Wuhan, China have also carried the virus to other countries unbeknownst to them, leading to 65 cases of the infection and no fatalities in other countries.
Many Asian countries – Hong Kong, Thailand, Macau, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia – are now hosts to 2019-nCoV-infected people. So are France, Australia, US, Canada, Germany, Ivory Coast, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Many countries, including India, are yet to ascertain if the handful of suspected cases are, in fact, the same deadly Wuhan coronavirus strain. Various countries have also undertaken their own efforts to curb any further spread of the infection.
Two analyses of the coronavirus outbreak have concluded that each person infected with the virus (dubbed 2019-nCoV) is passing on the disease to at least two to three other people. The source of the infection, however, has still not been pinned down.
Chinese authorities claim that snakes are the carriers of the virus. Chinese health authorities have also said that the virus is mutating and can be transmitted from person to person through close contact.
To contain the spread, China has clamped down hard on travel within and outside Wuhan city. Tours have also been halted as of 27 January in the Hubei province. Transportation facilities in Wuhan have been shut, and all outgoing flights suspended. The Hubei province has gone in lockdown that has been steadily expanded to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of more than 50 million people.
With the country in lockdown, tourists and students stuck in the country want to come home. There are reports of people refusing to come out of their houses in fear that they will contract the virus. The Chinese New Year, which is one of the biggest celebrations in the country saw a very lukewarm reception. While the World Health Organisation has said that the risk of contamination is low, there is still an evident fear among the people. Countries are trying to find a way to get their citizens out of China and embassies are working overtime to help expedite this process.
The United States was one of the first non-Asian countries to report a confirmed case of the Wuhan coronavirus . As of 28 January, there have been confirmed cases – two people in southern California, and one case each in Washington State, Chicago and Arizona. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that it expects more Americans to be diagnosed with the newly discovered virus in the days to come, according to the Daily Journal, as the number of confirmed cases has slowly risen to 4,000+.
The country began the process to get their people back, in spite of the travel ban placed by China. According to The Associated Press and Reuters, the US embassy said that they will evacuate employees and any other Americans via a chartered flight. There will be a limited capacity to transport their citizens on a Tuesday flight from Wuhan that will land directly in San Francisco. In the event there were are not enough seats, priority will be given to individuals that were “at greater risk from coronavirus .”
According to BBC, on Wednesday, 240 Americans left China and will be kept in isolation, in a hangar for the next two weeks to ensure that they are not infected.
The CDC is also screening passengers on direct and connecting flights from Wuhan at five major airports in the US – Atlanta, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
So far, there's haven't been any confirmed case of the Wuhan coronavirus in India. People suspected to be infected or showing any signs of the symptoms are being kept under observation.
While most of the students studying in China came back during the Chinese New Year break, there are still around 250-300 Indian students stranded in China. The Indian embassy has requested Chinese authorities to let the students leave Wuhan and surrounding cities to return home.
The Indian embassy in Beijing has set up a third hotline number in addition to the existing two already in use, in order to better deal with the increasing amounts of calls they have been receiving from the students trapped in the lockdown. There is no confirmation on whether the students will be allowed to leave as yet.
“As of now, we understand that no Indian citizens have been affected by the outbreak & that food & water supplies are available to them,” tweeted out Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson Ministry of External Affairs.
We are also closely coordinating with Chinese authorities. As of now, we understand that no Indian citizens have been affected by the outbreak & that food & water supplies are available to them. (3/5)
— Raveesh Kumar (@MEAIndia) January 26, 2020
"It was decided that steps may be taken to prepare for possible evacuation of Indian nationals in Wuhan. Accordingly, the Ministry of External Affairs will make a request to the Chinese authorities," a government statement said.
An Air India Boeing 747 is on standby to evacuate Indians from Wuhan due to the coronavirus outbreak, an Air Indian official told ANI on Monday. They are awaiting the government's nod to liftoff.
Thermal screening is being done at seven designated airports—New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kochi. Till Monday, a total 33,552 passengers arriving in India from China in 155 flights have been screened, PTI reported.
Hong Kong has around five confirmed cases of coronavirus and around 108 suspected cases of Wuhan coronavirus infection. The Hong Kong government claimed it will ban people who have visited Wuhan in the past 14 days from entering the city. The ban, however, applies only to Chinese citizens.
According to South China Morning Post, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor, Hong Kong leader, during a press conference, said that all flights and high-speed trains from Wuhan to Hong Kong would be suspended indefinitely to control the spread of the virus. She has canceled a marathon and extended school holidays in the country till 17 February. Yuet-Ngor has also made health declarations mandatory to everyone entering the island and said that a false declaration will be punishable with six month jail time or a fine of HK$5,000.
France was the first European country to report a confirmed coronavirus case. Hospitals are currently treating three patients in France – all Chinese citizens – infected with the deadly virus.
France has around 800 people stuck in Wuhan and the Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said that they will be evacuating its citizens from Wuhan province.
“French citizens will be repatriated by airplane directly to France, with the agreement of the Chinese authorities. This will take place midweek,” she said. A medical team will accompany the flight and once they reach France, the people will be held in quarantine for 14 days, according to a report in The Independent.
The French government might also allow citizens from other EU countries to board the return flight from Wuhan, according to the French public health agency director Jerome Salomon, and France is in talks with the other countries for the same. The exact numbers of non–French Europeans that will be allowed a seat on the flight is yet to be decided.
Portugal along with other EU countries are in talks to conduct a joint operation to relieve their citizens stuck in Wuhan. Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva said 14 Portuguese have asked to be moved out of the city. Many EU countries have approached Chinese health authorities to try and gain clearance for this operation.
It has been decided that two flights will fly EU citizens home and the first flight will leave with 250 French nationals.
Britain too is working on getting its citizens back from China. There are Virgin Atlantic flights that are still plying between Shanghai and Heathrow and people can re-book flights. The Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care have advised those who have returned from Wuhan, China in the past 14 days to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people. The department has also told travellers to call NHS 111 (a toll-free medial help) and to inform them of their travel to the city, reported The Guardian.
Those individuals that will be evacuated, will be placed in quarantine for 14 days.
There are just over 600 Australians stranded in China and the country is working to get them evacuated. Out of the 600, around 100 of them are school children.
Australia and New Zealand are working together to get their people back. New Zealand has 50 people in the lockdown.
Australian Health Minister, Greg Hunt said in an interview with ABC radio, “We are working to make sure that there is support for those Australians and we are also working on, as are other countries, trying to secure their ability to return to Australia. At this point in time, the foreign minister is working around the clock on that.”
While there is no date for when the evacuation will take place, reports from The Guardian state that they will charter a Qantas flight. The evacuees will be kept, in isolation, on Christmas Island. This island is 2,000 km away from the mainland and is used to house asylum seekers. Currently, Christmas Island is home to one Sri Lankan family of four.
A government statement said that those being evacuated will have to bear a part or a whole of the cost of their transportation and quarantine. will be asked to pay some or all of the costs of their transport and quarantine.
Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison stressed that is a limited window get the people back and they will use the last-in-first-out method to get the Australians out. This means those who were short-term visitors to Hubei province, and who did not have family or other support will get priority over those who lived in the province or who have been there for longer periods.
“We’re particularly focused on the more vulnerable components of that population. That’s young people, particularly infants, and those who are elderly and that would be our priority in any operation we’re able to put in place," Morrison told The Guardian.
Russia has around 7,000 tourists currently trapped in China's nationwide lockdown – 6,000 of them are on the Hainan Island, Vice President of the Association of Russian Tour Operators Dmitry Gorin told Reuters. The Russian Embassy claim they have 140 Russian students studying in Wuhan who are in constant contact with their embassy, Moscow Times reported. The embassy added that they are consulting with the Chinese government to find a way to get their citizens back from Wuhan and the rest of the Hubei province.
Russian tour operators Rus'-Tur is also helping evacuate its tourists from the island of Hainan, where thousands of Russians are still stranded. Citing safety reasons, Russia cancelled all tours to China starting 25 January.
So far, Russia has no confirmed cases of the virus. However, there over 100 people that are suspected to be infected, according to a report in News.am. Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare head Anna Popova also told Urdu Point that two universities in Russia are working on developing a vaccine for the new coronavirus strain.
Deputy Prime Minister and Economic Minister Hong Nam-ki said the government is making full preparations to send a chartered plane to bring South Koreans in Wuhan home as soon as a formal government decision to dispatch that aircraft is made, reported The Associated Press.
Hong also said the government has raised its infectious disease alert level and is taking preventive measures such as inspecting all people coming from Wuhan and strengthening quarantine.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that his country is considering evacuating its citizens from Wuhan, with a government crisis response committee due to meet medical experts at the earliest to evaluate the situation, according to The Associated Press. The number of German citizens in Wuhan is in the double digits, Maas said.
The foreign ministry is currently advising Germans to refrain from or postpone “non-essential travel” to China.
The Sri Lankan embassy in Beijing has applied for a Sri Lankan Airlines plane to be allowed to land at the Wuhan airport to airlift 32 Sri Lankan students and their family members and get them back to the country.
The foreign ministry also said it was working to bring back all other Sri Lankan students throughout China. About 860 Sri Lankan students are currently in China.
Thailand has 64 citizens stranded in Wuhan and 18 people in other parts of China's Hubei province that need evacuation. The government is working on getting them out, and have an aircraft on standby ready to fly their people home – pending permission from the Chinese government, which hasn't yet been given.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, in an interview with Bangkok Post, said, “China confirmed that it can still control the virus... Flights must be approved by the destination country first... As long as the situation is under control, they are unnecessary. Otherwise, there would be a confusion of flights from other countries.”
Thai Air Force commander Manat Wongwat said that they have up to four C-134 planes loaded with medical staff and equipment that are on stand-by, ready to evacuate the people from hotspots in China, once they get the permission.
The embassy is in contact with its citizens and has a list of those who want to return home.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the government asked all Japanese residents in China whether they wish to return and made an effort to do so on chartered flights that took off on Wednesday.
The Japanese Embassy in Beijing said the initial evacuation is limited to those in Wuhan, where 710 Japanese people are stranded, according to Japan Times. Evacuees are expected to include employees of Honda Motor Co., Tokyo Electron, Aeon Co and other Japanese companies operating in Wuhan.
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