China’s isolation grows as virus toll reaches 259

BEIJING (AFP) – China faced deepening isolation over its coronavirus epidemic yesterday as the death toll soared to 259, with the United States (US) and Australia leading a growing list of nations to impose extraordinary Chinese travel bans.

With Britain, Russia and Sweden among the countries confirming their first infections, the virus has now spread to more than two dozen nations, sending governments scurrying to limit their exposure.

The US toughened its stance on Friday by declaring a national emergency, temporarily barring entry to foreigners who had been in China within the past two weeks.

“Foreign nationals, other than immediate family of US citizens and permanent residents, who have travelled in China within the last 14 days will be denied entry into the United States,” Health Secretary Alex Azar said.

Australia said it was barring entry to non-citizens arriving from China, while Australian citizens who had travelled there would be required to go into “self-isolation” for two weeks.

Similar steps have been taken by countries including Italy, Singapore, and China’s northern neighbour Mongolia.

Staff members, wearing protective suits, watch as a plane carrying Mongolian citizens for their evacuation from the Chinese city of Wuhan arrives in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. PHOTO: AFP

The US, Japan, Britain, Germany and other nations had already advised their citizens not to travel to China.

Beijing insisted it can contain the virus and called Washington’s advice against travel to China “unkind”.

“Certainly it is not a gesture of goodwill,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

The US emergency declaration also requires Americans returning from the ground zero Chinese province of Hubei to be placed in mandatory 14-day quarantine, and health screening for American citizens coming from other parts of China.

The virus emerged in early December last year and has been traced to a market in Hubei’s capital Wuhan that sold wild animals.

It spread globally on the wings of a Lunar New Year holiday rush that sees hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel domestically and overseas.

In a bid to stop the contagion, the government has extended the holiday through this weekend and urged people to avoid public gatherings.

Many provinces and cities have called on companies to remain closed for another week after the holiday ends tomorrow.

The economic fallout continued yesterday as Apple announced that its China stores would be closed until February 9, “out of an abundance of caution and based on the latest advice from leading health experts”.

With public anger mounting in China, Wuhan’s top official admitted late on Friday that authorities there had acted too slowly, expressing “remorse and self-reproach”.

“If strict control measures had been taken earlier the result would have been better than now,” Communist Party Chief for Wuhan Ma Guoqiang told state media.