Desperate to stop virus’ spread, countries limit travel

SEOUL (AP) — Police manned checkpoints in quarantined towns, governments issued travel warnings and more flights were suspended yesterday as officials desperately sought to stop the inevitable spread of a new virus.

Clusters of the illness continued to balloon outside mainland China, fuelling apprehension across the globe that was reflected in sagging financial markets.

The crisis pushed into areas seen as among the worst-equipped to deal with an outbreak as well as some of the world’s richest nations, including South Korea and Italy.

As it proliferates, the virus is bringing a sense of urgency for local officials determined to contain it but often unsure how.

“It’s a matter of speed and time: We must create a clear turning point within this week,” said President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, where the caseload grew by 144, with a total of 977 people sickened.

Chonnam National University staff wearing protective attire on standby for special transportation for Chinese students studying at their university, at Incheon International Airport. PHOTO: AP

Cases of people who could have infected many others spurred fears.

Korean Air said one of its crew members tested positive, but the airline didn’t disclose the flights the employee had worked on. On a United States (US) military base in Daegu, the centre of infections in South Korea, officials said a service member’s spouse had also been infected. And in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, one of those infected was a school bus driver who had transported students as recent as Sunday.

Also testing positive was the head of Iran’s virus task force, who just a day earlier gave a news conference in Tehran in which he tried to minimise the danger posed by the outbreak.

In Italy’s north, where over 200 people were sickened, a dozen towns were sealed off and police wearing face masks patrolled. Two neighbours of Italy — Croatia and Austria — reported their first cases of the virus.

Croatia, Hungary and Ireland advised against travelling to Italy’s affected area, one of a number of governmental moves seeking to limit further exposure. Bahrain suspended flights to Dubai while the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its highest travel alert on South Korea, advising citizens to avoid non-essential trips.

Japan urged citizens to avoid unessential trips to South Korea’s hardest-hit areas. A culture of long days at the office in Japan came to terms with the outbreak, with the government urging employers to allow workers to telecommute and have more flexible hours, simple moves Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed hope could help control the spread.

Even in places where no cases have sprouted up, leaders kept a wary eye, such as Denmark, where two former military barracks were being prepared as quarantine centres. Still, uncertainty remained about how to effectively limit the epidemic.

Italy had taken Europe’s most stringent preventative measures against COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and yet became home to the biggest outbreak outside Asia. Experts in Japan, with one of the world’s most sophisticated health systems, acknowledged the country’s handling of the virus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship was flawed and could have allowed the problem to magnify.

In comments reflecting both defiance and dubiousness over what measures work, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said the country would not shut its border or call offmass gatherings.