BEIJING (AFP) — The Philippines reported the first death on Sunday outside of China from a new coronavirus, deepening global fears about an epidemic that has claimed more than 300 lives.
The first foreign fatality came as an increasing number of governments around the world — including Israel’s — closed their borders to people from China in a bid to stop it spreading.
Since emerging from the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, the coronavirus has infected 14,000 people across China and spread to 24 countries.
China has locked down Wuhan and surrounding cities in a bid to contain the virus, but it has continued to spread, prompting a hard-hit eastern city far from the epicenter to impose similar draconian measures on Sunday.
The country was also on the last day of an extended Lunar New Year holiday, meaning people are starting to return home on planes and trains, though many businesses will remain closed for at least another week.
The World Health Organization (WHO) Thursday declared the situation a global health emergency, and nations have taken extraordinary measures to build virtual fortresses against the disease.
The United States, Australia, New Zealand and Israel banned foreign nationals from visiting if they had been in China recently, and warned their own citizens from traveling there.
Mongolia, Russia and Nepal closed their land borders, while Papua New Guinea went as far as to ban anyone arriving from ports or airports across Asia.
The containment measures may have slowed the spread of the virus, but not stopped it.
The person who died in the Philippines was a 44-year-old Chinese man from Wuhan, the WHO said.
The news of the man’s death was released shortly after Manila announced it would immediately halt the arrivals of any foreign travelers from China.
“This is the first reported death outside China,” Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the WHO representative to the Philippines, told reporters in Manila.
Britain, Russia and Sweden also this weekend confirmed their first infections.
New lockdown, fatalities
The death toll in China soared to 304 on Sunday, with authorities reporting 45 new deaths from the previous day.
There were 2,590 new confirmed cases in China, bringing the total to nearly 14,500.
The number of confirmed infections in China is far higher than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak of 2002-03.
SARS, which is caused by a pathogen similar to the new coronavirus and also originated in China, killed 774 people worldwide — most of them in mainland China and Hong Kong.
China has imposed unprecedented measures to curb people traveling — with the respiratory virus believed to be able to jump from person to person via droplets.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and the capital of Hubei province, has been under quarantine since January 23.
Similar measures have been in place across all of Hubei, effectively sealing off more than 50 million people.
Some 800 kilometers away, Wenzhou, a city of nine million people in eastern Zhejiang province, was virtually shut down on Sunday.
Only one resident per household is allowed to go out every two days to buy necessities, while 46 highway toll stations have been closed. The city had previously closed public places such as cinemas and museums and suspended public transport.
Zhejiang province has the highest number of confirmed cases outside central Hubei province at 661 confirmed infections, with 265 of those in Wenzhou.
The emergence of the virus came at the worst time for China, coinciding with the Lunar New Year Holiday when hundreds of millions travel across the country in planes, trains and buses for family reunions.
The holiday was scheduled to end on Friday, but it was extended to Monday to give authorities more time to try and deal with the crisis.
While Hubei and some major cities, including Shanghai, extended the holiday, many people were ending their forced vacation.
One 22-year-old arriving at a Beijing train station from northeastern China, said her family tried to ask her to delay her return.
“But I was worried it would affect my job,” she said.
Security guard Du Guiliang, 47, said he would be starting back at work in Beijing on Sunday, after returning from northeast Liaoning province.
“Many colleagues (from Hubei) couldn’t come back. Now, those who work the day shift at our company have to do the night shift as well,” he said.
Custom authorities have ordered temperature checks at all exit-entry points in Beijing, according to the official news agency Xinhua.
All passengers are also required to fill in health declaration cards.
Returning travelers are also being checked and registered at residential compounds, while fever checks are in place in subway stations, plus many offices and cafes.
Car drivers in eastern Shandong Province are required to undergo temperature checks before entering highways, said Xinhua.
Train passengers in southwest metropolis Chongqing have to wear masks due to “a major increase in passenger flow” over the weekend.
‘Saddest New Year’
But other migrants were staying put.
“This is the saddest New Year I can remember,” said 25-year-old Maggie Le, who said she has delayed her return to work from Zhejiang province to Shenzhen by nearly two weeks.
A 48-year-old tailor surnamed Hu from eastern Anhui province has a shop to run in Beijing.
“But there is no hurry,” Hu told AFP. “I will only go back when the epidemic is over.”