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Virus death toll shoots past 300 as countries close off borders

Over 14,000 people have been infected with Wuhan coronavirus, Chinese authorities say

A woman wears a face mask as she pushes a bicycle along a street in Beijing, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020.  (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)
A woman wears a face mask as she pushes a bicycle along a street in Beijing, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

BEIJING, China — The death toll from China’s coronavirus epidemic soared to 304 on Sunday, as an increasing number of countries imposed extraordinary Chinese travel bans to combat the spread of the disease.

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 United States and Australia are leading a growing list of countries, including Israel, that are putting temporary but sweeping travel restrictions on Chinese nationals or those who have traveled to China within the last two weeks.

“Foreign nationals, other than immediate family of US citizens and permanent residents… will be denied entry into the United States,” Health Secretary Alex Azar had announced.

Israel has barred foreign nationals recently in China from entering the country, and has planned a high-level meeting of ministers and health professionals to plan out a response once the virus does enter the country.

“We aren’t taking any unnecessary chances,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “We are aware that we cannot fully prevent the virus entering [Israel].”

A man wearing a face mask at the arrivals hall of Ben Gurion Airport on January 30, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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

Vietnam suspended all flights from mainland China effective Saturday, while Russia announced it would halt visa-free tourism for Chinese nationals and stop issuing them work visas.

Similar expansive restrictions have been announced by countries including Italy, Singapore, and China’s northern neighbor Mongolia.

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

Thousands of Hong Kong medical workers voted to commence a four-day strike from Monday to push the government to close its border with mainland China to stop the virus, which has already spread to the financial hub.

Two girls with face masks ride the subway in Hong Kong, Saturday, Feb, 1, 2020. (AP/Kin Cheung)

Britain said Saturday it was temporarily withdrawing some diplomatic staff and their families from across China, a day after the US State Department ordered embassy employees to send home family members under the age of 21.

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

The US emergency declaration also requires Americans returning from Hubei province 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 and has been traced to a market in Hubei’s capital Wuhan that sold wild animals.

Security personnel wearing protective masks walk in front of the portrait of late communist leader Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on January 23, 2020. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

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.

The economic fallout continued as Apple announced that all its China stores would be closed until February 9.

China’s central bank said it would offer financial support to businesses hit by the public health emergency.

Mea culpa

With public anger mounting in China, Wuhan’s top official admitted late Friday that authorities there had acted too slowly.

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

Wuhan officials have been criticized online for withholding information about the outbreak until late December despite knowing of it weeks earlier.

China finally lurched into action last week, effectively quarantining whole cities in Hubei and tens of millions of people.

Unprecedented safeguards imposed nationwide include postponing the return to school, cutting bus and train routes, and tightening health screening on travelers nationwide.

Authorities in Hubei have extended the new year holiday until February 13 and suspended marriage registrations from Monday to discourage public gatherings.

In this Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a medical worker attends to a patient in the intensive care unit at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province (Xiong Qi/Xinhua via AP)

The city of Huanggang, east of Wuhan, said only one member of each household would be permitted to leave the house every two days to buy necessities.

But the toll keeps mounting, with health authorities in Hubei on Sunday reporting 45 more deaths in the preceding 24 hours.

The number of confirmed infections across China passed 14,300 on Sunday, the National Health Commission announced — 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.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a global emergency on Thursday but later warned that closing borders was probably ineffective in halting transmission and could accelerate the virus’s spread.

But authorities around the world pressed ahead with preventive measures.

‘Latent racism’

Thai health officials on Friday said a taxi driver became the kingdom’s first case of human-to-human transmission.

Thailand joins China, Vietnam, Germany, Japan, France and the United States with confirmed domestic infections.

A health worker reaches to check the temperature of a tourist from Wuhan, China, as they line for a charter flight back to Wuhan at the Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. (AP/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

The health crisis has dented China’s international image and put Chinese nationals in difficult positions abroad, with complaints of racism.

China flew overseas Hubei residents back to the center of the outbreak in Wuhan on chartered planes from Thailand and Malaysia, citing “practical difficulties” the passengers had encountered overseas.

Countries including Japan, Britain, France and the US have scrambled to evacuate their nationals from Wuhan, with more governments planning airlifts.

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