China is being wheeled into the quarantine ward after the World Health Organization declared a global emergency following the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.
Crucial trading partners are evacuating their employees, major airlines are suspending flights and Beijing has finally started to bring back tourists from virus-hit Hubei province because of “practical difficulties.”
They will be airlifted “as soon as possible,” Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed on Friday.
“[There have been] practical difficulties that Hubei citizens, especially those from Wuhan, have faced overseas,” she said, referring to anti-Chinese sentiment.
As the death toll climbed past 250 with nearly 12,000 people infected by the 2019-nCoV disease, the mood towards the world’s second-largest economy has changed across the region.
In Singapore, more than 100,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the government to ban Chinese nationals from entering the country.
“All new visitors with recent travel history to China within the last 14 days will not be allowed to enter into Singapore or to transit through Singapore,” National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the administration’s special task force, said at a media briefing on Friday.
Elsewhere, hashtag #ChineseDon’tComeToJapan has been trending on Twitter, while in Hong Kong, South Korea and Vietnam, businesses have posted signs warning that mainland Chinese customers are “not welcome.”
The relentless spread of the disease, which started in a fish market in Wuhan, has finally forced the WHO to issue an international emergency alert.
“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, which is based in Geneva, said.
“We must all act together now to limit further spread … We can only stop it together,” he added.
Before his announcement, the global community was already taking steps to contain the outbreak while China was ratcheting up the pressure at home. So far, isolating the epidemic has become the top priority:
• Major airlines, including American Airlines, United Airlines, British Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, Air India and Turkish Airlines, have canceled or suspended flights to China.
• Globe auto companies, such as Renault, Honda, Toyota, Tesla, and Volkswagen, have either evacuated foreign staff or announced that joint-venture plants in China will stay shut until February at the earliest when the extended Lunar New Year holiday finally ends.
• Food and beverage giants Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut have closed selected outlets in the country. Retail brands such as GAP, H&M and Old Navy have followed suit.
• High-tech group Foxconn, which manufactures iPhones, has frozen production in China while Apple has shut down all its stores and offices. Amazon, Google and Microsoft have announced travel restrictions to and from the country.
• Shanghai Disney Resort and the InterContinental Hotels Group have temporarily suspended their operations in the country.
• Major sports events, such as the World Indoor Athletics Championships in Nanjing, have been postponed while the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai in April is under threat.
• The highly-popular and highly-lucrative Chinese Super League, one of the leading Asian football or soccer competitions, has been postponed indefinitely. The season was due to kick-off on February 22.
• China is also starting to shut down most of its 70,000 movie theaters and that will hit the country’s US$9.2 billion box-office market, the second-largest in the world. New film releases have been put on ice.
Moreover, the economic “impact” will be substantial.
“We can only speculate what [the] ultimate impact – both human and economic – the virus will have, depending on how far it ends up spreading. The most important channel will likely be the hit to Chinese consumer spending,” Roland Rajah, the director of the international economy program at the Lowy Institute, said.
Globally, the epidemic will stunt growth.
At least 16 countries, including the United States, have reported cases of the 2019-nCoV disease. On Thursday, the US State Department announced the highest travel warning. “All non-essential US government personnel [should] defer travel to China in light of the novel coronavirus,” it said.
Since the outbreak in Wuhan escalated last week, the capital of Hubei province has been under siege and in a state of lockdown. The sprawling metropolis is home to 11 million people, 2.6 million more than New York or London.
At the weekend, Beijing announced plans to seal off 15 cities. Up to 56 million people, which is nearly the population of South Africa, have been put into quarantine after a travel ban was imposed.
Five days later, the postmortem has already started following public anger on social media about the handling of the crisis.
On Friday, Ma Guoqiang, the municipal Communist Party secretary for Wuhan, admitted mistakes had been made and apologized in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.
“Right now, I’m in a state of guilt, remorse and self-reproach,” he said.
“If strict control measures had been taken earlier [or 10 days ago], the result would have been better than now. I think if we had taken measures like this at the time, the epidemic may have been alleviated somewhat, and not got to the current situation,” Ma added.
In the meantime, the world’s most populous nation of nearly 1.4 billion people is facing international isolation, wrapped up in an intensive care unit.