A woman leaving a pharmacy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan 30, 2020. Police have arrested six people for spreading misinformation about the novel coronavirus, a Malaysian Communications and Multimedia statement said. Photo: AFP via EPA

As China’s coronavirus epidemic spreads and global panic rises, with over 17,000 infections and 360 fatalities, countries in neighboring Southeast Asia are rolling out travel restrictions and bracing for contagion effects.

While the wider region has pursued closer ties with Beijing in recent years under the auspices of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the coronavirus scare is seeing countries turn away an otherwise lucrative stream of Chinese arrivals.

Malaysia’s government, which began the year with the goal of attracting 3.48 million Chinese tourists by the end of 2020, is now weighing an economic stimulus package to cushion the expected negative impact of the worsening viral outbreak.

With a total of eight cases, all involving Chinese nationals, it has yet to enact more stringent measures such as blanket entry restrictions for Chinese passport holders, as imposed by some other regional countries.

Following the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of a public health emergency of international concern, neighboring Singapore announced that it would bar entry to visitors who have been to China in the last 14 days.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the pre-emptive decision was made “purely to protect our public health.”

Scoot airline crew which flew to Wuhan to evacuate Singaporean nationals arrive at Changi international airport, January 30, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

After narrowly avoiding a recession in 2019 and growing at its slowest pace in a decade, due in large part to the US-China trade war, the city-state is again bracing for an economic downturn after pre-virus projections of a more buoyant 2020.

“The economy is bound to slow down and our economy is quite tightly engaged with theirs, they’re our biggest trading partner,” said Lee in reference to China.

The economic cost of the coronavirus outbreak “will be much bigger than the impact of the US-China trade war and will have a huge impact on regional economies,” Terence Chong, an associate economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said. “Singapore has an open economy that will be very much affected.”

The city-state’s immigration authority has stopped issuing all forms of new visas to People’s Republic of China passport holders, while existing visa-holders and permanent residents with a recent history of travel to China are required to subject themselves to a self-imposed period of social isolation lasting 14 days, the coronavirus’ incubation period.

Eighteen cases have been confirmed in Singapore, with two involving Singaporeans who recently traveled to Wuhan, the central Chinese mega-city at the epicenter of the outbreak. That is the highest number of infections outside of China worldwide, trailing only Thailand (19) and Japan (20).

Singapore’s Ministry of Health has said there is no evidence of the coronavirus spreading from human-to-human transmission within the city-state. Thailand has confirmed one such case, while the Philippines reported the region’s first coronavirus-related death on Sunday.

While the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said its global emergency declaration was in response to the “potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” the international public health agency “doesn’t recommend and actually opposes” imposing trade or travel restrictions on China.

A roadside seller offers face masks for sale along Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang shopping district, February 2, 2020. Photo: Nile Bowie

The WHO’s emergency committee has cautioned countries against taking actions that “promote stigma or discrimination”, as well as border closures and quarantining airplane passengers who are not ill.

States are required to provide the United Nations’ agency with a “public health rationale and justification” for policies that “significantly interfere” with the flow of international traffic.

Despite specifically discouraging such restrictive measures, a number of states have adopted unprecedented travel bans on China in a bid to safeguard their own populations from the coronavirus.

While the economic consequences of limiting travel and trade with the world’s second largest economy are hardly in dispute, opinion is mixed on the need for drastic travel restrictions given that the fatality rate of the coronavirus is believed to likely be around 2.1%, much lower than the forerunner Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

SARS, which spread in the region between 2002-03, had a fatality rate of 9.5% and is estimated to have cost the global economy more than $30 billion.

However, with more than 17,000 cases of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) reported, the majority of which are concentrated in China, the total number of cases has far surpassed the 8,100 seen during the SARS epidemic.

“I would say the dominant opinion among international as well as Chinese experts is that the current outbreak will be more serious than SARS. While the novel coronavirus seems less deadly, it is highly contagious,” said Zi Yang, a senior analyst with the China Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

“I see Singapore’s measures as necessary… We still do not have all the information we need to fully understand the virus,” Zi told Asia Times. “Given the population density of Singapore, it simply cannot afford the prospect of a community outbreak. Therefore, recent steps to restrict travelers who have visited China are justified.”

A woman wears a mask in Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang shopping district as worries of the spread of the coronavirus mount, February 2, 2020. Photo: Nile Bowie

In nearby Brunei, which like Singapore is among the world’s smallest countries, the government has tightened its borders, limiting most flights to China – its top tourism market – and banning the entry of foreigners with a recent travel history to China’s Hubei province, where the virus originated.

So far, no cases have been detected in the tiny sultanate of 450,000.

Travel restrictions for Chinese nationals have also been enacted in Sabah and Sarawak, the only states in Malaysia which enforce their own immigration controls.

Noor Hisham Abdullah, the country’s health director-general, has said Malaysia is prepared to take additional steps to contain the coronavirus outbreak if the need arises.

“The novel coronavirus outbreak will worsen in the coming weeks,” Zi predicts. “A decline in the economic wellbeing of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is expected as visitors and investors turn away. First quarter growth for ASEAN does not look rosy.”

Dirk Pfeiffer, director of the Centre for Applied One Health Research and Policy Advice at City University of Hong Kong, said it is difficult to determine whether the measures taken by countries to restrict travel are proportionate to the risks associated with the coronavirus and its transmission.

Malaysian health officers are deployed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on January 21, 2020 as authorities increased measure against coronavirus. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

“We still do not know the true extent of the spread and in particular what percentage of the human population in China is actually infected,” Pfeiffer told Asia Times.

“And most dangerous in this context are people who have no clinical symptoms but are able to shed the virus and those that are infected, asymptomatic but not yet shedding the virus,” he said.

Amid the uncertainty, panic buying of surgical face masks have resulted in shortages at pharmacies and retailers in Singapore and elsewhere in the region.

To ensure supplies, Singapore’s government is now distributing a pack of four masks to each of the city-state’s 1.37 million households, to be used by those who have fallen sick and need medical help.

WHO guidelines suggest that individuals without respiratory symptoms should not wear surgical masks because there is no evidence available to suggest their usefulness in protecting the non-infected.

“We need to keep in mind that mask usage should be prioritized for high-risk groups and medical settings. We should follow the WHO guidelines and they indicate that masks are not required for people without symptoms,” said Pfeiffer, adding that the improper use of masks in low-risk settings could lead to shortages in high-risk situations.

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