Wuhan virus: North Korea bans tourists as Asia braces for Lunar New Year rush

Chinese tourists wear masks as they arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan 22, 2020.
PHOTO: Reuters

North Korea's decision to ban all foreign visitors as a precaution against China's coronavirus outbreak will hit its economy hard as tourists from the mainland account for 85 per cent of its 100,000 tourists each year, analysts say.

Tourist earnings contribute US$45 million (S$53.9 million) to Pyongyang's economy, which has limited sources of foreign exchange due to sanctions over its nuclear programme.

"This is bad news for North Korea but I suspect the greater concern is the public health risk," said Daniel Pinkston, who lectures in international relations at Alabama's Troy University. "[The outbreak of] a disease would have a greater impact on its society and pose a greater challenge for it than the lost tourism revenue."

The new coronavirus has killed nine people and infected 471 on the mainland, while four cases have been reported in Thailand. Macau, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the United States have reported one case each.

Hong Kong reported its first confirmed case of the coronavirus on Wednesday, after a tourist from Wuhan came to the city via high-speed rail from Shenzhen was detected to have a high fever at the border.

Health Minister Sophia Chan said the patient came to Hong Kong with four family members, who spent Tuesday night at a hotel in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district flying to Manila earlier on Wednesday. His family did not have any symptoms.

Given how fast the virus is spreading, medical professionals said quarantine was the best approach to contain it.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at South Korea's Dongguk University, said the North in 2003 closed its borders for up to two months to prevent the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

In the Philippines, local media reported that MP Rozzano Rufino Biazon had asked the country's Civil Aviation Authority to suspend direct flights from Wuhan to the central province of Aklan, while two senators urged government agencies to put up stricter quarantine areas, or "firewalls", for travellers who test positive for the coronavirus.

One of them, Senate health committee chair Bong Go, said the protocols were needed this week as "millions of Chinese nationals" are expected to travel to the country during Lunar New Year.

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Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt on Wednesday warned that authorities could force anyone showing symptoms of the disease to go to hospital, after previously saying the country was "vulnerable" to the virus as "we have had a direct contact with China". A Brisbane man being tested for the coronavirus has been released from isolation pending test results.

Public hospital emergency departments in Singapore are on "outbreak response mode", as National Centre for Infectious Diseases executive director Leo Yee Sin said he could not rule out the possibility the virus would reach the island nation, according to local media.

Singapore also announced it was setting up a task force involving multiple ministries to tackle the Wuhan virus should it hit the city state. There are three new suspected cases of the virus in Singapore, which the health ministry is investigating; it has already cleared seven others.

The Southeast Asian state on Wednesday started screening all passengers arriving on flights from China to avoid transmission of the flu-like virus, and advised travellers against non-essential travel to Wuhan.

There have been no confirmed cases of the virus to date in Singapore, but Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said it would only be a matter of time.

"It is inevitable that we will see an imported case sooner or later," Gan said in comments reported by local broadcaster Channel NewsAsia.

South Korea, meanwhile, is bracing for the Lunar New Year holiday, during which up to 130,000 tourists from mainland China are expected to visit the country.

Health authorities have set up additional thermal imaging cameras to screen visitors at airport immigration gates, and have launched a task force to deal with the virus.

The first confirmed case in South Korea - a 35-year-old Chinese woman from Wuhan, where the virus was first detected - has been in stable condition since she was placed in quarantine on Sunday immediately after flying into Incheon, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Thailand, meanwhile, has quarantined four patients with the new coronavirus including one Thai national, authorities said on Wednesday.

The Thai patient, a 73-year-old woman, had travelled to Wuhan during the New Year holidays and developed a fever after returning, according to the Public Health Ministry.

She was being monitored in a separate ward in a hospital in Nakhon Pathom, 60km west of Bangkok, where her condition was gradually improving.

"We can control the situation. There have not been cases of human-to-human transmission in Thailand because we detected the patients as soon as they arrived," Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told reporters.

Two other Chinese patients had recovered and been sent home while a third would return once tests showed he was clear of the virus, Anutin said.

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Thai officials were stepping up screening at airports to look for passengers with high body temperatures, coughs, headaches and trouble breathing, police said.

Masayuki Saijo, the virology division head of Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases, has expressed concern at the speed with which the virus has spread in spite of efforts to curb it and warned that any claim the outbreak is under control is incorrect.

"It has continued to grow and the number of people affected is continuing to rise and it has spread much faster than I had originally expected," he said. "It is very important that the international community works closely together and cooperates to find solutions."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe summoned his ministers to a meeting on Tuesday and instructed them to take all necessary measures to halt the spread of the illness.

Of particular concern, he said, was the large number of Chinese tourists who are expected to travel to Japan for the Lunar New Year, which falls on Saturday.

Japan's health authorities have so far confirmed one case of the virus, with that person subsequently making a full recovery.

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.