Screens of alerting coronavirus displayed at the Incheon International Aiport. (Yonhap)
South Korea will bar all foreigners from China’s Hubei province from entering the country, starting from Tuesday, but a growing number of experts, politicians and citizens say the measure is insufficient to fight the rapidly spreading new coronavirus. They demand a complete ban on entries from all of China.
The latest measure, set to take effect Tuesday, blocks entry of all foreign nationals who have visited the Chinese province that has become the hub of the deadly coronavirus in the past two weeks, or since Jan. 21. For Korean nationals, they will be allowed to enter after thorough examination and will be put into mandatory self-quarantine for two weeks. The steps are similar to those taken by countries like Japan.
But with the novel coronavirus that originated in Hubei’s capital Wuhan in December spilling over to other parts of China at a fast pace, experts say blocking only Hubei province may not be effective.
Chinese officials estimate about 5 million Wuhan residents left to other parts of China before the unprecedented lockdown on Jan. 23, when all outbound flights, trains and buses were halted from Wuhan, raising concerns that cases will spike even further in other regions.
Following Seoul’s decision Sunday, major health associations here, including the Korean Society of Infectious Disease, Korean Society for Healthcare-associated Infection Control and Prevention and Korean Society for Antimicrobial Therapy, urged the government to expand the restriction to all of mainland China.
“Forty percent of infected cases occurred in other parts of China outside of Hubei province, so restricting only Hubei is not enough,” the associations said in a joint statement. “With the possibility of spreading the virus by people who have mild or no symptoms at all, the government should require all of those who enter from China to enter a self-quarantine.”
Jung Byung-yool, a professor at Cha University Medical School and who headed the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2011-13, said Korea needs to impose a stricter entry ban like the US, Australia and Singapore, which are barring entry to all foreign nationals coming from mainland China.
“Korea needs to take drastic steps on restricting entry,” he said during an interview with CBS radio on Monday. “When breaking down the confirmed patients in China, 60 percent is from Hubei province, while 40 percent comes from other areas like Guangzhou and Hangzhou. When the people from the areas that make up 40 percent enter Korea, it could spread (here).”
On such concern, the government said it will decide whether to expand the restriction to cover all of China after monitoring the situation.
“On the need for expanding the measures to other regions (in China), we will continue to review, contingent upon the progress of the disease. If the (further ban) is required, we will make the decision by receiving opinions from experts, taking into consideration various aspects and discussing with related ministries,” said Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Kim Gang-lip in a briefing.
The death toll from the virus, which is officially called the 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCov, now stands at 361 in China and one in the Philippines, which recorded the first death outside of China. Around the world, the virus has infected more than 17,300 in 27 countries.
Korea has 15 confirmed cases.
Meanwhile, Korea’s latest decision to close the doors on China could risk angering Seoul’s major trade partner, which had asked Seoul and other countries to follow the WHO’s recommendation and refrain from restricting travel or trade.
This comes at a time of thawing relations between Seoul and Beijing, which have been chilly since Korea’s decision to host the US-made THAAD missile system in 2017, with Chinese President Xi Jinping expected to visit Seoul in the first half of this year.
“Both sides have been working to improve ties recently,” Kim Heung-kyu, director of the China Policy Institute and a professor at Ajou University, told The Korea Herald. “But that comes with the strategic understanding and needs of each side. From the earlier stage of the outbreak, Korea has shown support and aided China. Moreover, the (restriction) measure taken by Seoul is not seen as extreme in comparison to what other countries are taking. Therefore, this measure would not necessarily hurt the Seoul-Beijing relations or make them worse.”
He called for Korea to do its best to protect its people, while still aiding and supporting disaster-stricken China. “Because if coronavirus cannot be stopped from China, it could become a global disaster,” he said.
“I think it’s important to see how the situation unfolds and if needed, impose following steps that could cover all China.”
By Ahn Sung-mi (email@example.com