POSTSCRIPT / February 2, 2020 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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As Rody rests, nCoV crisis meeting waits

EVEN God the Creator had to rest on the seventh day, so maybe we should not begrudge President Duterte’s resting over the weekend before convening this week a top-level meeting on the Novel Coronavirus (nCoV) outbreak in the country.

While several countries have moved swiftly to stop what the World Health Organization has declared as a global emergency, the Duterte administration tiptoes around it ever careful not to offend China, where the epidemic broke out in December.

This is a public health emergency, so why is the political concern of Duterte about possibly hurting the sensibilities of his Chinese friends an important consideration in addressing it?

This apparent holding of Chinese interests above the welfare of Filipinos has fanned anti-Duterte feelings, and also anti-Chinese sentiments, among a growing segment of the public as manifested in social media.

Duterte banned flights from Hubei province whose capital Wuhan City is the ground zero of the contagion that had infected worldwide some 78,000, one of them a Chinese woman who was downed by nCoV in the Philippines.

China has reported 9,692 cases with a death toll of 213. In Hubei alone, there are 4,903 cases, including 162 deaths. Eighteen other countries have since reported cases.

Duterte’s ban was not only delayed action but also looked like a flimsy screen against potential nCoV carriers since travelers departing China from places other than Hubei are not covered. Besides, with Hubei already locked down, there are no more departures from that province.

In contrast, other countries have taken more decisive action. These countries have barred all foreign travelers from China: the United States, Singapore, Italy, Israel, Papua New Guinea (all visitors from “Asian ports”), Russia (sealed China borders), Bahamas and Mongolia.

Duterte will meet medical experts and key officials this week to discuss steps to prevent the spread of nCoV in the country, according to Sen. Bong Go, Duterte’s long-time aide who sometimes doubles as spokesman, information officer and photographer.

Many airlines have suspended flights to China. That looks like a practical business move since it would be unprofitable to fly anyway if the seats are empty (because of the lockdown) and there are added expenses for health precautions.

 US bars foreigners who had visited China

THE US announced Friday that it will bar the entry starting Sunday 5 p.m. (EST) of all foreigners who have traveled to China in the past 14 days. Permanent residents and immediate family members of US citizens are exempt from the ban.

But citizens and permanent residents (“green card” holders) who have traveled to Hubei will be subject to 14 days of mandatory quarantine, while those who have been elsewhere in China will undergo health screening before entry and be required to self-quarantine.

All incoming flights from China will be funneled through only seven airports: New York’s John F. Kennedy, Chicago’s O’Hare, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Honolulu and Los Angeles.

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said Friday: “Following the World Health Organization’s decision to declare the 2019 novel coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern, I have today declared that the coronavirus presents a public health emergency in the United States.”

The ban, with those by Japan and Singapore, would further curtail travel between China and the rest of the world. Flight-tracking site Flightradar24 data showed 91 canceled international flights from China as of Friday noon, from the previous day’s 44.

Starting yesterday, Japan barred non-Japanese travelers who have recently visited Hubei. This was the first time Tokyo used immigration law to keep out visitors from a specific location.

Two Japanese evacuees from Wuhan had tested positive for the virus despite showing no symptoms, making it impossible to detect through normal screening processes. Recent reports indicate the virus can be spread by asymptomatic carriers.

While declaring a global emergency, the WHO’s emergency committee said it was still possible to stop the virus’ spread if countries “put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there was “no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade. We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.”

On restricting travel from China, Dr. Rabinda Abeyasinghe, WHO representative in Manila, said that WHO “looks very carefully at the evidence and how feasible” imposing such move is, as well as its social and economic implications… We are not recommending travel restrictions.”

Singapore will restrict entry by nearly all Chinese nationals. It will stop issuing new visas to Chinese travelers, and starting Saturday, it will bar any travelers who have been to China in the past 14 days.

Singapore citizens, permanent residents and holders of long-term visas will be exempt but will be encouraged to stay home for two weeks in case of infection. The city-state had confirmed 16 cases of the new virus as of Friday, all in people who had visited Wuhan.

The US State Department issued a “do not travel” alert, its highest advisory level, for all of China on Thursday. Japan’s foreign ministry has raised its travel advisory for mainland China, urging people to avoid nonessential travel.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 2, 2020)

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