How seriously are countries taking the threat of the 2019 novel coronavirus (nCoV)?
In Singapore, the government is racing to distribute more than 5 million face masks to all its citizens, for free, and has closed its border to all Chinese travelers.
In Hong Kong, all schools have been ordered suspended until March 2.
In Macau, similar class suspensions have been imposed until further notice.
Italy declared a six-month state of emergency after two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive for the virus, and suspended all flights to and from China.
The United States, with six confirmed cases, is also on national health emergency status; the Trump administration has banned the entry of all foreigners, and not just Chinese, who have been to China in the last 14 days.
Russia, a close China ally, has closed its border with its neighbor. Ditto with Mongolia. Many other countries have stopped flights and contact with China.
And China itself has imposed an unprecedented lockdown on its interior, affecting not just Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease, but other adjoining provinces — a move that affects 56 million citizens.
Are countries that have taken such steps to limit interaction with China overreacting, exaggerating or alarmist — or worse, “racist”?
They may well be, under the spin being pushed by partisans of the Duterte administration that a China-wide flight ban is “inhumane” and “xenophobic,” in a bid to defend the government’s much-scorned handling of the 2019-nCoV outbreak so far.
The visitors being asked to be turned back, however, are not refugees from a war, but mostly tourists engaged in a leisure activity that can well be postponed in the face of a grave emergency.
And the Philippines itself, with millions of poor people at risk of the disease and a rickety, underfunded public health infrastructure despite the often-heroic work of its frontliners, is obviously ill-equipped to manage an outbreak of a kind that has seen more advanced countries scrambling with their own drastic protocols.
With the confirmation last Thursday of the Philippines’ first 2019-nCoV case — more than a week since it reported a likely case — and with 31 other cases under investigation, the stakes have risen considerably, and the government’s sluggish response toward the fast-evolving emergency looks more and more a case of shocking irresponsibility.
Former health secretary Esperanza Cabral warned that more cases will likely emerge in the coming days with the end of the disease’s two-week incubation period, particularly because, as she said in Filipino in a CNN report, “we didn’t issue a travel ban for any visitors coming in from areas with confirmed cases of the coronavirus.”
President Duterte did declare a ban on flights from Wuhan on Friday — days after the area itself had been on lockdown, and some 24 hours after the World Health Organization had declared a global health emergency.
Previous to that, the President had refused to impose such a ban, saying “it would not be fair” to China. Echoing his boss, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III publicly fretted that prohibiting Chinese tourists from coming in might have “serious political and diplomatic repercussions.”
Instead, in continuing to welcome Chinese travelers — a Xiamen Air flight from Jinjiang landed in Davao on Wednesday and its more than 50 Chinese passengers allowed to leave the airport; on Tuesday, some 778 Chinese passengers of a cruise ship were also cleared to disembark in Manila — the Bureau of Quarantine has offered the assurance that thermal scanners at airports and other ports of entry are adequate to detect those who are sick.
But such scanners are, in fact, of limited use, because those infected may not immediately manifest fever, coughing and other symptoms. The diagnosed 38-year-old woman from Wuhan had been in the Philippines since Jan. 21 and had traveled to Cebu and Dumaguete before she was checked for cough at the hospital on Jan. 25.
“There’s no doubt that asymptomatic transmission is occurring,” said the US’ top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci — meaning the disease can be unknowingly spread by infected but otherwise healthy-looking travelers that have passed through airport scanners.
Shouldn’t that game-changing fact have startled the government into more forceful action?
As this is being written, “the death toll from China’s new coronavirus outbreak has risen to 259 and the tally of confirmed infections has surged to nearly 12,000,” according to an Agence France-Presse report.
But it’s the Duterte administration’s dithering on more vigorous steps needed to protect the country from the epidemic — such as suspending all flights from China, turning back Chinese tourists and closing the Philippines’ borders temporarily — that’s causing more disquiet and anxiety.
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