SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China faced mounting isolation from international travel curbs and flight suspensions on Saturday, with Russia to start pulling out its citizens next week, as the death toll from a spreading coronavirus outbreak rose to 259.
The epidemic has led to mass evacuations of foreign citizens as world airlines halt flights, and risks exacerbating a slowdown in growth in the world’s second-largest economy.
The Russian military was to start evacuating Russian citizens from China on Monday and Tuesday, Interfax and TASS news agencies reported. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying the evacuations would be from regions that had been most affected by the outbreak.
Peskov first said that evacuation will start on Saturday but later corrected himself. Russia has already reported its first two cases of coronavirus and restricted direct flights to China.
China’s National Health Commission said there were 2,102 new confirmed infections in China as of Friday, bringing the total to 11,791. Around two dozen other countries have reported another 137 cases. The death toll rose by 46 to 259, all in China.
The Chinese data would suggest it is less deadly than the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people of the some 8,000 it infected, although such numbers can evolve rapidly.
Inside China, Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, was under a virtual quarantine, with roads sealed off and public transport shut down. Elsewhere, authorities placed growing restrictions on travel and business.
In Beijing, counters were set up at the entrances of housing estates, where volunteers wearing red arm bands and masks noted down details of residents coming back from their hometowns after the Lunar New Year holiday.
“As long as I am properly protected and don’t go to crowded places, I don’t feel scared at all about my hometown or Beijing,” said a 58-year-old migrant worker surnamed Sun.
Others were more worried.
“There will be a huge number of people returning to the city. I think it will put Beijing at risk of more infections,” said Zhang Chunlei, 45, another returning migrant worker.
In Hubei, the provincial government extended the holiday break to Feb. 13 in a bid to contain the outbreak, the Hubei Daily reported.
The World Health Organization, which this week declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, has said global trade and travel restrictions are not needed.
But Singapore and the United States announced measures on Friday to ban foreign nationals who have recently been in China from entering their territories.
Australia followed suit, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying the country would deny entry to all foreign nationals travelling from mainland China from Saturday.
“We’re in fact operating with an abundance of caution in these circumstances so Australians can go about their daily lives with confidence,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney.
Qantas Airways Ltd and Air New Zealand said travel bans forced them to suspend their direct flights to China from Feb. 9. All three major U.S. airlines said on Friday they would cancel flights to mainland China.
Many nations have put on charter flights to repatriate citizens from China and then place them in isolation for around two weeks, the incubation period of the virus.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn called for calm as more than 100 Germans and family members landed in Frankfurt, none showing any symptoms of the virus. He warned against hysteria and hostility from the public.
Britain said it was withdrawing some staff from its embassy and consulates in China.
“In the event that the situation deteriorates further, the ability of the British Embassy and Consulates to provide assistance to British nationals from within China may be limited,” the UK government said in a statement.
Many of the private clinics catering to foreigners in China have started to turn away people with fevers.
“I don’t want to go to the local hospital with a sore throat only to catch something else,” said Czech national Veronika Krubner in Tianjin.
Infections have jumped in two cities flanking Wuhan, raising concerns that new hot spots are emerging despite strict travel restrictions.
In one of them, Huanggang, authorities asked households to designate one individual who can leave the home, a local newspaper said. The mayor of the city of about 7.5 million people said there could be a significant rise in cases this weekend.
The northern city of Tianjin, home to some 15 million, suspended all schools and businesses until further notice.
Efforts to contain the virus risk slowing growth in China. Growth had already fallen in the fourth quarter to a 30-year low of 6%. The virus impact prompted Capital Economics to almost halve its estimate for first-quarter growth to 3% from 5.7%.
China’s central bank said the impact was temporary and economic fundamentals remained sound, but that it would increase monetary and credit support, including lowering lending costs for affected companies.
Apple Inc said on Saturday it would close all of its official stores and corporate offices in China until Feb. 9, the latest of dozens of major companies, including Sweden’s IKEA and Walmart Inc, restricting travel and operations due to the outbreak.
For a graphic comparing this with previous coronavirus outbreaks, click here
Reporting by Winni Zhou, Brenda Goh and David Stanway in Shanghai, Judy Hua, Se Young Lee, Yilei Sun and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing, Scott Murdoch in Hong Kong, Joori Roh in Seoul an Nick Mulveney in Melbourne; Writing Mark John and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Neil Fullick, Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie