China chides ‘mean’ US for travel warning as virus impact spreads

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The United States angered China on Friday with a warning to Americans not to travel there because of a coronavirus epidemic that has rattled the global economy with increasing disruption to business supply lines.

Originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the flu-like virus first identified earlier this month has resulted in 213 deaths in China. Wuhan and the surrounding region are in virtual quarantine.

More than 9,800 people have been infected in China and more than 130 cases reported in at least 25 other countries and regions, with Russia, Britain, Sweden and Italy all reporting their first cases on Thursday or Friday.

“Do not travel to China due to the novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan,” the US State Department said, raising the warning for China to the same level as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Beijing, which has only just started to mend tattered trade ties with Washington, responded sharply. It noted the World Health Organization (WHO) has commended Chinese containment efforts and not recommended travel or trade curbs.

“The World Health Organization urged countries to avoid travel restrictions, but very soon after that, the United States did the opposite,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “It’s truly mean.”

Many other countries have also advised citizens to put off non-urgent travel to China. After reporting its first two cases of the illness, Russia on Friday restricted direct flights to China, its biggest trade partner.

Panama’s canal authority said vessels that had passed through countries where coronavirus had been confirmed had to report that to authorities.

Singapore, a major travel hub in Asia, stopped entry of passengers with a recent history of travel to China and also suspended visas for Chinese passport holders.

Global reverberations

With major fallout inevitable for China’s economy, which is the world’s second largest, global shares were heading for their biggest weekly losses since August on Friday.

The outbreak could “reverberate globally,” Moody’s said.

In the latest impact to big name corporations, South Korea’s Hyundai Motor said it planned to halt production of a sport utility vehicle this weekend due to a supply disruption caused by the outbreak. Sangyong Motor said it would idle its plant in the South Korean city of Pyeongtaek from Feb. 4-12 for the same reason.

Home appliance maker Electrolux issued a similar warning.

French carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen said its three plants in Wuhan will remain closed until mid-February.

After holding off as the crisis grew, the WHO said on Thursday that the epidemic did constitute a public health emergency of international concern, a designation that triggers tighter global containment measures and coordination.

However, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated in a series of tweets on Friday that his organisation had confidence in China’s capacity to control the 2019-nCoV virus.

“We would’ve seen many more #2019nCoV cases outside China by now, and probably deaths, if it were not for the government’s efforts and the progress they’ve made to protect their own people and the world,” he tweeted.

“Travel restrictions can cause more harm than good by hindering info-sharing and medical supply chains and harming economies. We urge countries and companies to make evidence-based, consistent decisions.”

Virus epicenter

The roughly 60 million residents of Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital, have had movements curbed to try and slow the spread of the disease. But some people were leaving and entering the area by foot on a bridge over the Yangtze river, a Reuters witness said, and infections have jumped in two cities flanking Wuhan.

Wuhan’s Communist Party chief said the city should have acted earlier to contain the virus.

China’s statistics show just over 2 percent of infected people have died, suggesting the virus is less deadly than the 2002-2003 outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

But economists say its financial impact could be bigger than SARS, which killed about 800 people at an estimated cost of $33 billion to the global economy, since China’s share of the world economy is now far greater.

The WHO has reported at least eight cases of human-to-human transmission - as opposed to people coming infected from China - in four countries: the United States, Germany, Japan and Vietnam. Thailand said it too had such a case.

Rising public alarm over the epidemic has brought a wave of anti-China sentiment abroad and led airlines to cancel or reduce flights, with airline crews pressuring carriers to act.

US carriers Delta Air Lines and American Airlines became the latest major airlines to suspend flights after the US travel advisory.

Governments around the world are evacuating citizens from Hubei. A plane with 83 British and 27 foreign nationals landed in Britain on Friday, while the United States issued a quarantine order for 195 Americans evacuated to California this week. Japan, with 14 confirmed cases, has sent three flights to bring citizens home.

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