China is stepping up measures to prevent coronavirus cases being imported back from other virus-hit nations, as the outbreak slows within the country but picks up speed across the world.
The deadly virus has spread to more than 75 countries and territories worldwide since emerging from China late last year. The number of new daily cases reported outside China has now far exceeded the number of infections announced each day within the country.
Despite the decline of new cases, Chinese authorities are on high alert following an uptick of imported cases from overseas since last week.
Multiple cities and provinces – including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong – have announced a 14-day quarantine for people arriving from overseas, with the strictest restrictions placed on those coming from countries with severe outbreaks, such as Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan.
China’s effort to prevent imported cases comes amid rising nationalist pride that the country’s sweeping measures to contain the outbreak – and the self-sacrifice of the Chinese people – offered other nations a crucial window to prepare for its spread. There is also growing criticism online against other governments for their allegedly slow response to control the outbreak. Both sentiments have been played up in state media.
So far, China has confirmed 20 imported cases, mostly expatriate Chinese who returned to their hometowns as the outbreak flared up in their host countries.
By the end of Tuesday, 6,728 overseas passengers had arrived in China showing symptoms of infection, according to the General Administration of Customs. Among them 779 were suspected coronavirus cases and 75 showed positive results from initial nucleic acid tests, the administration said in a statement on its website.
Some local governments in China have urged overseas Chinese to reconsider their homecoming plans for the sake of their “family’s health and safety.”
Zhejiang, an affluent province on the country’s east coast with a large number of emigrants, reported seven new imported cases Tuesday.
According to local authorities, all of them are Chinese nationals returning from Italy, which is facing the biggest outbreak in Europe with 3,089 confirmed cases and 107 deaths as of Thursday.
The seven people, who worked and lived in the northern Italian town of Bergamo, returned to their hometown of Qingtian county via Shanghai last week. They tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday, according to the Qingtian government.
None of them had been to Hubei province or its capital Wuhan, where the outbreak first emerged, the government said.
The seven returnees all had close contact with a woman confirmed to have the virus on Sunday. The woman, surnamed Wang, was the first imported case of Zhejiang province. The eight worked together at the same restaurant in Bergamo, an hour’s drive from Milan, the Qingtian government said in a statement on its social media account.
According to the Qingtian government, Wang began coughing on February 16. She boarded a flight in Milan on February 26 and landed in Shanghai via Moscow. Six of the imported cases took the same flight as her, and the other one left Italy two days later via Germany.
“What we’re trying to isolate is the virus, but what cannot be severed are the bonds of flesh and blood between overseas Chinese and their families in their hometowns,” the Qingtian government said.
“For the sake of your family’s health and safety, please strengthen your precautions and prudently decide on your travel plans to minimize mobility,” it added.
Qingtian, named after its green rice paddies, is known for its large number of overseas immigrants. Around 300,000 people from the county live overseas, including 100,000 in Italy, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
On Thursday, Zhejiang provincial health authorities reported another two imported cases in the city of Huzhou, both returnees from Italy.
Self-quarantine for overseas travelers
When the outbreak started to flare in late January, the Chinese government was critical of countries – especially the United States – for placing travel restrictions on China.
From late January to early February, the Chinese foreign ministry repeatedly lashed out at the US for its response to the outbreak, accusing it of “going in the opposite way” of the World Health Organization’s advice against travel restrictions on China, saying it was “certainly not a gesture of goodwill.”
As the outbreak spiraled into a full public health crisis, an increasing number of countries and regions moved to shun Chinese visitors.
But the tables seem to be turning. As the number of new infected cases shoot up abroad, the increase of confirmed cases in China has slowed steadily – a development that spurred some Chinese nationalists into pride and indignation.
“Now, we should rightfully declare that the US owes China an apology, the world owes China a thank you,” reads a social media article carried on Xinhua’s website, which criticized the US for its slow response to contain the virus within its own borders.
So far, China has not imposed travel restrictions on these countries, despite the rapidly worsening situations in Iran, Italy and South Korea. But multiple local authorities have dialed up quarantine efforts for overseas arrivals.