Coronavirus: China looms large over Japan and South Korea's response to outbreak

The coronavirus outbreak in China has spread far and wide, reaching countries and cities in the region such as Japan, Thailand and Malaysia. The Sunday Times foreign correspondents look at how the governments and people in these areas have reacted to the crisis.

Medical personnel in protective gear stand next to ambulances at an entrance of the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, on Feb 7, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The Japanese and South Korean governments have taken flak from their citizens over their initially muted response to combat the coronavirus outbreak, which has bred paranoia and even anti-Chinese sentiment.

Japan had 25 confirmed infections as of Friday. Another 64 cases on board the luxury cruise ship Diamond Princess should not count towards the country's total, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.

South Korea, meanwhile, has 24 cases thus far, including two men who attended a gas analysis conference in Singapore that has also been linked to cases in Britain and Malaysia.

The early low-key reaction by the two governments may be attributed to two reasons: the WHO declaring a "public health emergency of international concern" only on Jan 30, and a fear of offending their influential neighbour China, which is South Korea's top trading partner and for Japan, second after the United States in export terms.

Japan enjoys warming ties with China. It was not only the first to be able to bring its stranded nationals home from Wuhan, but also the only country to be allowed as many as four chartered flights.

The rallying messages of support and solidarity, including one that said "though miles apart, we are under the same sky", led Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying to say last week that she was "deeply touched" by Japanese donations of masks, goggles, protective suits and other supplies.

It marks a turn of the tide from an initial xenophobic reaction, when a few businesses in Japan slammed the door on Chinese visitors, while the hashtag #ChineseDon'tComeToJapan trended.

Tokyo tightened immigration procedures only from Feb 1, by denying entry to any foreigner who was recently in Hubei and Chinese passport holders with documents issued in Hubei. Passengers who are on the Diamond Princess, moored off Yokohama, will be isolated on the cruise ship until at least Feb 19.

"The situation is changing by the moment. The government will continue to make decisions and implement necessary measures without hesitation, as our highest priority is to protect Japanese citizens' lives and health," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last week, aiming to prevent fears from taking root.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has also been accused of acting too slowly. The Korea Herald newspaper said on Feb 3 that Mr Moon had "told people not to worry too much, but that easygoing attitude caused the government to miss a golden opportunity to curb the spread of the virus early".

Mr Moon stressed the need for South Korea, where xenophobia is on the rise, to "join forces" with China to overcome the outbreak because "China's troubles lead directly to our troubles".

A petition calling for the ban of Chinese nationals drew over 650,000 signatures since it began on Jan 23 - three days after Seoul reported its first case. It was only last Tuesday that South Korea banned entry to foreign visitors who had been to Hubei in the past 14 days.

Meanwhile, a majority of businesses in the two countries are hoping for a respite in the economic contagion.

Japanese newspapers across the political spectrum were united in calling for countermeasures to mitigate the impact on the economy.

But in South Korea, the conservative Chosun Ilbo said last Tuesday that Seoul has long been "smugly reliant on China's insatiable appetite for products" and that the coronavirus should be impetus for a "long-term plan to wean (the country) from China".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 09, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: China looms large over Japan and South Korea's response to outbreak. Subscribe