Wuhan virus: Uneasy calm as Japan, South Korea report new cases

Pedestrians wearing protective masks walk on a street in Tokyo on Jan 26, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - An uneasy calm has settled in Japan and South Korea, which each confirmed one new Wuhan coronavirus case on Sunday (Jan 26) with many members of the public not taking any chances by wearing surgical masks outdoors.

As it is also the height of the flu season, both governments are now urging their citizens to wash hands thoroughly and wear surgical masks.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday: "The government is making every necessary effort along with local authorities. I ask the people to have trust in the government and not to be excessively anxious in connection with measures needed."

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the media that Tokyo is liaising with Beijing to charter a flight to evacuate 700 stranded citizens in Wuhan.

One of those to be evacuated is Ms Minako Yoshimura, an exchange student at Wuhan University who told public broadcaster NHK that she had felt "a sense of desperation and hopelessness at not being able to go home".

South Korea is also considering evacuating 500 citizens stranded in Wuhan, Yonhap News Agency reported on Sunday.

Mr Moon said Seoul remains on high alert throughout the Lunar New Year holiday, with a 24-hour response system in operation.

The country's public health and safety agency has designated the whole of mainland China as a "coronavirus watch zone", advising all South Koreans to leave and avoid unnecessary travel there.

These developments come as the virus has killed 56 people and infected around 2,000. China's National Health Commission has warned that the transmission ability of the coronavirus is getting stronger.

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Three of Japan's four patients are Chinese tourists, while the last is a Chinese national in his 30s living in Kanagawa prefecture. Two of South Korea's three patients are South Korean nationals based in Wuhan for work, while the third is a 35-year-old Chinese tourist.

Both countries have tightened border controls and quarantine checkpoints to screen passengers, although the fact that carriers of the virus may not show detectable symptoms has been a major cause of concern.

Former Japanese defence minister Tomomi Inada, now the executive acting secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, called for "full-scale border control measures".

In Japan, drugstore orders for masks have reportedly jumped by over ten-fold, prompting leading Japanese mask maker Unicharm to start round-the-clock production to meet demand.

Hotels and shopping malls alike have set up alcohol-based hand sanitisers at entrances, as have shops in Chinatown in Yokohama and Kobe.

At least one Japanese company has asked its employees to work from home, a move affecting about 4,000 people.

GMO Internet Group chief executive Masatoshi Kumagai said the decision, which takes effect on Monday (Jan 27), was taken to "protect the lives of employees".

Still, the uncertainty over the new virus has been breeding ground for fake news.

Osaka has had to rubbish online rumours that an infected Chinese tourist escaped from quarantine because of a need to go to Kyoto and Universal Studios Japan.

"No such thing has happened. We ask people not to be misled by mistaken information," a Kansai International Airport quarantine station representative said.

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