US evacuates from Japan virus ship as China death toll climbs

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The US evacuated citizens from a coronavirus-infected cruise ship in Japan Monday, with other nations preparing to follow suit as the death toll in the Chinese epicentre of the outbreak topped 1,700.

The COVID-19 virus has sickened more than 70,500 across China and prompted global efforts to contain an outbreak that has spread to nearly 30 countries, sparking panic buying and economic jitters.

With fresh cases emerging daily in Japan, the government has advised citizens to avoid mass gatherings, and on Monday cancelled celebrations for the Emperor’s birthday – an annual jamboree that sees thousands of well wishers descend on central Tokyo.

Beijing’s municipal authorities have ordered everyone arriving in the capital to self-quarantine for 14 days, the presumed incubation period of the virus.

Outside China, the biggest cluster of infections is on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan’s Yokohama, where 355 cases have been diagnosed, despite passengers being confined to their cabins during a 14-day quarantine.

As criticism grows of Japan’s handling of the ship crisis, governments are scrambling to repatriate their citizens, with Canada, Australia, Italy, and Hong Kong poised to follow Washington’s lead.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the more than 200 Australians still on board would be evacuated on Wednesday.

He said they would be subject to another 14 days of quarantine at a former mining camp near Darwin, where 266 people previously evacuated from China are being held.

Early Monday, a convoy of buses driven by people in head-to-toe protective suits removed American passengers from the ship after a makeshift passport control.

There were no health checks at that point, said US passenger Sarah Arana, a 52-year-old medical social worker, who said the US government should have acted “much sooner, at the beginning.”

“I am happy and ready to go,” Arana told media before leaving the ship. “We need a proper quarantine. This was not it.”

The US embassy in Japan said two jets had left Japan en route to the US. Those on board were expected to undergo a further 14-day quarantine period on US soil.

Some Americans on the ship, however, declined the government’s offer.

“My health is fine. And my two-week quarantine is almost over. Why would I want to be put on a bus and a plane with other people they think may be infected when I have spent nearly two weeks isolated from those people?” tweeted Matt Smith.

Forty US passengers tested positive for the virus and were taken to hospitals in Japan, said Anthony Fauci, a senior official at the National Institutes for Health. It was not immediately clear if they were already counted among the 355 known cases on the ship.

In China, authorities have placed about 56 million people in Hubei under quarantine, virtually sealing off the province from the rest of the country in an unprecedented effort to contain the virus.

New cases outside the epicentre have been declining for the last 13 days. There were 115 fresh cases outside the central province announced Monday – sharply down from nearly 450 a week ago.

Chinese authorities have pointed to the slowing rise in cases as proof their measures are working, even as the death toll climbed to 1,770.

But World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned it is “impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take”.

And concerns remain about global transmission, especially on cruise ships, which appear to have become especially virulent breeding grounds.

Fears are mounting over passengers on the Westerdam cruise ship, who all received a clean bill of health when they disembarked in Cambodia – a staunch Beijing ally.

An 83-year-old American woman was stopped by authorities in Malaysia over the weekend when she was detected with a fever and later diagnosed with the virus.

There were more than 2,200 passengers and crew on the ship when it docked in Sihanoukville, many of whom have now dispersed around the globe.

With the virus battering tourism and disrupting global supply chains, experts are fretting about the toll it could take on a fragile global economy.

IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said there could be a cut of around 0.1-0.2 percentage points to global growth but stressed there was “still a great deal of uncertainty.”

Coronavirus virus fears surged through Asian markets, with traders also unsettled by news that Singapore had cut its growth forecast for this year as the virus hammers the city-state’s tourism and trade.