530,000 S. Koreans call for Chinese to be barred from entry

Workers spray antiseptic solution at Incheon International Airport, South Korea. (AP pic)

SEOUL: More than half a million South Koreans have signed a petition calling for a ban on people from China entering the country, as Seoul announced on Tuesday it would evacuate citizens from the epicentre of the new coronavirus outbreak.

A petition filed with the presidential Blue House on Thursday had gathered more than 530,000 signatures by Tuesday, highlighting a growing fear in South Korea that the coronavirus could spread widely.

The first confirmed case detected in South Korea was a Chinese national, but the other three so far are South Koreans who travelled from Wuhan, where the outbreak appears to have started.

That has not stopped the calls for Chinese visitors to be banned.

“Coronavirus is spreading from China. Even North Korea is banning Chinese people from entering the country,” wrote the anonymous author of the petition, adding that even a temporary ban would help stop the virus from spreading too widely.

The Blue House has not directly responded to the petition.

When asked about other countries’ bans on Chinese entries, its spokesman on Tuesday said only that the issue should be handled in close consultation with the World Health Organisation.

The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because many of its details are still unknown.

It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases. It is still too early to know just how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads.

Evacuation plans

The South Korean government says it is making “all-out efforts” to head off an outbreak in the country, and announced it would send at least four charter flights to Wuhan this week to evacuate nearly 700 South Korean citizens.

“We’ve come to this decision because our citizens there can’t return on their own due to the lockdown in the region, and they were unable to get proper medical treatment as local clinics are at full capacity,” vice foreign minister Lee Tae-ho told a briefing.

People hoping to leave will be screened before they board the flights, he said.

The evacuated citizens are expected to be quarantined for about two weeks at two government facilities south of Seoul usually used to hold training sessions for public officials.

On Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited a hospital that had been treating one of the four patients, and sent a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping promising to help Beijing contain the spread of the virus.