More countries adding restrictions to travelers from China amid covid surge

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Nearly a dozen countries have imposed entry restrictions on travelers arriving from China as it battles a surge in covid infections that has raised alarmed about the emergence of new variants and concerns about Beijing’s disclosure of information on the outbreak.

On Wednesday, Japan said it would begin requiring negative coronavirus tests for all arrivals from China starting Sunday, joining the ranks of the United States, France, Spain, Italy, India, Israel, Australia, Canada and others in limiting visitors traveling from China. On Wednesday, European Union health officials were set to meet to discuss a coordinated response to visitors from China.

In South Korea, starting Thursday all travelers from China must have a negative coronavirus test to board flights to the country. All arrivals from China must undergo a PCR test within the first day of their arrival.

“We must keep vigilant to prevent China’s spread of the coronavirus from affecting Korea,” South Korean Health and Welfare Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said Wednesday at a government briefing.

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Morocco went so far as to ban Saturday all arrivals from China, regardless of nationality, “to avoid a new wave of contaminations in Morocco and all its consequences.”

China has repeatedly described such measures as having no scientific basis. At a regular press briefing Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning criticized the measure and called on countries not to use pandemic prevention as an excuse to engage in “political manipulation.” On Tuesday, she warned that her country would take “corresponding measures.”

China also requires a negative coronavirus test for any arrivals, but will soon scrap a mandatory week-long quarantine.

After suddenly lifting its strict “zero covid” measures in December, China has been hit by a wave of coronavirus cases that have overwhelmed hospitals in hectic scenes that undercut official assurances that the government has the outbreak under control.

Next week, China is preparing to open its borders for the first time since the pandemic. Many Chinese travelers are also preparing to travel abroad for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday that begins Jan. 22, with international flight bookings on the Chinese travel website Ctrip up 260 percent for the holiday compared with last year.

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Countries are already struggling to deal with positive cases from China. On Wednesday, South Korean authorities were on the hunt for a Chinese national who tested positive upon arrival at Incheon airport near Seoul and apparently escaped while waiting for admission into a quarantine facility. The traveler could face a penalty of up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 10 million won ($7,880) if convicted.

The World Health Organization held a meeting with Chinese officials on Tuesday as advisers and health experts called on China to provide more data on the outbreak. So far, sequencing data provided by China to the online GISAID hub has shown that the cases in China are all offshoots of the omicron variant.

The Chinese leadership, which faced historic protests against its zero-covid policies late last year, now faces mounting criticism over its abrupt shift, which has led to severe drug shortages and broad skepticism about the official death toll. Still, Chinese officials continue to insist that its approach to the pandemic is correct.

According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control, there have been 5,258 covid deaths as of Jan 3. Using modeling based on regional Chinese data, the Britain-based health data firm Airfinity estimated that more than 5,000 people could be dying each day in the current outbreak.

An editorial in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party official mouthpiece, Wednesday said: “China and the Chinese people will surely win the final victory against the epidemic.”

Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Li and Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.