China’s United Nations envoy in Geneva on Tuesday warned that travel restrictions imposed on mainland visitors by other countries to contain the coronavirus outbreak could backfire, calling the move an example of the kind of “overreaction” the world needed to avoid amid the crisis.
Chen Xu’s remarks at a World Health Organisation (WHO) technical briefing on the virus echoed comments by WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the start of the session.
“We believe overreaction, by adopting restriction, isolation … is not beneficial to international collaboration, and such measures may lead to more complicated outcomes and interfere with prevention and control efforts,” Chen told delegates at the briefing.
The Chinese envoy raised the example of travel restrictions imposed by some countries during the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 flu, a move later found to have had limited impact in containing the virus’ spread.
Nearly two dozen countries have imposed restrictions of some form on travellers arriving from mainland China. Some nations have suspended visa-on-arrival privileges for all Chinese citizens while others have barred arrivals from the central Chinese province of Hubei, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.
The United States and major global partners such as Japan, Australia and New Zealand are among those that have imposed these restrictions. In contrast, countries with close ties to Beijing such as Cambodia and Pakistan have shied away from such measures.
More than 20,000 cases of coronavirus infection have occurred in mainland China, mainly in Hubei and particularly in the provincial capital, Wuhan.
In his speech, Chen said that as of Tuesday, the latest data showed that 97 per cent of the 425 mainland deaths happened in Hubei, with 74 per cent of the dead from Wuhan.
Eighty per cent of the deaths are people aged 60 and older; 75 per cent are people with one or more underlying diseases, according to Chen.
That the number of cases occurring outside China represents under one per cent of the total, he said, showed “the effectiveness of the Chinese government's decisive measures”.
Tedros, who has surprised observers by repeatedly defending China’s response to the crisis, again took a similar tack.
“There is a window of opportunity [to halt the virus] because of the measures China has used at the epicentre, at the source,” Tedros said at the briefing. “Let us not miss this opportunity.”
The WHO chief, meanwhile, took aim at unnamed “high-income” countries that he said were well behind in sharing vital case information with the organisation.
Although 176 cases have been reported outside China, the world health body had so far received complete case report forms for just 38 per cent of them, Tedros said.
“Without better data, it's very hard for us to assess how the outbreak is evolving, or what impact it could have, and to ensure we are providing the most appropriate recommendations,” he said.
He reiterated Chen’s request that countries avoid imposing travel or trade restrictions in an effort to contain the virus.
“Such restrictions can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit,” he said, adding that 22 countries had so far informed WHO they were implementing such measures.
“Where such measures have been implemented, we urge that they be short in duration, proportionate to the public health risks, and reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves,” he said.
Tuesday’s briefing took place after a scheduled meeting of the WHO’s board members.
The meeting had a moment of controversy as the Chinese delegate admonished Guatemala’s representative for raising the issue of Taiwan’s absence at the parley.
The self-ruled island is viewed by Beijing as a renegade province and is not represented in the WHO, a UN-constituent body.
Guatemala is one of 15 countries that recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state.
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