A wave of coronavirus infections from people traveling into China is putting the country on edge over whether it should keep the doors open to its students and workers who live elsewhere.
Shaken by the almost 600 “imported” infections detected after it brought its domestic case growth to zero, China has announced a sealing of its borders to foreigners from Saturday. But 90 per cent of the imported virus cases are Chinese nationals returning from other countries, according to data from the foreign ministry.
Beijing is actively discouraging its 11 million Chinese diaspora from coming home, telling them that it would mean long delays in their studies and jobs overseas. And it is no longer sending chartered flights to get citizens home, an about-turn from an earlier policy that saw it bring plane loads of Chinese back from Iran and Japan.
The new approach also runs counter to that taken by countries like Singapore, Australia and Canada, which have urged their citizens working and studying overseas to come home.
After bringing its epidemic under control through sweeping measures that quarantined a region of 60 million people and caused a historic economic contraction, China is now fearful of a second peak as the pandemic accelerates overseas. More than 81,000 people have been infected and over 3,200 have died in China since the virus was first reported last December.
“Students may face long-term delay in their study or work if they return to China, as the outbreak may well last one or two years,” said Zhang Wenhong, a Shanghai-based Chinese epidemiologist, in an online chat with overseas Chinese students organised by the Chinese embassy in Dusseldorf, Germany, on March 17.
Mr Zhang also told them that younger people have a lower chance of becoming seriously ill after contracting the virus.
The pandemic’s epicentre has shifted out of China, with the United States now emerging as the worst-affected country while large parts of Europe continue to suffer. Globally, more than 532,000 people are sick and 24,000 have died. China, meanwhile, is slowly going back to work, its factories have begun clanking again and its lockdown of Wuhan, the city where the virus first emerged, will be lifted on April 8 after fresh cases dipped to zero earlier this month.
The lockdown of Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, may have bought China months before the next wave becomes a real threat. According to a study published in Lancet Public Health on March 25, social-distancing measures may not just flatten the curve, they can also push back waves of infection to October.
Some of China’s overseas citizens trying to go home are already infected and want to return for treatment, while others were infected during the flight. All 54 new cases reported in China on March 27 were imported, according to the National Health Commission. So far, China has reported 595 imported cases since late February.
The imported cases “undoubtedly pose a severe challenge to the results of domestic epidemic prevention and control, the pace of restarting production and work, as well as people’s safety”, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said in a March 26 statement.
The Chinese embassy in Britain said on March 8 that there were no plans to send chartered flights to fly overseas Chinese home. Instead, it suggested overseas citizens try to get help where they are, for example by calling overseas Chinese organisations to provide them with face masks and other protective equipment. It has asked students to contact their schools to decide on how to proceed with their courses.
Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador in the UK, told Chinese students on March 25 that staying where they are is safer, given the potential dangers in the homebound journey. Instead of flying dozens of hours without eating or drinking, wearing gloves and masks, and then being quarantined for 14 days on arrival in China, “I think it’s better to stay.”
That, however, has not stopped some Chinese students from doing whatever it takes to come back, despite sky-rocketing fares, in the belief that they cannot get proper medical treatment overseas.
A female student who studies in the UK took a two-stop 51-hour journey from London to her hometown Xian wearing protective clothing and goggles throughout, according to a video widely circulated on Chinese social media.
“We are coming back because we rely on China’s medical treatment. It’s not to bring back the virus,” she said in the video.