Countries expanded restrictions on travellers from China over a deadly virus epidemic Friday as an official admitted that a botched response had worsened an outbreak that has now ballooned into a global health emergency.
At least 213 people have died and nearly 10,000 people have been infected in China by the new coronavirus, while fresh cases were found abroad with more than 20 countries now affected.
The top Communist Party official in Wuhan, the central city of 11 million people where the virus first emerged in December, expressed “remorse” because local authorities acted too slowly.
Last week, China’s central government finally jumped into action, effectively sealing off Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province, and curbing travel across the nation of 1.4 billion people.
But the epidemic has spread far and wide as Chinese people travelled across the country and abroad over the Lunar New Year holiday that started last week.
The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the outbreak a global health emergency, but said it was not recommending any international trade or travel restrictions.
Countries nonetheless intensified travel curbs.
The United States told its citizens not to go to China and urged those already there to leave — drawing a sharp rebuke from Beijing, which said the move was “certainly not a gesture of goodwill.”
Japan has joined the US, Britain, Germany, and other nations that have recommended that their citizens avoid China.
Citing a likely “sharper rise” in the spread of the virus, Singapore’s government barred arrivals from China and transit passengers who visited the country in the past 14 days.
Mongolia will ban Chinese nationals and foreigners coming from the neighbouring country by plane, train or road from Saturday until March 2. Mongolians will be barred from going to China as well.
The WHO’s rare declaration of an emergency allows the UN health body to issue recommendations that the international community is expected to follow.
But it warned Friday that closing borders was probably ineffective in halting transmissions of the virus — and could even accelerate its spread.
China’s ambassador to Geneva said his country was controlling the outbreak and insisted there was no need for “excessive measures”.
Beyond government travel advisories, businesses and worried travellers have been taking matters into their own hands, with airlines suspending or reducing flights with China.
The virus is believed to have originated in a Wuhan market that sold wild animals. It then jumped to humans.
Wuhan officials have been criticised online for withholding information about the outbreak until the end of last year, despite knowing about the new illness weeks earlier.
“Right now I’m in a state of guilt, remorse and self-reproach,” said Ma Guoqiang, the municipal Communist Party secretary for Wuhan.
“If strict control measures had been taken earlier, the result would have been better than now,” he told state broadcaster CCTV.
People in China have so far directed their anger at local officials in Wuhan and Hubei, but the crisis could pose a challenge to President Xi Jinping, who has called the epidemic a “demon” that China can defeat.
Countries have scrambled to evacuate their nationals from Wuhan, with hundreds of US, Japanese, British, French and South Korean citizens evacuated so far, and more countries planning airlifts.
A flight carrying more than 300 Indian nationals left Wuhan in the early hours of Saturday for New Delhi.
About 200 US evacuees who landed in California on Wednesday have been put under a rare mandatory quarantine order for 14 days.
US carriers United and Delta joined other airlines suspending flights to China, following the State Department travel advisory.
Russia said it would evacuate more than 2,500 of its citizens holidaying on China’s Hainan island, far from the epicentre of the outbreak, a day after sealing its remote far-eastern border.
The health crisis has also dented China’s international image abroad and put Chinese nationals in difficult positions abroad, with some communities complaining of “latent racism” in Italy.
China said Friday it had sent charter planes to Thailand and Malaysia to bring Hubei residents back to Wuhan, citing the “practical difficulties” that they have encountered overseas.
More than 40,000 workers at a vast Chinese-controlled industrial complex in Indonesia’s Sulawesi island have been quarantined, although Indonesia has not reported any cases.
Myanmar sent a plane back to China after a Chinese passenger was hospitalised with possible symptoms.
Britain and Russia each reported their first two cases on Friday, and Sweden announced its first infection.
The number of cases in China soared to nearly 9,700 on Friday — exceeding the 8,096 cases from SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), a similar pathogen that spread to more than two dozen countries in 2002-03 and killed nearly 800 people, mostly in China and Hong Kong.