More than 150 Australians in Hubei have already registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to be evacuated. The Australian government was as of Friday night still unsure if dual Chinese-Australian citizens would be allowed to depart, but United States authorities had secured the release of some of their dual passport holders.
The death toll from the flu-like virus in China reached 213 on Friday as the World Health Organisation declared a global health emergency.
That number is expected to climb over the weekend after 9776 cases were confirmed – surpassing the number of people infected with the SARS virus at the height of that pandemic in 2003. Nine cases were confirmed in Australia, four in NSW, three in Victoria and two in Queensland. Federal and state health authorities have told the public they are prepared for more and have isolated patients.
“The advice is that all nine patients are stable and well cared for,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said. “The first two have been released and declared post-viral.”
The US Department of State took the unprecedented step of issuing a level four “do not travel” warning for all of China on Friday, heaping pressure on other countries to follow suit on advice to travellers flying through some of the world’s busiest airline routes. The declaration came after doctors in Chicago announced the first case of person-to-person transmission in the United States for a person who had not travelled to China.
Russia has ordered the partial closure of its border with China, its largest trading partner, and imposed strict visa limitations.
The Transport Workers Union, which represents thousands of airport security workers, called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to immediately suspend all flights to China. British Airways on Thursday cancelled all flights, as did budget airlines Lion Air and Air Seoul. Jet Star, which is owned by Qantas, also suspended all flights to the mainland, but its parent carrier has yet to follow suit.
Australia’s DFAT maintained its “do not travel” advice for Wuhan, while urging only essential travel for the rest of China.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said no other country had stopped all flights from China but that position would “be reviewed every single day”.
Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, said the World Health Organisation strongly recommended that nations did not ban flights from China.
“Unless you lock down exit from the country, banning flights, direct flights, doesn’t stop people coming from China,” he said. “They could come from all sorts of other ports and at least we know who is coming from China and we can meet and do very intensive border measures for those flights.”
The flow-on economic effects threaten to outstrip the SARS virus in 2003, which cost the global economy $60 billion.
In Hubei, more than 40 million people remain in lockdown, with businesses and transport shut across a dozen cities. Communist Party members have been urged to replace exhausted doctors on the frontline as more than 2000 beds are added to two hospitals built within a week.
Speaking in Sydney before convening cabinet’s national security committee for an update on the evacuation plan, Mr Morrison said Australia was well equipped to deal with the potential pandemic.
“All of the issues, isolation, case management, contact tracing, prevention of onward spread, active surveillance, early detection, Australia has been doing these things and will continue to do,” he said.
Despite a number of the Australians trapped in Wuhan expressing reluctance to be transferred to Christmas Island, Mr Morrison said there had “been very strong interest in participating in these arrangements”.
He defended the government’s decision to charge those being evacuated $1000 per person to be transported to Christmas Island. They will spend 14 days in quarantine in the facility before being flown back to Australia, likely Perth, and will then make their own way back to their home cities.
“These are the standard arrangements that are put in place for assisted departures,” Mr Morrison said.
John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, said there had been a “cavalier approach” by the Australian government to the potential scope of the crisis, which has been compounded by the World Health Organisation being “surprisingly passive”.
“Meanwhile, judgement calls have been made based on evidence available so far and projections based on successful containment of SARS a decade and a half ago,” he said. “Back then, though, China was far less interconnected and international passenger volume was nowhere near recent levels.”
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra