Returnees from Western countries are bringing a new wave of coronavirus cases to parts of Asia such as Hong Kong and Taiwan just as health authorities there were getting their outbreaks under control.
The trend of what health officials describe as “imported cases” threatens disease control work and economic recoveries in spots where health authorities had tentatively gotten upper hands on local outbreaks.
“Once they’re overseas, situations easily develop,” Taiwan health and welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung told a news conference Monday. “However, (returnees) have the right to live here, so if they have any symptoms, we do our best to intercept them at the airports.”
Flights into East Asia
People deplaning from heavily infected places such as Western Europe and the United States brought new cases to a single-day record of 27 on Friday, Chen said last week. Most of the 16 new cases reported Sunday and all but one of the 26 reported Monday are from offshore, the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control said.
Taiwan’s cumulative caseload has grown nearly fivefold since early March to 195, which include 28 full recoveries and two deaths.
A one-day record of 48 cases in Hong Kong on Friday prompted warnings there about an influx of arrivals from overseas. Hong Kong’s cumulative caseload stood at 274 on Saturday.
In Singapore, which had contained one of the world’s earliest outbreaks outside the epicenter in China, returnees had pushed the total caseload from 106 at the start of March to 455 on Sunday. Twenty-four of 32 new cases reported Thursday and 18 of 23 new cases reported Sunday were imported, Singapore’s Ministry of Health said as cited in the domestic media.
China said all 39 cases logged there on Sunday had come from abroad.
People flying in with coronavirus infections are usually returning from cancelled classes, work commitments or tours in Western countries, Chen said. They will keep coming in for another two weeks, he said, until everyone gets back from their cancelled classes. The daily number of people entering Taiwan is declining and totaled about 4,600 Sunday.
Bans on foreign visitors
In East Asia, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam have all banned foreign tourists. Taiwan took the extra step Sunday of barring transit passengers. Quarantine rules have toughened on arrivals with any kind of passport. People arriving in Hong Kong from anywhere in the world are subject to compulsory quarantine. Taiwan asks deplaning passengers to report travel histories and any obvious symptoms.
Homebound passengers now make up most of the flying population worldwide as few people are starting trips, said Brendan Sobie, founder of the Singapore-based consultancy Sobie Aviation.
“What will happen in Singapore and Taiwan and Hong Kong will depend on the cases that came from abroad,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit. “If it can be kept under control for the next couple of weeks, then hopefully things should get better.”
Economic rebounds at stake
In the coronavirus outbreak epicenter China, citizens have slowly returned this month to work and started going out again to eat and shop after mass closures in February. And in Taiwan, children are are still in school, workplaces remain open and restaurants fill on weekends.
But bans on foreign inbound travel will depress potential consumer demand, especially in the already moribund Asian tourism sector, analysts warn. Vietnam's normally vibrant tourism sector has flatlined already, to name just one example. The country reported a handful of imported coronavirus cases this month after a lull in increases, taking its cumulative load to 94.
“If people can’t travel from one country to another, then demand will not pick up no matter how much money you throw at the problem, so it’s really different to just a normal downturn,” said Adam McCarty, chief economist with Mekong Economics in Hanoi.