Quieter Response to Coronavirus in Countries Where China Holds Sway – The New York Times

Quieter Response to Coronavirus in Countries Where China Holds Sway – The New York Times

Top officials in Southeast Asia have played down the threat of the virus and shied away from travel bans. Some have even pushed supposed remedies not supported by science.

Credit…Lillian Suwanrumpha/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

BANGKOK — In Myanmar, loudspeakers broadcast advice from Buddhist monks: Seven ground peppercorns, exactly seven, placed on the tongue will ward off the coronavirus spreading across Asia and the world.

In Indonesia, Terawan Agus Putranto, the health minister, advised citizens to relax and eschew overtime work to avoid the disease, which has killed more than 300 people and infected more than 14,000 others, mostly in China.

“To prevent it is very easy as long as your immunity is good,” Mr. Terawan said.

And in Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen told a packed news conference on Thursday that he would kick out anyone who was wearing a surgical mask because such measures were creating an unwarranted climate of fear.

“The prime minister doesn’t wear a mask,” he said, “so why do you?”

The World Health Organization has declared the epidemic, which appears to have originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, a global health emergency. But the message does not seem to be resonating in some parts of Southeast Asia, a magnet for Chinese tourists and workers.

The region now has the largest cluster of coronavirus patients outside China. Some governments there have either played down the threat of the epidemic or openly worried about offending a superpower whose economic heft can propel their economies.

Medical experts worry that a delayed response could hasten the spread of the disease.

“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director general.

On Sunday, the first overseas death from the virus, of a 44-year-old Wuhan resident who had died a day earlier, was reported in the Philippines. The virus has spread to about two dozen countries.

Hours before the death was announced, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines ordered a temporary entry ban on most travelers who had recently been in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. Earlier in the week, Mr. Duterte, who has brought the Philippines closer to China while distancing it from the United States, said there was no reason to bar visitors from mainland China, bringing a barrage of criticism from local medical experts.

“We are not as prepared as first-world countries,” said Anthony Leachon, a Philippine health advocate who had urged a temporary entry ban, even if it risked riling Beijing. “Countries should break protocols to save their people.”

With 19 confirmed cases, Thailand has the second-largest number of cases outside China, followed by Singapore, with 18.

Thailand announced on Friday that a Thai taxi driver had tested positive for coronavirus, most likely after coming into contact with a Chinese traveler. Yet even as the threat of human-to-human transmission grows, the country’s health officials have counseled against undue concern.

One of the confirmed cases in Thailand involved a Chinese man in the northern city of Chiang Mai who initially tested negative for the virus after being admitted to a hospital and was therefore transferred out of an isolation unit to a general ward, said Rungrueng Kitphati, a spokesman for the country’s health ministry.

“The chances of him spreading the disease is very low,” said Mr. Rungrueng, noting that the space between beds in the general ward was more than a yard. “Our medical staff always wash their hands in and out. It will not be communicable to others.”

Yet in Wuhan, the coronavirus has infected medical workers, including a doctor who had raised the alarm about the mysterious virus in December, only to have the local government berate him for “illegal behavior.”

As the virus has spread across the region, some governments have remained in denial.

At one hospital in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, a slide show during a presentation on preventing the spread of coronavirus said: “Don’t be so afraid of the coronavirus. It won’t last long because ‘made in China.’”

“Health is not a joke, and the virus is not a joke either,” said Aung Aung, a surgeon at Mandalay General Hospital. “I don’t think Myanmar has the modern techniques to know whether the virus is here.”

On Friday, Myanmar announced its first suspected case, involving a Chinese man who had arrived by plane from Guangzhou. Myanmar does not have the capacity to test for this specific coronavirus, said U Zaw Htay, a government spokesman. Any samples will need to be sent to Thailand or Hong Kong, which could take up to a week.

Even high-level officials have been trading in folk remedies. After a Facebook user in Myanmar wrote a widely read tribute to onions as a way to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, the chief minister of Tanintharyi Division, U Myint Mg, shared the post on his Facebook page.

“The Chinese government has announced that people should consume and have on hand as many onions as they can,” the post read, with no basis in fact.

Cambodia has only one confirmed case of the deadly virus, involving a Chinese national in the boomtown of Sihanoukville, which has been remade by an influx of tens of thousands of Chinese workers. About 3,000 travelers from Wuhan have flown to Cambodia since the epidemic was announced last month, according to Cambodian civil aviation authorities.

In a country with limited media freedoms, some Cambodians worry that the full scope of the virus’s potential impact is not being reported for political reasons. The country’s health minister suggested that Cambodia’s hot and humid climate could ward off the coronavirus.

And China has been pressuring countries not to ban its travelers, with a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman calling an entry ban enacted by the United States “not in keeping with the facts” and not “in keeping with friendship.”

Mr. Hun Sen, the prime minister, who has tethered his country close to China, has said he will not ban flights from China. Nor will he organize an effort to evacuate Cambodians from Wuhan, as other nations have done, he said, because they “have to continue staying there and joining with Chinese to fight this disease.”

“Is there any Cambodian or foreigner in Cambodia who has died of the disease?” the prime minister asked. “The real disease happening in Cambodia right now is the disease of fear. It is not the coronavirus that occurs in China’s Wuhan city.”

Indonesia, where direct flights from Wuhan brought tourists to the holiday island of Bali, has not confirmed any cases of coronavirus, leading to concerns about lax monitoring of incoming passengers. The virus has been found in Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, three much less populous countries around Indonesia.

Laos, a secretive socialist nation on the border with China, has also not confirmed any cases, even though a large number of Chinese tourists and workers cycle through the country.

On Saturday, residents of the remote Natuna islands in Indonesia, on the southern shores of the South China Sea, gathered by the hundreds to protest a decision to quarantine about 240 Indonesians airlifted there from Wuhan.

“People are upset,” said Andes Putra, the head of Natuna’s Parliament, noting that local officials had been given scant information about the virus.

Like other countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia depends heavily on Chinese tourism. On Thursday alone, 10,000 Chinese tourists canceled their trips to Bali, according to one industry association. But on Sunday, Indonesia said it was temporarily barring visitors from mainland China who had been there for 14 days.

Mr. Terawan, the health minister, has suggested that the coronavirus will not affect people who exercise properly and sleep amply.

“Don’t fret,” he said. “Just enjoy and eat enough.”

In Thailand, where normally bustling airports have been emptied of holidaymakers and tourism officials say that arrivals from China could drop by 80 percent in the first four months of this year, Anutin Charnvirakul, the public health minister, recommended temporarily revoking the country’s visa-on-arrival program for mainland Chinese travelers.

But more than 180,000 Chinese tourists who had entered Thailand over the past two months remain in the country, according to immigration officials.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand called for Mr. Anutin to check in with tourism officials before submitting a formal proposal to the cabinet, a process that could take days.

Reporting was contributed by Muktita Suhartono from Jakarta, Indonesia, Jason Gutierrez from Manila, Sun Narin from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Saw Nang from Mandalay, Myanmar.


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