Filipinos Slam Government for Refusing to Ban China Travel After First Coronavirus Case

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers his state of the nation address at Congress in Manila on July 22, 2019.  (Photo by Noel CELIS / AFP) (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Angry Filipinos criticized the government of President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday for refusing to ban travel to and from China after the first confirmed case of the Wuhan coronavirus was reported in the Philippines.

Duterte himself said “not yet” when asked if he would prohibit Chinese travelers after an ethnic Chinese resident of the Philippines died in an infectious disease ward on Wednesday. The patient was a 29-year-old man with a history of traveling to Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease outbreak. He died of pneumonia and tested HIV-positive, but testing for the Wuhan virus has not been conclusive.

“If there is the slightest possibility that a contamination could occur in the Philippines, then we will have to take measures. At this time there is no known protocol which we can follow to combat the disease. What we can do is to limit the people entering [the Philippines]. It could include China but at this time, I am not for it. It would not be fair,” Duterte said – somewhat confusingly, since limiting people entering the Philippines with the disease was the very request he was refusing.

Duterte’s health secretary, Francisco Duque, was somewhat more straightforward in explaining the administration was worried about provoking Beijing’s anger with a ban. “China might question why we’re not doing the same for all other countries that have reported cases of the virus. It’s very tricky,” he said.

Doctors in the Philippines continued pressing for a travel ban, while some cities began haphazardly imposing their own bans and quarantine requirements for travelers arriving in China. Taxi drivers spoke of refusing to pick up Chinese passengers.  

On Thursday, while testing on the deceased individual was still underway, a confirmed case of coronavirus infection was reported, a 38-year-old Chinese woman visiting the Philippines from Wuhan. She is said to have arrived in the Philippines on January 21 and visited a hospital with flu symptoms on January 25. The Wuhan virus can travel inside a human host for up to two weeks without causing symptoms of illness.

Pressure on Duterte to ban travel to and from China increased greatly after the confirmed case was reported. Nervous and angry Filipinos accused Duterte of showing excessive deference to China or being distracted with other issues while the list of countries that did ban travel from Wuhan, its surrounding Hubei province, or the entire country of China kept growing.

On Friday, the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila reported that the boyfriend of the woman grew ill with symptoms resembling pneumonia. He is under observation pending test results for the Wuhan virus. If he is infected, he would be the first case of indigenous transmission of the virus in the Philippines.

The head of the Philippine health department’s epidemiology bureau said on Friday that a total of 31 people are under observation for possible infection. Most of them are people who recently traveled to Hubei province in China.

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