Medical staff are seen outside an isolation ward at a government-run fever hospital in Hyderabad, India, on Jan. 27 after patients (unseen) coming from Hong Kong requested medical checks as a preventative measure following a coronavirus outbreak which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. (Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP)
Immediate neighbors of China are preparing to face a possible health emergency in the wake of the fast-spreading coronavirus that has already killed at least 106 people and infected thousands in the Middle Kingdom.
Governments in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka have accelerated actions to check the spread of the respiratory contagion in their thickly populated nations, some of which have quarantined people suspected of the infection.
Government staff in these nations are busy screening inbound passengers at airports and international borders to check for flu-like symptoms of the infection that has no known medical cure and can become fatal for people with low immunity.
Caritas Asia, the Catholic Church’s most significant social service network in the region, is busy preparing a system to tackle the virus in case of an outbreak, said president Benedict Alo D’Rozario.
“We will have a major meeting in Cambodia on Jan. 30. From there, we might come up with a strategy to tackle coronavirus infections. We are seriously concerned that the infection has spread from China to some neighboring countries,” D’Rozario told UCA News.
He said the church group, which has a global network, has been passing government alerts and leaflets to members and associate organizations. “We are trying to make people aware of safety measures,” he said.
Caritas Asia has also instructed the staff of church-run hospitals to remain alert to tackle the virus if there is an outbreak, D’Rozario said.
“Every country has an internal mechanism to counter such an epidemic, and the Church and Caritas form volunteer groups to tackle such situations. As in natural disasters, the Church and Caritas work with state agencies,” he said.
“We are planning to form such volunteer groups for such emergency health situations.”
The preparation comes as the virus is feared to have spread to neighboring countries.
Five suspected cases have been reported from the Pakistani cities of Multan and Lahore, four of them Chinese nationals from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the infection was first reported in mid-December.
Pakistan houses a growing population of Chinese citizens, fueled by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a US$60 billion development project. Under the initiative, Chinese companies build roads, power plants and industrial zones across Pakistan.
However, Pakistan officials have denied reports of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country.
Zafar Mirza, special assistant to the prime minister on health, tweeted that “Pakistan does not have any coronavirus patient until now, and we are alert.”
Government health staff are screening inbound passengers at major airports and border crossings with thermo scanners and thermo guns. A separate team is screening passengers arriving via flights from China.
Caritas Pakistan is circulating social media messages on safety measures through their volunteers and six disaster management committees, said Mansha Noor, director of the agency’s diocesan unit in Karachi Archdiocese.
Similarly, Caritas workers in Lahore are coordinating with authorities of Sacred Heart Cathedral to hold an awareness seminar for coordinators of Catholic youth ministry and the faithful next week.
Bangladeshi government officials are planning to bring back hundreds of their compatriots in China, including those trapped in Wuhan.
“We have started a discussion with the Chinese government to bring back willing Bangladeshi citizens staying in China. The process would be finalized in consultation with Chinese authorities,” deputy foreign minister Shahriar Alam said on his social media page on Jan. 27.
However, news reports said China was not in favor of nations evacuating their citizens from the cities it has locked down because of the outbreak of the virus.
The lockdown of several Chinese cities will make it difficult to evacuate Bangladeshis, most of them students, before the next two weeks, Foreign Minister Abdul Momen told media on Jan. 27.
Panic spread in Munshiganj district in central Bangladesh on Jan. 27 after a woman and her nephew died after suffering from high fever.
A government statement said the preliminary probe could not establish that the two died of infections from coronavirus or Nipah virus.
A Chinese citizen admitted to a hospital in Dhaka was also not infected with the virus, the statement said.
Medical facilities across the country, including those run by the Church, have taken measures to tackle an outbreak of coronavirus, said medical doctor Edward Pallab Rozario, vice-president of the Christian Medical Association of Bangladesh, an interchurch body.
Sri Lanka’s religious leaders, including Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, said the country should not go to the extreme of blocking Chinese nationals entering the country in the wake of the epidemic.
“We should not isolate anybody just because of a disease,” said Cardinal Ranjith, the Catholic Church’s representative on the Congress of Religions, a multireligious body representing senior leaders of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
“Certain countries would have taken measures to protect their citizens. Sri Lanka should go to that extreme only if it could not control the situation,” Cardinal Ranjith told a press conference on Jan. 28 in Colombo.
Sri Lanka and China have close diplomatic and trade relations, with China developing several projects in the strategic island nation.“We should work for the safety of the country, but we should not create a rift with other countries. We believe this is not intentional, but it is a health situation,” the cardinal said.
Buddhist monk Venerable Ittapane Dhamalankara Thera, chairman of the Congress of Religions, said people should not “unnecessarily panic” because of the virus. "What is needed is to get together and work to get rid of it,” he said.
Health authorities on Jan. 27 reported the first case of infection in a 43-year-old Chinese woman who had come from Hubei province in China. She arrived as part of a tour group and was hospitalized with flu symptoms.
Medical stores in Colombo have run out of face masks. The majority of Chinese in Sri Lanka live in Colombo.
Many residents of Colombo wear mouth covers.
India has stepped up vigilance at border checkpoints and airports and alerted hotels in states bordering Nepal to prevent the spread of the deadly virus into the country.
There is no confirmed case of the deadly infection in India. However, 288 persons in the southern Indian state of Kerala, who recently visited China, have been kept under medical observation, said the state’s Health Minister K.K. Shailaja.
Authorities are also closely monitoring about 60 peoplein Kerala’s Kozhikode town who have returned from China.
Other states such as Rajasthan, Karnataka and Bihar have each found one suspected case and in Andhra Pradesh four persons are under close watch.
“So far we have not come across any such situation where we need to step in to assist. However, we are keeping a close watch on developments,” Father Paul Moonjeli, director of Caritas India, told UCA News on Jan. 28
Cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba said the government has decided to prepare for an evacuation of Indian nationals in Wuhan.
India has reviewed protocols for screening people, reporting suspected cases, setting up of isolation wards, and availability of protective gear for health personnel.
Myanmar has so far not reported any cases of coronavirus, but the government has stepped up screening at airports and asked arriving passengers to declare their health status.
Health authorities in border towns have strengthened surveillance at the border gate with China with the help of thermal scan equipment.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it is preparing to evacuate some 60 Myanmar students stranded in Wuhan.
Caritas (Karuna) Myanmar said it has yet to carry out any program related to coronavirus.