Google to combat coronavirus misinformation as countries escalate bans

  • 3 Feb 2020

Health authorities released updated figures of 425 deaths and 20,438 confirmed cases, as patients begin arriving at a hospital built in just 10 days in Wuhan.

An airport officer wears a mask to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus as she works at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. February 3, 2020. ( Reuters )

The head of the World Health Organization says it's working with Google to ensure that searches about the new virus from China turn up information from the United Nations health agency first, part of efforts to fight “rumours and misinformation” about the outbreak.  

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the opening of WHO's executive board meeting on Monday that social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and TikTok “have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation” about the virus and outbreak that first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December and has now spread to 23 other countries.

The number of people infected by the virus globally has reached 20,438 confirmed cases. It has killed 425 people, all but one in China.

China sent medical workers and equipment to a new hospital built in 10 days, infused cash into tumbling financial markets and further restricted people’s movement in sweeping new steps Monday to contain a rapidly spreading virus and its escalating impact.

Reopening of schools was also delayed to keep the virus from spreading further in Hubei, where the 1,000-bed hospital in the provincial capital Wuhan was completed in just 10 days. 

A second hospital with 1,500 beds will open within days. Restrictions were tightened still further in one city by allowing only one family member to venture out to buy supplies every other day.

Leading Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan said additional hospital space was crucial to stopping the spread of new infections.

“The lack of hospital rooms forced sick people to return home, which is extremely dangerous. So having additional (beds) available is a great improvement,” Zhong told state broadcaster CCTV.

Zhong played a major role in overcoming China’s 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, a coronavirus from the same family as the current pathogen.

The increase of 2,829 cases over a 24-hour period comes as other countries continued evacuating citizens from hardest-hit Hubei province and restricted the entry of Chinese or people who recently travelled in the country. 

This map by TRT World shows the global spread of the novel coronavirus, as of 0730 GMT on February 3, 2020.(TRTWorld)

WHO chief denounces travel measures

Tedros reiterated there was no need for measures that "unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade" in trying to halt the spread of the virus.

"We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent," he told the WHO executive board, reiterating his earlier message, "... global connectiveness is a weakness in this outbreak but it is also our greatest strength."

Hong Kong seals crossings 

Hong Kong announced it was closing all but two land crossings with the Chinese mainland on Monday to slow the spread of a deadly new coronavirus as medics staged strikes calling for the border to be completely sealed. 

The semi-autonomous financial centre has 15 confirmed cases of the disease, most brought from the mainland where the epidemic began.

On Monday afternoon city leader Carrie Lam said all land crossings would be closed at midnight except for two bridges, the first connecting Hong Kong to Shenzhen and the second linking it with Zhuhai and casino hub Macau.

The city's airport –– one of the world's busiest –– would remain open to mainlanders, although there are already restrictions on people from central Hubei province where the epidemic began.

Lam denied that the move was due to pressure from medical workers, who threatened a five-day strike to demand the government shut all borders to the mainland.

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).(AP)

Russia mulls deporting infected foreigners

Russia's Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said the country may start deporting foreigners infected with the virus.

Like other countries, Russia has halted most of its air and train traffic with China, shut down its land border with China and Mongolia and temporarily stopped issuing work visas to Chinese citizens.

On Monday, authorities announced Russia was suspending the last operating train that connects Moscow and Beijing and all trains between Russia and North Korea.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova also said that several Russian planes would fly to China on Monday to evacuate Russian citizens. 

Cruise ship measures

Cruise lines worldwide will deny boarding to passengers and crew who have recently travelled to China, the global Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said on Monday, as fears grow over the deadly new coronavirus.

"CLIA Members have suspended crew movements from mainland China and will deny boarding to any individual, whether guest or crew, who has travelled from or through mainland China within the previous 14 days," the body's Hamburg office said in a statement.

CLIA represents the world's best-known cruise lines, including TUI, AIDA, MSC and Carnival Cruises.

Japan to quarantine cruise ship

Japan's government said it would quarantine a cruise ship that is set to dock in Yokohama on Monday after a Hong Kong man who sailed on it last month later tested positive for the coronavirus.

The 80-year-old man flew to Japan and boarded the ship, the Diamond Princess run by Carnival Japan Inc, in Yokohama on January 20 and disembarked on January 25, NHK public broadcaster said.

He developed a cough the day before embarking but did not develop a fever until January 30, a day before he was confirmed to have the virus in Hong Kong, NHK reported.

Precautions for South Korean soldiers

South Korea's Defence Ministry said about 800 South Korean soldiers have been placed under quarantine as a precaution against the virus.

Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyunsoo told reporters on Monday that the soldiers either recently visited China, Hong Kong or Macau, or contacted people who visited those countries.

She said 450 of them are quarantined at their military bases and the remaining 350 at their homes.

US travel restrictions

The Department of Homeland Security has warned airline passengers that their flights may wind up rerouted if officials discover mid-flight that someone onboard has been in China in the last 14 days.

That guidance was included in a notice released by the department Sunday as new travel restrictions officially go into effect for flights commencing after 5 pm EDT.

Under the new rules, US citizens who have travelled in China within the last 14 days will be re-routed to one of eight designated airports, where they will undergo enhanced health screening procedures.

Meanwhile, most non-US citizens who have travelled in China within the last 14 days will be denied entry into the United States, except for immediate family members of US citizens, permanent residents and flight crew.

Travellers arrive to LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal wearing medical masks for protection against the coronavirus outbreak on February 2, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.(AFP)

Maldives bans travellers from China

The Maldives has banned travellers arriving from China, the tourism minister of the Indian Ocean islands said on Monday.

More than 280,000 Chinese tourists visited the luxury holiday destination in 2019, government data show, the largest number from any country.

"Under the new measures being implemented, the government of Maldives will restrict entry ... of any person who has left or transited through mainland China effective from 3 February," Tourism Minister Ali Waheed told a news conference.

"Exceptions will be made in the case of Maldivian citizens."

Turkey suspends flights 

Turkey's Health Minister said on Monday that as of February 5, all flights from China will be suspended until the end of the month. 

Turkey will begin scanning passengers travelling from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia through thermal cameras at airports, Fahrettin Koca said.

Koca added that none of 61 people tested positive for coronavirus at Zekai Tahir Burak Hospital in the Turkish capital Ankara, where, a total of 32 Turks, and 10 foreign nationals, evacuated from China, had also been quarantined.

European countries take measures 

Scores of Italians and Poles were under quarantine Monday after being repatriated from the Chinese city of Wuhan. 

Meanwhile in Croatia, tourists from Taiwan were reportedly wearing “not from China” signs due to discrimination against Asian tourists.

An Italian military aircraft carrying the Italians landed Monday morning at a military airport near Rome, and from there all 56 people, including six children, were being transferred to a military base.
They will remain in quarantine there for 14 days. 

'People's war'

The World Health Organization said the number of cases will keep growing because tests are pending on thousands of suspected cases.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, presiding over a special meeting of the country’s top Communist Party body for the second time since the crisis started, said, "We have launched a people’s war of prevention of the epidemic."