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Americans disembark from coronavirus-hit cruise; China says new cases slowing

American passengers were taken off a cruise liner on Sunday to fly home after being quarantined for two weeks off Japan, while China said measures such as locking down megacity Wuhan had at last slowed the pace of new coronavirus cases.

After being held on board the Diamond Princess since Feb. 3, American passengers were told to get ready for Sunday evening charter flights home from the cruise liner, which accounts for around half of all confirmed coronavirus cases outside China.

Canadian, Italian, South Korean and Hong Kong passengers were expected to follow, after their governments also announced plans to repatriate passengers.

On Saturday, the Canadian government said it was sending a chartered plane to repatriate the Canadian passengers who are not showing symptoms. They have not heard when the plane will arrive and some say they are frustrated at news that they will be cooped up for an additional two weeks after they return home.

“They haven’t told us exactly when they’re going to come … so if they are coming, we hope they come earlier, because the conditions here are extremely serious,” said Jennifer Lee of Vancouver, who’s on the Diamond Princess with her husband.

Japan Self-Defence Force personnel walk past the Diamond Princess cruise ship as it remains in quarantine at Daikoku Pier in Yokohama on Sunday. The United States has become the first country to repatriate citizens on the ship, where more than 350 people have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Fifteen Canadian passengers, out of the 255 initially confined to their cabins, have contracted the virus and at least three have been hospitalized. Those who are transported back to Canada will be placed under quarantine for 14 days.

‘Uncharted territory’ for health quarantines

The aircraft will travel to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ont., where the Canadians will be assessed and transported to the NAV Canada Training Institute in Cornwall, Ont., for the period of quarantine.

“I think we’re in completely uncharted territory with respect to the use of quarantine,” said Dr. Ross Upshur of  the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“If we are asking people to basically suspend their democratically taken-for-granted rights of mobility, what are we doing to support them?”

WATCH | A Canadian on the ship says the airlift is ‘too much, too late’:

Paul Mirko of Richmond, B.C., says he and his wife have already tested negative for coronavirus on the Diamond Princess. 0:37

American passenger Matthew Smith said he and his wife were not taking the flights, because the 14-day quarantine for the ship is set to end on Wednesday. The U.S. evacuees will be taken to Travis Air Force Base in California, with some continuing to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where they will have to undergo another quarantine.

Another drop in number of new cases

Seventy new cases were confirmed on board the Diamond Princess on Sunday, bringing the total on the ship to 355, the largest cluster of cases outside mainland China.

Within China, authorities reported 2,009 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, down from more than 2,600 new cases the previous day. China’s National Health Commission said the tally marked a drop in new cases for the third straight day.

The new cases brought the total to 68,500 in mainland China, with 1,665 deaths, including 143 reported on Sunday. Outside China, more than 500 cases have been confirmed, mostly of people who travelled from Chinese cities, with five deaths. There have been eight cases of the virus in Canada, five in B.C. and three in Ontario.

Chinese Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said the slowing rate of new cases was proof that curbs on travel and other drastic measures were having an impact at last: “The effect of the coronavirus controls is appearing,” Mi told reporters.

The coronavirus, thought to have emerged at a wildlife market in the central province of Hubei, has presented the ruling Communist Party with a huge challenge.

Its response has included putting Hubei and its capital Wuhan — a city of 11 million people — on virtual lockdown. Restrictions were tightened further in Hubei on Sunday with companies told to stay shut until further notice.

Five people have died after being infected outside mainland China, with the most recent fatalities in France and Japan last week and Taiwan’s first reported death from COVID-19 on Sunday. Taiwan also reported two new cases, raising its total to 20.

Xi’s early response raises questions 

A recent speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping that has been published by state media indicates for the first time that he was leading the response to a new coronavirus outbreak from early on in the crisis.

The publication of the Feb. 3 speech was an apparent attempt to demonstrate that the Communist Party leadership acted decisively from the beginning, but also opens Xi up to criticism over why the public was not alerted sooner.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects the novel coronavirus prevention and control work at Anhuali Community in Beijing on Feb. 10. (Xinhau/Reuters)

In the speech, Xi said he gave instructions on fighting the coronavirus on Jan. 7 and ordered the shutdown that began on Jan. 23 of cities at the epicentre of the outbreak. His remarks were published by state media late Saturday.

“On Jan. 22, in light of the epidemic’s rapid spread and the challenges of prevention and control, I made a clear request that Hubei province implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people,” he told a meeting of the party’s standing committee, its top body.

Xi’s role was muted in the early days of the epidemic, which has grown into one of the biggest political challenges of his seven-year tenure.

The disclosure of his speech indicates top leaders knew about the outbreak’s potential severity weeks before such dangers were made known to the public. It was not until late January that officials said the virus can spread between humans and public alarm began to rise.

Trust in the government’s approach to outbreaks remains fractured after the SARS epidemic of 2002 and 2003, which was covered up for months.

The COVID-19 outbreak began in December in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, which has the bulk of infections and deaths. On Jan. 23, Wuhan became the first city to impose an unprecedented halt on outbound transportation, since expanded to other cities with a combined population of more than 60 million.

Authorities in Hubei and Wuhan faced public fury over their initial handling of the epidemic. The anger reached a peak earlier this month following the death of Li Wenliang, a young doctor who was reprimanded by local police for trying to spread a warning about the virus. He ended up dying of the disease himself.

In apparent response, the Communist Party’s top officials in Hubei and Wuhan were dismissed and replaced last week.

Even as authorities have pledged transparency through the current outbreak, citizen journalists who challenged the official narrative with video reports from Wuhan have disappeared and are believed to be detained.

The fall in new cases follows a spike of more than 15,000 on Thursday, when Hubei began to include cases that had been diagnosed by a doctor but not yet confirmed by laboratory tests.

Malaysia ends transit of cruise ship passengers

Malaysia said it would not allow any more passengers from another cruise ship to transit the country after an 83-year-old American woman who left the MS Westerdam last week in Cambodia tested positive for the virus, twice. In addition, Malayasia has said it would bar any cruise ships from docking if they come through any Chinese port.

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, on Sunday said a second test carried out on the woman and her husband yielded the same results.

She was among 145 passengers who flew from Cambodia to Malaysia on Friday. Her husband also had symptoms but tested negative for the virus. The Westerdam was turned away from four ports around Asia before Cambodia allowed it to dock in Sihanoukville late last week. The vessel was left wandering in the East China Sea after a stop in Hong Kong on Feb. 1.

Cambodia said earlier that all 1,455 passengers on the Holland America-operated ship had tested negative for the virus.

Source: CBC Canada

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