The economic risks associated with banning flights from China is far deadlier than the potential spread of the novel coronavirus (nCoV) believed to have originated in China’s Wuhan city, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen said Thursday, downplaying reports about the severity of the epidemic.
On Monday, Cambodia became the latest country to confirm a case of coronavirus, announcing that a Chinese national in the coastal city of Sihanoukville had been infected in the outbreak that as of Thursday afternoon has sickened more than 8,200 people worldwide and killed at least 171, all in China.
Following the confirmation, Cambodian aviation authorities announced that all flights between Cambodia and Wuhan had been cancelled, following a ban by Chinese authorities on all local and international flights to the city, but many Cambodians have called for the suspension of all incoming flights to Cambodia from China, citing a substantial spread in the country of origin.
On Thursday, Hun Sen dismissed fears of an epidemic in Cambodia and warned that a ban on flights from China would devastate the country’s economy.
“There is no need to stop flights from China because doing so would kill our economy and destroy ties with China,” he said during a live televised press conference in the capital Phnom Penh, adding that Cambodians should refrain from discriminating against Chinese people.
He also said he has no plans to evacuate Cambodia’s diplomats in China or any Cambodians who are unable to leave the country—including citizens who are studying abroad—due to travel restrictions imposed by Beijing as part of a bid to prevent further spread of the virus.
“I have no plan to evacuate our diplomats—we will keep them there to help resolve the issues on the ground,” Hun Sen said, referring to the threat of infection from coronavirus, which later on Thursday the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency.
The prime minister expressed disappointment that many students had returned home to Cambodia from China, suggesting that Beijing “wouldn’t give any more scholarships” to Cambodians.
Hun Sen also dismissed reports of the severity of the nCoV spread and threatened to have reporters or officials removed from the press conference for wearing masks thought to help prevent infection, saying that if he doesn’t need a mask, nobody else should either.
He said that China’s own travel restrictions will be effective enough to stop the spread of the virus, despite recent decisions by British Airways, Lufthansa, Air India, South Korea's Seoul Air, and Indonesia’s Lion Air to suspend or limit flights to the country, and plans by Finnair, Cathay Pacific, and Singapore's Jetstar Asia to cut the number of flights to and from China.
In December, Phnom Penh announced that more than two million Chinese tourists visited the country in the first 10 months of 2019, representing nearly a quarter increase for the same period in 2018.
China ranks as Cambodia's number six export market, accounting for 6.3 percent of all exports, while China is the number one import origin for products coming into Cambodia, accounting for 40 percent of all imports.
Chinese investment has also flowed into Cambodia in recent years, but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they call unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese businessmen and residents.
Responding to Hun Sen’s comments, San Chey, the executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability told RFA’s Khmer Service that the prime minister “shouldn’t take the coronavirus lightly,” adding that while a ban on flights from China may impact the economy, “a viral outbreak in Cambodia would do even worse damage.”
Phil Robertson, New York-based Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, told RFA that he finds “something profoundly wrong in [Hun Sen’s] decision to prioritize good relations between Cambodia and China over preventing the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus among the Cambodian people.”
“Governments should respect [the] human rights of people in dealing with stopping contagion but there also has to be a degree of basic common sense cautions taken, especially in a country like Cambodia which most observers believe would have a difficult time responding to a coronavirus outbreak.”
Meanwhile, Vietnam announced Thursday that it will stop issuing visas for Chinese nationals after the government confirmed three new cases of people infected with the coronavirus, according to state media.
In a statement, Vietnam’s government said that it is discouraging cross-border trade between the two countries as the outbreak “is spreading rapidly, and in a serious manner.”
Chinese nationals accounted for the most tourists entering Vietnam in the first nine months of 2019, according to statistics provided by Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and accounted for 30.9 percent of all tourist visas over the period.
The visa announcement came as Vietnam said that three Vietnamese nationals who had recently returned home after traveling to Wuhan for the Lunar New Year had been infected with nCoV, bringing to five the total number of cases in the country.
One of the three people is being treated at a hospital in Thanh Hoa province, while the other two are receiving care in the capital Hanoi, according to the Health Ministry’s official newspaper.
Last week, a Chinese father and son from Wuhan were confirmed to have been infected with the virus, the ministry said, and one of the two has since recovered.
Sources in the coastal city of Da Nang called for greater checks by local authorities on Chinese nationals entering Vietnam.
“The city should stop receiving people who come from Wuhan, China, and strictly control foreigners from other places,” one resident told RFA.
A hotel worker in the city said that Chinese people “in good health” are welcome in Vietnam, but authorities “should check their health situation at the immigration counters before giving them permission to enter the country.”
“If you ban them, it means you create conflict between the two countries,” the worker said.
China ranks as Vietnam’s number one export destination and nation of import origin, accounting for 18 percent and 35 percent of products, respectively.
In Myanmar, where no cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed, authorities said Thursday that they are awaiting a green light from Beijing to evacuate 63 people studying in Wuhan after approving the chartering of an airplane to fly them back home.
“We have proposed taking them back by chartered flight and are currently waiting for permission from Chinese authorities,” said Soe Pyae Sone, the deputy permanent secretary of the Myanmar Embassy in Beijing, adding that “there are many other countries” who are also waiting on the government’s consent to retrieve their citizens.
Beginning on Wednesday, Japan and the U.S. evacuated hundreds of citizens from Wuhan on charter flights, only a day after the Chinese Foreign Ministry had said it didn’t expect to make such arrangements because the situation was not severe enough.
Speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday, Khin Thiri Thant Zin, a Myanmar student in Wuhan, said he hopes to return home “as soon as possible.”
“We have problems with our food supply and it is becoming emotionally stressful,” he said.
RFA also spoke with Wint War, a Myanmar student in Wuhan, who was quarantined in China’s port city of Guangzhou, in Guangdong province, when one of the friends she was traveling with fell ill.
“[The rest of us] don’t have any fever, but they are taking our body temperature twice a day and diagnosing our condition daily,” she said, adding that she would be required to stay in quarantine for at least eight more days.
Wint War said that there were around 100 Myanmar students in Wuhan and that the 63 still there were those who did not return home for winter vacation.
“I don’t know the situation of immigrant workers in Wuhan, because the area I live in is mostly universities,” she said.
There are some 450 Myanmar citizens studying at various universities throughout China, according to the Myanmar Embassy, although others may be studying in China through their own arrangements or on private scholarships.
The Myanmar government has made preparations to receive the 63 students in Wuhan at a hospital in Mandalay, where authorities will monitor them for two weeks to determine whether they have been infected.
Passengers arriving in Myanmar are being screened in at both the Yangon and Mandalay international airports since last week, following public anger over the arrival of a flight from Wuhan to Yangon on Jan. 23.
China banned flights from Wuhan the following day and the 73 Chinese tourists who arrived on the Jan. 23 flight returned home earlier this week.
Chinese tourists accounted for 23.8 percent of all visitors to Myanmar in 2018, the largest of any foreign nation.
Thirty percent of Myanmar’s exports go to China annually, while 69 percent of its imports originate in China, making its northern neighbor its top trading partner.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service, Vietnamese Service, and Kyaw Lwin Oo and Nayrein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Samean Yun, Ye Kaung Myint Maung, and Huy Le. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.