Is it safe to travel during the coronavirus outbreak?

Is it safe to travel during the coronavirus outbreak?

Travellers planning a visit to mainland China are being advised to heed government warnings to avoid all but essential trips to the country at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak.

The US state department on Friday issued a “do not travel” warning for China and said its citizens should consider leaving. Japan has also advised against unnecessary travel to China.

The virulent nature of the flu-like illness that has killed 213 people and infected more than 9,700 has heightened fears that the epidemic may spiral. But for foreign visitors already in China, those considering a change of plan, and those who have decided to travel nonetheless, here is some advice to bear in mind. 

How long will it last? Should I change plans?

Foreign governments have taken a cautious approach. The US has warned against travelling while the UK has advised against trips to the province of Hubei at the centre of the outbreak and said travellers should only visit the rest of mainland China if it is “essential”. The British travel advice excludes trips to Hong Kong and Macau.

Travel plans could also be complicated by the fact that some airlines, including British Airways, have suspended flights to and from mainland China. Several international events due to take place in China have been postponed, including the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Nanjing in March and the Def Con computer hacker conference in Beijing the following month. Wilbur Ross, US commerce secretary, was among those to have reconsidered a planned visit to China in February, according to people familiar with the matter.

But the annual “two sessions” meeting in March, in which about 3,000 Chinese parliamentary delegates from around the country gather in Beijing, continues to be open for media registration.

Scientists also said the disease outbreak is entering a crucial period where it may either slow or accelerate. On the optimistic side, one of China’s leading experts on respiratory diseases, Zhong Nanshan, said this week that he expected the peak of the outbreak to be in seven to 10 days — that is, from Feb 5-8 — after which there would be no “large-scale increases”.

However, the Sars outbreak that began in China in late 2002 continued to be infectious eight months later.

What if I have a conference or work in China?

For those who decide they must travel for business meetings, Chinese state media has recommended wearing a face-mask, washing hands before entering a conference room and sitting at least one metre away from colleagues.

An alternative would be to bring meetings online instead. Zoom, the video-calling platform, has offered users in China free group online videoconferencing with no time limit, a feature that is usually part of its paid package. 

Although many international remote-working platforms are blocked in China — most notably Google’s suite of online editing tools, as well as Dropbox — there are a few notable exceptions. GitHub, the code-management platform owned by Microsoft, is accessible in China, as is Slack, the office messaging platform. 

How do I protect myself? Do face-masks work?

The consensus across medical experts is that the most important way of stopping the spread of germs is by washing hands thoroughly, and avoiding touching the eyes or mouth. Face-masks are common in China, even more so since the new outbreak began, and wearing one has been one of the most commonly reiterated directives of the coronavirus crisis.

Yet there is a lot of debate over the efficacy of wearing face-masks. Experts say that the most commonly-worn surgical masks — often blue, and loosely fitted around the face — easily let in air. Masks are also commonly used ineffectively, which can lead to misplaced confidence.  “The evidence is limited, and people have different opinions,” said Nathalie MacDermott, a lecturer at King’s College London, adding that surgical masks were useful for stopping a sick person contaminating others, but there was less certainty over how they can stop a healthy person getting ill. 

Wearing a mask for too long, or using the same one over and over, can bring its own problems. China’s Centre for Disease Control recommends replacing masks every two to four hours. In the end, it may be wise to wear a face mask in China simply to avoid upsetting those around you.

The trip is on. What else do I need to know?

Check that your airline is still flying, as a string of European, US and some Asian airlines have cancelled flights or reduced frequency. British Airways this week became the first big carrier to suspend flights to and from mainland China, a move followed by Germany’s Lufthansa. BA has blocked out sales until March.

Delta and American Airlines are cutting flights between the US and China while Air France suspended all services to and from Shanghai and Beijing having already suspended flights to Wuhan. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific has halved the number of flights to and from mainland China.

When packing for a trip, it is always advisable to bring hand disinfectant and tissue paper while travelling in China, as often public bathrooms will not come stocked with toilet paper and soap. 

If you happen to have access to medical-grade masks, scrubs, gloves, or other medical protective gear — do consider bringing it to China to donate. Several hospitals in Wuhan are asking for donations of medical protective items, which you can post from inside or outside China. 

You should always contact your insurer to check your specific coverage plan and whether your travel to China may void any part of it.

More broadly, some insurance companies, such as the Hong Kong branches of Axa, Prudential, and Manulife have announced additional medical coverage for those hospitalised as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, such as increased daily payment rates.


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