A day after the Philippines confirmed the first coronavirus death outside China, residents of Indonesia's Natuna Islands on Monday protested the government’s decision to quarantine its evacuated citizens in the remote region.
Malaysia, meanwhile, pledged to house evacuees “far from the public” as an airplane arrived in Kuala Lumpur carrying its citizens home from Wuhan, the epicenter of a rapidly spreading virus that has killed at least 360 people.
Hundreds of residents of the Natuna Islands demanded that 238 Indonesians who have been evacuated from China be quarantined on a warship, despite assurances from the government that the returnees were not infected by the coronavirus.
“It's not that we are heartless and have no humanity, but the shelter is not standardized and health facilities and doctors are also limited. Even if only one person is infected with the coronavirus, they could transmit it to the population,” Abid Juong, one of the demonstrators who gathered at a local legislative building, told BenarNews.
The Indonesians arrived in Batam, an Indonesian island near Singapore, from Hubei Province in China, on Sunday and were immediately transported to a military base in Natuna, where they will be quarantined for 14 days, authorities said.
Other nations have also taken sweeping steps to contain the flu-like coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in a market that traded illegally in wildlife in Hubei’s provincial capital, Wuhan. Chinese health officials confirmed more than 17,200 infections with 361 deaths as of Monday.
The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said confirmed cases of the virus had been reported in 27 nations outside China.
Indonesia’s move took place as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte urged Filipinos on Monday not to engage in xenophobia, a day after his government reported the death of a Chinese man in Manila, the first coronavirus death outside China. The man was already infected when he traveled to the Philippines in January, officials said.
Manila has banned the entry of all foreign nationals travelling from China and confirmed two cases of the virus, adding to the 150 cases that have been reported in two dozen other countries.
“If the question is if I will bar Chinese from entering, the answer of course is no. That is an utter disrespect to a human being. … This mentioning the Chinese and blaming them is xenophobia,” Duterte said.
"Stop this xenophobia thing," he added.
He said that Chinese nationals flying in from outside China would be allowed to enter the Philippines, where health authorities were awaiting confirmation on whether 48 other patients currently under observation were infected.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global emergency. Authorities said the infections had surpassed the total in the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, which killed about 800 people
Indonesian Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto said none of the Indonesians repatriated on Sunday were believed to have contracted the coronavirus.
“They have passed the three stages of screening by the Chinese government, it has been confirmed that all of them are in good health,” he told reporters. “But after arriving here, I have to make sure they are in good health.”
Health workers were seen spraying the Indonesians who flew from Wuhan, China to Batam, Indonesia, as they disembarked from a plane with a substance that local reports described as an antiseptic.
The Health Ministry said there had not been any confirmed cases of the virus in Indonesia, which was visited by about 2.1 million Chinese tourists last year.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Sunday the government had decided to bar entry to visitors who have been in China and would ban flights to and from China starting Wednesday.
“All visitors who arrived from mainland China and who have been there for 14 days will not be allowed to enter or transit in Indonesia, temporarily,” she told reporters.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian Ministry of Trade said the government was considering suspending imports of food and beverages as well as live animals from China.
In Malaysia, a Foreign Ministry official told BenarNews that an Air Asia flight arrived in Wuhan on Monday to evacuate 141 people, including 116 Malaysians. Local media reported that the same flight arrived early Tuesday (local time) in Kuala Lumpur.
The official, who asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media, described as “exaggerated” local reports that repatriated Malaysians would be housed in a facility “very, very far from public” with 24-hour police surveillance.
“It's far and safe from the public,” the official said. “And at the center we also have zoning, so there will be no direct contact except with the medical team.”
Most of the non-citizens being evacuated are Chinese nationals married to Malaysians, the source said.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) responded to the spread of the virus by convening a videoconference last week at its Center for Military Medicine, according to a report by the diplomat.com.
Medical representatives from eight of the ten ASEAN countries discussed preventive measures and early testing for those suspected of being infected, it said.
On Monday, the ASEAN’s official Twitter page provided hotline numbers that can be accessed by nationals of its 10 member countries.
“If you experience fever, cough and difficulty in breathing, do not panic,” the posting said. “Seek medical care immediately or dial these numbers.”
Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.