Germany considers pulling citizens out of Wuhan, but as more countries enact evacuation plans, will the coronavirus go with them?

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Peter Andrews is an Irish science journalist and writer, based in London. He has a background in the life sciences, and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in Genetics

On Monday, Germany became the latest in a growing list of countries to enact evacuation plans for its citizens in the virus-hit city of Wuhan, but could they end up bringing the virus back instead?

The German Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas made the announcement on Monday, saying: “We are now also considering a possible evacuation of all Germans who are willing to leave.” The plan will involve a team from the embassy in Beijing making their way to the virus-ravaged city of Wuhan, where there are thought to be around 90 Germans. There, they will provide assistance to their citizens, and offer them the chance to return home if they so wish.

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Berlin joins a growing list of countries to declare its intention to pull its citizens out of Wuhan. On Monday, Thailand also considered an evacuation, as have Jordan, Australia, and the US.  

Making the problem worse?

But as Chinese officials revealed on Sunday, the virus is spreading with no visible symptoms. With this in mind, are these countries’ plans to bring back citizens wise? Or do they risk outbreaks at home to rival that in China, where upward of 80 people have now died?

Apparently, there are no indications that the Germans in Wuhan are infected with the coronavirus. Nevertheless, if any of them do return to Europe, it would be advisable to keep them quarantined until blood tests can confirm they are not infected. Even this is an imperfect science, as a single virus cell can lie dormant in a person for a long time before multiplying and attacking. Western countries reaction to the virus so far could be seen as being impractical

They waited for the Chinese to shut down the city without imposing any travel restrictions of their own, perhaps so as not to be seen as the first to blink. Furthermore, the precautionary measures at airports seem to have consisted mostly of the thermal scanning of passengers’ foreheads, not exactly a foolproof method of detecting the virus, and besides, couldn’t the scanner itself spread the particles?

It could be that such measures are simply a distraction, an attempt to pacify the citizenry and to stop them panicking by making them feel that everything is under control.

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Germany’s plans to tackle the danger, according to local media, will consist of incoming planes carrying possibly virus-infected patients diverted to one of six specially prepared airports. Isolation wards are ready and waiting in all major hospitals, and the staff have been briefed on all eventualities.

Signs in Mandarin have been erected in the airports instructing people who experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms such as fever or cough to immediately direct themselves to airport staff. It is also reported that if a person is suspected of having the virus, their friends, family and everyone sitting within two rows of them will also be screened for symptoms.

One way ticket for the virus?

Since the city of Wuhan has been virtually quarantined by China, can it really be wise for other countries to be swooping in and retrieving their own citizens, regardless of how good their preparations are? While countries owe their citizens a certain amount of help amidst natural disasters such as this, guaranteeing that the virus will not enter a country could require a blanket travel ban, and probably a temporary embargo on food products as well. 

No country has yet taken this precaution; perhaps understandably, given that the World Health Organization has not yet declared an international public health emergency. Realistically then, there must be a balance between free travel and the quarantine capabilities of any given country.

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