368 Koreans airlifted from virus hot zone in Wuhan

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368 Koreans airlifted from virus hot zone in Wuhan

Nearly 400 Koreans landed at Gimpo International Airport in western Seoul on Friday after an emergency evacuation from Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province, the epicenter of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

According to the Health Ministry, 12 of the 368 airlifted passengers showed symptoms associated with the coronavirus during the flight, while six more showed symptoms during a screening after landing. Quarantine officials said none of the 18 suspected patients showed symptoms when they boarded the chartered flight Thursday evening.

Of the 18, four who showed the most serious symptoms were transferred to a government-designated medical facility at Chung-Ang University Hospital for treatment, while the other 14 were sent to the National Medical Center in central Seoul.

As planned, the 350 other passengers were split up and moved to two government designated screening facilities at the National Human Resources Development Institute in Jincheon, North Chungcheong, and the Police Human Resources Development Institute in Asan, South Chungcheong, where they will be isolated for 14 days, the incubation period for the disease.

While 369 Koreans gathered for evacuation on Thursday evening at Wuhan’s Tianhe International Airport, one person failed a health screening test by Chinese authorities and was forced to return home, said Korean health officials.

The Foreign Ministry on Friday confirmed a second chartered flight had been cleared to fly to Wuhan to evacuate a second - and final - batch of Korean nationals in the city. The same Boeing 747-400 plane used in the initial evacuation was set to be disinfected and reused for the second flight, which was scheduled to take off from Gimpo International Airport at 8:45 p.m. on Friday.

It is not yet known how many passengers will be part of the second evacuation, but officials said they would do everything they could to ensure they bring home as many Korean citizens as possible on the 404-seat airplane. A total of 720 Koreans in Wuhan initially applied for evacuation with the Korean government, but around 10 people did not show up for the first evacuation.

With various foreign governments clamoring to pull their citizens out of Wuhan, where the new strain of coronavirus has claimed 204 lives out of a total of 213 victims across the country, Korea faced significant delays in its evacuation plans. An initial plan to send four chartered flights to the city had to be revised down to two, but even this was rejected by Chinese authorities, who said they would only permit one flight.

In response, the government doubled down in persuading Chinese authorities to grant permission for the flights, even committing to donating around $5 million and protective gear like masks or hazmat suits to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

That decision by the government to send aid to China invited a backlash from opposition parties and some members of the public, who complained the government was valuing its ties to China more than the protection of its own citizens.

Controversy also surrounded Jincheon County and Asan, whose residents initially protested plans to house evacuees in quarantine centers in their regions. The residents’ ire dampened on Friday after criticism mounted of what many called the selfishness of residents of the two areas.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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