Koreans in Italy finally begin journey home

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Koreans in Italy finally begin journey home

After facing many hurdles, nearly 530 Koreans and their family members will finally be evacuated from Italy, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe, on two government chartered flights set to arrive back home Wednesday and Thursday.

The first group of 313 evacuees departed from Milan on a government chartered Korean Air plane Tuesday and was set to arrive at Incheon International Airport Wednesday.

The second group of 212 evacuees will be airlifted from Rome Wednesday and are expected to arrive in Korea Thursday. The number of passengers will be flexible until the actual departure.

Song Se-won, a Korean Foreign Ministry official, led a rapid response team of seven Foreign Ministry and medical staff on the first chartered flight to Milan departing from Incheon airport Monday. A second rapid response team was dispatched to Rome on a second Korean Air chartered plane on Tuesday.

Italy has over 101,700 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Tuesday and a death toll of over 11,500 - the highest in the world. Italian authorities believe that the peak of the crisis has yet to come and have extended their lockdown implemented three weeks ago until at least Easter.

Initially, an association of Korean residents in Italy tried to arrange civilian chartered flights to Korea but encountered difficulties in the negotiation process.

The virus outbreak in Europe worsened, and more Korean residents expressed wishes to return home than originally anticipated. Thus, the Korean government stepped in and decided to send chartered planes.

The evacuees will have fever checks and will not be able to board the plane if their temperature exceeds 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit). They will answer a health questionnaire before boarding the plane and symptomatic passengers will be separated from asymptomatic ones.

They will be required to wear masks and will be seated spaced out from each other on the plane.

Upon arrival at Incheon International Airport, the evacuees will enter a special gate and undergo quarantine checks, said Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip during a press briefing Tuesday.

Symptomatic passengers will be tested for the coronavirus at the airport and asymptomatic evacuees will be transferred to a temporary accommodation to be tested.

If even a single person tests positive, the entire group will be quarantined for two weeks in a government-designated facility, either at a hotel in Pyeongchang County, Gangwon, or at the Korea Post Officials Training Institute in Cheonan, South Chungcheong.

If no cases are confirmed after two rounds of testing over four days, the entire group will then be required to undergo 14 days of self-isolation.

Passengers evacuated from Italy are expected to each pay airfares of around 2 million won ($1,600).

This marks the fifth time the Korean government has evacuated stranded citizens from coronavirus-hit countries in the past two months. The government sent three chartered flights to evacuate hundreds of citizens from Wuhan, in China’s Hubei Province, in late January and early February.

Also in February, the government sent a military plane to Japan to evacuate Korean passengers and a spouse aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Yokohama. It also sent chartered flights to Iran, another country hit hard by the virus, and Peru, under a strict lockdown, in March.

The government sends chartered flights only as a last resort when all other civilian routes are exhausted and when there is sufficient demand. But many flights are being suspended globally as countries shut off their borders because of the coronavirus threat, leaving hundreds of Koreans stranded abroad.

The Korean Foreign Ministry said that it is working with countries under lockdown like India and New Zealand to arrange temporary routes to enable citizens to fly to Korea.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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