By Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) – More than half a million South Koreans have signed a petition calling for a ban on visitors from China as Seoul announced on Tuesday it would evacuate citizens from the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak.
A petition filed with the presidential Blue House last week had gathered more than 540,000 signatures by Tuesday, highlighting a growing fear in South Korea that the coronavirus could spread.
South Korea has found four cases of the virus.
The first was a Chinese national but the other three are South Koreans who traveled from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak started.
That has not stopped the calls for Chinese visitors to be banned.
“Coronavirus is spreading from China. Even North Korea is banning Chinese people from entering,” wrote the anonymous author of the petition, adding that even a temporary ban would help stop the virus from spreading too widely.
The Blue House has not directly responded to the petition. When asked about other countries’ bans on Chinese entries, its spokesman said only that the issue should be handled in close consultation with the World Health Organization.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because many of its details are still unknown. It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases. It is still too early to know just how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads.
“The government must respond to the petition and come up with strong measures such as barring Chinese tourists,” said a passerby in Seoul, a man in his 50s who only gave his surname Chae. He was wearing a surgical mask.
Kim Eun-kyung, 40, a social worker with two children, said she was also concerned about the outbreak but she also worried that a ban on visitors could upset China and bring “political, economic risks”.
The South Korean government says it is making “all-out efforts” to head off an outbreak and announced it would send at least four flights to Wuhan this week to evacuate nearly 700 South Korean citizens.
“We’ve come to this decision because our citizens there can’t return on their own due to the lockdown in the region, and they were unable to get proper medical treatment as local clinics are at full capacity,” vice foreign minister Lee Tae-ho told a briefing.
People hoping to leave would be screened before they boarded the flights, he said.
The evacuated citizens are expected to be quarantined for about two weeks at two government facilities south of Seoul.
On Tuesday, President Moon Jae-in visited a hospital that had been treating one of the four patients, and sent a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping promising to help contain the spread of the virus.
(The story refiles to correct headline to ‘S.Koreans’)
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha; Additional reporting by Chaeyoun Won; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Robert Birsel)