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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Feb. 5)

All News 06:56 February 05, 2020

Excessive virus fears
Travel ban should be expanded, only if necessary

China's new Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming has cautioned against "unnecessary" travel restrictions some countries have imposed on his homeland in an effort to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

In a press conference at the Chinese Embassy in central Seoul, Tuesday, Xing, who arrived in Seoul last week, stressed that all anti-virus measures should be based on "scientific" data and methods, citing the World Health Organization (WHO)'s guidance that countries don't need to take measures that could unnecessarily dampen international travel and trade in containing the virus.

Although he refused to comment on Seoul's entry ban for foreigners who have been in China's central Hubei Province in the past two weeks, which became effective at midnight, Tuesday, the ambassador's words could be interpreted as pressuring the government to avoid further strengthening its travel ban. We believe this is so because there are growing calls from the public to ban the entry of all non-citizens not only from Wuhan, where the new virus emerged, and the surrounding Hubei Province, but also from other parts of China.

In fact, an increasing number of countries, including the U.S., Japan, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, New Zealand and the Philippines, have imposed entry bans on non-citizens who have been to China recently, despite criticism from Beijing and the WHO guidance. Of course, any measures against the virus should not be driven by xenophobia, racism, fake news or excessive fear. There should be careful consideration of all the factors before Seoul makes any decision concerning inbound and outbound travelers, and they should be evidence-based and consistent, as WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated Monday. China and Ambassador Xing should know this is a matter of our sovereignty.

What is awful is that there have been political attempts here to portray the government as being indifferent or incapable with respect to public safety because it didn't follow the lead of the U.S. and other countries to expand its travel ban. But as shown in South Korea's latest case, an entry ban for all non-Korean travelers from China cannot be the best or only possible solution. Seoul's 16th confirmed patient, a 42-year-old woman, tested positive after returning from a trip to Thailand on Jan. 19. She has not been to China recently.

One other big reason we should base any anti-virus measures on science is that the ongoing crisis in China offers a crucial opportunity for South Korea to normalize bilateral diplomatic and economic relations. It couldn't come at a worse time because Beijing has softened its stance on maintaining economic retaliatory measures on Seoul, which have been in place since the latter's deployment of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system in 2016. It has been widely speculated that China may scrap most of them on the occasion of President Xi Jinping's possible visit to Seoul this year.

So President Moon Jae-in was right when he said during a Cabinet meeting, Tuesday, that there should be thorough countermeasures to stop the spread of the virus and address public concerns, and what is also important is to make concerted efforts to minimize damage on domestic companies and the economy.

There should not be misjudgment of the situation because of irrational fears or wrong information about the virus. It is important to maintain close cooperation with China in overcoming the crisis.

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