BEIJING – Concerned that international travelers might trigger a second wave of coronavirus infections, China announced Thursday night that it would suspend virtually all entry into the country by foreigners and that it would also stop almost all international passenger flights.
The announcement came after official Chinese data indicated that the country had almost completely stopped domestic transmission of the virus, but was struggling to handle an increasing number of infected people abroad.
Foreign residents of China and foreigners with previously issued visas will no longer be able to enter the country after midnight on Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday. The announcement represents one of the most comprehensive international travel bans imposed anywhere in the world, as governments try to stem the spread of the coronavirus that has already infected more than half a million people and killed more than 22,000.
Other leaders who have imposed travel bans, including President Trump, have tended to allow long-term residents of other countries to keep coming and going, even when they restricted most other arrivals. President Trump's travel ban on China on January 31 also exempted immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
China's strictest travel ban has only a handful of exceptions, especially for diplomats.
The Foreign Ministry suggested that others who still need to travel to China should apply for new visas at Chinese embassies or consulates elsewhere. New visas will be considered "for necessary economic, commercial, scientific or technological activities or for humanitarian needs outside of an emergency," the ministry said.
"The suspension is a temporary measure that China is obliged to take in light of the outbreak situation and the practices of other countries," the ministry added.
The Chinese Civil Aviation Administration issued a separate announcement ordering that each domestic or foreign airline only operate a single passenger flight to China each week until further notice.
90 percent of people now coming to China are returning to Chinese citizens, Deputy Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui told reporters in Beijing on Thursday, and the sharp reduction in flights will make it very difficult for them to return to their homes. Even before the latest measures, Beijing had tried in recent days to discourage overseas Chinese from returning.
The government has done so through measures such as insisting that newcomers would have to pay for their hotel rooms during the mandatory 14-day quarantine. Beijing has also threatened that the country's government-run maze of health insurance systems will not cover foreign-acquired coronavirus infections.
The disruption of almost all international passenger flights into and out of China It makes it even more difficult for other countries to import N95 respirators, disposable surgical masks and other personal protective equipment from China for their own doctors and nurses. About half of the world's air cargo generally moves in the bellies of passenger planes, while the rest travel on board cargo planes.
Previous large-scale cancellations of passenger air services to China have already created a severe shortage of air cargo capacity in the past two weeks. Most of the Chinese factories have reopened.
Businesses around the world have been quick to reserve space on available cargo planes to quickly fill supply chains that generally depend on ships. Many of these supply chains had been emptied during the four to six weeks that much of manufacturing in China closed when Beijing halted economic activity to control the virus.
The effectiveness of international travel bans is controversial. President Trump said Wednesday that while many of his health advisers had opposed its ban affects most travel from China, "if we didn't do that, thousands upon thousands of people would have died."
Trump's travel ban on China had been strongly opposed until February by senior Chinese officials, who repeatedly called for it to be lifted. Many wealthy or politically connected Chinese families send their children to the United States for college, and sometimes also for high school. The travel ban interrupted his education.
But return flights to China have been stuck for the past week as the epidemic has multiplied in the United States and has begun to spread beyond cities that receive many international travelers, including New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. . Mr. Luo said that 40 percent of Chinese passport holders who returned in the past few days were returning students.
The Chinese National Health Commission said Thursday that the 67 new cases of coronavirus officially reported across the country were people who had been infected abroad, as were the 47 reported the day before.