President Moon Jae-in on Thursday urged South Koreans not to give in to fear, as the government prepared to evacuate the first of about 700 citizens from the epicentre of a new coronavirus epidemic in China’s central city of Wuhan.
“The first of up to four planned flights to Wuhan had been expected to depart, but China had only approved one flight, leading to a delay until later in the day.
“The weapons that will protect us from the new coronavirus are not fear and aversion but trust and cooperation,” Moon said in a speech, decrying fake news for having stirred excessive anxiety.
Yonhap news agency reported that a police cyber safety unit was working with telecoms regulators to block or delete false information that could provoke social confusion.
Protesters used tractors on Wednesday to block the roads to facilities earmarked for quarantine centres in the cities of Asan and Jincheon, about 80 km (50 miles) south of Seoul, the capital.
The government wants to isolate evacuees for at no less than two weeks at the facilities, usually used as training centres for government officials, to rule out any symptoms.
A handful of protesters calling for the quarantine centre to be located further away from homes and schools gathered outside the sites.
“I am a mother of a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old. I was so worried I sent them to stay with my in-laws,” said Jincheon, resident in Lee Ji-hyun
Some residents said children were pulled out of kindergarten or sent to relatives in other cities.
“I don’t like my friends who have travelled to Japan or China because they might be carrying the coronavirus,” said Song Ji-hoo, a six-year-old accompanying his mother to the protest.
He added that he was sad at not being able to play with his friends, who had all been sent to stay with their grandparents.
Moon tried to reassure residents, saying the initial evacuees would only be those free of symptoms, who would be placed in isolation.
“The government will be taking air-tight steps to ensure the residents of areas where the facilities are do not need to be concerned,” he said.
South Korea has reported four cases of the newly identified virus. All had arrived from visits to Wuhan, where the virus surfaced late in 2019.
The new strain has an incubation time ranging from one to 14 days and can spread before symptoms show, complicating efforts to screen people at international borders.
“South Korea will provide China with emergency aid worth 5 million dollars, from masks to protective suits and glasses,’’ the foreign ministry said.
The rapid spread of the virus has triggered alarm since scientists know little about it, including how lethal it is, and cases of milder infections are unlikely to be detected.
“A liaison office operated across the border in North Korea would be closed until the outbreak eased,’’ South Korea’s unification ministry said.