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Italy and South Korea join China as coronavirus pariahs as countries close borders

February 27, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC

Weeks after countries such as the U.S. blocked entry to foreigners who had recently visited China—the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak—other countries are starting to receive similar treatment.

Travelers flying out from Italy, which is experiencing a significant COVID-19 outbreak, are now blocked from entering Israel unless they are Israeli citizens. The Middle Eastern country’s first COVID-19 case was diagnosed on Thursday—a man who entered Israel from Italy on Sunday.

The move comes several days after Israel turned away 130 South Korean air passengers, before issuing a broad ban on anyone who was in South Korea over the previous two weeks. Israel is also blocking entry for people who were recently in Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore and, of course, China.

South Korea has the largest number of infections outside of China, and the number jumped Thursday by 505, taking the total to 1,766, with 13 dead. In Italy, there are now 528 cases, up 130% from Monday night. So far, 14 people are known to have died from COVID-19 in Italy.

Austria, France, Greece, Croatia, and Switzerland have all reported COVID-19 cases involving people who traveled to Italy.

Israel may be the first country to outright block people from entering on flights from Italy, but it is not the only country to be shunning people from South Korea; Bahrain and Jordan have done the same. Outside the Middle East, countries including the U.K. and Ethiopia have told travelers from South Korea to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The American territory of Samoa has done the same for people coming from South Korea, Japan, China and Singapore, and the U.S. military has restricted non-essential travel to South Korea. The U.S. itself has yet to introduce travel restrictions to and from South Korea and Italy, though President Donald Trump said Wednesday that such a move was being considered.

While Italy and South Korea provide conspicuous and serious examples of outbreaks, they are not the only countries where the coronavirus has appeared. All in all, infections by the virus have now been reported in 47 countries.

Iran has 245 confirmed infections and 26 deaths, and appears to be the hub from which the virus is spreading in the Middle East. Japan—where the government has just ordered all schools to shut for a month, as of next Monday—now has 186 cases and four deaths, not including the 700 cases and four deaths on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that is docked off Yokohama.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia, which so far has no reported coronavirus cases, took the unprecedented step of temporarily closing its borders to anyone—barring Saudi nationals—trying to undertake the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca or visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Tourists also cannot visit Saudi Arabia if they come from any country with a confirmed outbreak.

However, it is far from certain that turning people away at border crossings stops the virus’s spread. As French officials noted in the context of contagion from northern Italy, people manage to cross borders either way.

Countries including the U.S. and Germany are now starting to report cases where there is no clear source of infection. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned of a full-blown pandemic, while the governments of France and Germany are rolling out plans for dealing with coronavirus epidemics in their countries.

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