Worried that international travelers might trigger a second wave of coronavirus infections, China announced late Thursday night that it was suspending practically all entry to the country by foreigners and was halting almost all international passenger flights as well.
The announcement came after official Chinese data indicated that the country had almost completely halted domestic transmission of the virus but was struggling to handle a growing number of people who were infected overseas.
Foreign residents of China and foreigners with previously issued visas will no longer be allowed to enter the country as of midnight Friday, China’s foreign ministry declared late Thursday. The announcement represents one of the most comprehensive international travel bans imposed anywhere in the world, as governments try to slow the spread of the coronavirus that has already infected more than a half 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 from other countries to keep coming and going, even as they restricted most other arrivals. President Trump’s travel ban on China on Jan. 31 also exempted immediate family members of American citizens.
China’s more stringent travel ban has only a handful of exceptions, notably 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 would be considered “for necessary economic, trade, scientific or technological activities or out of emergency humanitarian needs,” the ministry said.
“The suspension is a temporary measure that China is compelled to take in light of the outbreak situation and the practices of other countries,” the ministry added.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China issued a separate announcement ordering that each domestic or foreign airline only operate a single passenger flight into China each week until further notice.
Fully 90 percent of the people now coming to China are returning Chinese citizens, Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui told reporters in Beijing earlier on Thursday, and the sharp reduction in flights will make it much harder for them to go home. Even before the latest measures, Beijing had tried in recent days to discourage overseas Chinese from coming back
The government has done so through measures like insisting that recent arrivals would have to pay for their hotel rooms during mandatory 14-day quarantines. Beijing has also threatened that the country’s labyrinth of government-run health insurance systems might not cover coronavirus infections acquired overseas.
The halt to almost all international passenger flights in and out of China will make it even harder for other countries to import N95 respirators, disposable surgical masks and other personal protection gear from China for their own doctors and nurses. About half the world’s airfreight typically moves in the bellies of passenger aircraft, while the rest travels aboard air freighters.
Previous, large-scale cancellations of passenger air services to China have already created an acute shortage of air cargo capacity over the past two weeks. Most Chinese factories have reopened.
Businesses around the world have been rushing to book space on the available air freighters so as to quickly refill supply chains that usually rely on ships. Many of these supply chains had emptied during the four to six weeks that much of the manufacturing in China was shuttered as Beijing clamped down on economic activity to control the virus.
The effectiveness of international travel bans is contentious. President Trump said on Wednesday that while many of his health advisers had opposed his ban affecting most travel from China, “if we didn’t do that, thousands and thousands of people would have died.”
Mr. Trump’s travel ban on China had been strenuously opposed through February by senior Chinese officials, who called repeatedly for it to be removed. Many affluent or politically connected Chinese families send their children to the United States for university, and sometimes for high school as well. The travel ban disrupted their educations.
But flights back to China have been jammed over the past week as the epidemic has mushroomed in the United States and has started to spread beyond cities that receive a lot of international travelers, including New York, Seattle and San Francisco. Mr. Luo said that 40 percent of the Chinese passport holders coming back in recent days were returning students.
China’s National Health Commission said earlier on Thursday that all 67 new coronavirus cases officially reported across the country on Wednesday were people who had been infected overseas, as were all 47 reported the previous day.