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Japan extra careful in first infectious disease-triggered evacuation amid virus outbreak

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi announces the government's plan to send a charter plane to Wuhan, China, on the night of Jan. 28, 2020, for Japanese nationals staying in the city and elsewhere to flee the area amid a coronavirus outbreak, at the Diet building in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward earlier that same day. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government remained cautious as a chartered flight carried Japanese nationals home from China's Hubei province, the source of a new coronavirus outbreak, in its first large-scale evacuation responding to an infectious disease.

"Exactly how many people are on board and how many have a fever?" Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi asked a ministry official as he arrived at the Diet on the morning of Jan. 29 -- as the first batch of Japanese nationals arrived in Haneda Airport on a charter plane.

Motegi needed the information as rumors had spread within related ministries and agencies as well as among lawmakers that of the 206 passengers on board, the first charter plane to arrive from the outbreak epicenter of Wuhan, China, several were showing symptoms such as minor fevers and coughs.

A senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said, "I heard it was three (who have symptoms)," while another government official commented, "Two will be sent to hospital after they arrive," unveiling the government's not-so-well-planned evacuation arrangement.

The government had made sure that those who had a fever and other symptoms sat in the back of the plane, and asked people without the symptoms not to huddle up. To allow these precautions to be taken, All Nippon Airways Co. operated a Boeing 767 aircraft with maximum capacity of 270 passengers -- more than other planes in the series can hold.

A charter plane arriving from Wuhan, China, is seen at Tokyo's Haneda Airport on Jan. 29, 2020. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

Japan has past experience in arranging the evacuation of its citizens out of chaos in the past, including during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, the 1998 Indonesia riots, and other incidents. However, in these past events, the state's job was "to evacuate Japanese nationals out of the troubled area and that was it," a government source said.

This time, in its first large-scale evacuation triggered by a virus outbreak, the Japanese government was extra careful about preventing infections both during the flight and after Japanese citizens touched down, simply because it would defeat the purpose if evacuating Japanese people resulted in spread of the virus within the country.

While the Japanese government is trying to showcase its risk-management capabilities by executing an unprecedented evacuation plan, there is no denying that its initial response was slow. The city of Wuhan announced on Jan. 23 that all public transportation would be suspended, but in response, Tokyo merely called for Japanese nationals in the city to avoid large crowds.

Starting on the night of Jan. 24, however, the situation shifted. In addition to a sudden jump in the number of people infected with the new virus, the U.S. government began considering dispatching aircraft to evacuate Americans out of Wuhan. Tokyo then started mulling an evacuation plan seriously, and two days later, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Tokyo would bring home everyone who wished to come back to Japan.

That same night, Foreign Minister Motegi spoke to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the phone and gained his agreement in Japan's attempt to evacuate its citizens out of Wuhan.

On Jan. 27, 10 workers at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing entered locked-down Wuhan after traveling for 17 hours by land to conduct a survey on who wished to go back to Japan.

In the end, Japan was the second country to dispatch a charter plane to evacuate its citizens after the United States, but Tokyo's attempt to arrange the matter with Chinese authorities was met with difficulties until the last minute. The Japanese government at one point considered sending four planes including a government aircraft to bring home all Japanese citizens wishing to come back on Jan. 28, but Beijing was planning restrict the number of foreign charter planes from each country that could arrive in and leave from Wuhan each day.

At present, the Japanese government plans to use only privately operated planes to evacuate Japanese nationals, as China remains cautious about Japan's use of its government jet, which is operated by the Air Self-Defense Force, and because the government plane can only carry up to 100-plus passengers.

(Japanese original by Ryuko Tadokoro, Political News Department)

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