KUALA LUMPUR/JAKARTA/SYDNEY -- A number of countries are accelerating their efforts to evacuate citizens from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Malaysia is holding talks with the Chinese government to evacuate some 78 Malaysians from affected areas in Wuhan. Mahathir said a special aircraft will be prepared to bring Malaysians home in the event the Chinese authorities agree to let them leave Wuhan, which is under lockdown.
Mahathir said the Malaysians in the central Chinese city are facing a shortage of food and resources, which prompted the government to take steps to bring them home. "We are faced with a problem where Malaysians in Wuhan cannot get out of Wuhan, but we want to discuss and negotiate with the Chinese government, so that Malaysian citizens who are not ill can come back to Malaysia," he said.
Mahathir said although preliminary checks found no Malaysians with coronavirus symptoms, they would be subjected to a thorough check again when they arrive in Malaysia.
"And they will be checked when they reach Malaysia. If there is proof they are ill from coronavirus, or they were there long, we will quarantine these Malaysians before they are allowed to go back to their homes," he said, adding that the quarantine period will be 14 days.
Indonesia's Foreign Ministry told a news conference on Wednesday that the government is finalizing plans to evacuate Indonesian nationals in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located. "The foreign minister has asked the Indonesian ambassador in China to coordinate with the Chinese government so that the Chinese authorities can facilitate the evacuation process in Hubei," said Teuku Faizasyah, the spokesperson.
According to the ministry, there are 243 Indonesians in Hubei, around 100 of whom are in Wuhan. The government needs to figure out ways to "ensure that those in Hubei can be gathered and sent [home]" before finalizing the plan, Faizasyah said. "The distances [within Hubei] are quite far. Some are 500 km away. ... We are talking about a large area that requires coordination, not only in the internal area but also in the field."
Separately, the Indonesian Air Force wrote on Twitter that it has readied three aircraft for evacuations.
Earlier Wednesday, Australia revealed plans to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that Australian nationals brought back from Wuhan will be quarantined on Christmas Island. The quarantine is expected to last for about 14 days, considering the incubation period of the deadly virus.
While the government is preparing a chartered flight, he said Australia is in talks with China to determine when an evacuation can take place.
Christmas Island is about 2,600 km northwest of Perth and has a population of around 1,800. According to the Australian government, there are over 600 of its citizens in Hubei Province.
On Wednesday, Japan brought back 206 citizens from Wuhan, five of whom were taken to hospitals as they said they were not feeling well.
The U.S. also evacuated its citizens on Wednesday. According to flight-tracking website Flightradar24, a U.S. cargo plane left Wuhan minutes before the Japanese plane, heading for Anchorage, Alaska, where it will refuel before flying to Ontario, California. A State Department spokesperson confirmed the plane had taken off.
South Korea and India are also planning to evacuate their citizens out of Wuhan.
The Chinese government said Wednesday the death toll from the virus has reached 132 out of 5,974 cases.
There are confirmed cases in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Singapore, Nepal, Hong Kong, Macao, France, Germany, Canada, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S.
Additional reporting by Fumi Matsumoto in Sydney and Ismi Damayanti in Jakarta.