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Operation Wuhan: How US and Japan planned evacuations of citizens

Cheers erupt on American flight; Tokyo passengers ignite criticism

Personnel in protective clothing approach an aircraft, chartered by the U.S. State Department, after it arrived at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, California, on Jan. 29.   © Reuters

TOKYO/NEW YORK -- When the crew of Kalitta Air flight K4371 announced "Welcome home to the United States" upon arriving at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Alaska on Wednesday morning, the "whole plane erupted in cheers," said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska's chief medical officer who was in charge of screening the passengers.

The cargo plane was fitted with temporary seats for U.S. diplomats, their families and a few American citizens who returned from Wuhan, a city in central China with a population of 11 million. The plane arrived in Alaska after a nine-and-a-half-hour flight. While it was only for refueling, there is little doubt that passengers were relieved.

When the plane reached its final destination at a military base in California after another five hours in the air, it joined an All Nippon Airways plane at Tokyo's Haneda Airport on Wednesday morning after the successful evacuation of citizens from Wuhan, the epicenter of the deadly virus.

But many aspects of the operations changed up until the last minute, including the destinations and number of planes. With little experience dealing with similar situations, governments faced unexpected hurdles, such as when two Japanese passengers refused health checkups upon arrival. They headed straight to their homes, igniting a barrage of criticism on social media as fears continued to grow over the virus that has sickened at least 6,000 people worldwide and killed more than 130 in mainland China.

Australia, France, the U.K., Germany, Canada and Russia are also arranging similar evacuations, each with differing lengths and methods of quarantining passengers until they are given the all clear.

Among other countries planning to evacuate their citizens, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that evacuees will initially be sent to Christmas Island, a remote Australian island near Indonesia, to be quarantined for two weeks.

The use of an immigration detention center on the island to prevent evacuees from mixing with the general public stands in contrast to Japan's measures. The U.K., which plans to repatriate its citizens from Wuhan on Thursday morning, also plans to isolate evacuees at a military base for around two weeks, according to the BBC.

Part of Japan's hesitation to forcefully quarantine its citizens stems from its past, when the government for years kept leprosy patients in compulsory seclusion, despite disease's low risk of transmission. "We have to think of human rights when handling infectious diseases," a health ministry official said.

The Kalitta Air flight departed Wuhan's Tianhe International Airport with a pilot dressed in full protective gear, a photo from China's Xinhua News Agency shows.

Kalitta is part of a company that has been flying special missions for the U.S. government for decades. The company has taken part in disaster relief efforts, including major hurricanes and 9/11, according to the Kalitta Charters website. It has also transported casualties of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

After its stop in Alaska, the plane arrived at the March Air Reserve Base near Riverside, California. The evacuation flight was initially announced as heading to San Francisco, but was changed to Ontario International Airport, a civilian airport near Los Angeles, before finally being rerouted to a military base.

Two Japanese businessmen speak to masked reporters at Tokyo's Haneda Airport upon returning to Japan on a government-chartered airplane. (Photo by Kento Awashima)

Meanwhile, ANA flight NH1952 carrying 206 Japanese nationals from Wuhan was Japan's first mass evacuation of its citizens from abroad to escape a disease outbreak.

The second flight of Wuhan evacuees arrived in Tokyo on Thursday morning, with 210 passengers. All will be screened and any exhibiting symptoms will be immediately hospitalized.

Health ministry officials confirmed on Thursday that three evacuees from the first flight were carrying the coronavirus.

The evacuations were the culmination of a week of intense preparations.

After Wuhan entered lockdown last Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had local officials from the Japan External Trade Organization begin gathering information on employees of Japanese companies seeking to return home.

Abe met with cabinet ministers the following day, calling on them to make every possible effort to ensure Japanese citizens' safety. He urged Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to open talks with the Chinese government about what measures to take, including a potential evacuation.

Officials weighed multiple possibilities, including chartered planes as well as buses to ferry people out of Wuhan and onto commercial flights from other airports.

But the level of urgency remained relatively low. "The situation is not yet at a point where an evacuation is necessary," a senior ministry official said on Friday.

Alarm grew over the weekend as coronavirus cases emerged in more countries and videos showing long lines of patients at Wuhan hospitals spread on social media. The Japanese government began to face accusations that it was acting too slowly -- not only from the public, but also from within Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, receives an explanation from his Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in Parliament on Monday. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai) 

On Sunday, Abe gathered senior officials including Yoshiki Okita, deputy chief cabinet secretary for crisis management, at his residence. They decided that night to send planes to pick up evacuees.

"Many, many people want to come back. Let's make sure they all can," Abe said.

The proposal reportedly met with concern that bringing potential virus carriers back from Wuhan would stoke fear at home. Abe made the final call.

The government will bring back "all the people who wish to return," he told reporters that day.

Motegi spoke by phone with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi three hours after the meeting, laying out Japan's evacuation plan and seeking China's cooperation. Wang expressed understanding to Japan's position.

This was Wang's first conversation with another foreign minister about dealing with the new virus, according to Beijing.

The call accelerated negotiations but did not clear all the hurdles faced by Tokyo.

After the plan was made public, an influx of calls were received from Japanese citizens who had escaped consular officials' notice and were now seeking to go back home. The government had counted 430 Japanese residents in Hubei Prefecture, where Wuhan is located, as of Sunday night, but the number of would-be evacuees jumped to 650 Tuesday morning.

Japan's Foreign Ministry began negotiating with Chinese authorities with an eye toward sending two ANA planes along with Japan's equivalent of Air Force One, aiming to bring back all the evacuees at once. But the U.S. and other countries were also looking into taking citizens home, and the lockdown had left the Wuhan airport with tight capacity and staffing constraints.

Ultimately, the Chinese side initially approved just one plane for Japan. The U.S. ended up with only one as well.

Restricted to a single flight, Tokyo opted for a charter jet with nearly double the capacity of the government-owned plane.

The negotiations wrapped up Tuesday morning. Motegi announced that a plane would take off that day.

Additional reporting by Yuko Nomura in New York.

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