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Japanese evacuated from Wuhan describe fear in virus epicentre

Miwa SUZUKI
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Japan dispatched a first charter flight to Wuhan on Tuesday night, with 206 people arriving in Tokyo on Wednesday morning

Japanese citizens evacuated from the epicentre of a deadly virus outbreak described an atmosphere of fear and confusion in the Chinese city and expressed relief as they arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday.

A total of 206 Japanese citizens landed at Tokyo's Haneda airport from Wuhan on Wednesday morning, with health professionals carrying out checks on board and at the airport.

No mandatory quarantine was planned, but five passengers who said they felt unwell were hospitalised on arrival, with two diagnosed with pneumonia.

The health ministry said seven more people who showed flu-like symptoms during checkups later at a disease prevention centre would also be admitted to hospitals.

The flight arrived as several other countries worked to extract their nationals from Wuhan, with an American charter flight also leaving the city on Wednesday bound for an airport in the Los Angeles area.

Takeo Aoyama, a Nippon Steel employee who arrived on the evacuation flight, described confusion in Wuhan, with travel restrictions meant to contain the virus making it hard for those in the epicentre to know what was happening.

"The number of patients began increasing rapidly at a certain point. That was very worrying," he told reporters at the airport.

"We were not able to move freely, so we only had partial information. The restrictions on the flow of goods and transport were extremely strict."

- 'Very alarmed' -

He said food was available, but supply was uncertain -- with shops selling out on some days.

"It wasn't a situation where we couldn't get anything at all. But it wasn't a situation where you could get anything freely, either," Aoyama said.

Takayuki Kato, who worked in Wuhan for the firm Intec, said the atmosphere inside the city changed as the scale of the crisis became clear.

"Everyone in the city began wearing masks. On the 23rd, when transport was shut down, I became very alarmed," he said.

The evacuation had gone smoothly, he added. The flight "was quiet. People were cool-headed".

The Japan flight arrived in Wuhan overnight, carrying emergency relief supplies including 15,000 masks, 50,000 pairs of gloves and 8,000 protective glasses, the foreign ministry said.

Four medical officials were also on board to monitor returning passengers and administer health questionnaires.

- 'Self-quarantine' -

All passengers will be tested for the new strain of coronavirus but a health ministry official said it would take time for the results.

"Usually it takes one to two days but this is a new virus so we haven't been able to process enough tests," he said.

While there were no plans to confine the arrivals, the evacuees were asked to remain at home in "self-quarantine" at least until the results of their tests were known, officials said.

Japanese officials said there is no legal basis to forcibly quarantine people who have not tested positive.

The health ministry has so far confirmed eight cases of the virus in Japan, including one man who had not travelled to China and a female colleague.

The man, from the western region of Nara, had driven a tour bus with tourists from Wuhan twice in January, the health ministry said.

A woman working as a guide on the bus has also been infected, officials said.

Around 650 Japanese nationals have asked to be repatriated from Wuhan, and the government sent another chartered flight on Wednesday night.

About 200 Japanese are expected to return Thursday morning, they said.

Chinese authorities said Wednesday that the number of confirmed deaths in the outbreak has risen to 132 nationwide, with the confirmed total of infections now nearly 6,000.

Japan's All Nippon Airways said Wednesday it would extend the cancellation of its daily direct flight to Wuhan through the end of February.

bur-mis-hih-kh/nf/fox