Minimizing Risk in a Global Panic


The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Jamie Tarabay, a correspondent in the Australia bureau.

SYDNEY, Australia — As someone who has been living between Hong Kong and Sydney for the past few months, I have been engaged in a relentless, entirely circular conversation with family, friends and colleagues about the coronavirus that sprang into the global consciousness a couple of weeks ago and since then has claimed at least 563 lives, while sickening more than 28,000 others.

For people in Hong Kong, where the government still hesitates to act without the blessing of Beijing, the risks of exposure are higher. Some friends recalled being in Hong Kong during the SARS crisis, as we speculated how long schools would remain closed and wondered if the city, which has already known so much tumult over the past nine months, would ever truly recover.

Many people we know did what we did: got out of Dodge, children in tow, to where the air was microbe-free and public transport devoid of the face mask parade. Others have to stay for work, for elderly relatives, or because they do not have the means to leave. There’s a run on everything from hand sanitizer to toilet paper, and most residents are urged to work from home, if they can.

The scale of the virus and its impact remains a guessing game. Will the number of sick people explode, now that the Lunar New Year celebrations are over and everyone is back at work? Will Hong Kong finally close all its border checkpoints with China, as so many people are demanding?

Some public health nurses have vowed to remain on strike until that happens. Will more airlines equate the threat from Hong Kong with that from China, and ban all flights?

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • What do you need to know? Start here.

    Updated Feb. 5, 2020

    • Where has the virus spread?
      You can track its movementwith this map.
    • How is the United States being affected?
      There have been at least a dozen cases. American citizens and permanent residents who fly to the United States from China are now subject to a two-week quarantine.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      Several countries, including the United States, have discouraged travel to China, and several airlines have canceled flights.Many travelers have been left in limbo while looking to change or cancel bookings.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands is the most important thing you can do.

On Thursday, Virgin Australia announced an end to its Hong Kong flights. United and American Airlines have already said they would suspend service to the city, as have Italian and Philippine carriers.

It’s one thing to be able to engage in this guessing game from the safety of another country, even as Australia registers its 14th coronavirus patient and Australian citizens are airlifted from Wuhan, China, into quarantine on Christmas Island, more than 1,500 kilometers off the Australian coast.

It’s another thing entirely to be stuck in Wuhan itself, the epicenter of the outbreak, where there is no recourse and no escape. My colleagues on the ground have reported on a city of 11 million that’s become a ghost town, and a new series we’re producing called Inside the Outbreak looks at individuals coping with the crisis.

As we watch the outbreak from afar, and see how far the virus travels, I acknowledge the privilege I have of being able to do so in relative safety. Millions of people do not have that choice.

If you’re directly affected by the virus, in Australia or elsewhere, we want to hear from you: Email us at [email protected].

Now here are our stories of the week from the region and the world.

Australia and New Zealand

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