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Australia says ‘no longer possible’ to stop COVID-19 spread from overseas

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Australia’s chief medical officer said on Monday it was no longer possible to completely prevent people with the coronavirus from entering the country, citing concerns about outbreaks in Japan and South Korea.

Australia, one of the first countries to put restrictions on its borders in a bid to limit the spread of the virus, confirmed its first death from the disease on Sunday.

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“It is no longer possible to absolutely prevent new cases coming in,” Brendan Murphy, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, told reporters in Canberra.

“We have got concerns about Japan and South Korea. They are working hard to control their outbreaks but we are still concerned that people in those countries and other high risk countries may present with an infection.”

Australia has reported 29 cases of coronavirus, including the weekend death, but there has been no community transmission.

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The 78-year-old man who died was a passenger on the Diamond Princess ship that was held off Japan’s coast for weeks. The man and his wife, who also has the virus, were transferred back to Australia for treatment.

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Australia barred entry from Feb. 1 to any foreigners who had traveled through China in the two weeks prior to arriving in Australia. It extended that ban to Iran on Sunday.

Both bans are in force until at least March 7. Australian citizens and permanent residents are exempted.

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China, the epicenter of the outbreak, retains the bulk of the infections with more than 86,500 cases. However, it has since spread to 53 countries, with more than 6,500 cases and more than 100 deaths.

The majority of the deaths outside of China have come from outbreaks in recent days in South Korea, Italy and Iran.

Murphy said travel bans were “a way of slowing things down” as he urged any Australians returning from Italy or South Korea who work in the healthcare sector to self-quarantine for two weeks.

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However, he said the outbreaks in Italy and South Korea, while large, were confined and localized, meaning that further travel bans to Australia were not necessary.

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Thousands of Chinese visitors and students have been barred from entering Australia, damaging the country’s important tourism and education sectors at a critical time for the country’s A$2 trillion (US$1.31 trillion) economy.

Some economists have warned that economic growth could reverse in the current quarter if the epidemic becomes a pandemic, threatening the country’s almost three-decade long period of recession-free expansion.

(US$1 = 1.5291 Australian dollars)