By now you’ve probably heard about coronavirus, a new virus that started in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and has spread at an alarming rate around the world. I’ve received a number of emails from concerned travelers with plans to visit China. It’s a valid question: Should travelers cancel their plans to visit China because of the coronavirus?
Let me begin by saying that I am not a health expert, nor am I a doctor. What I am about to share with you is information based on past experience (the SARS epidemic), information being published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and notices given by the US State Department.
As of mid-February 2020, China has reported tens of thousands of coronavirus cases and thousands of deaths. While it has spread all across China and the globe, the majority of these cases are in a city in central China called Wuhan 武汉.
It’s natural to be concerned about this kind of news, so let’s go over some key pieces of information about the coronavirus China scare before we get to my recommendations for China travelers.
Coronavirus China: The Important Details
As with the SARS outbreak in 2003, ground zero for this strain of the coronavirus in China was believed to have started in a meat market. These massive, often unsanitary markets are a prime breeding ground for these kinds of viruses.
Notice for Travelers
This particular market in Wuhan has been closed down, but they exist in almost every city across China.
According to health officials, it is unclear exactly how the virus is spreading, although it seems that person-to-person spread is happening.
While the virus has spread to different parts of China and across the globe, the vast majority of those affected is in Wuhan.
Where is Wuhan, China?
Wuhan (武汉) is the largest city and capital of the Hubei province (湖北省) in central China.
For most tourists, the only reason you would stop in Wuhan is while cruising along the Yangze River. It’s a major port city with cruise boats and ferries that travel in every direction.
It’s even one of the many cities in China that allows for a 144-hour visa-free transit in China.
Wuhan is more than 1,000km away from Beijing and 800+km away from Shanghai.
What to Expect When Traveling to China Right Now
The fact that China has admitted to this health scare is an indication of how serious it actually is. Early on, China even sent out a warning to city officials not to cover up the numbers (which, as you can infer, they would be prone to do).
So what does this mean for you as a tourist or business traveler to China?
First, you should expect a lot of extra health screening as you enter or exit China – if you’re even allowed to go at all right now. All of Hubei is off limits right now after the government took the extreme measure of locking down the entire city of Wuhan.
You will be subjected to extra health screenings at airports, seaports, train stations and probably many other major public places.
On the CDC webpage on the Coronavirus, a Level 3 alert has been given (upgraded from a Level 2 earlier in the year). While this doesn’t prevent people from traveling to China, it does ask that you avoid any nonessential travel.
Meanwhile, the US State Department has upgraded it’s Level 2 China travel advisory to a Level 4. This is the same level as North Korea and Iraq, and the government’s strongest way of saying “Do not travel”.
Because of the sensitive nature of this virus, you’ll find that even on your return from China, you’ll still be subjected to increased health screenings and possibly a quarantine.
Bottom Line: Obviously, this is not a health scare you can simply ignore. These viruses pose a real threat and it’s absolutely worth cancelling your trip if you’re schedule to arrive anytime in the next two months.
Recommendation for China Travelers
If you absolutely must travel to China right now (and honestly, I can’t imagine many cases where it’s a must), here are a few recommendations and precautions you can take:
- Avoid Anywhere Near Wuhan or the Hubei Province: At this point you won’t be able to enter Hubei anyway, but even getting near the province will cause difficulty.
- Avoid Sick People and Animals: Try to avoid hospitals and don’t go to places where there are animals, either alive or as uncooked meat. If you do go to a hospital or you’re particularly worried about the virus, wear a good antiviral face mask (not just a pollution mask).
- Wash Your Hands Constantly: I recommend you buy and take with you some travel-sized, alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Not all bathrooms in China have soap you can use, so you need to come prepared.
- Monitor Your Health: Listen carefully to what your body is telling you while you’re traveling. Do you feel sick? Have a cough? Do you have a fever? If so, don’t be flippant about it. Get to a hospital.
Should you just cancel your travel plans for China?
If you’re traveling in the next two months, then yes, you should cancel.
Thankfully, according to most travelers I speak with, airlines are giving full refunds on flights to China without any questions asked.
If your travel plans are 3+ months out, try not to overreact.
If you have time, it’s best to wait and see how things pan out.
Take some time to see how things develop over the next few months. It could be that this coronavirus gets contained. I pray this is true.
Keep an eye on the CDC website to see what they say. And consult your doctor if you’re still unsure. And remember, although I do recommend that you buy a good pollution mask before traveling to China, these masks generally don’t block viruses. You’ll need a surgical antivirus mask for that.
For those who do end up canceling their trips, hopefully you can get a full refund on your tickets. This is yet another reason why good travel insurance for China is a must.