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Expats across China flee as virus fears mount

By Engen Tham and Josh HORWITZ

By Engen Tham and Josh Horwitz

SHANGHAI, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Expatriates are leaving coronavirus-hit China - and not just from the outbreak epicentre in Wuhan - as worries about their children take hold and private health care facilities start turning away the feverish.

Some foreigners also fear being trapped indefinitely as airlines cancel flights and countries quarantine or limit entry for people who have recently set foot in the country, according to interviews with eight people who are or were based in four Chinese cities.

A growing number of governments are urging their citizens not to travel to China and the United Kingdom said on Saturday its embassy and consulates in the country will maintain only a skeleton staff.

"It may be increasingly difficult for those who wish to leave China to do so, and there is a growing risk of UK nationals being unable to access medical care as hospitals become overwhelmed," the British embassy said on Saturday.

The virus, declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday, has killed 259 people and spread to some two dozen countries, although the vast majority of those known to be infected are in China.

Expat chatgroups are alight with exchanges on the pros and cons of leaving, and tips on visas.

"Wouldn't go if we didn't have kid," Russian expat Maria Arkhangelskaya, who has a 20-month-old daughter and left Shanghai for Thailand on Thursday, said via WeChat.

Meanwhile, many of the costly private clinics catering to foreigners have started to turn people with fevers away, raising concerns among the expat community they would have to rely on local facilities if they needed medical care.

"I don't want to go to the local hospital with a sore throat only to catch something else," said Czech national Veronika Krubner in Tianjin, who is considering leaving the country with her 21-month-old daughter.

Private clinic Raffles in Beijing will take the temperature of patients on entry and suspected virus cases will be referred to public fever clinics, a person answering the appointments hotline said.

People manning the appointment lines at private practices Parkway Health and Ferguson in Shanghai said the government had instructed them not to accept patients with a high temperature, and that they should be referred to public fever clinics.

Private clinic Jiahui Health said in a January 24 text message to patients in Shanghai that it cannot screen for the virus and those who have a fever of over 37.8 degrees Celsius (100° Fahrenheit) should go to a public facility designated for treating fever patients.

Visiting a public hospital in China can mean first waiting in line to get a ticket to see a doctor, only to wait in an another hours-long queue before being seen, and language is a barrier for non-Chinese speakers. Harrowing scenes of panicked crowds in Wuhan hospitals have circulated on social media.

One U.S. citizen who is based in Shanghai and asked not to be identified said he flew home to California last week.

"I'm not worried so much about the virus as I am about being forced to go to a Chinese hospital simply for having a fever," he said.

Over 900,000 foreigners were living in China last year, according to a January 2019 report in the official China Daily.


GROUNDING FEARS

The WHO has praised China for its response to the outbreak thus far.

Many areas of China have extended the Lunar New Year holiday through Feb 9, and companies have curtailed business travel.

There is "no business to do in China for at least two weeks," said Louis-Olivier Roy, a Canadian business-owner based in the southern city of Dongguan who decided on Tuesday to return home temporarily.

"I was planning to travel around for work but obviously can't for a while," he said.

As airlines cancel flights, many expats are trying to get away, afraid of being effectively stranded in the country.

The United States, Australia and Singapore have barred entry to foreigners who have recently been in China.

"If the problem got severe enough I might not be able to make it back to America," said another American, who flew home on Jan 24 to avoid the possibility of mass flight cancellations.


VIRUS FATIGUE

As anxiety rises, demand for emotional support is soaring.

"People are really scared," said Emanuele Gatti, a counselling psychologist based in the southern city of Shenzhen.

After sending out a flyer for an online coronavirus support group for those suffering "severe anxiety and isolation" on Wednesday, he was inundated with requests on Thursday.

"I am receiving 1 friendship request per minute," he said on Thursday.

While some turn to online help, others are still trying to decide whether to stay or go.

"Everyone is going and I just get messages asking me if I've booked my flight yet," said Han Lili, a British national living in Shanghai.

(Reporting by Engen Tham, Josh Horowitz and David Stanway in Shanghai, Muyu Xu in Beijing and Ben Blanchard in Taipei Editing by Tony Munroe and Lincoln Feast.)