The outbreak of a deadly coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan has cast a pall over Korean companies operating offices there, with some firms evacuating staff and suspending business trips, according to industry sources Monday.
Currently, some 600 South Koreans reside in Wuhan, Hubei province, which also hosts local offices of Posco, SK Global Chemical, Hyundai Wia and LG Hausys.
As of Monday afternoon, the official count of confirmed cases across China stood at 2,744.
SK Global Chemical, which operates a manufacturing facility in Wuhan, said it had evacuated its 10 Korean workers there and sent them back home, and was also controlling employees’ business trips to Wuhan.
The company said it has also offered emergency kits and masks to all local workers and closed down the cafeteria.
Posco, which runs a manufacturing facility in Wuhan, said it has suspended employees’ business trips to other Chinese cities.
The firm said it has activated safety guidelines for workers there that include the installation of hand sanitizers in working areas, checking temperatures of all employees and conducting quarantine measures.
Hyundai Wia, which has a sales branch in the city, said it had forbidden all travel to other cities for business trips, although all its employees are Chinese.
Following the Chinese authorities’ shutdown of the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport as a preventive measure, flagship carrier Korean Air said it would not run its weekly Incheon-Wuhan route this week. The air carrier said resumption of the route will be decided based on Chinese authorities’ further measures.
Low-cost carrier T’Way has also delayed operation of its Incheon-Wuhan route, which was to kick off Jan. 21.
Other airlines, including Asiana Airlines, Korean Air and Jeju Air, began offering masks to all employees working at departure counters and flight attendants on routes to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
It is unprecedented for air carriers to allow staff to wear masks during service. Previously airlines disallowed it, worried that flight attendants wearing masks can create anxiety among passengers on board.
Media reports said Monday that government officials were reportedly finalizing a plan to transport South Korean citizens from Wuhan, by arranging a charter flight via Korean Air or Asiana Airlines with some 300 seats.
In 2015, the government chartered a Korean Air plane to transport 101 Korean citizens from Nepal, where a devastating earthquake hit the Nepali capital Kathmandu.
Government sources said that transportation of citizens from Wuhan is expected to take place within this week at earliest.
Meanwhile, companies that have offices outside Hubei province have also been keen on preventive measures due to the rapidly spreading virus.
Hyundai Motor Group, which operates Kia Motors’ joint venture manufacturing facility in Yancheng, Jiangsu province, said it has prepared scenarios to decide on response to any outbreak in the region and shared emergency contacts of workers from Chinese subsidiaries.
LG Display, which had planned to operate its 8.5-Gen organic light-emitting diode panel production facility in Guangzhou late last year, said it has been notifying its staff of guidelines for prevention of infection and to alert the company when visiting China.
LG Electronics, whose employees frequently travel to major Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, said it has forbidden business trips to Wuhan from mid-January.
With the virus spreading fast, people are rushing to prepare against possible infections. As in China and other parts of the world, sales of protective gear and disinfectants products, such as face masks and hand sanitizers, have also surged in Korea.
According to eBay Korea, its online shopping platform Auction saw sales of masks increase 58 percent for the period of Jan. 20-22, compared to the same period a week prior.
Sales of anti-dust and anti-influenza masks -- with stronger filters for airborne particles -- soared 71 percent, and hand sanitizers by 27 percent. Anti-bacterial sprays and tissues were also popular, seeing an increase of 32 percent.
When compared to the same period a month earlier, sales of masks overall skyrocketed 153 percent at Auction, eBay Korea said.
Gmarket, another online marketplace operated by eBay Korea, also sold more of such protective gear in the same period, on comparison by week and month. Sales of anti-dust and influenza masks soared 274 percent, and hand sanitizers saw an increase in sales of 251 percent Jan. 20-22, compared to sales data from Dec. 20-22.
The epicenter of the contagious disease, China is experiencing severe mask shortages, according to news reports. Face mask manufacturers there are reportedly reopening factories during the national holiday period to supply soaring demand, while the government and firms have pledged to watch out for vendors attempting to gouge on prices of the products.
By Kim Da-sol and Jo He-rim