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Virus spreads far, wide; 2,600 dead

Outbreaks fanning fears of pandemic

The deadly new coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic spread further outside China on Monday with a surge of infections in South Korea making it the biggest hotspot abroad, while authorities in Europe and the Middle East battled worsening outbreaks.

READ: Pinoys cautioned against travel to South Korea; infections rising

Virus spreads far, wide; 2,600 dead

The number of fatalities in China also continued to soar, with 150 more confirmed deaths taking the official death toll to nearly 2,600.

Chinese authorities insist they are making progress in containing the virus, citing slowing infection rates thanks to unprecedented travel lockdowns and quarantines in or near the outbreak’s epicenter.

But a rising number of new cases and deaths in other parts of the world have deepened fears about a potential pandemic, with South Korea, Italy and Iran emerging over the past week on the frontlines.

Bahrain and Kuwait also announced on Monday their first cases of the virus, as authorities in the Middle East sought to clamp down on people traveling and spreading the disease following eight deaths in Iran.

South Korea has seen a rapid surge in infections since a cluster emerged from a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu last week.

Another 231 infections and two more deaths were reported in South Korea on Monday, bringing the total cases to more than 830 people—the most outside China.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in over the weekend raised the country’s virus alert to the highest “red” level, as kindergarten and school holidays were extended nationally.

The start of the new K-league football season, scheduled for this weekend, was also postponed on Monday.

At the main high-speed train station in Daegu, a normally bustling city of 2.5 million people, just a small trickle of commuters were seen.

A long line of cabs waited for passengers outside the station, and the streets were eerily still, with masks and gloves standard for the few out and about.

Italy reported Monday its fifth death from the new coronavirus. The death of an 84-year-old man was the fourth in the northern Lombardy region, as the number of people contracting the virus continued to mount.

It was the third death in Lombardy, where villages have been put in lockdown and security measures enforced in a bid to stem the spread of the disease, the region’s health department said.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said that residents could face weeks of lockdown in an effort to sit out the virus.

The president of the Lombardy region Attilo Fontana said 165 people had now tested positive in the region, the worst-hit zone in Italy.

The country now has the most confirmed cases in Europe.

“The number is still rising, but we are sure that the measures taken will prevent it spreading further,” Fontana said.

Eleven towns—10 in Lombardy and one in neighboring Veneto—are under lockdown, with some 50,000 residents prohibited from leaving.

Several Serie A football games were postponed while the Venice Carnival was cut short and some runway shows were canceled at Milan Fashion Week.

In Iran, authorities ordered the closure of schools, universities, and cultural centers across 14 provinces following eight deaths—the most outside East Asia.

The outbreak in the Islamic Republic surfaced on Wednesday last week and quickly grew to 47 confirmed infections, prompting neighboring countries to close their borders. Health officials there reported that 12 people have died of the disease.

Nearly 30 people outside of China have been confirmed to have died after contracting the virus. Nearly 30 countries have reported infections.

In China, the confirmed death toll stood at 2,592 on Monday after 150 more people died of the virus.

The number of confirmed new cases fell compared with the previous day to 409, taking the country’s total infections over 77,000.

Authorities in Wuhan on Monday reversed a decision that would have allowed some people to leave the quarantined city at the center of China’s deadly virus epidemic, and reprimanded officials who had made the announcement.

The city government said in a statement that the previous announcement had been made by a traffic prevention and control group “without the consent” of the local leadership.

Wuhan’s government deleted the previous post that had announced the easing of restrictions barely three hours earlier.

The city of 11 million has been under lockdown since Jan. 23 after authorities shut down transport links into and out of the city in an effort to contain the new coronavirus outbreak.

The now-scrapped decision would have allowed non-residents to leave if they show no symptoms of the new coronavirus and have never had contact with patients, the deleted statement said.

People with special reasons to leave the city, including those who needed treatment for other medical conditions and those doing epidemic prevention work, would also have been allowed to exit.

In Japan, a third person from a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship quarantined off Yokohama has died, the health ministry said Sunday, as new infections among former passengers emerged.

Japan has been criticized in the face of mounting evidence that the quarantine imposed on the Diamond Princess did little to stop the virus spreading.

More than 20 foreigners evacuated from the vessel have also tested positive after returning home and on Sunday, authorities admitted a Japanese passenger—allowed to disembark after receiving a clean bill of health—had also tested positive for the virus.

READ: 30 more Filipinos on ship infected

A Japanese man in his 80s passed away from pneumonia after being taken off the ship, the health ministry said Sunday.

Two elderly passengers died on Thursday after contracting the virus.

Nearly 1,000 passengers were allowed to leave the ship this week after testing negative, but there are now serious concerns about their status.

Among them was a woman in her 60s, who returned home to Tochigi prefecture north of Tokyo by train after disembarking the ship on Wednesday. She later developed a fever and tested positive on Saturday, a local official said.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato admitted Saturday 23 passengers were released without being tested for the virus during the quarantine period.

“There has been a judgment that those who disembarked after testing negative had no problem, but it has now become clear that those people can turn positive,” Tochigi governor Tomokazu Fukuda told reporters, urging “additional measures” to contain the spread.

On Sunday, Kato said he took the latest case “seriously and will strengthen follow-up of passengers,” with daily phone calls from local health officials and by asking them to not make any unnecessary outings or use public transport.

Those leaving the ship had already been asked to limit travel and wear a mask in public, raising questions about whether the authorities themselves believed a 14-day on-ship quarantine had indeed prevented the spread of the virus.

Still left on the ship are some travelers waiting for charter flights home and roughly 1,000 crew—most of whom were not placed in isolation as they were needed to operate the Diamond Princess. About half the crew were Filipinos.

Critics suspect they were inadvertently spreading the virus throughout the vessel, which saw more than 600 cases of the COVID-19 disease. 

Kato has defended Japan’s on-board quarantine, telling a TV program Saturday there was no medical facility large enough to admit more than 3,000 people at once.

But the decision of several foreign governments to evacuate their citizens, and stinging criticism by an infectious diseases specialist who described the quarantine on board as “completely chaotic”, have undermined Japan’s case.

Separately, Japan has confirmed at least 132 cases of infection—including returnees from the Chinese city of Wuhan. In many cases, authorities have not been able to trace how people got infected.

“As we are seeing cases in which we don’t know the infection route, now is an important phase in preventing mass infection,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told his ministers on Sunday at a meeting to discuss counter-measures against the virus.

The government has already urged people to avoid large gatherings, and Tokyo’s government has canceled some large public events over virus fears.

Afghanistan, Kuwait and Bahrain confirmed their first cases of COVID-19 on Monday. The two Gulf states said those infected had come from Iran.

Last week, Kuwait announced a ban on entry of all ships from the Islamic republic and enforced a ban on flights to and from the country.

Thousands of Bahraini and Kuwaiti Shiite Muslims travel to Iran frequently to visit holy sites.

The virus is taking an increasingly heavy toll on the global economy, with many factories in China closed or subdued due to quarantines, and global travel choked.

Stock markets in Asia fell on Monday following the surge in infections in South Korea and weekend developments across Europe and the Middle East.

“While the coronavirus is probably slowing in China, it is speeding up elsewhere,” said Charles Gillams, at RJMG Asset Management.

The International Monetary Fund warned Sunday that the epidemic was putting a “fragile” global economic recovery at risk.

G20 financial chiefs also voiced concern about its ripple effects around the world.

Only about 30 percent of China’s small- and medium-sized enterprises have resumed work, an official said Monday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping acknowledged Sunday that the virus had become the country’s “largest public health emergency” since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

“This is a crisis for us and it is a big test,” Xi said in comments reported by state television.

Officials are expected to decide Monday whether to postpone China’s annual parliament meeting for the first time since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. 

READ: SE Asian tourism takes a hit as outbreak deepens

READ: Nations take drastic steps to rim spread

Topics: new coronavirus , Moon Jae-in , Attilo Fontana , death toll , Charles Gillams
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