Asia reaches crossroads in fight against coronavirus as cases surge


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SYDNEY (Reuters) – Countries across the Asia-Pacific region reported record new coronavirus numbers and fresh outbreaks on Monday, with Japan facing mounting pressure to reimpose a state of emergency and South Korea warning it was at a “critical crossroads”.
The resurgence of the virus in Asia comes as travel restrictions are gradually being eased in the region and it will dampens prospects for broader reopening that would boost the recovery underway in economies such as Japan.
New daily cases in Japan reached a record 1,722 on Saturday, with hot spots in the northern island of Hokkaido and the western prefectures of Hyogo and Osaka. In Tokyo, cases have neared 400 in recent days, levels not seen since early August.
Analysts expect rising infections to slow the recovery in the world’s third-biggest economy, which grew at the fastest pace on record in the third quarter.
Desperate to maintain the economic momentum, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Friday the situation did not warrant the reimposition of a state of emergency or a halt to the government’s campaign to encourage domestic travel and tourism.
Japan first adopted a state of emergency in April and lifted it the following month. Since then, Tokyo has eased restrictions to boost the economy and prepare for next year’s postponed Olympic Games.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach met Suga on Monday and said he was “very, very confident” that spectators would be able to safely watch the Games in stadiums.
News of a potentially successful vaccine from Pfizer Inc has fuelled optimism that the Games can go ahead as planned next year.
In South Korea, officials reported more than 200 new coronavirus cases for the third consecutive day on Monday, as the government considers tightening social distancing.
“We are at a critical crossroads where we might have to readjust distancing,” South Korean Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said.
“The current situation is taking a very dangerous turn considering the rising infections from daily lives and the unrelenting pace of the spread.”
In Australia, 14 new cases were reported in South Australia on Monday after a months-long streak of no infections in the state ended on the weekend. One official said the cluster was likely connected to a hotel for quarantined travellers.
Several other states imposed new border restrictions as the outbreak threatened Australia’s strong record of controlling the disease, with several days of no new infections reported nationally this month.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new cases were “a reminder, even after a lockdown, even after all this time, the virus hasn’t gone anywhere”.
India said on Sunday it would fly doctors from other regions into the capital, New Delhi, and double testing rates to contain record case numbers in the city of 20 million people.
While India’s daily increase in cases has been under the 50,000 mark for eight straight days, about half the peak, Delhi has recorded more than 7,000 daily infections in recent days – a record level.
Indonesia, which has the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia, has reported new spikes after signs infection rates were plateauing in recent weeks. It announced a record daily jump of 5,444 infections on Friday.
Mainland China, where the pandemic began late last year, reported eight new infections on Sunday, down from 13 a day earlier. China’s last significant outbreak died down this month.
Beijing is ramping up testing of frozen food after repeatedly detecting the virus on imported products, even though the World Health Organization says the risk of catching COVID-19 from frozen food is low.
Taiwan, which has kept the pandemic well under control, is expected to announce tougher measures this week after a rise in positive cases imported from abroad.
Taiwan reported eight new cases on Friday, all imported, the highest in a single day since April 19.
(Reporting by Asia-Pacific bureaus; Writing by Stephen Coates; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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