South Korea on Friday ordered the closure of thousands of after-school academies and imposed restrictions on cafes and restaurants as coronavirus infections continued to soar despite 12 days of more intensive distancing measures.
South Korea imposed level two restrictions in the greater Seoul area on August 16 and on Sunday expanded those measures to the rest of the country.
Indoor gatherings of 50 or more and outdoor gatherings of 100 or more outdoors have consequently been banned. “High-risk” facilities such as bars and buffet restaurants have also been closed.
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Under the new measures announced on Friday, about 28,000 sports facilities will also be closed, 63,000 academies known as cram schools will be shut down, 380,000 eateries will be unable to operate after 9pm after coffee shops will be limited to takeaway service.
Seoul will be subject to a partial lockdown for eight days from Sunday, although the latest measures stop short of the most stringent level three restrictions, which would ban meetings of 10 or more people.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun described level three restrictions as “the choice of last resort given the economic and social ripple effect”.
Although Friday’s 371 new cases represented a significant drop from Thursday’s six-month high of 441, South Korea has now had 15 days in a row of at least 100 new infections daily.
“More than 10 days have passed since we upgraded quarantine measures to level two, but it remains uncertain when we may see the positive results,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said. “This is the last chance for us to prevent the virus from spreading across the country [without moving to level three restrictions].
“Level three restrictions will affect a much broader range of businesses and facilities than the measures we just announced and leave deep scars on the economy, livelihoods and daily life,” Park said.
“I once again plead to the people of our country – for yourself and for us, please remain in the safe space that is your home. Avoid contacting other people.”
Health workers have found it more difficult to contain the recent transmissions centred around the more densely populated capital, where clusters have been tied to churches, restaurants and schools. The country has added more than 4,300 infections to its caseload over the past 15 days, prompting concerns about overwhelming hospitals.
Korea Centres for Disease Control director Jeong Eun-kyeong said predictions based on models suggest the country could possibly record daily increases of 800 or even 2,000 as early as next week if the viral spread cannot be contained.
“If we fail to stop this trend, medical systems would collapse under exponential increases in infections,” Jeong said.
Japan grabs 521 million vaccine doses
Meanwhile, Japan is making an aggressive move to grab enough coronavirus vaccine to inoculate its population four times over, a push the government hopes will instil confidence that it can host a delayed Summer Olympics next year.
Like other rich countries, Japan is signing multiple deals because some of the vaccines could fail in clinical trials or require more than one dose.
But Japan has something else riding on a successful mass roll out of a vaccine: outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s aim to bring thousands of athletes and fans to Tokyo for the Games, postponed from this year due to the pandemic.
On the day he announced his resignation as premier, Abe sought to reassure domestic and foreign audiences that the coronavirus was under control. He pledged there would be enough vaccine for Japan by the middle of 2021 and said the nation would relax its travel ban from September 1.
Japan is on track to have 521 million doses of five different vaccines in 2021, compared with a population of 126 million. Recent deals include global arrangements with such drugmakers as Pfizer and AstraZeneca, as well as local deals with the likes of Shionogi & Co.
Some critics contend that Japan’s rush to secure supplies is driven largely by a political desire to show the world it is fully committed to the Games.
“The plan is, hope for a miracle and then capitalise on that miracle,” said Michael Cucek, a political science professor at Temple University Japan. “But the time frame for that is getting narrower and narrower.”
India cases hit new peak
Elsewhere, hundreds of masked protesters demonstrated in major Indian cities on Friday against a government plan to hold exams for millions of students during the pandemic, as the daily tally of infections hit a record.
The health ministry reported 77,266 infections, taking the nation’s tally to 3.3 million, with a toll of 61,529 deaths. India, with the most infections in Asia, has posted the highest single-day increase worldwide every day since August 7.
“Stop the exam during the pandemic,” read one placard carried by protesters in the eastern city of Kolkata, while others scuffled briefly with police in the western industrial city of Ahmedabad.
More than 2.4 million students are set to take tests next week for admission to medical and engineering schools, which the federal government has declined to defer, despite growing pressure from students and opposition parties.
“It’s important that the government listens to students,” Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Congress party, said in a video on social media, as he urged no compromises on the safety of students.
Usually held in April and May, the exams have already been postponed twice this year.
But some students want another delay, for fear of rising infections as well as difficulty travelling to exam centres because of virus-linked curbs on transport and lockdowns in some places.
However, further delays risk costing students the academic year, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal told the Times of India newspaper.
Australia’s hard-hit Victoria state on Friday recorded 113 new Covid-19 cases for a second consecutive day, with authorities warning that the infection rate will have to fall substantially if a six-week lockdown is to be relaxed on schedule on September 13.
The latest daily tallies are the lowest in more than eight weeks, with a peak of 725 in early August. The latest death toll dropped to 12 from 23 on Thursday. Authorities want daily infections to fall at least to low double-digits before they would consider relaxing restrictions.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said: “We’re clearly still trending in the right direction. ... It’s not gotten below 100 yet, I do expect that to happen, if not over the weekend, then by next week, if trends continue.”
Indonesia logged a record daily surge in new coronavirus cases as the disease spread among factory workers in the nation’s biggest industrial park.
Tests confirmed infections among 3,003 people in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 165,887, the National Disaster Management Agency said on Friday. The death toll rose by 105 to 7,169, it said.
Jakarta saw 869 people testing positive, while neighbouring West Java, where the industrial clusters are located, reported 526 new Covid-19 cases.
On Thursday, Jakarta extended some social distancing measure to September 10 following the spurt in new infections. The capital remains one of the hot spots for Covid-19 with 36,213 in total infections.
Malaysia’s remaining coronavirus-related restrictions will be extended until December 31, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced on Friday.
Ahead of the scheduled August 31 expiry of the measures, which include a border closure and a ban on pubs and nightclubs reopening, Muhyiddin said in a televised speech that “legal mechanisms are still needed to continue efforts to prevent and control the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic.”
Malaysia’s Ministry of Health has reported 9,306 coronavirus infections and 125 related deaths.
Additional reporting by Associated Press, Reuters and DPA
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