Asia Today: Philippine capital's virus lockdown being eased

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Photo credit In this photo provided by the Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tries out an eyewear during his meeting with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases in Davao province, southern Philippines late Monday Aug. 17, 2020. Duterte has decided to ease a mild lockdown in the capital and four outlying provinces to further reopen the country's battered economy in a high-risk gamble despite having the highest number of coronavirus infections in Southeast Asia. (Robinson Ninal Jr./Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division via AP)
By The Associated Press

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to ease a mild lockdown in the capital and four outlying provinces to further reopen the country’s battered economy despite having the most reported coronavirus infections in Southeast Asia.

Most businesses, including shopping malls and dine-in restaurants, and Roman Catholic church services will be allowed to partially resume on Wednesday with restrictions, including masks and social distancing.

Duterte shifted metropolitan Manila and the nearby provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal, a region of about 25 million people, back to a mild lockdown two weeks ago after leading groups of doctors warned hospitals were being overwhelmed again by COVID-19 patients and pleaded for a “time out.” They also asked the government to recalibrate its response to the pandemic.

The Philippines has reported more than 164,000 virus cases, including 2,681 deaths.

Duterte’s administration has been under intense pressure to revive the economy, which fell into a recession in the second quarter as millions of people lost their jobs.

Duterte, 75, used his televised appearance to deny rumors that he has fallen ill and was flown out of the country over the weekend for treatment. “Stop this nonsense about me going to Singapore,” he said.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— India has reported another 55,079 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours. The Health Ministry on Tuesday also reported 826 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking total fatalities up to 51,797. India now has the fourth most fatalities from the virus, behind the United States, Brazil and Mexico. Nevertheless, the country’s deaths per million people stand at 34 — far lower than what has been reported in some North American or European countries. India has been recording at least 50,000 new infections per day since mid-July. India has now reported 2.7 million infections, with at least 1.9 million people already recovering.

— South Korea reported 246 new cases as the virus continues to spread in the greater capital area where churches have emerged as major clusters. South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 959 cases have been reported in five days. A northern Seoul church led by a bitter critic of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has emerged as a major cluster of infections, with health workers detecting more than 450 infections linked to its members. The pastor, Jun Kwang-hun, was hospitalized after testing positive on Monday. Health officials have so far tested 2,500 of the church’s 4,000 members, but they express concern that many of them are refusing to come forward for testing. Police are pursuing some 800 church members who have been out of contact.

— Australia’s coronavirus hot spot Victoria state reported its lowest tally of new infections in a month. Victoria’s Health Department reported 222 new cases Tuesday, the lowest tally since July 18. The state also reported 17 deaths following a daily record of 25 fatalities on Monday. Infections have been trending down after a second lockdown came into force in the state capital Melbourne in early August. An epidemiologist told an inquiry on Tuesday that almost all of the second wave of infections can be traced back to returned travelers in two Melbourne hotels. Department of Health and Human Services epidemiologist Charles Alpren was testifying at a state government-appointed inquiry into failures in a quarantine system that required Australians returning from overseas to isolate in Melbourne hotels for two weeks. Alpren said “99%” of Victoria’s current coronavirus infections were linked to two hotels.

— A maintenance worker at a New Zealand hotel where returning travelers are isolated has tested positive for the coronavirus, the second instance of community transmission in the country since last week. But health authorities say the man’s close contacts have so far tested negative, giving them hope the latest outbreak might be contained. Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the employee wears protective equipment while carrying out maintenance work and doesn’t typically interact with guests. Meanwhile, the cluster of virus cases first discovered last week in Auckland that has sent the nation’s largest city into a two-week lockdown has grown to 69 infections after authorities reported 13 new cases Tuesday. New Zealand now has a total of 90 active cases, including returning travelers who are in quarantine. Before last week, New Zealand had gone 102 days without any community transmission.

— New Zealand’s leader has hit back at President Donald Trump’s claim that New Zealand is experiencing a big surge in coronavirus cases. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday said Trump’s comments were “patently wrong.” “I think for anyone who’s following COVID and its transmission globally will quite easily see that New Zealand’s nine cases in a day does not compare to the United States tens of thousands,” Ardern told reporters. Trump made the comments Monday at a campaign stop in Mankato, Minnesota. He said some countries held up as models for their virus response were now saying “whoops.” “You see what’s going on in New Zealand,” Trump said. “They beat it, they beat it. It was like front page, they beat it. Because they wanted to show me something. The problem is, big surge in New Zealand. So, you know, it’s terrible, we don’t want that.” The U.S., with a population of about 330 million, has reported more than 170,000 virus deaths. New Zealand, with a population of 5 million, has reported 22 deaths.

— The head of a major state-owned Chinese pharmaceutical company says its coronavirus vaccine will be commercially available by the end of the year. Liu Jingzhen, the chairman of SinoPharm, told a Chinese Communist Party newspaper that the vaccine would cost less than 1,000 yuan ($140) and be given in two shots, 28 days apart. He said that students and workers in major cities would need to get the vaccine, but not those living in sparsely populated rural areas. SinoPharm, which has two vaccines in trials, has an annual manufacturing capacity of 220 million doses, he said. Liu, who is also the company’s Communist Party secretary, told the Guangming Daily that he had been injected with the vaccine. Reports that Chinese researchers and executives have received shots of their vaccines have raised ethical questions in some scientific circles.

— Japanese Emperor Naruhito, his wife Empress Masako and their daughter Aiko have canceled their annual trip to a summer resort, citing social distancing challenges amid the pandemic. Every year, the imperial family has taken a week or two off and gone to Nasu, an area with forested mountains and “onsen” hot springs, about 190 kilometers (110 miles) north of Tokyo. Last year, the family was seen relaxing and walking their pet dog. The getaway was canceled this year because a large crowd usually gathers to catch a glimpse of them, and travel involves a large staff and security, the Imperial Household Agency said Tuesday.