60 new virus cases in S Korea as China reports 71 deaths

Another death in Japan as Italy urges calm

By: AFP      Published: 12:42 PM, 25 Feb, 2020
60 new virus cases in S Korea as China reports 71 deaths
A woman purchases masks in Beijing on Tuesday.–AFP

China on Tuesday reported another 71 deaths from the novel coronavirus, the lowest daily number of fatalities in over two weeks, which raised the toll to 2,663.

The National Health Commission also reported 508 new confirmed cases, with all but nine in hard-hit Hubei province. It is up from Monday's 409 cases nationwide.

Multiple provinces in China have reported zero new cases for several days in a row now, with the World Health Organization saying Monday that the coronavirus epidemic has "peaked" in China.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the peak in China occurred between January 23 and February 2 and the number of new cases there "has been declining steadily since then".

However, WHO expert Bruce Aylward, leader of a joint WHO-China mission of experts, warned on Monday of outbreaks in other countries "increasing at exponential growth rates".

Despite a downward trend in new case numbers, China continues to struggle to resume normal activity after the virus brought the world's second-largest economy to a standstill.

The country also decided to postpone its annual parliament session for the first time since the Cultural Revolution.

Tens of millions of people remain under lockdown in Hubei province, where the virus is believed to have originated late last year.

A slight easing of the lockdown in Wuhan, Hubei's capital, was retracted shortly after being announced on Monday.

Outbreaks in prisons and hospitals have also raised further concerns about ineffective containment measures.

The Communist Party's political and legal affairs commission said Tuesday that 323 coronavirus cases were reported in Hubei prisons by Sunday, including 279 in the Wuhan Women's Prison.

Meanwhile, South Korea reported 60 more novel coronavirus cases on Tuesday, the smallest increase for four days in the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's morning updates.

The country now has 893 cases, the KCDC said -- the largest national total anywhere outside China -- adding one more person had died, taking the toll to eight.

For the previous three days, KCDC had reported triple-digit increases each morning as the outbreak took hold in South Korea, the world's 12th-largest economy.

The country has an advanced medical system, a free press and a strong culture of public accountability, and observers say that its health statistics can be treated with confidence.

But despite the smaller number of infections, authorities urged the public to exercise extra caution, advising citizens to stay home if they have a fever or respiratory symptoms.

Mask manufacturers have increased their total output to around 10 million a day, but availability remains limited and the government said it will ban people from exporting face coverings.

Masks have become standard wear throughout the country, and scores of events have been cancelled or postponed, from K-pop concerts to the start of the K-league football season.

The Korean Basketball League became the latest to take action on Tuesday, saying it would hold matches behind closed doors "until the situation improves".

US and South Korea militaries were "looking at scaling back the command post training due to concerns about the coronavirus", US Defence Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in Washington.

 Ailing Iranians suffer as sanctions hit medical supplies

Aged 49, Iranian diabetic Parviz Sadeghi appears closer to 70 with deep wrinkles surrounding his clear blue eyes and sunken cheeks testifying to shortages at a time of intensifying medical crisis.

After a six-hour wait, he is relieved but exhausted as he emerges from a pharmacy in the capital Tehran with insulin -- an increasingly scarce necessity, as US sanctions bite.

"I've been a diabetic for nearly 10 years," the out-of-work labourer said, adding that he lives in Karaj, about an hour west of the capital.

"Before... you'd go to any pharmacy and they'd give it to you, but now you have to go to 1,000 places," he lamented, after spending a week trudging from one dispensary to another.

Iranians had been hit by low medicine supplies even before the new coronavirus broke out in the central city of Qom and spread, claiming several lives and fostering panic amid a lack of face masks.

Meanwhile, a fourth person has died in Japan after becoming ill aboard a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship, local media reported Tuesday, as the government unveiled a new policy to tackle the outbreak.

Nearly 700 people on board the Diamond Princess, which spent two weeks quarantined off Japan, have so far tested positive for the virus.

Four people who were hospitalised after being taken off the ship have died, the latest a man in his 80s, according to local media.

The Yomiuri Shimbun daily said the man had tested positive for the new coronavirus and died of pneumonia. The health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the reports.

Three others, all Japanese, have so far died after becoming sick on the ship. Two were confirmed to have the new coronavirus, while the health ministry declined to comment on the diagnosis of the third.

Japan has come under increasing pressure over its handling of the ship, particularly after it emerged that some passengers allowed to disembark after testing negative were subsequently diagnosed with the virus.

Some of the disembarking passengers were not even tested during the quarantine period, the health ministry has acknowledged.

Several government officials working on the ship have themselves contracted the infection, but authorities have defended a policy of not uniformly testing those working on the boat.

"We are aware of the risks of them getting infected when they take off a mask or gloves, so we will have thorough measures to prevent infections under these circumstances," Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said, while stressing no change in policy was planned.

Many nations have evacuated their citizens from the ship, with 450 Filipinos due to be flown home on Tuesday on two chartered flights. Another 81 who have tested positive for the virus will stay in Japan.

Italy reported its seventh death from the new coronavirus Monday, but officials called for calm and reported a lower rise in the number of infections after a spike over the weekend.

The number of cases now stood at 229, the head of Italy's civil protection department Angelo Borelli said at a press conference on Monday evening, the highest number in Europe.

However, this means that only ten new cases had been added since the previous total on Monday morning, a much slower rate than the previous few days.

"I think the numbers that we have registered in Italy and in the rest of the world have been confined to reasonable figures," Borelli said, adding that in his opinion the data did not point towards an impending pandemic.

Six of the dead have been in the northern Lombardy region, where villages have been put under lockdown and security measures enforced in a bid to stem the spread of the disease.

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

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

Regional authorities have ordered gathering spots, such as schools, bars, restaurants, cinemas and discos to close.

The measures imposed in the country's north affect some 30 million inhabitants, the Repubblica daily said.

The spread of the virus has disrupted high-profile events including Milan Fashion Week and the Venice Carnival. On Monday evening, sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora announced that six Serie A football matches would be played behind closed doors.

And in Milan, operas have also had to be cancelled the city's famed La Scala.

Masses in churches across the affected regions have been cancelled and funerals limited to immediate relatives only.