Asia Today: S. Korea opening schools despite spike in cases

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Wednesday reported 49 new cases of COVID-19, continuing a weekslong resurgence of the virus as the government defended its decision to reopen schools despite health risks.

The figures announced by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on brought national totals to 11,590 cases and 273 deaths. All but one of the new cases were reported from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, where hundreds of infections have been linked to entertainment venues, church gatherings and a massive e-commerce warehouse.

Mayors and governors in the greater capital area have shut thousands of nightclubs, hostess bars, karaoke rooms, churches and wedding halls to slow the spread of the virus.

Some entertainment venues in Seoul, Incheon and Daejeon began collecting the personal details of their customers through smartphone QR codes this week so they could be located easily when needed, a requirement that will be expanded nationwide on June 10.

Despite the spike in transmissions, the government has been pushing ahead with a phased reopening of schools, which began with high-school seniors on May 20.

Class openings were planned Wednesday for nearly 1.8 million children -- high-school freshmen, middle-school juniors and third- and fourth-grade elementary kids.

The Education Ministry couldn’t immediately confirm how many schools had to delay their openings because of virus concerns. But it said that 519 schools so far have been forced to go back to remote learning.

Keeping schools closed would have been a difficult political decision in a country where teenagers are thrown into hyper-competitive school environments because graduating from elite universities is seen as crucial to career prospects. But some critics say that would have been the right decision for public health interests and that officials are risking the safety of children and their families.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said that the country kept schools open even during the 1950-53 Korean War.

“I believe that we cannot fail the dreams and future of our children because of the current difficulties,” Chung said during a virus meeting.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— CHINA DENIES DELAY IN INFORMING WHO: A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson says a report from The Associated Press that Chinese officials sat on releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the novel coronavirus is “seriously inconsistent with the facts.” Zhao Lijian told reporters at daily briefing on Wednesday that China’s anti-epidemic efforts are “open to the world, in which the time and the merits and demerits are clear-cut, and the facts and data are in plain sight. It can stand the test of time and history.” Zhao repeated China’s claims to have maintained close communication and cooperation with the World Health Organization and to have acted in an “open, transparent and responsible manner.” Officials kept the information to themselves for more a week after multiple government labs had fully decoded it, not sharing details key to designing tests, drugs and vaccines, the AP has found from internal documents, emails and dozens of interviews. Strict controls on information and competition within the Chinese public health system were largely to blame.

— WUHAN COMPLETES TESTING: The central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the global pandemic originated, says it has succeeded in carrying out nucleic acid tests on virtually all of its 11 million people — excluding children under age 6. The tests were carried out over during the second half of May, adding to the more than 1 million people tested previously. “This is extraordinarily rare anywhere in the world,“ National Health Commission expert Li Lanjuan told reporters. “It not only shows confidence and determination in the fight against the epidemic in Wuhan, but has also provided reference to other cities for their prevention.” No confirmed cases of COVID-19 were found, although 300 people tested positive for the virus without showing symptoms and have been placed in isolation.

— NORTH KOREANS RETURN TO CLASS: Wearing masks and having their temperatures checked, students returned to class in North Korea, which started to reopen schools this week. In capital Pyongyang on Wednesday, masked children stood in lines as health workers dressed in white protective suits screened them for a fever. Students were also seen washing their hands with what appeared to be disinfectants contained in plastic buckets. The cramped classrooms, however, didn’t seem to show much effort to enforce distance between students. The North has said there hasn’t been a single case of COVID-19 on its territory, but the claim is questioned by many outside experts. The North in April told the World Health Organization that it had tested 740 people for COVID-19 but that all came out negative. The North then said it released more than 25,000 people from quarantine since Dec. 31.

— SOUTH KOREA OKs DRUG: South Korea’s Food and Drug Safety Ministry has allowed the use of Gilead Sciences’ antiviral drug remdesivir in treatment of COVID-19 patients. The ministry’s fast-track import approval Wednesday came after health authorities concluded that the drug could possibly help patients recover faster. Officials plan to soon hold discussions with Gilead to arrange the drug shipments.

— CHINA REPORTS FOUR CASES: China on Wednesday reported four new confirmed coronavirus cases, one from abroad and three added retroactively after nucleic acid tests returned positive results. However, the country’s overall count fell by one to 83,021 after five other cases were eliminated retroactively. No new deaths were reported, leaving the total at 4,634. Just 73 remain in treatment and another 360 people are in isolation.

— AUSTRALIA IN RECESSION: Australia’s government says the pandemic has pushed its economy into recession for the first time in 29 years. Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the current June quarter will be the second in a row in which the Australian economy has shrunk. Data released on Wednesday for the March quarter show a 0.3% contraction since the three months through December due to destructive wildfires and the early stages of the coronavirus lockdown. Australia has recorded 7,221 coronavirus cases with 26 people still in hospitals. There have been 102 fatalities.


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