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Aftershocks continue to rock New Zealand

By Chris Foley, AFP CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand--Rescuers in New Zealand on Tuesday began airlifting relieved tourists stranded by a 7.8 earthquake that...

Asia Today: China's cases spike ahead of WHO research visit

BEIJING (AP) — China is seeing a new surge in coronavirus cases in its frozen northeast as a World Health Organization team was due to arrive to probe the origins of the pandemic.China on Thursday also reported its first new death attributed to COVID-19 in months, raising the toll to 4,635 among 87,844 cases. China’s relatively low case figures are a testimony to the effectiveness of strict containment, tracing and quarantine measures, but have also raised questions about the tight hold the government maintains on all information related to the outbreak.The National Health Commission said Heilongjiang province in the region traditionally known as Manchuria recorded 43 new cases, most of them centered on the city of Suihua outside the provincial capital of Harbin. The northern province of Hebei just outside Beijing, which has seen China’s most serious recent outbreak, recorded another 81 cases, marking the second straight day China’s total number of local infections has risen into triple digits. Another 14 cases were brought from outside the country.China has put more than 20 million people under varying degrees of lockdown in Hebei, Beijing and other areas in hopes of stemming infections ahead of next month’s Lunar New Year holiday. The government has cut travel links to and from several cities, urged people to stay put for the holiday, postponed important political gatherings and plans to let schools out a week early to reduce the chances of infection.Also Thursday, a 10-member WHO team was scheduled to arrive in the central city of Wuhan where the virus was first detected in late 2019. The visit was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of the WHO.Scientists suspect the virus that has killed 1.9 million people since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China’s southwest.The WHO team includes virus and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.

Emperor Akihito honors Japan’s war dead in Philippines

By Bullit Marquez, AP CAVINTI, Philippines--With a mournful bow, Emperor Akihito paid his respects in a war memorial in the Philippines Friday...

Same-sex union blessings ban upsets gay Catholics in Asia

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Vatican’s edict that same-sex unions cannot be blessed because they are sinful was met Tuesday with criticism by...

Japan, US to share China concern as ministers meet in Tokyo

TOKYO (AP) — Defense and foreign ministers from the U.S. and Japan are to discuss their concern over China's growing influence in the...

The Latest | Metro Manila, outlying provinces go on lockdown

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine officials placed Metropolitan Manila and four outlying provinces, a region of more than 25 million people, back to a lockdown...

IS-affiliated suicide bomber hits police station in Indonesia

AFP SOLO, Indonesia -- A suicide bomber riding a motorbike blew himself up outside an Indonesian police station Tuesday, injuring one officer in an attack...

Japanese hot springs refocus on therapeutic stays

The Japan News/ANN TOKYO — More and more hot spring operators in Japan are working to promote modern-style toji recuperative stays that...

Saving devils in a single disease-free part of Tasmania on its SE peninsula

By Rod McGuirk, AP TASMAN PENINSULA, Australia -- Drive over one narrow isthmus in Tasmania, and then another, and you'll reach the...

After early success, S. Korea sleepwalks into virus crisis

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea had seemed to be winning the fight against the coronavirus: Quickly ramping up its testing, contact-tracing and quarantine efforts paid off when it weathered an early outbreak without the economic pain of a lockdown. But a deadly resurgence has reached new heights during Christmas week, prompting soul-searching on how the nation sleepwalked into a crisis. The 1,241 infections on Christmas Day were the largest daily increase. Another 1,132 cases were reported Saturday, bringing South Korea's caseload to 55,902. Over 15,000 were added in the last 15 days alone. An additional 221 fatalities over the same period, the deadliest stretch, took the death toll to 793. As the numbers keep rising, the shock to people's livelihoods is deepening and public confidence in the government eroding. Officials could decide to increase social distancing measures to maximum levels on Sunday, after resisting for weeks. Tighter restrictions could be inevitable because transmissions have been outpacing efforts to expand hospital capacities. In the greater Seoul area, more facilities have been designated for COVID-19 treatment and dozens of general hospitals have been ordered to allocate more ICUs for virus patients. Hundreds of troops have been deployed to help with contract tracing. At least four patients have died at their homes or long-term care facilities while waiting for admission this month, said Kwak Jin, an official at the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. The agency said 299 among 16,577 active patients were in serious or critical condition. “Our hospital system isn’t going to collapse, but the crush in COVID-19 patients has significantly hampered our response,” said Choi Won Suk, an infectious disease professor at the Korea University Ansan Hospital, west of Seoul. Choi said the government should have done more to prepare hospitals for a winter surge. “We have patients with all kinds of serious illnesses at our ICUs and they can’t share any space with COVID-19 patients, so it’s hard,” Choi said. “It’s the same medical staff that has been fighting the virus for all these months. There’s an accumulation of fatigue.” Critics say the government of President Moon Jae-in became complacent after swiftly containing the outbreak this spring that was centered in the southeastern city of Daegu. The past weeks have underscored risks of putting economic concerns before public health when vaccines are at least months away. Officials had eased social distancing rules to their lowest in October, allowing high-risk venues like clubs and karaoke rooms to reopen, although experts were warning of a viral surge during winter when people spend longer hours indoors.Jaehun Jung, a professor of preventive medicine at the Gachon University College of Medicine in Incheon, said he anticipates infections to gradually slow over the next two weeks. The quiet streets and long lines snaking around testing stations in Seoul, which are temporarily providing free tests to anyone regardless of whether they have symptoms or clear reasons to suspect infections, demonstrate a return of public alertness following months of pandemic fatigue.Officials are also clamping down on private social gatherings through Jan. 3, shutting down ski resorts, prohibiting hotels from selling more than half of their rooms and setting fines for restaurants if they accept groups of five or more people.Still, lowering transmissions to the levels seen in early November — 100 to 200 a day — would be unrealistic, Jung said, anticipating the daily figure to settle around 300 to 500 cases. The higher baseline might necessitate tightened social distancing until vaccines roll out — a dreadful outlook for low-income workers and the self-employed who drive the country’s service sector, the part of the economy the virus has damaged the most. “The government should do whatever to secure enough supplies and move up the administration of vaccines to the earliest possible point,” Jung said. South Korea plans to secure around 86 million doses of vaccines next year, which would be enough to cover 46 million people in a population of 51 million. The first supplies, which will be AstraZeneca vaccines produced by a local manufacturing partner, are expected to be delivered in February and March. Officials plan to complete vaccinating 60% to 70% of the population by around November.There’s disappointment the shots aren’t coming sooner, though officials have insisted South Korea could afford a wait-and-see approach as its outbreak isn’t as dire as in America or Europe.South Korea's earlier success could be attributed to its experience in fighting a 2015 outbreak of MERS, the Middle East respiratory syndrome, caused by a different coronavirus.After South Korea reported its first COVID-19 patient on Jan. 20, the KDCA was quick to recognize the importance of mass testing and sped up an approval process that had private companies producing millions of tests in just weeks. When infections soared in the Daegu region in February and March, health authorities managed to contain the situation by April after aggressively mobilizing technological tools to trace contacts and enforce quarantines. But that success was also a product of luck — most infections in Daegu were linked to a single church congregation. Health workers now are having a much harder time tracking transmissions in the populous capital area, where clusters are popping up just about everywhere.South Korea has so far weathered its outbreak without lockdowns, but a decision on Sunday to raise distancing restrictions to the highest “Tier-3” could possibly shutter hundreds of thousands of non-essential businesses across the nation.That could be for the best, said Yoo Eun-sun, who is struggling to pay rent for three small music tutoring academies she runs in Incheon and Siheung, also near Seoul, amid a dearth of students and on-and-off shutdowns. “What parents would send their kids to piano lessons" unless transmissions decrease quickly and decisively, she said.Yoo also feels that the government’s middling approach to social distancing, which has targeted specific business activities while keeping the broader part of the economy open, has put an unfair financial burden on businesses like hers.“Whether it’s tutoring academies, gyms, yoga studies or karaokes, the same set of businesses are getting hit again and again,” she said. “How long could we go on?"