SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea on Saturday reported 51 new cases of COVID-19, mostly in the densely populated capital region, as authorities scramble to stem transmissions among low-income workers who can’t afford to stay home.
The figures announced by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention brought national totals to 11,719 cases and 273 deaths.
As of Saturday afternoon, at least 42 cases were linked to door-to-door sellers hired by Richway, a Seoul-based health product provider.
Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said the spread of the virus among Richway sellers was particularly alarming as most of them are in their 60s and 70s. He called for officials to strengthen their efforts to find and examine workplaces vulnerable to infections.
At least 130 infections have also been linked to a massive warehouse operated by Coupang, a local e-commerce giant, which has been accused of failing to properly implement preventive measures and having employees work even when sick.
South Korea was reporting around 500 new cases per day in early March due to a massive outbreak surrounding the southern city of Daegu, before officials managed to stabilize the situation with aggressive tracking and testing.
But the recent resurgence of COVID-19 in the greater capital area, where about half of South Korea’s 51 million people live, is now threatening to erase some of the country’s hard-won gains. It has also led to second-guessing whether officials were too quick to ease social distancing and reopen schools.
Health authorities and hospital officials on Friday participated in a table-top exercise for sharing hospital capacities between Seoul and nearby cities and ensure swift transports of patients so that a spike of cases in one area doesn’t overwhelm its hospital system.
In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:
— ANOTHER SPIKE IN INDIA: India surpassed Italy as the sixth worst-hit by the coronavirus pandemic after another biggest single-day spike in confirmed infections. The Health Ministry reported 9,887 new cases on Saturday, bringing the total to 236,657. Most of the new cases are in rural areas following the return of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who left cities and towns after the lockdown in late March. The lockdown is now largely being enforced in high-risk areas while authorities have partially restored train services and domestic flights and allowed shops and manufacturing to reopen. Shopping malls and religious places are due to open on Monday with restrictions to avoid large gatherings.
— BEIJING LOWERS EMERGENCY: China’s capital is lowering its emergency response level to the second-lowest starting Saturday for the coronavirus pandemic. That will lift most restrictions on people traveling to Beijing from Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province, where the virus first appeared late last year. They will no longer face 14-day mandatory quarantines and other forms of monitoring, and those currently in such situations will be allowed to return to their normal lives. Beijing residential compounds will not be required to conduct temperature checks and masks no longer must be worn for outdoor activities. Kindergartens will reopen and other grades still suspended will restart classes. Beijing has reported no new cases of local transmission in at least 50 days and as many as 90 days in some districts. China on Saturday reported three new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, all brought from outside the country.
— PANGOLIN GETS TOP PROTECTION IN CHINA: China has accorded the highest level of protection to the armadillo-like pangolin as part of its crackdown on the wildlife trade following the global coronavirus pandemic. Most scientists say it was most likely transmitted from bats to humans via an intermediary animal such as the pangolin. That has placed the focus on a wet market in Wuhan, the origin of the pandemic where wildlife was sold for food. The order from the National Forestry and Grassland Administration did not explicitly mention the outbreak as a reason for the measure. The one-sentence notice said the action was needed “in order to strengthen the protection of pangolins.” The wild population of three species of pangolins found in China has crashed as a result of habitat loss and overhunting, despite a 2007 hunting ban. Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy by some Chinese and its scales are used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.
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