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South Korea hit by quick spread of Covid-19 epidemic

Number of confirmed cases almost triples in three days as government quarantines three million people

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South Korea hit by quick spread of Covid-19 epidemic

South Korean health officials spray disinfectant in front of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southeastern city of Daegu on Feb. 21. (Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP)

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South Korea has suddenly emerged as the nation outside China most affected by the coronavirus epidemic, with the government quarantining about three million people after the rapid spread of the disease that originated in China late last year.

The number of confirmed cases has jumped to 156, almost tripling in just three days. Of the 52 new cases, 41 are in Daegu, a provincial city of 2.5 million people in the southeast, South Korean disease control officials said in a statement. The spike comes a day after what could be the country’s first fatality from the virus.

The cruise ship Diamond Princess remains docked in Japan’s Yokohama harbor where 634 cases have been confirmed along with two deaths.

As the disease continues its spread outside China, the United States warned against travel to seven Asian countries as fears mount about the toll the epidemic will take on the Chinese, Asian and global economies.

Many Chinese cities remain deserted including capital Beijing, with people yet to get back to work after an extended Spring Festival break now almost a month long.

This is in turn has hit businesses across Asia and other parts of the world that have slowed or ground to a halt as they await crucial parts from Chinese factories. The tourism industry including the airline business has been the hardest hit so far

The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, told the Global Women's Forum in Dubai that the Covid-19 epidemic could damage global economic growth this year but a sharp and rapid economic rebound could follow.

"There may be a cut that we are still hoping would be in the 0.1 to 0.2 percentage range," she said, adding that the full impact of the outbreak that has already killed 2,247 people and infected more than 76,000 remains unclear.

"I advise everybody not to jump to premature conclusions. There is still a great deal of uncertainty. We operate with scenarios, not yet with projections. Ask me in 10 days," Georgieva said.

Chinese officials announced on Feb. 21 that there were 889 new cases of the coronavirus in the previous 24 hours, raising the overall total above 75,000 on the mainland. The death toll went up by 118 to 2,236. But the country’s health authorities have once again changed the way they are classifying infections, adding further confusion to those attempting forecasts and fatality rates.

Worryingly, there are now 500 cases in China’s crowded prisons. On Feb. 21, Hubei province said there were 272 infections from the province’s prison system — 230 were in Wuhan’s women’s prison where the head of the facility has been sacked. In a Shandong jail, 200 prisoners and seven guards had tested positive as of Feb. 20 and in a  Zhejiang prison 34 inmates have the virus, including 27 new cases as of Feb. 20, the Guardian reported.

The United States has warned its citizens about “apparent community spread” of the new virus in six countries outside China: Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending US citizens not travel to China and these countries.

“Community spread means people have been infected with the virus, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected. At this time, the extent of virus spread is not sustained or widespread enough to meet the criteria for a travel notice,” the agency stated on its website.

After early inaction which saw cases in the country mount, Thailand’s military-run government is making lots of noise about getting ready for the “worst case scenario,” yet the country continues to let in Chinese tourists, who have been banned from more than 90 countries.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s National Health Laboratory announced that it can now test for the virus. Previously it had sent samples to Thailand. According to the health ministry’s daily update, 37 people are under investigation and two are suspected to be infected with Covid-19 at government hospitals.  

“The NHL will test two suspected cases at Waibagi Hospital in Yangon and Mandalay General Hospital who arrived in the country on Wednesday,” said Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, deputy director of contagious disease prevention and eradication for the Department of Public Health. 

“We won’t have to send samples to Thailand’s National Institute of Health for testing anymore because the NHL’s tests are absolutely equal to those in Thailand.”

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