Asia Today: South Korea cases rise, India crosses 150,000

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea reported 40 new cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday, its biggest daily jump in nearly 50 days, causing alarm as millions of children return to school.

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Active tracing and testing had stabilized the country's outbreak from its March highs, which allowed officials to ease social distancing guidelines.

But a steady rise in cases in the greater capital area in recent weeks has raised concerns as officials proceed with a phased reopening of schools. High school seniors returned to schools last week. More than 2 million high school juniors, middle school seniors, first- and second-graders and kindergartners were expected to return to school on Wednesday.

The Education Ministry said school openings were delayed in 561 schools nationwide due to virus worries, including 111 schools in Seoul.

South Korea’s top infectious disease expert said the country may need to reimpose social distancing restrictions because it's becoming increasingly difficult for health workers to track the spread of the virus.

"The number of people or locations we have to trace are increasing geometrically,” said Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures, but there’s a limit to such efforts. There’s a need to maximize social distancing in areas where the virus is circulating, to force people to avoid public facilities and other crowded spaces.”

South Korea has confirmed a total of 11,265 cases of the coronavirus, including 269 deaths.

All but four of the new cases came from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, where officials have been scrambling to stem transmissions linked to nightclubs, karaoke rooms and an e-commerce warehouse. Three cases were linked to international arrivals.

Health authorities said they were testing 3,600 employees of local e-commerce giant Coupang after discovering dozens of coronavirus infections linked to workers at the company’s warehouse near Seoul.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— INDIA CROSSES 150,000 CASES: India’s coronavirus caseload has crossed 150,000 with another record single-day jump of over 6,000 new infections. The spike comes as the government prepares a new set of guidelines for a fourth phase of the nationwide lockdown. The Health Ministry reported 6,387 new cases on Wednesday. India has confirmed a total of 151,767 cases, including 4,337 deaths. Most of the cases are concentrated in five of India’s 28 states, though an increase in cases has also been reported in some eastern states as migrant workers have begun arriving home from big cities on special trains.

— JAPANESE CABINET APPROVES EXTRA BUDGET: Japan’s Cabinet approved on Wednesday its largest-ever draft extra budget of 32 trillion yen ($296 billion) to help fund projects to reduce economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic. The extra budget for fiscal 2020, the second in a month, will help support small businesses, strengthen medical systems and provide subsidies for local governments' coronavirus measures. It will also help prepare for possible future waves of infections. The Cabinet's approval comes less than a month after the government enacted a 25.7 trillion yen ($239 billion) first extra budget. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted a state of emergency throughout the nation on Monday to help revive the economy. Japan has reported 16,651 cases and 858 deaths.

— THAI PARLIAMENT RECONVENES: Thailand’s parliament reconvened Wednesday after a break of almost three months to debate the government’s aid packages enacted to combat the coronavirus' ill effects on the economy. More than 400 lawmakers wore face masks and sat one seat apart as they launched a five-day session to debate three packages amounting to 1.9 trillion baht ($60 billion). Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said at the session’s opening that the packages are necessary because Thailand’s economy shrunk 1.8% in the first quarter and is expected to shrink 5-6% for the whole fiscal year. The aid packages include income subsidies for individuals and loans and financial aid to businesses affected by the pandemic.

— HEALTH SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT PUSHED: Legislators at China's ceremonial parliament session pushed for improvements in the public health system. Public health has featured more highly than usual at the National People’s Congress session, which was delayed and shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic. Systems for disease prevention and control need to be refined and procedures established to link information reporting and analysis, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted delegate Luo Jie, a hospital president in hard-hit Hubei province, as saying. China reported one imported case of coronavirus Wednesday. It has counted 4,634 deaths from among 82,993 cases.