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Asia Today: SKorea reports 110 cases, half in Busan hospital

SEOUL – South Korea has reported 110 new cases of the coronavirus, half of them linked to a hospital in Busan.

The numbers released by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Thursday brought the national caseload to 24,988, including 439 deaths.

At least 54 infections were reported in a hospital for the elderly in the southern port city of Busan.

More than 40 others came from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, tied to places including hospitals, churches, schools and offices.

The steady rise in infections is a cause of concern in a country that has just lowered its social distancing measures, allowing high-risk venues like nightclubs and karaoke bars to reopen and spectators to return to professional sports.

Health officials are planning to test 160,000 employees at hospitals, nursing homes and welfare centers for senior citizens in Seoul and nearby areas as part of efforts to prevent outbreaks.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Seven months after screens went dark, cinemas reopened Thursday in much of India with mostly old titles on the marquee — a sign of the country’s efforts to return to normal as the pace of infections slows but also of the roadblocks that remain. The return to movie theaters comes as India is registering the highest number of daily cases globally and is expected to soon top the list worldwide in terms of total number of infections, passing the United States. But trends also suggest the spread is beginning to slow. Nearly 10,000 theaters closed in mid-March when the government imposed restrictions to fight the virus. They are among the last public places to reopen — a hugely symbolic move in a country known the world over for the lavish productions pumped out by its Bollywood film industry. Movie theaters pose some of the biggest infection risks since they put people in a closed space, where the virus can spread easily, for an extended period of time. To minimize the danger, Indian cinemas have separated seats, staggered show times and are encouraging digital payments. Masks and temperature checks are mandatory. India on Thursday reported 680 new fatalities, its lowest daily increase in coronavirus deaths in nearly three months.

— Australia’s prime minister says his government is giving priority to reopening air services to Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday he had discussed reopening air routes with the leaders of all three countries. He described Japan and South Korea as “two countries that have done particularly well” in dealing with the pandemic. “There are a number of countries we’re looking at to see what we can do probably next year. We’re not going to rush into this,” Morrison said. Australia will allow travelers from neighboring New Zealand to arrive without hotel quarantine from Friday. New Zealand has eradicated community transmission of COVID-19, but it will continue to insist travelers from Australia quarantine for two weeks on arrival. Australia reported only 12 new cases of local transmission on Thursday. The most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria reported six each. Morrison said Australia had one of the best health and economic responses to the pandemic of any country in the world.

— Hong Kong and Singapore say they have agreed to a bilateral air travel bubble, re-establishing travel links as coronavirus infections in both cities decline. Under the agreement, travelers from Hong Kong and Singapore will not be restricted on their travel purposes, Hong Kong commerce minister Edward Yau said Thursday. This means that tourists from each city will be able to visit the other. Both Hong Kong and Singapore closed their borders earlier this year, banning short-term visitors from entering as they fought to reduce coronavirus infections. Under the air travel bubble, travelers will also not be subject to compulsory quarantine, provided they have taken coronavirus tests mutually recognized by both cities, with a negative test result. Additionally, travelers are required to fly on dedicated flights which will only serve air travel bubble travelers between Hong Kong and Singapore.

— Indonesia on Thursday recorded another jump in coronavirus cases to overtake neighboring Philippines as the country with the highest number of confirmed infections in Southeast Asia. The government’s COVID-19 task force announced that Indonesia recorded 4,411 new infections, taking its total to 349,160. That is higher than the Philippines’ 348,698 cases. Indonesia has reported 12,268 deaths, also the highest in Southeast Asia. Despite a surge in cases nationwide, President Joko Widodo has urged local administrations to refrain from imposing lockdown measures that could cripple the region's largest economy. Seven months into the pandemic, the government has been lambasted by experts for prioritizing economic recovery over public health, which has resulted in the outbreak showing no sign of abating and has strained healthcare systems. The National Commission on Human Rights on Thursday urged the government to evaluate its COVID-19 response by prioritizing basic rights.

— A hospital president and the director of the health commission in the northern Chinese city of Qingdao have been fired after China’s latest coronavirus outbreak, authorities said Thursday. A brief notice on the Qingdao city government’s official microblog Thursday said Health Commission Director Sui Zhenhua and Deng Kai, president of Qingdao’s thoracic hospital to which the cases have been linked, were placed under further investigation. No other details were given. Authorities ordered testing of all 9 million people in the city after a total of 12 cases, including those not displaying symptoms, were discovered over the weekend, accounting for China’s first local transmissions in about two months.

— Sri Lanka’s government has announced fines and prison terms for those not wearing masks, maintaining social distancing or failing to adhere to other health guidelines as a new cluster of COVID-19 cases continues to cause a steep rise in the number of patients in the island nation. Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi signed a decree on Thursday imposing penalties of up to six months in prison and fines of up to $55 for violators. Sri Lanka had largely contained the spread of the coronavirus after an initial outbreak in March. No cases of local transmission were reported for two months until a cluster originated at a garment factory earlier this month. So far 1,770 cases have been reported this month, taking the country's total number of confirmed infections to 5,219, including 13 deaths.

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