South Korea, Japan fret as surging coronavirus undermines leaders' support

SEOUL/TOKYO (REUTERS) – South Korea and Japan grappled with surging coronavirus cases and growing public frustration on Monday (Dec 14) as Japan’s Prime Minister tiptoed around a contentious travel subsidy programme, while an anxious South Korean President warned of harsh curbs.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in faces sliding ratings as clusters of new infections fuel criticism over what many see as slack containment.

“Our back is against the wall,” Mr Moon said. “This is a crucial moment to devote all our virus control capabilities and administrative power to stopping the coronavirus.”

South Korea reported a new daily record of 1,030 infections on Sunday, a big worry for a country which for months was held up as a mitigation success story, but the number is still a fraction of the tallies being seen in some European countries and the United States, where vaccines are being rolled out.

Japan reported more than 3,000 new cases on Saturday, yet another record as winter set in, with infections worsening in Tokyo, the northern island of Hokkaido and the city of Osaka.

But Japan, with a focus on the economic costs, has steered clear of tough lockdowns. It tackled its first wave of infections in the spring by asking people to refrain from going out and for businesses to close or curtail operating hours.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said last week a halt to a campaign that subsidises domestic tourism was not under consideration, citing economic considerations.

Critics say encouraging people to travel has helped spread infections. Media reported on Monday that Mr Suga could restrict the programme after weekend polls showed that his support had eroded over his handling of the pandemic.

Few Asian countries expect to get significant amounts of coronavirus vaccines in coming weeks as they manage distribution schedules, allow time to check for any inoculation side effects elsewhere or run their own late-stage trials.

Instead, they are counting on the methods that have largely kept infections in check for months – ahead-of-the-curve testing, stringent travel curbs, strict social distancing and masks.

China, for instance, where the virus emerged almost a year ago, has managed to limit new cases with tough, sweeping action.

It locked down an area of more than 250,000 people after half a dozen cases were confirmed near the Russian border in the province of Heilongjiang, the Associated Press reported on Monday.

New Zealand, which has been particularly successful in tackling the pandemic, said on Monday it had agreed to open a “travel bubble” with Australia in the first quarter of 2021.

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‘More testing’

South Korea has warned that coronavirus restrictions may be raised to the highest Phase 3 level, which would essentially mean a lockdown for the first time in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

In Seoul, schools will close from Tuesday, a step towards the imposition of Phase 3. Last month, the government banned year-end parties.

In Japan, which is hoping to stage the postponed summer Olympics next year, testing has remained relatively low, peaking at about 50,000 in one day recently. Testing in Tokyo, which has the capacity for more than 60,000, is now about 9,000 a day.

“Whether a country or region is doing enough testing should be assessed based on the positivity rate and not on the number of tests,” said Ms Fumie Sakamoto, infection control manager at the St Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo.

“The positivity rate for Tokyo is now over 6 per cent, so we should be doing a bit more testing to bring the number down.”

South Korea, meanwhile, has aggressively ramped up testing to about 89,000 people a day as of Sunday, compared with just over 22,000 in early October.

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