S Korea on high alert as COVID-19 cases surge

Codogno/Shanghai, Feb 23 (AFP) | Publish Date: 2/23/2020 10:10:20 AM IST

South Korea went on high alert Sunday following a sharp jump in coronavirus cases, and Italy and Iran took their own drastic containment steps as an epidemic that has killed nearly 2,500 people in China continued a relentless global expansion.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also warned that Africa’s poor health systems left it vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease, which spilled out of China to more than 25 countries. South Korea is raising the nation’s alert to its “highest” level, President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday after the number of infections nearly tripled over the weekend to 556.

Led by an outbreak cluster in a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu, South Korea now has the most infections outside of China apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan, which has seen more than 600.

“The next few days will be crucial,” Moon said following a government meeting on the virus.

“The government will raise the alert level to the highest level according to experts’ recommendations.” 

More than 300 cases have been linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus sect in Daegu - whose founder claims the mantle of Jesus Christ and vows to take 144,000 people with him to heaven on judgement day.

Some 9,300 Shincheonji members have either been quarantined or asked to stay at home, according to the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 1,240 have reported symptoms.

Elsewhere, Italy and Iran began introducing the sort of containment measures previously seen only in China, which has put tens of millions of people under quarantine lockdown in the epicentre province of Hubei.

More than 50,000 people in about a dozen northern Italian towns near the business hub of Milan were urged by authorities to stay home, while shops and schools were shuttered.

With dozens of cases, Italy on Friday became the first European country to report one of its nationals had died from the virus, followed by a second death on Saturday. The government was weighing “extraordinary measures” to halt further infections, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said. 

Iran ordered the closure of schools, universities and cultural centres across 14 provinces from Sunday following five deaths in the Islamic Republic -- the most outside East Asia and the first in the Middle East.

Iran’s outbreak surfaced Wednesday and quickly grew to 28 confirmed infections. “The concern is ... that we have seen ... a very rapid increase (in Iran) in a matter of a few days,” said Sylvie Briand, director of the WHO’s global infectious hazard preparedness department. Iraq on Thursday clamped down on travel to and from Iran, and flag carrier Kuwait Airways has suspended flights to the country.

Death toll increases to 2,442 in China

The overall death toll in mainland China due to the deadly coronavirus increased to 2,442 on Sunday, while the number of confirmed cases reached 76,936, according to health authorities.

The National Health Commission said that it received reports of 648 new confirmed cases and 97 deaths on Saturday from 31 provincial-level regions and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, reports Xinhua news agency.

Among the deaths, 96 were reported in Hubei province and one in Guangdong. Another 882 new suspected cases were reported on Saturday, said the Commission.

As of Saturday, a total of 22,888 people had been discharged from hospital after recovery, while the number of severe cases decreased by 509 to 10,968.

The Commission added that 4,148 people were still suspected of being infected with the virus.

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