Update (0725ET): Lebanon has confirmed its first case of COVID-9.
BREAKING: Lebanon reports 1st case of coronavirus https://t.co/eUoE2b20hL
— BNO Newsroom (@BNODesk) February 21, 2020
The tiny Levantine state, which has swollen with refugees from nearby Syria in recent years, is in the middle of an economic crisis, and its government is presently weighing whether to default on an upcoming loan payment, which could lead to deeply unpopular austerity measures, as Al Jazeera reports.
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When historians look back at the COVID-19 outbreak, they’ll remember this week as an important turning point in the crisis, when international public-health experts and investors started to focus their attention on South Korea, Japan and other countries in the region that have seen the number of new cases accelerate markedly in recent days.
Put another way, evidence that the virus is spreading more rapidly within other Asian countries outside mainland China has become impossible to ignore, which is probably why US futures are pointing to a lower open for a second straight day.
As Bloomberg reminds us, South Korea has seen its total cases soar past 200 as the number of infections doubled in 24 hours.
Meanwhile, cases in Singapore and Japan have topped 85, and let’s not forget the 600+ from the ‘Diamond Princess’ who have been excluded from the ‘Japan’ total.
At least as far as deaths are concerned, the numbers outside of China remain small: out of 2,247 deaths, only 13 have occurred in other regions (this includes 2 more deaths in Iran announced just minutes ago).
But there’s no getting around it: the spread of the virus will undoubtedly worsen the economic blowback, as one economist explained to BBG.
“The sudden jump in infections in other parts of Asia, notably in Japan and South Korea, has sparked renewed concerns,” said Khoon Goh, Singapore-based head of Asia research at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. “This points to a new phase in the outbreak, and one which will see continued disruption and more economic impact than previously thought.”
Last night, we reported on the latest case numbers out of South Korea, and more have already been recorded. The current total is 204. Earlier this month, the WHO said China’s approach to tackling the virus should be a “model” for other governments facing similar outbreaks. At the time, experts criticized the organization for appearing to parrot Chinese propaganda. But it looks like they might have been on to something. Because as we reported late last night, the Blue House has ordered a ‘special management zones’ in the cities of Daegu and Cheongdo, or what appears to be a kind of ‘soft’ quarantine. The government said that since they’ve failed to prevent an outbreak, they’re pivoting decidedly to a strategy of containment.
Just a few hours ago, Chinese state media reported that 500 cases – roughly half of the new cases reported in China on Friday – involved prisoners at a handful of jails across the country, according to the Washington Post.
Infections have been confirmed at five prisons in Shandong, Hubei and Zhejiang, according to China’s Ministry of Justice. A prison in eastern Shandong province showed 207 out of 2,077 inmates and staff were infected, and the provincial justice department’s Communist Party secretary was dismissed as a result, the province announced. Another jail in Zhejiang province found 34 cases. Hubei province, at the center of the outbreak, said Friday it found 220 new cases inside penitentiaries.
According to the Washington Post, the prison outbreaks underscore the virus’s easy transmissibility in confined spaces.
Even the Global Times acknowledged that the prison outbreaks have “weakened” Beijing’s claims that the virus is receding…
Coronavirus infection cluster emerged in several prisons in China with two prisons reporting over 200 infections each. It has left the impression that epidemic is rebounding, which has weakened public confidence to some extent.
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) February 21, 2020
…Even as local officials adopt ever-more bizarre and draconian restrictions on individual movement.
My apartment complex told me I now need to apply for a pass that will allow me to enter/exit. Pass is linked to an individual ID- in my case my passport. Need to bring housing lease, too, as proof of residence. Each family gets 3 passes only. Those without cannot leave compound.
— Eunice Yoon (@onlyyoontv) February 21, 2020
Tests at a prison in eastern Shandong province showed 207 out of 2,077 inmates and staff were infected, and the provincial justice department’s Communist Party secretary was dismissed as a result, the province announced. Another jail in Zhejiang province found 34 cases. Hubei province, at the center of the outbreak, said Friday it found 220 new cases inside penitentiaries.
The prison outbreaks underscored the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s high transmissibility in confined spaces after the disease ravaged the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan.
While overall numbers remain low, thousands who fear they may have come into contact with a ‘super-spreader’ in Daegu, a city of 2.5 million about 2 hours south of Seoul. The woman, who believed she was suffering from a simple cold because she had not traveled abroad, reportedly attended four church services at a “cult-like” church with 1,100 members in the city, as well as branches in other cities, including Seoul, where the mayor has ordered the local church closed until further notice.
Communist Party leaders made yet another public misstep overnight when health officials said they would once again change their ‘criteria’ for what constitutes a ‘confirmed’ case of COVID-19 back to the more inclusive and accurate definition. Officials said they decided on the switch because they couldn’t subtract already confirmed cases from the total, which sounds…almost plausible.
On CNBC Friday morning, Eunice Yoon, the network’s reporter on the ground in Beijing, interviewed the owner of a Beijing restaurant discussing his fears about going out of business. But as China slouches back to work, millions are worried that Beijing might sacrifice the public welfare to get a few factories up and running.
Looks like the cat’s out of the bag: North Korea has cancelled the Pyongyang Marathon, the country’s largest tourism money-maker, because of COVID-19, according to the operators of several tour companies who spoke with AFP.
Beijing-based Koryo Tours, the official partner of the marathon, said on its website it had “received official confirmation today that the Pyongyang Marathon 2020 is cancelled”.
“This is due to the ongoing closure of the North Korean border and COVID-19 virus situation in China and the greater region,” it added.
North Korean officials have vehemently denied reports that the virus had crossed the Yalu River, evening becoming enraged at the US in response to an offer of assistance from the State Department. Recently, a WHO official said there are “no indications” that the virus has arrived in North Korea, but considering that we’re talking about North Korea, that’s hardly surprising.
As the lockdowns in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities intensified over the last week, more Chinese were subjected to displays like this:
Meanwhile in Tianjin
– It‘s just a flu. Everybody shut the door now. pic.twitter.com/3Gye4P4STR
— Russian Market (@russian_market) February 21, 2020
On Friday, Japanese health officials and Carnival Japan will release the last batch of passengers and crew from their 14-day quarantine aboard the ‘Diamond Princess’ despite criticisms from the CDC that Japanese officials had failed to maintain the quarantine. Right now, infectious disease experts see Japan as one of the riskiest places outside China, according to BBG. Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said on Sunday that Japan had lost track of the route of some of the infection cases, which have tripled in the past week to more than 90.
Iran just confirmed 13 more cases and 2 new deaths, mostly in Qoms, the same city where some earlier cases had been detected, while also reporting that the virus has reached Tehran, according to Reuters. So far, seven Iranians have been diagnosed in Qom, four in Tehran and two in Gilan, according to a tweet from the Iranian health ministry. Iranian officials have acknowledged the possibility that the virus might have arrived in every major Iranian city.
Even in Korea, health officials say they their investigators can’t figure out how some of the outbreaks started. That’s not exactly reassuring.
Right now, the focus is on South Korea. Last week, it briefly shifted to the UK before moving on to Japan. Italy just reported another three cases, doubling its count from 3 to six. Will they be next? Maybe Africa?