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Coronavirus Cases Across Asia Are Again On The Rise


More than 18 million people around the world have gotten COVID-19. The U.S. has the highest death toll, but in Asia, cases are surging again. That includes China, Japan and Vietnam that previously had relatively few cases. To help us understand what's going on there, we've got three of our colleagues in Asia on the line. NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul, and Michael Sullivan is in Thailand. Hi, everyone.



EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Emily, let's start with you. What's the situation in China and Hong Kong now?

FENG: We've seen three small clusters emerge. The first and most mysterious is in Xinjiang, which is this far western region. The first cases were detected in mid-July, and now more than 600 people have tested positive there, almost all of them in the region's capital. And what's a little anxiety-inducing is authorities still do not know after extensive contact tracing how that cluster even started.

The second cluster is in the port city of Dalian, which is in the northeast of China - far, far away from Xinjiang - where there have been about 90 new infections, all traced back to a seafood processing plant. That northeast region has had a number of small clusters in recent months because of international travelers, mostly coming from Russia and bringing the virus with them.

And the third new cluster we've seen is in Hong Kong, where there have been more than 300 new cases, likely because of exemptions made to mandatory quarantine requirements for some international travelers who came to Hong Kong.

KING: OK, so massive country, clusters in certain specific places. Anthony, Japan, a much smaller country, is also seeing a new surge in cases. What's happening there?

KUHN: Well, cases started out pretty slow, and then they rose to a peak of about 700 new ones a day in April. And then the government declared a state of emergency, which lasted until late May, and new cases dropped back down. And that prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to talk about a successful Japanese model of managing the virus, and that assessment has not aged so well. Last week, Japan saw record-breaking new levels of infection at about double the peak in April. And from the timing, many of the infections appear to have come from a national holiday last month, when the Japanese government rolled out a tourism promotion plan, which they did despite the objections of local governments and health experts who felt that it would just spread the virus further.

KING: Sure. And let me ask you about South Korea because in the U.S., we have seen ourselves compared unfavorably. South Korea got organized very quickly, got things done. How - are they still doing well?

KUHN: Yeah. They peaked in late February. They flattened the curve, and it stayed flat. They've had a couple of upticks, but basically, their aim is to keep cases - new cases in the double digits, which their hospital system and their testing and contact-tracing system can handle. And they've done it.

KING: Very good news. Michael, Vietnam is an interesting case because for a long time, for months, there were no cases of COVID, and there were no deaths either. It was remarkable. It seems that is no longer the case.

SULLIVAN: No. And they don't know why either. I mean, the country has been almost completely closed to foreign arrivals for months. Vietnam went for more than three months without a single case of local transmission until this one in the coastal city of Danang a little over a week ago. It's a place popular with domestic tourists. More cases quickly followed, and now there's nearly 200. That's in just over a week. The vast majority of them are in Danang - and at least eight deaths.

And more worrisome, there are also a few cases in the capital, Hanoi, and in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon in the South. Almost all of those cases were people who travelled to Danang for vacation. So they're afraid the genie is out of the bottle, but, again, they don't know how, and they don't know why. And the prime minister is warning that there's a very short window for containing this latest outbreak - less than two weeks.

KING: All right, so I'm hearing a common thread here. These countries lifted regulations. They allowed people to travel in. The virus seems to have come back - not good news. Let me ask you each - how are authorities there dealing with this? Anthony, we'll start with you.

KUHN: In Japan, the central government says that they don't need to declare another state of emergency yet because the patients compared to the spring peak are younger, the cases are less severe, and they can generally trace the roots of infection. But local governments do not agree with that assessment, and in the case of, for example, the island of Okinawa, they're not waiting for the central government to declare another state of emergency. They've done their own. And now the capital, Tokyo, is considering doing so, as well.

And whenever these infections spike, citizens demand stronger measures from the government, and critics say the Abe administration - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration's response has been weak, and that's why his ratings have suffered as a result.

KING: Emily, how about China?

FENG: China has this pretty set pattern that they now follow whenever a cluster of new cases emerges. First, they do the soft seal of the city, so they encourage residents not to leave, and they only let those with recent negative COVID tests enter. They cut transport lines into the city. They reduce the number of intercity bus routes, so they isolate it. And then they do mass pool testing. In Dalian, one of the clusters, for example, they've tested 3 million people already, which is about half of the city's total population.

KING: And, Michael, what is Vietnam doing?

SULLIVAN: They're going to do the same thing that they did to beat the virus the first time around - aggressive contact tracing, quarantining and testing for those who may have been in contact with the new cases. Authorities in Danang say they're going to test the entire population of the city. That's about a million people. But it's hard to see how they're going to do that in the time frame the prime minister was talking about. Parts of the city are now under lockdown, and the government says if it finds outbreaks in other areas, not just single cases, it'll lock down entire neighborhoods or entire villages if necessary. But there's no plan to lock down the entire country, not yet at least.

KING: Emily, I want to ask you a last question quickly about how this is affecting China's economy. They just announced these great new factory numbers, which is surprising.

FENG: They've gotten very good at isolating clusters so they do not have to shut down the rest of the country, even as there are a few hundred new cases being concentrated and reported elsewhere.

KING: Emily Feng in Beijing, Michael Sullivan in Thailand and Anthony Kuhn in Seoul, thanks, you guys. We appreciate it.

KUHN: Thank you, Noel.

FENG: Thank you.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.