The number of coronavirus cases has spiked across Asia, crushing hopes that the region had contained the outbreak.
Officials in South Korea, Taiwan and parts of China and south-east Asia are rushing through new measures after a second wave of new infections following weeks of declines.
Experts say the sudden increase in cases has revealed the limits of both China’s sweeping lockdown of citizens and of the massive public testing and social distancing campaigns rolled out across Asia.
But it also highlights growing anxieties about new cases coming from abroad. The number of so-called imported infections has risen sharply as people flee the escalating coronavirus outbreak in Europe.
“What many people hadn’t recognised is that it is only a temporary success, it is not a permanent success,” said Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.
“There is a challenge to containment by the increasing number of imported infections in all of these locations at the moment from Europe, but in the future it could be from other parts of the world as well,” he added.
China has been slowly unwinding restrictions after the countrywide lockdown that began in December. However, the number of imported coronavirus cases has jumped to 155 from fewer than 50 two weeks ago, according to Chinese government statistics.
The National Immigration Administration said on Monday that about 120,000 people a day had entered China from abroad since the World Health Organization labelled the virus a pandemic on March 11.
More than a dozen provinces, from Beijing to the border province of Yunnan, said international visitors, regardless of their condition and travel history, would be placed in quarantine for 14 days. Travelers will have to pay for food and accommodation during their quarantine.
In South Korea, which has suffered Asia’s worst outbreak outside China, the emergence of new clusters and the risk of imported cases has rattled officials.
Authorities in Daegu — South Korea’s fourth-largest city where mass testing and isolation had led to a big reduction in new cases — are now increasing inspections at high-risk facilities after the emergence of new clusters at nursing homes and churches.
“We believe the next two to three weeks will be very crucial,” said Yoon Tae-ho, a senior government health official.
Taiwan is closing its borders to practically all foreigners and intensifying quarantine measures on its own citizens. The moves come after officials accelerated efforts this week to identify and test Taiwanese citizens who had travelled abroad and seen a doctor for flu-like symptoms on their return.
Taiwan’s growth rate of new cases had been one of the lowest in the region, with just 100 confirmed cases on Tuesday. But over the past two weeks, that number has started to climb with officials reporting at least 31 imported infections. On Wednesday, Taiwan reported 23 new cases, of which 21 were imported.
In Hong Kong, the number of cases climbed to 168 on March 17 from 116 on March 9, and almost 90 per cent of those new patients had travelled recently. Health officials reported 14 new cases on Wednesday, the highest registered in a single day and all but one came from overseas.
Overseas students have rushed home as the virus spread across Europe. The government has told symptomatic people not to travel and anyone travelling from abroad will be subject to 14 days self-isolation from Thursday.
The number of new infections in Singapore, which has been lauded for its quick action to control the number of cases, has jumped almost 90 per cent to 313 in the past week.
“We expect more imported cases and, therefore, new clusters and new waves of infection, this time coming from many countries rather than one or two,” Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, warned last week.
Reporting by Edward White in Wellington, Kathrin Hille in Taipei, Sun Yu in Beijing, Stefania Palma in Singapore, Alice Woodhouse and Primrose Riordan in Hong Kong
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