Asia Today: Hong Kong increasing coronavirus testing

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Teachers check dividers on desks in a class ahead of school reopening at Junghwa Girls High School in Daegu, South Korea, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. South Korean Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip urged vigilance to maintain hard-won gains against the virus and called for education officials to double check preventive measures with high-school seniors returning to school on Wednesday. (Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap via AP)

BANGKOK – Hong Kong’s leader says the city is ramping up testing for the coronavirus, especially for workers at the busy international airport and caregivers at homes for the elderly and disabled.

Carrie Lam said Tuesday that tests will be increased from 4,500 to 7,000 daily, with both the government health department and university laboratories taking part.

Hong Kong has gone several days without reporting new local infections, but a recent family cluster has increased concerns about those who show no symptoms passing the virus on to others, which the authorities hope can be remedied by increased testing.

Hong Kong on Tuesday also confirmed the extension of social distancing measures for two more weeks until June 4, meaning they will be in effect during the annual commemoration of the June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square that is normally marked with a rally and march in Hong Kong.

A Mother’s Day march by the opposition camp was banned last week, with critics saying the government was seeking to use social distancing measures to squelch political gatherings and free speech.

“There is no political consideration at all related to certain anniversaries or political gatherings. Our only consideration is related to public safety and public health,” Lam said Tuesday before the decision was announced.

Hong Kong, a densely populated city of more than 7 million people just across the border from mainland China, has recorded just 1,055 COVID-19 cases and four deaths.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— INDIA PASSES 100,000 CASES: The number of coronavirus cases in India has surged past 100,000, and infections are now on the rise in the home states of migrant workers who left cities and towns during the nationwide lockdown. India’s Health Ministry on Tuesday reported a total of 101,139 cases of the coronavirus and 3,163 deaths. Over the past week, India has seen an average of almost 4,000 news cases a day, with states such as West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Gujarat, the major contributors of the migrant labor workforce in the country, showing major spurts in infections amid relaxed lockdown rules.

— INDONESIA'S CAPITAL EXTENDS RESTRICTIONS: This year's celebration marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan will be muted in Indonesia’s capital, with authorities extending coronavirus restrictions. Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan announced Tuesday that restrictions initially slated to end Friday will be extended to June 4. He urged Muslims to suspend communal gatherings, including religious activities in mosques, during Eid-al Fitr, which falls on Sunday. Muslims usually congregate for Eid prayers in mosques and fields, and share meals among communities. Jakarta has become the center of the COVID-19 outbreak in Indonesia, recording 6,155 confirmed cases with 470 fatalities. Nationwide, 18,496 cases have been recorded, including 1,221 deaths.

— AUSTRALIA CRITICIZES CHINA TARIFFS: Australia’s trade minister has described as “deeply disappointing” China’s imposition of tariffs of around 80% on Australian barley in a dispute that has been linked to Australian support for a coronavirus inquiry. The tariffs come a week after China banned beef imports from Australia’s four largest abattoirs over labeling issues. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said Australia could appeal to the World Trade Organization to resolve both disputes. In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China is looking into trade issues between the sides in accordance with related laws and World Trade Organization rules. Australian barley farmer Andrew Weidemann said China has been investigating Australian barley for 18 months, but Australia’s call for a coronavirus inquiry “didn’t help.”

— SOUTH KOREA SCHOOLS TO REOPEN: South Korea has reported 13 new coronavirus cases, a possible sign that a recent outbreak in the capital area is stabilizing, as officials prepare to reopen schools. Nine of the new cases were from Seoul and nearby regions, where dozens of infections have been linked to club goers who went out in early May as the country began relaxing social distancing measures. Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip urged vigilance to maintain hard-won gains against the virus and called for education officials to double check preventive measures with high-school seniors returning to school on Wednesday.

— SIX NEW CHINA CASES: China reported six new cases Tuesday, a day after President Xi Jinping announced his country will provide $2 billion to help deal with the outbreak and its economic fallout. Three of the new cases were listed as imported. Two were registered as local infections in Jilin province, and another local case was identified in Hubei province, where China's outbreak was centered. Authorities in Hubei carried out nucleic acid tests on more than 1.5 million people between May 11 and May 17. More than 72.5% of the tests were administered in Wuhan, where authorities plan to eventually test all 11 million residents as part of safeguards against a second wave of virus cases. Wuhan and surrounding cities in Hubei accounted for the bulk of China’s reported 82,690 cases and 4,634 deaths from COVID-19. Xi’s appearance via video link at the World Health Assembly on Monday came amid finger-pointing between the U.S. and China over the pandemic, and the World Health Organization bowing to calls from most of its member states to launch an independent inquiry into how it managed the response to the coronavirus.