Coronavirus: A testing time for Asia

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Updated 27 February 2020

Coronavirus: A testing time for Asia

  • Governments in Malaysia and Singapore have released awareness pamphlets to fight fake news both on and offline
  • Sri Lanka remains free from coronavirus after its only infected patient from China recovers

Health fears are rising across the Middle East after Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Iraq reported their first cases of the coronavirus earlier this week following a nationwide outbreak in Iran.

The Iranian government has vowed to be transparent after being accused of covering up the deadliest outbreak of the virus (known as Covid-19) outside China, confirming 139 cases of the infection and a death toll of 19 people to date.

Infected Iranian travelers across the Middle East have also been identified as carriers of the coronavirus, leading many Arab states to close their borders to Iran in addition to China and South Korea.

Several European countries have announced their first cases, including Austria, Croatia and Switzerland, after an outbreak in Italy was announced earlier this week.

Overall, Covid-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, has infected more than 81,000 people worldwide in two months, claiming the lives of close to 3,000 people.

The following are stories from around Asia as efforts to contain the coronavirus threat continue.




Kuwaiti women wear protective masks as they sit in a restaurant inside the Mubarakiya Market in Kuwait City. (AFP)

Malaysia, Singapore

Malaysia and Singapore are fighting fake news both on and offline, following the global spread of Covid-19 which first emerged in China in January this year, officials told Arab News.

Singapore NGO worker Mathilda Ho told Arab News that a wave of panic and anxiety swept through Singapore after authorities there raised the disease outbreak response system condition (DORSCON) level to orange two weeks ago.

“A number of citizen journalists and the media reported stockpiling to the point where aisles of rice or staples and even paper products such as toilet paper were wiped off the shelves at supermarkets,” said Ho.

Xenophobia against Asians and the Chinese community has also increased online, including in Malaysia and Singapore, prompting both governments to invoke laws against such activities. Since last month, Malaysian authorities have arrested 12 people and Singapore has detained four individuals for alleged hate-related incidents.

In a bid to deflate the online “infodemic,” the two neighbors have also released pamphlets in four languages — English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil — while the Singapore government launched a catchy rap song asking people to maintain hygiene.

Dr. Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, told Arab News that both governments were trying to keep their populations calm but he criticized authorities for not acting sooner.

“In Singapore, earlier public messaging about what to do at different alert levels might have helped reduce some of the panic buying, hoarding, and profiteering that came after the (Prime Minister) Lee (Hsien Loong) administration raised health alert levels,” said Chong.

FASTFACTS

  • Global cases of the coronavirus have passed 81,000.
  • The proportion of infected people who die is about 3 percent.
  • There have been 2,770 deaths worldwide, with the majority in mainland China.
  • The main signs of infection are fever, a cough and breathing difficulties.
  • Origins of virus linked to illegally traded wildlife at Wuhan’s seafood market.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan has banned all travel to and from Iran after officials reported on Sunday that three Afghans who had recently returned from the country could be suspected carriers of the coronavirus.

Blood samples of the three elderly men, now in hospital in the western city of Herat, which borders Iran, have been sent to Kabul for tests, Waheed Mayar, head of foreign relations for the Ministry of Public Health told Arab News.

“We do not know how long it will take to find out if they really have coronavirus or not. They were tested at the border and it could be the virus, or any other illness related to cold weather,” he said.

The development adds to the vulnerabilities faced by Afghanistan with its close proximity to China. Mayar said the government had set up health checks at all airports and border crossings with Iran and Pakistan, China’s other neighbor and main trading partner.

“These teams are screening those people who have had exit visas from China dating to one month back. All their details are recorded, and our teams are in contact with them to check if there is any possible sign of the virus on them,” he added.

Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Gran Hewad, told Arab News that 62 Afghan students were currently residing in Wuhan, where the outbreak originated.

Khan Jan Alokozai, deputy head of Afghanistan’s Chambers of Commerce said Kabul had halted all of its imports from China.

“It (coronavirus) has also affected business, imports and exports to and from China for us too. Each week, we used to dispatch by air 40 tons of goods, pine nuts mostly, but that has come to a halt,” he added.

India

Fearing a radical slowdown in the country’s manufacturing sectors, India’s premier industry body the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has urged the government to set up a special taskforce to deal with the impact of coronavirus on imports from China.

Two of the CII’s key demands include the “lowering of import duty” in addition to the provision of “easy credit to manufacturers.”

The CII serves as a reference point for Indian industry and the international business community, with more than 9,000 members representing both small- and large-scale industries and 300,000 indirect members from the country.

“The coronavirus pandemic in China is impacting critical inputs for the Indian industry which may adversely impact small businesses. A joint government-industry taskforce can institute risk mitigation measures on an immediate basis,” said Chandrajit Banerjee, the CII’s director general.

“There is no call for panic as Indian industry is resilient and can enhance domestic production to meet temporary shortfalls,” he added.

According to the CII, China supplies 43 percent of India’s imports of the top 20 goods, including mobile handsets ($7.2 billion imported from China), computers ($3 billion), integrated circuits and other inputs ($7.5 billion), fertilizers ($1.5 billion), API ($1.4 billion), and antibiotics ($1.1 billion).

India also imports goods worth more than $1 billion from China, particularly in the pharma, fertilizers, medical devices, inorganic chemicals, and textile sectors.

The CII stated in its report that “the pharma sector is particularly vulnerable as it (the outbreak) is a matter of health of Indian citizens.”

Sudarshan Jain, of the Indian Pharmaceutical Association, told Arab News: “We need to be cautious and not create unnecessary speculation in the market.”

Another sector hit has been the toy industry. With only 30 percent of inventory left, there has been a spike in toy prices in recent days.

“The next supply is expected in April end or May first week. Until then, we will have to live with a supply constraint,” said Vipin Nijhawan of the Toy Association of India.

 

Sri Lanka

As one of Asia’s top tourist destinations still free from coronavirus, officials in Sri Lanka said that they had embarked on a chain of preventive measures to maintain the island nation’s status quo and keep the disease off its shores.

Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, chief epidemiologist at the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Colombo, told Arab News that from the time the World Health Organization had declared a global emergency, Sri Lankan authorities had been on red alert and were vigilantly monitoring all airports and entry points.

To facilitate the process, the government had put a stop on all online and on-arrival visas for tourists from China which topped the list of countries with maximum visitors to Sri Lanka.

Samaraweera added that more than 1,600 people, including students, who had arrived from China and affected areas there, were being monitored by public health inspectors throughout the country, and 14 specialized hospitals had been equipped to deal with cases. So far, the hospitals had treated 178 suspected cases, including 47 foreigners.

“There was one Chinese woman from Wuhan, who showed symptoms and she was discharged from the hospital after testing negative. A group of 33 students who were brought into the country by a special charter from Wuhan, are completing nine days of quarantine in an army hospital and will be discharged soon once all is clear,” he added. 

 

Bangladesh

Bangladesh has taken all necessary measures to contain the spread of coronavirus in the country, with no confirmed cases reported so far, health officials told Arab News on Sunday.

In addition to beefing up screening procedures at airports, land ports, and seaports, a round-the-clock hotline service and special quarantine units have been installed at all government-run hospitals.

According to officials from the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), 291,126 visitors had been screened for the virus between Jan. 21 and Feb. 23, and 17,253 had been tested in the past 24 hours.

“We are on alert for passengers from Singapore, as it has the second-highest local transmission rate after China,” Dr. A. S. M. Alamgir, chief of the IEDCR coronavirus control room, told Arab News.

Nearly 175 Bangladeshi students are stranded in Yichang, the second-largest city in China’s Hubei province after its capital Wuhan.

“To date, we haven’t seen any symptoms of the virus and are expecting to release them soon,” said Alamgir, who is also the principal scientific officer at the IEDCR.

 

Philippines

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is keen to promote domestic tourism to help the economy.

While there have been three confirmed cases of Covid-19 infections in the Philippines, none of them were Filipino, with all three reported to be Chinese visitors.

Through a video message posted by the Philippine authorities, Duterte encouraged the public to boost local tourism by visiting the “many wonderful places that the Philippines has to offer.”

“To my fellow Filipinos, I encourage you to travel with me around the Philippines. I assure you that everything is safe in our country,” Duterte said.

“Come with me and be my travel companion. I’ll be traveling around the Philippines,” he added.

He noted that airlines, hotels and resorts had “agreed to lower their rates so that we can be a viable market.”

The Philippines has imposed travel restrictions on visitors from China and its administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Department of Tourism (DoT) said the coronavirus threat has resulted in foregone revenue for the month of February estimated around 14.8 billion pesos.

 * Input from: Nor Arlene Tan, Kuala Lumpur; Sayed Salahuddin, Kabul; Sanjay Kumar, New Delhi; Mohammed Rasooldeen, Colombo; Shehab Sumon, Dhaka; Ellie Aben, Manila


Mafias looking to gain from Italy’s economic losses

A police car passes the Maschio Angioino castle, as Italy struggles to contain the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Naples on Sunday. (Reuters)
Updated 31 March 2020

Mafias looking to gain from Italy’s economic losses

  • Businesses at risk of bankruptcy due to coronavirus lockdown may turn to organized crime to stay afloat

ROME: As Italy mourns nearly 11,000 dead from coronavirus, and braces for the devastation of the eurozone’s third-largest economy, investigators in the country believe that organized crime is looking to capitalize on the situation.

The Economist Intelligence Unit last week said it expects Italy’s gross domestic product to contract by a colossal 7 percent for the year.
Italian experts believe that some 65 percent of small and medium businesses in the country are at risk of bankruptcy. That is music to the mob’s ears.
Italy’s mafias, from the historic Cosa Nostra in Sicily to the immensely powerful ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria and the trigger-happy Camorra in Naples, were “caught on the back foot by the virus, but are now organizing themselves,” Bologna’s Chief Prosecutor Ignazio de Francisci told Arab News.
Last weekend, Italy’s secret service warned the government of potential riots in the country’s south, fomented by organized crime, should the virus epicenter move from north to south.
The mob was believed by some crime experts to have orchestrated revolts in jails nationwide early on in the pandemic, with prisoners demanding early release, fearful of catching the disease in overcrowded facilities.
“The mob will be looking for loopholes in the system. We’ll have to keep our eyes open for suspicious operations, the creation of new companies, dummy corporations,” said De Francisci, who was a member of the anti-mafia judiciary established in the Palermo Court by Judge Giovanni Falcone, who was killed along with his wife and three security escorts in 1992 when a bomb exploded under their car on a Sicilian motorway.
Giuseppe Pignatone, a former mafia-hunter in the city of Reggio Calabria who was recently appointed by Pope Francis as chief justice in the Vatican, said the epidemic will “inevitably make the judiciary’s job more difficult over the coming weeks and years.”
Italian anti-Camorra author Roberto Saviano, who lives under police protection, said in an article in La Repubblica daily: “Just look at the portfolio of the mafias, to see how much they can earn from this pandemic.”
He added: “Where have they invested the last few decades? Multi-service companies (canteens, cleaning, disinfection), waste recycling, transportation, funeral homes, oil and food distribution. That’s how they’ll make money. The mafias know what you have, and will need, and they give it, and will give it, on their own terms.”
Saviano, who wrote “Gomorra,” a bestseller on the illegal activities of the Camorra, recalled the last big epidemic in Italy, the 1884 cholera outbreak in Naples, which killed more than half of the city’s inhabitants.
At the time, the government paid out immense sums for a cleanup, most of which went straight into the Camorra’s pockets.
It could be the same story this time. “The mafia is already carefully planning ahead to when the economy will start to be rebuilt,” said De Francisci.
Mafias are believed to be selling medical-grade masks originally intended for hospitals on the dark web, and they also have influence in the supply of groceries. They have an estimated turnover of €120 billion ($133 billion) per year.

HIGHLIGHT

Italian experts believe that some 65 percent of small and medium businesses in the country are at risk of bankruptcy. That is music to the mob’s ears.

And they are preparing for a cocaine boom when people come out of quarantine. According to a police report, mafia-linked drug dealers are already dodging the strict limits on movements placed on Italians by posing as pizza drivers and doing home deliveries.
A wave of mafia-linked extortion rackets is also predicted in the wake of the financial disaster caused by the virus.
The closures of restaurants and hotels will have a devastating effect. If money does not come from the state soon, many will fail. And in order not to fail, business owners could turn to criminal organizations.
Despite the nation’s public debt and its difficult relations with the EU and the European Central Bank, Italy’s government has already started pumping billions of euros to subsidize those who are not receiving a salary due to the closure of the businesses in which they were employed.
And Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that mayors this week will issue food vouchers to help low-income people cope with the economic consequences of coronavirus.
Using an initial €400 million fund, and with an advance payment of €4.3 billion, the government wants to help the poorest sections of society.
Local municipalities will have to use this fund to buy food, medicines and other essential goods for citizens with low incomes.
This came after police with batons and guns moved in to protect supermarkets in Sicily after reports of looting by locals who could no longer afford food.
A group of locals ran out of a supermarket in the city of Palermo without paying. “We have no money to pay. We have to eat,” someone reportedly shouted at the cashiers.
Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando, who is recognized worldwide as one of the most engaged politicians against organized crime, told Arab News: “We’re sure that the mafia is behind all this. The state has to be watchful and provide municipalities with enough financial resources so that those in need won’t go to the mob for protection and support.”