Coronavirus update: South Korea revises contact tracing over discrimination concerns, Australia’s unemployment rate rises, WHO says COVID-19 could be here to stay
South Korea has revised its coronavirus contact tracing protocol to prevent people’s travel routes from being shared publicly as concerns grow that LGBTQ people linked to an outbreak in Seoul could be outed or otherwise discriminated against.
In Australia, the unemployment rate has risen to 6.2 per cent and Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth has urged people to use common sense as restrictions begin to ease in some states.
This story is being updated throughout Thursday. You can also listen to the latest episode of the Coronacast podcast.
Thursday’s top stories
South Korea says it will stop sharing patients’ locations over concerns of LGBTQ discrimination
South Korean health authorities desperately trying to control a cluster of coronavirus infections in Seoul are revising their policy of publicly sharing patients’ travel routes.
After weeks of nearly no new domestic cases, the country has seen a new spike in infections centred around nightclubs and bars in the capital city, bringing the total number of cases to almost 11,000.
Authorities have tracked and tested thousands of people linked to the nightclubs, but are still looking for 2,000 people they have not been able to identify.
Local media outlets identified some of the nightclubs the first patient went to as gay bars, sparking concerns that LGBTQ people could be outed or discriminated against if they are identified among the patrons.
While clubs and bars were required to log the names and contact phone numbers for all visitors as a condition of reopening, much of the information turned out to be incomplete or false, officials said.
That has left officials combing through phone location data, CCTV footage and credit card records to try to identify some customers, while publicly pleading for people to come forward and be tested.
South Korea has typically released information like a patient’s age, gender, and places visited immediately before testing positive, as well as, in some cases, patients’ last names and general occupations.
Vice-Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said anonymous testing had been expanded and added that guidelines would be revised to “prevent excessive disclosure of a patient’s travel itinerary”.
This chart uses a logarithmic scale to highlight coronavirus growth rates. Read our explainer to understand what that means — and how COVID-19 cases are spreading around the world.
Malaysia to allow mass prayers in some areas ahead of Eid
Muslim-majority Malaysia will ease a ban on mass prayers in mosques ahead of this month’s Eid festival as it gradually relaxes coronavirus restrictions.
The capital, Kuala Lumpur, is among Malaysia’s federal territories which will allow prayers by congregations limited to 30 or fewer, said Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, the religious affairs minister.
“Even though worship in Islam is not confined only to mosques and suraus, it has a profound effect on the spiritual development of Muslims,” he said.
The measure excludes 12 of Malaysia’s states, which have their own laws on religious matters, but Mr Zulkifli said they were free to adopt similar measures if they wished.
Mass prayers have been banned since around mid-March in a partial lockdown after more than 2,300 people were infected in the country’s biggest outbreak, following a religious gathering at a mosque attended by about 16,000 people.
Although new daily cases have declined steadily, schools and colleges will stay closed until June 9.
Health authorities have identified six clusters involving Islamic religious schools, with 635 students and staff testing positive.
The news follows last week’s re-opening of many businesses in Malaysia, which has a tally of 6,819 infections and 112 deaths.
It comes ahead of the Eid holiday that ends the fasting month of Ramadan and falls on May 24 this year.
Melbourne McDonald’s cluster grows, NSW confirms four new cases
Victoria has recorded another nine cases of COVID-19 overnight, with two of those being household contacts of staff at a McDonald’s restaurant in Melbourne’s north.
That outbreak is now linked to eight cases. More than 90 staff have been tested and were sent into self-isolation pending the outcome of their tests.
Another three Cedar Meats Australia employees have also been diagnosed with COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases linked to the Melbourne abattoir to 90.
In New South Wales, Premier Gladys Berejiklian says four new cases of coronavirus have been confirmed from 9,700 tests.
She said authorities knew the sources of all but one of those cases.
“There’s one that there’s an extra bit of homework being done on how they may have acquired the disease,” she said.
Western Australia has confirmed one new case — a close contact of a previously confirmed case — while Queensland recorded no new cases in the past 24 hours.
In the daily coronavirus update, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth said Australia had carried out 933,000 COVID-19 tests so far, including 34,000 in the past day alone.
‘Tough day’ for Australia as unemployment figures released
Australia’s unemployment rate has risen to 6.2 per cent as a result of restrictions and business shutdowns caused by the pandemic.
Economists surveyed by Reuters had expected the unemployment rate for April to jump to 8.3 per cent.
However, ABC business reporter David Chau explained the result did not reflect the true damage to the economy:
“If you are on a JobSeeker payment from Centrelink, if you are not actively looking for work but you have lost your job, you are not accounted as unemployed.
“If you are receiving a JobKeeper payment because, let’s say your employer stood you down and you are working zero hours, you are still technically counted as employed.”
The monthly rise is nevertheless the steepest on record, with 594,300 people losing their jobs.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called it a “very tough day” for Australia, while Treasurer Scott Frydenberg said economic numbers would get worse before they get better.
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Safe to get back on the bus but too early to book a cruise
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth says Australia is in a unique position when it comes to the safety of returning to public transport and other shared spaces, but cautions that it is up to every individual to ensure they are healthy before they do so.
Commenting on recent photos of packed London Underground tubes, Dr Coatsworth said Australia was in a good position compared to other countries thanks to its high rate of testing and low number of cases in the community.
“That puts Australia in contrast to other nations, in a unique and good position by which we can start to open up and lift the restrictions,” he said.
“But that increased mobility, of course, means increased contact between people and, as we consider going back to work … we naturally turn our minds to things like returning to public transport, returning to shared communal areas, areas that we all know it is difficult to maintain physical distance within.
He also said while it was fine for Australians to take advantage of the relaxation to public gathering restrictions coming into effect in many states this weekend, people should use common sense.
“The key is, if you are invited to a friend ‘s place this weekend to catch up … if you are feeling at all unwell with a cough or a cold, ring up and apologise, defer it to next weekend, it’s not worth it,” he said.
“You can ask your friends if anyone in their family is unwell, make sure you perform excellent hand hygiene and when you go to your mate’s place … don’t give them a hug. We have to change those habits for the time of COVID-19 in 2020.”
Dr Coatsworth also remarked that despite restrictions easing and some companies ramping up advertising, now is not the time to be booking a cruise ship holiday.
“We have put in a three-step plan towards a recovery. Booking cruise ship holidays do not appear in those three steps,” he said.
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Trump says he doesn’t consider country reopened if schools are closed
US President Donald Trump is urging state governors to reopen schools and get children back into classrooms, pointedly taking issue with advice from the country’s top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci.
Dr Fauci used a Senate committee speech to warn the US Congress that a premature lifting of lockdowns could lead to additional outbreaks of coronavirus.
“We don’t know everything about this virus and we really better be pretty careful, particularly when it comes to children,” he told the committee.
At one point, he told members that “the idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the re-entry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far”.
But the President accused Dr Fauci of wanting to “play all sides of the equation”.
“I think they should open the schools, absolutely. I think they should,” he reporters at the White House.
“Our country’s got to get back and it’s got to get back as soon as possible. And I don’t consider our country coming back if the schools are closed.”
Japan lifts state of emergency, but Tokyo remains restricted
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has lifted a state of emergency across a large part of Japan, but Tokyo and Osaka will remain under restrictions until there is a convincing containment of the coronavirus.
Mr Abe lifted the emergency in 39 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. They account for more than half of Japan’s population.
“While controlling the spread of the virus as much as possible by acting on the premise that the virus is all around us, we will restore ordinary work and daily life,” Mr Abe said.
The world’s third-largest economy declared a nationwide state of emergency a month ago, urging citizens to reduce person-to-person contact by 80 per cent to slow the pace of COVID-19 infections and ease the strain on medical services.
So far Japan has reported more than 16,000 cases, including 678 deaths.
Economists said normalisation would be gradual as the Government keeps a wary eye on the possibility of a second wave of infections, as seen in countries such as South Korea and China.
Gold Coast Titans player allowed to return to training without a flu shot
Players agreeing to have the flu jab is part of the NRL’s strict biosecurity protocols that were put in place to allow the competition to recommence on May 28.
The Gold Coast Titans player had shared his views on the vaccination on social media, saying he would not “be bullied into making decisions that could impact my health”.
Queensland’s Chief Medical Officer Jeannette Young last week overruled an NRL waiver that would allow players to train and play without the jab if they had religious or conscientious objections. She said exemptions would only be made for medical reasons.
Cartwright provided documentation to club doctors and he will now be allowed to return to the playing squad to prepare for the season restart.
Brian Kelly has also been told he can return to Gold Coast training after receiving the flu shot on Thursday.
Ardern unveils $50 billion stimulus package to revive COVID-struck economy
New Zealand unveiled a record spending package worth $NZ50 billion ($46 billion) to revive an economy hit by the coronavirus pandemic, in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s pre-election budget.
The COVID-19 stimulus package includes:
- $NZ4 billion in business support including a $3.2 billion extension to NZ’s wage subsidy scheme
- $NZ3 billion for infrastructure including state housing
- $NZ1.6 billion for trades and apprenticeships
- $NZ1.1 billion for an environmental jobs package
- $NZ400 million for the tourism sector
The plan outlines $NZ15.9 billion of investment, with almost $NZ14 billion already allocated to previously announced initiatives, and about $NZ20 billion unspent.
It will be spent over a four-year forecast period and is more than any New Zealand government has ever spent in one budget.
“Nothing about this time in our history is usual and so neither should our response be,” Ms Ardern said in a speech to parliament.
Economic forecasts released with the budget cast a grim picture for the years ahead, with unemployment seen spiking to nearly 10 per cent by June. It’s currently at 4 per cent.
Gladys Berejiklian calls on states to remove travel restrictions
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has called on her counterparts in other states to remove their border closures.
“I’d probably feel offended if they told me how to do my job,” she said.
“[But] I often joke with the Queensland Premier that I’ll end up going to Auckland before I go to Brisbane if we continue the way we are going.”
Ms Berejiklian said she hoped if New South Wales continued to demonstrate strong infection control, other states would be comfortable easing border restrictions.
Since the pandemic began, Australia has recorded about 7,000 coronavirus cases, more than 3,000 of which are in NSW.
India pushes its contact tracing app
As Australia’s COVIDSafe surpasses 5.7 million downloads, India is aggressively pushing its own contact tracing app to fight the spread of COVID-19.
The Government’s app, Aarogya Setu or “Health Bridge”, has been touted as a key tool in bringing the outbreak under control in India. With more than 70,000 people already infected, the number of cases is expected to exceed China within a week.
Like COVIDSafe, Aarogya Setu uses Bluetooth signals on smartphones to record when people come in close contact with one another, so that contacts can be quickly alerted when a person tests positive for COVID-19.
But the Indian app also uses GPS location data to to help build a centralised database of the spread of the infection — an approach avoided by most countries, including Australia, for privacy reasons.
It mimics China’s health QR code system with a feature that rates a person’s likely health status with green, orange or red, indicating whether they are safe, at high risk or a carrier of the virus.
The Indian Government has made the app mandatory for all public and private sector employees returning to work, and anyone using the country’s massive rail network is also expected to install it.
WA announces return to school for all students
WA Premier Mark McGowan has announced the return of all students — public, Catholic and independent — to classrooms from next week.
He said exceptions would be made for students who were “medically vulnerable” or who had family members with chronic health issues.
But for others, absences would be marked as “unauthorised”.
“This decision has the support of all stakeholders in the education sector and our health experts,” Mr McGowan said.
Commuters in Adelaide warned to avoid busy trains, trams and buses
Photos posted on social media in the last few days have shown passengers on peak-hour services on the Adelaide Metro in clear breach of social distancing requirements.
The images come one week after the State Government took 50 of the network’s 70 diesel trains out of operation due to a mechanical fault.
SA Health guidelines state a minimum distance of 1.5 metres should be kept between people. This jumps to 4 square metres for every one person in enclosed spaces.
In response to a flurry of concern, Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier said it would be safer for passengers to avoid public transport in some circumstances.
“I think it would be much safer to avoid getting on any public transport where you can’t do the social distancing,” Dr Spurrier told Adelaide radio station FiveAA this morning.
Russia records lowest daily increase in weeks, but cases are now above 250,000
Russia has reported fewer than 10,000 cases for the first time since May 2, adding 9,974 confirmed cases to its coronavirus tally in the past 24 hours.
But the cases bring its total to more than a quarter of a million, with the nationwide tally now at 252,245.
It is second only to the United States in terms of total confirmed cases.
The country’s coronavirus response centre said 93 people died overnight, bringing the official death toll to 2,305, far below the 84,000 deaths recorded in the US.
Unemployment payment mutual obligations suspension extended
The Federal Government has again suspended so-called “mutual obligations” for people receiving unemployment benefits.
People on the Government’s JobSeeker program are usually required to fulfil requirements such as a certain number of job interviews.
They had already been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic until May 22 but that will be extended until June 1.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has also announced a temporary pause of penalties when mutual obligations return.
NRL union representing referees disputes plans to move from two referees to one
The union representing National Rugby League (NRL) referees has lodged a dispute notice with the Fair Work Commission over the NRL’s plans to move from two match referees to one.
The union said it has an enterprise bargaining agreement which runs until 2022 and the NRL does not have the right to change the agreement before then.
The NRL is due to play its first match in the restarted season in two weeks.
The union said it believes the dispute notice will force the NRL to have meaningful dialogue with match officials, which would enable resolution.
US immunologist warns of ‘darkest winter in modern history’
A whistleblower who alleges he was ousted from his US government job after warning the Trump administration to prepare for the pandemic has warned America faces its “darkest winter in modern history” unless it takes decisive action.
Immunologist Rick Bright made his sobering prediction in testimony prepared for his appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday (local time).
A federal watchdog agency found “reasonable grounds” that Dr Bright was removed from his post as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority after sounding the alarm at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Dr Bright alleged he became a target of criticism when he urged early efforts to invest in vaccine development and stock up on supplies.
“If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities,” he said.
US President Donald Trump has dismissed Dr Bright as “a disgruntled guy”.
More than 84,000 people have died in the United States, representing more than a quarter of the global death toll.
Brazil suffers record daily rise in cases
Brazil has confirmed 11,385 new cases in the past 24 hours, bringing its total count of coronavirus cases to 188,974.
The record daily rise means the country now has more cases than France, at 177,700 cases.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has locked horns with state governors for weeks over the lockdowns, saying they are causing more damage through lost jobs than the disease itself.
“It will reach the point where hungry people take to the streets,” he said.
He escalated the fight this week by declaring gyms and beauty salons as “essential” services that can open for business.
Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state which has the most cases, will not comply with the decree, despite the threat of legal action. Governor Joao Doria’s comments on Wednesday (local time) echoed those made by at least 10 other governors.
WHO says coronavirus may be here to stay
The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief Michael Ryan says it’s possible coronavirus may be here to stay and that it’s impossible to predict when the pandemic might be controlled.
He said the number of people infected by COVID-19 so far was relatively low. Without a vaccine, he said it could take years for the population to build up sufficient levels of immunity to it.
“I think it’s important to put this on the table. This virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities and this virus may never go away,” he said.
He pointed out that other previously novel diseases such as HIV have never disappeared, but that effective treatments have been developed to allow people to live with the disease.
However, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said stopping the virus was possible, even without medical interventions.
About 5 per cent of Spanish population has been infected, study suggests
Spanish health officials say large-scale testing for coronavirus has demonstrated there is no herd immunity in the country.
The head of the National Epidemiology Centre, Marina Pollan, said that a major ongoing survey suggested that so far about 5 per cent of the population — around 2 million people — has been infected by the virus.
Officials have presented preliminary results from the survey, which started in the last week of April and is scheduled to last eight weeks, of 30,000 households that were tested for the virus.
Dr Pollan said the survey had revealed deep regional differences, with the worst-hit areas showing a number of infections five times higher than in the least-affected parts of the country.
Spain has almost 229,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, far short of the true figure suggested by the survey, with 27,000 deaths.
Just over half of Spain’s population progressed to the second phase of a four-step lockdown-easing plan this week. But Madrid and Barcelona remain in the preparatory phase.
‘Should come back to normal in 2023’: long recovery expected for airlines
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says it will take longer than first thought for air traffic to recover from the coronavirus crisis.
“We have published today a new forecast about the potential recovery of the air traffic and what we see is that things should come back to normal in 2023,” director-general Alexandre de Juniac told ABC News Breakfast.
He said that at the end of this year, air traffic should be “between 50 to 55 per cent” of where it was in 2019.
Mr Juniac said there was the risk that some airlines would go bankrupt as a result of the pandemic.
Hong Kong protesters defy social distancing rules
Hundreds of protesters have gathered in shopping malls across Hong Kong, defying social distancing rules to mock unpopular Chief Executive Carrie Lam on her birthday.
A heated exchange between a man armed with an umbrella and a police officer resulted in the crowd and some journalists being pepper sprayed at New Town Plaza in Shatin.
It was the latest sign social unrest was resurfacing in Hong Kong as the city has proven relatively successful at tackling the coronavirus, having recorded 1,051 cases and 4 deaths.
While the Government has allowed bars, gyms and cinemas to reopen and civil servants to come back to work, it maintains that group gatherings should be limited to 8 people.
Social distancing rules largely put a brake on mass protests since January, but demonstrations are expected to pick up steam into the summer.
FBI warns of hacking threat
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s cyber division has warned that hackers backed by the Chinese Government may be attempting to steal the work of researchers dealing with the response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Both the FBI and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said that health care and pharmaceutical researchers need to be alert to potential attacks and should take measures to protect their data.
Neither organisation released names of any specific institutions that had been targeted.
The Department of Justice said institutions that have received media attention for their efforts related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, should assume that they would be targeted and should take precautions.
“The potential theft of this information jeopardises the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.
It comes amid heightened tensions between the two countries over the source of the outbreak and Trump administration complaints that China did not adequately alert the world to the danger posed by the new coronavirus.
US authorities have also long said that Chinese Government hackers have stolen economic and academic data.
Robert De Niro criticises President Trump in BBC interview
Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro said United States President Donald Trump “doesn’t even care” how many people die from coronavirus during an interview with the BBC.
De Niro spoke about life in New York during the pandemic and the US leadership, calling it “scary” that there wasn’t a stronger criticism to Mr Trump’s coronavirus response.
In the interview the Hollywood star also praised the response of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo but spent most of it criticising Mr Trump.
The US state of California is lifting many coronavirus restrictions today, despite the state recording at least 500 deaths a week for the past month.
EU may spend billions to fund vaccine development
The European Commission is weighing using a 2.4 billion euro ($4.1 billion) emergency fund to boost pharmaceutical labs’ capacity, fearing that even if a COVID-19 vaccine is developed the EU may not be able to produce enough shots, a document seen by Reuters shows.
More than 90 vaccines are currently being developed to attempt to treat the virus, which has killed at least 290,000 people worldwide.
Eight of the vaccines are in the clinical trial phase but experts say the large-scale manufacture of a successful vaccine may be as challenging as developing one.
“As long as vaccine production capacity is limited,” the EU should devise a plan to ramp up manufacturing and initially distribute shots only to those most in need, the internal EU document says.
Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides floated the ideas for the first time last week to European Union health ministers, who broadly supported them, according to two officials who attended their videoconference. But no decision has yet been made.
The head of French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, which is also a global leader in vaccine making, warned the EU in April that in the current pandemic the manufacturing of vaccines posed more challenges than their actual development.
Estimating production capacity needs is hard, because nobody yet knows the composition of a potential COVID-19 shot or how many doses would be needed per person.
Serie A sets return date
The 20 teams in Italy’s top league, Serie A, have agreed to resume competition on June 13 in empty stadiums.
The date is subject to approval by the Italian Government, however.
Earlier, Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said full team training will restart on May 18 after a revised medical protocol was approved amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The clubs have already resumed training on an individual basis.
Players and backroom staff will be closely monitored and tested and if one person tests positive for COVID-19, the whole club will have to go into quarantine for two weeks.
There are 12 rounds remaining in Serie A, plus four matches that were postponed from the 25th round. Also, the Italian Cup is in the semi-final stage.
Wuhan kicks off mass testing campaign
Authorities in the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus first emerged have launched an ambitious campaign to test all of its 11 million residents, after a cluster of new cases raised fears of a second wave of infections.
At least two of the city’s main districts delivered notices of the campaign door-to-door and sent out online questionnaires through community workers seeking information about tests people have had, and if they belong to what are deemed high-risk groups, residents said.
“To better make use of nucleic acid tests as a monitoring tool and in accordance of the state cabinet’s requirements to expand testing, we’ve decided after consideration to conduct testing for all residents,” according to a questionnaire sent to residents of the city’s Wuchang district, which has a population of about 1.2 million.
Residents of two city districts, Wuchang and Hankou, the latter with a population of more than 2.6 million, said they had been told to provide personal details including any history of nucleic acid tests and whether they belonged to any of 12 “key groups”.
The tests would include both nucleic acid and serum anti-body tests, according to a notice issued by Wuchang district.
The 12 “key groups” include confirmed and asymptomatic coronavirus cases and their close contacts, people with a fever, school, medical, transport, bank, supermarket and government workers, and people coming back from overseas or who plan to leave Wuhan for work.
Broadway actor wakes up from induced coma
Tony Award-nominated actor Nick Cordero, who had his right leg amputated after suffering complications from coronavirus, has woken up from a medically-induced coma.
His wife, Amanda Kloots, shared the news on her Instagram, writing, “Nick is starting to follow commands and doing simple tracking”.
“He is very weak so even just opening his eyes is a struggle, but it is happening. He is starting to wake up!“
Cordero entered intensive care in Los Angeles on March 31 and had been on a ventilator and unconscious after contracting COVID-19.
His wife said he had no pre-existing health conditions and suffered an infection after being admitted to hospital.
Cordero played a mob soldier with a flair for the dramatic in 2014 in Broadway’s Woody Allen 1994 film adaptation of Bullets Over Broadway, for which he received a Tony nomination for best featured actor in a musical.
Promising results from Russian drug trials
A candidate drug for treating the new coronavirus, favipiravir, has produced promising results in early clinical trials in Russia, according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which provided 150 million roubles ($3.2 million) in funding for the project.
RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev said 60 per cent of the 40 coronavirus patients taking tablets of favipiravir tested negative for the virus within five days and said the treatment could cut coronavirus recovery times in half.
Favipiravir is the generic name for Avigan, a drug developed in Japan in the late 1990s that works by short-circuiting the reproduction mechanism of certain RNA viruses such as influenza.
Russia, which has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases behind the United States, is also testing vaccine prototypes on animals, while the RDIF has diverted funds to produce more tests domestically.
The clinical trial of 330 patients infected with the coronavirus should be finished by the end of May, said the company conducting the trials.