Asia Today: Cruise ship in Philippine waters to return crew

BANGKOK (AP) — A cruise ship being investigated in Australia for sparking coronavirus infections has sailed into Philippine waters to bring Filipino crewmen home.

The Philippine coast guard said Thursday the Ruby Princess will drop anchor in Manila Bay, where at least 16 other cruise ships have converged since last month while waiting for more than 5,000 Filipino crewmembers to be tested for the coronavirus before disembarking.

Coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said 214 Filipino crewmen on board the Ruby Princess will be tested.

The Ruby Princess has been linked to 19 deaths in Australia and two in the United States. An Australian government inquiry is underway into why 2,700 passengers and crew were allowed to disembark in Sydney on March 19 before the test results of sick passengers were known.

Many passengers flew from Sydney overseas. Two died at home in the United States, including Los Angeles resident Chung Chen, whose family is suing Princess Cruises for more than $1 million in a lawsuit alleging it failed to alert passengers to the risk.

— CHINA RESPONDS TO POMPEO: China is firing back at U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim that there is “enormous evidence” that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory, accusing him of “making up lies and covering up a lie by fabricating more lies.” The strong language from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying at a Thursday briefing came as President Donald Trump and his allies continue to express confidence in an unsubstantiated theory linking the origin of the outbreak to a possible accident at a Chinese lab. U.S. officials say they are still exploring the subject and describe the evidence as purely circumstantial. But Trump, aides say, has embraced the notion to further highlight China’s lack of transparency. “Under the situation that no scientists and experts can even draw any conclusions, why did Secretary Pompeo want to rush to the conclusion to hold the Wuhan laboratory accountable? Where is his evidence?,” Hua told reporters, while defending the integrity of the Wuhan lab. “Show us. If he can’t, is he still in the middle of concocting this so-called evidence?”

— BACK IN THE AIR: South Korea’s largest airline will resume some flights next month to expand cargo transport and prepare for a possible increase in travelers as countries ease their coronavirus restrictions. Despite the increased flights, Korean Air said it will still be operating only 32 of its 110 international routes in June. Korean Air has said the coronavirus pandemic has pushed South Korean airlines into an existential crisis and called for stronger government support. The company is currently rotating 70% of its 20,000 workers on six months paid leave.

— SINGAPORE CASES SURGE: The number of people infected in Singapore surged past 20,000 as more foreign workers living in crowded dormitories were diagnosed. The city-state reported 788 new cases to take its total to 20,198. Foreign workers living in dorms accounted for nearly 90% of the cases. Officials expected the upsurge as they test residents in the locked-down dormitories. Singapore will let selected businesses operate from May 12 in a gradual easing of a two-month lockdown that is due to end June 1.

— CHINA’S ASSISTANCE: China is touting its assistance to countries struck by the coronavirus, saying it has provided direct government aid to 150 nations, including millions of testing kits. “The virus knows no borders. Unity and cooperation is international society’s most powerful weapon to defeat the epidemic,” the foreign ministry said in a statement to The Associated Press. It said China has been providing within its means, including, 3.3 million testing kits, 2.6 million gowns, 53 million masks and 729 ventilators, among other supplies. Additionally, $50 has been donated directly to the World Health Organization.

— CHINA DOWNGRADES VIRUS RISK: The government on Thursday declared all areas of the vast country downgraded from high to low virus risk, as the numbers of new cases falls to near zero and no new deaths have been reported in more than three weeks. The last region to be downgraded was Linkou county outside the city of Mudanjiang in the province of Heilongjiang that borders on Russia and where the most recent spike in cases had been reported. Authorities shut an emergency field hospital in the region after the closing of the land border and strict social distancing measures appeared to have effectively brought the number of new cases to zero. China’s National Health Administration on Thursday reported just two new coronavirus cases, both of them brought from overseas, and said 295 people remained in hospital with COVID-19. Another 884 people were under isolation and monitoring for being suspected cases or for having tested positive while showing no symptoms. In total, China has reported 4,633 deaths among 82,885 cases.

— SOUTH KOREA EXPANDS MASK SHIPMENTS: South Korea says it’ll expand its humanitarian shipments of masks to other countries amid waning domestic cases of the coronavirus. The country’s food and drug safety minister, Lee Eui-kyung, told reporters Thursday that a total of 70 countries had requested mask shipments. Lee says South Korea will focus on assisting countries with bigger outbreaks that urgently need masks. She says diplomatic and security relations will also be considered. Separately, the Defense Ministry will use a military aircraft to transport 500,000 masks intended for U.S. veterans of the 1950-53 Korean War.

— SRI LANKA REIMPOSES CURFEW, AGAIN: Sri Lanka has again reimposed a 24-hour countrywide curfew until next Monday, as part of stringent measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The blanket curfew was imposed Wednesday night a surge in new infections during the last few days. There are now 797 COVID-19 patients in Sri Lanka including nine deaths. Of the total, 460 cases were reported after April 22, including 372 navy sailors or their close contacts. Authorities have isolated the main navy camp and quarantined about 4,000 troops there.

— NEW ZEALAND TO REOPEN BARS, SALONS: New Zealand could reopen bars, retail stores and hair salons from next week and once again allow domestic travel. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Thursday outlined what the country would look like under a further relaxation of its lockdown rules. Much of the country would get back to a semblance of normality. Senior lawmakers will decide Monday whether to go ahead with the plan starting Wednesday. Under the plan, schools could reopen from the following week. The country’s borders will remain shut. Professional sports would start again, although without the crowds. Gatherings would be restricted to 100 people and social distancing protocols observed.

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