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Asia Today: Millions vote in South Korea despite virus

BANGKOK (AP) — Millions of South Korean voters wore masks and maintained social distancing as they voted in parliamentary elections on Wednesday, with a surprisingly high turnout despite the spreading coronavirus.

The government resisted calls to postpone the elections billed as a midterm referendum on President Moon Jae-in, who enters the final two years of his single five-year term grappling with the public health crisis that is unleashing massive economic shock.

While South Korea’s electorate is deeply divided along ideological and generational lines and regional loyalties, surveys showed growing support for Moon and his liberal party, reflecting the public’s approval of an aggressive test-and-quarantine program so far credited with lowering fatality rates for the coronavirus compared to China, Europe and North America.

Exit polls conducted by TV stations indicated that Moon’s Democratic Party and a satellite party it created to win proportional representative seats would comfortably combine for a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— WHO FUNDING: Australia’s prime minister says he sympathizes with U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticisms of the World Health Organization but Australia will not stop funding the U.N. agency. Trump has ordered his administration to freeze funding for WHO, saying it didn’t deliver adequate early reports on the coronavirus and cost the U.S. valuable response time. “I sympathize with his criticisms and I’ve made a few of my own,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Perth Radio 6PR on Wednesday. “WHO is also an organization that does a lot of important work, including here in our own region in the Pacific, and we work closely with them so that we’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater here.” China said Wednesday it is “seriously concerned” about the U.S. funding freeze.

— VACCINE STUDY ADVANCES: Chinese scientists have started the second phase of a clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine in the hardest-hit city of Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. China Central Television reported 273 out of 500 volunteers have been injected with the vaccine candidate. The first phase of the vaccine clinical trial focused on its safety, while the second phase is studying its efficacy. China reported 46 new virus cases on Wednesday, 36 of them from overseas.

— DIRE JAPANESE PROJECTION: About 850,000 people could be seriously sickened by the coronavirus in Japan and almost half of them could die if no social distancing or other measures are followed, according to a government-commissioned estimate released Wednesday. Japan has the world’s oldest population, and the virus can be especially dangerous for the elderly. And there are concerns that Japan’s government has done too little to stave off high numbers of badly ill patients. Japan’s current state of emergency is voluntary and doesn’t compensate workers for lost earnings. Japanese companies also have been slow to introduce remote work, and people have continued to use public transit to commute in the densely populated capital region. Japan has more than 8,800 confirmed coronavirus cases and 131 deaths, including about 700 cases from a cruise ship that was quarantined at a port near Tokyo earlier this year.

— 3 ASEAN COUNTRIES TOP 5,000 CASES: Three Southeast Asian countries have surpassed 5,000 cases of the coronavirus. The Philippines on Wednesday reported 5,453 confirmed cases, the most in Southeast Asia. Indonesia recorded 5,136 cases and Malaysia 5,072. Indonesia had the most deaths with 469, the highest in Asia after China, followed by the Philippines with 349 deaths and Malaysia with 83. China says it has recorded 3,342 deaths among 82,295 cases.

— US: CHINA NOT BLOCKING MEDICAL SUPPLIES: The U.S. ambassador to China says he doesn’t believe Beijing is deliberately blocking exports of masks and other medical supplies to fight the coronavirus, and that the shipment of 1,200 tons of such products to the U.S. could not have been possible without Chinese support. Ambassador Terry Branstad also says the U.S. has concerns about how China initially handled the virus outbreak in the central city of Wuhan, but that such issues should be addressed after the pandemic has been brought under control. Chinese officials are believed to have delayed reporting the outbreak for several crucial days in January due to political concerns, allowing the virus to spread. China has adamantly denied doing so.

— NEW ZEALAND PAY CUTS: Top New Zealand officials are taking a 20% pay cut for six months in acknowledgment of people's sacrifices in dealing with the coronavirus. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says it applies to government ministers, chief executives of government organizations, and that opposition leader Simon Bridges had volunteered to join as well. She said it wouldn’t apply to any front-line staff such as doctors and nurses.

— MANDATORY MASKS: Singapore has made masks mandatory following a sharp spike in new cases. Most people not wearing masks can be fined $212, while repeated offenders could face stiffer penalties. Infections in the tiny city-state have surged beyond 3,200 after two straight days of sharp increases. Many were among foreign workers living in crowded dormitories.

— VIRUS TRACKING APP: Australia's prime minister expects a tracking app under development in the country will massively boost health authorities’ ability to trace coronavirus contacts if the government can overcome privacy concerns. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Perth Radio 6PR on Wednesday his government is carefully working through privacy issues because at least 40% of Australians will need to download the app on their smart phones if it is to effective. The Australian app is based on Singapore’s contact tracing app, TraceTogether.

— FLIGHT BAN EXTENDED: Thailand has extended through April 30 a ban on international passenger flights to help control the coronavirus. The ban was initially ordered April 4 after chaos broke out at Bangkok’s international airport when more than 100 returning Thais reportedly refused to go directly to state-run quarantine centers. The original three-day ban has already been extended once. Strict regulations requiring prior certification by foreigners that they are virus free have effectively banned the entry of most foreign visitors. Thailand has a huge tourism industry and last year welcomed about 40 million visitors.

— HONG KONG ARRIVALS PLUNGE: Arrivals in Hong Kong plunged to a new low of 82,000 in March, a 99% drop from the same time last year as the city banned the entry of foreigners to curb the spread of the virus. The indefinite ban on incoming travelers was imposed March 25.

— SNEAKING OUT OF QUARANTINE: A man who repeatedly left a hotel to visit his girlfriend has become the first person in Australia to be jailed for breaching a coronavirus quarantine order. Jonathan David was sentenced to six months and two weeks in prison but will likely only spend one month behind bars. He was also fined $1,280. David returned home to Perth from the Australian east coast on March 28 and was directed to spend the next two weeks in quarantine in a hotel, a standard requirement for interstate travelers. But he repeatedly left and used public transport to visit his girlfriend.

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