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Lockdowns in Asia as some nations see 1st major virus surges

Lockdowns in Asia as some nations see 1st major virus surges

BANGKOK — Several countries around Asia and the Pacific that are experiencing their first major surges of the coronavirus rushed to impose tough restrictions, a year and a half into a pandemic that many initially weathered well.Faced with rapidly rising numbers of infections in recent months, authorities in such countries as Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam announced or imposed measures Friday that they hope can slow the spread before health care systems are overwhelmed.It’s a rhythm familiar in much of the world, where repeated surges deluged hospitals and led to high numbers of deaths. But many Asian countries avoided that cycle by imposing stiff travel restrictions combined with tough measures at home.Now some are seeing record numbers of new cases and even deaths, blamed in part on the highly contagious delta variant combined with low rates of vaccination and decisions to ease restrictions that have hit economies hard. Though overall numbers are nowhere yet near those seen during outbreaks in hotspots in Europe and the United States, the rapid rise set off alarm bells just as many Western countries with high vaccine rates began to breathe a sigh of relief.Thailand reported a record number of new deaths on Thursday with 75 — and they came in at 72 on Friday. South Korea set a record for number of new cases on Thursday, only to break it on Friday with 1,316 infections, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. For the first time, Indonesia is seeing a surge that has hospitals turning patients away and oxygen supplies running out.Of Thailand’s 317,506 confirmed cases and 2,534 deaths since the pandemic started, more than 90% have come since the start of April.Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s handling of the surge has been widely criticized, including the decision to allow people to travel for April’s Songkran festival celebrating Thailand’s New Year.Thailand already has strict regulations on wearing masks and other rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the government announced even more stringent measures Friday for Bangkok and the surrounding area, including closing spas, limiting the hours of public transit, and restricting the opening times of markets and convenience stores.“There is something wrong with the government policies, our vaccinations are too slow, and we should get better vaccines,” said resident Cherkarn Rachasevet, a 60-year-old IT analyst, who hustled to the grocery store to stock up on supplies after hearing new restrictions were coming, wearing four masks and a face shield.She lamented that she isn’t due for her first shot until the end of the month.Across the Asia-Pacific region, immunization rates have lagged for a variety of reasons, including production and distribution issues as well as an initial wait-and-see attitude from many early on when numbers were low and there was less of a sense of urgency.In South Korea — widely praised for its initial response to the pandemic that included extensive testing and contact-tracing — critics are now blaming a current spike in cases on the government’s push to ease social-distancing because of economic concerns. Meanwhile, a shortage in vaccine supplies has left 70% of the population still waiting for their first shot.The recent death toll has been low, however, and authorities attribute that to the fact that many who have been vaccinated were at-risk older Koreans.Amid a spike in infections in the Seoul area, authorities announced Friday that starting next week they would impose the strongest restrictions yet. Those include prohibiting private social gatherings of three or more people after 6 p.m., shutting down nightclubs and churches, banning visitors at hospitals and nursing homes and limiting weddings and funerals to family-only gatherings.No country has been worse hit in the region recently than Indonesia. The seven-day rolling averages of daily cases and deaths both more than doubled over the past two weeks.Health experts say a partial lockdown imposed July 3 was too little too late and warned the current wave, which is mostly on the islands of Java, Bali, and a few cities on the island of Sumatra, will soon start to spread across the vast archipelago — and the health system is already buckling under the pressure.Despite a strict national lockdown in nearby Malaysia under which residents are confined to their homes, with only one person per household allowed out to purchase groceries, new cases since it began June 1 continued to shoot up, and a record 9,180 daily cases were reported Friday. The total death toll more than doubled to 5,903 since June 1.It’s the second national lockdown over the past year and the government said it will stay in place until daily infections fall below 4,000 and at least 10% of the population is vaccinated — but it comes at a tremendous cost, deepening economic hardships, with scores of businesses forced to shutter and thousands losing their jobs.Vietnam also imposed tighter restrictions on Friday, locking down Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s largest metropolis and its economic and financial hub, for two weeks. The southern city’s 9 million residents are only permitted to leave home to buy food, medicine and for other urgent matters during that time.Vietnam was able to limit its total coronavirus cases to 2,800 during the first year of the pandemic, and reported almost no new cases in the three months up to the end of April when they began to climb rapidly. In the last two months, the country has recorded some 22,000 new cases, and the less stringent restrictions imposed so far have been unable to stem the rise.“It is a difficult decision to lock down the city, but it is necessary to curb the pandemic and get back to normalcy,” Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said during a government meeting Thursday evening.Currently, about 4% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, though the Health Ministry said it hopes to inoculate 70% of the country’s 96 million people by the end of the year.One exception to the regional rule appears to be India, where the delta variant was first detected — perhaps because its surge came first. The country has slowly emerged from a traumatic April and May, when a devastating spike in infections tore through the nation, hospitals ran out of beds and oxygen supplies, and overwhelmed crematoria were forced to burn bodies in pyres outdoors.New cases and deaths are now decreasing, but with less than 5% of the country’s eligible population fully vaccinated, authorities are scrambling to distribute more shots and are investing heavily in field hospitals and ICU beds, and stockpiling oxygen supplies.Japan and Australia also announced new restrictions this week. Japan is particularly being watched since its state of emergency means spectators will be banned at most venues a the upcoming Olympics.With the detection of the delta variant last month in Australia’s New South Wales, state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Friday that this is now the “scariest period” of the pandemic yet as she announced new restrictions in Sydney after the city reported 44 new cases, in line with the country’s approach to move quickly with targeted measures to stamp out new outbreaks.“New South Wales is facing the biggest challenge we have faced since the pandemic started,” she said. “And I don’t say that lightly.”———Associated Press writers from around the region contributed to this report.

2nd chemical fire at Bangkok factory highlights health risks

2nd chemical fire at Bangkok factory highlights health risks

BANGKOK — Chemicals at a factory just outside the Thai capital burst back into flames briefly Tuesday, sending up another cloud of toxic black smoke and highlighting the continuing health danger from an industrial accident that killed one and injured dozens more.Extinguishing the first blaze took more than 24 hours after it started with an explosion about 3 a.m. Monday that could be heard for kilometers (miles) and blew out the windows and doors of nearby homes.Firefighters continued to douse the site with water and foam to keep the highly flammable chemical styrene monomer from reigniting, but flames broke out again and burned for about an hour Tuesday afternoon.Little was left of the Ming Dih Chemical factory other than the twisted metal frames and charred remains of its warehouses that were destroyed in the explosion and fire.More than 60 people were injured in the disaster, including a dozen emergency responders, and more than 30 of them were hospitalized. An 18-year-old volunteer firefighter was killed in the blaze.Police questioned the factory manager in their investigation of the cause of the explosion, who told them that he and eight staff members were woken from their sleep on the site by a strong chemical smell and fled just before the blast, said Maj. Gen. Chumpol Poompuang, the district’s police commander.Authorities ordered a 5-kilometer (3-mile) area around the foam and plastic pellet manufacturing factory, near Bangkok’s main airport, evacuated as the factory burned, telling residents to avoid inhaling any fumes and warning that they could cause dizziness and vomiting, and cancer in the long term.On Tuesday, Attapol Charoenchansa, who heads the country’s pollution control department, said teams were testing the air quality and water in the area of the factory, and were considering narrowing the evacuation zone to allow some residents to return home.He cautioned, however, that rain which fell Tuesday afternoon could wash the chemicals into water sources, which would be difficult to control.ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a regional advocacy group, urged the Thai government to provide the public with more information on the chemicals that had been released, as well as all of its findings on possible contamination.It also stressed that firefighters and others working at the scene, many of whom wore only the masks required by the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — or none at all — as they battled the blaze, had to be outfitted with better protective equipment during the cleanup.“Now is the time to understand what the impacts of the fire and explosion might be, and ensure that all those still operating in the vicinity are adequately protected,” said group member and Philippine lawmaker Sarah Elago.“Seeing firefighters with surgical masks fighting against potentially cancerogenic chemicals was an atrocious sight. The government should urgently provide adequate material for all those still at risk,” she said.Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has ordered authorities to gather as much information as possible on contamination of soil, ground water, the city’s drinking water and air so as to “mitigate the health impact in both the short and long term.”“Although the fire is under control, our work has not yet been completed,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook.Officials said shockwaves from the initial explosion damaged about 100 houses and 15 cars.It wasn’t clear how much monetary damage the fire caused to the factory.Styrene monomer is used in the production of disposable foam plates, cups and other products, and can produce poisonous fumes when ignited.The chemical itself also emits styrene gas, a neurotoxin, which can immobilize people within minutes of inhalation and can be fatal at high concentrations. Last year in the Indian city of Visakhapatnam, a leak of styrene gas from a chemical factory killed 12 people and sickened more than 1,000.The area around the Thai factory is a mixture of older industrial complexes and newer housing developments that were built after the opening of Suvarnabhumi Airport in 2006.A fire at another factory broke out Tuesday evening in eastern Bangkok, with no casualties reported, said Bangkok Gov. Aswin Kwanmuang. The cause of the fire at the Floral Manufacturing Group Co. in the Lat Krabang Industrial Estate was not immediately known.It was put under control, though not totally extinguished, after several hours. No highly toxic chemicals were involved.Veeris Ammarapala, governor of the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand, was quoted by the Bangkok Post news site as saying the fire spread quickly because of the large quantities of alcohol on hand used in making perfumes, shampoo and hand sanitizer. He said his agency needs to review fire protection measures for industrial estates.———Associated Press writer Chalida Ekvittayavechnukul contributed to this report.

Evacuations ordered after Thai chemical factory explodes

Evacuations ordered after Thai chemical factory explodes

BANGKOK — A massive explosion at a chemical factory on the outskirts of Bangkok early Monday killed at least one person, injured dozens more and damaged scores of homes, while prompting the evacuation of a wide area over fears of poisonous fumes and the possibility of additional denotations.The fire broke out at around 3 a.m. at a foam and plastic pellet manufacturing factory just outside Bangkok near Suvarnabhumi Airport, with the explosion blowing out windows of surrounding homes and sending debris raining from the air.The blast could be heard for kilometers (miles) and surveillance footage from a nearby house captured the bright flash and boom, followed by the damage to the home and the one next door from the shockwaves.The main blaze at the Ming Dih Chemical factory had been brought under control by mid-morning, but an enormous tank containing the chemical styrene monomer continued to burn, said local disaster prevention official Chailit Suwannakitpong.Late in the afternoon, dense clouds of black smoke continued to billow from the site and helicopters tried to navigate close enough to dump fire retardant onto it, initially with little apparent successAuthorities said 62 people had been injured, including 12 involved in the firefighting and rescue efforts, and one person had been confirmed killed.Styrene monomer, a hazardous liquid chemical used in the production of disposable foam plates, cups and other products, can produce poisonous fumes when ignited. Chailit said officials were trying to move all people out of the area, including doctors and patients from the neighborhood’s main hospital where many of the casualties were initially treated, over fear of the fumes and the possibility of more explosions.The chemical itself also emits styrene gas, a neurotoxin, which can immobilize people within minutes of inhalation and can be fatal at high concentrations. Last year in the Indian city of Visakhapatnam, a leak of styrene gas from a chemical factory killed 12 people and sickened more than 1,000.Authorities were carefully monitoring the air in the area around the fire and Pollution Control Department official Thalerngsak Petchsuwan urged anyone remaining in the vicinity to close their doors and windows to avoid inhaling any fumes.“Those who breathe it in can get dizzy and vomit and it might cause cancer in the long term,” he said.Firefighters could be seen in photos from Thai media climbing through twisted steel wreckage of the complex’s warehouses to get their hoses close enough to the flames as they fought to control the blaze. The charred body of the only fatality identified so far — a male volunteer rescue worker — lay face down among the wreckage.The area around the blast is a mixture of older industrial complexes and newer housing developments that were built after the opening of the airport in 2006.Jaruwan Chamsopa, who lives about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the factory, said the loud explosion in the middle of the night broke her house’s windows, damaged the roof and caused parts of the ceiling to tumble down. She said the windows of every house on her road were broken as well.“I was shocked when the explosion took place,” she told The Associated Press. “I came out and saw a big fire in the sky.”She said she and her husband and mother didn’t evacuate until 8 a.m.“I didn’t realize that it would be such a dangerous chemical that I have to evacuate,” she said. “I am worried because the black smoke reached my house.”Authorities ordered the evacuation of an area 5 kilometers (3 miles) around the scene and evacuation centers were set up in a school and a government office for those forced from their homes.Volunteer rescue worker Anyawut Phoampai told Thailand public tv station TPBS that early efforts to find people possibly still in the factory were hampered by the time it took to bring the fire under control.“The flames are quite high so it takes quite an effort,” he said as the rescue effort was underway.He said rescuers also fanned out around the area to help people who reported being injured by falling debris.There was no immediate word on what might have caused the fire in Bang Phli district, and the company was not reachable by phone.The initial explosion shook the terminal building at Suvarnabhumi, setting off alarms at Bangkok’s main international airport.Airport officials said in a statement that no flights had been canceled but that it was continuing to monitor the situation and was prepared to “put in place contingency plans in case of emergency.” It said it would not compromise on safety.—————Associated Press writers Chris Blake, Tassanee Vejpongsa and Chalida Ekvittayavechnukul contributed to this report.

Britain's FM meets with Cambodian officials for trade talks

Britain's FM meets with Cambodian officials for trade talks

Britain’s top diplomat has met with his Cambodian counterpart as he pushes for closer economic relations to Southeast Asia, part of the country’s new focus on the regionBy DAVID RISING Associated PressJune 23, 2021, 9:58 AM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBANGKOK — Britain’s top diplomat met Wednesday with his Cambodian counterpart as he pushed for closer economic relations to Southeast Asia, part of the U.K.’s new emphasis on the region.Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab met with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn in Phnom Penh in what his office said was the first visit by a British foreign secretary to Cambodia since the British Embassy was reopened 30 years ago.Cambodia is to take over the rotating annual chairmanship next year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and Raab’s office said he would make the case for Britain to attain “dialogue partnership” with the 10-nation bloc, the closest relationship for non-member countries.“Here to boost trade, support Cambodia’s energy transition, expand UK ASEAN cooperation — and as a force for good in the Indo-Pacific,” Raab tweeted ahead of his meetings.Britain is currently pursuing a “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific region that was recommended by a recent British government review of defense and foreign policy in response to China’s growing influence on the world stage.Beyond trade, Britain earlier this year dispatched a strike group led by the Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier the HMS Queen Elizabeth on a 28-week deployment to Asia.As Raab met with officials, human rights observers noted that Cambodia has recently arrested and imprisoned environmental activists and urged the foreign secretary to call for their release, as well as some 70 other political prisoners.“Foreign Secretary Raab’s visit comes in the midst of a human rights crisis in Cambodia, and both his talking points and public pronouncements need to reflect that,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director.“The U.K. should also ensure any future trade preferences granted to Cambodia be firmly based on improvements in civil and political rights,” he said.Following his meeting with Prak Sokhonn, Raab tweeted that the two had talked about “our shared priorities such as trade, human rights & #Myanmar,” but did not elaborate.Raab also met with Environment Minister Say Sam Al. Ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said in a tweet that the two talked about “joint priorities” including human rights, trade, COVID-19 and Myanmar. He did not provide further details.Raab started his three-country trip in Vietnam and is to head to Singapore after his visit to Cambodia.It is his fifth visit to Southeast Asia as foreign secretary.

British FM heads to Southeast Asia looking for closer ties

British FM heads to Southeast Asia looking for closer ties

Britain’s foreign minister is heading to Southeast Asia on a three-nation visit as his country looks to promote closer ties and trade with the region following the U.K.’s exit from the European UnionBy DAVID RISING Associated PressJune 21, 2021, 10:20 AM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleBANGKOK — Britain’s foreign minister headed to Southeast Asia on Monday on a three-nation visit as his country looks to promote closer ties and trade with the region following the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.Foreign Minister Dominic Raab’s trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore comes the week after Britain announced the broad outlines of a free trade deal with Australia, the first the country has negotiated from scratch since it left the EU.That deal was expected to boost trade between the two nations, and the British government said it hoped it would also help it join a regional trade agreement which would open the door to increased trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region.A recent British government review of defense and foreign policy recommended that the U.K. “tilt” its focus toward the Indo-Pacific region in response to China’s growing influence on the world stage.Raab has said the shift includes a greater emphasis on common strategic interests in the region, which goes beyond trade to also include issues such as maritime security and climate change.As part of the initiative, Britain earlier this year dispatched a strike group led by the Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier the HMS Queen Elizabeth on a 28-week deployment to Asia that Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted was not meant to be confrontational toward China.“One of the things we’ll be doing clearly is showing to our friends in China that we believe in the international law of the sea and, in a confident but not a confrontational way, we will be vindicating that point,” Johnson said in May before the carrier group sailed from Portsmouth.After arriving late Monday in Vietnam, Raab is to hold bilateral talks with Vietnamese officials Tuesday and speak at an event held by the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.A meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen scheduled for Wednesday was canceled after Hun Sen announced he had been indirectly exposed to COVID-19 and was quarantining as a precaution.Raab is to meet with his Cambodian counterpart, however, along with other officials in a visit that the Cambodian Foreign Ministry said it hoped would strengthen bilateral ties, as well as help “multilateral cooperation within the ASEAN framework.”Raab’s trip wraps up Thursday in Singapore, where he is to meet with the prime minister and other officials, as well as business leaders.