Asia Today: India adds another 83K, nears 2nd-most in world

NEW DELHI: The number of people infected with the coronavirus in India rose by another 80,000 and is near Brazil's total, the second-highest in the world.

The 83,341 cases added in the past 24 hours pushed India's total past 3.9 million, according to the Health Ministry. Brazil has confirmed more than 4 million infections while the U.S. has more 6.1 million people infected, according to Johns Hopkins University.

India's Health Ministry on Friday also reported 1,096 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking total fatalities up to 68,472.

India's case fatality rate of 1.75% is well below the global average of 3.3%, the ministry said. Experts have questioned whether some Indian states have undercounted deaths.

India added nearly 2 million coronavirus cases in August alone. Pune, Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai are its worst-hit cities, but new hot spots continue to feed surges in cases in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other states.

In a country of 1.4 billion people, only those places most affected by the virus remain under lockdown. People are crowding markets and other public spaces with potential safety measures like masks and social distancing largely unenforced.

Justifying lifting of lockdown restrictions while infections are surging, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said the testing capacity has been ramped up and safety procedures put in place.

"While lives are important, livelihoods are equally important," Bhushan said.

India's economy contracted by 23.9% in the April-June quarter, its worst performance in at least 24 years.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Australian authorities on Friday added 53 historic virus deaths from aged-care homes and six new deaths to their tally, bringing the total number of virus deaths to 737. Victoria state officials said they'd been reconciling numbers from July and August. An outbreak in the city of Melbourne has raced through dozens of aged-care homes, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The outbreak appears to be slowly waning, with Victoria officials reporting 81 new cases on Friday. "This is the stubborn tail of the epidemic curve," said Brett Sutton, Victoria's chief health officer. Meanwhile authorities in New South Wales, home to the largest city Sydney, reported eight new cases.

— An independent panel appointed by the World Health Organization to review its coordination of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic will have full access to any internal U.N. agency documents, materials and emails necessary. The panel's co-chairs are, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. They announced the 11 other members on Thursday. They include Dr. Joanne Liu, who was an outspoken WHO critic during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Also named to the panel are a Chinese doctor who was the first to publicly confirm human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. Clark said she and Sirleaf Johnson chose the panel members independently without any WHO influence.

— Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand would keep its current coronavirus restrictions until at least mid-September. Authorities had earlier lifted a lockdown in Auckland following an outbreak there that began last month, but they continue to limit gathering sizes across the country and mandate masks on public transport. "As with last time, a cautious approach is the best long-term strategy to get our economy open and freedoms back faster in the long term," Ardern said. New Zealand reported five new virus cases Friday, two among returning travelers already in quarantine and three connected to the Auckland outbreak.

— The number of new coronavirus cases in South Korea has stayed below 200 for the second consecutive day amid toughened social distancing rules. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday it has confirmed 198 additional cases over the past 24 hours The agency says 189 of the new cases were locally infected patients, about 70% of them in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area. South Korea has seen an uptick in infections since early last month, mostly linked to churches, restaurants, schools and fitness centers in the Seoul area. Authorities in the Seoul area have recently restricted dining at restaurants and ordered the shutdown of churches, night establishments and after-school academies.