Asian Insider, April 2: Should we be masking up, measures tighten across Asia, more job cuts

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents.

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In today’s bulletin: The world enters the mask-wearing debate, with opinions divided between Asia and the West; countries in the region impose tighter coronavirus measures as cases continue to rise; traders get a reality check from China, and more.

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TO WEAR A MASK, OR NOT?

Around the world in recent weeks, the use of face masks has become a hotly debated topic as the coronavirus continues its rampage across the globe. In many Asian countries, these ubiquitous masks are worn to protect yourself and others from potential illness, and not donning one in public - even if you are healthy - could earn you a disapproving frown. Not so in the West, where people are urged to conserve the now-scarce commodity for those who need it more, and wearing one could suggest you are unwell. 

Experts are sceptical of theories that mask-wearing in Asia is the reason for the fewer Covid-19 cases in the region, warning that it should not be seen as a “magic X-factor”. Even so, opinion in the United States is shifting in favour of using them in public, as the rapidly increasing number of cases in America show no sign of abating, US bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh writes. 

The scarcity of supplies has already resulted in a global “free for all” as governments, companies and individuals join a mad scramble to obtain them. 

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to ease demand by offering people free reusable cloth masks sparked ridicule and criticism, with the hashtag “Abenomasks” trending among the country’s Twitter users within hours of his announcement. 

Read more: 

Tan Dawn Wei: Why everyone wears a mask in China 

Could homemade masks help stop infected people from spreading coronavirus?

US authorities weigh advising everyone to wear a mask

ACROSS ASIA, CORONAVIRUS MEASURES ARE TIGHTENING

The World Health Organisation expects the number of coronavirus cases in Malaysia - the worst-hit Southeast Asian nation - to peak in mid-April amid signs of a flattening of the infection curve. 

In Indonesia, to prevent people from further spreading the highly infectious disease, President Joko Widodo is considering a new holiday to replace the annual Eid al-Fitr festival, which traditionally sees a mass exodus celebrating the end of the Muslim fasting month. Earlier in the day, a 68-year-old Indonesian national died of Covid-19 in Singapore, becoming the island nation’s fourth death from the coronavirus. 

Thailand is set to announce a nationwide curfew between 10pm and 4am starting from Friday to try to contain the virus outbreak in the country. In the Philippines, parts of which are under a lockdown, President Rodrigo Duterte warned that people who flout the strict measures could be shot for causing trouble. And in Hong Kong, authorities ordered more entertainment venues, including karaoke lounges, massage parlours and nightclubs, to shut as previous measures failed to put a lid on the city’s soaring cases. 

Read more: 

Arlina Arshad: Tighter rules with Indonesia’s public health emergency, but worries remain 

India's coronavirus hot spots spur nationwide race to trace contacts

ELECTIONS IN A TIME OF CORONAVIRUS

South Korea is grappling with the challenge of how to let its people vote in the nation’s upcoming parliamentary elections on April 15 while preventing the coronavirus from further spreading. 

It will allow those affected by the virus to vote by mail or as an absentee, the government said. Voters who turn up at the polling stations are required to wear a mask, use sanitisers and gloves, and undergo temperature checks. 
While the coronavirus has caused much disruption in the country, the government’s stringent response to the crisis has turned into an unlikely boon for President Moon Jae-in and his ruling party ahead of the elections. Mr Moon’s approval ratings hit a 16-month high last week.

JOB CUTS AND A REALITY CHECK FROM CHINA

Traders aren’t liking China’s cautious stimulus measures, after initial optimism that Beijing will take much stronger action to prop up the country’s flagging economy. It’s showing in the financial markets, where Chinese stocks and currency are starting to lag their global peers. 

Everywhere else, it’s still doom and gloom as industries reel from the coronavirus fallout. Moody’s cut its outlook for Singapore banks to negative on the risk of rising bad debt and falling profitability. KPMG Australia slashed 200 jobs and equity partners’ pay by almost 17 per cent on declining client demand. And British Airways prepared to suspend 36,000 employees, comprising 80 per cent of its cabin crew, ground staff, engineers and head office workers. 

Read more: 

Why this global recession could last a long time 

SME business sentiment sinks to survey's all-time low 

Deeper pay cuts for SIA Engineering management

THE SCIENCE OF THE VIRUS

Countries with mandatory policies to vaccinate against tuberculosis have recorded fewer coronavirus deaths than countries without such policies, a study has found. In another report, neurologists say some Covid-19 patients are developing serious brain damage, among other unusual symptoms. 

The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way scientists around the world work. Researchers are creating a global collaboration unlike any in history, and never before have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency as now.

IN OTHER NEWS

CHINA DENIES HIDING VIRUS NUMBERS: China rejected an American intelligence community’s report concluding that Beijing had concealed the extent of the coronavirus epidemic in the country. The Chinese foreign ministry in turn accused the United States of seeking to shift the blame for the Trump administration’s own handling of the outbreak. 

AUSTRALIAN MILITARY HELICOPTER TO FLY ONTO CRUISE SHIPS: Australia’s military helicopters will be deployed to fly onto cruise ships in the country to test passengers for the coronavirus. The move comes after the government banned cruise ships from docking in Australia, leaving several drifting off the coast, carrying thousands of passengers. 

US’ NEW WAYS TO CONTROL HIGH-TECH EXPORTS TO CHINA: The Trump administration is tightening rules to prevent China from obtaining advanced US technology for commercial purposes and then diverting it to military use, sources said. The move comes as relations between Washington and Beijing sour over the deadly coronavirus pandemic and tit-for-tat expulsions of journalists from each country.

That’s it for today. Thanks for reading. Remember to wash your hands, and we’ll be back with more good stories tomorrow. 

Magdalene