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Manila and Mumbai beat Tokyo at social distancing, Apple data shows

Map route requests show Japan's capital remains busy despite emergency decree

TOKYO -- Asians are commuting more than Europeans and Americans despite the coronavirus pandemic, Apple's mobility data showed on Wednesday, suggesting that they are practicing less social distancing.

But there is a disparity. People in Bangkok, Manila and Mumbai have reduced their outings far more than those in Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul, as some of the region's authoritarian leaders have resorted to draconian measures to contain the outbreak.

Asians, not including Chinese, have been less affected by the coronavirus outbreak than Europeans and Americans. But epidemiologists have been warning about the risks of contagion in countries that have far fewer resources to deal with the pandemic.

The data showed a drop in requests for driving and walking routes and public transport information in 63 countries and regions, excluding China, between Jan. 13 and April 13. Apple said it was able to provide this information by tabulating the number of requests made to Apple Maps for direction.

Apple said that the data can help policymakers design measures to stop the pandemic from spreading further. Epidemiologists said to achieve that, contact between people must be reduced by 70% to 80%.

Up to half of the people infected with COVID-19 do not show any symptoms and can, therefore, spread the virus unknowingly. A lockdown has been seen by many governments as the only effective way to contain the outbreak.

In most Asian countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, the number of infections remains far below 10,000, compared with over 100,000 in some European countries and the U.S. In these countries, traffic has been reduced to a 10th or less than in January.

The data show that Asian countries made an early start to social distancing as they braced for the spread of the virus from mainland China, the ground zero of the pandemic.

In Singapore and Hong Kong, for instance, public transit usage fell more than 20% by Jan. 24 and was reduced by almost half by late March and has stayed at that level.

Singapore has stepped up its social-distancing campaign since April 7, as public transport use fell to as low as 14% of that on Jan. 13.

Seoul also saw a 20% drop in pedestrians in early February. South Korea suffered from an early outbreak as it was a favored destination for Chinese. With a major cluster of infections in a Christian sect in the south of the country late February, pedestrian traffic dropped further until around 40% now.

Aggressive testing for the disease and the use of digital monitoring have allowed South Korea to suppress the contagion. The number of new cases recently has hovered in the low double-digits, and the country went ahead with parliamentary elections on Wednesday.

Taiwan is also viewed as an example of successful containment. It is threatening fines of more than $30,000 for anyone who violates a self-quarantine order, according to media reports. The amount of traffic on public transit in Taipei has stayed at around half the pre-pandemic level, with a milder drop in pedestrian traffic.

Tokyo was among the last to introduce a lockdown, on March 25, by requesting the avoidance of nonessential outings. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has come under criticism for his late action, declared a state of emergency on April 7 and requested that residents stay home for a month.

Public transit traffic in the Japanese capital fell by half for the first time on April 11.

In Jakarta, pedestrian traffic stands at about half the normal level, even though Indonesia is near the top of the league in terms of the number of deaths, at almost 500.

The Philippines has the largest number of infections among Southeast Asian countries, and a lockdown has kept pedestrian traffic in Manila at a fifth of normal levels. President Rodrigo Duterte has warned that anyone violating the lockdown will be shot dead.

With some 350 deaths, however, it is not clear whether the lockdown has produced the desired effects.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who pulled off a military coup in 2014, has declared a nationwide curfew. The strict measure has helped bring pedestrian traffic in Bangkok to a fifth of normal levels.

In New Delhi and Mumbai, street traffic has been reduced to a fifth or less throughout this month, after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced a three-week lockdown on March 25. Modi recently extended the shutdown for another three weeks to May 3.

With some 12,000 infections and more than 400 deaths, India is ill-prepared for an outbreak.

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