PHNOM PENH: A handout photo shows passengers, who disembarked from the Westerdam cruise ship in Sihanoukville, sitting on a bus for a visit of the capital yesterday. - AFP

SHANGHAI: More than 300 American passengers have been flown home from a cruise ship after two weeks under quarantine off Japan, including 14 found to have coronavirus who were kept isolated on the flight. The cruise ship Diamond Princess, by far the largest cluster of coronavirus cases outside China, has become the biggest test so far of other countries' ability to contain an outbreak that has killed 1,770 people in China and five elsewhere.

Across mainland China, officials said the total number of coronavirus cases rose by 2,048 to 70,548. That was slightly more new cases than were reported on Sunday, but hundreds fewer than reported on Saturday. Chinese authorities say the stabilization in the number of new cases is a sign that measures they have taken to halt the spread of the disease are having an effect.

However, epidemiologists say it is probably still too early to say how well the outbreak is being contained within China and its central Hubei province, where the virus first appeared. China has responded to the COVID-19 virus by effectively locking down Hubei's provincial capital Wuhan, a megacity of 11 million people. The Communist Party is also struggling to prevent the economy from crashing, as the movement of people and goods around the country and to and from China faces major disruption.

Yesterday China's central bank cut the interest rate on its medium-term lending, a move that is expected to pave the way for a reduction in the benchmark loan prime rate on Thursday. Beijing has also announced plans for cuts in taxes and fees. Even so, economists expect China's economic growth to slow. Ratings agency Moody's yesterday lowered its 2020 GDP growth forecast to 5.2%, making it likely China would miss a goal to double GDP over the decade to 2020.

Cruise ships
Outside China, around half of all known cases of the virus have been found aboard the Diamond Princess, where around 400 people have tested positive since the cruise liner was ordered to stay under quarantine off Japan on Feb 3. The United States was the first country to evacuate its passengers from the ship, flying them out overnight on two chartered aircraft to military bases in Texas and California, where they would be held in quarantine for two weeks.

The state department said that after passengers were sent to the airport, officials discovered 14 had tested positive. They were isolated on the flight and permitted to fly home, it said. Other countries were expected to follow swiftly, having announced plans to repatriate citizens from the ship. Around half of the 3,700 passengers and crew are Japanese.

Authorities around the world were also trying to track down passengers from another cruise liner, the Westerdam, which was turned away from ports across Southeast Asia for two weeks before docking in Cambodia on Thursday. One American passenger who disembarked in Cambodia tested positive for the virus in Malaysia on Saturday. Carnival Corp, which operates both cruise liners, said it was cooperating with authorities in trying to trace passengers from the Westerdam. None of the other 1,454 passengers and 802 crew had reported any symptoms, it said.

"Guests who have already returned home will be contacted by their local health department and be provided further information," a statement from the company's Holland America Line unit said. Hundreds of passengers are still in Cambodia, either on the ship or in hotels. "We will all be tested for the coronavirus today and tomorrow by the Cambodian Ministry of Health," said passenger Holley Rauen, a public health nurse and midwife from Fort Myers, Florida. "We have no idea when we get to get home."

China back to work?
After an extended Lunar New Year holiday, China urgently needs to get back to work. There is a proposal to delay the opening of the annual session of parliament, due on Feb 24. Some cities remain in lockdown, streets are deserted, employees are nervous, and travel bans and quarantine orders are in place around the country. Many factories have yet to re-open, disrupting supply chains in China and beyond.

In Japan, where data showed yesterday that the economy had already shrunk last quarter at the fastest pace in almost six years, the impact of the virus is expected to show up in the current quarter, stoking fears of recession. Trade-dependent Singapore downgraded its 2020 economic growth forecast and has said recession is possible. It is set to unveil measures to cushion the blow today.

Organizers of the Tokyo Marathon have decided to limit the March 1 race to top-level athletes, banning 38,000 general participants, a person with knowledge of the issue said. Japan's Imperial Household Agency said it would cancel Emperor Naruhito's public birthday address on Feb 23, his first since his coronation last year. The event regularly attracts tens of thousands of people to the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo. - Reuters