TOKYO: Japanese comedian Ken Shimura, who had been hospitalised after being infected with COVID-19, has died, becoming the first Japanese celebrity to die of the virus.

His death, late on Sunday, set off widespread grief among fans.

Shimura, 70, one of Japan’s best-known comedians with a career dating back to the early 1970s, reportedly had lung cancer surgery in 2016. He developed a fever and respiratory problems on Mar 19 and was hospitalised, media said.

Dominating the television comedy scene in the 1970s and 1980s, one of his best-known acts was a clueless feudal lord with a face painted white with thick black eyebrows.

Fans took to social media to lament his death, which some said should serve to highlight what a major threat the coronavirus actually is.

“So very sad. It’s probably bad to say this, but I hope his death helps Japanese, who still don’t seem to be taking this virus seriously, start to change their attitude,” one Twitter user wrote.

The government’s top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, echoed that.

“I pray for the repose of his soul but want to say on top of this that we are at a very critical period and need to make every effort to prevent the spread of this disease,” he told a regular news conference.

Japan on Sunday confirmed 68 new cases, a record daily increase, taking its tally to more than 1,800 infections, with 55 deaths, as of Sunday afternoon. This excludes the 712 cases and 10 deaths from a cruise ship that was moored near Tokyo last month, NHK said.

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