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South Korea Considers Imposing Strictest COVID Measures Yet Amid Case Spikes

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  • South Korea is seeing a major COVID-19 spike, reporting around new 3,600 cases since August 12, which is almost more than the number of infections in the last three months combined. 
  • Some major clusters have been linked to schools in the capital of Seoul, as well as one church that spread at least 875 cases, and a Starbucks where 56 people tested positive but mask-wearing employees were spared.
  • The country, which never imposed a lockdown, now has to decide if it will enact its strictest restrictions yet at the risk of its economy.
  • Already some restrictions have been put into place. Nationwide, gatherings have been limited and nightclubs and internet cafes have been shut down. 
  • In the greater-Seoul area, where most of the cases have been reported, schools have been closed and a mask mandate has been imposed for both indoors and outdoors.

South Korea Sees COVID Spikes

For months, South Korea had been touted as having one of the most effective responses to the coronavirus pandemic, but now, South Korean officials are considering imposing the strictest restrictions yet amid alarming spikes in case numbers.

The country, which was hit with COVID-19 early on, managed to quickly curb the virus through a combination of advanced testing and contact tracing, as well as citizens voluntarily wearing masks and staying home.

South Korea never had to fully impose a mandatory lockdown because of the effectiveness of those strategies, and most businesses were able to stay open. Now, after months of flattening the curve, those numbers have been climbing significantly over the last two weeks.

One thing to note is that the numbers here are highly relative. As of Wednesday, South Korea has reported a total of 18,265 confirmed cases and 312 deaths — just a fraction of the over 5.7 million cases and 178,000 deaths the U.S. reported the same day.

Of course, the U.S. has a population that is nearly six times bigger, but even then, the entire country of South Korea has still reported fewer cases and deaths than a majority of U.S. states have reported individually.

South Korea has exercised remarkable control over the virus. The highest number of cases the country had in a single day was in February when it reported just over 1,000. Since April, it has largely kept daily cases in the double digits.

However, over the last two weeks, those numbers have risen to triple digits every day. Since Aug. 12, South Korea has counted around new 3,600 cases, which is almost more than the number of infections in the last three months combined. 

On Sunday, officials reported the highest amount of cases in a single day since March with 397 new infections. According to reports, most of the new spikes have been reported in and around the capital city, Seoul.

To make matters more complicated, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) has said that it has been unable to trace the origin of about 1 in every 5 cases, which is a big deal for a country that has been able to control the virus in large part because of its contract tracing abilities.

Churches, Schools, & Starbucks

Authorities have been able to trace the origin of some major clusters. For example, 875 recent cases have been linked to a far-right church in Seoul.

Some members of that church recently took part in a large anti-government protest where they spread the virus. According to the KCDC, a total of 176 infections have been traced to the rally.

Health officials believe the number of infections linked to that church are actually a lot higher, and that hundreds more may be infected and spreading the coronavirus. However, they have been unable to confirm this suspicion because members of the church ascribe to a number of conspiracy theories, including the belief that the virus was planted part of a conspiracy to close the church down.

As a result, many have refused to be tested or even contacted, and the church has refused to give the government a list of its members. Separately, some of the new outbreaks have also come from schools. Over the last two weeks, nearly 200 staff and students in the greater Seoul area have tested positive for the coronavirus. 

While not as large, there was also a highly reported cluster of 56 cases linked to a Starbucks in Paju, a city north of Seoul, that stemmed from one infected person who sat next to the air-conditioning system.

Some health experts have claimed that the air conditioning may have dispersed the virus through aerosolized droplets.

“Many of the visitors didn’t wear masks, and there seems to be no proper air ventilation at the store even though air conditioners were in operation due to humid weather,” a spokesperson of the KCDC said in a statement. “Even if infections did not occur via aerosol transmission, droplet transmission is also possible in a confined space, and the virus could have spread via hand contact.”

In addition to possibly providing more information about how the virus is spread, the Paju cluster has also gained a lot of attention because all four of the employees at that Starbucks were wearing masks, and none of them tested positive for the virus.

Top health experts at the KCDC believe that the people who were infected got the virus because they were not wearing masks while eating or drinking.

“This speaks volumes about the role masks can play,” said Ma Sang Hyuk, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at Changwon Fatima Hospital in South Korea told Bloomberg. “Masks may not provide 100% protection, but there’s nothing out there that’s as effective.”

Government Response

With the new spikes, the South Korean government has already responded through a number of measures.

In Seoul specifically, officials on Monday ordered that mask-wearing be mandatory both inside and outside for the first time, and on Tuesday, the government closed all schools in the greater-Seoul area.

Notably, there are some exceptions for in-person learning. Students in their final year of high school who are set to take university entrance exams in December will be exempt from remote learning. Special education schools and schools with less than 60 students will also be able to decide whether or not to follow the new guidelines.

As for the country as a whole, on Sunday, the South Korean government expanded social distancing guidelines to the second of three stages of restrictions originally outlined in June. Under those rules, high-risk venues like night clubs and internet cafes must be closed, and gatherings are limited to 50 people inside and 100 outside. 

But with experts warning that the country is on the brink of a full-scale, nation-wide outbreak, many have been urging the government to move to stage three. The government can consider those heavier restrictions if cases average triple digits for 14 days straight— a measure that will be met Thursday if the numbers hold.

Among other things, stage three would prohibit more than 10 people from gathering in one place, stop professional sports, closure of movie theaters, wedding halls, and gyms, and require companies to send all non-essential staff home. 

Stage three would also represent a level of intervention and lockdown the South Korean government has never used. However, a survey from last week conducted by the Seoul-based research firm Realmeter showed that most South Koreans want more to be done.

According to the survey, 56% of respondents saying they want tightest restrictions as a “necessary measure” while 40% urged caution because of the economic implications. 

According to reports, both conservative lawmakers and some medical associations also support that, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, along with government economic advisors and small businesses, are hesitant. However, if the cases keep growing, the government’s hand might be pushed.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (BBC) (Reuters)

International

Giorgia Meloni Claims Victory in Far-Right Shift for Italy

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Her party has neofascist roots, and she has praised Mussolini in the past.


An Election Without Precedent

Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party grabbed the largest share of votes in Italy’s national election by a wide margin, giving the post of prime minister to the first woman and most right-wing politician since Benito Mussolini.

She declared victory early Monday morning after exit polls showed her party overwhelmingly in the lead with at least 26% of the vote, making it the dominant faction in the right-wing coalition, which got 44%.

The other two parties in the alliance — Mateo Salvini’s far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia — took 9% and 8% of the vote, respectively.

The center-left alliance only garnered 26% of the vote, with 63% of votes counted, according to the interior ministry.

Voter turnout dropped to a record low at only 63.91%, nine points below the rate in 2018, with turnout especially dismal in southern regions like Sicily.

Meloni is set to become prime minister in the coming weeks as a new government is formed, and the rest of Europe is bracing for what many see as a neofascist demagogue to take power in the continent’s third largest economy.

Speaking to media and supporters following the preliminary results, Meloni said it was “a night of pride for many and a night of redemption.” She promised to govern for all Italians and unite the country.

But her relatively extreme politics — opposed to immigration, the European Union, and what she calls “gender ideology” — unsettles many who fear she will roll back civil rights and form a Euroskeptic alliance with other far-right leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

The Next Mussolini?

During the election, Meloni stressed that she is a conservative, not a fascist, but opponents point to her rhetoric, past statements, and party’s history as evidence to the contrary.

“Either you say yes or you say no,” she howled to Spain’s far-right Vox party earlier this year. “Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobby. Yes to sex identity, no to gender ideology. Yes to the culture of life, not the abysm of death. Yes to the university of the cross, no to the Islamist violence. Yes to secure borders, no to mass migration. Yes to the work of our citizens, no to big international finance. Yes to the sovereignty of peoples, no to the bureaucrats in Brussels. And yes to our civilization.”

Meloni co-founded Brothers of Italy in 2012 as an alternative to the more mainstream right-wing parties. It has roots in the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a neofascist party that sprouted in the wake of World War II to continue Mussolini’s legacy after his party was banned. The Movement’s symbol — a tricolor flame — remains on the Brothers of Italy’s Flag today, and Meloni has refused to remove it.

She joined the MSI’s youth branch in the 1990s and went on to lead it after the party was renamed the National Alliance.

“I believe that Mussolini was a good politician, which means that everything he did, he did for Italy,” Meloni said at the time.

For the first decade, Brothers of Italy struggled to win more than a single-digit percentage of the vote, and it only garnered 4% in the 2018 election.

But in 2021 and 2022, it distinguished itself as the only opposition party to the unity government that fell apart last July, causing its popularity to inflate.

But the party still wrestles with its fascistic roots; last week, it suspended a member who was running for parliament because a local newspaper revealed that he had made comments supporting Adolf Hitler.

In an August video, Meloni promised to impose a naval blockade in the Mediterranean to interdict Libyan refugees from crossing to Southern Europe on boats. She has also discussed pulling Italy out of the Eurozone or even the E.U. entirely, but she moderated her rhetoric toward Europe during the election.

Italy has received some 200 billion euros in European pandemic recovery funds, and it is set to receive more unless the Union punishes Meloni’s government for democratic backsliding.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (Associated Press) (NPR)

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Iranian Protests Sparked by Death of Mahsa Amini Spread Internationally

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Anger initially directed at the police has now shifted to the Islamic regime itself, with Iranian-Americans protesting outside the U.N. Headquarters as their country’s president spoke inside.


Hijabs Go Up in Flames

The largest protest movement in recent years has gripped Iran since the so-called morality police allegedly beat 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for violating the dress code last week, leading to her later death.

Demonstrations spread from the capital Tehran to at least 80 other cities and towns, with videos on social media showing women burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in defiance.

In response, the government has gradually extended a virtual internet blackout across the country, blocking access to What’s App and Instagram.

To prevent protests from spreading, Iran’s biggest telecom operator largely shut down mobile internet access again Thursday, Netblocks, a group that monitors internet access, said in a statement, describing the restrictions as the most severe since 2019.

Clashes between police and protestors have killed some, but death toll reports on Thursday were conflicted. The Associated Press tallied at least nine people dead, while Iran’s state television put the number at 17, and a human rights group estimated at least 31 deaths.

The violence began on Saturday, shortly after the news that Amini had died the day prior in the hospital where she was comatose for three days.

Previously, the morality police arrested her for violating Islamic law requiring women to cover their hair with a head scarf and wear long, loose-fitting clothing.

Multiple reports and eyewitness accounts claimed that officers beat her in the head with batons and banged her head against one of their vehicles, but authorities have denied harming her, saying she suffered a “sudden heart failure.” Her father told BBC that she was in good health and that he had not been allowed to view her autopsy report.

“My son was with her. Some witnesses told my son she was beaten in the van and in the police station,” he said.

Surveillance footage was released showing Amini collapsing inside the hospital after grabbing her head, seemingly in pain.

From Anti-Hijab to Anti-Regime

Although the protests began in reaction to Amini’s death and Iran’s repressive policing, they quickly flowered into a mass opposition movement against the Islamic regime as men joined ranks of demonstrators and chants of “Death to the dictator!” broke out.

The anger was directed at the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as President Ebrahim Raisi, who attended the United Nations General Assembly this week. Iranian-Americans rallied outside the U.N. Headquarters Wednesday to voice their discontent as Raisi addressed the assembly.

“The hijab is used as a weapon in Iran,” one woman told CBS in Los Angeles. “It is a weapon against the West, and women are used as pawns.”

“Let this be the George Flloyd moment of Iran,” she added.

There have also been demonstrations of solidarity in countries such as Lebanon, Germany, and Canada.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Al Jazeera) (BBC)

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International

Queen Elizabeth II Dies at 96

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“I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the Realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world,” her eldest son and successor, King Charles III said.


The Passing of a Historic Monarch

Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning monarch in Britain’s history, passed away on Thursday afternoon, per an announcement from Buckingham Palace.

According to the Palace’s statement, The Queen “died peacefully” while at her Balmoral estate in Scotland. Reports say she was surrounded by family members, including her eldest son and successor, who announced in the hours after her passing that he will go by King Charles III. Several of her other children and grandchildren were also present. 

Early on Thursday morning, Buckingham Palace announced that the Queen was under medical supervision as doctors were concerned for her health. Soon after, BBC One suspended its programming to focus on coverage of the Queen. Anchors donned black attire while other media outlets and royal circles began to prepare for the 96-year-old monarch’s passing. 

The Queen took the throne at the age of 25 following the death of her father, King George VI. She served her tenure for 70 years, becoming not only the longest-serving monarch in the U.K., but also the second-longest serving monarch in world history. 

As the world changed drastically over the course of those seven decades, the Queen became a symbol of reliability and security for many. During her reign, 15 Prime Ministers took office in the U.K. She met regularly with leaders both in the country and abroad.

“She is unlike any other monarch in our history – she’s our longest-lived, longest-serving, longest-reigning monarch,” royal biographer Robert Hardman told BBC News. “She just stands for this constancy, this sense of permanence and stability. And I think over the years people have probably taken her for granted often. Suddenly, at times like this, we all realise… how precious she is.”

Charles Becomes King

In addition to King Charles III, she is survived by her other three children, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward. Her grandson Prince William is now the heir to the throne, followed by his children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis. 

The Queen’s husband Prince Philip died last year. 

According to the palace, King Charles III and his wife will remain in Scotland and return to London on Friday. Over the next ten days, the family will enter a period of grieving and succession. 

“We mourn profoundly the passing of a cherished Sovereign and much-loved Mother,” The King said in a statement. “I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the Realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world.”

“During this period of mourning and change, my family and I will be comforted and sustained by our knowledge of the respect and deep affection in which the Queen was so widely held.”

See what others are saying: (BBC News) (New York Times) (NBC News)

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