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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.”
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)
Police Arrest Hong Kong Man for Booing Chinese National Anthem
The man’s boos were launched during the first time the Chinese national anthem had ever been played for a Hong Kong athlete at the Olympics.
Instulting the Anthem
Hong Kong authorities announced Friday that a man was arrested for allegedly booing and “insulting” the Chinese national anthem while watching the Olympics on Monday.
The unnamed 40-year-old, who identified himself as a journalist, was allegedly watching the Olympics fencing medal ceremony for Hong Konger Edgar Cheung at a local mall. When the anthem began playing, he allegedly began booing and chanted “We are Hong Kong!” while waving a British Hong Kong Colonial flag.
The man’s actions were particularly noteworthy because it was the first time the Chinese national anthem had been played for a Hong Kong athlete in the Olympics. Hong Kongers compete at the Games under a separate committee called Hong Kong, China. The last time a Hong Konger won gold was in 1996 for windsurfing, at which time the British anthem of “God Save the Queen” was played.
Concerns for Freedom of Speech
The man is suspected of breaking the relatively new National Anthem Ordinance, which was passed in June 2020, and has a penalty of up to three years in prison and fines of $6,000 for anyone who publicly and intentionally insults the anthem. The law mirrors one in mainland China, but it has faced considerable scrutiny from increasingly persecuted pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong.
They argue that it tramples the right to free speech, which is supposed to be enshrined in the city’s Basic Law. Hong Kong police, however, say that’s not the case and claim that his actions breach common restraints on freedom of speech. Senior Superintendent Eileen Chung said that his actions were “to stir up the hostility of those on the scene and to politicize the sport.”
Police issued a warning that it would investigate reports of others joining his chants or violating the separate National Security law passed last year.
This incident isn’t the only case of alleged politicization of the Games. Badminton player Angus Ng was accused by a pro-Beijing lawmaker of making a statement by sporting a black jersey with the territory’s emblem. The imagery was very similar to the black-and-white Hong Kong flag used by anti-government protesters.
Ng countered that he wore his own clothes to the event because he didn’t have sponsorships to provide jerseys and he wasn’t authorized to print the emblem on a jersey himself.
See what others are saying: (Inside) (Al Jazeera) (CNN)
Canadian Catholic Priest Says Residential Schools Survivors Lied About Abuse
The Roman Catholic Church is facing considerable backlash across Canada for its treatment of indigenous peoples in the residential school system, along with its subsequent efforts to downplay the problem.
Priest Sparks Outrage
Father Rheal Forest was put on forced leave Wednesday following remarks he made over a weeks-long period starting July 10 in which he doubted victims of the country’s infamous residential school system.
Residential schools were a system of schools largely for indigenous children that were mostly run by the Catholic Church with federal government funding. The schools were notoriously cruel and long faced allegations that children had been abused or went missing under their care.
To date, over 1,300 unmarked graves have been found at four former residential schools across Canada, a fraction of the over 130 that used to exist.
Forest, of the St. Boniface archdiocese in Winnipeg, was standing in for a couple of weeks while the main priest at his church was away. During that time, Forest told parishioners that victims of the residential schools, particularly those sexually abused, had lied.
“If [the victims] wanted extra money, from the money that was given to them, they had to lie sometimes — lie that they were abused sexually and, oop, another $50,000,” he said.
“It’s kind of hard if you’re poor not to lie.”
In that same sermon, he also added that during his time with Inuit groups in the north of the country, most had allegedly said they appreciated the residential school system. Instead, he said they blamed any abuses on lay people working at the facilities rather than priests or nuns.
Forest’s comments drew a ton of backlash, prompting the archdiocese to place Forest on leave. A spokesperson for the archdiocese said that the institution “completely disavow” Forest’s comments, adding, “We very much regret the pain they may have caused to many people, not least of course Indigenous people and, more specifically, survivors of the Residential School system.”
Overall, the archdiocese has attempted to apologize to indigenous communities for its part in the residential school system, with Archbishop Albert Legatt saying in a video that the way forward was by “acknowledging, apologizing, and acting” on terms set by indigenous groups.
Church Allegedly Kept Money From Victims
Forest’s views and subsequent dismissal aren’t the only public relations scandal the Roman Catholic Church faces in Canada.
According to documents obtained by CBC News, the Church spent over a decade avoiding paying out money to survivors per a 2005 agreement. At the time, it, alongside the protestant churches that also ran some residential schools, agreed to pay an amount to victims of the schools in the tens of millions.
Instead, according to an internal summary of 2015 court documents, the Catholic Church spent much of that money on lawyers, administration, a private fundraising company, and unapproved loans. It seems that some of this was technically legal, such as a promise to give tens of millions back via “in-kind” services; however, there was no audit completed to confirm that these services actually happened or to prove the alleged value of the services. This led to doubts about whether or not they were done effectively.
The Catholic Church was unique among the signatory churches in the 2005 agreement with its efforts to avoid paying victims. All of the other denominations paid out their sums many years before without issues.
While priests such as Father Forest have supported the Church, there has been internal backlash. Father André Poilièvre, a Saskatoon priest and Order of Canada recipient, said the Church’s actions are “scandalous” and “really shameful,” adding, “It was a loophole. It might be legal, but it’s not ethical.”
With these latest revelations, widespread anger at the Church has triggered allegations that indigenous groups are behind a spree of church burnings across the country.
The entire situation is likely going to continue to smolder as a government commission set up to investigate the schools estimates there will be thousands of more unmarked graves found across Canada.
See what others are saying: (CBC News) (The Guardian) (CTV News)
Tokyo Sets Back-to-Back Records for Number of Daily COVID-19 Cases
Some positive cases were detected among people attending the Olympic Games, including a handful of athletes.
Cases Going Up
The Tokyo Olympic Games found itself in more controversy on Wednesday after Tokyo experienced a record number of daily COVID-19 cases for the second day in a row.
On Tuesday, the city recorded 2,848 new cases of the virus, passing the 2,500 daily new case threshold for the first time since the pandemic began. Then on Wednesday, it shattered the record again with 3,177 new COVID-19 cases.
At least 155 of those new cases were detected among people attending the Games, including a handful of athletes, which contrasts Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s promise that the Olympics wouldn’t be hit with the virus. The spike in new cases has largely been attributed to the delta-variant, something that many countries are dealing with around the world.
Nishimura Yasutoshi, a Japanese economic minister, told a parliamentary panel this week that COVID-19 cases are expected to continue rising for at least a few days. He also explained that many people may have delayed getting tested last week due to holidays, therefore inflating total daily new case numbers.
Governors in prefectures around Tokyo have moved to ask the government for states-of-emergency, which Tokyo is already under.
Doubts About Government Response
The prime minister said in a press conference on Tuesday that “the government has secured a new drug that reduces the risk of serious illness by 70 percent,” adding, “we have confirmed that this drug will be used thoroughly from now on.”
However, he never actually mentioned what drug he was referencing.
“In any case, under these circumstances, I would like to ask the people to avoid going out unnecessarily and to watch the Olympics and Paralympics on TV,” Suga continued.
He also stressed that canceling the Olympics amid the outbreak was completely out of the question, although there have been continued calls from the public and opposition lawmakers for just that.
Beyond refusing to cancel the Games, Suga is facing backlash for refusing to enact strict state-of-emergency protocols. Currently, the measures in Tokyo are almost all voluntary and consist of asking people to stay home, along with requesting restaurants that serve alcohol to completely close and telling all others to shut down by 8 p.m.