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South Korea Considers Imposing Strictest COVID Measures Yet Amid Case Spikes

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Photo by Reuters Photo

  • 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

Gang That Kidnapped American and Canadian Missionaries in Haiti Seeks $17 Million Ransom

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The incident has fueled calls for the government to take action against gangs, which control many territories in the country and have repeatedly carried out large-scale abductions for ransom


Missionary Abduction

The gang that abducted 17 American and Canadian missionaries in Haiti on Saturday is demanding $17 million for their safe release, Haitian officials said Monday.

The group, which consists of one Canadian and 16 Americans, are all part of Christian Aid Ministries, an Amish and Mennonite charity based out of Ohio with a long history of working in Haiti.

While on their way to visit an orphanage in Croix des Bouquets, a suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince, the group’s bus was stopped at gunpoint by the 400 Mawozo gang. The gang is known for being one the most dangerous in the area, reportedly having about 150 members.

Multiple outlets, including CNN and Reuters, report that during the gang’s confrontation with the missionaries some victims managed to get messages out to associates to let them know what was going on. One even managed to drop a pin location on his mobile phone, helping authorities get a better idea of where exactly this happened.

By 4:53 p.m on Saturday, the kidnappers contacted Christian Aid Ministries to make their steep demands. According to authorities, the request is a noticeable jump from the thousands to tens of thousands the gang typically asks for.

Lack of Government Control

While Haitian authorities are involved in the investigation to free the missionaries, they actually have little power in the area. Croix des Bouquets is largely out of the government’s control and is instead run by 400 Mawozo. Government authority being replaced by gang activity isn’t uncommon in Haiti, and in some places, government control is almost completely lacking. This was highlighted on Sunday when Prime Minister Ariel Henry was forced to turn back from a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of revolutionary war hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines due to its placement in gang territory.

The issue makes recovering the missionaries far more complex, but Haitian authorities aren’t alone. The FBI has been involved in the investigation and is continuing to help Haitian authorities.

“The FBI is part of a coordinated US government effort to get the Americans involved to safety. Due to operational considerations, no further information is available at this time,” The agency said in a statement to Reuters.

Reports indicate that the hostages are being held in some kind of safe house for the gang. Currently, no one is believed to be physically hurt. The gang has warned against harming the hostages, although according to a Haitian security forces member who spoke with CNN, the group didn’t seem too worried about those threats.

Haitians Call for Changes

Abductions in Haiti have always been an issue, but the problem has become particularly bad lately. In 2020, the Haitian National Police reported 234 kidnappings. In the first eight months of this year, there have been at least 328.

Some organizations claim that number is actually low. In fact, the Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights reported that at least 600 people have been abducted this year. The center said that much of the increase was caused by 400 Mawozo, who have figured out that kidnapping busloads of people is more profitable than just taking individuals.

The issue is so prolific that just before the kidnapping on Saturday, a Haitian transportation union called for an indefinite strike starting Monday, with its president further justifying the move in a written statement a day later.

“We call on the government to put an end to the kidnappings and provide us safety or for them to resign immediately. We are the most victims; the transportation sector is an easy target for kidnappers all over the country,” Union President Méhu Changeux wrote. “We lost many members to the insecurity and dozens of members have been kidnapped. The latest tragedy of the kidnapping of the American missionaries shows no one is safe in this country.” 

Since Monday, many parts of the country have come to a standstill amid the strike, putting increased pressure on a government with little resources to handle the underlying cause of discontent: gang activity and government instability.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The New York Times) (Associated Press)

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5 Dead, 2 Injured After Bow and Arrow Attack in Norway

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Police have called the incident a terror attack, though exact details regarding the suspect’s motives remain unclear.


Super Market Attack

The Norwegian town of Kongsberg is reeling from a deadly incident at Coop Extra supermarket on Wednesday that police are treating as “an act of terrorism.”

Shortly before 6 p.m., a 37-year old Danish man entered the market, armed with a bow and arrow, along with other weapons. He then began firing at those inside the building.

Authorities quickly responded and were on the scene within five minutes. Despite a police confrontation with the suspect, the attack continued. Four women and one man were ultimately killed while two others were left injured.

The suspect initially avoided arrest after managing to flee the scene. Police Chief Ole Bredrup Sæverud told reporters Thursday that it took 35 minutes to catch the attacker.

Unclear Motives

While police described the incident as a terror attack, they refused to specify a motive. Officials did hint that the rampage might have been religiously motivated by revealing that police had previously been in contact with the suspect due to his conversion to Islam and possible connections to radical content and teachings. Still, Sæverud clarified that the perpetrator hadn’t been actively investigated at all in 2021.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who was just hours away from leaving office after she was ousted in recent elections, described reports of the scene as “horrifying” on Wednesday. Incoming Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said in a Facebook post from Thursday morning that the attack was a “cruel and brutal act.”

Norway’s King Harald expressed his sympathies to the mayor of Kongs-berg, telling the country, “We sympathize with the relatives and injured in the grief and despair.” 

And we think of all those affected in Kongs-berg who have experienced that their safe local environment suddenly became a dangerous place. It shakes us all when horrible things happen near us, when you least expect it, in the middle of everyday life on the open street.”

Attacks of this nature are rare in Norway. In 2019, a right-wing gunman tried to enter a mosque before being overpowered and hitting no one. Wednesday’s attack is the most deadly since July 2011, when a far-right extremist killed 77 people at a Labour party summer camp.

Editor’s Note: At Rogue Rocket, we make it a point to not include the names and pictures of mass murderers or suspected mass murderers who may have been seeking attention or infamy. Therefore, we will not be linking to other sources, as they may contain these details.

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Protests Erupt in Italy Over World’s Toughest Vaccine Mandate

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The violence is believed to have been instigated by far-right groups that oppose COVID-19 vaccines and other pandemic-related safety measures.


Green Pass Pushback

Demonstrators gathered in Rome over the weekend to protest against Italy’s plans to require a coronavirus “Green Pass” for all workers starting Oct. 15.

The Green Pass is a European Union initiative that shows whether someone is vaccinated, has recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months, or has received a negative COVID test in the past 48 hours.

Since August, Italy has required the pass for entry at restaurants and use of long-distance trains, along with nearly every other activity that involves interaction with others or use of a public space. Now, the pass will be required to enter a workplace, which critics argue is particularly harsh.

Individuals who can’t produce a valid Green Pass will be suspended without pay, making it the most extreme of any COVID-19 mandate in the world.

The weekend protests started out peaceful, with people chanting “Liberta,” which means freedom. However, the scene turned violent by Saturday when a group of protesters affiliated with the far-right Forza Nuova party decided to storm the headquarters of the CGIL, Italy’s biggest and oldest labor union.

Protesters then marched towards the Prime Minister’s office, prompting police to respond with anti-riot measures like tear gas, water cannons, and shield charges.

It’s unclear how many protesters were hurt in the ongoing fighting, but dozen of police officers were reportedly hurt in the scuffle. By Sunday evening. at least 12 protesters were arrested, many of who are members of Forza Nuova, including its leader Roberto Fiore. Authorities also indicated in a press conference on Monday that it had identified at least 600 other people who took part in illegal activities during the demonstrations.

Fiore was unapologetic about the rioting, and Forza Nuova said in a statement, “The popular revolution will not stop, with or without us, until the Green Pass is definitively withdrawn. Saturday was a watershed between the old and the new. The people decided to raise the level of the clash.”

Fascist Banning

Saturday’s events have led many of the country’s largest political parties, including the 5Star Movement and the Democratic Paty, to support a motion calling for Nuova Forza and similar groups to be dismantled in line with a constitutional provision from 1952 that bans fascists parties.

While that motion is still going through the legislative process, prosecutors have already seized the group’s website in line with a 1988 law that bans inciting violence through public communications.

The events [on Saturday] take us back to the darkest and most dramatic moments of our history and they are an extremely serious and unacceptable attack on democracy,” Valeria Fedeli, a senator with the center-left Democratic Party, said on Monday.

The violence from the weekend may make it seem like a sizeable chunk of Italians are against the vaccine; however, over 70% of all Italians are already vaccinated, making it one of the highest rates in the world.

According to polling from the summer, most Italians think the new rules will help in the long run and prevent another catastrophe like last year when the country ran out of room to bury the dead due to the number of deaths caused by COVID-19.

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (NPR) (Politico)

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