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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

200 Children Seeking Asylum in the U.K. Are Missing 

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The missing include at least 13 children under the age of 16. 


Children Missing From Hotels

There are 200 asylum-seeking children missing from government care in the United Kingdom according to the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office.

When children are seeking asylum in the U.K. alone or separated from their parents, the government puts them up in hotel rooms for temporary accommodation. They have done so since 2021 and have temporarily accommodated 4,600 children in that time. However, Simon Murray, the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office, said that 200 of the children placed in those hotels are missing, including at least 13 who are under the age of 16.

In response to this information, a collection of more than 100 charities sent a letter to the Prime Minister demanding the end of the procedure of placing kids in hotels over safety concerns. The letter says that these children are at risk of trafficking and exploitation by staying in these hotels alone.

Other officials have echoed these concerns, claiming these hotels are targets for organized crime where people use these vulnerable children for labor or trafficking.

Parliament Calls Incident “Horrific”

Murray told the House of Lords on Monday that despite the media reports, his department does not know of any kidnapping cases, though they are investigating. He went on to say there are many reasons why children go missing. 

However, lawmakers were not appeased by Murray’s assurances. In a later debate, one member of Parliament called the missing cases “horrific” and another said that it was “putting children at risk.”  The children’s commissioner for England also reportedly chimed in asking for, quote “assurances on the steps being taken to safeguard the children.” 

Murray went on to say that the use of hotels for asylum-seeking children will hopefully be phased out as soon as possible but did not give a timeline. 

The nonprofit Refugee Council called on the government in a tweet to spare no expense in the location of these missing kids.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (The Guardian) (The Telegraph)

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International

100,000 U.K. Nurses Launch Biggest Strike in NHS History

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Opposition leader Keir Starmer called the strike “a badge of shame on this government.”


The NHS Grinds to a Halt

Some 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the United Kingdom’s largest nursing union, launched a historic 12-hour strike Thursday after the government refused to negotiate on higher pay.

The work stoppage, which spans England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, is only the second in the RCN’s 106-year history and the largest the NHS has ever seen. It marks the breaking point for many underpaid nurses and the culmination of a years-long decline in the NHS’s quality of care, put under increasing stress by severe staffing shortages.

Although most NHS staff in England and Wales received a pay rise of around £1,400 this year, worth about 4% on average for nurses, they say it has not kept up with inflation as Britain plunges deeper into a cost-of-living crisis.

When inflation is accounted for, nurses’ pay dropped 1.2% every year from 2010 to 2017, according to the Health Foundation.

Meanwhile, the number of patients waiting for care has reached a record 7.2 million in England, or over one in eight residents, more than double what it was seven years ago.

In July, the cross-party Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee estimated the staffing shortfall could be as high as 50,000 nurses and 12,000 doctors, what one MP called the “greatest workforce crisis in history.”

Many nurses argue that boosting pay will help hospitals recruit more staff.

The RCN demanded a pay raise 5% above the retail rate of inflation, which amounts to a 19% increase, but both Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the government’s health secretary have claimed that’s not affordable.

During Thursday’s strike, partial staffing continued to remain open for urgent care such as chemotherapy, kidney dialysis, and children’s accident and neonatal units.

Sunak and Starmer Brawl in Parliament

Labor leader Keir Starmer grilled Sunak during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on the upcoming strike.

“Tomorrow will be the first-ever nationwide nurse’s strike,” he said. “All the Prime Minister has to do to stop that is to open the door and discuss pay with them. If he did, the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief. Why won’t he?”

“We have consistently spoken to all the unions involved in all the pay disputes that there are,” Sunak replied. “Last year, when everyone else in the public sector had a public sector pay freeze, the nurses received a three-percent pay rise.”

Starmer fired back: “Nurses going on strike is a badge of shame for this government. Instead of showing leadership, he’s playing games with people’s health.”

Sunak called Starmer’s demand that he reopen negotiations with the RCN “just simply a political formula for avoiding taking a position on this issue.”

“If he thinks the strikes are wrong, he should say so,” Sunak said. “If he thinks it’s right that pay demands of nineteen percent are met, then he should say so. What’s weak, Mr. Speaker, is he’s not strong enough to stand up to the union.”

While Starmer has called on Sunak to negotiate with the RCN, he has not explicitly backed the 19% pay raise himself.

Unless the government returns to the bargaining table, the RCN plans to launch a second round of strikes on Dec. 20 to be followed by ambulance strikes that Wednesday and the next.

If the government still refuses to budge, the union said in a statement that nurses will strike for longer periods in more places starting in January, disrupting more health services.

Other industries are also set to see work stoppages this month, including workers on railways, buses, highways, and borders, as well as teachers, postal workers, baggage handlers, and paramedics.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (CNN) (The Guardian)

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International

Fortnite Developer Sued By Parents for Making the Game as “Addictive as Possible”

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One child mentioned in the lawsuit played over 7,700 rounds of Fortnite in two years.


Epic Games Sued 

A Quebec City judge recently approved a 2019 class-action lawsuit accusing Fortnite developer Epic Games of deliberately making Fortnite addictive.

The parents who brought forward the lawsuit claim their children have become so obsessed with the game that in some cases, they’ve stopped eating, showering, or socializing. The lawsuit claims that these kids have played thousands of games since Fortnite’s release in 2017. In one example, a teenager played over 7,700 games in less than two years. 

If the lawsuit succeeds, players addicted to Fortnite living in Quebec since September 2017 could receive compensation. The plaintiff’s attorney, Philippe Caron, reports that over 200 parents outside the lawsuit have reached out to him, saying their child’s well-being has diminished since downloading Fortnite. He told The Washington Post that they are very confident about their case. 

Epic Games Responds

“We plan to fight this in court,” Natalie Munoz, a spokesperson for Epic Games said to The Post, “We believe the evidence will show that this case is meritless.” 

Munoz also said that Fortnite does allow parents to supervise their child’s playtime and require permission for purchases.

The parents involved in the lawsuit are claiming that they were not aware of the dangers playing Fortnite could pose for their children. 

“If she had been informed by the defendants of the risks and dangers associated with the use of FORTNITE,” the lawsuit says of one guardian. “She would have categorically refused to allow the game to be downloaded.” 

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Washington Post) (Deadline

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