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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

Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

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

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Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls

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Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.


Hundreds Make It Out Alive

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.

People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.

The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.

Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.

“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”

63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.

“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.

Putin’s Plans Go Poorly

In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.

On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.

The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”

Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.

After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.

“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.

On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.

Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.

The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”

“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.

Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.

See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)

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Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished

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The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.


Settlers Get Ready to Move in

On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.

“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.

The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.

The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.

In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”

“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.

In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.

Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land

On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.

Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.

The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s

“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Peace Now) (Associated Press)

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