Seoul tightens social distancing rules amid COVID-19 resurgence

Seoul tightens social distancing rules amid COVID-19 resurgence
Tables and chairs are stacked up at a Starbucks café in downtown Seoul on Saturday in preparation for stricter social distancing rules which take effect on Monday. (AN Photo/Jeff Sung)
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Updated 29 August 2020

Seoul tightens social distancing rules amid COVID-19 resurgence

Seoul tightens social distancing rules amid COVID-19 resurgence
  • Limited hours and services for businesses according to rules

SEOUL: South Korea’s coronavirus cases could surge to as much as 2,000 per day in a week, health authorities warned on Saturday, as new infections continue to pile up.

The warning came ahead of tighter restrictions on coffee shops, restaurants and other businesses in the Seoul metropolitan area for a week.

“Extending the social distancing campaign in the wider Seoul area is an inevitable choice to prevent bigger socio-economic losses,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said at a press briefing. “I ask owners of coffee chains, restaurants and other businesses to actively cooperate with the order despite frustration.”

Under the “Level 2.5” social distancing rules, only takeout and delivery services are permitted in franchise coffee chains from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Restaurants and bakeries are allowed to operate until 9 p.m. until Sept. 6.

Around 28,000 indoor sports facilities, such as gyms and public swimming pools, will also be included in the social distancing campaign.

“I used to read books at cafes on the weekend, but I can’t do it from tomorrow,” Min Seon-hee, a 22-year-old university student, told Arab News. “It’s sad, but I believe this is the right decision to prevent the resurgence of the virus.”

An owner of a fitness club in central Seoul was worried about the economic losses he would have to incur in case the maximum social distancing rules were imposed.

“We have to abide by the rules and regulations imposed by the government,” he told Arab News, requesting anonymity. “I’m just concerned that my business will be compromised significantly when the social distancing level goes up to three.”

Yoon Tae-ho, director general for public health at the ministry, told the news briefing that the current situation in the greater Seoul area was so severe that more powerful social distancing was required.

“There will be no other choice but to raise the social distancing to the highest Level 3 unless the surge in coronavirus cases is blunted, ” he said.

If imposed, the Level 3 guidelines would mean a ban on all public gatherings and events of over 10 people as well as all sporting events.

Some experts, however, suggested that the government up social distancing to the maximum level as soon as possible to help flatten the curve.

“There is a misunderstanding about the Level 3 restrictions,” Dr. Kim Woo-joo, a professor for infectious diseases at Korea University in Seoul, told Arab News. “Many people believe Level 3 is related to lockdown, but that’s not true. Implementing Level 3 measures in a short period of time would be more helpful in preventing the virus spread as well as lessening the pandemic impact on the economy.”

All public and private facilities will also remain shut except for essential economic and social purposes.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), the country reported 323 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, raising the total to 19,400. Five more patients died, bringing the death toll to 321.

Saturday’s tally marked a drop from the previous day when 371 new cases were reported, but the number of daily infections has remained in triple digits for more than two weeks.

Out of the new cases reported, 244 were identified in the capital area, namely Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon, which is home to half of the country’s 51 million population.

Seoul added 124 more cases, while the surrounding Gyeonggi Province and the western port city of Incheon reported 100 and 20 patients respectively, according to the KCDC.

The number of daily new infections in the 300 range among a population of 51 million would be the envy of many nations.

But President Moon Jae-in’s government is being blamed for the spike as it was confident about having the crisis under control.

The second wave came about two weeks after social distancing regulations were relaxed. The government decreed an extra holiday to commemorate the occasion and handed out hundreds of thousands of discount coupons for hotels, cinemas and restaurants to help out the economy.

“The government was self-congratulatory and laid back after its initial success,” Rep. Kim Mi-ae, of the main opposition United Future Party, said during a parliamentary session on Aug. 26. “They were just satisfied with praise from the world for their successful quarantine efforts, but I think that made people relax in mid-August.”

While fears grow over a fresh wave of COVID-19 infections, the government and a doctors’ association are on a collision course.

The Korea Medical Association said on Friday that it would stage a nationwide strike starting Sept. 7, denouncing the president’s medical reform plans which aim to increase the number of medical students over several years by establishing public medical schools.

Almost 16,000 intern and resident doctors have been on strike since Aug. 21, with nearly a quarter of the country’s 33,000 hospitals and clinics closed on Friday.

It follows the Health Ministry issuing back-to-work orders for doctors, before filing a complaint with the police against at least 10 doctors who refused to follow it.

“We strongly denounce the government for filing a complaint for criminal charges within just a day for refusing to comply with the order,” the association’s president Choi Dae-zip said before seeking a retraction of the reform plans.

The walkout has forced several major hospitals in the greater Seoul area to reduce their working hours.

Starting next week, Seoul National University, one of the country's major general hospitals, said clinic hours would be shortened in a bid to reduce the work of professor-level doctors.

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report
Updated 01 March 2021

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report
  • English study comes amid fall in hospital admissions, deaths in country
  • Findings back those of Scottish study released last week

LONDON: A single coronavirus jab can reduce the risk of hospital admission by more than 90 percent, according to a new study.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was shown to be more effective at reducing hospitalization than the Pfizer-BioNTech one.

The report, which is the result of a large-scale English trial, is due to be released this month. It revealed that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is effective at preventing serious illnesses that can result from coronavirus.

The results show that even those aged over 70 are less likely to need hospital treatment after receiving just a single jab.

Health officials created up-to-date efficacy figures by comparing coronavirus hospital admission rates across England in people who have received a first dose in the country’s vaccine rollout, with those who have not.

The new report draws similar conclusions to a study of coronavirus hospital admission rates in Scotland released last week.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that four weeks after an injection, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs reduced the risk of hospital admission by up to 85 percent and 94 percent, respectively.

For people aged over 80 —  the group most at risk of being admitted to hospital —  a single jab can reduce hospitalization risk by 81 percent after four weeks, according to the combined results of the English and Scottish studies.

The head of Oxford University’s vaccine project, Prof. Sarah Gilbert, praised the importance of the real-world data used in the new English study.

“It provides evidence of the high effectiveness of both the Oxford-AstraZeneca and BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines in preventing hospitalization in people over the age of 80 after a single dose, supporting our confidence in using this vaccine in adults of all ages,” she said.

The UK’s world-leading vaccine program has delivered initial jabs to about 20 million people, resulting in rapidly falling hospital admissions and virus deaths across all age groups in the country.

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid
Updated 01 March 2021

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid
  • Plea comes amid UN pledging conference to avert famine
  • Save the Children ‘beyond dismayed’ by reports of Britain’s decision

LONDON: Yemenis and major charities have urged the British government to reconsider reported cuts of up to 50 percent of its support for humanitarian efforts in the war-torn country.

The plea comes as the UN is looking to raise some $3.85 billion from more than 100 governments and donors at a major virtual pledging conference on Monday to avert Yemen’s growing famine.

The British government has signaled that it is expected to cut its international aid budget as the country reckons with its biggest-ever recession amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK is expected to slash its current 0.7 percent of national income spending on foreign aid projects.

Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell told the BBC on Monday that cutting aid to Yemen would be “very serious indeed,” and would lead to the “slow, agonizing and obscene process of starving to death” for millions.

A Yemeni aid worker told The Guardian newspaper: “It is hard to describe how heartbreaking the situation in Yemen is right now … Children are dying every day here. It is not a moral decision to abandon Yemen.”

The country’s civil war kicked off in 2014 when Iran-backed Houthi militias seized the capital, leading the internationally recognized government to flee to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

“We are beyond dismayed by reports that the government intends to cut aid to Yemen by a staggering 50 percent. To slash food and medicine to these children as they stand on the brink of famine and a second COVID-19 wave risks many thousands of deaths,” said Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK.

“This is one of the first illustrations of the devastating real-life consequences of the UK’s decision to abandon its commitment to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid, and we hope the government will urgently rethink this move in time to avoid tragic consequences for the world’s most vulnerable children.”

2 Americans wanted in Ghosn’s escape in Japanese custody

2 Americans wanted in Ghosn’s escape in Japanese custody
Updated 01 March 2021

2 Americans wanted in Ghosn’s escape in Japanese custody

2 Americans wanted in Ghosn’s escape in Japanese custody
  • American father and son helped former Nissan chairman escape Japan in a box
  • Michael and Peter Taylor, failed to convince US courts to block their extradition

BOSTON: An American father and son wanted by Japan for aiding former Nissan Motor Co. Chairman Carlos Ghosn escape from the country in a box were handed over to Japanese custody Monday, ending their months-long battle to stay in the US
Michael Taylor and his son, Peter Taylor, failed to convince US officials and courts to block their extradition to Japan, where they will be tried on charges that they smuggled Ghosn out of the country in 2019 while the former auto titan was awaiting trial on financial misconduct charges.
The Massachusetts men, who have been locked up at a suburban Boston jail since their arrest in May, were handed over to Japanese officials early Monday, said one of their attorneys, Paul Kelly.
The Taylors’ lawyers had argued the accusations don’t fit under the law Japan wants to try them under and that they would be treated unfairly in Japan and subjected to “mental and physical torture.” They have accused Japan of pursuing the pair in an attempt to save face after the embarrassment of Ghosn’s escape.
Michael Taylor, a US Army Special Forces veteran and private security specialist who in the past was hired by parents to rescue abducted children, has never denied the allegations.
He gave an interview to Vanity Fair magazine for a story last year in which he described the mission in detail. When asked why he did it, he responded with the motto of the Special Forces: “De oppresso liber” or “to liberate the oppressed,” the magazine reported.
Michael Taylor refused to discuss the details of the case in an interview last month with The Associated Press because of the possibility that he will be tried in Japan. But he insisted that his son wasn’t involved and was not even in Japan when Ghosn left.
Ghosn, who became one of the auto industry’s most powerful executives by engineering a turnaround at the Japanese manufacturer, had been out on bail after his November 2018 arrest on charges that he underreported his future income and committed a breach of trust by diverting Nissan money for his personal gain.
Ghosn has denied the allegations and has said he fled to avoid “political persecution.”
Prosecutors have described it as one of the most “brazen and well-orchestrated escape acts in recent history.” Authorities say the Taylors were paid at least $1.3 million for their help.
On the day of the escape, Michael Taylor flew into Osaka on a chartered jet with another man, George-Antoine Zayek, carrying two large black boxes and pretending to be musicians with audio equipment, authorities said. Meanwhile, Ghosn, free on bail, headed to the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo and met up with Peter Taylor, who was already in Japan, authorities say.
The elder Taylor and Zayek met up with the two others at the Grand Hyatt and shortly after, they split up. Peter Taylor hopped on a flight to China while the others got on a bullet train and went back to another hotel near the airport, where Taylor and Zayek had booked a room. They all went in; only Ghosn’s rescuers were seen walking out.
Authorities say Ghosn was inside one of the big black boxes. At the airport, the boxes passed through a security checkpoint without being checked and were loaded onto a private jet headed for Turkey, officials said.
The Taylors had hired lawyers connected to former President Donald Trump, including ex-White House attorney Ty Cobb, in attempt to get Trump to block the extradition before he left office.
In his interview with the AP, Michael Taylor implored President Joe Biden to step in and said he felt betrayed that the US would try to turn him over to Japan after his service to the country. But the Biden administration declined to block the extradition.
Under Trump. the US State Department agreed in October to hand the men over to Japan. But a federal judge in Boston put their extradition on hold shortly after their lawyers filed an emergency petition. The judge rejected their petition in January and the Boston-based 1st Circuit Court of Appeals later denied their bid to put the extradition on hold while they appeal that ruling.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer last month denied a bid for more time for an appeal, clearing the way for the men to be handed over to Japan.

Fourth executive jailed in Britain’s Iraq oil bribery case

Fourth executive jailed in Britain’s Iraq oil bribery case
Paul Bond was sentenced to nearly four years in jail at London's Southwark Crown Court. (File/AFP)
Updated 01 March 2021

Fourth executive jailed in Britain’s Iraq oil bribery case

Fourth executive jailed in Britain’s Iraq oil bribery case
  • Paul Bond, 68, will spend 3 and a half years in jail for helping to pay bribes of more than $900,000
  • Unaoil paid more than $17 million in bribes to secure contracts worth $1.7 billion for itself and its Western clients

LONDON: A former sales manager of Dutch energy services company SBM Offshore was sentenced on Monday to three-and-a-half years in jail after being convicted by a London jury of bribing public officials to win oil contracts in post-occupation Iraq.
Paul Bond, 68, was found guilty of two counts of bribery after a retrial at London’s Southwark Crown Court on Wednesday. His sentencing hearing was delayed after the judge developed COVID-19 symptoms and self-isolated.
Bond is the fourth executive convicted after a five-year Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into Monaco-based consultancy Unaoil, which uncovered bribes of more than $17 million to secure contracts worth $1.7 billion for Unaoil and its Western, blue-chip clients.
Bond had denied wrongdoing.
Prosecutors had said that Unaoil employees worked on behalf of SBM Offshore and with Bond to pay more than $900,000 in bribes to Iraqi public officials at Iraq’s South Oil Company and the Ministry of Oil to win a $55 million contract for offshore mooring buoys by skewing a competitive tender in their favor.
Basil Al Jarah, Unaoil’s former Iraq partner, was last year sentenced to three years and four months in jail after pleading guilty to five bribery counts in 2019. Unaoil’s former territory managers for Iraq — Ziad Akle and Stephen Whiteley — received five and three-year sentences respectively.
The SFO investigation originally centered on the prominent Ahsani family, which ran Unaoil. However, failed extradition attempts culminating in a clash in Italy with US prosecutors over the extradition of Saman Ahsani in 2018 scuppered the British agency’s attempts to pursue prosecution in Britain.
In October 2019 Saman Ahsani and his brother Cyrus pleaded guilty in the United States to being part of a 17-year scheme to pay millions of dollars in bribes to officials in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. Their father and Unaoil founder, Ata Ahsani, has not been prosecuted.
SBM Offshore, which has declined to comment, was fined $238 million by the US Department of Justice in 2017 under a deferred prosecution agreement.

French ex-president Sarkozy handed jail term for corruption

French ex-president Sarkozy handed jail term for corruption
Updated 01 March 2021

French ex-president Sarkozy handed jail term for corruption

French ex-president Sarkozy handed jail term for corruption
  • The jail sentence includes two years suspended and the remaining year can be served at home with an electronic bracelet
  • The conviction sets a new low-point in the tumultuous political career of the right-winger who remains a dominant political figure in France

PARIS: Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty of corruption on Monday and handed a three-year prison sentence, in a ruling that deals a major blow to any lingering political ambitions.
The jail sentence includes two years suspended and the remaining year can be served at home with an electronic bracelet, the court ruled, meaning Sarkozy will not end up behind bars over this case.
The judge found the 66-year-old had formed a “corruption pact” with his former lawyer and friend Thierry Herzog in order to convince a judge, Gilbert Azibert, to obtain and share information about a legal investigation.
“The facts for which Nicolas Sarkozy is guilty are particularly serious having been committed by a former president who was the guarantor of the independence of the judiciary,” the judgment read.
Sarkozy, a one-term president from 2007-2012, announced an appeal several hours after the verdict, with his lawyer calling the findings “extremely severe” and “totally unfounded and unjustified.”
The conviction sets a new low-point in the tumultuous political career of the right-winger who remains a dominant political figure in France, admired by fans for his tough talk on crime and immigration.
It is also likely to undermine any attempted comeback to frontline politics — an ambition he has denied, but which has been promoted by many supporters ahead of 2022’s presidential election.
Wearing a dark suit and tie, Sarkozy showed no emotion as the sentence was read out and he left court without commenting to waiting journalists.
“What a senseless witchhunt, my love Nicolas Sarkozy,” his wife, former supermodel and singer Carla Bruni, posted on Instagram, next to a picture of the couple embracing. “The fight goes on, the truth will come out. #injustice.”
Only one other modern French president, Sarkozy’s political mentor Jacques Chirac, has been convicted of corruption.
Chirac, who did not attend proceedings in 2011 due to ill health, received a two-year suspended sentence over the creation of ghost jobs at the Paris city hall to fund his party when he was mayor.
The verdict on Monday was based on extensive wiretaps of private conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer in 2014 during which they discussed helping a judge, Gilbert Azibert, obtain a desirable job in Monaco.
In return the judge delivered information about a judicial investigation into Sarkozy’s dealings with billionaire L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt amid allegations that she had handed over envelopes stuffed with cash for campaign financing.
Sarkozy was eventually cleared over his dealings with Bettencourt and has maintained his innocence throughout.
He told the court during his latest trial he had “never committed the slightest act of corruption.”
While reading out her sentence, judge Christine Mee said Sarkozy had “used his status as a former president... in order to favor a magistrate to serve his personal interests.”
On March 17, the ex-president is scheduled to face a second trial over accusations of fraudulently overspending in his failed 2012 re-election bid.
He has also been charged over allegations he received millions of euros from Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi for his 2007 election campaign.
And in January, prosecutors opened another probe into alleged influence-peddling by Sarkozy over his advisory activities in Russia.
The guilty verdict on Monday is a further blow to Sarkozy’s center-right allies in the Republicans party who are struggling to coalesce around a single candidate ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Polls currently show centrist President Emmanuel Macron edging the election, followed by far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
“The severity of the punishment is absolutely out of proportion,” the head of the Republicans party, Christian Jacob, complained on Twitter.
He took aim at the specialized financial crimes prosecutors’ office which pursued Sarkozy, as well as his closest political ally while in power, former prime minister Francois Fillon.
Fillon, whose 2017 bid for the presidency was torpedoed by corruption charges, was convicted in June last year of creating a fake parliamentary job for his wife.
Political scientist Pascal Perrineau said that Sarkozy had been happy to let speculation about another tilt at the presidency in 2022 take off because it helped rehabilitate his image.
“Now it will be a lot more complicated,” he said.
On social media, some users shared previous comments from the pugnacious son of a Hungarian immigrant known for his tough-on-crime rhetoric.
In 2015, Sarkozy spoke out against arrangements that make it possible to convert short prison sentences into non-custodial punishments, which he will benefit from if he fails with his appeal.
“I want there to be no arrangements for sentences of more than six months,” he said.