South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins
South Korea is currently carrying out 400,000-500,000 PCR tests a day. (AP)
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Updated 26 January 2022

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins

South Korea’s daily COVID-19 cases surge as new testing scheme begins
  • Highly contagious but less-lethal omicron became the dominant variant in South Korea last week
  • Omicron surge has fueled worries about a new wave of infections ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday

SEOUL: South Korea’s daily new coronavirus cases exceeded 13,000 for the first time on Wednesday, driven by the spread of the omicron variant, as the government launched a new pilot testing scheme to meet skyrocketing demand.
The record 13,012 cases for the previous 24-hour period came just a day after the tally first topped 8,000 despite the extension of tough social distancing rules.
The highly contagious but less-lethal omicron became the dominant variant in South Korea last week, and the daily numbers could more than double or surge to even higher levels in the coming weeks, health officials warned.
“Going forward, our top priority is to reduce critically ill patients and deaths,” Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told an inter-ministry meeting on Wednesday.
The government introduced a new testing policy in four designated cities on a pilot basis, under which only priority groups take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test while others can get a rapid antigen test at a local clinic for faster initial diagnosis.
The program will be scaled up starting Saturday to enable 256 state-run testing stations nationwide to distribute the rapid antigen self-test kits, Kim said. Another 430 local clinics will be added next week.
As part of efforts to free up resources for serious patients, the government has also cut mandatory isolation for people who have been vaccinated but tested positive to seven days from 10, and expanded self-treatment at home for asymptomatic and mild cases.
Son Young-rae, a health ministry official, said more than 80 percent of intensive care unit beds are available nationwide, compared with some 20 percent in early December when record-breaking infections threatened to saturate the country’s medical system.
South Korea is currently carrying out 400,000-500,000 PCR tests a day, but has capacity for 800,000, Son added.
The omicron surge has fueled worries about a new wave of infections ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday which begins on Saturday, when tens of millions travel nationwide to meet families.
President Moon Jae-in also met with aides on Wednesday to oversee the government’s efforts, calling for moves to prevent any potential shortages of test kits and ensure sufficient consultations with doctors at local clinics.
On Tuesday, some 46 South Korean athletes and coaches who will compete in the Beijing Olympics had to receive a COVID-19 test after attending a ceremony for the delegation where an official at the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee later tested positive.
South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has largely been successful in mitigating COVID-19, with 762,983 total infections and 6,620 deaths.
More than 95 percent of adults are fully vaccinated with some 58 percent having received a booster dose, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.


People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria

People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria
Updated 7 sec ago

People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria

People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria
  • The 19-year-old Latvian was found guilty of people smuggling and causing fatal injuries, but was not found guilty of murder

VIENNA: An Austrian court on Monday sentenced a people smuggler to seven years in prison over the deaths of two Syrians who suffocated in the crammed minivan he was driving, Austria’s news agency reported.
The bodies of the two men were discovered last October when Austrian authorities stopped and searched a van at the border with Hungary.
Thirty people in total were crammed in the vehicle, whose driver fled the scene but has later arrested in Latvia and extradited.
The 19-year-old Latvian was found guilty of people smuggling and causing fatal injuries, but was not found guilty of murder, APA reported.
He said he would accept the verdict, but the prosecution can still appeal it, APA said.
A court spokeswoman could not immediately be reached by AFP.
Austria’s interior ministry announced in May that police had smashed a group believed to have smuggled tens of thousands of mostly Syrians, including the two found suffocated, from Hungary to Austria.
A total of 205 people suspected to be linked to the group have been arrested in central and eastern Europe, the ministry said.
Those smuggled, including children, were trying to reach western European countries, including Germany and France.
The October discovery of the dead men recalled a dire event in August 2015 when 71 people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan suffocated in the back of an air-tight van where they had been hidden by people smugglers.
The bodies, including those of three children and a baby, were discovered in Austria but they had died while still on the other side of the border.
Almost four years later, the Hungarian courts sentenced their smugglers to life imprisonment.
The emotion aroused by that tragedy triggered a brief opening of the borders to hundreds of thousands of people wishing to reach Western Europe.
But Austria and other European countries have since fortified borders to stop people smuggling.


AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border
Updated 28 min 59 sec ago

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border

AU urges probe into deaths of Africans at Spain-Morocco border
  • AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat: I express my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border
  • Spain’s enclaves in Morocco, Melilla and Ceuta, are the only land borders the European Union shares with Africa

NAIROBI: The African Union Commission chief has voiced his shock at the “violent and degrading” treatment of African migrants trying to cross from Morocco into Spain after 23 people died, and called for an investigation into the incident.
About 2,000 migrants stormed the heavily fortified border between the Moroccan region of Nador and the Spanish enclave of Melilla on Friday.
At least 23 migrants died and 140 police officers were wounded in the ensuing violence, according to Moroccan authorities. It was the heaviest toll in years from such attempts to cross the frontier at Melilla.
“I express my deep shock and concern at the violent and degrading treatment of African migrants attempting to cross an international border from Morocco into Spain,” AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat said in a statement on Twitter late Sunday.
“I call for an immediate investigation into the matter and remind all countries of their obligations under international law to treat all migrants with dignity and to prioritize their safety and human rights, while refraining from the use of excessive force.”
Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, said a UN Security Council meeting would be held behind closed doors on Monday to discuss the violence African migrants face in Melilla.
Kenya, Gabon and Ghana — the African non-permanent members of the Security Council — called for the meeting, he said.
“Migrants are Migrants: whether from Africa or Europe, they do not deserve to be brutalized in this way,” Kimani wrote on Twitter.
Speaking at a regular press briefing, UN chief Antonio Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “We very much deplore this tragic incident and the loss of life.”
Spain on Monday thanked Morocco for its “collaboration” in the defense of Spanish borders and once again blamed “international mafias that traffic human beings” for the incident.
But calls for a probe have increased, with around 50 migrant rights groups calling the Melilla deaths “the tragic symbol of European policies to externalize the European Union’s borders.”
“The death of these young Africans... alerts us to the deadly nature of the security cooperation on migration between Morocco and Spain,” they added.
Spain’s rights ombudsman said it accepted a complaint from several NGOs on the incident and has requested information from the relevant administrative bodies.
The migrant rush in Melilla came after Madrid and Rabat normalized their diplomatic relations following an almost year-long crisis centered on the disputed Western Sahara territory.
For Spain, the main objective of the diplomatic thaw was to ensure Morocco’s cooperation in controlling illegal immigration.
Spain’s enclaves in Morocco, Melilla and Ceuta, are the only land borders the European Union shares with Africa.


Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment

Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment
Updated 27 June 2022

Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment

Amnesty accuses Lithuania of arbitrarily detaining migrants, subjecting them to inhumane treatment
  • Treatment of refugees from Iraq, Syria and other regions in stark contrast to the treatment of refugees from Ukraine white_check_mark eyes raised_hands

LONDON: Amnesty International has accused Lithuanian authorities of arbitrarily detaining thousands of migrants in military centers, subjecting them to “inhumane treatment” and torturing them.

Amnesty International released a report detailing how refugees and migrants have been held for months in prison-like facilities in Lithuania, where they are denied fair asylum procedures and subjected to serious human rights violations.

Amnesty International conducted interviews with dozens of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Many have reported being beaten, insulted and subjected to racially-motivated intimidation and harassment by guards.

They also complained of insufficient access to sanitary facilities and healthcare.“In Iraq, we hear about human rights and women’s rights in Europe. But here there are no rights”, said a Yazidi woman who was detained in the Medininkai detention center to Amnesty.

This treatment stands in stark contrast to the treatment of people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

“While Lithuania has rightly extended a warm welcome to tens of thousands of people fleeing Ukraine, the experience of the detainees we spoke with could not be more different. This raises serious concerns about institutional racism embedded within Lithuania’s migration system.” said Nils Muižnieks, Europe Regional Director of Amnesty International.

In July 2021, lawmakers passed new legislation mandating the detention of people who irregularly crossed into Lithuanian territory.

In order to escape EU legal safeguards against arbitrary detention, Lithuanian authorities described such detention as “temporary accommodation”.

The detainees interviewed by Amnesty International reported the aggressive behavior of the center’s guards when they protested against the appalling detention conditions.

Authorities retaliated by beating them with batons, spraying them with pepper spray, and using taser guns.

A psychologist who worked at the center is being investigated for alleged sexual violence against detainees in his care.

Amnesty International also documented how racialized detainees, particularly Black men and women, were subjected to profoundly offensive racist slurs.

Despite the overwhelming evidence released today by Amnesty and other international organizations and local groups over the last year, the European Parliament claims that there is no hard evidence of these international and EU law violations.

Speaking to Euronews, Lithuanian interior minister Agne Bilotaite said the report “tends to reflect the views and testimonies of only one side,” and that Lithuania had “continuously cooperated with all human rights institutions and organisations and adhered to the principle of open dialogue and the rule of law.”


UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023

UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023
Updated 27 June 2022

UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023

UK to remove visa requirement for GCC nationals visiting from 2023
  • ETA is part of the British government’s plan to fully digitize its border by the end of 2025
  • ETA is akin to a multi-travel visa covering extended stays

LONDON: Gulf Cooperation Council nationals will no longer be required to apply for a visa before visiting Britain from 2023, the UK government announced today.

Under Britain’s new Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme, rolling out next year, nationals from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will join Americans and Canadians in benefiting from visa-free travel.

Home secretary Priti Patel said: “This move means that Gulf states will be among the first countries in the world to benefit from ETAs and visa-free travel to the UK.

“Our number one priority is the security of the UK border and by launching ETAs we can ensure that everyone wishing to travel to the UK has permission to do so in advance of travel and refuse those who pose a threat.”

The ETA is part of the British government’s plan to fully digitize its border by the end of 2025 and mirrors the list of nationals who do not currently require visas for short stays or transiting.

Once granted, the ETA is akin to a multi-travel visa covering extended stays but until its introduction, GCC nationals will continue to benefit from access to the Electronic Visa Waiver scheme, which can be completed online before visits to Britain.

Describing the ETA process as “straightforward,” the Home Office said the scheme will “act as an additional security measure allowing the government to block threats” but would also provide individuals “more assurance at an earlier point in time about their ability to travel.”


In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia
Updated 27 June 2022

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia

In Indonesia’s ‘Makkah porch,’ Hajj rekindles centuries-old bond with Arabia
  • For centuries, Aceh was the last Southeast Asian port of call for Hajj, known as the ‘Porch of Makkah’
  • Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single aid donors when a tsunami devastated Aceh in 2004 

JAKARTA: As they leave for Hajj, pilgrims from Aceh prepare for a transformative and spiritually moving experience, which for many of them also rekindles a special, centuries-old connection they feel for Saudi Arabia.

The westernmost province of Indonesia, Aceh is the site of the earliest Muslim kingdoms in Southeast Asia, which began to form in the late 13th century. 

It was the last Southeast Asian port of call for pilgrimages to the holiest city of Islam, and in the 17th century court chronicles of Aceh rulers began to refer to it as “Serambi Makkah,” or “Porch of Makkah” — a term that is still used by the Acehnese today.

Now, the opportunity to depart for the real Makkah and perform Hajj is something they look forward to for years, if not decades.

“In Aceh it’s about 30 to 31 years,” Mizaj Iskandar, who has been tasked by the local government with organizing the pilgrimage, told Arab News.

“They are certainly very emotional because they have been waiting for so long,” he said. “By the time they receive the call, they must be moved, happy, and in disbelief. All these emotions you can find in almost all the participants.”

One of the pilgrims, 58-year-old Kamariah from Aceh Besar regency, could not find the words to describe how moved she was that she would be able to see the Kaaba at the center of the Grand Mosque, Masjid Al-Haram, in Makkah.

“I don’t know how to express how happy I am to see Kaaba,” she said. “It feels like I will never want to leave it.”

Like other pilgrims, Kamariah has been preparing for the journey, especially spiritually.

“Before we go to the holy land, we must have already cleansed our hearts,” she said. “We hope to become good Hajj pilgrims.”

One of Islam’s five pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to only 1,000 people living in Saudi Arabia in 2020. In 2021, the Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.

But this year, as it has already lifted most of its COVID-19 curbs, Saudi Arabia will welcome 1 million pilgrims from abroad. More than 100,000 of them are arriving from Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. And among them, 2,022 are from Aceh.

“My family and I have not stopped expressing our gratitude to Allah, because we have been called this year to go for Hajj,” Amalia Sabrina, a doctor from Sigli town in the Pidie regency of Aceh, told Arab News.

“I once had a dream of the event that has now taken place, and it feels almost like deja vu to be in the same position as in that dream.”

She arrived in the Kingdom last week and was enjoying the hospitality with which pilgrims have been received.

“Whether it’s the hotel service, food, laundry, service at the shops, or the people,” she said. “Everyone has been friendly.”

Sabrina’s younger brother Miftahul Hamdi, a football player, was also grateful to be in the Kingdom.

“I am so grateful to get this opportunity to go for Hajj this year,” he said. “Aceh is often referred to as a ‘Makkah porch,’ so being able to go for Hajj here is just very fulfilling and makes me feel very grateful.” 

The enthusiasm Acehnese have for the Hajj pilgrimage, a sacred milestone for Muslims, is reinforced by their historical links to Saudi Arabia.

Marzuki Abubakar, researcher and lecturer at Ar-Raniry State Islamic University in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said that Islam in Aceh has revolved around Arabia ever since its advent in Southeast Asia. The coastal region also connected the rest of the islands that constitute present-day Indonesia with the Middle East.

“Aceh was a transit point for Hajj pilgrims to go to Makkah from all over the archipelago,” he said. “There’s amazing enthusiasm among Acehnese to go for Hajj.”

What has recently strengthened the bond was the help the Acehnese received from the Kingdom during one of the darkest periods in the region’s history — the 2004 tsunami.

“They are emotionally attached to Saudi Arabia because of the help they received after the tsunami,” Abubakar told Arab News.

Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single donors to the relief response, when the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated Aceh, killing more than 160,000 people — nearly 5 percent of the local population.

Saudi charities helped rebuild houses, medical facilities and the 17th-century Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh — a symbol of religion and identity of the Acehnese.

Nurlinda Nurdin, a radio reporter from Banda Aceh, who performed the pilgrimage in 2006 and spent two months covering Hajj preparations in Saudi Arabia, said that before the journey she would often fall ill, but all her ailments were gone when she was there.

“When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I was always healthy. I was fully working, didn’t feel exhausted at all, I was enjoying myself, I was comfortable,” she told Arab News.

“I just felt super close, as if my house was just right behind the mountain. My heart was just at ease.”