North Korea reports first COVID-19 outbreak, orders lockdown in “gravest emergency”

North Korea reports first COVID-19 outbreak, orders lockdown in “gravest emergency”
The first public admission of COVID-19 infections highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that has refused international help with vaccinations and kept its borders shut. (File/AFP)
Short Url
Updated 12 May 2022

North Korea reports first COVID-19 outbreak, orders lockdown in “gravest emergency”

North Korea reports first COVID-19 outbreak, orders lockdown in “gravest emergency”
  • North Korea has declined shipments of vaccine from the COVAX global COVID-19 vaccine-sharing program

SEOUL: North Korea confirmed its first COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, calling it the “gravest national emergency” and ordering a national lockdown, with state media reporting an omicron variant had been detected in Pyongyang.
The first public admission of coronavirus infections highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that has refused international help with vaccinations and kept its borders shut.
As of March, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported, according to the World Health Organization, and there is no official record of any North Koreans having been vaccinated.
“A most serious emergency case of the state occurred: A break was made on our emergency epidemic prevention front where has firmly defended for two years and three months from February, 2020,” official KCNA news agency said.
Samples taken on May 8 from people in Pyongyang who were experiencing fevers showed a sub-variant of the omicron virus, also known as BA.2, the report said, without providing details on case numbers or possible sources of infection.
The report was published after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un led a Workers’ Party meeting on Thursday to discuss responses to the outbreak
Kim ordered all cities and counties of the country to “strictly lock down” their regions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and said emergency reserve medical supplies would be mobilized, according to KCNA.
“The state epidemic prevention work shall be switched over to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system,” KCNA said.
Although the North has never before confirmed a single coronavirus infection in the country, officials in South Korea and the United States have doubted that the country is COVID-free, as cases of the omicron variant were widely reported in neighboring South Korea and China.
The isolated North has enforced strict quarantine measures, including border lockdowns, since the pandemic began in early 2020. In July that year, Kim declared an emergency and imposed a lockdown on Kaesong, near the inter-Korean border, for three weeks after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing coronavirus symptoms.
According to the latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO), 64,207 of North Korea’s more than 24.7 million people received COVID-19 testing; all had been found negative as of March 31.
North Korea has declined shipments of vaccine from the COVAX global COVID-19 vaccine-sharing program and the Sinovac Biotech vaccine from China, suggesting no civilians may have been vaccinated.
South Korea’s presidential office told Reuters that President Yoon Suk-yeol, who was sworn in on May 10, will not link humanitarian aid to the political situation, opening the door to providing support to the North.
The news of the outbreak comes amid reports of preparations for an imminent nuclear test by the North, which has also aggressively pursued a ballistic missile program, according to US and South Korean officials.

NO VACCINE, NO MEDICAL INFRASTRUCTURE
Thursday’s KCNA report said Kim told the Workers’ Party meeting that the latest emergency quarantine system’s purpose is to stably control and manage the spread of the coronavirus and quickly heal infected people to eliminate the source of transmission in the shortest period.
A failure to contain infections could be an “unprecedented crisis for the Kim Jong Un regime,” professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea, Lim Eul-chul, said.
“Given a more inferior vaccination situation and weaker testing capacity and public health infrastructure compared to China, plus the lack of intensive care units, there’s potential for scores of casualties,” he said.
Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute noted that North Korea’s nationwide lockdown had the potential to be immensely disruptive.
“With time, North Korea is likely to face severe food shortages and, as China is experiencing now, massive confusion,” he said.
South Korea’s central bank in an annual report in July 2021 said the North’s economy suffered its biggest contraction in 23 years in 2020, weighed down by COVID border controls, UN sanctions and bad weather.
Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said the fact that Kim called a party politburo meeting at dawn and state media immediately published the deliberations shows the urgency of the situation. It could be an indirect plea to the international community for help, he added.
A South Korea-based website that monitors activities in Pyongyang said this week that residents have been told to return home and remain indoors because of a “national problem” without offering details.
Earlier on Thursday, Chinese state television reported North Korea has required its people to stay at home since May 11 as many of them have “suspected flu symptoms,” without referring to COVID-19.
The main crossing between China’s Dandong and the north-western North Korean town of Sinuiju was closed in April because of the COVID situation in the Chinese city, China said.


Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east

Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east
Updated 27 min 1 sec ago

Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east

Ukraine: Russian advances could force retreat in part of east
  • A withdrawal could bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of capturing eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions in full

KYIV/POPASNA, Ukraine: Ukrainian forces may have to retreat from their last pocket in the Luhansk region to avoid being captured, a Ukrainian official said, as Russian troops press an advance in the east that has shifted the momentum of the three-month-old war.
A withdrawal could bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his goal of capturing eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions in full. His troops have gained ground in the two areas collectively known as the Donbas while blasting some towns to wastelands.
Luhansk’s governor, Serhiy Gaidai, said Russian troops had entered Sievierodonetsk, the largest Donbas city still held by Ukraine, after trying to trap Ukrainian forces there for days. Gaidai said 90 percent of buildings in the town were damaged.
“The Russians will not be able to capture Luhansk region in the coming days as analysts have predicted,” Gaidai said on Telegram, referring to the area including Sievierodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk, across the Siverskiy Donets River.
“We will have enough strength and resources to defend ourselves. However, it is possible that in order not to be surrounded we will have to retreat.”
Russia’s separatist proxies said they controlled Lyman, a railway hub west of Sievierodonetsk. Ukraine said Russia had captured most of Lyman but that its forces were blocking an advance to Sloviansk, to the southwest.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine was protecting its land “as much as our current defense resources allow.” Ukraine’s military said it had repelled eight attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk on Friday, destroying tanks and armored vehicles.
“If the occupiers think that Lyman and Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian,” Zelensky said in an address.
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said while Russian forces had begun direct assaults on built-up areas of Sievierodonetsk, they would likely struggle to take ground in the city itself.
“Russian forces have performed poorly in operations in built-up urban terrain throughout the war,” they said.
Russian troops advanced after piercing Ukrainian lines last week in the city of Popasna, south of Sievierodonetsk. Russian ground forces have captured several villages northwest of Popasna, Britain’s defense ministry said.
Russian forces shelled parts of Kharkiv on Thursday for the first time in days. Authorities said nine people were killed. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians in what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
In the south, where Moscow has seized a swath of territory since the Feb. 24 invasion, including the port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials say Russia aims to impose permanent rule.
In the Kherson region in the south, Russian forces were fortifying defenses and shelling Ukraine-controlled areas, the region’s Ukrainian governor, Hennadiy Laguta, told media.
He said the humanitarian situation was critical in some areas and people were finding it very difficult to leave.
Police said 31 people had been evacuated on Friday from the Luhansk region, including 13 children.


WHO: Nearly 200 cases of monkeypox reported in more than 20 countries

 An employee of the vaccine company Bavarian Nordic shows a picture of a vaccine virus in Martinsried near Munich. (REUTERS)
An employee of the vaccine company Bavarian Nordic shows a picture of a vaccine virus in Martinsried near Munich. (REUTERS)
Updated 28 May 2022

WHO: Nearly 200 cases of monkeypox reported in more than 20 countries

 An employee of the vaccine company Bavarian Nordic shows a picture of a vaccine virus in Martinsried near Munich. (REUTERS)
  • Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, said that “there is no need for mass vaccination,” explaining that monkeypox does not spread easily and typically requires skin-to-skin contact for transmission

LONDON: The World Health Organization says nearly 200 cases of monkeypox have been reported in more than 20 countries not usually known to have outbreaks of the unusual disease, but described the epidemic as “containable” and proposed creating a stockpile to equitably share the limited vaccines and drugs available worldwide.
During a public briefing on Friday, the UN. health agency said there are still many unanswered questions about what triggered the unprecedented outbreak of monkeypox outside of Africa, but there is no evidence that any genetic changes in the virus are responsible.
“The first sequencing of the virus shows that the strain is not different from the strains we can find in endemic countries and (this outbreak) is probably due more to a change in human behavior,” said Dr. Sylvie Briand, WHO’s director of pandemic and epidemic diseases.
Earlier this week, a top adviser to WHO said the outbreak in Europe, US, Israel, Australia and beyond was likely linked to sex at two recent raves in Spain and Belgium. That marks a significant departure from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are mainly infected by animals like wild rodents and primates, and outbreaks haven’t spilled across borders.
Although WHO said nearly 200 monkeypox cases have been reported, that seemed a likely undercount.

FASTFACT

No vaccines have been specifically developed against monkeypox, but WHO estimates that smallpox vaccines are about 85 percent effective.

On Friday, Spanish authorities said the number of cases there had risen to 98, including one woman, whose infection is “directly related” to a chain of transmission that had been previously limited to men, according to officials in the region of Madrid.
UK officials added 16 more cases to their monkeypox tally, making Britain’s total 106. And Portugal said its caseload jumped to 74 cases on Friday.
WHO’s Briand said that based on how past outbreaks of the disease in Africa have evolved, the current situation appeared “containable.”
Still, she said WHO expected to see more cases reported in the future, noting “we don’t know if we are just seeing the peak of the iceberg (or) if there are many more cases that are undetected in communities,” she said.
As countries including Britain, Germany, Canada and the US begin evaluating how smallpox vaccines might be used to curb the outbreak, WHO said its expert group was assessing the evidence and would provide guidance soon.
Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, said that “there is no need for mass vaccination,” explaining that monkeypox does not spread easily and typically requires skin-to-skin contact for transmission.
No vaccines have been specifically developed against monkeypox, but WHO estimates that smallpox vaccines are about 85 percent effective.
She said countries with vaccine supplies could consider them for those at high risk of the disease, like close contacts of patients or health workers, but that monkeypox could mostly be controlled by isolating contacts and continued epidemiological investigations.
Given the limited global supply of smallpox vaccines, WHO’s emergencies chief Dr. Mike Ryan said the agency would be working with its member countries to potentially develop a centrally controlled stockpile, similar to the ones it has helped manage to distribute during outbreaks of yellow fever, meningitis, and cholera in countries that can’t afford them.
“We’re talking about providing vaccines for a targeted vaccination campaign, for targeted therapeutics,” Ryan said.
“So the volumes don’t necessarily need to be big, but every country may need access to a small amount of vaccine.”
Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue.
People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.


UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’

UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’
Updated 27 May 2022

UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’

UK PM Johnson faces new call to resign over ‘partygate’
  • Johnson said after the report was issued that he took responsibility for the events but refused to quit
  • Other Conservative lawmakers this week have said they had submitted letters calling for a confidence vote in Johnson

LONDON: A Conservative lawmaker submitted a letter of no confidence in Boris Johnson on Friday and another quit a role as an assistant to Britain’s interior minister, putting new pressure on the prime minister over illegal parties at his Downing Street residence during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Bob Neill, the chair of parliament’s justice committee, said an official report on the parties issued on Wednesday showed a pattern of “unacceptable behavior” over months during Britain’s coronavirus crisis, and said he did not find Johnson’s explanations to be credible.
“Trust is the most important commodity in politics, but these events have undermined trust in not just the office of the prime minister, but in the political process itself,” Neill said in a statement. “To rebuild that trust and move on, a change in leadership is required.”
Johnson said after the report was issued that he took responsibility for the events but refused to quit.
Another Conservative lawmaker, Paul Holmes, said earlier on Friday he was resigning from his government role as parliamentary private secretary at the Home Office to focus on representing his constituents.
“It is clear to me that a deep mistrust in both the government and the Conservative Party has been created by these events ... It is distressing to me that this work on your behalf has been tarnished by the toxic culture that seemed to have permeated Number 10,” Holmes said in a statement.
Other Conservative lawmakers this week have said they had submitted letters calling for a confidence vote in Johnson to the chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee — which would be triggered if 54 such letters are written.
The letters are confidential, so only the chairman of the 1922 Committee knows how many have actually been submitted.
However, Holmes confirmed to Reuters he had not written a letter to call for Johnson to resign.


As springs dry up, Nepalese farmers tap into harvesting raindrops

Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
Updated 27 May 2022

As springs dry up, Nepalese farmers tap into harvesting raindrops

Residents of Kuinkel Thumka sit next to a conservation pond that supplies them with water during prolonged dry periods.
  • Prolonged dry periods have been more frequent in recent years due to climate change
  • Farmers build soil-cement ponds to store rain and runoff water

KATHMANDU: Water scarcity in Kuinkel Thumka, a mountainous village in eastern Nepal, has for years made life difficult for residents — until a few months ago, when they started to capture excess rainfall during the monsoon season.

Located in the Middle Hills, between the Himalayas and Tarai, the village of 850 people lies in Kavrepalanchok district of Bagmati province, where the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), has introduced soil-cement ponds to store rain and runoff water.

“We built a soil-cement tank in our village eight months ago and started to collect rain,” Gita Kuinkel, a 53-year-old farmer, told Arab News.

“Before this tank, we didn’t have enough water and our lives were hard. It was not enough for our cattle, household chores and irrigation. Now, the water is enough,” she said.

“We don’t have to buy vegetables, we grow and eat vegetables from our own home gardens.”

Cheap soil-cement conservation ponds are constructed in the region with the help of ICIMOD, an intergovernmental research center serving countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, and the Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED), a leading Nepali developmental NGO.

The ponds capture excess rainfall during the monsoon, making water available during prolonged dry periods, which in recent years have been more frequent, even in the Himalayas, as South Asia is experiencing unprecedented heatwaves due to climate change.

Sanjeev Bhuchar, a water management expert at ICIMOD, told Arab News that more than 80 percent of Nepal’s 13 million population was dependent on mountain springs as the primary source of water. But the springs are drying up.

“In Nepal and other Himalaya-Hindu Kush countries, depletion of springs is one of the major emerging water crises,” he said.

“There is increasing evidence that spring discharge is decreasing, or in some cases, ceasing altogether.”

Within the past three years, more than 400 ponds have been built across the country, according to Kiran Bhusal, project coordinator at CEAPRED.

“Farmers can easily build such tanks because the procedure is very easy. It is built with mixtures of soil, sand and cement,” he said. “It is helping the people so much.”

Kamala Adhikary, another resident of Kuinkel Thumka, said that it cost the village about $160 to build a water conservation pond, and the standard of living has changed ever since.

“We didn’t have enough water for drinking, we had to buy water from other areas,” she said.

“Now we can wash our clothes, use it for our cattle and even we do farming, and earn money because of it. It improved our economic condition. A lot of problems have been solved.”

 


Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK
Updated 27 May 2022

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK

Concerns raised over criminalization, transfer of asylum seekers in UK
  • Number being granted refuge hits 30-year high
  • Most enter via small boats or other irregular routes now exposed to risk of prosecution

LONDON: Charities have raised concerns over the potential for asylum seekers to be criminalized or transferred to Rwanda as the number being granted refuge in the UK hits a 30-year high.
The Guardian reported on Friday that Home Office data for the 12 months to March shows 75 percent of asylum claims were granted, with Syrians, Eritreans and Sudanese forming the majority of people making their way from countries with typically high approval rates.
However, most of them entered the UK by small boats or other irregular routes now exposed to risks of prosecution under the Nationality and Borders Act passed last month.
The same dataset also showed an increase in the number of Afghans making their way to the UK via the dangerous English Channel crossing, indicating that the resettlement schemes launched after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last year are not working.
“The government has said it is giving Afghans a ‘warm welcome,’ but these figures reveal that many have felt they have been left with no option but to take this dangerous route to make it to the UK,” said Marley Morris, associate director for migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
“The government’s new plans in response to the Channel crossings could mean that Afghan asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda.
“Contrary to the government’s claims, there are few safe routes for people forced into small boats to make it to the UK.”