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)
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Updated 12 May 2022

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.


Australians vote to determine conservative government future

Updated 14 sec ago

Australians vote to determine conservative government future

  • Opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s center-left Labour Party is a favorite to win its first election since 2007
CANBERRA: Vote counting started in Australia’s election on Saturday that will decide whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government can defy odds and rule for a fourth three-year term.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s center-left Labour Party is a favorite to win its first election since 2007. But Morrison defied the opinion polls in 2019 by leading his coalition to a narrow victory.
His coalition holds the narrowest of majorities — 76 seats in the 151-member House of Representatives, where parties need a majority to form a government.
Both leaders campaigned in Melbourne on Saturday morning before voting in their hometown of Sydney.
Labor is promising more spending on care for children and the elderly. The coalition is promising better economic management as Australia’s deficit soars because of the pandemic.
Morrison said if reelected, his government would deliver lower taxes as well as downward pressure on interest rates and costs of living.
“It’s a choice about who can best manage our economy and our finances because a strong economy is what guarantees your future,” Morrison said.
A federal judge ordered the removal of mostly green-colored campaign signs near Melbourne polling stations that urged voters to “Put Labor Last.” The signs were designed to look like they were authorized by the Australian Greens, an environmental party that prefers the policies of Labor to Morrison’s coalition. But a business group was responsible for them.
Albanese went with his partner Jodie Haydon, his 21-year-old son Nathan Albanese and his cavoodle Toto to vote at the Marrickville Town Hall in his inner-Sydney electorate.
Albanese would not be drawn into saying whether Toto would move into the prime minister’s official residence in Sydney or Canberra if Labor wins.
“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” Albanese said. “I’m very positive and hopeful about a good outcome tonight.”
He referred to his humble upbringing as the only child of a single mother who became a disabled pensioner and lived in government housing.
“When you come from where I’ve come from, one of the advantages that you have is that you don’t get ahead of yourself. Everything in life’s a bonus,” Albanese said.
Morrison voted with his wife Jenny at the Lilli Pilli Public School in his southern Sydney electorate.
He later used the rare interception of a suspected asylum seeker boat attempting to enter Australian waters as a reason why voters should reelect his government.
Australian Border Force said in a statement the boat had been intercepted in a “likely attempt to illegally enter Australia from Sri Lanka.”
The Australian policy was to return those on board to their point of departure, the statement said.
Morrison argues Labor would be weaker on preventing people smugglers from trafficking asylum seekers.
“I’ve been here to stop this boat, but in order for me to be there to stop those that may come from here, you need to vote Liberal and Nationals today,” Morrison told reporters, referring to his coalition.
The boat carrying 15 passengers was intercepted near the Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island on Saturday morning, The Weekend Australian newspaper reported.
The number of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat peaked at 20,000 in 2013, the year Morrison’s coalition was first elected.
Morrison’s first government role was overseeing a military-led operation that turned back asylum seeker boats and virtually ended the people trafficking trade from Asia.
The first polling stations closed on the country’s east coast at 6 p.m. (0800 GMT). The west coast is two hours behind.
Due to the pandemic, around half of Australia’s 17 million electors have voted early or applied for postal votes, which will likely slow the count.
Voting is compulsory for adult citizens and 92 percent of registered voters cast ballots at the last election.
Early polling for reasons of travel or work began two weeks ago and the Australian Electoral Commission will continue collecting postal votes for another two weeks.
The government changed regulations on Friday to enable people recently infected with COVID-19 to vote over the phone.
Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers said more than 7,000 polling stations opened as planned and on time across Australia despite 15 percent of polling staff falling sick this week with COVID-19 and flu.
Albanese said he had thought Morrison would have called the election last weekend because Australia’s prime minister is expected at a Tokyo summit on Tuesday with US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“If we get a clear outcome today then whoever is prime minister will be on a plane to Tokyo on Monday, which isn’t ideal, I’ve got to say, immediately after a campaign,” Albanese said.
Analysts have said that Morrison left the election until the latest date available to him to give himself more time to reduce Labor’s lead in opinion polls.
The closely watched Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper on Saturday put Labor ahead with 53 percent of voter support.
The poll surveyed 2,188 voters across Australia from May 13 to 19 and had a 2.9 percentage points margin of error.
At the last election in 2019, the split of votes between the government and Labor was 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent — the exact opposite of the result that Australia’s five most prominent polls including Newspoll had predicted.
As well as campaigning against Labor, Morrison’s conservative Liberal Party is fighting off a new challenge from so-called teal independent candidates to key government lawmakers’ reelection in party strongholds.
The teal independents are marketed as a greener shade than the Liberal Party’s traditional blue color and want stronger government action on reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions than either the government or Labor are proposing.
The government aims to reduce Australia’s emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Labor has promised a 43 percent reduction.

Russia says destroyed 'large' shipment of Western weapons to Ukraine

Updated 20 min 24 sec ago

Russia says destroyed 'large' shipment of Western weapons to Ukraine

MOSCOW: Moscow's forces destroyed a large shipment of Western-supplied weapons in northwestern Ukraine with long-range missiles, the Russian defence ministry said Saturday.
"High-precision long-range sea-based Kalibr missiles destroyed a large batch of weapons and military equipment near the Malin railway station in Zhytomyr region delivered from the United States and European countries," it said.


US, others walk out of APEC talks over Russia’s Ukraine invasion – officials

Updated 21 May 2022

US, others walk out of APEC talks over Russia’s Ukraine invasion – officials

  • Representatives from Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia joined the Americans

BANGKOK: Representatives of the United States and several other nations walked out of an Asia-Pacific trade ministers meeting in Bangkok on Saturday to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, officials said.
The walkout was “an expression of disapproval at Russia’s illegal war of aggression in Ukraine and its economic impact in the APEC region,” one diplomat said.
Representatives from Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia joined the Americans, led by Trade Representative Katherine Tai, in walking out of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, two Thai officials and two international diplomats said.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, saying it aimed to demilitarize and “denazify” its neighbor. Ukraine and the West say President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked war of aggression, which has claimed thousands of civilian lives, sent millions of Ukrainians fleeing and caused economic fallout around the world.
Another diplomat said the five countries that staged the protest wanted “stronger language on Russia’s war” in the group’s final statement to be issued on Sunday.
“The meeting will not be a failure if (a joint statement) cannot be issued,” Thai Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit told reporters, adding that the meeting was “progressing well” despite the walk out.
The walkout took place while Russian Economy Minister Maxim Reshetnikov was delivering remarks at the opening of the two-day meeting from the group of 21 economies.
The delegations from five countries that staged the protest returned to the meeting after Reshetnikov finished speaking, a Thai official said.


Britain wants to arm Moldova to protect it from Russian threat — The Telegraph

Updated 21 May 2022

Britain wants to arm Moldova to protect it from Russian threat — The Telegraph

Britain wants to send modern weaponry to Moldova to protect it from the threat of invasion by Russia, The Telegraph reported, citing Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
She told the newspaper that Russian President Vladimir Putin was determined to create a “greater Russia” even though his invasion of Ukraine had failed to achieve quick success.
Russia has called the invasion it launched on Feb. 24 a “special military operation” aimed at disarming Ukraine and ridding it off radical anti-Russian nationalists. Ukraine and its allies have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for war.
Moldova, which borders Ukraine to the south west, is not a member of the NATO alliance.
Truss said talks were taking place to make sure that Moldova’s defenses could deter any future attack.
“I would want to see Moldova equipped to NATO standard. This is a discussion we’re having with our allies,” she told The Telegraph.
“Putin has been absolutely clear about his ambitions to create a greater Russia. And just because his attempts to take Kyiv weren’t successful doesn’t mean he’s abandoned those ambitions,” she said.
If Truss’s plans are adopted, NATO members would provide modern weaponry to Moldova, replacing its Soviet-era equipment, and will train soldiers on how to use it.


Shanghai inches toward COVID-19 lockdown exit, Beijing plays defense

Updated 21 May 2022

Shanghai inches toward COVID-19 lockdown exit, Beijing plays defense

  • Shanghai’s lockdown since the beginning of April has dealt a heavy economic blow to China’s most populous city

BEIJING/SHANGHAI: Shanghai cautiously pushed ahead on Saturday with plans to restore part of its transport network in a major step toward exiting a weeks-long COVID-19 lockdown, while Beijing kept up its defenses in an outbreak that has persisted for a month.
Shanghai’s lockdown since the beginning of April has dealt a heavy economic blow to China’s most populous city, stirred debate over the sustainability of the nation’s zero COVID-19 policy and stoked fears of future lockdowns and disruptions.
Unlike the financial hub, Beijing has refrained from imposing a city-wide lockdown, reporting dozens of new cases a day, versus tens of thousands in Shanghai at its peak. Still, the curbs and endless mass testing imposed on China’s capital have unsettled its economy and upended the lives of its people.
As Beijing remained in COVID-19 angst, workers in Shanghai were disinfecting subway stations and trains before planned restoration of four metro lines on Sunday.
While service will be for limited hours, it will allow residents to move between districts and meet the need for connections to railway stations and one of the city’s two airports. More than 200 bus routes will also reopen.
Underlining the level of caution, Shanghai officials said commuters would be scanned for abnormally high body temperatures and would need to show negative results of PCR tests taken within 48 hours.
Shanghai found 868 new local cases on Friday, compared with 858 a day earlier, municipal health authorities said on Saturday, a far cry from the peak in daily caseloads last month.
No new cases were found outside quarantined areas, down from three a day earlier, health authorities added.
The city of 25 million has gradually reopened shopping malls, convenience stores and wholesale markets and allowed more people to walk out of their homes, with community transmissions largely eliminated in recent days.
Still, Shanghai tightened stringent curbs on two of its 16 districts on Friday.
The authorities “urge enterprises to strictly implement safe production, which is their responsibility, especially in meeting some epidemic prevention and control requirements,” an official from the city’s emergency bureau told a news conference on Saturday.
Delta Airlines said on Friday it would resume one daily flight to Detroit from Shanghai via Seoul on Wednesday.
Most of Beijing’s recent cases have been in areas already sealed up, but authorities remained on edge and quick to act under China’s ultra-strict policy.
In Fengtai, a district of 2 million people at the center of Beijing’s counter-COVID-19 efforts, bus and metro stations have been mostly shut since Friday and residents told to stay home.
A Fengtai resident was stocking up on groceries at a nearby Carrefour on Saturday, uncertain whether restrictions would continue.
“I’m not sure if I can do more shopping over the next week or so, so I’ve bought a lot of stuff today and even bought some dumplings for the Dragon Boat holiday” in early June, she said, asking not to be identified.
On Friday, thousands of residents from a neighborhood in Chaoyang, Beijing’s most populous district, were moved to hotel quarantine after some cases were detected, according to state-run China Youth Daily.
Social media users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo were swift to draw parallels with Shanghai, where entire residential buildings were taken to centralized quarantine facilities in response to a single positive COVID-19 case in some instances.