North Korea mobilizes army, steps up tracing amid COVID-19 wave

Gauging COVID-19 deaths from outside North Korea would require comparing excess mortality figures long after the wave dies down, but the North does not conduct annual census studies, a specialist says. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 May 2022

North Korea mobilizes army, steps up tracing amid COVID-19 wave

  • Isolated country is grappling with its first acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak
  • The WHO has warned the virus may spread rapidly in North Korea

SEOUL: North Korea has mobilized its military to distribute COVID-19 medications and deployed more than 10,000 health workers to help trace potential patients, as it fights a sweeping coronavirus wave, state media outlet KCNA said on Tuesday.
The isolated country is grappling with its first acknowledged COVID-19 outbreak, which it confirmed last week, fueling concerns over a major crisis due to a lack of vaccines and adequate medical infrastructure.
The state emergency epidemic prevention headquarters reported 269,510 more people with fever symptoms, bringing the total to 1.48 million, while the death toll grew by six to 56 as of Monday evening, KCNA said. It did not say how many people had tested positive for COVID-19.
The country has not started mass vaccinations and has limited testing capabilities, raising concerns that it may be difficult to assess how widely and rapidly the disease is spreading and verify the number of confirmed cases and deaths.
“The numbers are simply unreliable, but the sheer numbers of people having fever are worrisome,” said Lee Jae-gap, a professor of infectious diseases at Hallym University School of Medicine.
He said that the death count would surge over time, but that Pyongyang might be tempted to keep the publicly available numbers low to avoid a political crisis.
“I don’t think the North Korean regime can afford to release any surging death toll, which would sour public sentiment.”
Gauging COVID-19 deaths from outside North Korea would require comparing excess mortality figures long after the wave dies down, but the North does not conduct annual census studies, said Eom Joong-sik, a professor of infectious diseases at Gachon University Gil Medical Center in South Korea.
KCNA reported enhanced virus control efforts. It said “a powerful force” of the army’s medical corps was immediately deployed to improve the supply of medicines in the capital Pyongyang, the center of the epidemic, following an order by leader Kim Jong Un.
The team’s mission was aimed at “defusing the public health crisis” in Pyongyang, it said.
Some senior members of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful politburo visited pharmacies and medicine management offices to check supply and demand, KCNA said in another dispatch, after Kim criticized ineffective distribution of drugs.
“They called for establishing a more strict order in keeping and handling the medical supplies, maintaining the principle of prioritising the demand and convenience of the people in the supply,” KCNA said.
Tracing efforts were also intensified, with some 11,000 health officials, teachers and medical students joining an “intensive medical examination of all inhabitants” across the country to locate and treat people with fever.
Still, various sectors of the national economy are maintaining production and construction, while taking thorough anti-virus measures, KCNA added. Kim had ordered that limited activity be allowed in each city and county.
The World Health Organization has warned the virus may spread rapidly in North Korea, which had no vaccination program and declined international help.
Many of the medicines being distributed there are painkillers and fever reducers such as ibuprofen, and amoxicillin and other antibiotics — which do not fight viruses but are sometimes prescribed for secondary bacterial infections. Home remedies such as gargling salt water have also been encouraged.
South Korea offered working-level talks on Monday to send medical supplies, including vaccines, masks and test kits, as well as technical cooperation, but said the North had not acknowledged its message.
An official at Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border affairs, said on Tuesday that there had been no reply yet from the North but that the office plans to “wait without pressing for a response.”
The US State Department said it was concerned about the outbreak’s potential impact on North Koreans, and supports vaccine aid to the country.
“We strongly support and encourage the efforts of US and international aid and health organizations in seeking to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19 ... and to provide other forms of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable groups in the country,” a spokesperson said.
The spokesperson confirmed that the US envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, had a phone call with South Korea’s new nuclear negotiator, Kim Gunn, without elaborating.


India stops Kashmiri photojournalist from flying to Paris

Updated 03 July 2022

India stops Kashmiri photojournalist from flying to Paris

  • Sanna Irshad Mattoo was to travel for a book launch, photography exhibition
  • The photojournalist is one of 10 winners of the Serendipity Arles Grant 2020

NEW DELHI: A Pulitzer Prize-winning Kashmiri photojournalist said on Saturday that she was stopped by Indian immigration authorities from flying to Paris without giving any reason. 

In a tweet, Sanna Irshad Mattoo said she was scheduled to travel from New Delhi to Paris for a book launch and photography exhibition as one of 10 winners of the Serendipity Arles Grant 2020. 

"Despite procuring a French visa, I was stopped at the immigration desk at Delhi airport,” she said. 

She said she was not given any reason but was told by immigration officials that she would not be able to travel internationally. 

There was no immediate comment by Indian authorities. 

Mattoo was among the 2022 Pulitzer Prize winners in the Feature Photography category for the coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in India as part of a Reuters team. 

She has been working as a freelance photojournalist since 2018 depicting life in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where insurgents have been fighting for Kashmir’s independence or its merger with neighboring Pakistan. 

Journalists have long braved threats in the restive region as the government seeks to control the press more effectively to censure independent reporting. Their situation has grown worse since India revoked the region’s semi-autonomy in 2019. 


Bus crash kills at least 20 in southwest Pakistan — official

Updated 03 July 2022

Bus crash kills at least 20 in southwest Pakistan — official

  • Poor road infrastructure and rash driving often cause deadly road crashes in Pakistan

QUETTA: A passenger bus plunged into a ravine in southwestern Pakistan on Sunday killing 20 people, a government official said.
The road crash also injured another 13 people aboard the bus that was traveling from garrison city of Rawalpindi to Quetta, the capital of southwestern Balochistan province, said Ijaz Jaffar, deputy commissioner of Sherani district.
The ravine is some 350 kilometers north of Quetta.
Poor road infrastructure and rash driving often cause deadly road crashes in Pakistan.
The province is home to several Chinese projects under an investment plan in which Beijing is seeking road and sea trade linkages with the world. 


Blasts kill 3 in Russian border city, lawmaker blames Ukraine

Updated 03 July 2022

Blasts kill 3 in Russian border city, lawmaker blames Ukraine

  • At least four people were injured and two hospitalized, including a 10-year-old boy
  • Since Russia launched it invasion on Feb. 24, there have been numerous reports of attacks on Belgorod and other regions bordering Ukraine

At least three people were killed and dozens of residential buildings damaged in the Russian city of Belgorod near the Ukraine border, the regional governor said, after reports of several blasts in the city.
At least 11 apartment buildings and 39 private houses were damaged, including five that were destroyed, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov posted on the Telegram messaging app.
Gladkov said earlier the “incident” was being investigated, adding, “Presumably, the air defense system worked.”
At least four people were injured and two hospitalized, including a 10-year-old boy, Gladkov said.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports. There was no immediate reaction from Ukraine to the reports.
Belgorod, a city of nearly 400,000 some 40 km (25 miles) north of the border with Ukraine, is the administrative center of the Belgorod region.
Since Russia launched it invasion on Feb. 24, there have been numerous reports of attacks on Belgorod and other regions bordering Ukraine, with Moscow accusing Kyiv of carrying out the strikes.
Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for previous attacks but has described the incidents as payback and “karma” for Russia’s invasion.
Moscow calls its actions a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and its allies in the West say the fascist allegation is baseless and the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.


Uzbekistan scraps plans to curb Karakalpak autonomy after protest

Updated 03 July 2022

Uzbekistan scraps plans to curb Karakalpak autonomy after protest

  • If the reform is endorsed in the planned referendum, it would reset Mirziyoyev’s term count and allow him to run for two more terms

ALMATY: Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on Saturday dropped plans to curtail the autonomy of the country’s Karakalpakstan province following a rare public protest in the northwestern region, his office said.
Friday’s rally was called to protest constitutional reform plans that would have changed the status of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic home to the Karakalpak people — an ethnic minority group with its own language, Uzbek authorities said.
Police dispersed the protesters after some of them tried to storm local government buildings in the region’s capital, Nukus, following a march and a rally at the city’s central market, local and government officials said.
Mirziyoyev later issued a decree proclaiming a state of emergency in Karakalpakstan for a month “in order to ensure the security of citizens, defend their rights and freedoms and restore the rule of law and order” in the region.
Under the current Uzbek constitution, Karakalpakstan is described as a sovereign republic within Uzbekistan that has the right to secede by holding a referendum.
The new version of the constitution — on which Uzbekistan plans to hold a referendum in the coming months — would no longer mention Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty or right for secession.
But in a swift reaction to the protest, Mirziyoyev said on Saturday during a visit to Karakalpakstan that the changes regarding its status must be dropped from the proposed reform, his office said in a statement.
Karakalpakstan’s government said in a statement earlier on Saturday that police had detained the leaders of Friday’s protest, and several other protesters who had put up resistance.
The changes concerning Karakalpakstan were part of a broader constitutional reform proposed by Mirziyoyev, which also includes strengthening civil rights and extending the presidential term to seven years from five.
If the reform is endorsed in the planned referendum, it would reset Mirziyoyev’s term count and allow him to run for two more terms.


Waterways in Brazil’s Manaus choked by tons of trash

Updated 02 July 2022

Waterways in Brazil’s Manaus choked by tons of trash

  • From January to May, city workers have removed 4,500 tons of trash, most of which could have been recycled instead of being thrown in the river

MANAUS: In Manaus, the largest city in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, tons of stinking trash fill the canals and streams, giving one the feeling that they’re visiting a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

On the west side of the city, in a poor neighborhood where homes have been erected on stilts, a worker uses an excavator to scoop up a bucket-load of bottles, pieces of plastic and even home appliances that have been tossed in the water.

Not far from the city’s main port, municipal workers wearing orange uniforms gather garbage from a boat and pile it onto a big barge floating on the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon River’s main tributaries.

With the rising water levels signaling an end to the rainy season, the mounds of trash are often intermingled with leaves and tree branches.

Each day, nearly 30 tons of debris is plucked from the water. In some areas, the water is almost completely covered.

The massive influx of trash to Manaus’s waterways occurs around this time every year, but city authorities believe the situation has gotten worse in recent weeks.

From January to May, city workers have removed 4,500 tons of trash, most of which could have been recycled instead of being thrown in the river.

“The people who live on the water’s edge throw garbage straight into the streams... few people put it in the trash,” says Antonino Pereira, a 54-year-old Manaus resident who complains that the stench is unbearable.

According to the city’s undersecretary of sanitation, Jose Reboucas, if the population was more aware of the costs associated with littering, the city could save $190,000 per month.

“The awareness of the population will be very beneficial for our city and especially for our environment,” he said.

The Amazonian region is also facing a major threat from deforestation, with more than 3,750 square kilometers of jungle chopped down since the beginning of the year.