A little known sect led by a pastor who pokes eyes to heal is at the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea, as the country reported a new daily record of 4,116 cases and battles a spike in serious cases straining hospitals.
In a tiny rural church in a town of 427 residents in Cheonan city, south of Seoul, at least 241 people linked to the religious community had tested positive for coronavirus, a city official told Reuters on Wednesday.
“We believe the scale of the outbreak is large…,” the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said in a statement.
About 90% of the religious community was unvaccinated and the majority were in close contact through communal living.
Many of the congregation were elderly in their 60s and above and were unvaccinated, the city official said. Just 17 out of the 241 confirmed cases had been vaccinated.
“I believe it’s the church’s anti-government beliefs that refrained the believers to get the vaccine,” the official said, adding that the town was put under a lockdown.
However, the KDCA said it was not possible to determine precisely why such a large number were unvaccinated, as the elderly and people with underlying conditions were not banned from inoculation.
The church opened in the early 1990s and has ever since become larger with communal living facilities of its own.
The religion is not officially registered as a sect, however the ritual act the pastor performs is known as the so called “imposition of hands on eyes”, a practice of poking two eyes to rid of secular desire, Jung youn-seok, a head of cult information resources think tank told Reuters.
“Such act is extremely dangerous and nonbiblical. It is an outright ban in Korean Christianity,” Jung said, adding that the pastor’s mother was a powerful figure and was ousted from Christian community in the 1990s for practicing identical rituals.
Calls to the church from Reuters went unanswered.
The outbreak is a small portion of the national total, but is an example of a cluster with a high concentration of cases.
Shincheonji was a church at the centre of the first major coronavirus epidemic outside China early 2020, with at least 5,227 people linked to its 310,000 followers infected after attending a service in the city of Daegu.
|Residents in a religious community where many people had tested positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) arrive to undergo the coronavirus test in Cheonan, South Korea, November 23, 2021. Picture taken November 23, 2021. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters|
Emergency plan imminent
South Korea this month switched to a “living with COVID-19” plan aimed at lifting rigid distancing rules and ultimately reopening after reaching vaccination goals last month.
Since then there has been a sharp rise in cases with a fresh daily record of infections on Tuesday.
Looking at the metropolitan Seoul area alone, the situation is critical enough to impose an emergency plan at any time, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a COVID-19 response meeting on Wednesday.
He called on health authorities to classify the patients accordingly based on the severity of the symptoms and make use of self-treatment options for mild or asymptomatic cases.
Less than 20% were treating themselves at home last week, Kim said.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) had said the emergency plan may be imposed if and when the nationwide ICU bed capacity surpasses 75% or depending on the risk assessment that reviews medical response shortfalls, surge in number of elderly patients and uptake in booster shots.
Hospitals were treating 586 severe COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday midnight, rapidly filling up limited hospital beds for serious and critical cases. More than 85% of them were aged 60 or above, KDCA data showed.
71% of the ICU beds were filled up nationwide and 83.7% in capital Seoul and neighbouring areas alone, Son Young-rae, a senior health ministry official, told a briefing, stressing ministry efforts to secure more beds with administrative order.
Hundreds were still awaiting for their beds.
Despite the increase in hospitalisation rate, the country’s mortality rate remains relatively low at 0.79%.
South Korea was one of the first countries to record novel coronavirus cases after it emerged in China in late 2019. It has since had 425,065 infections, with 3,363 deaths.
The country has fully vaccinated 79.1% of its 52 million people, while just 4.1% have been given a booster dose.
Taiwan rushes to contain sudden cane toad invasion
Toads are a symbol of prosperity and good fortune in Taiwan, but the unexpected discovery of an invasive species has officials and environmentalists scrambling to contain their spread.
With flashlights in hand and shielded by protective gloves, dozens of volunteers from the Taiwan Amphibian Conservation Society worked through the night searching rice fields and vegetable plots for their quarry — the cane toad.
There should be no reason for these large and highly toxic amphibians to exist in Chaotun, a township in the foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range.
Cane toads are indigenous to South and Central America and while they have wrought a famously destructive path through places like Australia and the Philippines they had not been recorded in Taiwan.
|Cane toads are indigenous to South and Central America and while they have wrought a famously destructive path through places like Australia and the Philippines they had not been recorded in Taiwan. Photo: AFP|
That was until a few weeks ago when a local resident discovered some large amphibians hanging out in her community vegetable garden and uploaded a photograph online, a move that sparked an immediate toadhunt.
“A speedy and massive search operation is crucial when cane toads are first discovered,” Lin Chun-fu, an amphibian scientist at the government-run Endemic Species Research Institute told AFP as he explained why conservationists have since rushed to find and remove any cane toads.
“Their size is very big and they have no natural enemies here in Taiwan,” he added.
|Cane toads are voracious predators, they are hugely successful at breeding and they are poisonous. Photo: AFP|
Soon after the photo was uploaded Yang Yi-ju, an expert at National Dong Hwa University, sent a group of volunteers from the Amphibian Conservation Society to investigate.
They arrived at the vegetable garden and were shocked to find 27 toads in the immediate vicinity.
She quickly identified the interlopers as rhinella marina thanks to the tell-tale large partoid glands behind the ears where cane toads secrete a dangerous poison.
“I was shocked and worried when they found more than 20. This is not going to be an easy thing to tackle,” she recalled.
“We began to notify and mobilise everyone to act,” she said, adding the presence of juveniles showed the toads were breeding.
Cane toads are a dangerous invasive species for three key reasons.
They are voracious predators, they are hugely successful at breeding and they are poisonous. That latter quality, a defence mechanism, is especially dangerous to dogs who might lick or bite one.
Local farmers told conservationists they had noticed the arrival of these burly toads but never reported it.
“Taiwanese farmers generally ignore toads and even look favorably at toads when they find them because they help rid the land of pests and are also a good luck symbol,” explained Yang.
“It never occurred to them that this is an invasive species from a foreign land.”
Conservation officials and environmental volunteers have been working non-stop to do a painstaking search.
“We have divided (the township) into 200 by 200 meters square grids to investigate one by one if there are marine toads present,” field researcher Lin Yong-lun said, pointing to a series of colour-coded maps.
The search perimeter has since been expanded to a 4-kilometer radius.
|Toads are a symbol of prosperity and good fortune in Taiwan, but the unexpected discovery of an invasive species has officials and environmentalists scrambling to contain their spread. Photo: AFP|
Symbols of fortune
So far more than 200 marine toads of various sizes have been captured and housed at the Endemic Species Research Institute.
Cane toads are among the world’s ‘100 Invasive Alien Species’ list compiled by the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG), an international advisory body of scientists and policy experts.
Also known as marine toads, their most common English name came from the fact that it was used in sugar plantations to hunt cane beetles.
They were introduced into plantations in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, the Caribbean as well as Florida and Hawaii where they have caused damage to the local ecosystems.
Despite their warty appearance, toads are a symbol of wealth, longevity and good luck in Chinese culture. They are also used in Chinese medicine and their totems are common in feng shui to ward off bad luck.
“In store fronts you can find toad totems, drawings and even real live toads. It’s a symbol of fortune and good luck,” amphibian scientist Lin said.
|Toads are also used in Chinese medicine and their totems are common in feng shui to ward off bad luck. Photo: AFP|
Until 2016 it was legal to import cane toads into Taiwan as pets where they can fetch between NT$3000 to NT$4000 (US$107-US$142).
Conservationists believe since imports were banned, people have started breeding cane toads locally and some have since escaped or abandoned by their masters.
So far there have been no other reported sightings in Taiwan and Yang is cautiously optimistic about stopping the spread.
“Next spring during mating season is when we truly know for sure if we have contained it,” she said.
Japan PM seeks to boost workers’ wages, defence capability
TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed on Monday to ensure workers’ wage hikesto protect the economy from rising global inflation, while strengthening the country’s defences.
Kishida made the remarks on the opening day of parliament’s extra session convened to debate a supplementary budget to cushion the blow from the COVID-19 pandemic as he aims to restore the economy and then tackle fiscal reform.
Wage hikes hold the key to the premier’s aim of defeating deflation by reversing a cycle of tame wage growth and weak consumer spending while encouraging Japanese firms to spend their record cash piles on boosting wages and investment.
Since he took office in October, Kishida has piled pressure on Japanese firms, urging those whose earnings have recovered to pre-pandemic levels to raise wages by 3% or more.
The government will lay the groundwork to help private-sector firms hike wages by strengthening taxation and give bold deductions for companies that raise pay, he added.
“As anxiety has grown that rising global inflation may have ripple effects on Japan, I will do the utmost to (realise) wage hikes in order to protect the Japanese economy,” Kishida said.
On security policy, Japan will fundamentally strengthen its defence posture by looking into options including acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases, Kishida said.
“In order to safeguard the people’s lives and livelihood, we’ll examine all the options including capability to attack enemy bases … and strengthen our defence posture fundamentally with a sense of speed,” Kishida said.
Such capability would mark a shift in Japan’s military posture as Tokyo, constrained by its post-World War II pacifist constitution, is to play a role of the shield in its security alliance with the United States, while Washington is to play a role of the spear.
As part of effort to boost Japan’s defence capacity, the government will renew three main documents laying out the nation’s security policy – the National Security Strategy, National Defence Programme Guidelines and Medium-Term Defence Programme – in a year, Kishida said.
On Japan’s coronavirus response, Kishida said he planned to make it possible to get a booster shot without waiting for the end of the current waiting period, set by the government, of eight months after the second shot.
Calls for early booster shots have been mounting in Japan as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading globally, although daily COVID-19 cases have remained low in recent weeks.
If infections start picking up pace again, the government will respond swiftly with such measures as stricter restrictions on activities, “while seeking the people’s understanding carefully,” Kishida said.
($1 = 113.2800 yen)
Poor weather hampers search and rescue efforts at Indonesia volcano
Heavy rain and wind temporarily halted rescue efforts on Monday after Indonesia’s Semeru volcano erupted and killed 14 people on the weekend, and officials urged residents to be vigilant because the danger had not passed.
The tallest mountain on the island of Java erupted dramatically on Saturday, shooting a towering column of ash into the sky that blanketed surrounding villages. More than 50 people had suffered injuries from the eruption, mostly burns.
Aerial footage showed roofs jutting out of an ashen landscape, while on the ground, military officers, police and residents dug through mud with their hands to extricate victims.
Map locating Semeru volcano in Indonesia. Includes locations of other active volcanoes.
On Monday, Liswanto, the head of the Semeru Volcano Observatory, warned people to keep a safe distance from the mountain, amid reports anxious residents had returned to their homes to check on belongings and livestock.
“The status of Mt. Semeru is still at level 2, which means at this level, people need to be more vigilant because the potential threat is still there,” he said.
Lava flows had destroyed a strategic bridge connecting two areas in the nearby district of Lumajang with the city of Malang.
|An aerial view shows volcanic ash rising affected by the Mount Semeru volcano during an eruption in Sumber Wuluh village, Lumajang, East Java province, Indonesia December 5, 2021, in this photo taken by Antara Foto/Zabur Karuru/via Reuters.|
In the Sumberwuluh area, where two trucks lay half-buried by volcanic ash, recovery efforts came to an abrupt halt because of strong winds, a Reuters witness said.
Dewa Arya, from the search and rescue agency, said Monday his team was working to retrieve a family of five victims, but their efforts had been temporarily thwarted by bad weather.
People posted photos of their missing relatives on Facebook, with public pleas for any information about their whereabouts.
Public kitchens and health facilities have been set up for more than 1,000 people who have been displaced.
A trauma healing team to work with children affected by the eruption has been dispatched, CNN Indonesia reported, while hundreds of aid packages, including rice, blankets and clothes and other basic necessities have been sent to the area.
Semeru is one of more than 100 active volcanoes in Indonesia, a country that straddles the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area of high seismic activity that rests atop multiple tectonic plates.
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