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South Korea Raises Threat Alert Level

ImageSpraying disinfectant on Sunday at a market in Daegu, the southeastern city where many of South Korea’s coronavirus infections have been confirmed.
Credit…Yonhap, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Moon Jae-in on Sunday put South Korea on the highest possible alert in its fight against the coronavirus, a move that empowers the government to lock down cities and take other sweeping measures to contain the outbreak.

“The coming few days will be a critical time for us,” he said at an emergency meeting of government officials to discuss the outbreak, which in just days has spiraled to 763 confirmed infections and six deaths. “The central government, local governments, health officials and medical personnel and the entire people must wage an all-out, concerted response to the problem.”

Many of South Korea’s coronavirus cases are in the southeastern city of Daegu, which has essentially been placed under a state of emergency, though people are still free to enter and leave the city. A 59-year-old man on Sunday was the sixth person to die in the country after contracting the virus.

More than half of the people confirmed to have been infected are either members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect with a strong presence in Daegu, or their relatives or other contacts.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun had urged people on Saturday to comply with a ban on large protests in Seoul, the capital, where large political demonstrations are commonplace. But thousands of Christian activists defied the ban that day, gathering for their weekly protest against Mr. Moon, whom they accuse of coddling North Korea and mismanaging the economy.

The spike of cases in South Korea, along with rising numbers in Iran and Italy, has added to fears that the window to avert a global pandemic is narrowing. The World Health Organization has warned African leaders of the urgent need to prepare for the virus; it identified 13 African countries as priorities because of their direct links to China, which accounts for the vast majority of confirmed infections and deaths.

As Italy scrambled on Sunday to contain the first major coronavirus outbreak in Europe, a new nervousness pervaded the continent, with officials in nearby countries pledging to keep the outbreak from spreading further.

The virus presents Europe with perhaps its greatest challenge since the 2015 migration crisis, which radically altered the politics of the European Union and exposed its institutional weaknesses. If the virus spreads, the fundamental principle of open borders within much of Europe — so central to the identity of the bloc — will undergo a stress test, as will the vaunted but strained European public health systems, especially in countries that have undergone austerity measures.

A European commissioner said the European Union was in constant contact with the authorities in Italy. And France’s health minister, Olivier Veran, said at a news conference on Sunday that the country was watching the “problematic situation” in Italy closely.

He said European health ministers had agreed to discuss “how we can together face epidemic risk” most likely next week.

On Sunday night, an aid ship bringing hundreds of migrants to a Sicilian port received instructions from the Italian government to remain in quarantine for 14 days as a precaution, according to the ship’s Twitter account.

The spike in Italy has already prompted an aggressive response from Italian officials. The country locked down more than 50,000 people in 10 towns in the northern Lombardy region, where a sizable cluster of coronavirus infections has emerged, and passed emergency measures that apply throughout the country.

Residents on lockdown were supposed to leave or enter their towns only with special permission. Police and armed forces personnel were deployed to monitor the entrances to the towns. Officials closed schools and canceled the last two days of the Venice carnival, which draws thousands of people from around the world, and canceled trade fairs, opera performances and soccer matches.

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  • What do you need to know? Start here.

    Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Italy rose to 152, officials said on Sunday, from three on Thursday. More than 100 of those cases are in the Lombardy region. At least three people have died, including a 77-year-old woman and a 78-year-old man, and at least 26 are in intensive care, officials said. The spike in Italy, Europe’s fourth largest economy, has made the country a test of whether the virus can be successfully contained in an open European society.

“We are trying to contain a phenomenon, but it’s not a pandemic,” Giulio Gallera, the official responsible for health in Lombardy, said at a news conference on Saturday. He said hospitals were expanding intensive care facilities, and hotels and other structures were being identified as possible venues to isolate people with the virus.

The announcement to cancel the Venice carnival was made after an estimated 20,000 people attended an event in St. Mark’s Square on Sunday morning. Carnival activities, which began on Feb. 8 with tens of thousands of people gathering in St. Mark’s, were to end on Tuesday.

Emergency guidelines oblige local officials to “take all appropriate containment measures” if someone tests positive for the virus. Quarantine measures will be applied to anyone who has close contact with someone who has contracted the virus, and areas where positive cases are confirmed will be placed on lockdown.

The lockdown in Lombardy, announced late Friday, has closed schools, businesses, and bus and train stations. Officials have banned all public events, including sporting activities and religious ceremonies. Other Lombardy towns not affected by the lockdown have decided on their own restrictive measures.

In an interview with CNBC International TV on Sunday, Paolo Gentiloni, the European Commission’s economy commissioner, said that there was “no reason to panic.”

He said the European Union was “perfectly confident” in Italy’s response to the outbreak. “They know the situation,” he said. “They are taking the good measures.”

In France, Mr. Veran said that 70 new hospitals would be “activated” to treat potential new patients. France will also order numerous face masks, Mr. Veran said.

“We are acting fast,” Mr. Veran told French journalists. “We are acting strong to face the epidemic threat.”

Pakistan and Turkey temporarily closed their borders with Iran on Sunday, as Tehran announced a weeklong closing of schools, universities and cultural centers across 14 provinces in an effort to curb the coronavirus.

The outbreak has killed at least eight people in Iran, state television said — the largest number of reported coronavirus-linked deaths outside China.

Long lines have formed outside pharmacies and there is a shortage of masks and disinfectants, according to health officials and people in Iran. Officials have warned that hospitals are overstretched and said that people should refrain from going to the emergency room unless they have acute symptoms.

Although the origin of the outbreak in Iran is unclear, the Fars news agency on Sunday quoted the country’s health minister as saying that Chinese carriers of the virus were a source of the outbreak in Iran.

Just days ago, Iran said it was untouched by the virus, and the sudden increase in cases has raised concerns that it may be experiencing a significant outbreak. Iran’s health ministry said Saturday that 43 people had tested positive, with eight deaths, state-run Press TV reported.

Experts have said that based on the number of dead, the total number of cases is probably much higher, as Covid-19 appears to kill about one out of 50 people infected.

Pakistan’s 596-mile border with Iran is mostly porous, and controlling a potential spread of the coronavirus poses a major challenge.

“Due to the very serious nature of coronavirus outbreak in Iran, we have to take stringent precautionary measures,” Mir Zia Ullah, the home minister of Baluchistan Province, which borders Iran, said by telephone. “All kind of movement has been suspended.”

He said officials planned to meet on Monday to assess how long to keep the border closed.

Turkey’s health minister, Fahrettin Koca, said in a news conference, “Because of the fact that the picture in Iran is getting worse, we decided to temporarily shut down our border with our neighbor.”

“Land and rail crossings from Iran to our country will be stopped as of 5 p.m.,” he added. “All international flights will be temporarily and one-sidedly stopped as of 8 p.m.”

Turkey has four border gates to Iran, and all of them were shut down.

Eight Iranians who were showing signs of cold, such as fever and coughing were denied entry to Turkey over the last two days, Mr. Koca said.

Afghanistan announced on Sunday that all travel to Iran would be reduced to “essential humanitarian needs.” Afghanistan’s National Security Council said in a statement: “To prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and protect the public, Afghanistan suspends all passenger movement (air and ground) to and from Iran. The suspension also includes the import of poultry products (eggs and chicken) from Iran and Pakistan.”

The council added, “We also ask the neighborly country of Iran to halt deportations in order to minimize the risk of spread.”

In Iran, the Mehr news agency reported that the government had begun mass distribution of masks in cities affected by the outbreak.

The authorities have also said that concerts and cultural events would be canceled for a week and movie theaters closed, while sports competitions will be held without spectators, state television reported.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, told officials at a Communist Party meeting on Sunday that the coronavirus epidemic was “a crisis and a big test” for the country.

Mr. Xi acknowledged “obvious shortcomings in the response to the epidemic,” but did not give details, adding that officials should “learn lessons” and improve the country’s ability to respond to public health emergencies.

He said the outbreak in China presented “the fastest spread, the widest scope of infections and the greatest degree of difficulty in controlling infections” of any public health emergency since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Mr. Xi called the situation “severely complex” and warned that prevention and control measures were at their “most crucial stage.”

He acknowledged that the outbreak would have social and economic effects and pledged to take measures to ease the burdens on the country’s workers and businesses. He called for an orderly return to work in places with low and medium risk, and said that areas with high risk of spreading the virus must focus on prevention and control measures.

Mr. Xi said the government would look to fiscal policies including tax cuts to help small and medium-size businesses, and work to reduce barriers to the flow of people and goods.

But, saying that the government’s response reflected well upon the party’s leadership, he said that its judgment on the epidemic was “accurate, all work deployments are timely and the measures adopted have been forceful and effective.”

“The results achieved by the prevention and control work again display the outstanding superiority of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Mr. Xi said.



China Is Censoring Coronavirus Stories. These Citizens Are Fighting Back.

Information about the coronavirus outbreak is not immune from Chinese censors. But more and more citizens are dodging censorship by creating a digital archive of deleted posts. They told us how.

Voices like these from Chinese citizens are very rare. People who are willing to speak out about the government’s attempts to control news about the deadly Coronavirus. They asked to remain anonymous, because what they’re doing could put them and their families at great risk. But these people are part of a new wave of Chinese citizens, fighting to get the message out in a country that aggressively censors information. Accounts or messages like these calling for free speech are quickly scrubbed from the internet. Or videos like this, showing people frustrated about life under lockdown. [CLANGING] Posted online one day, but gone the next. But the crisis over the Coronavirus is changing the landscape, for now at least. Everyday citizens are preserving and reposting information the government doesn’t want out there. Experts say this kind of digital resistance is happening at a scale they’ve never seen before. Social media networks like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China. But internet savvy people use techniques that allow them to repost censored content to these platforms, while staying under the radar of authorities. They’re creating a visual archive by preserving videos like this one, showing overwhelmed hospitals. [SCREAMING] And they’re reposting people’s personal stories. Some are also turning to less obvious platforms, including GitHub, which is a site mostly used by coders. Another taboo Chinese citizens are pushing back on? They’re making open and widespread calls for freedom of speech. These were triggered by the death of Dr. Li Wenliang. He was an early whistleblower who warned about the virus, and was punished by officials for speaking out. He died in early February from the Coronavirus. Right after his death, the hashtag “I want freedom of speech” started to trend on Weibo, a Chinese social media site. Then, it was quickly censored by the government. Dr. Li’s become an icon in the online fight for freedom of speech between censors and citizens. So, who’s winning? For now, citizens are staying a step ahead of the authorities. But a renewed government crackdown could test the strength of this digital resistance.

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Information about the coronavirus outbreak is not immune from Chinese censors. But more and more citizens are dodging censorship by creating a digital archive of deleted posts. They told us how.

The meeting was attended by members of the Communist Party and government leadership, and was broadcast to about 170,000 officials across the country, the state media said.

The Chinese authorities recently acknowledged that Mr. Xi had been aware of the outbreak nearly two weeks before he first spoke about it, a revised timeline that put him at the center of efforts to control the outbreak.

That declaration was seen as a risk because it left Mr. Xi, China’s most powerful leader since the Mao era, open to questions over whether the government moved quickly enough.

On Sunday, China raised its official numbers to 76,936 cases and 2,442 deaths.

Starting on Monday, Israel will block entry to all nonresidents who have recently visited Japan or South Korea, officials said on Sunday.

Israeli health officials instructed anyone who has visited South Korea or Japan during the previous two weeks to quarantine themselves at home. It had previously issued that warning to anyone visiting China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore or Thailand.

The decisions came after at least nine South Korean pilgrims were found to be infected with the coronavirus upon returning home from a visit to the Holy Land.

The South Korean group toured the country from Feb. 8-15, visiting crowded churches and religious sites in Israel and the West Bank, and staying in five hotels. Scores of Israeli schoolchildren who came into contact with the group were subsequently told to stay home.

Israel’s military said that two soldiers and several border police officers were in quarantine after coming into contact with the group, and the military’s attaché to China was staying in isolation with his family after returning to Israel.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service said on Sunday that it had received about 5,000 calls related to the coronavirus, with about 1,000 of those redirected to a hotline dedicated to inquiries about possible infection.

A 29-year-old doctor in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus emerged, died from the virus on Sunday, according to the hospital where she worked. It was at least the third death in a week among doctors fighting the outbreak in Wuhan.

The death of Dr. Xia Sisi, a 29-year-old gastroenterologist, was announced by Xiehe Jiangbei Hospital. In a statement, it said that she had become sick after treating coronavirus patients and that she had begun receiving treatment at the hospital on Jan. 19. She had been transferred to another hospital in the city after her condition worsened.

Huang Wenjun, a 42-year-old doctor, also died of the coronavirus on Sunday night in Hubei, the province of which Wuhan is the capital. His death was announced by Xiaogan Central Hospital, where he was deputy director of the respiratory diseases department. “He was a party member and an excellent warrior in a white coat,” the hospital said in a statement.

The deaths came three days after another 29-year-old doctor in Wuhan, Peng Yinhua, died after contracting the coronavirus. Dr. Peng, a specialist in respiratory diseases, had postponed his wedding to fight the virus, according to local news reports.

The director of a Wuhan hospital, Liu Zhiming, a 51-year-old neurosurgeon, died on Tuesday after contracting the virus, according to the Wuhan health commission.

The death this month of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan ophthalmologist who had been reprimanded by the authorities for warning medical school classmates about the outbreak in its early days, stirred an outpouring of grief and anger across China.

Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama raised questions on Sunday about a federal plan to transport American passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship who tested positive for the coronavirus to a federal center in the state.

Governor Ivey said that the Department of Health and Human Services last week had “inadvertently” publicized the proposal to transport an unspecified number of American passengers to the Federal Emergency Management Agency facility in Anniston, Ala., as early as Wednesday. She said the Anniston center is actually being considered as a back up.

“There were some grave concerns about why the site in Anniston was chosen and how, logistically, this would play out in the event this backup site were to be eventually activated,” Governor Ivey said. “While locating these folks in Alabama is currently a backup plan, this is a serious issue and we need to be fully aware of the facts regarding the potential of housing them in Anniston.”

Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama said in a tweet on Sunday that President Trump had told him that “his administration will not be sending any victims of the Coronavirus from the Diamond Princess cruise ship to Anniston, Alabama.”

The exchange came as officials scrambled to monitor thousands of people returning from China. It underscored the apprehension among some about where Americans who have tested positive for the coronavirus would be taken. The city of Costa Mesa, Calif., has gone to court to block state and federal officials, at least temporarily, from placing dozens of people evacuated from Asia in a state-owned residential facility in their community. Mr. Trump was upset that passengers with coronavirus were brought back to the United States, according to administration officials.

Reporting was contributed by Choe Sang-Hun, Elisabetta Povoledo, Austin Ramzy, Motoko Rich, Makiko Inoue, Salman Masood, Mujib Mashal, Isabel Kershner, Tiffany May, Derrick Bryson Taylor, Tess Felder, Amy Harmon, Farah Stockman, Edward Wong, Vivian Wang, Mihir Zaveri, Katrin Bennhold and Constant Méheut.

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