Removal of masks in transportation, crisis in North Korea: update on coronavirus

Updates on the latest developments in the Covid-19 epidemic in France and around the world.

Elimination of compulsory masks in transport

Wearing a mask is no longer mandatory on transport in France from Monday, a reduction that marks the disappearance of the last major anti-covid restrictions in the context of health calm. “The government has decided to end the obligation to wear masks on public transport from May 16, 2022”, a summary from the Department of Health (DGS) last week reported directly to the ministry. Until now, wearing masks was mandatory on subways, buses, trains, planes and taxis.

It marks the end of the last major identifier of the Covid-19 epidemic in public space, a decision that confirms the disease has become a low-health and political concern, more than two years after the epidemic hit Europe. Over the past few weeks, the contamination associated with covid and hospitalization has finally subsided after a very long winter wave. And even when it was at a high level at the beginning of the year, the disease has already gone into the background of concern, with the health situation rarely mentioned during the presidential campaign that saw the re-election of Emanuel Macron. In this context, the government has already taken a number of symbolic measures in recent months: wearing a mask in March, without transportation, and ending the vaccination pass, which required vaccination against covid to enter many places. Such as restaurants and cinemas, however, some researchers have warned against excessive sense of security, warning that the epidemic is under control but probably not over, especially in the face of the threat of a new form.

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And for now, even if the epidemic subsides sharply, “virological indicators will remain high,” the French public health agency warned on Friday. So the government has maintained a cautionary tone through Health Minister Olivier Vernon: he reiterated last week that the epidemic was “not over”, that a masked “remained” proposed and that it could become mandatory if the context required. Several measures, to a lesser extent, remain in place: health passes, which assume that a person has been vaccinated or recently tested negative for the virus, so access to a health or related institution (hospital, Ehpad …) is always required. Neighbors in France have already lifted most of their anti-covid restrictions. Usually only masks are worn in certain places. Spain, for example, still imposes it on health institutions, retirement homes and transportation, while in Belgium, it is only mandatory on transportation. In addition to the mask, a negative test is required to go to the hospital in Germany. It is now in Italy that the mask is most widespread. In addition to the places mentioned above, Italy still imposes it on cinema, theater and concert halls, schools, shop staff and administrative officials communicating with the public. Italy still requires vaccination passes to go to health facilities and retirement homes.

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North Korea calls in the army

Kim Jong Un on Monday condemned North Korea’s health authorities for conducting their Covid-19 epidemic, which has claimed the lives of 50 people since it officially arrived in the country, and ordered the army to unite. The gravitational pull of the situation is that the North Korean leader has “sharply criticized the government and the public health sector for their irresponsible behavior,” the state-run KCNA news agency reported. During the Politburo meeting, he specifically complained that pharmacies are not open 24 hours a day. According to KCNA, he lamented that drug supply officials “did not roll up their sleeves and did not properly assess the current crisis.” He instructed the military to work “immediately to stabilize drug supplies in Pyongyang,” where the first cases of Kovid-19 were officially identified in North Korea last week. Kim Jong Un has taken personal control of the fight against the epidemic, which, according to him, is causing a “catastrophe” in the country, whose population has not been vaccinated. The leader oversees almost daily emergency politburo meetings, and North Korean media published pictures of him at a pharmacy in Pyongyang on Sunday.

Despite the large number of captives, 1,213,550 have been infected, 50 have died and 564,860 are being treated, according to KCNA, which does not explicitly mention Covid-19 but speaks of “fever.” A survey by Johns Hopkins University last year ranked North Korea’s healthcare system 193rd out of 195 countries. The country’s hospitals are poorly equipped with a few intensive care units. According to experts, there is no cure for Kovid-19 in the country and its population does not have the capacity to be tested extensively. “Going to a pharmacy, Kim Jong Un saw firsthand the shortage of drugs in North Korea,” Cheung Seong-jang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, told AFP. “The situation was probably more serious than that,” he added.

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North Korea has isolated itself from the world for more than two years to protect itself from the epidemic. However, experts said it was inevitable that the virus would eventually enter the country due to an epidemic outbreak in neighboring countries due to the Omicron variant. Yang Mu-jin, a professor at Seoul’s North Korean Studies University, says Kim Jong Un’s public insult to his own government reflects a “feeling of crisis” that has gripped the regime. “He points to the general inadequacy of the quarantine system,” the analyst said. According to the KCNA, the North Korean leader expressed his intention to draw inspiration from China’s strategy in dealing with the epidemic. China is one of the last countries in the world to practice a “zero-covid” policy of restricting entire cities and systematically identifying and isolating the sick as soon as the slightest incident occurs. North Korea has rejected offers of the covid vaccine from China and the World Health Organization’s covacs program, but Beijing and Seoul have arrived again.

Yang said Pyongyang’s outbreak could require help for the weather, but it may not be enough from China. “If China’s help is not enough to overcome the epidemic, North Korea will eventually seek help from the South, the United States or international agencies,” the professor predicted. “But time will tell. I think the outcome of the May 21 South Korea-US summit will be an important criterion for North Korea to decide whether to accept the offer of assistance from the South,” he continued. US President Joe Biden is expected to meet his new South Korean opponent, Eun Sook-eol, in Seoul this weekend. Pyongyang’s weapons program and the Kovid-19 outbreak are likely to be on the agenda of the summit. Despite the health crisis, new satellite images indicate that North Korea has resumed construction of a nuclear reactor after a long hiatus. Washington and Seoul suspect that Pyongyang is preparing for a nuclear test, the seventh in its history and the first since 2016. And that would force them to refrain from conducting nuclear tests, explained Cheung Seong-jang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute. “If Kim Jong Un is determined to run a test, he will not accept help from South Korea,” he said.

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