Government to pay up to ₩10 million to Covid-19-hit firms

South Korea's new government expressed its willingness to cooperate with the North to help Pyongyang effectively combat the Covid-19 pandemic  on Thursday.

“We hope that the Covid-19 will not spread further but come under control early,” the Unification Ministry said. “The government can always push for inter-Korean cooperation in quarantine, health and medical fields to help North Koreans on humanitarian grounds.”

The quarantine authorities also expressed their position to consider providing surplus vaccines to North Korea if needed through interagency discussion.

Earlier in the day, North Korea announced its first case of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. It declared the implementation of the "maximum emergency" virus control system, ending its coronavirus-free claim.

The North held a politburo meeting in Pyongyang, with leader Kim Jong-un in attendance, to discuss the country's "most serious emergency" in its antivirus system that had been "firmly defended" for over two years, the Yonhap News Agency said, quoting the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

North Korean authorities analyzed samples collected from fever-ridden patients on Sunday in Pyongyang and concluded that they were identical to the omicron BA.2 variant, it reported.

The KCNA did not mention the number of cases, but multiple patients appear to have been confirmed.

During the session, Kim vowed to overcome the unexpected crisis and ordered officials to carry out a strict lockdown of all cities and counties to block out all possibility of spreading the virus completely. Kim then called for tighter vigilance on all fronts along the borders, the sea, and air to prevent a security vacuum in the country's national defense, Yonhap said.

"More dangerous enemy of us than the malicious virus is unscientific fear, lack of faith, and weak will," he was quoted as saying.

In the domestic front, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration decided to provide an additional 6 million won to 10 million won ($4,650 to $7,750) as compensation to small businesses and owner-operators who suffered losses due to Covid-19 restrictions.

To create financial resources, the new government will formulate the extra budget of 59 trillion won by using excess revenue of 44 trillion won and without issuing government bonds. President Yoon chaired the first Cabinet meeting and approved the extra budget bill on Thursday.

About 3.7 million small-scale merchants will benefit from the decision.

Some 50 business lines, including travel agencies and gyms, will receive relatively higher support as they have been insufficiently compensated.

The government will also allocate 3.1 trillion won to other vulnerable classes suffering from inflation and high-interest rate. More specifically, it will give up to 1 million won to 2.27 million low-income households, specially employed workers, such as after-school instructors, insurance salespeople, and door-to-door vendors, and 2 million won to taxi and bus drivers.

On Thursday, Korea added 35,906 new Covid-19 infections, including 12 cases from overseas, bringing the total caseload to 17,694,677, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

The tally decreased from 43,925 on Wednesday and was down from 42,289 a week ago.

The agency reported 63 Covid-19 deaths, bringing the total to 23,554. In addition, the number of critically ill patients came to 354, down 29 from a day earlier.

In recent weeks, Korea's new daily infections have been on a downward trend after peaking at over 620,000 on March 17 amid the spread of the omicron variant.

The government eased the outdoor mask mandate on May 2, except for large gatherings of 50 or more, as it is moving toward a return to normalcy. However, the indoor mask mandate remains in effect.

As of Wednesday, 44.56 million people, or 86.8 percent of the 52-million population, had been fully vaccinated, according to KDCA. In addition, about 33.2 million people had received their first booster shots, representing 64.7 percent, and 3.19 million people, or 6.2 percent, had their second booster shots.

The government is pushing second booster shots for adults 60 and older to reduce deaths and prevent them from getting critically ill. About 26 percent of those older adults have received their second booster shots.

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