Captured Indian pilot to be returned through Wagah border today

This handout photograph released by Pakistan's Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) on February 27, 2019, shows captured Indian pilot looking on as holding a cup of tea in the custody of Pakistani forces in an undisclosed location. (ISPR via AFP)
Updated 01 March 2019

Captured Indian pilot to be returned through Wagah border today

  • • PM Khan announced on Thursday to release the Indian pilot as a "gesture of peace"
  • • Pakistan downed two Indian fighter jets on Wednesday, capturing Wing Commander Abhinandan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will release the captured Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot through Wagah border post today, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi confirmed on Friday. 

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was taken into custody by Pakistan army on Wednesday after an aerial combat between the two countries in which two Indian fighter jets were shot down.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had said on Thursday addressing a joint session of the Parliament that Pakistan will release the Indian pilot on Friday as a “gesture of peace” to de-escalate tensions with his country’s nuclear-armed eastern neighbor.

“As a peace gesture, we will be releasing him tomorrow,” he announced while addressing a joint session of parliament.

Pakistan Air Force shot down two Indian fighter jets that had breached the Line of Control, or the de facto border separating the Indian- and Pakistani-administered portions of Kashmir, on Wednesday morning, before capturing a pilot — Wing Commander Abhinandan. India has already asked Pakistan to release its fighter pilot.

After being shot down, the Indian pilot was captured by locals before being taken into custody by the army personnel. “The officers of Pakistan Army have looked after me very well,” Abhinandan can be heard saying in a video released by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) which is the military’s media wing.

As part of a policy statement on the floor of the House, Prime Minister Khan added that he had tried to speak to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, on telephone, reasoning that the recent escalation was neither in the interest of Pakistan nor that of India. “We aren’t afraid of anything, but want peace,” he continued.

US authorizes Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

Updated 28 February 2021

US authorizes Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

  • The J&J vaccine is the third to be greenlighted in the US after Pfizer’s and Moderna’s were provisionally approved in December
  • US President Joe Biden hails 'exciting news' but urge Americans not to let guard down

WASHINGTON: The United States on Saturday authorized Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine for emergency use, giving the nation a third shot to battle the outbreak that has killed more than 500,000 Americans.
The single-shot vaccine is highly effective in preventing severe Covid-19, including against newer variants, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said before giving it a green light.
“This is exciting news for all Americans, and an encouraging development in our efforts to bring an end to the crisis,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement.
But he urged Americans to remain vigilant with anti-virus curbs such as social distancing, warning that new variants of the virus still posed a threat.
“But we cannot let our guard down now or assume that victory is inevitable,” he said.
A third vaccine is seen as a vital means to ramp up the immunization rate in the United States, where more than 500,000 people have lost their lives to the coronavirus.
In large clinical trials, the J&J vaccine’s efficacy against severe disease was 85.9 percent in the United States, 81.7 percent in South Africa, and 87.6 percent in Brazil.
Overall, among 39,321 participants across all regions, the efficacy against severe Covid-19 was 85.4 percent, but it fell to 66.1 percent when including moderate forms of the disease.
Crucially, analyses of various demographic groups revealed no marked differences across age, race, or people with underlying conditions.
The J&J vaccine is the third to be greenlighted in the United States after Pfizer’s and Moderna’s were provisionally approved in December.

Practical advantages
Over 65 million people in America have so far received at least one shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines — but unlike those, the J&J vaccine requires just one dose, and is stored at fridge temperatures, offering logistical and practical advantages.
The J&J shot appears less protective than Pfizer and Moderna’s two-shot regimens, which both have an efficacy of around 95 percent against all forms of Covid-19 from the classic coronavirus strain.
All three have been shown to fully protect against hospitalizations and death, however.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Washington Post the two earlier vaccines were tested months before the emergence of “variants of concern” that could affect the efficacy, meaning the Pfizer and Moderna results were not an “apples to apples” comparison with the J&J shot.
There was a hint, based on preliminary data, that the J&J vaccine might be effective against asymptomatic infection — though the company said it needs to do more research.
The company has announced it aims to deliver 20 million doses by the end of March, with 100 million by June — though the US is pushing to expedite that timeline.
The J&J vaccine uses a common-cold causing adenovirus, which has been genetically modified so that it can’t replicate, to carry the gene for a key protein of the coronavirus into human cells.


US Justice Department to appeal judge’s order on eviction moratorium

Updated 28 February 2021

US Justice Department to appeal judge’s order on eviction moratorium

  • The CDC eviction moratorium was signed in September by President Donald Trump
  • President Joe Biden until March 31 to give tenants a breathing spell as the pandemic continues

WASHINGTON: The Justice Department said Saturday it will appeal a judge’s ruling that found the federal government’s eviction moratorium was unconstitutional.
Prosecutors filed a notice in the case on Saturday evening, saying that it was appealing the matter the to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
On Thursday, US District Judge J. Campbell Barker ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had overstepped its authority and that the moratorium was unlawful.
“Although the COVID-19 pandemic persists, so does the Constitution,” the judge wrote.
The CDC eviction moratorium was signed in September by President Donald Trump and extended by President Joe Biden until March 31.
Barker, who was nominated by Trump in 2018 to serve in the Eastern District of Texas, stopped short of issuing an injunction in the case. Several property owners had brought the litigation arguing that the federal government didn’t have the legal authority to stop evictions.
“The federal government cannot say that it has ever before invoked its power over interstate commerce to impose a residential eviction moratorium,” Barker wrote. “It did not do so during the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic. Nor did it invoke such a power during the exigencies of the Great Depression. The federal government has not claimed such a power at any point during our Nation’s history until last year.”
State and local governments had approved eviction moratoriums early in the pandemic for many renters, but many of those protections have already expired.
To be eligible for protection, renters must have an income of $198,000 or less for couples filing jointly, or $99,000 for single filers; demonstrate they’ve sought government help to pay rent; declare that they can’t pay because of COVID-19 hardships; and affirm that they are likely to become homeless if evicted.

India urged to provide refuge to Rohingya plucked from sea

Updated 27 February 2021

India urged to provide refuge to Rohingya plucked from sea

  • Abide by international laws to deal with refugees rescued near Andaman Islands, Human Rights Watch says
  • New Delhi-based Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (RHRI) demanded that the Indian government “grant a status of refugees to the stranded people”

NEW DELHI: Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Saturday called on India to abide by international laws in protecting refugees a day after New Delhi said it had rescued 81 Rohingya stranded in Indian waters.
“India should abide by its international obligations to offer all protection and access to the UN refugee agency,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of the Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Arab News.
On Feb. 11, nearly 90 Rohingya from the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps in Bangladesh boarded a small boat for Malaysia, Anurag Srivastava, India’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in a statement.
Four days later, on Feb. 15, “the boat’s engine broke down, and the boat drifted toward the southern Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar.”
Eight people lost their lives, and one drowned.
Two days later, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appealed to “all governments to deploy their search and rescue capacities and promptly disembark those in distress.”
On Friday, New Delhi announced that it had rescued the stranded refugees.
“When we learned of the boat in distress, we immediately dispatched two coast guard ships to provide food, water and medical assistance to the occupants of the boat. Seven of them were administered IV fluids,” the statement said.
It added that since most of “the occupants of the boat have ID cards issued to them by the UNHCR office in Bangladesh,” New Delhi was in talks with Dhaka “to ensure their safe and secure repatriation.”
The HRW, however, said that India needed to do more to abide by its “international obligations” and should not “pass the buck.”
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which mandates refugee rights and state responsibilities to protect them. Nor does it have any domestic law to protect the more than 200,000 refugees it currently hosts, including some Rohingya from Myanmar.
“Whether it is India, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh or other countries in the region, governments need to protect the Rohingya refugees instead of trying to pass the buck,” Ganguly told Arab News.
She added that the “primary responsibility” for the plight of the Rohingya lay with Myanmar and that “these governments should join the international community to ensure that the Rohingya can return to their homes voluntarily, with safety and dignity.”
Meanwhile, the New Delhi-based Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (RHRI) demanded that the Indian government “grant a status of refugees to the stranded people.”
“Rohingya stranded in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are not Bangladeshi; they are hapless refugees. India, being a big country, should shelter these stranded people till the situation normalizes in Myanmar,” RHRI founder Sabber Kyaw Min said.
Min was referring in part to a coup d’etat by the Myanmar military on Feb. 1, which has led to the declaration of a state of emergency by the ruling regime and widespread, nationwide protests.
He called on the Indian government to disclose the refugees’ whereabouts.
“I was in touch with some of the refugees and their relatives till Wednesday, but since then their phones have been off. Rohingya are suffering. New Delhi should demonstrate large-heartedness in accommodating the refugees in the same way Bangladesh has demonstrated,” Min added.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a federally administered archipelago lying between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Both Myanmar and Thailand have coastlines along the eastern edge of the sea.
In 2012, some Rohingya refugees were rescued from near the islands and provided medical care and attention, before being sent back to Myanmar.
However, ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led regime assumed office in New Delhi, India has taken a harder line over providing admission and shelter to any Rohingya refugees.
Denis Giles of the Andaman Chronicle, an English newspaper based in Andaman’s capital Port Blair, was the first to break the story about the stranded refugees and alert the world about the crisis.
Giles, who covered the Rohingya rescue operations in 2012, said that this time “there is a big difference.”
“They were properly treated, and the administration used to ask social organizations to help them out, but now no one wants to talk about that. There is a hush now,” Giles told Arab News.
“Earlier, we would know where they are being kept, which hospitals they are being treated at but this time, we are completely in the dark.”
Bangladesh is hosting more than 1.1 million Rohingya who fled from persecution at the Myanmar military’s hands in the Buddhist-majority country.
The Rohingya endured decades of abuse in Myanmar, beginning in the 1970s when hundreds of thousands sought refuge in Bangladesh.
Between 1989 and 1991, an additional 250,000 fled when a military crackdown followed a popular uprising and Burma was renamed Myanmar. In 1992, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on a repatriation deal under which thousands of Rohingya returning to Rakhine.
The Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh resumed in August 2017 following a military crackdown on the ethnic minority group.
According to the UN, by the end of 2020, 866,457 Rohingya refugees had been registered at 34 camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh due to a joint initiative by Dhaka and the UNHCR.

Indonesia approves free COVID-19 vaccine drive by private companies

Updated 27 February 2021

Indonesia approves free COVID-19 vaccine drive by private companies

  • Move part of efforts to speed up inoculation, achieve herd immunity

JAKARTA: The Indonesian government on Friday said it would allow private companies to run coronavirus vaccination programs for workers and families alongside a nationwide drive to expedite efforts in achieving herd immunity.

The country is aiming to inoculate 181.5 million people out of the total 270 million population by year-end.

“The companies will provide the vaccines for free for workers,” Siti Nadia Tarmizi, health ministry spokesperson for the vaccination program, said during a press conference.

Tarmizi added that the ministry’s revised regulation, which serves as the main reference for the vaccination program, was issued on Wednesday to include articles regulating the private sector’s involvement in the vaccination drive.

“The number of vaccines distributed in the private-run program will match the number that the companies requested, and the inoculations will be conducted at private healthcare facilities or the companies’ own facilities,” Tarmizi said.

Additionally, the vaccines used in the program will be different from the free CoronaVac, AstraZeneca, Novavax and Pfizer vaccines that the government has distributed since mid-January.

While initial population targets included health workers, senior citizens, frontline public workers, teachers and lecturers, athletes, journalists, and lawmakers, the general population or those in their productive age will receive their first vaccine jab in April.

The private scheme, which the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (Kadin) proposed, will require companies to purchase the vaccine from Bio Farma, a state-owned vaccine manufacturer appointed as the sole importer for all jabs that Indonesia procures.

Bio Farma spokesperson Bambang Heriyanto said the company is in discussions with Moderna and Sinopharm to procure vaccines for the private scheme, which has been dubbed “Gotong Royong,” an Indonesian term for mutual cooperation.

“In accordance with its name, this is a mutual cooperation initiative. The government will provide a space for any members of society that will want to assist the government in the vaccination program,” Arya Sinulingga, a spokesperson for the State-Owned Enterprises Ministry, said on Friday.

He added that the private drive will run in parallel with the government’s program and will not alter the existing schedule or priority groups being targeted.

Kadin said that about 7,000 companies had already registered for the vaccination drive as of Saturday.

“The enthusiasm is really high to take part in this program because it is quite costly for the companies to swab test regularly. It is better for the companies to allocate the cost to vaccinate their workers,” Shinta Kamdani Widjaja, Kadin deputy chairwoman, said at a press conference earlier this week.

She dismissed concerns that the program will commercialize vaccines, saying the government would closely monitor the program to avoid any violations of terms and conditions.

“There are also companies that are willing to vaccinate not only their workers, but also their families. It would be difficult for the economy to recover if we don’t achieve the herd immunity target. The business community is ready to support the government in the vaccination drive and economic recovery program,” Widjaja said.

However, opponents of the scheme said the private vaccination drive will “only enable queue jumpers who don’t really need the vaccine compared with the more vulnerable groups, and disregard the principle of equity for all citizens in a vaccination program.”

Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian epidemiologist, said in an online discussion: “There is also no guarantee that we will achieve herd immunity by inoculating 181.5 million people. This could be misleading the public and making them have the wrong expectation.

“This is also prone to make the government, the companies, and the public relax its compliance to the health protocols, testing, tracing and treatment,” Budiman added.

He said that achieving herd immunity is a long-term goal and that the vaccination drive could not stand alone in battling the pandemic without a comprehensive public health approach.

Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, agreed and said that the private vaccination program focused mainly on economic recovery targets instead of controlling the pandemic.

“It is clear from the start that the government does not view the vaccine as one of the ways to handle the pandemic, but it has been more about economic recovery,” Riono said.

Russia reports 11,534 new COVID-19 cases, 439 deaths

Updated 27 February 2021

Russia reports 11,534 new COVID-19 cases, 439 deaths

  • The government coronavirus taskforce also reported 439 deaths in the last 24 hours
MOSCOW: Russia on Saturday reported 11,534 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, including 1,825 in Moscow, taking the national tally to 4,234,720 since the pandemic began.
The government coronavirus taskforce also reported 439 deaths in the last 24 hours, pushing the official death toll to 85,743.