WHO warns virus crisis not over as vaccine rollout starts

The WHO warned about what it said was an erroneous belief that the Covid-19 crisis is over with jabs on the horizon, nearly a year after the start of the pandemic that has killed 1.5 million people worldwide. (File/AFP)
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Updated 06 December 2020

WHO warns virus crisis not over as vaccine rollout starts

  • The WHO warned about what it said was an erroneous belief that the Covid-19 crisis is over with jabs on the horizon
  • The WHO caution came as the United States clocked a record number of Covid-19 cases for a second day in a row Friday

Washington — USA: The World Health Organization warned that vaccines were no magic bullet for the coronavirus crisis, as Russia started vaccinating its high-risk workers Saturday and other countries geared up for similar programs.
The WHO warned about what it said was an erroneous belief that the Covid-19 crisis is over with jabs on the horizon, nearly a year after the start of the pandemic that has killed 1.5 million people worldwide.
“Vaccines do not equal zero Covid,” said WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan, adding that not everyone will be able to receive it early next year.
“Vaccination will add a major, major, powerful tool to the tool kit that we have. But by themselves, they will not do the job.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also cautioned against the “growing perception that the pandemic is over” with the virus still spreading fast, putting enormous pressure on hospitals and health care workers.
Health officials in Moscow said they had opened 70 coronavirus vaccine centers in the Russian capital that would initially offer jabs for health, education and social workers.
The WHO caution came as the United States clocked a record number of Covid-19 cases for a second day in a row Friday, with the country preparing for what US President-elect Joe Biden has called a “dark winter.”
America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended “universal face mask use” indoors and Biden said he would scale down his January inauguration ceremony to mitigate the virus risk.
It comes as countries prepare for the approval and rollout of several vaccines that have proven effective in trials.
The WHO says 51 candidate vaccines are currently being tested on humans, with 13 reaching final-stage mass testing.
Britain on Wednesday became the first Western country to approve an inoculation, from a Pfizer-BioNTech, for general use, piling pressure on other countries to swiftly follow suit.
The United States is expected to give a green light later this month.
Belgium, France and Spain have said jabs will begin in January for the most vulnerable.
With the imminent arrival of vaccines that need storage at ultra-low temperatures, US companies are preparing for a massive logistical effort to aid their distribution.
Firms specializing in insulating containers are on a war footing after Pfizer and BioNTech said their vaccine needs to be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit (-70 Celsius).
Meat processing giant Smithfield said it was ready to put the cold rooms at its abattoirs at the disposal of vaccine rollout operations.
And US logistics giant UPS is producing 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of dry ice an hour in its depots and has developed portable freezers capable of storing the vaccines at temperatures down to -112 Fahrenheit.
Standing in the way of success are growing signs of vaccine skepticism, with misinformation and mistrust coloring public acceptance of inoculation.
In Russia, Levada polling agency recently found that only 36 percent of respondents were prepared to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Several high-profile figures have pledged to receive the vaccine in public in an effort to build confidence, including Biden, Tedros and former US presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The United States recorded 225,000 new infections on Friday — the second daily record in a row for the world’s worst-hit nation.
Biden said the surging number of cases meant he would scale back his inauguration ceremony set for January.
“We’re going to follow the science and the recommendations of the experts,” Biden told reporters.
More than 65 million people have contracted Covid-19 globally with the death toll from the disease topping 1.5 million since it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
British medical chiefs said the arrival of a vaccine should see deaths reduce “significantly” by early next year but warned social mixing over Christmas could cause another spike before then.
“By spring the effects of vaccination will begin to be felt in reducing Covid admissions, attendances and deaths significantly but there are many weeks before we get to that stage,” they said.
Italy is seeing a dramatic resurgence of infections after it largely tamped down an earlier outbreak by enforcing a strict lockdown, while Latin America and the Caribbean region has seen an 18 percent spike in cases in a week.
Other countries are als0 unveiling holiday restrictions, with Switzerland banning Christmas carolling in the streets and Madrid canceling most New Year events in the city center.


Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines on the agenda as Blinken begins first India visit

Updated 14 min 35 sec ago

Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines on the agenda as Blinken begins first India visit

  • Top US diplomat to meet PM Narendra Modi on Wednesday

NEW DELHI: New Delhi is a priority for the US and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first visit to India on Tuesday will provide an opportunity to deepen bilateral ties, explore COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy, and discuss the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, experts said.

“The visit is important in the larger context of the US-India relationship because it shows that there is a consistent engagement with India and India is a priority,” Harsh V. Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), told Arab News.

On Wednesday, Blinken is expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“Both sides will review the robust and multifaceted India-US bilateral relations and potential for consolidating them further,” India’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on July 23, announcing Blinken’s two-day visit.

It added that discussions would focus on “regional and global issues of mutual interest – including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indo-Pacific region, Afghanistan, and cooperation in the UN.”

Analysts said the visit could also lay the groundwork for an in-person summit of the Quad group of countries — comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US — likelyto be held in September and mainly aimed at drawing up measures to counter China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region which, according to Pant, sent out a “larger message” about New Delhi’s role.

“We have seen the US secretary of defense coming to India earlier this year, we have seen (US President Joe) Biden calling the Quad leadership summit early on in his term, and now we have the secretary of state coming to India. I think there is a larger message about the Indo-US relationship and how important America sees India as a partner,” he said.

A virtual summit of the Quad group held in March created a working group on COVID-19 vaccine delivery, with India as the lead manufacturer committing to produce at least a billion vaccine doses by the end of 2022, mainly for southeast Asian and Pacific countries grappling with a spike in infections.

Blinken’s visit could create an opportunity to “bolster the global strategic partnership” between India and the US and focus on ways to support Afghanistan as the Taliban make rapid territorial gains amid a drawdown of US-led foreign troops from the country after 20 years of occupation.

Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation saw India withdraw its staff from its consulates in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif earlier this month.

“There are some apprehensions about the way things are moving in Afghanistan,” Pant added. “Therefore, from India’s perspective, it would be important to get a sense of what the American plan for Afghanistan is.”

Pranay Kotasthane, deputy director at the Takshashila Institution, said India’s primary concern would be to “deny space” in Afghanistan to “Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups” and that there might be some discussions toward this goal.

On Monday, India said that it was also “willing to discuss” its human rights record if Blinken raised it during the bilateral talks.

“India has a plural tradition and multicultural society,” and it is willing to “discuss any human rights issue,” a source in the Indian government, who could not be identified under government policy, told Arab News.

It comes after Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson told reporters in Washington D.C. on Friday that “the human rights and democracy question” would be part of the talks between Indian and US foreign ministers.

Since being elected to office in 2014, Modi and his government have faced allegations of suppressing dissent, pursuing divisive policies to appeal to Hindu voters, and enacting the Citizenship Amendment Law two years ago that Muslims see as discriminatory.

India’s human rights record became even more pronounced after the death in custody of 87-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who was arrested on charges of supporting ultra-Maoists, while awaiting bail.

Pant said that bringing up the issue for talks reflected the “pressures” that Biden’s administration was under from various US constituencies.

“I think those who deal with India and the US know that historically India is cagey about including outsiders on domestic issues,” he added.


Thailand forest park gets World Heritage nod despite indigenous rights warning

Updated 30 min 18 sec ago

Thailand forest park gets World Heritage nod despite indigenous rights warning

  • “The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burnt”

BANGKOK: A vast forest complex in Thailand has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, despite the UN’s own experts warning of human rights violations against indigenous people in the area.

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex in western Thailand is rich in biodiversity, including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, UNESCO said Monday in its listing announcement.

But it is also home to an indigenous community of ethnic Karen people, who have long accused the Thai government of using violence and harassment to push them off their land.

Thailand had lobbied for years to get World Heritage status for the complex, and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha praised UNESCO’s decision, vowing to protect the forest according to “international standards.”

“From now on, the government will ... restore the forest together and promote the livelihood development and human rights of locals,” he said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

“Everyone will be part of co-management so they will feel a sense of ownership.”

United Nations experts last week urged the UNESCO committee to defer a decision until independent monitors have visited the area and the concerns about the indigenous people have been addressed.

“This is an important precedent-setting case, and may influence policies on how indigenous peoples’ rights are respected in protected areas across Asia,” the three experts said in a statement released Friday by the office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner.

“The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burnt.”

They also said the World Heritage nomination process did not have effective participation of indigenous people, calling for indigenous people to be treated as partners in protecting the forest, not threats.

The park’s listing dismayed activist Pongsak Tonnamphet, an indigenous resident of the area.

“The decision was not made based on basic human rights principles ... the minority had no chance to speak,” the 24-year-old told AFP on Tuesday.

The World Heritage Committee did not list the park in 2016 and 2019 because of rights concerns.

The dispute has been simmering for decades.

While many indigenous residents were allegedly driven out of the area, those remaining were not allowed to cultivate the land.

Authorities say their farming activities would damage the forest, but activists argue that traditional farming methods do not harm the environment.

Rights campaigners have accused Thai officials of using harassment and violence to force indigenous people out.

The charred bones of a high-profile ethnic Karen leader were found inside the park in 2019, five years after he disappeared, according to Thai investigators.

Park officials at the time were the last to see him alive, but serious charges including premeditated murder were dropped in early 2020, with authorities citing a lack of evidence.

Ahead of the decision, an indigenous rights group held a protest in front of the environment ministry in Bangkok on Monday, flinging red paint at its signage.

Located near the border with Myanmar, the Kaeng Krachan complex is spread over more than 480,000 hectares, and includes three national parks and a wildlife sanctuary.


Attackers kill five soldiers, one civilian in north Cameroon, say officials

Updated 27 July 2021

Attackers kill five soldiers, one civilian in north Cameroon, say officials

  • Boko Haram attack kills five Cameroonian soldiers and a civilian
  • The attack happened during a raid on the military outpost in the country’s far north, local authorities said

YAOUNDE: An attack by Boko Haram killed five Cameroonian soldiers and a civilian, according to a defense ministry statement on state radio Tuesday.
The attack took place on Monday night in the far north of the central African country near the border with Nigeria, where operations by the Islamist group have been on the rise, reported AFP.
Meanwhile, Reuters said the attack happened during a raid on the military outpost in the country’s far north, local authorities said on Tuesday, the second deadly raid in the area in the past week.
An army post in the village of Zigue was attacked at around 9 p.m. (20:00 GMT) on Monday, according to two officials who asked not to be identified.
The attack follows a raid that took place around 50 km (30 miles) north of Zigue on Saturday, which was claimed by Daesh. Eight soldiers were killed in that raid, according to the defense ministry.
Cameroon, alongside neighboring Nigeria and Chad, has been battling the Boko Haram militant group for years, but more recently has clashed with fighters who identify themselves as Daesh West African Province (DWAP).
In the aftermath of the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in May, DWAP has sought to absorb Boko Haram fighters and unify the groups which had hitherto fought one another for control of territory.

With AFP and Reuters.


Sweden charges Iranian for alleged 1988 ‘war crimes’

Updated 27 July 2021

Sweden charges Iranian for alleged 1988 ‘war crimes’

  • Case against Hamid Noury, arrested in Sweden in 2019, concerns his alleged part in prisoners’ mass killings during 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq
  • Sweden's Prosecution Authority said prisoners had been linked to the "People's Mujahedin of Iran"

STOCKHOLM: Swedish prosecutors said Tuesday they were charging an Iranian man for “war crimes and murder” over the execution of more than 100 political prisoners in 1988 in Karaj, Iran.
The case against 60-year-old Hamid Noury, who was arrested in Sweden in 2019 when he came to visit relatives, concerns his alleged part in the mass killings of prisoners toward the end of the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq.
Human rights groups have been campaigning for years for justice for what they consider to be the extrajudicial execution of thousands of Iranians, mostly young people, across the country.
Sweden’s Prosecution Authority noted in a statement that the prisoners had been linked to the “People’s Mujahedin of Iran,” a political organization seeking to overthrow the clerical leadership whose armed branch had launched several attacks against Iran.
In the summer of 1988, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini “issued an order to execute all prisoners held in Iranian prisons who sympathized with and were loyal in their convictions to the Mujahedin,” the authority noted.
According to the authority, Noury held the position of “assistant to the deputy prosecutor at the Gohardasht prison,” on the outskirts of Karaj, west of Tehran.
“The accused is suspected of participating, together with other perpetrators, in these mass executions and, as such, intentionally taking the lives of a large number of prisoners, who sympathized with the Mujahedin and, additionally, of subjecting prisoners to severe suffering which is deemed torture and inhuman treatment,” the authority said.
In the charge sheet, seen by AFP, prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson noted that these actions constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Noury’s lawyer told AFP that he denies the charges against him.
Following the mass executions, and after a cease-fire between Iran and Iraq was enacted, the Iranian leadership also decided that other political prisoners “who sympathized with various left wing groups and were regarded as apostates by the Iranian leadership, should be executed.”
Prosecutors said Noury, in his role at the prison, was also complicit in the killings that followed.
“These acts are classified as murder according to the Swedish Penal Code since they are not considered to be related to an armed conflict,” the authority said.
In May, a group of more than 150 rights campaigners, including Nobel laureates, former heads of state or government and former UN officials, called for an international investigation into the 1988 killings.
The case remains sensitive in Iran as activists accuse officials now in government of being involved.


UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days

Updated 27 July 2021

UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days

  • Recorded infection rates across the UK have dropped for six consecutive days
  • Despite the turnaround ministers are warning the long-term situation remains uncertain

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for caution Tuesday after Britain registered nearly a week of lower coronavirus case numbers, a decline that has surprised officials and experts.
Recorded infection rates across the UK have dropped for six consecutive days, with 24,950 new cases announced Monday compared to 46,558 last Tuesday — a fall of 46 percent.
The reversal after weeks of rising rates has coincided with the removal on July 19 of nearly all pandemic rules in England, including legal requirements for social distancing wearing a mask in public indoors.
It has confounded the government and scientists, who had previously warned cases would likely surge to 100,000 a day in the weeks ahead after the restrictions were eased.
Despite the turnaround, which comes after the start of summer school holidays, ministers are warning the long-term situation remains uncertain.
“I have noticed that obviously we have six days of some better figures but it’s very, very important that we don’t allow ourselves to run away with premature conclusions about this,” Johnson said during a visit to a police station in southeast England.
“People have got to remain very cautious and that remains the approach of the government,” he added.
Johnson ended 10 days in self-isolation late Monday after being in close contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month.
The prime minister argued that Britain’s successful vaccination campaign — which has fully vaccinated 70 percent of adults — allowed for the relaxation of legal curbs last week.
But the move attracted widespread criticism, with fears the National Health Service could again come under severe strain from rising caseloads, even if many fewer people are now dying of Covid.
Experts have struggled to explain why infections appear to have declined so dramatically since early last week.
The end of the Euro 2020 football tournament — which was blamed for a spike in cases among younger men gathering to watch games — as well as the school holidays and a heatwave have all been mooted as factors.
“The recent fall in cases in England is great news, but also puzzling given that progressive relaxation of restrictions has occurred,” said Stephen Griffin of Leeds University’s School of Medicine.
But, echoing Johnson’s call for caution, he added: “I would be surprised if we are likely to see a continuation of this decline.”