Portugal President Rebelo de Sousa wins new term in socially distanced ballot

Re-elected Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa addresses journalists after the announcement of electoral results in Lisbon on January 24, 2021. (REUTERS/Pedro Nunes)
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Updated 25 January 2021

Portugal President Rebelo de Sousa wins new term in socially distanced ballot

  • Strict hygiene rules in place as COVID-19 cases surge * Record abstention at 60%
  • 60% of voters abstained, the highest figure in Portuguese history

LISBON: Portugal’s center-right president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, won a second term on Sunday in an election marked by record abstention as the country battles a crippling third wave of coronavirus contagion.
The 72-year-old former leader of the Social Democratic Party, known for his warm persona and habit of taking selfies with supporters, won 61% of votes, above his 52% win in 2016.
Still, 60% of voters abstained — the highest figure in Portuguese history — in part because 1.1 million voters from abroad were added to the electoral register for the first time, but also due to hundreds of thousands of people in quarantine.
The president holds a largely ceremonial role but can veto certain laws and decree states of emergency, a power Rebelo de Sousa deployed often during the pandemic, taking parliament’s lead.
“The most urgent of tasks is to combat the pandemic. This is my priority, in total solidarity with parliament and government,” Rebelo de Sousa said in his victory speech.
Andre Ventura, a lawmaker for the far-right Chega party, narrowly lost out to left-wing candidate Ana Gomes in the fight for a distant second place, with 12% of the vote to Gomes’ 13%.
The result was nevertheless a significant jump for Ventura, a close ally of European far-right parties who dubs himself ‘anti-system’ and has fueled fears among rights groups for discriminatory views toward minorities. His party won just 1.3% of votes in the 2019 legislative elections.
Rebelo de Sousa, in an apparent dig at Ventura — whose campaign catchphrase was that he would represent the ‘good Portuguese’ and not those who lived off the state — vowed to be a president who “stabilizes, unites, who is not only of the ‘good’ against the ‘bad’.”

COVID-19 cases soar
Masked, socially distanced and using their own pens, voters were subjected to extensive measures by local councils to prevent contagion during the voting process.
Still, almost two-thirds of Portuguese thought the election should have been postponed because of the pandemic, a poll last week by research institute ISC/ISCTE showed.
“Since the date of the elections wasn’t changed, I decided to come early,” said Cristina Queda, 58, who arrived at her polling station in Lisbon as soon as it opened at 8 a.m. to “avoid groups and queues.”
The country of 10 million people is reporting the world’s highest seven-day rolling average of new cases and deaths per capita, according to Oxford University data tracker www.ourworldindata.org.
The number of COVID-19 deaths broke records for the seventh day in a row on Sunday at 275, with hospitalizations also at an all-time high and ambulances queuing for several hours at Lisbon hospitals full to capacity.
Portugal has posted a total of 10,469 deaths from COVID-19 and 636,190 cases.
Casting his vote at a Lisbon school, center-left Prime Minister Antonio Costa acknowledged the grave stage of the pandemic, but said that “everything was done for people to be able to exercise their democratic right to vote.”


‘Nation of one kidney’: Scarred by poverty, more Afghans turn to illicit organ trade

Updated 25 sec ago

‘Nation of one kidney’: Scarred by poverty, more Afghans turn to illicit organ trade

  • Herat residents and lawmakers accused the government of failing to provide jobs and alleviate them from poverty, leading to a rise in the illegal kidney trade

KABUL: When Fateh Shah and his two brothers sought to escape a debt trap a couple of years ago, he says they were left with two options: To either commit a crime to pay off their lenders or to sell their kidneys.

“We were fed up with their repeated harassment,” Shah, 35, told Arab News.

They fled to neighbouring Iran “with the help of a smuggler,” hoping to find a job there and send part of their earnings back home to pay off their debts in stages.

“But we got into more debt as we were deported soon after arriving in Iran ... The smuggler became our new lender, demanding money for the trip. It was a nightmare,” Shah said.

The three brothers finally decided to go under the knife, each earning 320,000 Afghans ($4,000) for selling one kidney.

“We had no other option … we could not take the humiliation, shouting and complaints of the lenders anymore. We either had to commit a crime to pay our hefty debts or sell our kidneys, and we decided to live with one kidney rather than stealing,” Shah said.

The Shah brothers are not alone. According to recent media reports, “confirmed figures” show that more than 1,000 kidneys have been traded in the past five years in Herat, one of Afghanistan’s largest provinces, which shares its border with Iran.

“Hundreds of people who have sold their kidneys live in Se Shanba Bazar village in Injil district in Herat,” the private TV channel Tolo News said in a report.

Shah says he learned about the illegal kidney trade in western Herat, where he, like many others, had settled after fleeing prolonged periods of drought, poverty and joblessness in the province of Badghis, in the northwest of the country.

So lucrative is the illegal kidney trade that two hospitals in Herat “offer transplantation services with the help of Iranian doctors,” according to the report, which added that children as young as seven and several women “were among those forced to sell their vital organs.”

The numbers shared by the Afghan authorities, who launched a probe into the trade soon after the report, are equally jarring.

“When the team visited the hospitals, it found that in one hospital 182 transplants had occurred … and 18 in another hospital,” said Dastagir Nazari, Health Ministry spokesperson.

He added that initial findings showed that the “transplantations had been going on in the two hospitals in Herat for at least two years.”

“But … we came to know that the number is much higher, especially in the Injil district, than in these hospitals,” Nazari said.

The alarming figures prompted authorities in Herat to conduct a more detailed investigation.

However, officials “found no document showing that trade has happened inside the hospitals” between donors and patients. Public health laws dictate that the “transplantation of a kidney can only happen when the donor is a relative of the patient, in need of the kidney,” with the illegal trading of organs punishable by law, Nazari said.

Experts blame the “health mafia” in Herat for the province’s dire straits.

“It is a reality that economic compulsions have put much pressure on our people, but the health mafia should not misuse the poverty of the people this way,” Waheed Qatali, the governor of Herat, posted on Facebook recently.

However, Herat residents and lawmakers accused the government of failing to provide jobs and alleviate them from poverty, leading to a rise in the illegal kidney trade.

“The government here is good in giving hollow slogans to people. It cannot stop this process because people have no alternative,” said Rafiq Shahir, a prominent figure in Herat.

He added that poverty was prevalent in many parts of Afghanistan despite the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid since the Taliban’s ouster in a US-led invasion in 2001 because “authorities live a luxurious life.”

Dr. Nawrooz Haqmal, an Afghan health expert based in the UK, agreed, saying that “people had no choice but to break the law”, which prohibits the illegal sale of kidneys.

“The sad reality has been reported for years wherein the private health sector has been involved in illegal businesses,” he told Arab News.

“Also, the silence of the leadership of the public ministry about the details of this illegal business has created confusion about the law enforcement in the capital of one the major cities,” he added.

Ordinary Afghans were still able to joke about the issue, with a satirical TV program featuring Herat’s illegal kidney trade as its main topic last week.

Impersonating President Ashraf Ghani, who has repeatedly vowed to improve the livelihood of the Afghans since assuming office more than six years ago, one artist said: “The people of Herat are wise to sell their kidneys to boost their economy. Afghans were very rich, and each possesses a treasure in their bodies for selling.”

“Hope to see you, the nation of Afghanistan, soon with one kidney,” he added.


UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

Updated 24 February 2021

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

  • The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs

LONDON: British clinical trials of vaccines against new variants of COVID-19 will start in the summer to prepare updated jabs for the autumn if variants evade the current inoculations, the Oxford University vaccine group’s lead researcher has told the UK Parliament.

Prof. Sarah Gilbert said her team is producing an initial group of vaccines against new variants that are at least partially resistant to the current jabs being rolled out.

The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs.

A small trial in South Africa found that a variant that emerged there, and which has since arrived in the UK, is partially resistant to the Oxford vaccine.

Vaccines from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson also appear less effective against the South African variant.

“We need to make preparations so that everything is in place, if it turns out that we do need to do it,” Gilbert told British MPs.

“Currently, the plans are to be ready for an immunization campaign in the autumn, so before going into the winter season we’d have a new variant vaccine available if it turns out that’s what’s going to be required,” she added.
“If we see the emergence of a new strain very close to that date, it’s going to be difficult to go through this whole process, because we do need to conduct a clinical study and get regulatory approval, in time to be vaccinated before the winter.”
Gilbert said trials are underway to judge whether mixing vaccines will provide better protection against COVID-19 by stimulating the immune system in different ways.
The Oxford vaccine group is also looking at producing nasal spray and pill alternatives to the standard inoculation.
 


EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

Updated 24 February 2021

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

  • Some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again
  • Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination

BRUSSELS: European Union leaders will agree on Thursday to work on certificates of vaccination for EU citizens who have had an anti-COVID shot, with southern EU countries that depend heavily on tourism desperate to rescue this summer’s holiday season.
Lockdowns to slow the pandemic caused the deepest ever economic recession in the 27-nation bloc last year, hitting the south of the EU, where economies are often much more dependent on visitors, disproportionately hard.
With the rollout of vaccines against COVID-19 now gathering pace, some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again.
However, other countries, such as France and Germany, appear more reluctant, as officials there say it could create de facto vaccination obligation and would be discriminatory to those who cannot or will not take a jab.
France, where anti-vaccine sentiment is particularly strong and where the government has pledged not to make them compulsory, considers the idea of vaccine passports as “premature,” a French official said on Wednesday.
Work is needed on the details, including whether it should be in digital form, be accepted globally and at what stage of the two-step inoculation process it should be issued.
“We call for work to continue on a common approach to vaccination certificates,” a draft statement of the leaders video-conference seen by Reuters said, without setting a time-frame for a result.
Officials said the EU was working with the International Air Transport Association, which is keen to revive air travel, and with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Health Organization.
But travel with certificates also raised legal questions, officials said, because those last in line for vaccinations could argue their freedom of movement was unjustly restricted by the often months-long queues.
EU officials also point out there is no guidance yet from the WHO and EU agencies whether people who have received two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine can still carry the coronavirus and infect others, even if no longer vulnerable themselves.
It was also not clear if people could be infectious having already fought off the coronavirus themselves, for how long they remained immune and if they too should get certificates.
“There are still many things we don’t know,” a senior official from one of the EU countries said. “We need more time to come to a common line.”
But time is short for countries in the south, where the hospitality sector needs to know what it should prepare for in the coming months. Despite the official stance that all EU governments want to solve the issue together, some might decide to move faster individually.
Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination.


UN: Boat with Rohingya refugees adrift without food, water

Updated 24 February 2021

UN: Boat with Rohingya refugees adrift without food, water

  • The UN and rights groups have said many of the refugees were ill and suffering from acute dehydration
  • Reports said about 90 refugees, including some children, started the journey to seek better lives

DHAKA: A group of Rohingya refugees is adrift in a boat in the Andaman Sea without food or water, the United Nations said Wednesday, as their families worried that many may have already died.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, said it understands that some of the refugees died after the boat left southern Bangladesh about two weeks ago. It said it does not know the boat’s exact current location.
The UN and rights groups including Amnesty International have said many of the refugees were ill and suffering from acute dehydration.
Reports said about 90 refugees, including some children, started the journey to seek better lives. Human traffickers often lure refugees, promising them work in Southeast Asian nations.
More than 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are living in crowded camps in Bangladesh, including more than 700,000 who fled after Myanmar’s military conducted a harsh counterinsurgency operation in 2017 involving mass rape, murders and the torching of villages.
Authorities in Bangladesh said Tuesday they had no information about any boat that recently carried Rohingya refugees out of Bangladesh’s waters.
“We have no idea,” said Hafizur Rahman, police chief of Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar district.
The UNHCR said the Indian coast guard has sent rescuers to look for the refugees.
“We appreciate the efforts of the Indian coast guard in deploying their search and rescue team,” said Catherine Stubberfield, spokesperson for the UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.
“Given that the refugees are still adrift at sea, immediate disembarkation is absolutely critical to meeting their most basic human needs and ensuring that their safety is no longer threatened,” she said in an email.
P.N. Anup, a spokesman for the Indian coast guard, said he had “nothing to say as of now.”
The mother of a 25-year-old man on the boat said she was worried about his fate.
“Oh Allah, save all of the people that are stuck in the boat including my son with your divine magic. Put them somewhere on the coast of the river. Please fulfill the wishes of my son to go there,” said Nasima Khatun.
“Is my son alive? Has anything happened to him because of hunger? I do not know anything about what my son is doing, how he is surviving. He only took 4 liters of water,” she said.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project that monitors the Rohingya crisis, said they had heard at least eight people had died on the boat.
Lewa said they boarded the boat on Feb. 11 to reach Southeast Asia but its engine broke down.
She said the Arakan Project has been unable to contact the refugees for several days.
“We had talked to them. But now they are traceless. They have no water or food, they are drinking sea water and dying,” Lewa said by phone.
Bangladesh is eager to send the refugees in the camps back to Myanmar. Several attempts at repatriation under a joint agreement failed because the Rohingya refused to go, fearing more violence in a country that denies them basic rights including citizenship.


India starts COVID-19 vaccinations for people over 60s from March 1

Updated 24 February 2021

India starts COVID-19 vaccinations for people over 60s from March 1

  • The country began vaccinating its 1.3-billion population last month and plans to inoculate 300 million people by July

NEW DELHI: India plans to expand its vast but faltering coronavirus vaccination program from March 1 by offering jabs to the over 60s, the government said Wednesday.
The country began vaccinating its 1.3-billion population last month and plans to inoculate 300 million people by July, but so far the rollout has been limited to health care workers and other frontline staff.
However, from Monday people over 60 and those over 45 with multiple medical conditions can be vaccinated for free at 10,000 government hospitals and nearly 20,000 private clinics for a charge.
“Those who want to get vaccinations from private hospitals will have to pay. The amount to be paid will be decided and declared by the health ministry within the next three to four days,” Union Minister Prakash Javadekar said after a cabinet meeting.
The vaccination program, one of the world’s largest, has so far seen 12.2 million shots administered, according to the health ministry.
But at the current pace it will take several years to inoculate 300 million people.
The vaccines being used are the AstraZeneca jab, made domestically by Indian giant the Serum Institute, and the homegrown Covaxin developed by Bharat Biotech, which is yet to complete trials.
The makers of Russia’s Sputnik V have also applied for emergency use approval.
The head of Serum, which other poor countries are relying on for supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine, said on Sunday it had been “directed to prioritize the huge needs of India.”
Some regions of the country have seen an uptick in infections in recent weeks including in the western state of Maharashtra, which has imposed new restrictions on gatherings.