UN World Food Programme warns could suspend work in North Korea

More than 40 percent of North Korea’s 25 million people are considered food insecure, according to UN estimates. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 23 February 2021

UN World Food Programme warns could suspend work in North Korea

  • The World Food Programme has by far the largest international aid operation in the country
  • ‘Food imports, international staff deployments and physical monitoring access remain curtailed for a prolonged period’

SEOUL: Strict coronavirus restrictions imposed by North Korea could force the World Food Programme to suspend operations in the country, where chronic malnutrition is rife, a report on the UN organization’s website said Tuesday.
The impoverished country – which is under international sanctions over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs – has long struggled to feed itself, suffering chronic food shortages.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has by far the largest international aid operation in the country and provides specialized foods to around a million pregnant women, nursing mothers and children every month, according to its website.
Sanctions have long complicated aid efforts but the WFP said the North’s self-imposed coronavirus isolation was posing new problems for relief work.
North Korea closed its borders in January last year – the first country in the world to do so – to protect itself against the virus which first broke out in neighboring China.
“Food imports, international staff deployments and physical monitoring access remain curtailed for a prolonged period,” the WFP said in a report outlining its plans.
“WFP will opportunistically use windows in which food imports are allowed to replenish and optimize in-country stocks,” it added.
“There is a significant residual risk that, should food imports not be possible, operations will cease in 2021.”
Pyongyang has long insisted it has not seen any cases of COVID-19 – which has killed more than two million people worldwide – with its leader Kim Jong Un reiterating the claim at a huge military parade in October.
Experts suggest that is unlikely, given the virus first emerged in neighboring China, its main provider of trade and aid.
More than 40 percent of North Korea’s 25 million people are considered food insecure, according to UN estimates.


Filipinos to roll up sleeves as government receives first batch of jabs

Updated 13 min 6 sec ago

Filipinos to roll up sleeves as government receives first batch of jabs

  • President Duterte urges public to get vaccinated during nationwide campaign

MANILA: President Rodrigo Duterte has urged Filipinos to get vaccinated during a nationwide campaign after the country received its first batch of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines on Sunday.

The president, along with his Cabinet members, welcomed the delivery of the 600,000 doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, delivered by a Chinese military aircraft, at the Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) Villamor Airbase in Pasay City.

Philippine officials said that with the arrival of the vaccines, the government would formally roll out its inoculation program on Monday to vaccinate two-thirds of the population, or 50 to 70 million Filipinos, by the end of the year.

During a televised ceremony, Duterte urged Filipinos to “set aside their fears” as he vouched for the vaccines’ safety and efficacy.

“These vaccines are backed by science and (were) deliberated on by our Filipino experts. I encourage you to get vaccinated at the soonest possible time, and be our partner in preventing the further spread of this disease,” he said.

The president’s reaffirmation follows reports that many Filipinos, including health workers, lacked confidence in the Chinese vaccine based on data from its late-stage trials, which showed that Sinovac had a lower efficacy than other jabs.

According to the Philippines Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the vaccine is recommended only to healthy individuals aged 18 to 59 years old, but not senior citizens and medical front-liners.

The FDA said local clinical trial data showed that the vaccine had an efficacy rate of 65.3 to 91.2 percent when used on clinically healthy individuals aged 18 to 59, but only 50.4 percent on health workers.

The Department of Health (DOH) and the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group have nevertheless recommended the Sinovac vaccine for health workers.

Duterte called on those being inoculated to continue practising health and safety protocols as the country awaits the final approvals for more vaccines.

“Remember to wear masks, wash hands and observe social distancing. Your cooperation here is key and will undoubtedly save numerous lives along the way,” Duterte said, adding: “With the entire nation’s support, I am confident that we will claim victory over this pandemic.”

The president described the arrival of the Sinovac jabs as another step forward in the nation’s fight against COVID-19, as he thanked China and its people for “the gesture” of friendship and solidarity.

“I said it before, and I will say it again: COVID-19 vaccines should be treated as a global public good and made available to all, rich and poor alike. No nation — no people — should be left to suffer the ravages of this pandemic for whatever reason," he said, adding that the government had welcomed the delivery of the vaccines with “high hopes of finally ending the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.

“The delivery of this first batch, I hope, will serve as a guarantee to everyone that we are taking a big step in our efforts to overcome this health crisis ... we cannot afford to waste time or resources in the distribution of these vaccines because we are dealing with precious lives,” Duterte said.

He expressed his gratitude to Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian and said he intended to “make a short visit to China just to shake hands with President Xi Jinping and personally thank him for the donation.”

Meanwhile, another batch of vaccines comprising 525,600 doses of AstraZeneca from the COVAX facility led by the World Health Organization was also due to arrive on Monday.

According to the DOH, as of Sunday, the Philippines had reported more than 576,000 infections, including 12,318 deaths, the second-highest totals in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.


Internet disruption reported in southeast Iran amid unrest

Updated 28 February 2021

Internet disruption reported in southeast Iran amid unrest

  • Crowds with light arms and grenade launchers descended on Kurin checkpoint near Iran’s border with Pakistan on Thursday
  • The Iranian government previously has cut off internet access and cellphone service in tense times

DUBAI: Iran’s impoverished southeast has been experiencing wide disruptions of internet services, experts said, as unrest gripped the remote province after fatal border shootings.
Several rights groups reported in a joint statement that authorities shut down the mobile data network in the restive province of Sistan and Balochistan, calling the disruptions an apparent “tool to conceal” the government’s harsh crackdown on protests convulsing the area
The reports of internet interference come as Iranian authorities and semiofficial news agencies increasingly acknowledge the turmoil challenging local authorities in the southeast — a highly sensitive matter in a country that seeks to repress all hints of political dissent.
Starting Wednesday, the government shut down the mobile data network across Sistan and Balochistan, where 96% of the population accesses the internet only through their phones, rights groups said, crippling the key communication tool.
After four days of unverified “localized regional network disruptions” amid the protests, NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access, confirmed a new disruption to internet connectivity in the province beginning late Saturday.
“This is Iran’s traditional response to any kind of protest,” Amir Rashidi from Miaan Group, a human rights organization that focuses on digital security in the Middle East, told The Associated Press on Saturday. “Shutting down the internet to block news and pictures getting out makes (authorities) feel more comfortable opening fire.”
The week saw a series of escalating confrontations between police and protesters. Crowds with light arms and grenade launchers descended on Kurin checkpoint near Iran’s border with Pakistan on Thursday, Abouzar Mehdi Nakhaie, the governor of Zahedan, the provincial capital, said in comments carried by Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency. The violence killed one policeman, he added.
Earlier this week, protesters attacked the district governor’s office and stormed two police stations in the city of Saravan, outraged over the shootings of fuel smugglers trying to cross back into Iran from Pakistan on Monday. The border shootings and ensuing clashes killed at least two people, the government said. Many rights activists in the area reported higher death tolls without offering evidence.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, vowed Friday to investigate the deaths. Officials insisted that calm had returned to the streets.
The Iranian government previously has cut off internet access and cellphone service in tense times. In the fall of 2019, for instance, Iran imposed a near nationwide internet blackout as anti-government protests sparked by an increase in fuel prices roiled the capital of Tehran and other cities. Hundreds were reportedly killed in the crackdown nationwide.
Given that authorities targeted the mobile network and not the landline in Sistan and Balochistan, the disruption likely wouldn’t appear on regular network data, said Mahsa Alimardani, researcher at Article 19, an international organization that fights censorship. The area already suffered from unreliable internet connections.
"This targeted shutdown was very intentional because they knew the realities of this province,” where people are poor and use cheap phones as opposed to computers, Alimardani said.
Sistan and Balochistan is one of most unstable and least developed parts of Iran. The relationship between its predominantly Sunni residents and Iran’s Shiite theocracy long has been fraught. A low-level violent insurgency in Sistan and Balochistan involves several militant groups, including those demanding more autonomy for the region.
The area also lies on a major trafficking route for drugs and petrol, which is highly subsidized in Iran and a key source of income for smugglers.


UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy

Updated 28 February 2021

UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy

LONDON: British finance minister Rishi Sunak said the idea of giving people vaccine passports or certificates to allow them to enter venues or events might be a way to help the country and its economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Obviously it is a complicated but potentially very relevant question for helping us reopen those parts of our country like mass events,” Sunak told BBC television on Sunday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that the government would hold a review to consider the scientific, moral, philosophical and ethical questions about using vaccine certificates for people who have received a coronavirus shot, which could help entertainment and hospitality venues reopen.


Myanmar police crack down on protests for second day; two dead, several hurt

Updated 28 February 2021

Myanmar police crack down on protests for second day; two dead, several hurt

  • Two dead as police crack down
  • UN envoy says he will fight on

Myanmar police shot and killed two protesters on Sunday and wounded several as they cracked down in a bid to end weeks of demonstrations against a Feb. 1 military coup, a doctor and a politician said.
Police opened fire in the town of Dawei, killing one and wounding several, politician Kyaw Min Htike told Reuters from the southern town. The Dawei Watch media outlet also said at least one person was killed and more than a dozen wounded.
Police also fired in the main city of Yangon and one man brought to a hospital with a bullet wound in the chest had died, said a doctor at the hospital who asked not to be identified. The Mizzima media outlet also reported that death.
Police and the spokesman for the ruling military council did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Myanmar has been in chaos for a month since the army seized power and detained elected government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and much of her party leadership, alleging fraud in a November election her party won in a landslide.
The coup, which stalled Myanmar’s progress toward democracy after nearly 50 years of military rule, has brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets and drawn condemnation from Western countries, with some imposing limited sanctions.
In Yangon, several people, some bleeding heavily, were helped away from protests, images posted earlier by media showed.
It was not clear how they were hurt, but media reported live fire. The Myanmar Now media group said people had been “gunned down” but did not elaborate.
Police also threw stun grenades, used tear gas and fired into the air, witnesses said.
Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing has said authorities have been using minimal force to deal with the protests.
Nevertheless, at least five protesters have died in the turmoil. The army said a policeman has been killed.
The crackdown appears to indicate a determination by the military to impose its authority in the face of widespread defiance, not just on the streets but more broadly in areas such as the civil service, municipal administration, the education and health sectors and media.

’RUNNING’
Police were out early on Sunday, taking positions at main protest sites in Yangon as protesters, many clad in protective gear, began to congregate, witnesses said.
They moved swiftly to break up crowds.
“Police got out of their cars and started throwing stun grenades without warning,” said Hayman May Hninsi, who was with a group of fellow teachers in Yangon. They fled to nearby buildings. “Some teachers got hurt running.”
Doctors and students in white lab coats fled as police threw stun grenades outside a medical school elsewhere in the city, posted video showed.
Police in the second city, Mandalay, fired guns into the air, trapping protesting medical staff in a city hospital, a doctor there said by telephone.
Saturday brought disturbances in towns and cities nationwide as police began their bid to crush the protests with tear gas, stun grenades and by shooting into the air.
State-run MRTV television said more than 470 people had been arrested on Saturday. It said police had given warnings before using stun grenades to disperse people.

’INSTIL FEAR’
Youth activist Esther Ze Naw said people were battling to overcome the fear they had lived with for a long time.
“This fear will only grow if we keep living with it and the people who are creating the fear know that. It’s obvious they’re trying to instil fear in us by making us run and hide,” she said. “We can’t accept that.”
The police action came after state television announced that Myanmar’s UN envoy had been fired for betraying the country after he urged the United Nations to use “any means necessary” to reverse the coup.
MRTV said he had been fired in accordance with civil service rules because he had “betrayed the country” and “abused the power and responsibilities of an ambassador.”
The ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, was defiant. “I decided to fight back as long as I can,” he told Reuters in New York.
UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said he was overwhelmed by the ambassador’s “act of courage,” adding on Twitter, “It’s time for the world to answer that courageous call with action.”
Myanmar’s generals have traditionally shrugged off diplomatic pressure. They have promised to hold a new election but not set a date.
Suu Kyi’s party and supporters said the result of the November vote must be respected.
Suu Kyi, 75, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during military rule. She faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and of violating a natural disaster law by breaching coronavirus protocols.
The next hearing in her case is set for Monday.


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.

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