UK government plans night-time Ramadan vaccine drive

Abida Bi receives a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine from nurse Zenub Mahood, at Bradford Central Mosque in Bradford, Britain, February 25, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 26 February 2021

UK government plans night-time Ramadan vaccine drive

  • Campaigner tells Arab News he welcomes “proactive” approach to reaching Muslim communities
  • Report: British Asians have highest mortality rate during second wave of COVID-19

LONDON: A night-time vaccine drive is reportedly being planned by the UK government during Ramadan, following reports that the country’s Asian community had the highest mortality rate during the second wave of COVID-19.
The government hopes to mitigate a potential vaccine uptake drop-off by Muslims during the holy month, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Ramadan 2021 will begin on April 12, a critical time in the UK’s vaccine rollout and just three days before the government’s planned date to have offered all over 50s the jab.
Concerns over the impact of Ramadan on vaccine uptake are compounded by a government report that British Asians, many of whom are Muslim, are the demographic with the highest COVID-19 mortality rate per 100,000 people in the UK’s second wave.
“A large part of this continued disparity for South Asian populations can be explained from geographic, socioeconomic and health factors,” the report read.
Kawsar Zaman, founder of the Take the COVID-19 Vaccine Campaign, told Arab News that he welcomes the government’s “proactive” approach in reaching out to and inoculating the UK’s Muslim community.
“I think the plan is excellent. Anything that we can do to promote uptake, particularly within communities where we’ve found it difficult to encourage people to take the vaccine, is positive,” he said.
“Particularly during Ramadan, where nine times out of 10 people are awake late into the night and early morning, anything that makes receiving the jab more accessible is great news.”
Zaman also hailed the government’s outreach to, and consultation with, Britain’s Muslim communities throughout the country’s world-leading vaccine rollout.
“What’s quite unique about this vaccine drive is that they’re being proactive about it, as well as consulting with a very wide range of people in many communities, including the Muslim community — which isn’t always the case,” he said.
Zaman singled out for praise Nadhim Zahawi, who is in charge of the UK’s vaccine rollout, saying he has done “a lot of really good work” and has been “very open in meeting with communities.” Zaman added: “What’s great here is that they’re listening first, then acting.”

Afghans begin burying dead from bloody school blasts

Updated 09 May 2021

Afghans begin burying dead from bloody school blasts

  • The Taliban deny involvement, and insist they have not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year

KABUL: Dozens of young girls were being buried Sunday at a desolate hilltop cemetery in Kabul, a day after a secondary school was targeted in the bloodiest attack in Afghanistan in over a year.
A series of blasts outside the school during a peak holiday shopping period killed more than 50 people, mostly girl students, and wounded over 100 in Dash-e-Barchi, a west Kabul suburb populated mostly by Hazara Shiites.
The government blamed the Taliban for the carnage, but the insurgents denied responsibility and issued a statement saying the nation needed to “safeguard and look after educational centers and institutions.”
Saturday’s blasts came as the United States military continues to pull out its last 2,500 troops from the violence-wracked country despite faltering peace efforts between the Taliban and Afghan government to end a decades-long war.
Interior Ministry spokesman Tareq Arian told reporters that a car bomb detonated in front of the Sayed Al-Shuhada girls school on Saturday, and when the students rushed out in panic, two more devices exploded.
Residents were shopping ahead of this week’s Eid Al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when the blasts occurred.
On Sunday, relatives began burying the dead at a hilltop site known as “Martyrs Cemetery,” where victims of attacks against the Hazara community are laid to rest.
Hazaras are Shiite Muslims and considered heretic by extremist Sunnis. Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the Afghan population.
Afghan officials including President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban.
“This savage group does not have the power to confront security forces on the battlefield, and instead targets with brutality and barbarism public facilities and the girls’ school,” Ghani said in a statement after the blasts.
The Taliban denied involvement, and insist they have not carried out attacks in Kabul since February last year, when they signed a deal with Washington that paved the way for peace talks and withdrawal of the remaining US troops.
But the group has clashed daily with Afghan forces in the rugged countryside even as the US military reduces its presence.
The United States was supposed to have pulled all forces out by May 1 as agreed with the Taliban last year, but Washington pushed back the date to September 11 — a move that angered the insurgents.
The leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, reiterated in a message released ahead of Eid that any delay in withdrawing the troops was a “violation” of that deal.
“If America again fails to live up to its commitments then the world must bear witness and hold America accountable for all the consequences,” Akhundzada warned in Sunday’s message.
He said also that the nation should give particular attention to the healthy and literate growth of children.
The nation “must safeguard and look after educational centers and institutions,” he said.
The top US diplomat in Kabul, Ross Wilson, called Saturday’s blasts “abhorrent.”
“This unforgivable attack on children is an assault on Afghanistan’s future, which cannot stand,” Wilson tweeted.
The Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood has been a regular target of attacks from Sunni Islamist militants.
In May last year, a group of gunmen launched a brazen daylight raid on a hospital in the area that left 25 people dead, including 16 mothers of newborn babies.
Ghani had blamed the Taliban and the militant Daesh group for that attack.
On October 24, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a tuition center in the same district, killing 18 people in an attack that was claimed by Daesh.


India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount

Updated 09 May 2021

India’s daily COVID-19 deaths near record, calls for nationwide lockdown mount

  • India’s health ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours
  • Many Indian states have imposed strict lockdowns over the past month to stem the surge in infections

MUMBAI: India’s COVID-19 deaths rose by more than 4,000 for a second consecutive day on Sunday as calls for a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus mounted.
India’s health ministry reported 4,092 fatalities over the past 24 hours, taking the overall death toll to 242,362. New cases rose by 403,738, just shy of the record and increasing the total since the start of the pandemic to 22.3 million.
India has been hit hard by a second COVID-19 wave with cases and deaths hitting record highs every other day. With an acute shortage of oxygen and beds in many hospitals and morgues and crematoriums overflowing, experts have said the actual numbers for COVID-19 cases and fatalities could be far higher.
Many Indian states have imposed strict lockdowns over the past month to stem the surge in infections while others have announced restrictions on public movement and shut down cinemas, restaurants, pubs and shopping malls.
But pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce a nationwide lockdown similar to the one imposed during the first wave last year.
India on Saturday reported its highest ever single-day COVID-19 death toll of 4,187 fatalities. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that India will see 1 million COVID-19 deaths by August.
Support has been pouring in from around the world in the form of oxygen cylinders and concentrators, ventilators and other medical equipment for overwhelmed hospitals.

Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean

Updated 09 May 2021

Large Chinese rocket segment disintegrates over Indian Ocean

BEIJING: A large segment of a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean on Sunday, the Chinese space agency said, following fevered speculation over where the 18-ton object would come down.

Officials in Beijing had said there was little risk from the freefalling segment of the Long March-5B rocket, which had launched the first module of China’s new space station into Earth orbit on April 29.

But the US space agency NASA and some experts said China had behaved irresponsibly, as an uncontrolled re-entry of such a large object risked damage and casualties.

“After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 (0224 GMT) on May 9, 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has re-entered the atmosphere,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement, providing coordinates for a point in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.

It added that most of the segment disintegrated and was destroyed during descent.

The US military’s Space Command said the rocket “re-entered over the Arabian Peninsula at approximately 10:15 p.m. EDT on May 8 (0215 GMT Sunday).”

“It is unknown if the debris impacted land or water.”

Monitoring service Space-Track, which uses US military data, said that the location in Saudi Arabia was where American systems last recorded it.

“Operators confirm that the rocket actually went into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives,” it tweeted.

The segment’s descent matched expert predictions that any debris would have splashed down into the ocean, given that 70 percent of the planet is covered by water.

Because it was an uncontrolled descent, there was widespread public interest and speculation about where the debris would land.

American and European space authorities were among those tracking the rocket and trying to predict its re-entry.

Objects generate immense amounts of heat and friction when they enter the atmosphere, which can cause them to burn up and disintegrate. But larger ones such as the Long March-5B may not be destroyed entirely.

Their wreckage can land on the surface of the planet and may cause damage and casualties, though that risk is low.

Last year, debris from another Chinese Long March rocket fell on villages in the Ivory Coast, causing structural damage but no injuries or deaths.

That, and the one that came down Sunday, are tied for the fourth-biggest objects in history to undergo an uncontrolled re-entry, according to data from Harvard-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell.

The uncertainty and risks of such a re-entry sparked accusations that Beijing had behaved irresponsibly.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested last week that China had been negligent, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson echoed that after the re-entry on Sunday.

“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” Nelson said in a statement.

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

To avoid such scenarios, some experts have recommended a redesign of the Long March-5B rocket – which is not equipped for a controlled descent.

“An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely,” McDowell tweeted.

“It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless.”

Chinese authorities had downplayed the risk, however.

“The probability of causing harm to aviation activities or (on people and activities) on the ground is extremely low,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday.

Beijing has poured billions of dollars into space exploration to boost its global stature and technological might.

The launch of the first module of its space station – by the Long March rocket that came down Sunday – was a milestone in its ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.

Foreign diplomats leave India as COVID-19 surge hits embassies

Updated 09 May 2021

Foreign diplomats leave India as COVID-19 surge hits embassies

  • US, Germany and Poland approve voluntary departure of govt workers from crisis-hit country
  • CNN report: More than 200 staff in US embassy have contracted coronavirus

NEW DELHI: A number of embassies in New Delhi have issued advisories for their staff, giving them the option of leaving India as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps through the country with no signs of slowing.

Since late April, India has reported the world’s highest daily tally of coronavirus cases. Official data recorded more than 401,000 new cases and 4,000 virus-related deaths on Saturday. Coronavirus positivity rates in seven Indian states, including in the capital New Delhi, have also crossed 30 percent, according to Health Ministry statistics.

As the country faces a shortage of beds and oxygen supplies, and several foreign missions suffer local virus outbreaks, staff members have been allowed to leave the country.

The US, Germany and Poland earlier this week said that they approved the voluntary departure of their government employees from India because of the COVID-19 surge.

According to a CNN report on Saturday, the US Embassy has seen more than 200 staff contract the virus. The US State Department is also conducting a medical evacuation from the country.

The embassy’s spokesman told Arab News that the mission is “closely monitoring the situation.

“We will take all necessary measures to safeguard the health and well-being of our employees, including offering vaccines to employees,” he added.

Citing privacy concerns, the spokesman declined to comment on the scale of the embassy outbreak or the evacuation process.

Meanwhile, Germany confirmed that several members of its embassy staff had returned home.

“The German Embassy has opened the possibility for staff and families to return to Germany,” spokesman Hans Christian Winkler told Arab News.

However, he added that there was no “repatriation process” as “only a small number” of embassy workers have left so far.

The Polish foreign ministry also told Arab News in a written statement that it had “presented employees of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in New Delhi with the option of returning to Poland.”

The statement followed Polish media reports last week saying that a senior diplomat from the country’s New Delhi embassy had been airlifted back to Warsaw for hospitalization after contracting coronavirus.

Switzerland’s embassy admitted that two of its “transferable staff” are in Switzerland, but the country’s ambassador, Dr. Ralf Heckner, said that the two workers had been home “from the beginning of the crisis,” and that no other staff members had left any of the country’s missions in India.

The French Embassy declined comment on whether its staff had received any advice regarding medical evacuations.

Sri Lanka welcomes Saudi Arabia’s green initiatives, seeks climate cooperation

Updated 09 May 2021

Sri Lanka welcomes Saudi Arabia’s green initiatives, seeks climate cooperation

  • Justice Minister Ali Sabry said the initiative by the Saudi crown prince “would set the road for sustainable development in keeping with environmental values”

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka has congratulated Saudi Arabia on its Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives and called for regional cooperation to tackle the environmental challenges facing Saudi Arabia and the wider region.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced at the end of March the Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives, which aim to reduce carbon emissions in the region by 60 percent and plant 50 billion trees in the world’s biggest afforestation project.

“Sri Lanka would keenly follow the ambitious projects designed to reduce carbon emissions in the region by 60 percent and the initiatives (aimed at preserving) marine and coastal environments, the latter being much closer to our heart as an island nation,” the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Saturday, as it expressed the country’s willingness to cooperate with the Kingdom on climate issues. 

“Sri Lanka would express its support to Saudi Arabia and is looking forward to working with the Kingdom in our common approach to deal with climate change,” the statement said.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry said the initiative by the Saudi crown prince “would set the road for sustainable development in keeping with environmental values.” 

Experts also welcomed the Saudi projects.

“This is one idea I dreamt of when serving in Gulf Cooperation Council countries such as Kuwait, KSA, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman and Jordan,” Seyed Abdul Cader Mohammed Zuhyle, former Sri Lankan ambassador to Kuwait and Bahrain, told Arab News. 

“The large extent of land could be converted into greeneries with careful planning and execution,” he said. “Thousands of hectares of land are available to be brought under this initiative.”

Dr. Hameed Mohammed Rafeek, a former president of the Sri Lankan Expats Society in Jeddah who has worked for three decades in Saudi Arabia, told Arab News that Saudi Arabia’s green initiatives should be supported by the global community, including Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lanka should consider extending its support for and cooperation with this initiative,” he said. “It is blessed with a rich natural environment and possesses expertise in virtually every area. It thus has the potential to share its experience.”