UK eases lockdown but nervously eyes European coronavirus surge

The UK has recorded more than 126,000 COVID-19 deaths, the highest toll in Europe. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 March 2021

UK eases lockdown but nervously eyes European coronavirus surge

  • From Monday, it will be replaced in England with a message to stay local
  • The UK has recorded more than 126,000 COVID-19 deaths, the highest toll in Europe

LONDON: Britain is taking another small step out of lockdown as it looks nervously at a new virus surge inundating its European neighbors.
With UK coronavirus vaccination rates outstripping those of European Union nations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is easing the stark “stay at home” message that has curtailed everyday life – and kept the virus in check – for almost three months.
From Monday, it will be replaced in England with a message to stay local. People will be allowed to meet in groups of six outdoors and can resume outdoor sports such as basketball, tennis and golf.
The other parts of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are taking broadly similar steps. In Wales, thousands of people poured onto beaches and beauty spots on Saturday, after the authorities lifted travel restrictions that have been in place since December.
Stephen Powis, medical director of the National Health Service in England, urged people to continue to follow the rules and limit contact with others, saying the easing “does not mean job done.”
“We’ve made enormous progress that we need to build on and not squander the gains we’ve made,” he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
The stringent restrictions in business and social life imposed during three lockdowns in the past year have had broad public support, though they have alarmed some lawmakers in Johnson’s Conservative Party, who argue that the economic, democratic and human costs outweigh the benefits.
Most nonessential businesses remain closed, along with pubs, restaurants, gyms, cinemas, theaters, museums and sports stadiums. Millions of workers have been furloughed, with the government paying the bulk of their wages.
The UK has recorded more than 126,000 COVID-19 deaths, the highest toll in Europe.
While many European nations are seeing a new surge in the pandemic, Britain is counting on a rapid mass-vaccination program to help it end lockdown. Nearly 30 million people, accounting for 56 percent of all adults, have received a first dose of vaccine so far.
Under the government’s “road map” to lifting lockdown, shops, hairdressers and outdoor dining in England are to reopen on April 12, followed by indoor venues on May 17. Remaining restrictions are to end June 21, if the country isn’t facing a new virus surge.
Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, said it was vital that people who had received a vaccine shot remained cautious.
“It’s really important that people who are vaccinated can remember that they aren’t completely protected,” he told the BBC.
“They’re protected against severe disease, hospitalization and death, but they might not be protected against infection after one dose, it takes three or four weeks for the vaccine effects to kick in, and they could potentially still transmit.”


Duterte calls on officials to help stop violence in Maguindanao

Updated 13 May 2021

Duterte calls on officials to help stop violence in Maguindanao

  • Filipino president warns of ‘an all-out offensive’ if situation does not improve

MANILA: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday called on local leaders in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to help the national government bring peace to the center of the region. 

During a visit to the 6th Infantry Division’s headquarters in Maguindanao, Duterte urged the officials to do more to prevent atrocities committed by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and other militant groups in their area. 

The president’s message follows a recent attack by BIFF — a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) — in the Datu Paglas town of Maguindanao. 

Senior leaders of the MILF now head the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, which is the interim regional government of the BARMM. 

“The violence is very much present,” Duterte said, adding: “I am begging you to help me because otherwise, if I give the order for an all-out offensive, it will be bloody, and it will be sad. I do not want that.”

He added that militant groups should not continue to commit atrocities because if he orders the military to strike back, he will “not withdraw it, and this could mean loss of more lives.”

The president said: “Please do not give them the sanctuary ... Do not wait for me to call you to Malacañang if there are intelligence reports,” adding that he had done “everything to ensure the creation of the BARMM” and was willing to expand “what is necessary for an effective governance of the region.”

He said: “But the monkey wrench of the whole situation now is the BIFF, and they continue to inflict not only small harm. They continue to burn, ambush, detonate bombs. It’s really full-blown terrorism.”

He also asked that anyone who could approach and engage with the BIFF to do so. 

“If there is still a chance for you to cross the line and talk to them ... do not commit atrocities that could no longer be stomached by the government.”

Duterte’s visit to Maguindanao comes three days after BIFF members led by Ustadz Sulaiman Tundo attacked Datu Paglas and briefly occupied the town’s public market on Saturday. 

The group, which belonged to the BIFF faction under Mohiden Animbang (also known as Commander Kagi Karialan), was eventually repelled by government forces. 

Karialan’s group has been the target of a military crackdown after receiving reports of the group planning to conduct attacks in nearby towns in Maguindanao. 

Following Saturday’s strike, BARMM Chief Minister Murad Ebrahim issued a statement condemning the group’s atrocities. 

“We will not tolerate any act that threatens peace and order,” he said. 

“As a region that is just beginning a chapter of healing and justice, attacks like the one today are nothing but a mere attempt to distract everyone from the gains of the peace process. We will not let violence prevail and make sure that we protect our people who have gone through so much over the past decades,” he added. 

Drawing attention to the holy month of Ramadan, Ebrahim said: “We must be reminded of its teachings that form part of who we are as Muslims and as Bangsamoro.”

He added: “The Bangsamoro government will closely monitor the situation. The MILF forces on the ground are directed to uphold the primacy of the peace process and work closely with their counterparts from the military and the police to protect the gains of the peace process.”

In January, Ebrahim told Arab News that hundreds of local militants from Daesh-inspired groups in the southern Philippines were considering giving up their weapons and returning to normal lives, as the government’s anti-terror programs in BARMM continue to thrive.

Since its inception two years ago, the BARMM government has overseen the decommissioning of thousands of fighters from the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF). 

The BIAF is the military wing of the MILF, once the largest Muslim insurgent group in the Philippines. 

On Wednesday, the Western Mindanao Command said sustained military operations had resulted in the killing of four BIFF gunmen under the Karialan faction during an early morning clash in the outskirts of Datu Paglas.

Brig. Gen. Roy Galido, commander of the 601st Infantry Brigade, said troops had recovered the bodies of the slain militants.


Indonesians go extra mile for Eid festivities despite travel ban

Updated 13 May 2021

Indonesians go extra mile for Eid festivities despite travel ban

  • Some defy safety rules to celebrate end of Ramadan with families despite spike in virus cases

JAKARTA: Indonesians are preparing for a second successive year of muted Eid celebrations after the government rolled out new travel restrictions aimed at combating a spike in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the country.

The Southeast Asian nation has witnessed a steady rise in virus infection rates over the Ramadan holiday season and on May 6 imposed a 12-day nationwide travel ban in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19.

However, Jakarta police said on Tuesday that an estimated 1.5 million people had still left the capital city by car to travel to their hometowns throughout Indonesia’s main island of Java, although the exodus was in stark contrast to the usual 8 million in pre-pandemic years.

The country’s transport ministry said almost 138,000 vehicles had driven out of Jakarta each day since the start of the travel ban.

Those staying in the capital were on Tuesday rocked when regional governments in Jakarta and its satellite cities made a joint last-minute announcement restricting people from traveling within the urban areas during the Eid holidays starting Wednesday.

Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan ordered shopping centers, restaurants, public places, entertainment venues, and even cemeteries, to close down until Sunday to prevent public gatherings during the holidays.

Indonesians also celebrate Eid by paying respects to deceased family members by praying at their graves.

Police set up checkpoints to monitor people traveling in and out of Jakarta to its suburban areas, which administratively are under neighboring West Java and Banten provinces.

The move has left Jakarta residents faced with the prospect of being unable to celebrate Eid with family members often only a 30 to 60-minute drive away.

“The government realizes that the Eid travel ban is not perfect in its implementation, but we still carry out the policy in accordance with the regulations,” national COVID-19 task force spokesman Wiku Adisasmito told a press briefing on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, there were reports of some travelers going the extra mile to meet relatives in defiance of the ban.

On the first day of the travel restrictions, police discovered a group of people hiding under vegetables in a truck during an inspection at Cikampek toll road, which connects Jakarta to cities across Java.

Others took the less-traveled routes, known as the rat road, to get to their destination despite the journey taking more time.

By the third day of the ban, police said at least 70,000 vehicles had been turned back from 318 checkpoints throughout the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Bali.

Aang Surmana, who works as a garbage collector in South Jakarta, told Arab News that he managed to reach his hometown in Tegal, Central Java, on Wednesday afternoon, after traveling on a motorcycle with his son for eight hours, as opposed to the regular travel time of six hours.

“I dodged the checkpoints by taking detours on village roads, and I tried to blend in like locals by traveling light, with just a small bag, so we didn’t look like we were traveling long distance with big bags,” he said.

Java, Indonesia’s most populated island where about half of its 270 million people live, has been contributing about 60 to 70 percent to the national COVID-19 caseload, with authorities saying people traveling out of the island to less-infected regions could lead to a surge in local infections.

Adisasmito said: “COVID-19 is not just Java’s problem. There could be a surge in cases in regions out of Java, even in less crowded and populated areas. If we don’t anticipate it, you could bring COVID-19 to your hometowns even though there were no cases there previously.”

On Wednesday, Indonesia reported 4,608 new infections, registering an average of 5,000 cases daily in recent weeks.

On Monday, Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said that three new variants of COVID-19 – from the UK, South Africa, and India – had been detected and were a cause for concern.

Nadia Yovani, a sociologist at the University of Indonesia, told Arab News that the rationale of COVID-19 prevention measures of avoiding mass gatherings defied the norms that Indonesians ascribed to festivities with their extended family members during the Eid holiday.

“Despite the hassles in the travel, people still travel to celebrate Eid, pandemic or not. It is part of their struggles to fulfill their spiritual needs to conclude Ramadan by celebrating it with their families,” she said.

“In pandemic times, authorities and spiritual leaders should introduce a new perspective on how to celebrate Eid with a different format than the usual one,” she added.


West and rights groups accuse China of massive Uyghur crimes

Updated 12 May 2021

West and rights groups accuse China of massive Uyghur crimes

  • China’s U.N. Mission sent notes to many of the U.N.’s 193 member nations last week urging them not to participate in the “anti-China event”
  • Britain’s U.N. Ambassador called the situation in Xinjiang “one of the worst human rights crises of our time”

UNITED NATIONS: Human rights groups and Western nations led by the United States, Britain and Germany accused China of massive crimes against the Uyghur minority.
They also demanded unimpeded access for UN experts at a virtual meeting on Wednesday denounced by China as “politically motivated” and based on “lies.”
China’s UN Mission sent notes to many of the UN’s 193 member nations last week urging them not to participate in the “anti-China event.” And China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun sent text messages to the 15 Western co-sponsors of the meeting expressing shock at their support, urging them to “think twice” and withdraw it.
He warned that if they don’t, it will be “harmful to our relationship and cooperation.”
At the meeting, Britain’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward called the situation in Xinjiang “one of the worst human rights crises of our time.”
“The evidence, from a growing number of credible sources — including satellite imagery, survivor testimony and publicly available Chinese Government documents — is of grave concern,” said Woodward, who previously was the UK ambassador in China. “The evidence points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups. Expressions of religion have been criminalized and Uyghur language and culture are discriminated against systematically and at scale.”
In recent years, an estimated 1 million people or more have been confined in camps in Xinjiang, according to foreign governments and researchers. Most are Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group. Authorities have been accused of imposing forced labor, systematic forced birth control and torture.
The Chinese government has flatly rejected the allegations. It has characterized the camps, which it says are now closed, as vocational training centers to teach Chinese language, job skills and the law in order to support economic development and combat extremism. China saw a wave of Xinjiang-related terrorist attacks through 2016.
Organizers said there were 152 participants in Wednesday’s event, including 51 countries, and speaker after speaker called on China to end its abuses against the Uyghurs.
Germany’s UN Ambassador Christoph Heusgen thanked “all the co-sponsors who came together despite some massive Chinese threats.”
He urged them to remain committed “until the Uyghurs can live again in freedom, until they are no longer detained, no longer victims of forced labor and other human rights abuses, until they can exercise freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”
Heusgen appealed to China to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “and tear down the detention camps.”
“If you have nothing to hide, why don’t you finally grant unimpeded access to the (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights?” he asked.
US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the Biden administration “will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crime against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.”
“And we will keep working in concert with our allies and our partners until China’s government respects the universal human rights of all its people,” she said.
Uyghur human rights activist Jewher Ilhan spoke about her father Ilham Tohti, a noted economist who has called for autonomy for Xinjiang and is serving a life sentence on separatist-related charges. “We don’t even know if he’s alive,” she said.
“Hundreds of thousands, even millions of Uyghurs are still being targeted,” said Ilhan, who now lives in the United States. “The fate of my father and my community is in the world’s hands now. We all need to join together and take action to stop this humanitarian crisis from continuing.”
A Chinese diplomat countered, saying: “I make it clear that China is here to tell the truth, it doesn’t mean in any way we recognize this event.”
He then showed a short video and said: “The truth is, it‘s not about human rights in Xinjiang, it’s about using Xinjiang as a political tool to contain China. The US and some of its allies make a presumption of guilt, and then fabricate so-called evidence.”
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, whose organization recently concluded that China’s atrocities amount to the crime against humanity of persecution, said the challenge is what to do about it.
“Beijing clearly calculates that through censorship, propaganda, intimidation, and threats it can somehow avoid accountability,” he said, pointing many actions including its “extraordinary lengths of disinviting people” from Wednesday’s event, its “endless charade” that has prevented Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet from visiting Xinjiang, and UN inaction.
Roth expressed disappointment that Bachelet, who was invited to the event, turned down the invitation. “I’m sure she’s busy. We all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today. I certainly wasn’t deterred by the commute — all the way to my laptop,” he said.
“The good news is that the tide seems to be turning,” he said, pointing to more countries condemning China’s crimes. But he said more must be done.
Roth called for a UN Human Rights Council resolution on Xinjiang, for moving discussions to the UN Security Council, for seeking avenues to justice including the use of universal jurisdiction, and for considering creation of an international investigative mechanism similar to those for Syria and Myanmar.
“The true test of the significance of today’s event will be the follow-up steps that we all take,” he said.
Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard said the persecution of the Uyghurs is “a critical test” for the international human rights system to investigate allegations of “massive violations” by a government against its own people and hold those responsible accountable.
She called “the silence, fear and timidity” of Bachelet’s office and the UN Secretariat “frankly unacceptable and a breach of their mandate, as are the silence of many states.”
Callamard said supporting a multilateral response to what is happening in Xinjiang is not about “picking sides in a fight with China or supporting the US or anyone else, it is about fighting for human rights.”


‘A hell out here’: COVID-19 ravages rural India

Updated 12 May 2021

‘A hell out here’: COVID-19 ravages rural India

  • The disease has rampaged through the countryside, leaving families to weep over the dead in rural hospitals or camp in wards to tend the sick
  • Indian state leaders clamoured for vaccines to stop the second wave and the devastation that it has wrought

NEW DELHI: India’s coronavirus death toll crossed 250,000 on Wednesday in the deadliest 24 hours since the pandemic began.
The disease has rampaged through the countryside, leaving families to weep over the dead in rural hospitals or camp in wards to tend the sick.
Boosted by highly infectious variants, the second wave erupted in February to inundate hospitals and medical staff, as well as crematoriums and mortuaries.
Experts still cannot say for sure when the figures will peak.
Indian state leaders clamoured for vaccines to stop the second wave and the devastation that it has wrought, urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to help them procure urgent supplies from overseas.
Deaths grew by a record 4,205 while infections rose 348,421 in the 24 hours to Wednesday, taking the tally past 23 million, health ministry data showed. Experts believe the actual numbers could be five to 10 times higher.
Funeral pyres have blazed in city parking lots, and bodies have washed up on the banks of the holy river Ganges, having been immersed by relatives whose villages were stripped bare of the wood needed for cremations.
Lacking beds, drugs and oxygen, many hospitals in the world’s second-most populous nation have been forced to turn away droves of sufferers, while tales of desperate relatives searching for someone to treat dying loved ones have become sickeningly commonplace.
Although the infection curve may be showing early signs of flattening, new cases are likely to fall off slowly, according to virologist Shahid Jameel.
“We seem to be plateauing around 400,000 cases a day,” the Indian Express newspaper quoted him as saying. “It is still too early to say whether we have reached the peak.”
Indians need vaccines “here and now,” the chief minister of West Bengal state, Mamata Banerjee, said in a letter to Modi. India has fully vaccinated barely 2.5 percent of the population.
Delhi had run out of its reserves of shots and had to close down several centers, deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia told reporters.
India is using the AstraZeneca vaccine made at the Serum Institute in the western city of Pune and Covaxin by Bharat Biotech but production is well short of the millions of doses required.
The country accounts for half of COVID-19 cases and 30 percent of deaths worldwide, the World Health Organization said in its latest weekly report.
The full impact of the B.1.617 variant found in India, which the WHO has designated as being of global concern, is not yet clear, it added.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government was looking at all possible solutions to tackle a surge in cases of the coronavirus variant first detected in India, including in the northern English town of Bolton.
“It may be more transmissible ... maybe even considerably more transmissible,” he told parliament.
Daily infections are shooting up in the Indian countryside in comparison to big towns, where they have slowed after last month’s surge, experts say.
More than half the cases this week in the western state of Maharashtra were in rural areas, up from a third a month ago. That share is nearly two-thirds in the most populous, and mainly rural, state of Uttar Pradesh, government data showed.
Television showed images of people weeping over the bodies of loved ones in ramshackle rural hospitals while others camped in wards tending to the sick.
A pregnant woman was taking care of her husband who had breathing difficulties in a hospital in Bhagalpur in the eastern state of Bihar, which is seeing a case surge its health system could barely have handled at the best of times.
“There is no doctor here, she sleeps the whole night here, taking care of her husband,” the woman’s brother told India Today television.
In a corridor outside, two sons were wailing over the body of their father, saying repeatedly that he could have been saved if only he had been given a bed in an intensive care unit.
At the general hospital in Bijnor, a town in northern Uttar Pradesh, a woman lay in a cot next to a garbage can and medical waste.
“How can someone get treated if the situation is like this?” asked her son, Sudesh Tyagi. “It is a hell out here.”


French court orders trial in 2009 crash of Rio-Paris flight

Updated 12 May 2021

French court orders trial in 2009 crash of Rio-Paris flight

  • The two companies said they would appeal the decision, which overturns a 2019 ruling
  • Air France maintains that it did not commit a criminal offense in this tragic accident

PARIS: A French court on Wednesday ordered Air France and plane maker Airbus to stand trial for manslaughter in the 2009 crash into the Atlantic Ocean of a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
The crash killed all 228 people aboard.
The two companies said they would appeal the decision, which overturns a 2019 ruling. Victims’ groups in France and Brazil had pressed for a trial, maintaining the companies were at least partially responsible for the crash.
French judges in 2019 had dropped a decade-long investigation into the crash.
Air France “maintains that it did not commit a criminal offense in this tragic accident and will be appealing to the French Court of Cassation,” France’s highest court, the carrier said in a statement.
Airbus said the decision “does not reflect in any way the conclusions of the investigation that led to the dismissal of the case in favor of Airbus.”
Air France Flight 447 left Rio for Paris but crashed into the Atlantic on June 1, 2009. Later, one of history’s most ambitious and costly undersea search operations managed to find the plane’s flight recorders in the ocean’s depths.
The French accident investigation bureau found that external speed sensors had been frozen and produced irregular readings on the aircraft, which went into an aerodynamic stall. The captain also wasn’t in the cockpit, one of multiple problems identified at the time of the crash.