India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths

Above, policemen stand next to the bodies buried in shallow graves on the banks of Ganges river in Prayagraj. India’s coronavirus death toll now stands at 270,000. (AP)
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Updated 16 May 2021

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths

  • India’s massive second wave of infections began in February, putting hospitals and medical workers under pressure

BENGALURU: India reported a smaller rise in daily COVID-19 cases for the third straight day on Sunday, but the number of deaths in 24 hours was higher than 4,000, taking the country’s death toll to 270,000.
Deaths grew by 4,077, while infections rose by 311,170 – the smallest rise in daily cases in over three weeks, health ministry data showed on Sunday. Total infections have risen by over 2 million this week and deaths by nearly 28,000.
India’s massive second wave of infections began in February, putting hospitals and medical workers under pressure. Cases have fallen steadily in states hit by an initial surge of infections, such as the richest state of Maharastra and the northern state of Delhi, after they imposed stringent lockdowns.
Federal health officials said on Saturday that the overall rate of positive cases per tests had dipped to 19.8 percent this week from 21.9 percent last week, sparking hopes that daily infections have begun to stabilize.
But surges have been seen in states such as Tamil Nadu in the south and rural areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday called on officials to strengthen health care resources in rural areas and step up surveillance as the virus spreads rapidly in those areas after ravaging the cities.
Bodies of COVID-19 victims have been found dumped in some Indian rivers, a state government letter seen by Reuters said, in the first official acknowledgement of the alarming practice.
The world’s largest vaccine-producing nation has fully vaccinated just over 40.4 million, or only 2.9 percent, of its 1.35 billion population as of Sunday, according to data from the government’s Co-WIN portal.
India will have 516 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by July, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Saturday.
The South Asian nation’s tally of infections stands at 24.68 million.


Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers

Updated 29 November 2021

Omicron variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers

  • Thirteen cases found in Netherlands, couple arrested
  • S.African doctor says Omicron patients have 'very mild' symptoms

LONDON/AMSTERDAM: The Omicron coronavirus variant spread around the world on Sunday, with new cases found in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia even as more countries imposed travel restriction to try to seal themselves off.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it was not yet clear whether Omicron, first detected in Southern Africa, is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease.
"Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection," WHO said.
It said understanding the level of severity of Omicron "will take days to several weeks".
The detection of Omicron triggered global alarm as governments around the world scrambled to impose new travel curbs and financial markets sold-off, fearing the variant could resist vaccinations and upend a nascent economic reopening after a two-year global pandemic.
In its statement, the WHO said it was working with technical experts to understand the potential impact of the variant on existing countermeasures against COVID-19, including vaccines.
Britain said it will convene an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss the developments.
Dutch health authorities said 13 cases of the variant were found among people on two flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday. Authorities had tested all of the more than 600 passengers on the flights and found 61 coronavirus cases, going on to test those for Omicron.
"This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg," Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told reporters.
Dutch military police said they arrested a married couple who left a hotel where they were in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, and were attempting to flee the country.
Omicron, dubbed a "variant of concern" last week by the WHO that is potentially more contagious than previous variants, has now been detected in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Canada and South Africa.
Many countries have imposed travel bans or curbs on Southern Africa to try to stem the spread. Financial markets dived on Friday, and oil prices tumbled.
A South African doctor who was one of the first to suspect a different coronavirus strain said that symptoms of Omicron were so far mild and could be treated at home.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of South African Medical Association, told Reuters that unlike with Delta, so far patients have not reported loss of smell or taste and there has been no major drop in oxygen levels with the new variant.
In the most far-reaching effort to keep the variant at bay, Israel announced late on Saturday it would ban the entry of all foreigners and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Officials hope that within that period there will be more information on how effective vaccines are against Omicron.
The top U.S. infectious disease official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told President Joe Biden on Sunday it will take about two weeks to have more definitive information about the transmissibility and other characteristics of Omicron, the White House said in a statement, adding that Fauci believes existing vaccines "are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID".
Biden will give an update on the new variant and the U.S. response on Monday, the White House said.
In Britain, the government has announced measures including stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country and requiring mask wearing in some settings.
More countries announced new travel curbs on southern African nations on Sunday, including Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
South Africa has denounced the measures as unfair and potentially harmful to its economy, saying it is being punished for its scientific ability to identify coronavirus variants early.
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday that his government was considering imposing compulsory COVID-19 shots for people in certain places and activities, and he slammed rich Western countries for what he called their knee-jerk imposition of travel bans.
"The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant," Ramaphosa said. "The only thing (it) ... will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to ... the pandemic."
Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, with some reintroducing restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread.
The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on huge disparities in vaccination rates around the globe. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in poorer countries have received their first COVID-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.

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Students paralyze traffic in Bangladeshi capital

Updated 29 November 2021

Students paralyze traffic in Bangladeshi capital

  • The country has one of the highest numbers of road traffic deaths in the world

DHAKA: Thousands of Bangladeshi students took to the streets of Dhaka on Sunday, blocking the capital city’s main intersections and paralyzing traffic to demand enforcement of road safety laws.

Bangladesh has one of the highest numbers of road traffic deaths in the world, according to World Health Organization estimates. 

Data from the Accident Research Institute of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology shows that road accidents in the country claimed the lives of 3,558 people between January 2020 and June this year.

In 2018, young Bangladeshis protested across the country for over a week after two students were killed by a speeding bus. The protest prompted the government to enact a new road transportation law that increased the punishment for death due to negligent driving to five years.

But demonstrators said the 2018 law had not been implemented as the current road safety protests gained momentum last week, after a college student was killed by a garbage truck.

“How many more lives will be required to restore discipline in streets? We have given time to the authorities but nothing has been changed so we returned on streets again,” Jisan Ahmed, a college student, told Arab News while protesting in the Dhanmondi area of Dhaka.

The protesting students are also demanding a discount on transit fares.

“We want a 50 percent discount on fare in public transports and the authorities have to fulfil the demand by Tuesday. We will stage protest in front of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority building if our demands are not met within 48 hours,” another student protester, Antor Hasan, said.

Nur Mohammad Mazumder, chairman of the authority, said more discussions were needed with transport operators to find a solution to student demands.

“Already we had two meetings where a number of issues were discussed,” he said, adding it may take “some time” to resolve the issues.

Bus owners said they feared facing losses if discounted fares were in place.

“We have to incur losses if the students are transported at 50 percent discounted rate,” Dhaka Road Transport Owners Association Secretary-General Enayet Ullah Khan said. “We will sit again tomorrow among ourselves to find a solution.”

According to the Passenger Welfare Association of Bangladesh, the fare issue was not a big problem.

“Operators actually don’t require any subsidies from the government in this regard,” the association’s secretary-general, Mozammel Hoque, said.

He expressed worry over the more significant issue that was deteriorating road safety.

“Many of the city buses don’t comply with the fitness parameters set by the authorities,” Hoque said, adding that the number of accidents had increased since the 2018 protests.

“In many cases we’re not witnessing the implementation of the law,” he told Arab News. “Things have taken a worse look as the number of road accidents have increased by around 10 percent.”


Lithuanian villagers back tough line on Belarus migrants

Updated 28 November 2021

Lithuanian villagers back tough line on Belarus migrants

SILIAI, LITHUANIA: From her green-painted homestead near the Belarusian border, Lithuanian pensioner Jadvyga Mackevic remembers the day she saw three migrants coming out of the forest and being detained.
“I barely saw them through my window. The border patrol immediately caught them,” the 80-year-old recalled.
Officers have now placed razor wire along the bottom of her garden in the small village of Siliai in an area that is almost entirely surrounded by the border.
While much of the migrant crisis has been focused on Poland’s border with Belarus, fellow EU and NATO member Lithuania has also been faced with an unprecedented influx of migrants.
The area around Siliai, known as the Dieveniskes Loop because of the shape of the border, has seen large numbers of migrants trying to cross.
The EU blames Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko for orchestrating the migrant influx as retaliation against the sanctions the bloc imposed on his regime.
The crisis will be a key topic at a meeting this week of NATO foreign ministers and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in neighboring Latvia, which also shares a border with Belarus.
Lithuania, which has a population of 2.8 million, has taken in more than 4,000 people this year, the vast majority of them asylum seekers.
Numbers have fallen sharply since it passed a law allowing border guards to send the migrants back across the border.
But border guards say small groups of migrants still regularly try to cross different parts of the largely forested border between the two countries.
“It seems we won’t be able to return to normal life soon,” Rustamas Liubajevas, head of Lithuania’s border guards, told AFP.
The border guard chief said he “pities” migrants trying to cross the border, because they were “tricked” by the Belarusian regime into believing that entering the European Union would be easy.
But he said that Lithuania could not let people in because this would fulfil Lukashenko’s goal to “destabilize” the country.
The government’s tough line has strong support in Lithuania.
On a visit to a military base near the border this week, President Gitanas Nauseda told troops it was “not easy to fulfil your duty and reject civilians seeking a better life.”
“Nevertheless, you have a sacred duty to guard our border.”
But charities, which are banned from the immediate border area under state of emergency laws, said they are worried about the welfare of migrants still stranded in freezing temperatures.
Giedra Blazyte from Diversity Development, a non-governmental organization, said aid groups should be allowed to access the border to help border guards identify vulnerable people.
“The main task for border guards is to defend the state border and not to take care of people. We understand that and this is why we want to be present,” she told AFP.
Even after Lithuania saw its first snowfall this week, Liubajevas warned it was unlikely that migrants would stop trying to cross as might be expected.
“This is not organic migration. This is Lukashenko’s organized migration, so the weather won’t have any effect,” he said.
In the village of Krakunai, also in the Dieveniskes Loop, resident Josif, 56, voiced support for the government’s tough line on the border and said he did not want migrants.
“I don’t know how this will end. I hope they go back to their countries. No one wants them here,” he said.
“They are from a different country, they are different people, they live differently.”


Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

Updated 28 November 2021

Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

PARIS: An off-duty police officer was stabbed and seriously wounded in Paris on Sunday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
Darmanin said in a Twitter post that an investigation had been opened and everything was being done to find the perpetrator. He did not give a motive for the stabbing.


13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers

Updated 28 November 2021

13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers

  • The 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam before a flight ban was put in place were immediately put into isolation
  • The public health institute said in a statement that testing was continuing on the samples

THE HAGUE, Netherlands: The Dutch public health authority confirmed Sunday that 13 people who arrived in the Netherlands on flights from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for the new omicron coronavirus variant.
The 61 people who tested positive for the virus on Friday after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was put in place were immediately put into isolation while sequencing was carried out to establish if they had the new variant.
The public health institute said in a statement that testing was continuing on the samples.
Most of the 61 people who tested positive were put into isolation at a hotel near the airport, while a small number were allowed to sit out their quarantine at home under strict conditions.
Health authorities appealed to all travelers who returned from southern Africa in the past week to get tested, and set up a test center at Schiphol Airport for Dutch citizens returning from the region. The tests are voluntary, and travelers can wait for the results in isolation at home.