Philippines reopens gyms, museums as coronavirus surge ebbs

The Philippine received its biggest single-day COVID-19 vaccine delivery on Thursday, June 10. (Reuters)
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Updated 11 June 2021

Philippines reopens gyms, museums as coronavirus surge ebbs

  • Filipinos 65 years old and above who have been restricted to home can now travel within the capital region
  • Calls for the further reopening of the battered economy to address unemployment and hunger

MANILA: Philippine officials have allowed the reopening of gyms, skating rinks, racket courts and museums in metropolitan Manila and adjacent provinces as a coronavirus surge continues to ease.
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez says Filipinos 65 years old and above who have been restricted to home can now travel within the densely populated capital region two weeks after having been fully vaccinated.
He says gyms and similar indoor businesses with safety certificates can reopen up to 30 percent of their capacity.
Lopez has called for the further reopening of the battered economy to address unemployment and hunger. Museums and historical sites also can reopen at 20 percent capacity but guided tours remain prohibited.
The Philippines has reported the second highest number of COVID-19 infections in Southeast Asia at nearly 1.3 million with 22,312 dead. The government reimposed a lockdown in the capital region and four nearby provinces after infections surged in March.

Dhaka resumes vaccination drive with China’s Sinopharm

Updated 20 June 2021

Dhaka resumes vaccination drive with China’s Sinopharm

  • Bangladesh had stalled initiative for nearly two months after failing to procure 30 million doses of Covishield from New Delhi

DHAKA: Bangladesh resumed its nationwide inoculation drive against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) with China’s Sinopharm vaccine on Saturday, nearly two months after halting the initiative due to a failed supply of 30 million doses from India.

Starting from January, New Delhi had vowed to deliver the Covishield vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India, to Dhaka, in a phased manner.

Bangladesh’s health authorities launched the anti-virus drive in early February after India sent 7 million doses of the Covishield vaccine in two installments.

However, after a sudden spike in COVID-19 infections across the country, New Delhi held back its vaccine exports for domestic consumption, resulting in a stalled supply of the crucial jabs for Dhaka from April.

Bangladesh currently has 1.1 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China in recent weeks, which authorities began administering at 67 centers across the country from Saturday.

“We resumed vaccinations on a limited scale, targeting 5.5 million people. It will take two to three weeks to inoculate these people,” Dr. Shamsul Haque, line director at the Directorate General of Health Services, told Arab News.

He added that authorities had devised 10 categories of people to receive the vaccines on a priority basis.

These include frontline health workers; police officials; migrant workers registered with the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training; municipal staff; public school students; employees of the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority; and Chinese nationals, among others.

In addition to the 1.1 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China, Bangladesh has also signed a deal for an additional 15 million jabs of Sinopharm for an undisclosed amount.

“We are expecting to receive the first batch of the Sinopharm vaccine in July. All the procedures are complete at our end. Now, the Chinese authorities are doing some formalities,” Dr. A. S. M. Alamgir, principal scientific officer of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, told Arab News on Sunday.

Alamgir added that nearly 1.4 million people have already registered to receive the first dose of the vaccine.

“Our immediate task is to inoculate these people,” he said, adding that the mass vaccination drive will gain traction next month after more doses arrive.

In addition to China’s Sinopharm vaccines, talks are also under way to procure 1 million doses of the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine from COVAX, a global vaccine-sharing facility for developing countries led by the World Health Organization (WHO), by the first week of August.

“We are also putting maximum effort to source Russia’s Sputnik vaccines. Discussion is at the final stage now. We can expect Sputnik in the country anytime now,” Alamgir said.

Out of 166 million, only 4.3 million Bangladeshis have received both doses of the vaccine, with experts urging the government to “purchase the COVID-19 vaccines from anywhere as soon as possible.”

“We have to complete this mass inoculation drive in 1.5 to 2 years. Otherwise, the immunity derived from the vaccine will start decreasing, and then we will need to administer another booster dose,” Professor Muzaherul Huq, former adviser at WHO Southeast Asia, told Arab News.

He added that the government should also focus on the domestic production of vaccines.  

“Our government can achieve capacity by producing vaccines in the country through technology transfer from other countries,” Huq said.

“It will take only three months to produce vaccine this way. Private sector pharmaceuticals also should be engaged in this regard,” he added.

One way to do this, he explained, is to increase health infrastructure and human resources at the sub-district level to ensure better health services to the public during the pandemic.  

In recent weeks, Bangladesh has witnessed a spike in COVID-19 infections, with a current infection rate of more than 18 percent.

As of Sunday, the country had registered nearly 850,000 cases and over 13,500 deaths since March last year.

Pope on Myanmar: Houses of worship serve as neutral refuge

Updated 20 June 2021

Pope on Myanmar: Houses of worship serve as neutral refuge

  • A coup in Myanmar began on the morning of 1 Feb. 2021 when democratically elected members of the country's ruling party were deposed by the military

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Sunday decried the suffering of refugees in Myanmar and pleaded that houses of worship be respected as neutral places to take shelter.

He told the public gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his customary Sunday noon remarks that he was joining his voice to that of the Asian nation’s bishops in also calling for humanitarian corridors.

Francis lamented that thousands of displaced people in Myanmar are “dying of hunger.” Violence, including ravaging of villages, has become endemic since the army seized power in February, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

A nonviolent civil disobedience movement is challenging military rule, but the junta’s attempt to repress it with deadly force has fueled resistance.

Francis noted that Myanmar’s Catholic bishops last week launched an appeal, “calling to the attention of the entire world, the heart-wrenching experience of thousands of persons in that country who are displaced and are dying of hunger.” He added he was joining the churchmen’s call for humanitarian corridors to allow safe passage for those fleeing.

Echoing the bishops, Francis also insisted that “churches, pagodas, monasteries, mosques, temples, just as schools and hospitals, be respected as neutral places of refuge.”

The pope then prayed for peace in Myanmar before noting that Sunday was World Refugee Day, an initiative promoted by the United Nations.

“Let’s open our heart to refugees,” the pope said. ”Let make ours their sadness and their joys, let’s learn from their courageous resilience,” Francis said.

That way, he said, “all together, we will grow a more human community, one big family.”

Italy’s Berlusconi combative after hospital stays

Updated 20 June 2021

Italy’s Berlusconi combative after hospital stays

  • Berlusconi’s four hospital stays this year were prompted by complications from his coronavirus infection in 2020

ROME: Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said Sunday that he was doing better after repeated hospital stays in recent months and would remain active in politics.

“Fortunately I’m doing better, but the doctors won’t let me take part in public events yet. Nevertheless, I promise to be with you soon,” the 84-year-old told a meeting of his Forza Italia party by phone, according to media reports.

Berlusconi’s four hospital stays this year — most recently in May — were prompted by complications from his coronavirus infection in 2020.

He spent several days in a Monaco hospital in January for a heart arrythmia, while in September he was treated for a lung infection linked to Covid-19.

But the billionaire media mogul insisted that “we are still moved by the love and civic passion for our country that we brought into politics 27 years ago, and with which we still look to the future.”

“I’m still in the game.. you know me, I’ve never let myself be discouraged by any kind of obstacle,” he added.

Berlusconi offered a slew of political proposals, including a merger between Forza Italia, the League led by Matteo Salvini and the Brothers of Italy (FDI) led by Giorgia Meloni into a single right-wing force at the next parliamentary elections.

While some observers have seen his grip on the party slackening given his age and health problems, he said that “whatever Forza Italia’s decision, it’s me that will take it in concert with our leadership.”

Former president says US failed in Afghanistan

Updated 20 June 2021

Former president says US failed in Afghanistan

  • Karzai has had harsh words and uncompromising criticism of US war tactics over the past two decades in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan: Afghanistan’s former president said Sunday the United States came to his country to fight extremism and bring stability to his war-tortured nation and is leaving nearly 20 years later having failed at both.
In an interview with The Associated Press just weeks before the last US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, ending their ‘forever war,’ Hamid Karzai said extremism is at its “highest point” and the departing troops are leaving behind a disaster.
“The international community came here 20 years ago with this clear objective of fighting extremism and bringing stability ... but extremism is at the highest point today. So they have failed,” he said.
Their legacy is a war-ravaged nation in “total disgrace and disaster.”
“We recognize as Afghans all our failures, but what about the bigger forces and powers who came here for exactly that purpose? Where are they leaving us now?” he asked and answered: “In total disgrace and disaster.”
Still, Karzai, who had a conflicted relationship with the United States during his 13-year rule, wanted the troops to leave, saying Afghans were united behind an overwhelming desire for peace and needed now to take responsibility for their future.
“We will be better off without their military presence,” he said. “I think we should defend our own country and look after our own lives. ... Their presence (has given us) what we have now. ... We don’t want to continue with this misery and indignity that we are facing. It is better for Afghanistan that they leave.”
Karzai’s rule followed the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 by a US-led coalition that launched its invasion to hunt down and destroy the Al-Qaeda network and its leader, Osama bin Laden, blamed for the 9/11 attacks on America.
During Karzai’s rule, women re-emerged, girls again attended school, a vibrant, young civil society emerged, new high-rises went up in the capital Kabul and roads and infrastructure were built. But his rule was also characterized by allegations of widespread corruption, a flourishing drug trade and in the final years relentless quarrels with Washington that continue even until today.
“The (US/NATO military) campaign was not against extremism or terrorism, the campaign was more against Afghan villages and hopes; putting Afghan people in prisons, creating prisons in our own country ... and bombing all villages. That was very wrong.”
In April, when President Joe Biden announced the final withdrawal of the remaining 2,500-3,500 troops, he said America was leaving having achieved its goals. Al-Qaeda had been greatly diminished and bin Laden was dead. America no longer needed boots on the ground to fight the terrorist threats that might emanate from Afghanistan, he said.
Still, the US’s attempts to bring about a political end to the decades of war have been elusive. It signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw its troops in exchange for a Taliban promise to denounce terrorist groups and keep Afghanistan from again being a staging arena for attacks on America.
There is little evidence the Taliban are fulfilling their part of the bargain. The United Nations claims the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are still linked. The architect of the US deal and current US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad says some progress has been made but without offering any details.
Karzai has had harsh words and uncompromising criticism of US war tactics over the past two decades in Afghanistan. Yet he has become a linchpin of sorts in a joint effort being launched by the United States and Britain to get a quarrelsome Afghan leadership in Kabul united enough to talk peace with the Taliban. The insurgent group has shown little interest in negotiating and instead has stepped up its assaults on government positions.
The Taliban have made considerable strides since the May 1 start of the US and NATO withdrawal. They have overrun dozens of districts, often negotiating their surrender from Afghan national security forces.
But in many instances the fighting has been intense. Just last week a brutal assault by the Taliban in northern Faryab province killed 22 of Afghanistan’s elite commandos, led by a local hero Col. Sohrab Azimi, who was also killed and widely mourned.
“The desire of the Afghan people, overwhelmingly, all over the country is for peace,” said Karzai, who despite being out of power since 2014 has lost little of his political influence and is most often at the center of the country’s political machinations.
Diplomats, Western officials, generals, tribal elders and politicians on all ends of Afghanistan’s political spectrum regularly beat a path to Karzai’s door in the heart of the Afghan capital.
As the final military withdrawal is already more than 50 percent complete, the need for a political settlement or even a visible path to an eventual settlement would seem to be taking on greater urgency even as Afghans by the thousands are seeking an exit. They say they are frustrated by relentless corruption, marauding criminal gangs — some linked to the powerful warlords in Kabul — and worsening insecurity and few see a future that is not violent.
Karzai had a message for both sides in the conflict: “The two Afghan sides, none of them should be fighting. ” While accusing both Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership is headquartered, and the United States of stoking the fighting, Karzai said it is up to Afghans to end decades of war.
“The only answer is Afghans getting together. ... We must recognize that this is our country and we must stop killing each other.”

Former UK speaker Bercow denounces Johnson and defects to Labour

Updated 20 June 2021

Former UK speaker Bercow denounces Johnson and defects to Labour

  • Bercow, who stepped down as speaker in October 2019, said he joined the labour party because he shared its values
  • Bercow served as a conservative MP for Buckingham for 12 years before being elected speaker in 2009

LONDON: The colorful former speaker of Britain’s House of Commons John Bercow said he has left the conservatives to join the opposition labour party, saying the country is “sick of lies” under prime minister Boris Johnson.

In an interview with the Observer newspaper published on Sunday, the former MP said the conservative party under Johnson was “reactionary, populist, nationalistic and sometimes even xenophobic.”

Bercow, who stepped down as speaker in October 2019 after 10 years, said he joined the labour party a few weeks ago because he shared its values.

“I am motivated by support for equality, social justice and internationalism. That is the labour brand,” he told the Observer.

“The conclusion I have reached is that this government needs to be replaced. The reality is that the labour party is the only vehicle that can achieve that objective. There is no other credible option.”

In an interview with Sky News, Bercow insisted his decision was “not personal against Boris Johnson.”

But in scathing comments, he said Johnson had “only a nodding acquaintance with the truth in a leap year” and the way he treated parliament “with contempt” was “lamentable.”

Bercow also told The Observer the prime minister was “a successful campaigner but a lousy governor,” criticizing policies such as cutting the international aid budget.

“I don’t think he has any vision of a more equitable society, any thirst for social mobility or any passion to better the lot of people less fortunate than he is. I think increasingly people are sick of lies, sick of empty slogans, sick of a failure to deliver,” he told the Observer.

Bercow also directed a jibe at health minister Matt Hancock, widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic, telling Sky: “I would buy him at my valuation and sell him at his and realize a healthy profit in the process.”

On the other hand he described labour leader Keir Starmer as “an honest, decent person.”

He denied suggestions that he was angling for a peerage from labour after the tories denied him this.

“There has been no barter, no trade, no deal whatsoever,” he told Sky News.

Bercow served as a conservative MP for Buckingham for 12 years before being elected speaker in 2009, becoming the youngest person to hold the role for 100 years.

The post of speaker is politically impartial and the holder is expected to resign from their party on appointment. Bercow told Sky News he did not rejoin the conservative party afterwards.

Famed for his shouts of “Order, order!” to bring raucous MPs in line, Bercow found himself as the man in the middle of more than three years of fiery parliamentary debates on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

He enraged the ruling conservatives with a series of decisions they saw as trying to stymie Brexit and favoring the “Remain” side.

The 58-year-old vehemently denied ever taking sides but earned praise from pro-Europeans and a global following with his rulings and outsized personality.

His later years as speaker were overshadowed by allegations of bullying parliamentary staff, accusations he denies.

“I think the suggestion that I presided over that culture (of bullying) is quite wrong,” he told Sky News, saying that a complaint by one person against him was rejected.

Labour’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Bercow had been “scrupulously fair” in his treatment of MPs.

“He won our respect, especially for his fight to protect the rights of Parliament. I wholeheartedly welcome him into the labour party,” McDonnell tweeted.

Conservatives sought to downplay the significance of Bercow’s defection.

Justice Minister Robert Buckland told Sky News: “To be fair to John Bercow, I think he left the conservative party a long time ago.”

Pensions minister Guy Opperman said: “Labour are welcome to Bercow.”

Nigel Farage, the populist British politician who helped lead the campaign for Brexit, tweeted that “Bercow backed the Remain sabotage campaign in Parliament and now joins the labour party. He loves a sinking ship.”