New Zealand admits it can no longer get rid of coronavirus

The normally bustling High Street in Auckland's CBD is largely deserted during a lockdown to curb the spread of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Auckland, New Zealand, August 26, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 04 October 2021

New Zealand admits it can no longer get rid of coronavirus

  • New Zealand began its vaccination campaign slowly compared to most other developed nations

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand’s government acknowledged Monday what most other countries did long ago: It can no longer completely get rid of the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a cautious plan to ease lockdown restrictions in Auckland, despite an outbreak there that continues to simmer.
Since early in the pandemic, New Zealand had pursued an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the virus through strict lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing.
Until recently, that elimination strategy had worked remarkably well for the country of 5 million, which has reported just 27 virus deaths.
While other nations faced rising death tolls and disrupted lives, New Zealanders went back to workplaces, school yards and sports stadiums safe from any community spread.
But that all changed when the more contagious delta variant somehow escaped from a quarantine facility in August after it was brought into the country from a traveler returning from Australia.
Despite New Zealand going into the strictest form of lockdown after just a single local case was detected, it ultimately wasn’t enough to crush the outbreak entirely.
One factor may have been that the disease spread among some groups that are typically more wary of authorities, including gang members and homeless people living in transitional housing.
The outbreak has grown to more than 1,300 cases, with 29 more detected on Monday. A few cases have been found outside of Auckland.
Ardern said that seven weeks of lockdown restrictions in Auckland had helped keep the outbreak under control.
“For this outbreak, it’s clear that long periods of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases,” Ardern said. “But that is OK. Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things.”
New Zealand began its vaccination campaign slowly compared to most other developed nations. Rates rocketed in August after the outbreak began but have dropped off significantly again since then.
About 65 percent of New Zealanders have had at least one dose and 40 percent are fully vaccinated. Among people age 12 and older, about 79 percent have had at least a single jab.
Under Ardern’s plan that starts Tuesday, Aucklanders will be able to meet outdoors with loved ones from one other household, early childhood centers will reopen and people will be able to go to the beach.
The dates for a phased reopening of retail stores and later bars and restaurants have yet to be decided.
Ardern said the elimination strategy had served the country incredibly well but the government always intended to eventually transition to the protection of vaccines, a change hastened by the delta variant “game changer.”
The government’s elimination approach had been broadly supported by New Zealanders but was facing increasing criticism. Over the weekend, hundreds of people turned out to rallies protesting the lockdown.
Opposition lawmaker Chris Bishop said the government had no clear strategy to deal with the outbreak other than total surrender.
But Ardern said that most measures would remain in place to keep the outbreak under control, including exhaustive contact tracing and isolating those who got infected.
“There’s good cause for us to feel optimistic about the future,” Ardern said. “But we cannot rush.”


Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

Updated 5 sec ago

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

NAIROBI: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greatly concerned about Ethiopia’s military escalation and called for urgent negotiations over the crisis, a US State Department spokesperson said.
The comments came hours after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared on the frontline with the national army.
“Secretary Blinken expressed grave concern about worrying signs of military escalation in Ethiopia and emphasised the need to urgently move to negotiations,” Ned Price said in a statement late on Friday.
Price released the statement after a phone call between Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Blinken.
On Friday, Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting reported that Abiy was on the frontline with the army fighting rebellious Tigrayan forces in the northeastern Afar region. Abiy posted the same video on his Twitter account.
Abiy’s government has been fighting Tigrayan forces for more than a year, in a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
Ethiopia has announced new restrictions on the sharing of information about the war in the north of the country which stipulate that battlefront updates can only come from the government.
“Disseminating information on military maneuvers, war front updates and results via any medium is forbidden,” except for information provided by a joint civilian-military command set up to oversee a state of emergency, the government’s communication service said late on Thursday.
The statement did not specify the implications of the new rules for journalists or media outlets covering the war, which broke out last November between the government and rebellious forces from the northern region of Tigray.
It did not, for instance, address the consequence of publishing information provided by unauthorized sources. Ethiopia’s media regulator did not return calls from Reuters seeking clarification on the matter.
The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, told Reuters on Friday, “The state of emergency prohibits unauthorized entities from disseminating activities from the front via various channels including media.” She did not elaborate.
Ethiopia’s parliament designated the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party that controls most of Tigray, a terrorist group earlier this year. In its statement, the government’s communication service instructed “those using freedom of speech as a pretext ... to support the terrorist group” to refrain from doing so.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed oversaw sweeping reforms when he took office in 2018, including the unbanning of more than 250 media outlets, the release of dozens of journalists and the repeal of some widely criticized media laws.
However, some rights groups say press freedom has eroded since then as the government has faced outbreaks of deadly violence, including the conflict in Tigray and neighbouring regions.
At least 38 journalists and media workers have been detained since early 2020, most of them since the conflict began, according to a Reuters tally.
Asked about the arrests in May, Ethiopia’s media regulator said “freedom of expression and the protection of the press are sacred values that are enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution.”


Taliban regime won’t ‘interfere’ in other countries’ affairs: PM

Updated 27 November 2021

Taliban regime won’t ‘interfere’ in other countries’ affairs: PM

  • Mohammad Hassan Akhund: ‘We ask all the international charity organizations to not withhold their aid and to help our exhausted nation’
  • Inflation and unemployment have surged in Afghanistan, while the country’s banking sector has collapsed since the Taliban takeover

KABUL: The Taliban co-founder and now prime minister of Afghanistan Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund pledged Saturday that his government will “not interfere” in other countries’ internal affairs, and urged international charities to continue offering aid to the war-ravaged country.
Hassan’s audio speech broadcast on state television — his first address to the nation since the Taliban seized power in August — came ahead of next week’s meeting between the United States and the Taliban in Doha.
“We assure all the countries that we will not interfere in their internal affairs and we want to have good economic relations with them,” said Hassan in a nearly 30-minute speech that came amid criticism on social media for remaining silent since they took power, even as the nation faced severe challenges.
The Taliban seized power on August 15 after ousting the previous US-backed government, as Washington hurriedly withdrew its troops from the country after a 20-year war.
The Taliban’s previous regime was toppled in a US-led invasion after the 9/11 attacks in the United States that were carried out by Al-Qaeda, whose now-killed founder Osama bin Laden lived in Afghanistan at that time.
Hassan is a Taliban veteran who was a close associate and political adviser to Mullah Omar, the founder of the movement and its first supreme leader.
Said to be in his 60s, Hassan served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister in the movement’s previous regime between 1996-2001.
He was placed on a UN Security Council sanctions list connected to the “acts and activities” of the Taliban.
Hassan’s government faces a series of challenges, in particular reviving the country’s dilapidated economy that has been dried of international aid, which used to make up 75 percent of the national budget under the previous US-backed governments.
“We ask all the international charity organizations to not withhold their aid and to help our exhausted nation... so that the problems of the people could be solved,” Hassan said in his speech.
Inflation and unemployment have surged in Afghanistan, while the country’s banking sector has collapsed since the Taliban takeover.
The financial crunch was aggravated after Washington froze about $10 billion of assets held in its reserve for Kabul, and deteriorated further after the World Bank and International Monetary Fund halted Afghanistan’s access to funding.
The United Nations’ aid agencies have warned that a major humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Afghanistan, with more than half of the country’s 38 million population expected to face hunger this winter.
The rapidly worsening situation has forced Afghans to sell their household goods to raise money for food and other essentials, with the local currency crashing and prices skyrocketing.


UK toughens Covid-19 rules as new strain arrives

Updated 27 November 2021

UK toughens Covid-19 rules as new strain arrives

  • The new rules add the requirement for isolation pending a negative result, significantly toughening the regime
  • Downing Street said the new testing regime and masks mandate would enter into force “next week”

LONDON: Britain on Saturday announced tougher entry rules for all arriving passengers and the return of a masks mandate, after confirming its first two cases of the new Omicron strain of Covid-19.
The cases were both linked to travel from southern Africa, and the government also expanded travel restrictions on the region with the addition of four countries to a “red list.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said face masks would again be required in shops and on public transport, after controversially ditching the mandate in July when he reopened the UK economy after a prior nationwide lockdown.
He signalled no new lockdown now, vowing a review of the new measures in three weeks and expressing hope that Britons could look forward to a more festive Christmas than last year.
“But we now need to go further and implement a proportionate testing regime for arrivals from across the whole world,” Johnson told a hastily arranged news conference, hours after the government confirmed the first two Omicron cases.
“So we are not going to stop people traveling... but we will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival, and to self-isolate until they have a negative result,” he said.
Currently, all Britons and foreigners entering the UK are required to take a PCR test on day two after their arrival.
The new rules add the requirement for isolation pending a negative result, significantly toughening the regime, in a bid to curb the spread of the new strain.
“I very much hope that we will find that we continue to be in a strong position and we can lift these measures again,” Johnson said. “But right now this is a responsible course of action.”
Downing Street said the new testing regime and masks mandate would enter into force “next week,” along with a requirement for all contacts of suspected Omicron cases to self-isolate, regardless of their vaccination status.

And effective early Sunday, the government said it was placing another four African countries on its travel ban — Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola.
Britain has already said it is banning travel from six southern African nations because of the emergence of Omicron: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
“After overnight genome sequencing, the UK Health Security Agency has confirmed that two cases of Covid-19 with mutations consistent with B.1.1.529 (Omicron) have been identified in the UK,” a government statement said.
“The two cases are linked and there is a link to travel to southern Africa,” it said.
One case was detected in the central English city of Nottingham, and the other in Chelmsford east of London, officials said.
“We have moved rapidly and the individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.
The government was widely criticized for its travel and quarantine policy earlier in the pandemic, when it kept borders open to foreign travelers even as infection rates spiralled.
“This is a stark reminder that we are not yet out of this pandemic,” Javid said, urging the public to get follow-up booster jabs of vaccines.
Johnson said he planned to expand the program for booster vaccine shots, with the hope that government scientists will agree a government request to shorten the time-frame between second and third jabs, which is currently set at six months.
“It’s more vital than ever that people get their jabs, and we get those boosters into arms as fast as possible,” the prime minister said.


Greece opens two more ‘closed’ migrant camps

Updated 27 November 2021

Greece opens two more ‘closed’ migrant camps

  • The 'closed' camps feature barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners and magnetic doors and gates remain closed at night
  • Greece was the main point where more than one million asylum seekers — mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — entered Europe in 2015

KOS, Greece: Greece on Saturday opened two more of its new “closed” migrant camps that have been criticized by rights groups for their restrictive measures.
“A new era is beginning,” Minister of Migration Notis Mitarachi said announcing the opening of the camps on the islands of Leros and Kos.
“We are extricating our islands from the migration problem and its consequences,” he said. “The images that we all remember from 2015-2019 are now in the past.”
Greece was the main point where more than one million asylum seekers — mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — entered Europe in 2015 and its islands in the Aegean Sea are the main port of call from people arriving via Turkey in search of a better life in Europe.
The crisis in Afghanistan has prompted fears of a new migration wave.
The “closed” camps feature barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners and magnetic doors and gates remain closed at night.
They also have many features, like running water, toilets and more security, that were absent from the previous facilities that became infamous for their living conditions.
Greece inaugurated the first such camp on the island of Samos in September and plans to open two more, on the islands of Lesbos and Chios.
The EU has committed 276 million euros ($326 million) for the new camps.
But NGOs and aid groups have raised concerns about the new camps’ structure in isolated places and residents’ confinement, saying that the movement of people in the camps should not be restricted.
According to latest UN estimates, there are currently around 96,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Greece.


South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government

Updated 27 November 2021

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government

  • The ministry pointed out that new variants had been discovered in other parts of the world

JOHANNESBURG: South Africa complained Saturday that it is being “punished” for detecting a new Covid-19 variant Omicron which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern” and is more transmissible than the dominant Delta strain.
The decision by a number of countries around the world to ban flights from southern Africa following the discovery of the variant “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.
The ministry pointed out that new variants had been discovered in other parts of the world.
“Each of those cases have had no recent links with Southern Africa, but the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in Southern Africa,” it said.
Israel and Belgium announced after South Africa that they also had detected cases of Omicron.
Government insisted that South Africa’s “capacity to test and its ramped-up vaccination program, backed up by a world-class scientific community should give our global partners the comfort that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic.”
With more than 2.95 million cases and 89,783 deaths, South Africa is the worst-hit country in Africa by the pandemic.