Omicron could become dominant in France by end of January -government advisor

The infected person had recently returned from Nigeria according to reports. (File/AFP)
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Updated 02 December 2021

Omicron could become dominant in France by end of January -government advisor

  • The local health body for the Ile de France region said in a statement that a case of omicron variant had been found in a person who returned from Nigeria

PARIS: The omicron coronavirus variant could become the dominant strain in France by the end of January, but meanwhile it should be possible to have a good Christmas if steps are taken to curb the delta strain, France’s top scientific adviser said on Thursday.
Jean-Francois Delfraissy told BFM television the “true enemy” for now was still delta, spreading in a fifth wave.
“We should see a progressive rise of the omicron variant, which will take over from delta,” possibly by the end of January, he said.
“Christmas is not at risk if the population and decision-makers are all very cautious,” he said, reiterating that social distancing and a third, booster shot of vaccines were key weapons in the fight against COVID-19.
France recorded nearly 50,000 new conformed COVID-19 cases over 24 hours, the Health Ministry said on Wednesday.
There were 1,886 people in intensive care units with COVID-19 on Wednesday, a level Delfraissy said was not yet a peak, particularly when compared to 6,000-7000 at the height of the second wave in France last autumn.
The local health body for the Ile de France region of greater Paris said in a statement on Thursday that a case of omicron variant had been found in a person who returned from Nigeria, the first confirmed case in Metropolitan France.


Taliban to hold meeting in Norway next week

Updated 3 sec ago

Taliban to hold meeting in Norway next week

  • Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt: We are extremely concerned about the serious situation in Afghanistan
COPENHAGEN: A Taliban delegation will travel to Norway for talks with the Norwegian government, meeting with representatives of the Norwegian authorities and several allied countries but also with civil society activists and human rights defenders from Afghanistan.
The Norwegian Foreign Ministry said Friday that it has invited representatives of the Taliban to Oslo from Jan. 23 to Jan. 25. The statement didn’t say which other countries would take part in the meeting.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said that “we are extremely concerned about the serious situation in Afghanistan.” She said there is “a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe for millions of people” in the country.
She stressed that the meeting was “not a legitimation or recognition of the Taliban. But we must talk to those who in practice govern the country today.”
“We cannot let the political situation lead to an even worse humanitarian catastrophe,” she said.
The Foreign Ministry said that the Taliban delegation meetings also will include Afghans with backgrounds “from various fields and include women leaders, journalists, and people who work with, among other things, human rights and humanitarian, economic, social and political issues.”
It said that earlier this week, a Norwegian delegation visited Kabul for talks on the precarious humanitarian situation in the country.

UN: Philippine typhoon destruction ‘badly underestimated’

Updated 36 min 36 sec ago

UN: Philippine typhoon destruction ‘badly underestimated’

  • More than 1.5 million houses were damaged or destroyed by Super Typhoon Rai
  • The Philippines is hit by an average of 20 storms every year

UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations said destruction caused by Typhoon Rai in the Philippines had been “badly underestimated” in initial assessments, tripling the number of people “seriously affected” to nine million.
A UN campaign to raise $107.2 million in aid for victims was launched a week after the storm ravaged southern and central regions of the archipelago on December 16, leaving 406 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.
But UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines Gustavo Gonzalez said Thursday the target would be revised after more than 66 field assessments showed the destruction was far worse than initially thought.
“One month since the first landfall of Super Typhoon Rai we realize that we have badly underestimated the scale of devastation,” Gonzalez told a virtual briefing.
More than 1.5 million houses were damaged or destroyed in the storm — almost a third more than in 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan — Gonzalez said, adding more resources were “badly needed.”
Only 40 percent of the funds had been received, Gonzalez said, calling for solidarity with the Philippines to avoid the typhoon becoming a “forgotten crisis.”
Typhoon-hit areas already struggling with COVID-19, poverty and malnutrition had seen their economies “literally flattened.”
“This is a very fragile region,” he said.
Humanitarian groups have been working with the government to distribute food packs, drinking water, tents and materials to rebuild houses.
But the scale of the disaster, lack of power and communications in some areas, and depleted government coffers after the COVID-19 response have hampered efforts to distribute aid.
An omicron-fueled surge in infections is also forcing relief workers into isolation and making travel more difficult.
Persistent rain in the region was adding to the misery, Gonzalez said.
“We are talking about a crisis within a crisis,” he said.
Rai, the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines last year, intensified faster than expected, officials said previously.
Scientists have long warned that typhoons are strengthening more rapidly as the world becomes warmer because of human-driven climate change.
The Philippines — ranked among the most vulnerable nations to its impacts — is hit by an average of 20 storms every year.
In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest storm ever to have made landfall, leaving over 7,300 people dead or missing.


Iran, Russia and China begin joint naval drill

Updated 15 min 44 sec ago

Iran, Russia and China begin joint naval drill

  • Iran’s state TV said 11 of its vessels were joined by three Russian ships including a destroyer, and two Chinese vessels

TEHRAN: Iran, Russia and China on Friday began a joint naval drill in the Indian Ocean aimed at boosting marine security, state media reported.
Iran’s state TV said 11 of its vessels were joined by three Russian ships including a destroyer, and two Chinese vessels. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will also participate with smaller ships and helicopters.
The report said the maneuvers would cover some 17,000 square kilometers, or 10,600 miles, in the Indian Ocean’s north, and include night fighting, rescue operations and firefighting drills.
This is the third joint naval drill between the countries since 2019. It coincided with a recent visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Russia that ended on Thursday.
“Improving bilateral relations between Tehran and Moscow will enhance security for the region and the international arena,” Raisi said upon returning from Russia on Friday, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Tehran has sought to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid regional tensions with the United States. Visits to Iran by Russian and Chinese naval representatives have also increased in recent years.
Iran has been holding regular military drills in recent months, as attempts to revive its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers flounder.
Russia is also at loggerheads with the US and the West over its neighbor Ukraine, where it has sent some 100,000 troops that Washington, Kiev and their allies fear will be used to invade the country.
Russia on Thursday announced sweeping naval maneuvers in multiple areas involving the bulk of its naval potential — over 140 warships and more than 60 aircraft — to last through February. The exercises will be in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the northeastern Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, in addition to the joint exercise with Iran in the Indian Ocean.


UN chief: World worse now due to COVID-19, climate, conflict

Updated 21 January 2022

UN chief: World worse now due to COVID-19, climate, conflict

  • ‘The secretary-general of the UN has no power. We can have influence. I can persuade. I can mediate, but I have no power’

UNITED NATIONS: As he starts his second term as UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres said Thursday the world is worse in many ways than it was five years ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and geopolitical tensions that have sparked conflicts everywhere — but unlike US President Joe Biden he thinks Russia will not invade Ukraine.
Guterres said in an interview that the appeal for peace he issued on his first day in the UN’s top job on Jan. 1, 2017 and his priorities in his first term of trying to prevent conflicts and tackle global inequalities, the COVID-19 crisis and a warming planet haven’t changed.
“The secretary-general of the UN has no power,” Guterres said. “We can have influence. I can persuade. I can mediate, but I have no power.”
Before he became UN chief, Guterres said he envisioned the post as being “a convener, a mediator, a bridge-builder and an honest broker to help find solutions that benefit everyone involved.”
He said Thursday these are things “I need to do every day.”
As an example, the secretary-general said this week he spoke to the African Union’s envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, twice with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, and once with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his attempt to get a cessation of hostilities in Ethiopia between the government and forces in the embattled Tigray region.
“I hope that we are in a situation in which it might become soon possible to have a cessation of hostilities and that is where I’m concentrating most of my efforts,” Guterres said.
As another example, Guterres said he has also been on the phone to try to get Mali’s military leaders who recently delayed elections scheduled for next month to 2026 to reduce the timetable. He said he spoke to Mali’s military ruler, President Assimi Goita, three presidents from the 15-nation West African regional group ECOWAS, Algeria’s prime minister and the African Union’s leader about “how to make sure that in Mali, there is an acceptable calendar for the transition to a civilian government.”
Guterres said he hopes Mali’s military leaders will understand that they need to accept “a reasonable period” before elections. The secretary-general believes voting should be held in “a relatively short amount of time,” and said: “All my efforts have been in creating conditions for bridging this divide and for allowing ECOWAS and the government of Mali to come to a solution with an acceptable delay for the elections.”
Guterres said the UN Security Council, which does have the power to uphold international peace and security including by imposing sanctions and ordering military action, is divided, especially its five veto-wielding permanent members. Russia and China are often at odds with the US, Britain and France on key issues, including Thursday on new sanctions against North Korea.
On the issue on every country’s front burner now — whether Russia, which has massed 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, will invade the former Soviet republic — Guterres said, “I do not think Russia will invade Ukraine, and I hope that my belief is correct.”
What makes him think Moscow won’t invade when Biden and others believe Russian President Vladimir Putin will send troops into Ukraine?
“Because I do not believe in a military solution for the problems that exists, and I think that the most rational way to solve those problems is through diplomacy and through engagement in serious dialogue,” Guterres said, stressing that an invasion would have “terrible consequences.”
The secretary-general said “we have been in contact, of course” with top officials in Russia, though the UN is not directly engaged in the Ukraine crisis.
Guterres is scheduled to deliver a speech to the 193 UN member nations in the General Assembly on Friday on his priorities for 2022.
He singled out three immediate priorities that “are worrying me enormously”: the lack of vaccinations in large parts of the world, especially in Africa; the need to reduce emissions by 45 percent in this decade to try to meet the international goal of trying to limit future global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit); and the “extremely unjust” financial situation in the world that favors rich countries.
Many developing countries have very few resources, high debts that are growing and they pay much higher interest rates than in Europe or North America, have no vaccines, and disproportionately “suffer the impacts of climate change,” Guterres said.
“We need a deep reform in our international financial system in order to make sure that there is more justice in the way resources are available to allow for the recovery (from COVID-19) to be possible everywhere,” he said.
On another major issue, Guterres stressed that the Afghan people can’t be collectively punished for “wrong things that are done by the Taliban,” so it is absolutely essential to massively increase humanitarian aid “because the Afghans are in a desperate situation with the risks of deaths by hunger” and disease in a frigid winter with COVID-19.
“More than half the population is in desperate need of humanitarian aid,” he said, and money needs to be injected into the economy to ensure Afghan banks operate and doctors, teachers, engineers and other workers are paid to prevent the country’s economic collapse.
The issue of recognition of the Taliban government is up to member states, Guterres said, but the UN has been pressing the Taliban, which took power in August as US-led NATO forces were departing after 20 years, to ensure human rights, especially women’s rights to work and girls’ education, and to make the government more inclusive and reflective of Afghanistan’s diverse population.
The secretary-general said he will be attending the Beijing Olympics in February “which is not a political act” but “to be present when all the world comes together for good — for a peaceful message.”


Japan widens coronavirus restrictions as omicron surges in cities

Updated 21 January 2022

Japan widens coronavirus restrictions as omicron surges in cities

  • The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first since September
  • While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, few have gotten a booster shot

TOKYO: Restaurants and bars will close early in Tokyo and a dozen other areas across Japan beginning Friday as the country widens COVID-19 restrictions due to the omicron variant causing cases to surge to new highs in metropolitan areas.
The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first since September and is scheduled to last through Feb. 13. With three other prefectures — Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi — under similar measures since early January, the state of restraint now covers 16 areas, or one-third, of the country.
While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, few have gotten a booster shot, which has been a vital protection from the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The Health Ministry on Friday approved Pfizer vaccinations for children aged 5-11, who are increasingly vulnerable to infection.
Throughout the pandemic, Japan has resisted the use of lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus and has focused on requiring eateries to close early and not serve alcohol, and on urging the public to wear masks and practice social distancing, as the government seeks to minimize damage to the economy.
Under the latest measure, most eateries are asked to close by 8 or 9 p.m., while large events can allow full capacity if they have anti-virus plans. In Tokyo, certified eateries that stop serving alcohol can stay open until 9 p.m. while those serving alcohol must close an hour earlier.
Restaurants that close at 9 p.m. and don’t serve alcohol receive 30,000 yen ($263) per day in government compensation, while those that close at 8 p.m. get 25,000 yen ($220) per day.
Critics say the measures, which almost exclusively target bars and restaurants, make little sense and are unfair.
Mitsuru Saga, the manager of a Japanese-style “izakaya” restaurant in downtown Tokyo, said he chose to serve alcohol and close at 8 p.m. despite receiving less compensation from the government.
“We cannot make business without serving alcohol,” Saga said in an interview with Nippon Television. “It seems only eateries are targeted for restraints.”
After more than two years of repeated restraints and social distancing requests, Japanese are increasingly becoming less cooperative to such measures. People are back to commuting on packed trains and shopping at crowded stores.
Tokyo’s main train station of Shinagawa was packed as usual with commuters rushing to work Friday morning.
Japan briefly eased border controls in November but quickly reversed them to ban most foreign entrants when the omicron variant began spreading in other countries. Japan says it will stick to the stringent border policy through end of February as the country tries to reinforce medical systems and treatment.
The tough border controls have triggered criticism from foreign students and scholars who say the measures are not scientific.
Some experts question the effectiveness of placing restraints only on eateries, noting that infections in the three prefectures that have already been subjected to the measures for nearly two weeks show no signs of slowing.
Tokyo logged 8,638 new cases of coronavirus infection Thursday, exceeding the previous record of 7,377 set the day before.
At a Tokyo metropolitan government task force meeting, experts sounded the alarm at the fast-paced upsurge led by omicron.
Norio Ohmagari, Director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center of National Center for Global Health and an adviser to the Tokyo metropolitan government panel, said Tokyo’s daily new cases may exceed 18,000 within a week if the increase continues at the current pace.
Though only some of the soaring number of infected people are hospitalized and occupying less than one-third of available hospital beds in the Japanese capital, experts say the rapid upsurge of the cases could quickly overwhelm the medical systems once the infections further spread among the elderly population who are more likely to become seriously ill.
Surging infections have already begun to paralyze hospitals, schools and other sectors in some areas.
The ministry has trimmed the required self-isolation period from 14 days to 10 for those who come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, and to seven days for essential workers if they test negative.
While about 80 percent of Japanese have received their first two vaccine doses, the rollout of booster shots has been slow and has reached only 1.4 percent of the population so far.