Indian doctors strike as omicron variant sparks fears of new COVID-19 wave

Doctors and nurses wearing protective gear take part in a protest outside a Covid-19 coronavirus care facility against the alleged mismangement and wrongful termination of staff, in Mumbai, India, July 5, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 04 December 2021

Indian doctors strike as omicron variant sparks fears of new COVID-19 wave

  • Protesting doctors fear that if a new virus wave hits the country, hospitals may run short of workforce
  • Omicron variant of the coronavirus has already been detected in the southern Indian state of Karnataka

NEW DELHI: Thousands of resident doctors at government hospitals across India went on an indefinite strike on Friday to demand that staff numbers be increased amid fear the omicron variant of coronavirus, already detected in the country, may overwhelm medical facilities.

Two men in the southern Indian state of Karnataka have tested positive for the omicron COVID-19 variant, Indian health authorities confirmed on Thursday, after the World Health Organization has warned that the strain, first reported in South Africa, poses a “high infection risk.”

Protesting doctors fear that if a new virus wave hits the country, hospitals may run short of workforce as the government has delayed post graduate student admissions due legal disputes, including over seats reserved for the poor.

“The coming batch is already delayed by one year and resident doctors are already overburdened,” Dr. Atul Krishan, president of the Resident Doctors Association at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi, told Arab News.

“New COVID-19 cases have started coming in, and at this time if there is a shortage of doctors then how are you going to cope with the pandemic when you have the new variant already hitting India,” Krishan said, adding during the protest, all except emergency services have been suspended at most of Delhi’s hospitals.

India has one of the worst doctor-to-patient ratios in the world — 1.34 to 1,000 — and the delay in admitting new ones to the profession, Krishan said, would “severely hamper the fight against the third wave of coronavirus.”
“We know what happened in the second wave when we were not prepared and created havoc. We need to learn from the previous mistakes and strengthen our medical infrastructure.”

The second wave in India, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, killed over 450,000 people between March and May, as its hospitals run out of staff, beds and oxygen to treat the ill.

Dr. Anuj Agarwal of Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital said 10,000 doctors are protesting across the country for tens of thousands of physicians who have yet to be allowed to practice.

“This protest is for some 45,000 doctors who qualified in the post graduate exam last year,” he said, adding that at understaffed hospitals doctors are now working almost 100 hours a week, which is extremely inhuman conditions.”
“It is an alarming situation. In the earlier two waves the health system was not prepared. Now we have a shortage of doctors.”
While the health ministry urged calm on Friday, saying that with the country’s fast pace of vaccination and previous exposure to the delta variant “the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low,” the Indian Medical Association warned the shortage of doctors would affect coronavirus response.
“At this time when the third wave or a new variant is coming there would be lots of shortage of senior doctors and this will affect our both long-term and short-term preparedness,” the association’s secretary general, Dr. Jayesh Lele, told Arab News.
“Doctors are going through a strenuous and difficult patch,” he said, adding that the vaccination campaign should still be ramped up as many people still need to take their second dose of vaccine.

Around 33 percent of India’s population has been fully vaccinated so far.

Afghan Taliban say female Afghan TV presenters must cover face on air

Updated 3 sec ago

Afghan Taliban say female Afghan TV presenters must cover face on air

  • Spokesman for Ministry of Vice and Virtue frames move as "advice" but says last date for compliance May 21
  • Most Afghan women wear a headscarf for religious reasons but many in urban areas do not cover their faces

KABUL: Taliban authorities in Afghanistan have asked television broadcasters to ensure that female presenters on local stations cover their faces when on air, an official said on Thursday.

The move comes days after authorities ordered women to cover their faces in public, a return to a policy of the Taliban's past hardline rule and an escalation of restrictions that are causing anger at home and abroad. read more

"Yesterday we met with media officials... they accepted our advice very happily," Akif Mahajar, spokesman for the Taliban's Ministry of Vice and Virtue, told Reuters, adding this move would be received well by Afghans.

While he framed the move as "advice", Mahajar added: "The last date for face covering for TV presenters is May 21," referring to when compliance with the new requirement should begin.

He did not respond to a query on what the consequences would be of not following the advice.

Most Afghan women wear a headscarf for religious reasons, but many in urban areas such as Kabul do not cover their faces. During the Taliban's last rule from 1996 to 2001, it was obligatory for women to wear the all-encompassing blue burqa.

Mahajar said female presenters could wear a medical face mask, as has been widely used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Women in Afghanistan had pursued work and education after the Taliban government was toppled in 2001 following a U.S.-led invasion, endeavours that were forbidden to them under Taliban rule at the time.

The Taliban says it has changed since its last rule, but recently added regulations such as limiting women's movement without a male chaperone. Older girls above 13 years old have also yet to be allowed back to schools and colleges.

A local television channel's female employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told Reuters Taliban officials had visited their office on Wednesday.

"Today (Thursday) the production department wore masks but the news office continued as usual," the employee said.

Some channels have already begun implementing the new rule.

Kangaroo sightings put spotlight on India’s unregulated exotic wildlife trade

Updated 22 min 58 sec ago

Kangaroo sightings put spotlight on India’s unregulated exotic wildlife trade

  • India has stringent laws to protect wildlife, but no rules covering exotic species
  • Lawmakers currently drafting legislation to close loopholes in legal protection

NEW DELHI: Villagers in West Bengal have since March reported seeing large animals with big feet leaping through forests. The locals say they have never spotted the creatures before.

The sightings drew national attention when wildlife officials in the Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts of the northeastern Indian state last month rescued three of the animals — that turned out to be kangaroos.

“We have initiated further investigation for ascertaining the whereabouts of these kangaroos — by whom and how they were brought into the forest along with finding the cause behind bringing them,” Belakoba forest range officer Sanjay Dutta told reporters at the time.

While the sightings are being probed, Wasim Akram, executive director of Wildlife SOS, a non-governmental organization rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife in India, said it was most likely the animals had been smuggled into the country. The marsupials are indigenous to Australia and New Guinea and have never lived in South Asia, except for zoos.

“We still don’t have conditions to be breeding this kind of species in India. The higher chances would be of trafficking because that is how we have been seeing it happening in the past,” he told Arab News.

But it is unclear if the kangaroos came from Oceania, as wildlife smuggling networks may span several continents.

“Earlier, we used to see a lot of cases of reptiles being trafficked into India but that would never be from the port of exit to the port of entry, there would be multiple entry points, so it would be very difficult to track the source of origin,” Akram added.

“It happens that a species may be native of Africa. They end up trafficking it first to a place like Indonesia, and from there they send it to India.”

Indian law provides little accountability for those who own exotic pets or are involved in their trade.

Although the South Asian nation has some of the world’s most stringent legislations to protect wildlife and habitats, it does not have any rules or penalties for trading and owning of non-native species, endangered or not.

“Indian law does not have provision for domestic transfer or breeding of exotic animals,” Debadityo Sinha from the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, told Arab News. “There is a legal vacuum.”

An amnesty announced by the Ministry of Environment in 2020 showed how common such pets were in the country, when tens of thousands of Indians came forward to confess ownership of species from tortoises and pythons to lemurs and gibbons.

“As of May 26, 2021, a total of 43,693 applications for amnesty had been made under this advisory,” Sinha said.

Abhijit Sarkhel, a wildlife activist from New Delhi, said the sighting of exotic species was nothing new, adding that kangaroos only drew attention because they were big and very visible.

“Lots of people keep smaller mammals as pets and it’s an unregulated area,” he said. “If a person cannot handle the pet and release them in the forest then it’s the responsibility of forest departments.”

The lack of responsibility for exotic pets and their sighting in places where they do not belong is just the tip of the iceberg of conservation problems. “It’s certainly an extreme form of cruelty,” Akram said, adding that non-native species may struggle to survive in a different climate.

One of the kangaroos intercepted by wildlife officials in Bengal last month died from dehydration and malnutrition the day after it was rescued.

“When you introduce a species which is not native to that area, it can be a threat to the native species,” Akram added. “You can end up introducing a new virus, new infection.”

Despite being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora agreement since 1976, India is still to extend legal protection to many species listed in its appendices.

But works are in progress as last year Indian lawmakers began to draft legislation to amend the 1972 Wildlife (Protection) Act and close its loopholes.

“They are trying to regularize and regulate this particular field,” Akram said. “I won’t be surprised if a formal declaration is made very soon.”

Biden leaves for Asia under Ukraine, N.Korea nuclear shadows

Updated 20 May 2022

Biden leaves for Asia under Ukraine, N.Korea nuclear shadows

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE: President Joe Biden left Thursday for South Korea and Japan to cement US leadership in Asia at a time when the White House’s attention has been pulled back to Russia and Europe — and amid fears of a North Korean nuclear test during his trip.
Biden wants the trip to build on recent moves accelerating a years-long US pivot to Asia, where rising Chinese commercial and military power is undercutting Washington’s dominance.
But highlighting competing demands from Europe, Biden met right before his departure with the leaders of Finland and Sweden to celebrate their applications for joining NATO — a seismic development sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In another sign of growing US involvement in the conflict, the White House said Biden would put his signature while in Asia on a massive, $40 billion Ukraine weapons and aid package passed Thursday by Congress.
Signing the bill “expeditiously” will ensure no gap in the funding flow, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Seoul.
A separate crisis awaits Biden on arrival, however — jitters that North Korea’s unpredictable leadership will choose his trip as the moment to test a nuclear capable missile or even a test nuclear explosion.
Despite a spiraling Covid outbreak, Pyongyang’s “preparations for a nuclear test have been completed and they are only looking for the right time,” South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after being briefed by Seoul’s spy agency.
Sullivan said there was “real risk of some kind of provocation while we’re in the region, whether in South Korea or Japan.”
“We know what we will do to respond to them. We have communicated with not just our allies, but also with China,” he said.
Biden heads to Japan from South Korea on Sunday. He will hold talks with the leaders of both countries, as well as joining a regional summit of the Quad — a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — while in Tokyo.
During the first leg, he will visit US and South Korean troops, but will not make the traditional presidential trek to the fortified frontier known as the DMZ between South and North Korea, the White House said.
Hours ahead of Biden arriving, South Korea’s newly elected, strongly pro-US President Yoon Suk-yeol signaled a warm welcome, tweeting: “A mountain shows its way to the summit to those who seek it. I am confident the ROK-US alliance that seeks to uphold the values of democracy and human rights shall only elevate in the future.”

'Wind at our back'

Sullivan said ahead of the trip that Biden is bound for Asia with “the wind at our back” after successful US leadership in the Western response to President Vladimir Putin’s now almost three-month-long invasion of Ukraine.
The high military, diplomatic and economic cost imposed on Russia is seen in Washington as a cautionary tale for China, given Beijing’s stated ambitions to gain control over democratic-ruled Taiwan, even if that means going to war.
Earlier this month, CIA Director William Burns said Beijing is watching “carefully.”
“I think they’ve been struck by the way in which particularly the transatlantic alliance has come together to impose economic costs on Russia as a result of that aggression,” he said.
Sullivan said the administration wants not so much to confront China on the trip as to use Biden’s diplomacy to show that the West and its Asian partners will not be divided and weakened.
He pointed to cooperation from South Korea and Japan, among others, in the sanctions regime against Russia led by European powers and the United States. He also referred to Britain’s role in the recently created security partnership AUKUS.
This “powerful message” will be “heard in Beijing,” Sullivan said, “but it’s not a negative message and it’s not targeted at any one country.”

Sullivan said the United States is braced for North Korea to again defy UN sanctions by conducting a nuclear test.
If that happens, the US response will be coordinated with South Korea and Japan, Sullivan said, adding that Washington had been in touch with Beijing as well.
This could include trigger “adjustments to the way that our military is postured in the region,” Sullivan said.
But he denied that a North Korean nuclear test would be seen as a setback for Biden’s diplomacy.
“It would underscore one of the main messages that we are sending on this trip, which is that the United States is here for our allies and partners.”

Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan

Updated 19 May 2022

Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan

  • Allah Dino, killed by police in a gun battle on Wednesday, was trained in Iran, says Counterterrorism Department
  • Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country

KARACHI: Counterterrorism authorities in Pakistan said on Thursday that a suspect in an attack in the port city of Karachi last week had been trained in Iran and was receiving instructions from the Iran-based commander of a Pakistani separatist group.

One person was killed and several were injured in a bomb blast late on May 12 in the Saddar neighbourhood of Karachi. The assault was claimed by the little-known Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), a dissident faction fighting for independence in the province of Sindh.

The attack came two weeks after a female suicide bomber killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, in an attack on a minibus carrying staff from a Beijing cultural program at Karachi University.

In a press release on Thursday, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) for Sindh said special investigation teams formed in the wake of the latest spate of attacks were able to identify a number of suspects through intelligence sources and the use of technology.

Police used intelligence gathered from the investigation teams to trace three suspects from the Saddar attack on Wednesday as they traveled by motorcycle to transport explosives in Karachi on the instructions of what the CTD said was an Iran-based SRA commander called Asghar Shah.

In a gun battle with the three suspects, two identified as Allah Dino and Nawab Ali were killed while a third suspect fled the scene.

“The accused (Allah Dino) had been taking instructions from Asghar Shah, who operates his group (of the SRA) from Iran,” Syed Khurram Ali Shah, a senior CTD official, told reporters on Thursday.

“The eliminated terrorist Allah Dino was a master of bomb-making and he got his military training from neighbouring country Iran,” the CTD press release said.

Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country. Both nations deny state complicity in such attacks.

Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks

Updated 19 May 2022

Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks

  • "Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger," Biden said
  • Turkey has expressed strong opposition to the Nordic countries' ascension

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Finland and Sweden at the White House on Thursday to offer robust US support for their applications to join NATO.
Meanwhile Turkey threatened to block the Nordic nations from becoming members of the alliance.
Biden, who has rallied the West to stand up to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, joined Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in a sunny White House Rose Garden bedecked with their countries’ flags in a show of unity and support.
“Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger,” Biden said. “They’re strong, strong democracies, and a strong, united NATO is the foundation of America’s security.”
Biden said his administration was submitting paperwork to the US Congress for speedy approval once NATO members gave the two countries a green light.
“They meet every NATO requirement and then some,” the president said. “Having two new NATO members in the high north will enhance the security of our alliance and deepen our security cooperation across the board.”
Turkey has expressed strong opposition to the Nordic countries’ ascension, pressing Sweden to halt support for Kurdish militants it considers part of a terrorist group and both to lift their bans on some arms sales to Turkey.
All 30 NATO members need to approve any new entrant. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a video posted on Twitter on Thursday that Turkey had told allies it will reject Sweden and Finland’s membership.
The Finnish president said at the White House that his country was open to discussing all Turkey’s concerns, and pledged to “commit to Turkey’s security just as Turkey will commit to our security” as a NATO ally.
“We take terrorism seriously,” Niinistö said.
Sweden and Finland have for decades stood outside the Cold War era military alliance designed to deter threats from the Soviet Union, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened security concerns.
The situation in Ukraine “reminds us of the darkest days of European history,” Andersson said. “During dark times it is great to be among close friends.”
Conversations between Sweden, Finland and Turkey have taken place to address Ankara’s concerns, with the United States involved in the effort. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday that US officials were confident Turkey’s concerns can be addressed, and Biden told reporters “I think we’re going to be okay” on the issue.
Biden’s unabashed support put a firm, deliberate US stamp of approval on Finland and Sweden’s applications. He squeezed in the meeting just before departing to Asia and gave both leaders speaking time in the Rose Garden, underscoring that support.
Biden’s remarks also sent a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Monday Putin said there was no threat to Russia if Sweden and Finland joined NATO but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the alliance bolstered military infrastructure in the new Nordic members.
Biden said on Thursday that new members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation. “It never has been,” he said.