South Africa says no signal of increased omicron severity yet

South African doctors say the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases attributed to the new omicron variant is resulting in mostly mild symptoms. (AP)
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Updated 11 December 2021

South Africa says no signal of increased omicron severity yet

  • South Africa alerted the world to Omicron late last month, prompting alarm that the highly mutated variant could trigger a new surge in global infections
  • Although scientists say more time is needed to arrive at a definitive conclusion, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the signs on severity were positive

JOHANNESBURG: South African scientists see no sign that the omicron coronavirus variant is causing more severe illness, they said on Friday, as officials announced plans to roll out vaccine boosters with daily infections approaching an all-time high.
South Africa alerted the world to omicron late last month, prompting alarm that the highly mutated variant could trigger a new surge in global infections.
Hospital data show that COVID-19 admissions are now rising sharply in more than half of the country’s nine provinces, but deaths are not rising as dramatically and indicators such as the median length of hospital stay are reassuring.
Although scientists say more time is needed to arrive at a definitive conclusion, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the signs on severity were positive.
“Preliminary data does suggest that while there is increasing rate of hospitalization ... it looks like it is purely because of the numbers rather than as a result of any severity of the variant itself, this omicron,” he said.
In the past few days, a nationwide outbreak linked to variant has been infecting around 20,000 people a day, with 19,018 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, according to data from the National Institute of Communicable Disease, but only 20 new deaths.
Infections have yet to reach the peak of more than 26,000 daily cases during a third wave fueled by the Delta variant.
South Africa has fully vaccinated about 38 percent of adults, more than in many other African countries but well short of the government’s year-end target. It recently delayed some vaccine deliveries due to oversupply as the pace of inoculations slowed.
Health department deputy director-general Nicholas Crisp said on Friday that boosters of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine would be available to people six months after they had received their second dose, with the first people becoming eligible late this month.
Johnson & Johnson boosters, already available to health workers in a research study, would be rolled out to others soon, he said.
Crisp denied that offering boosters was a means of using up vaccine stock. “We do not need to consume vaccines. They are expensive and we will only use vaccines if there is evidence to do so,” he said.
The World Health Organization recommended this week that boosters should be given to people who are immunocompromised or had received an inactivated COVID-19 vaccine to protect against waning immunity. But it has said previously that administering primary doses should be the priority given that vaccination rates remain worryingly low in many developing countries.
A small study from a South African research institute this week suggested that omicron could partially evade protection from two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, but the company and its partner, BioNTech, say a three-shot course of their vaccine can neutralize omicron in the laboratory.
Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, said there were far more unvaccinated people among South Africa’s hospital admissions and the evidence was that the Pfizer vaccine was still offering protection.
“We are seeing that this vaccine is maintaining effectiveness. It may be slightly reduced, but we are seeing effectiveness being maintained for hospital admissions and that is very encouraging,” she said.


Taliban welcomes India’s diplomatic representation ‘upgrade’ in Kabul

Updated 14 August 2022

Taliban welcomes India’s diplomatic representation ‘upgrade’ in Kabul

  • Indian diplomats were recently sent back to the embassy in Afghanistan
  • Indian diplomats were recently sent back to the embassy in Afghanistan

KABUL: The Afghan foreign ministry has welcomed the “upgrade” of India’s diplomatic representation in Kabul, as the Taliban administration continued to struggle for recognition by the international community a year after it took over Afghanistan.

India had closed its embassy and consulates in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last August, but New Delhi deployed a technical team earlier this year in June to coordinate their humanitarian efforts and assess the security situation in the country. 

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar confirmed on Friday that a batch of diplomats, except for the ambassador, was recently sent back to the embassy in Kabul to address a number of issues, such as humanitarian and medical assistance, as well as development projects. 

The Taliban administration has welcomed the move and promised security and immunity for Indian diplomats in Afghanistan.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan welcomes India’s step to upgrade its diplomatic representation in Kabul,” Abdul Qahar Balkhi, Afghan foreign ministry spokesperson, said in a statement issued on Saturday. 

“The Afghan government hopes that upgrading diplomatic representation and dispatching diplomats would strengthen Afghan-India relations leading to the completion of unfinished projects by India and the commencement of new vital projects.” 

Though India was one of the few countries which opposed the reconciliation process with the Taliban in the past, experts said on Sunday that New Delhi is now looking to reshape its relations with Afghanistan. 

“India is keen to engage with the Taliban as New Delhi believes that the Taliban government is going to stay for 5+ years this time or maybe longer,” Farid Mamundzay, Afghan ambassador to India appointed by the previous government, told Arab News. 

“So it’s important for India’s geopolitical interest to forget the past and form new working relations with Kabul.”

An Afghan foreign ministry official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Arab News that India didn’t want to be left behind its geopolitical rivals.

“India wants to have their own direct lines of communication to the Afghan government, as well as to counter Pakistani and Chinese influence in Afghanistan,” the official said.

India recently opposed plans by China and Pakistan to involve third countries in their ongoing multibillion-dollar infrastructure project, after Beijing and Islamabad agreed to extend the program to Afghanistan. New Delhi said last month that the proposed participation of third countries on those projects “directly infringe on India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

India’s efforts to improve relations with the Taliban government are aimed at protecting its own interests, Torek Farhadi, analyst and advisor to the former Afghan government, told Arab News. 

“When it comes to the Taliban, India will instrumentalize them against Pakistan when it is convenient for New Delhi,” he said. 

“What we need to understand about India is that they are a pragmatic player, driving towards their own interests.” 


Rushdie assailant Matar charged with attempted murder, denied bail because of international support

Updated 52 min 50 sec ago

Rushdie assailant Matar charged with attempted murder, denied bail because of international support

  • “He’s off the ventilator, so the road to recovery has begun,” his agent, Andrew Wylie, said
  • Suspect pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault at court appearance on Saturday

CHICAGO: The literary agent for Salman Rushdie — attacked by a pro-Iran activist at an event in New York state on Friday — said that the author had been taken off his ventilator, was able to talk and had been making jokes.

Hadi Matar, 24, arrested for the attack, was charged but denied bail as prosecutors argued that he had international support for his actions.

Rushdie’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie, told media on Sunday that the author, the subject of a death fatwa issued by the late Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini 33 years ago, remained hospitalized due to serious injuries.

Wylie had previously described Rushdie’s condition as bleak, noting that the author was in a “critical condition,” that he was “likely to lose an eye,” and had suffered damage to his arm and his liver.

The news about the improved condition of Rushdie, 75, however, encouraged hope and tempered the attack as a failed attempt by the extremist Iran regime, accused of fostering terrorism around the world.

The suspect, Hadi Matar, 24, pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder in the second degree and assault in the second degree. He was arraigned on Saturday night at Chautauqua County Jail in New York.

Bail for Matar was denied with prosecutor’s arguing that Matar had international support and could easily flee the country.

Chautauqua County District Attorney Jason Schmidt told Judge Marilyn Gerace that the fatwa issued by Iran in 1989 “plays an important role for bail consideration because his resources don’t matter to me . . . the agenda that was carried out yesterday is something that’s adopted and sanctioned by larger groups and organizations well beyond jurisdictional borders of Chautauqua County . . . Even if this court sets a million-dollar bail, we stand a risk that this bail could be met because of that.”

Matar, who is from Fairview, New Jersey, is scheduled to appear again in court on Friday. He is being represented by a New York public defender assigned to represent him by the court.

Calls for a crackdown on Iranian terrorism and violence escalated as police continued to investigate Matar’s motives and possible ties to supporters of Iran’s regime.

Matar’s Facebook page and social media included photos of Khomeini and other Iran regime leaders.

“The stabbing of Salman Rushdie was not a spontaneous act,” said Ali Safavi, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, who strongly condemned the attack. “Over 30 years ago, Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran’s ruling theocracy, issued a fatwa to murder him. His successor Ali Khamenei confirmed it and state institutions set a $3.5 million reward. Lesson to be learned is that appeasement backfires and emboldens terrorism.”

Former US president, Bill Clinton, wrote on Twitter: “Salman Rushdie has lived his life courageously and refused to let intimidation silence him, his art, and what he stands for. I am keeping him in my thoughts and praying for his recovery.”

Clinton’s post drew criticism from some writers, who accused the former president of turning a blind eye to violence against Muslims and Palestinians, but stopped short of praising Matar.

Hillary Clinton, former US secretary of state, tweeted: “I’m horrified by the cowardly attack on Salman Rushdie and praying for his speedy recovery. As he once wrote: ‘A poet’s work (is) to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep’.”

Chautauqua County Executive P.J. Wendel issued a statement offering thoughts and prayers for Rushdie’s recovery.

“The small tranquil community of the Chautauqua Institution has been shaken to its core by an act of violence, which has reverberated across Chautauqua County and western New York. It is disappointing that we live in a society where we cannot listen to the differences of others, especially in a place like the institution where thinkers and problem-solvers from around the world come to share their stories,” Wendel said.

“I thank all of the emergency and law enforcement agencies who have done a tremendous job in responding to this horrific event. It is through their quick response that they were able to mitigate the situation and capture the alleged assailant.”

Author Stephen King posted on Twitter that the attack had depressed him: “I’m trying to cheer myself up this afternoon. What happened to Salman Rushdie preys on my mind.”

Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn, a strong critic of President Joe Biden, turned the debate to politics, attacking Biden’s efforts to reach an accord with Iran on nuclear weapons.

“Iran has been plotting for the death of Salman Rushdie since 1989 and offered a bounty to anyone who assassinates him. Yesterday, he was attacked on stage. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is open to having additional talks with this dangerous, terrorist regime,” Blackburn wrote on Twitter.

Rushdie was about to address the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education center and summer resort near Buffalo, New York, when he was attacked. Rushdie was planning to speak about America being a place of “asylum for writers and other artists in exile.”

Police said that Matar had a pass to attend the presentation at the gated institution community but that passes were available to anyone.


The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

Updated 14 August 2022

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

  • Aid-dependent economy remains in free fall since the Taliban takeover of the war-ravaged country
  • Prices of food and other essentials have soared as drought compounds financial collapse

KABUL: When the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, amid the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, the group’s stunning return to power marked the end of two decades of warfare, which had killed tens of thousands of Afghans on their own soil. 

One year on, with the country pauperized and isolated on the world stage under its new leadership, life for ordinary Afghans has changed — largely for the worse.

During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. 

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Women and girls were removed from public life, prevented from working or receiving an education, and even barred from leaving the house without the all-enveloping niqab and a male relative to chaperone them.

In Oct. 2001, US-led forces invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power, accusing the group of sheltering Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader deemed responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US that killed almost 3,000 people.

Edi Maa holding her baby receiving treatment for malnutrition at a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) nutrition centre in Herat. (AFP)

What followed were 20 blood-soaked years of fighting between the NATO-backed Afghan national forces and Taliban guerrilla fighters intent on retaking power.

While under the Western-backed administration, Afghanistan made progress with the emergence of independent media and a growing number of girls going to school and university. 

However, in many regions beyond the big cities, Afghans knew only war, depriving them of the many development projects implemented elsewhere by foreign donors.

Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved.

During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. (AFP)

“We only saw war in the past several years. Every day, we lived in fear. Now it’s calm and we feel safe,” Mohammad Khalil, a 69-year-old farmer in northwest Balkh province, told Arab News. “We can finally breathe.”

But the uneasy peace has come at a cost.

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has been in free fall since the Taliban returned to power. Billions of dollars in foreign assistance have been suspended and some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets parked overseas have been frozen.

Denied international recognition, with aid suspended and the financial system in paralysis, the UN says that Afghanistan faces humanitarian catastrophe. About 20 percent of the country’s 38 million population are already on the brink of famine.

Afghanistan: One year since the Taliban takeover

Aug. 15, 2021 - Taliban campaign culminates with the fall of Kabul.

Aug. 30 - The last US troops depart Kabul airport after evacuating more than 120,000 people over 17 days.

September - A new interim government is unveiled. The Taliban bring back the feared religious police.

October - More than 120 people are killed in two Daesh-claimed mosque blasts in Kandahar and Kunduz.

Jan. 2022 - Deprived of aid, Afghanistan is plunged into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis.

March - The Taliban block secondary school girls from returning to class. Government employees must grow beards.

May - Women and girls are ordered to wear the hijab and cover their faces when in public. Women are banned from making long-distance journeys alone.

June - More than 1,000 people killed and thousands left homeless in a massive earthquake.

August - The US announces the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a drone strike on his Kabul hideout.

The price of essential commodities has soared as the value of the Afghan currency has plummeted. A continuing drought has further aggravated the situation in rural areas.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates about 70 percent of Afghan families are unable to meet their basic food needs.

“Most of the time we eat bread and drink tea or just water. We can’t get meat, fruit or even vegetables for the children. Only a few people have goats or cows to feed the children with milk,” Khalil said.

In the capital, Kabul, food is widely available, but few can afford a vaied and nutritious diet.

“There are plenty of food items in the market, but we don’t have the money to buy them,” Mohammad Barat, a 52-year-old daily wage earner, told Arab News.

The looming catastrophe is not only one of shocking levels of poverty, but also lost hope and opportunities.

Tens of thousands of Afghans fled the country over several chaotic days last August, when US forces and their coalition partners hastily airlifted Afghans from Kabul airport. Many others, including professionals, have since followed in their footsteps.

“Doctors are leaving, engineers are leaving, professors and experts are also leaving the country,” Abdul Hamid, a student at Kabul University, told Arab News. “There’s no hope for a better future.”

Those who worked for the deposed Western-backed administration have been removed from public life, particularly women, who are now forced to wear face coverings, banned from making long-distance journeys alone, and prevented from working in most sectors beyond health and education.

Women face a growing number of restrictions in their daily lives; right, Taliban fighters in Kandahar celebrate the US withdrawal. (AFP)

Education, too, has been strictly limited for women, even though allowing girls into schools and colleges has been one of the international community’s core demands since the Taliban retook control of the country.

In mid-March, after months of uncertainty, the Taliban said that they would allow girls to return to school. However, when they arrived at schools around the country to resume studies, those above the age of 13 were ordered to return home.

In a last-minute decision, the Taliban had announced that high schools would remain closed for girls until a plan was ready to receive them in accordance with Islamic law.

Almost half a year later, teenage girls fear they will not return to the classroom anytime soon.

“There’s no reason for banning girls from school,” Amal, an 11th grade student at Rabia Balkhi High School in Kabul, told Arab News. “They just don’t want us to get an education.”

Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved. (AFP)

Despite repeated hints by the predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group that experience and the passage of time have softened its rough edges, the streets of Kabul increasingly resemble the Taliban-governed pre-2002 era.

Since the restoration of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which enforces the group’s austere interpretation of Islam, traditional clothing, turbans and burqas have replaced suits and jeans, which only a year ago had been considered normal attire in the Afghan capital.

Key symbols of the nation’s identity are also changing, with the white and black banner of the Taliban now appearing on government buildings and in public spaces, gradually replacing Afghanistan’s tricolor, despite earlier pledges it would not be changed.  

For some, the replacement of the old national flag is more than symbolic, and is indicative of the Taliban’s hijacking of the country. 

“It doesn’t represent any government or regime. The Taliban could keep both,” Shah Rahim, a 43-year-old resident of Kabul, told Arab News. 

“The flag is a representation of our nation, our values and our history.”

 

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River torrent kills 7 in China amid widespread heavy rains

Updated 14 August 2022

River torrent kills 7 in China amid widespread heavy rains

BEIJING: Seven people were killed by a torrent of water that came rushing down a river in a popular recreational spot following mountain rains in southwestern China, authorities said Sunday.
Workers and volunteers mobilized to urge people to leave the area after receiving an imminent heavy rain warning about 2:40 p.m. on Saturday, the emergency management bureau in Pengzhou city said.
People could be seen scrambling to flee in videos posted on social media, but some were caught when the torrent hit about 50 minutes later at 3:30 p.m.
One man at the scene said several people were washed away, including some children, when the water flow in the lower reaches of the river suddenly increased in just 10 to 20 seconds, the state-owned China National Radio reported.
The Chengdu city government said Sunday that seven people had died and three others were hospitalized with minor injuries. Pengzhou is a tourist spot about 70 kilometers (45 miles) north of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.
A video showed a helicopter rescuing a person stranded on a small outcropping by descending to just above the water and opening a door so the person could climb in.
Elsewhere in China, heavy rain flooded streets in the northwestern city of Xining on Saturday night. Heavy to torrential rain was forecast for the northeast from Sunday to Monday afternoon, with 10 to 18 centimeters (4 to 7 inches) of rainfall expected in parts of Liaoning and Jilin provinces.
A heat wave was hovering over a wide swath of southern China, with forecast highs on Sunday of 35 to 39 degrees Celsius (95 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit) and possibly surpassing 40 degrees (104 Fahrenheit) in some places including Shanghai.
Jiangsu province warned that road surface temperatures could rise to 72 degrees (162 Fahrenheit), raising the risk of flat tires, state broadcaster CCTV reported.


Rushdie attack a ‘wake-up call’ on Iran, says Britain’s PM candidate Sunak

Updated 14 August 2022

Rushdie attack a ‘wake-up call’ on Iran, says Britain’s PM candidate Sunak

  • Iran’s reaction to the attack strengthens the case for proscribing the IRGC, the former finance minister told the Sunday Telegraph

LONDON: Rishi Sunak, one of two candidates seeking to become Britain’s next prime minister, said Friday’s attack on author Salman Rushdie should serve as a wake-up call to the West over Iran, the Sunday Telegraph reported.
Indian-born author Rushdie, who spent years in hiding after Iran urged Muslims to kill him over his novel “The Satanic Verses,” was stabbed in the neck and torso on stage at a lecture in New York state. After hours of surgery, Rushdie was on a ventilator and unable to speak as of Friday evening.
There has been no official government reaction in Iran to the attack on Rushdie, but several hard-line Iranian newspapers praised his assailant.


ALSO READ: Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US


“The brutal stabbing of Salman Rushdie should be a wake-up call for the West, and Iran’s reaction to the attack strengthens the case for proscribing the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps),” Sunak, the former finance minister, said, according to the paper.
The IRGC controls Iran’s elite armed and intelligence forces.
Sunak, referring to stuttering talks between Iran and the West to revive a nuclear deal, said, “We urgently need a new, strengthened deal and much tougher sanctions, and if we can’t get results then we have to start asking whether the JCPOA is at a dead end.”
The JCPOA, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is the 2015 agreement under which Iran curbed its nuclear program in return for relief from US, EU and UN sanctions.
“The situation in Iran is extremely serious and in standing up to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin we can’t take our eye off the ball elsewhere,” Sunak said.