WHO warns of COVID-19 ‘tsunami’ as omicron fuels record surges

Governments are walking a tightrope between anti-virus restrictions and the need to keep societies and economies open, as the highly transmissible variant drove cases to levels never seen before. (File/AFP)
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Updated 30 December 2021

WHO warns of COVID-19 ‘tsunami’ as omicron fuels record surges

  • The variant has already started to overwhelm some hospitals in the United States, the hardest-hit nation where the seven-day average of new cases hit 265,427

PARIS: A COVID-19 “tsunami” threatens to overwhelm health care systems, the WHO said Wednesday, as record surges fueled by the omicron variant dampened New Year celebrations around the world once again.
Governments are walking a tightrope between anti-virus restrictions and the need to keep societies and economies open, as the highly transmissible variant drove cases to levels never seen before in the United States, Britain, France and Denmark.
The blistering surge was illustrated by AFP’s tally of 6.55 million new infections reported globally in the week ending Tuesday, the highest the figure has been since the World Health Organization declared a Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.
“I am highly concerned that omicron, being more transmissible, circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“This is and will continue to put immense pressure on exhausted health workers, and health systems on the brink of collapse.”
The variant has already started to overwhelm some hospitals in the United States, the hardest-hit nation where the seven-day average of new cases hit 265,427, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.
Harvard epidemiologist and immunologist Michael Mina tweeted that the count was likely just the “tip of the iceberg” with the true number likely far higher because of a shortage of tests.
But there was some hope as data indicated a decoupling of the number of cases and hospitalizations.
“We should not become complacent,” top US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci said Wednesday, but “all indications point to a lesser severity of omicron.”
At a drive-through virus testing site in Miami, Florida, on Wednesday, there were long lines of cars with people waiting to provide samples.
“Half of my family has it, you know this new variant is very, very spreadable, like way more spreadable than the first time around,” said resident Victoria Sierralta.
“It’s like we’re back in like the first stage of COVID-19. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Millions around the world will again welcome a new year in the shadow of the pandemic, which is known to have killed more than 5.4 million people so far, with festivities dampened or canceled in many countries.
Greece on Wednesday banned music in bars and restaurants to try and limit New Year’s Eve parties, with public events already canceled.
The mayor of Mexico’s capital has canceled the city’s massive New Year’s Eve celebrations after a spike in cases.
Despite the outbreak concerns, the streets of Mexico City were busy on Wednesday.
“I don’t think that such an event with such economic importance should be canceled, however health comes before everything else,” said 59-year-old teacher Victor Arturo Madrid Contreras.
With the “cancelation they are sending a message... ‘You know what? This is serious’.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile defended his decision not to clamp down on festivities over the holidays, saying around 90 percent of COVID-19 patients in intensive care had not received a vaccine booster.
The number of people in hospital with the coronavirus topped 10,000 in England, the highest total since March, as Britain on Wednesday reported a new record of 183,037 daily cases.
The high take-up of boosters in England “is allowing us to go ahead with New Year in the cautious way that we are,” Johnson said, despite new closures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Across the Channel, France too hit a new daily record of more than 200,000 cases — more than double the number on Christmas Day — as it extended its closure of nightclubs into January.
Wearing masks outdoors will become compulsory in Paris on Friday for everyone over the age of 11 except those inside vehicles, cyclists, users of other two-wheelers such as scooters and those participating in sports.
Denmark, which currently has the world’s highest rate of infection per person, recorded a fresh record of 23,228 new cases, which authorities attributed in part to the large numbers of tests carried out after Christmas celebrations.
Portugal also saw a record with nearly 27,000 cases reported in 24 hours.

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India stops Kashmiri photojournalist from flying to Paris

Updated 03 July 2022

India stops Kashmiri photojournalist from flying to Paris

  • Sanna Irshad Mattoo was to travel for a book launch, photography exhibition
  • The photojournalist is one of 10 winners of the Serendipity Arles Grant 2020

NEW DELHI: A Pulitzer Prize-winning Kashmiri photojournalist said on Saturday that she was stopped by Indian immigration authorities from flying to Paris without giving any reason. 

In a tweet, Sanna Irshad Mattoo said she was scheduled to travel from New Delhi to Paris for a book launch and photography exhibition as one of 10 winners of the Serendipity Arles Grant 2020. 

"Despite procuring a French visa, I was stopped at the immigration desk at Delhi airport,” she said. 

She said she was not given any reason but was told by immigration officials that she would not be able to travel internationally. 

There was no immediate comment by Indian authorities. 

Mattoo was among the 2022 Pulitzer Prize winners in the Feature Photography category for the coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in India as part of a Reuters team. 

She has been working as a freelance photojournalist since 2018 depicting life in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where insurgents have been fighting for Kashmir’s independence or its merger with neighboring Pakistan. 

Journalists have long braved threats in the restive region as the government seeks to control the press more effectively to censure independent reporting. Their situation has grown worse since India revoked the region’s semi-autonomy in 2019. 


Bus crash kills at least 20 in southwest Pakistan — official

Updated 03 July 2022

Bus crash kills at least 20 in southwest Pakistan — official

  • Poor road infrastructure and rash driving often cause deadly road crashes in Pakistan

QUETTA: A passenger bus plunged into a ravine in southwestern Pakistan on Sunday killing 20 people, a government official said.
The road crash also injured another 13 people aboard the bus that was traveling from garrison city of Rawalpindi to Quetta, the capital of southwestern Balochistan province, said Ijaz Jaffar, deputy commissioner of Sherani district.
The ravine is some 350 kilometers north of Quetta.
Poor road infrastructure and rash driving often cause deadly road crashes in Pakistan.
The province is home to several Chinese projects under an investment plan in which Beijing is seeking road and sea trade linkages with the world. 


Blasts kill 3 in Russian border city, lawmaker blames Ukraine

Updated 03 July 2022

Blasts kill 3 in Russian border city, lawmaker blames Ukraine

  • At least four people were injured and two hospitalized, including a 10-year-old boy
  • Since Russia launched it invasion on Feb. 24, there have been numerous reports of attacks on Belgorod and other regions bordering Ukraine

At least three people were killed and dozens of residential buildings damaged in the Russian city of Belgorod near the Ukraine border, the regional governor said, after reports of several blasts in the city.
At least 11 apartment buildings and 39 private houses were damaged, including five that were destroyed, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov posted on the Telegram messaging app.
Gladkov said earlier the “incident” was being investigated, adding, “Presumably, the air defense system worked.”
At least four people were injured and two hospitalized, including a 10-year-old boy, Gladkov said.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports. There was no immediate reaction from Ukraine to the reports.
Belgorod, a city of nearly 400,000 some 40 km (25 miles) north of the border with Ukraine, is the administrative center of the Belgorod region.
Since Russia launched it invasion on Feb. 24, there have been numerous reports of attacks on Belgorod and other regions bordering Ukraine, with Moscow accusing Kyiv of carrying out the strikes.
Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for previous attacks but has described the incidents as payback and “karma” for Russia’s invasion.
Moscow calls its actions a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and its allies in the West say the fascist allegation is baseless and the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.


Uzbekistan scraps plans to curb Karakalpak autonomy after protest

Updated 03 July 2022

Uzbekistan scraps plans to curb Karakalpak autonomy after protest

  • If the reform is endorsed in the planned referendum, it would reset Mirziyoyev’s term count and allow him to run for two more terms

ALMATY: Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on Saturday dropped plans to curtail the autonomy of the country’s Karakalpakstan province following a rare public protest in the northwestern region, his office said.
Friday’s rally was called to protest constitutional reform plans that would have changed the status of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic home to the Karakalpak people — an ethnic minority group with its own language, Uzbek authorities said.
Police dispersed the protesters after some of them tried to storm local government buildings in the region’s capital, Nukus, following a march and a rally at the city’s central market, local and government officials said.
Mirziyoyev later issued a decree proclaiming a state of emergency in Karakalpakstan for a month “in order to ensure the security of citizens, defend their rights and freedoms and restore the rule of law and order” in the region.
Under the current Uzbek constitution, Karakalpakstan is described as a sovereign republic within Uzbekistan that has the right to secede by holding a referendum.
The new version of the constitution — on which Uzbekistan plans to hold a referendum in the coming months — would no longer mention Karakalpakstan’s sovereignty or right for secession.
But in a swift reaction to the protest, Mirziyoyev said on Saturday during a visit to Karakalpakstan that the changes regarding its status must be dropped from the proposed reform, his office said in a statement.
Karakalpakstan’s government said in a statement earlier on Saturday that police had detained the leaders of Friday’s protest, and several other protesters who had put up resistance.
The changes concerning Karakalpakstan were part of a broader constitutional reform proposed by Mirziyoyev, which also includes strengthening civil rights and extending the presidential term to seven years from five.
If the reform is endorsed in the planned referendum, it would reset Mirziyoyev’s term count and allow him to run for two more terms.


Waterways in Brazil’s Manaus choked by tons of trash

Updated 02 July 2022

Waterways in Brazil’s Manaus choked by tons of trash

  • From January to May, city workers have removed 4,500 tons of trash, most of which could have been recycled instead of being thrown in the river

MANAUS: In Manaus, the largest city in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, tons of stinking trash fill the canals and streams, giving one the feeling that they’re visiting a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

On the west side of the city, in a poor neighborhood where homes have been erected on stilts, a worker uses an excavator to scoop up a bucket-load of bottles, pieces of plastic and even home appliances that have been tossed in the water.

Not far from the city’s main port, municipal workers wearing orange uniforms gather garbage from a boat and pile it onto a big barge floating on the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon River’s main tributaries.

With the rising water levels signaling an end to the rainy season, the mounds of trash are often intermingled with leaves and tree branches.

Each day, nearly 30 tons of debris is plucked from the water. In some areas, the water is almost completely covered.

The massive influx of trash to Manaus’s waterways occurs around this time every year, but city authorities believe the situation has gotten worse in recent weeks.

From January to May, city workers have removed 4,500 tons of trash, most of which could have been recycled instead of being thrown in the river.

“The people who live on the water’s edge throw garbage straight into the streams... few people put it in the trash,” says Antonino Pereira, a 54-year-old Manaus resident who complains that the stench is unbearable.

According to the city’s undersecretary of sanitation, Jose Reboucas, if the population was more aware of the costs associated with littering, the city could save $190,000 per month.

“The awareness of the population will be very beneficial for our city and especially for our environment,” he said.

The Amazonian region is also facing a major threat from deforestation, with more than 3,750 square kilometers of jungle chopped down since the beginning of the year.