Masks rules get tighter in Europe in winter’s COVID-19 wave

Other countries are taking similar action as the more transmissible — yet, apparently, less virulent — omicron variant spreads through the continent. (File/AFP)
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Updated 14 January 2022

Masks rules get tighter in Europe in winter’s COVID-19 wave

  • Italy re-introduced an outdoor mask mandate
  • Spain reinstated its outdoor mask rule on Christmas Eve

ROME: To mask or not to mask is a question Italy settled early in the COVID-19 outbreak with a vigorous “yes.” Now the onetime epicenter of the pandemic in Europe hopes even stricter mask rules will help it beat the latest infection surge.
Other countries are taking similar action as the more transmissible — yet, apparently, less virulent — omicron variant spreads through the continent.
With Italy’s hospital ICUs rapidly filling with mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, the government announced on Christmas Eve that FFP2 masks — which offer users more protection than cloth or surgical masks — must be worn on public transport, including planes, trains, ferries and subways.
That’s even though all passengers in Italy, as of this week, must be vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19. FFP2s also must now be worn at theaters, cinemas and sports events, indoors or out, and can’t be removed even for their wearers to eat or drink.
Italy re-introduced an outdoor mask mandate. It had never lifted its indoor mandate — even when infections sharply dropped in the summer.
On a chilly morning in Rome this week, Lillo D’Amico, 84, sported a wool cap and white FFP2 as he bought a newspaper at his neighborhood newsstand.
“(Masks) cost little money, they cost you a small sacrifice,” he said. “When you do the math, it costs far less than hospitalization.”
When he sees someone from the unmasked minority walking by, he keeps a distance. “They see (masks) as an affront to their freedom,’’ D’Amico said, shrugging.
Spain reinstated its outdoor mask rule on Christmas Eve. After the 14-day contagion rate soared to 2,722 new infections per 100,000 people by the end of last week — from 40 per 100,000 in mid-October — Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was asked whether the outdoor mask mandate was helping.
“Of course, it is. It’s not me saying it. It’s science itself saying it because (it’s) a virus that is contracted when one exhales,’’ Sanchez said.
Portugal brought masks back at the end of November, after having largely dropped the requirement when it hit its goal of vaccinating 86 percent of the population.
Greece has also restored its outdoor mask mandate, while requiring an FFP2 or double surgical mask on public transport and in indoor public spaces.
This week the Dutch government’s outbreak management team recommended a mask mandate for people over 13 in busy public indoor areas such as restaurants, museums and theaters, and for spectators at indoor sports events. Those places are currently closed under a lockdown until at least Friday, Jan. 14.
In France, the outdoor mask mandate was partially re-instated in December in many cities, including Paris. The age for children to start wearing masks in public places was lowered to 6 from 11.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer announced last week that people must wear FFP2 masks outdoors if they can’t keep at least two meters (6.5 feet) apart.
In Italy, with more than 2 million people currently positive for the virus in a nation of 60 million and workplace absences curtailing train and bus runs, the government also sees masks as a way to let society more fully function.
People with booster shots or recent second vaccine doses can now avoid quarantine after coming into contact with an infected person if they wear a FFP2 mask for 10 days.
The government has ordered shops to make FFP masks available for 75 euro cents (85 US cents). In the pandemic’s first year, FFP2s cost up to 10 euros ($11.50) — whenever they could be found.
Italians wear them in a palette of colors. The father of a baby baptized this week by Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel wore one in burgundy, with matching tie and jacket pocket square. But the pontiff, who has practically shunned a mask in public, was mask-less.
On Monday, Vatican City State mandated FFP2s in all indoor places. The tiny, walled independent state across the Tiber from the heart of Rome also stipulated that Vatican employees can go to work without quarantining after coming into contact with someone testing positive if, in addition to being fully vaccinated or having received a booster shot, they wear FFP2s.
Francis did appear to be wearing a FFP2 when, startling shoppers in Rome on Tuesday evening, he emerged from a music store near the Pantheon before being driven back to the Vatican.
In Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has focused on vaccination, masks have never been required outdoors.
This month, though, the government said secondary school students should wear face coverings in class. But Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said that rule wouldn’t apply “for a day longer than necessary.”
When the British government lifted pandemic restrictions in July 2021, turning mask-wearing from a requirement to a suggestion, mask use fell markedly.
Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Bologna-based GIMBE foundation, which monitors health care in Italy, says Britain points to what can happen when measures like mask-wearing aren’t valued.
“The situation in the U.K, showed that use of vaccination alone wasn’t enough” to get ahead of the pandemic, even though Britain was one of the first countries to begin vaccination, he said in a video interview.


Russian soldier sentenced to life at Kyiv war crimes trial

Updated 32 sec ago

Russian soldier sentenced to life at Kyiv war crimes trial

  • Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin pleads guilty, testifies that he shot the man after being ordered to do so
KYIV: A Ukrainian court sentenced a 21-year-old Russian soldier to life in prison on Monday for killing a Ukrainian civilian, in the first war crimes trial since Russia’s invasion.
Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin was accused of shooting a Ukrainian civilian in the head in a village in the northeastern Sumy region in the early days of the war.
He pleaded guilty and testified that he shot the man after being ordered to do so. He told the court that an officer insisted that the Ukrainian man, who was speaking on his cellphone, could pinpoint their location to the Ukrainian forces.
During the trial, Shishimarin asked the widow of the victim to forgive him.
Shishimarin’s defense attorney Victor Ovsyanikov argued that his client, a member of a Russian tank unit who was eventually captured, had been unprepared for the “violent military confrontation” and mass casualties that Russian troops encountered when they first invaded Ukraine.

Security guard killed in Qatar Embassy attack in Paris

A security guard was killed at the Qatar Embassy in Paris, the city’s prosecution office confirmed. (Shutterstock)
Updated 23 May 2022

Security guard killed in Qatar Embassy attack in Paris

  • The Paris prosecutor’s office said it had opened a criminal investigation for manslaughter

PARIS: A person has been killed at the Qatar Embassy in Paris and one person has been arrested as part of the investigation, the Paris prosecutor’s office said on Monday, confirming earlier media reports.
A source close to the investigation said the person killed in the early hours of Monday was a security guard and that the death did not appear to have been a terrorism act.
“I can confirm that an investigation was opened today on the count of murder,” the prosecutor’s office said, adding that it was not clear yet if a weapon had been used.
“The circumstances of the death of the guard are yet to be determined precisely.”
Newspaper Le Parisien said earlier on Monday that one person had been killed within the embassy, citing police sources. 


Deluges of rain flood parts of India, Bangladesh

Updated 23 May 2022

Deluges of rain flood parts of India, Bangladesh

  • Both heavily populated nations in South Asia are prone to frequent floods and are considered major victims of climate change

DHAKA: Pre-monsoon deluges have flooded parts of India and Bangladesh, killing at least 24 people in recent weeks and sending 90,000 people into shelters, authorities said Monday.
Both heavily populated nations in South Asia are prone to frequent floods and are considered major victims of climate change.
The deaths have been reported since April 6 in India’s northeastern region with Assam state continuing to experience floods. Those who have left their homes due to the floods are staying in 269 camps set up by authorities.
The Indian army and air force have had to evacuate thousands of people in the last two weeks. Helicopters have been dropping essential items to people stuck in vulnerable spots in worst-hit Dima Hasao district. The Indian Space Research Organization is using satellites to assess the damage.
Flash flooding has been occurring in the Bangladeshi districts of Sylhet and Sunamganj, which border India’s northeast.
At least three rivers were flowing above the danger level Monday, said Arifuzzaman Bhuiyan, executive engineer of the Flood Forecasting and Warning Center in Dhaka, the nation’s capital.
Bangladeshi media said hundreds of villages have been marooned while crop fields have been damaged greatly. People also lack drinking water as wells have been under floodwaters or water supply system has been damaged.
No casualties have been reported in Bangladesh so far.
Jamuna TV station said while flood waters were receding from some areas, many new areas were affected by new flooding on Monday.
Authorities said hundreds of villages remained cut off from electricity supply while road infrastructure has been damaged extensively.


Philippines’ Marcos Jr says discussed defense agreements, climate funding with US envoy

Updated 3 min 54 sec ago

Philippines’ Marcos Jr says discussed defense agreements, climate funding with US envoy

  • Possible extension of a pact that allows US troops to conduct exchanges on Philippine soil

MANILA: Philippines president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr said on Monday he discussed the extension of a joint military agreement with an envoy of defense ally the United States, after meetings with senior diplomats of four countries.

Ambassadors of Japan, India and South Korea and the US Chargé d’Affaires made courtesy calls on Monday to Marcos, the son and namesake of the notorious late dictator, following his landslide election victory this month.

Marcos, 64, who take office late in June, said he discussed with the US envoy the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and how it would be redefined amid a changing regional landscape, plus funding for climate change mitigation.

“We would welcome any assistance for the economy that we can get from the United States,” Marcos told a news conference. “Trade, not aid.”

The VFA, which provides a legal framework by which US troops can operate on Philippine soil, was a bone of contention for incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, who repeatedly threatened to scrap it.

“Security concerns of course has always been a big part of our relationship with the United States,” Marcos said.

India’s envoy to the Philippines Shambhu Kumaran during a courtesy visit to president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (BBM Media Office)

Analysts expect Marcos to pursue close China ties, which could complicate relations with former colonial power Washington, his military, and the Philippine public, with which the United States is popular.

He last week spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said he wanted bilateral ties to “shift to a higher gear.”

Marcos said he discussed aid projects with Japan’s ambassador, microfinance with India and with South Korea, information technology, regional security and the possible reactivation of a disused nuclear plant.

South Korea ambassador Kim Inchul during a courtesy visit to president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (BBM Media Office)

The plant was intended by his late father to be part of his economic modernization legacy, but was mothballed after his overthrow in a 1986 “people power” uprising, two years after completion.

Marcos said he asked Arsenio Balisacan, the national anti-trust agency chief, to be economic planning minister, a role he held from 2012 to 2016 under an administration that was a rival to the influential Marcos family.


7 die in Philippine ferry fire; over 120 rescued from water

Updated 23 May 2022

7 die in Philippine ferry fire; over 120 rescued from water

  • The coast guard said everyone on the ferry had been accounted for and 24 people who were injured were brought to a hospital

MANILA: A ferry carrying more than 130 people caught fire in the northeastern Philippines on Monday, killing seven passengers and forcing many survivors to jump into the sea where they were rescued by other vessels.
The fire rapidly spread from the engine room to the upper passenger deck of the M/V Mercraft 2 while it was approaching a seaport in Real, town administrator Filomena Portales said. It had been en route to the town in Quezon province from Polillo Island.
Many of the 134 passengers and crew jumped into the water and were plucked from the sea by motorboats and cargo vessels, coast guard officials said.
“Fishing boats and other vessels were able to approach quickly and everybody helped, so the rescue was fast,” Portales told The Associated Press by telephone, adding many of those rescued were in shock and had to be treated for burns and bruises and given dry clothes and shoes.
Pictures released by the coast guard showed fire engulfing the ferry and dark smoke billowing from it. Injured survivors on stretchers were taken to waiting ambulance vans while a rescuer tried to revive an unconscious survivor by pressing on his chest.
The coast guard said everyone on the ferry had been accounted for and 24 people who were injured were brought to a hospital.
Portales said seven passengers died from burns and drowning and one possibly had a heart attack while floating in the water.
Investigators were looking into the fire and other ferries operated by the owner of Mercraft 2 would likely be suspended from operating while undergoing safety inspections, officials said. The wreckage was towed to shore in Real.
Sea accidents are common in the Philippine archipelago because of frequent storms, badly maintained boats, overcrowding and weak enforcement of safety regulations. In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker, killing more than 4,300 people in the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.