Japan widens COVID-19 curbs, including in Tokyo, as cases surge

Japan had been gradually expanding social and business activity since an earlier wave of infections subsided in September. (AFP)
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Updated 19 January 2022

Japan widens COVID-19 curbs, including in Tokyo, as cases surge

  • Experts’ panel approves a plan to put the 13 areas under a three-week restraint through Feb. 13
  • Japan has so far resisted the use of lockdowns to fight the pandemic

TOKYO: The Japanese government will place Tokyo and a dozen other areas under new restrictions for COVID-19 effective Friday, allowing local leaders to shorten hours for eateries, as a surge in omicron cases threatens to paralyze society.
A government-commissioned experts’ panel on Wednesday approved a plan to put the 13 areas under a three-week restraint through Feb. 13, said Economy Revitalization Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa, who is also in charge of virus measures.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to officially announce the new measures at a government taskforce meeting later Wednesday.
Japan has so far resisted the use of lockdowns to fight the pandemic and instead has focused on requiring restaurants and bars to close early and not serve alcohol, and asking the public to wear masks and practice social distancing, as the government seeks to minimize damage to the economy.
Japan had been gradually expanding social and business activity since an earlier wave of infections subsided in September, which experts say was largely due to the country’s rapid progress in rolling out the initial two doses of vaccines.
But experts say breakthrough infections by the omicron variant are more common. The fast-spreading variant has caused a number of medical workers and others to self-isolate after testing positive or coming into close contact with someone who has. Sharply rising infections have already begun to paralyze hospitals, schools and other sectors in some areas.
The national government is taking action following requests by local governors, including Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who raised alarms about the possibility of essential public services, such as public transportation and garbage collection, grinding to a halt.
Tokyo reported 5,185 new infections Tuesday. Nationwide, Japan has logged more than 32,000 cases, bringing its total to 1.93 million cases, with 184,00 deaths.
More than 134,000 patients are now quarantining or hospitalized for COVID-19, according to the Health Ministry.
Shigeru Omi, the government’s top medical adviser, said vaccines no longer offer reliable protection against the omicron variant, making testing and social curbs among the only effective and realistic measures to prevent more infections.
Restrictions will be in place in 16 areas around the country, including three other prefectures — Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi — which were placed under similar measures earlier this month.
Other areas, including badly hit Osaka, where 5,396 new cases were reported Tuesday, may be added later.
While about 80 percent percent of Japanese have received their first two vaccine doses, the booster rollout nationwide has been slow and reached only 1.3 percent of the population.
The government recently decided to cut intervals between the second and third shots to six months from eight for elderly people, but younger people are unlikely to get their turn until March or later.
While Kishida stresses the need for safety as justification for the restrictions, the measures are also seen as political moves to gain public support ahead of this summer’s parliamentary elections.
Critics also say the measures, which almost exclusively target bars and restaurants, make little sense and are unfair.


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.