Japan widens coronavirus restrictions as omicron surges in cities

Under the latest measure, most eateries are asked to close by 8 or 9 p.m., while large events can allow full capacity if they have anti-virus plans. (AP)
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Updated 21 January 2022

Japan widens coronavirus restrictions as omicron surges in cities

  • The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first since September
  • While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, few have gotten a booster shot

TOKYO: Restaurants and bars will close early in Tokyo and a dozen other areas across Japan beginning Friday as the country widens COVID-19 restrictions due to the omicron variant causing cases to surge to new highs in metropolitan areas.
The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first since September and is scheduled to last through Feb. 13. With three other prefectures — Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi — under similar measures since early January, the state of restraint now covers 16 areas, or one-third, of the country.
While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, few have gotten a booster shot, which has been a vital protection from the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The Health Ministry on Friday approved Pfizer vaccinations for children aged 5-11, who are increasingly vulnerable to infection.
Throughout the pandemic, Japan has resisted the use of lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus and has focused on requiring eateries to close early and not serve alcohol, and on urging the public to wear masks and practice social distancing, as the government seeks to minimize damage to the economy.
Under the latest measure, most eateries are asked to close by 8 or 9 p.m., while large events can allow full capacity if they have anti-virus plans. In Tokyo, certified eateries that stop serving alcohol can stay open until 9 p.m. while those serving alcohol must close an hour earlier.
Restaurants that close at 9 p.m. and don’t serve alcohol receive 30,000 yen ($263) per day in government compensation, while those that close at 8 p.m. get 25,000 yen ($220) per day.
Critics say the measures, which almost exclusively target bars and restaurants, make little sense and are unfair.
Mitsuru Saga, the manager of a Japanese-style “izakaya” restaurant in downtown Tokyo, said he chose to serve alcohol and close at 8 p.m. despite receiving less compensation from the government.
“We cannot make business without serving alcohol,” Saga said in an interview with Nippon Television. “It seems only eateries are targeted for restraints.”
After more than two years of repeated restraints and social distancing requests, Japanese are increasingly becoming less cooperative to such measures. People are back to commuting on packed trains and shopping at crowded stores.
Tokyo’s main train station of Shinagawa was packed as usual with commuters rushing to work Friday morning.
Japan briefly eased border controls in November but quickly reversed them to ban most foreign entrants when the omicron variant began spreading in other countries. Japan says it will stick to the stringent border policy through end of February as the country tries to reinforce medical systems and treatment.
The tough border controls have triggered criticism from foreign students and scholars who say the measures are not scientific.
Some experts question the effectiveness of placing restraints only on eateries, noting that infections in the three prefectures that have already been subjected to the measures for nearly two weeks show no signs of slowing.
Tokyo logged 8,638 new cases of coronavirus infection Thursday, exceeding the previous record of 7,377 set the day before.
At a Tokyo metropolitan government task force meeting, experts sounded the alarm at the fast-paced upsurge led by omicron.
Norio Ohmagari, Director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center of National Center for Global Health and an adviser to the Tokyo metropolitan government panel, said Tokyo’s daily new cases may exceed 18,000 within a week if the increase continues at the current pace.
Though only some of the soaring number of infected people are hospitalized and occupying less than one-third of available hospital beds in the Japanese capital, experts say the rapid upsurge of the cases could quickly overwhelm the medical systems once the infections further spread among the elderly population who are more likely to become seriously ill.
Surging infections have already begun to paralyze hospitals, schools and other sectors in some areas.
The ministry has trimmed the required self-isolation period from 14 days to 10 for those who come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, and to seven days for essential workers if they test negative.
While about 80 percent of Japanese have received their first two vaccine doses, the rollout of booster shots has been slow and has reached only 1.4 percent of the population so far.


Reopening of girls’ high schools raised at Afghan Taliban’s first national gathering since takeover

Updated 11 sec ago

Reopening of girls’ high schools raised at Afghan Taliban’s first national gathering since takeover

  • Taliban organized gathering of 3,000 male religious and ethnic leaders from across Afghanistan
  • It was the first such gathering to take place since Taliban took over Afghanistan last August

KABUL: At least one participant at a gathering organized by the Taliban of 3,000 male religious and ethnic leaders from across Afghanistan called on Thursday for high schools for girls to reopen.

It was the first such gathering to take place since the Taliban took over the country in August.

The Taliban in March backtracked on their announcement that high schools would open for girls, saying they would remain closed until a plan was drawn up in accordance with Islamic law for them to reopen. read more

The u-turn left students in tears and drew condemnation from humanitarian agencies, rights groups and diplomats.

“They will learn and will be a good guide for their children in society,” said Sayed Nassrullah Waizi, from central Bamiyan province, in calling for the schools to open.

It was not clear how much support this sentiment would receive or how a decision on the issue might be reached.

International governments, particularly Washington, have said the Taliban needs to change its course on women’s rights to roll back the enforcement of sanctions that have severely hampered the banking sector.

Afghanistan is in a deep economic crisis as billions in central bank reserves have been frozen and international sanctions enforced on the banking sector after the Taliban took control.

The country’s acting prime minister said in a speech at the gathering in the capital Kabul that it was aimed at addressing challenges and strengthening the administration.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is trying to solve all problems ... this government has been reached after a lot of sacrifice, we should work together to strengthen it,” Mohammad Hasan Akhund said.

Some local media reported sounds of continuous gunfire near the gathering. A Taliban administration spokesman said there was no issue, that security was very high and the sounds of gunfire was due to a mistake by security guards.

The gathering appeared similar to a “loya jirga,” a traditional form of decision making in Afghanistan that some leaders, including former republic President Ashraf Ghani have used.

Civil society groups have criticized the lack of female participation. The Taliban acting deputy prime minister said women’s involvement was taking place as their male family members would attend. read more

Foreign states have called for an inclusive Afghan government. Key ministerial roles are held by Taliban members in an acting basis and the group has ruled out elections.


Belgium chocolate factory shut after salmonella infection

Updated 52 min 20 sec ago

Belgium chocolate factory shut after salmonella infection

  • Contamination is investigated at Barry Callebaut company
  • All chocolate products made at the plant placed on hold

BRUSSELS: A huge Belgian chocolate factory has halted production after detecting salmonella in a batch of chocolates.
The Barry Callebaut company said Thursday that its plant in Wieze – which it says is the world’s largest chocolate factory – shut down all production lines as a precaution while the contamination is investigated.
Barry Callebaut produces chocolate for multiple brands sold around the world.
The salmonella was detected Monday, and all chocolate products made at the plant were placed on hold pending investigation, the company said. It identified lecithin, an emulsifier routinely used in making chocolates, as the source of the contamination.
The company said it informed Belgian food safety authorities and is contacting customers who might have contaminated products in their possession.
It is unclear whether any consumers have reported being sickened by the chocolates.
Earlier this year, at least 200 reported cases of salmonella were believed linked to chocolate Easter eggs made in another Belgian plant operated by Italian company Ferrero.


Sudan gears up for mass protest against generals

Updated 30 June 2022

Sudan gears up for mass protest against generals

  • Sudan has been roiled by near-weekly protests as the country’s economic woes have deepened since army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan seized power last year

KHARTOUM: Activists in Sudan have called for mass rallies Thursday to demand the reversal of an October military coup that prompted foreign governments to slash aid, deepening a chronic economic crisis.
The protests come on the anniversary of a previous coup in 1989, which toppled the country’s last elected civilian government and ushered in three decades of iron-fisted rule by general Omar Al-Bashir.
They also come on the anniversary of 2019 protests demanding that the generals, who had ousted Bashir in a palace coup earlier that year, cede power to civilians.
Those protests led to the formation of the mixed civilian-military transitional government which was toppled in last year’s coup.
Security was tight in the capital Khartoum on Thursday despite the recent lifting of a state of emergency imposed after the coup.
An AFP correspondent said Internet and phone lines had been disrupted since the early hours, a measure the Sudanese authorities often impose to prevent mass gatherings.
Sudan has been roiled by near-weekly protests as the country’s economic woes have deepened since army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan seized power last year.
More than 100 people have been killed in protest-related violence, according to UN figures, as the military cracked down on the anti-coup movement.
“June 30 is our way to bring down the coup and block the path of any fake alternatives,” said the Forces for Freedom and Change, an alliance of civilian groups whose leaders were ousted in the coup.
Activists have called for “million-strong” rallies to mark the “earthquake of June 30.”
Small-scale demonstrations took place in the run-up to call for a huge turnout on Thursday.
UN special representative Volker Perthes called on the security forces to exercise restraint.
“Violence against protesters will not tolerated,” he said in a statement, adding that nobody should “give any opportunity to spoilers who want to escalate tensions in Sudan.”
The foreign ministry criticized the UN envoy’s comments, saying they were built on “assumptions” and “contradict his role as facilitator” in troubled talks on ending the political crisis.
Alongside the African Union and east African bloc IGAD, the United Nations has been attempting to broker talks between the generals and civilians, but they have been boycotted by all the main civilian factions.
The UN has warned that the deepening economic and political crisis threatens to push one third of the country’s population of more than 40 million toward life-threatening food shortages.


Ship with 7,000 tons of grain leaves Ukraine port as Russia pulls forces from Snake Island

A ship carrying 7,000 tons of grain has sailed from Ukraine’s port of Berdyansk. (File/AFP)
Updated 14 min 58 sec ago

Ship with 7,000 tons of grain leaves Ukraine port as Russia pulls forces from Snake Island

  • The Russian defense ministry said the withdrawal was a “goodwill gesture” to allow Kyiv to export agricultural products

MOSCOW: Russia on Thursday began shipping grain from Ukraine’s occupied territory, with a vessel carrying 7,000 tons of cereal sailing from Ukraine’s occupied port of Berdyansk.
Kyiv has for weeks accused Russia and its allies of stealing its grain from southern Ukraine, contributing to a global food shortage caused by grain exports blocked in Ukrainian ports.
Until now shipments have been transported by land, Kyiv says.
Thursday’s grain shipment from the port of Berdyansk marks the opening of a sea route to export wheat from Ukraine to third countries.
“After numerous months of delay, the first merchant ship has left the Berdyansk commercial port, 7,000 tons of grain are heading toward friendly countries,” Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the pro-Russia administration, said on Telegram.
Russia’s Black Sea ships “are ensuring the security” of the journey, he said, adding that the Ukrainian port had been demined.
Balitsky did not specify the final destination of the cargo.
Berdyansk is a port city on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov, in the region of Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine.
The southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have been largely under Russia’s control since the first weeks of Moscow’s military intervention, and are now being forcefully integrated into Russia’s economy.
The pro-Moscow officials in the two Ukrainian regions claim that they have “nationalized” state infrastructure and property there and buy their crops from local farmers.
A representative of the pro-Moscow authorities, Vladimir Rogov, told state news agency RIA Novosti that 1.5 million tons of grain can be exported via Berdyansk.
Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine, a country known as Europe’s breadbasket, has pushed up food prices and led to shortages, as Russia’s blockade of Black Sea ports prevents millions of tons of grain from being shipped out.
The crisis has sparked fears of famine in vulnerable countries highly reliant on Ukrainian exports, particularly in Africa.
Russia insists that it will let Ukraine ship its grain if Kyiv forces demine sea lanes.
Kyiv fears Russia will launch an attack on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
Talks involving Turkey and the UN have brought no results so far.
On Thursday, Russia said it had pulled its forces from Ukraine’s Snake Island, calling it a “goodwill gesture” to allow Kyiv to export agricultural products.
Russia, the largest wheat exporter in the world, has said it is facing difficulties in exporting its own grain due to unprecedented Western sanctions over its intervention in Ukraine.
Pro-Moscow officials in the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are hoping that the occupied territories could stage a referendum and join Russia in the near future.
On Wednesday, pro-Russian authorities said they were launching bus and train services between Moscow-annexed Crimea and the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
The pro-Moscow administration of the Kherson region also announced the opening of a branch of Russian Pension Fund responsible for paying state pensions.
Putin has said Russian forces will not occupy Ukraine.
The Kremlin claims local residents will choose their own future, suggesting they are in favor of a referendum on the status of Ukraine’s occupied territory.


Afghan pilgrim bicycling to Makkah reaches Saudi Arabia by air

Updated 30 June 2022

Afghan pilgrim bicycling to Makkah reaches Saudi Arabia by air

  • Noor Mohammad, 48, departed from his home in Ghazni province in early May
  • He was stranded in Iran after failing to obtain Iraqi visa to continue journey by land

KABUL: A pilgrim from southeastern Afghanistan, who became a social media sensation when he embarked on a bicycle journey to Makkah last month, has reached Saudi Arabia, Afghan authorities said on Wednesday, after his expedition took a series of unexpected turns, including a sponsored flight.

Noor Mohammad departed from his home in Layeq village, in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni province in early May, planning to cover more than 6,000 kilometers to reach the holy city of Islam by July and perform Hajj.

As he cycled through Afghanistan, a Taliban scholar offered him assistance in getting a plane ticket, but the 48-year-old refused, wanting to go the extra mile in fulfilling the sacred obligation.

Little did he know that soon the help would be needed when after three weeks he got stranded in Iran, trying to obtain an Iraqi visa in the border city of Khorramshahr.

“My Afghan friends promised to get me Iraq’s visa there,” Mohammad told Arab News, as he described his further attempts to get a Kuwaiti visa instead. Again, to no avail.

That was when he decided to reach out to the scholar.

“I had no other way. I contacted Shaikh Hammasi through WhatsApp,” he said. “He introduced me to an Afghan businessman who helped with the stay in Iran and return back to Kabul.”

A screengrab from a May 8, 2022, video shows Noor Mohammad departing for Makkah by bike from Layeq village, in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni, Afghanistan. (Social media)

In Kabul, he was immediately accepted for a Hajj preparation course, where officials took care of his departure. His flight was reportedly covered by acting Interior Minister Serajuddin Haqqani, a close aide of Anas Haqqani — the minister’s brother and senior Taliban leader — told Arab News.

“The ministry of Hajj processed my passport on an urgent basis,” Mohammad said, just days before leaving for Saudi Arabia.

He flew from Kabul on Tuesday, after all his travel documents were processed.

“His name was put on the first flight after that,” Mawlawi Israrulhaq, an official at the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, said. “He traveled to Jeddah from where he will join other Afghan Hajjis in Makkah.”

Mohammad was preparing for his flight days after a deadly earthquake wreaked havoc in eastern Afghanistan, killing an estimated 1,150 people last week.

He has been praying for the victims and said he would remember them too when he reached Makkah.

“As soon as I get to Makkah, I will pray to Allah to make it easy for the families who lost loved ones and their houses,” he added. “I am going to ask him to solve all problems of Afghans.”