Palestinians confront winter COVID surge fueled by omicron

A health care worker takes a nasal swab sample from a Palestinian woman in a COVID-19 testing center, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday. (AP)
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Updated 03 February 2022

Palestinians confront winter COVID surge fueled by omicron

  • The Palestinian Authority's Health Ministry reported over 70,000 active cases in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, annexed east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip on Thursday
  • The real figure is likely much higher, as omicron tends to cause milder symptoms

RAMALLAH, West Bank: Palestinians are facing a winter coronavirus surge driven by the omicron variant, placing stress on the medical system even though vaccines are widely available.
The Palestinian Authority’s Health Ministry reported over 70,000 active cases in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, annexed east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip on Thursday, more than twice the number at the height of previous surges.
The real figure is likely much higher, as omicron tends to cause milder symptoms, especially in vaccinated patients, and many people are testing at home.
At least 268 people have been hospitalized in the parts of the occupied West Bank administered by the Palestinian Authority, including 80 in intensive care and 24 people on ventilators. Gaza currently has at least 63 serious cases.
The PA has reported at least 4,859 deaths in the West Bank and Gaza since the start of the pandemic.
Dr. Mahdi Rashed, director of health services for the Ramallah governorate, where the PA is headquartered, says hospitals across the territory are at about 85 percent capacity. “It’s a dangerous sign, and a sign that the worst is yet to come,” he said.
The number of serious cases is not yet as high as during a surge last spring, before vaccines were widely available, but Rashed said the current surge hasn’t yet peaked.
The outbreak follows a similar omicron surge in Israel, where the number of infections hit all-time highs and hospitals have been greatly strained. While infections remain high in Israel, the surge has begun to recede.
Israel launched one of the earliest vaccination rollouts in the world last year but initially declined to share its supplies with the PA. Last summer, it offered 1 million doses of vaccines that were about to expire, but the Palestinians refused, saying they didn’t meet their standards.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, territories the Palestinians want for a future state, in the 1967 Mideast war. It annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized by most of the international community. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Two years later, the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power there, and Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade.
Rights groups said Israel was obliged to provide vaccines as an occupying power. Israel denied having any obligation, citing past agreements with the Palestinians. Israel has provided vaccines to its own Arab citizens, Palestinians in east Jerusalem and tens of thousands of Palestinians who enter Israel to work.
The Palestinian Authority has meanwhile secured its own supply of vaccines, including through a World Health Organization program for developing countries, but only around half of Palestinians have received them. A vaccination center in Ramallah was mostly empty this week.
A testing center adjacent to it was far busier, with dozens of Palestinians coughing through their masks and showing other symptoms of the virus.
Dr. Abdelbasit Zeineddin said up to 2,000 people show up each day, with around half testing positive.
“The numbers are much higher than before,” he said.
Lama Abu Hilou, 22, has had two vaccine doses but started showing symptoms of the virus this week. She said she came to be tested because she fears it spreading among her extended family. Like many Palestinians, they live in the same apartment building and often gather together.
“It’s not just one person getting it, you hear about entire families, the mother, the father, the children, all infected,” she said.
In Gaza, where the health system has been battered by years of conflict, including last year’s war, the Health Ministry is predicting an “unprecedented number of cases” in the coming weeks.
But Dr. Majdi Dhair, the director of preventive medicine at the ministry, said authorities are confident they can overcome the surge, given the relative youth of Gaza’s population of more than 2 million Palestinians.
“Our main concern is infections among health workers that may lead to a staff shortage,” he said.


8 killed, 44 injured in car crash in southern Egypt

Updated 16 sec ago

8 killed, 44 injured in car crash in southern Egypt

CAIRO: Eight people were killed and 44 injured in a car crash on Thursday near Egypt’s southern province of Aswan, the state-run news agency reported.
The incident took place in the early morning when a passenger bus collided with a truck, on a highway linking Awsan to Abu Simbel, the seat of the ancient temples of Ramses II, MENA said.
Ambulance vehicles rushed to the scene to carry the casualties’ bodies to Aswan’s morgue and to transfer the wounded to the province’s main hospital, added the report.
Deadly traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes and collisions are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
In January, at least 16 people were killed 18 others injured when a microbus collided with a public transportation bus in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Egypt’s official statistics agency says there were around 10,000 road accidents in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, leaving over 3,480 dead. In 2018, there were 8,480 car accidents, causing over 3,080 deaths.

UN Security Council to vote on extending Syria cross-border aid

Updated 07 July 2022

UN Security Council to vote on extending Syria cross-border aid

  • The UN resolution permitting aid deliveries across the Syrian-Turkish border at Bab Al-Hawa has been in effect since 2014
  • Nearly 10,000 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid passed through Bab Al-Hawa last year

UNITED NATIONS, US: The United Nations Security Council votes Thursday on extending its authorization of aid transfers across Syria’s border without approval from Damascus, with Russia seeking a six-month prolongation while Western nations want a full year.
The UN resolution permitting aid deliveries across the Syrian-Turkish border at Bab Al-Hawa has been in effect since 2014, but is set to expire on Sunday.
Norway and Ireland, two non-permanent members of the 15-country Security Council, have drafted a resolution that would extend the authorization until July 10, 2023.
Nearly 10,000 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid passed through Bab Al-Hawa last year, bound for the rebel-held Idlib region in northwestern Syria. It is the only crossing through which aid can be brought into Idlib without navigating areas controlled by Syrian government forces.
The resolution, which was obtained by AFP, calls on “all parties to ensure full, safe and unhindered access by all modalities, including cross-line, for deliveries of humanitarian assistance to all parts of Syria.”
Russia, a veto-holding Security Council member and ally of Damascus, has hinted in recent months that it would oppose an extension, having already forced a reduction in the number of allowed border crossings on the grounds that it violates Syria’s sovereignty.
According to diplomats, Russia ultimately put its own draft resolution on the table, which includes an extension of six months.
In an attempt to persuade Moscow, Norway and Ireland have inserted several amendments touching on the transparency of humanitarian shipments, possible contributions to Syria’s reconstruction, and on the need to develop aid deliveries via government-controlled territory.
Russia has long called for the West to participate in Syria’s reconstruction, but some council members, most vocally France, have refused until political reforms have been enacted.
However, during a Security Council meeting in June, a majority of countries — including the United States — offered support for financing so-called “early recovery projects” in Syria.
In this vein, the resolution by Norway and Ireland calls for “further international initiatives to broaden the humanitarian activities in Syria, including water, sanitation, health, education, and shelter early recovery projects.”
By Wednesday evening, few diplomats dared to predict whether the additions would be enough to convince Russia to agree to a full-year extension.
But some told AFP that a last-minute compromise was possible, by making the six-month extension renewable for an additional six months practically by default.

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Sudan protesters take to the barricades again

Updated 07 July 2022

Sudan protesters take to the barricades again

JEDDAH: Protesters in Sudan took to makeshift street barricades of rocks and tires for a seventh day on Wednesday as military leader Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan fired the last civilian members of the country’s ruling council.

Burhan, who seized power in a coup last October, has vowed to “make room” for civilian groups to form a new transitional government after he disbanded the ruling Sovereign Council, which he chairs. The council’s members said they had received no formal notification and were surprised to discover that their official vehicles had been taken away.

Protesters have demanded a restoration of the transition to civilian rule despite repeated crackdowns by the security forces, who have in recent days fired live bullets, launched barrages of tear gas canisters and deployed water cannons. At least 114 people have been killed in the crackdown since October.

The transitional government uprooted by Burhan last year had been forged between the military and civilian factions in 2019, following mass protests that prompted the army to oust dictator Omar Bashir.

Sudan’s main civilian alliance, the Forces for Freedom and Change, said Burhan’s latest move was a “giant ruse” and “tactical retreat.” They also called for “continued public pressure,” and protesters returned to the streets of Khartoum on Wednesday.

Democracy campaigners say the army chief has made such moves before. In November, a month after the coup, Burhan signed a deal with Abdalla Hamdok, the prime minister he had ousted in the power grab and put under house arrest, returning him to power.

But many people rejected that pact and took to the streets again, and Hamdok resigned in January warning that Sudan was “crossing a dangerous turning point that threatens its whole survival.”


United Arab Emirates cuts red tape to attract digital businesses

Updated 06 July 2022

United Arab Emirates cuts red tape to attract digital businesses

  • UAE aims to make it easier for digital companies to incorporate
  • Sets a target for 300 digital companies to incorporate within a year

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates is cutting red tape to make it easier and quicker for digital companies to incorporate, the latest economic policy announcement as the government seeks to further diversify the economy away from oil revenues.

Trade minister Thani Al Zeyoudi, flanked by executives from many state-linked entities, on Wednesday announced the changes that include better access to the financial and banking system.

“We want to show digitally enabled companies from Europe, Asia, the Americas, that the UAE is the world’s best place to live, work, invest and scale,” the minister told reporters, setting a target for 300 digital companies to incorporate within a year.

Those setting up in the UAE, home to financial center Dubai and oil-rich Abu Dhabi, would have visas issued sooner and be offered attractive commercial and residential leases, he said.

As other governments step up national efforts to increase renewable energy sources and move away from fossil fuels, the UAE is rolling out a series of initiatives to double the economy to $816 billion by 2030.

“We want to show that we are here to help; from commercial licenses and work visas, to opening bank accounts, finding office space and the perfect place to live,” Al Zeyoudi said.

United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi gestures during an interview with Reuters in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 30, 2022. (REUTERS)

Some company executives complain about the bureaucracy involved in setting up a business, including in hiring international staff in a country where citizens are a minority.

Still, the UAE’s Dubai has established itself as the region’s premier business hub and is already home to many multinational corporations and international businesses.

But regional competition has intensified as Saudi Arabia takes steps to re-mold itself as a leading financial and tourism center under the leadership of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We’re moving from a regional hub to a global hub,” Al Zeyoudi said. “We’re competing with the big, big boys now.”


Sudan’s Burhan relieves civilian members of the sovereign council from duties

Updated 06 July 2022

Sudan’s Burhan relieves civilian members of the sovereign council from duties

  • Army would not participate in internationally led dialogue efforts to break its stalemate with the civilian opposition

CAIRO: Sudan’s military leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan issued a decree relieving the five civilian members of the sovereign council from their duties, a statement on the council’s telegram account said on Wednesday.
Burhan said on Monday the army would not participate in internationally led dialogue efforts to break its stalemate with the civilian opposition, and urged political and revolutionary groups to start talks to form a transitional government.