Beijing urges millions to keep working from home amid COVID-19 outbreak menace

Five of the Beijing’s 16 districts advised residents to work from home and avoid gatherings. Those who have to go to work should have a negative result on a PCR test taken within 48 hours. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 May 2022

Beijing urges millions to keep working from home amid COVID-19 outbreak menace

  • The Chinese capital on Monday reported 99 new cases were detected on May 22, up from 61 the previous day

BEIJING/SHANGHAI: Beijing authorities extended work-from-home guidance for many of its 22 million residents to stem a persistent COVID-19 outbreak, while Shanghai deployed more testing and curbs to hold on to its hard-won ‘zero COVID’ status after two months of lockdown.
On Monday, the Chinese capital reported 99 new cases were detected on May 22, up from 61 the previous day — the largest daily tally so far during a month-old outbreak that has consistently seen dozens of new infections every day.
In Shanghai fewer than 600 daily cases were reported for May 22, with none outside quarantined areas, as there has been the case for much of the past week.
Analysts at Gavekal Dragonomics estimated last week that fewer than 5 percent of Chinese cities were reporting infections, down from a quarter in late March, in a COVID-19 outbreak that has cast a pall over growth in the world’s no. 2 economy. But vigilance, and concern, remains acute in Shanghai and the capital.
While there were no new announcements of areas being closed in Beijing, five of the city’s 16 districts advised residents to work from home and avoid gatherings. Those who have to go to work should have a negative result on a PCR test taken within 48 hours, and must not deviate from their home-to-work commute.
“The city’s epidemic prevention and control is at a critical moment,” Beijing’s Tongzhou district posted on its WeChat account late on Sunday, asking residents who work in five other districts to do their jobs from home this week.
“One step forward and victory is in sight. One step back, and previous efforts would be wasted.”
Beijing had already curtailed public transport, asked some shopping malls and other stores and venues to close and sealed buildings where new cases were detected.
In one large residential compound not under isolation orders, shelves have been set up for deliveries at the entrance, according to residents, fueling concern that preparation was in place for tougher controls on movement.
The curbs in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere in China are leaving behind significant economic damage and disruption to global supply chains and international trade.
The highly-transmissible omicron variant of the virus first discovered in the city of Wuhan in late 2019 has proven hard to defeat even with strict measures that starkly contrast the resumption of normal life elsewhere in the world.
“We’ve been massively hit,” said a convenience store owner surnamed Sun, whose shop in Beijing has only been allowed to operate during daytime rather than its usual 24/7 hours.
“Even during the Wuhan outbreak we could stay open the whole time.”
In Shanghai, which reopened more than 250 bus routes and a small part of its sprawling subway system on Sunday, many towns and districts announced more mass testing for the coming days and asked residents not to leave their compounds.
The commercial hub of 25 million has allowed more people to leave their homes for brief periods over the past week, but it generally plans to keep most restrictions in place this month, before a lifting its two-month-old lockdown from June 1.
However, while more people are being allowed outside, several residents in various areas of Shanghai said they had been told of new infections in their vicinity that required new curbs on movement.
One resident in Hongkou district, which has not reported any new community-level cases since May 7, said he was told last week not to leave his flat, having been allowed to move within his compound previously.
Hongkou was among six districts which have announced some tightening of curbs in recent days to “consolidate” the results of their efforts so far.
But such moves made some people fear the virus was making a comeback.
The top comment on a post by state agency Xinhua on China’s Twitter-like Weibo post on Shanghai’s latest numbers read: “This can’t be accurate, zero COVID cases at community level? Our compound had one new case yesterday.”
Asked to comment, the Shanghai government said that all cases found in recent days were in “sealed” high-risk areas or quarantine centers, and that any community transmission cases would be announced on official channels.


Afghan migrants continue to face abuse from Iranian border guards, traffickers

Updated 14 sec ago

Afghan migrants continue to face abuse from Iranian border guards, traffickers

  • Hundreds of Afghans are trying to cross the Iranian border every day
  • Allegations of mistreatment in Iran have been on the rise since last year

KABUL: When Mohammad Parwiz was trying to cross from Iran to Turkey in search of a better life, he was caught by Iranian police guards and subjected to forced labor before being deported back to Afghanistan.

Parwiz is just one among hundreds of Afghans trying to cross the Iranian border every day to find employment abroad. He is also one of an increasing number to face abuse in the process.
Iran has for decades hosted millions of Afghans fleeing armed conflict in their war-torn country. The number jumped to 5 million from nearly 4 million last year, according to Iranian Foreign Ministry data, as economic restrictions imposed on Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover in August 2021 triggered unprecedented levels of poverty.
“As embassies closed in August last year, I had no other way but to go to Iran illegally,” Parwiz, a 22-year-old from the northern Baghlan province, told Arab News.
“I stayed in Iran for three months working at my relative’s bakery. My friends and I were caught by a border police patrol close to Turkey’s border.
“We were kept in jail for 12 days where we were forced to do hard labor and if we didn’t, they would hit us. We wouldn’t get proper food during that time. They constantly threatened us that if we come to Iran again, we may get killed. After 12 days of forced labor, humiliation, abuse and torture by Iran’s police, we were sent back to Afghanistan.”
Allegations of mistreatment of Afghans in Iran have been on the rise since last year. Reports include abuse not only by the Iranian police, but also human traffickers.
Ahmad Jalil, a 19-year-old from Laghman province, tried to leave Afghanistan and go via Iran to Turkey, from where he wanted to reach Europe with a group of 15 other teenagers.
“We paid a lot of money to the trafficker here but when we entered Iran through the border in Nimroz province during the night, we were received by another person after walking in the desert for hours,” he said.
The second smuggler asked them for more money.
“The trafficker would abuse us and would beat some of us,” Jalil said. “He even threatened us with death.”
Eventually, Jalil was abandoned and managed to return to Afghanistan on his own.
“We have cases of Afghan migrants being abused, beaten up and even killed,” Sayed Hazratullah Zaeem, a commissioner at Islam Qala, a border town in Herat province, near the Afghanistan–Iran border, told the Afghan media on Thursday.
Abdullah Qayoum, an official of the Department of Refugees and Repatriation in Herat, confirmed the reports of abuse.
“Afghans who want to go there (Iran), some of them are sent back after being tortured,” he said.
In April, videos circulated on social media showing civilians being manhandled by men dressed like Iranian security forces sparked a wave of demonstrations targeting Iranian diplomatic missions in Kabul and Herat, and a diplomatic protest by Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities.
“The border police in Iran are so brutal. For them we are not even humans,” said Mohammad Karim, a recent graduate from Kabul, who tried to cross from Iran to Turkey earlier this year.
He did not manage to reach his destination after he was injured in a car accident as his traffickers tried to evade Iranian police.
“If they saw our vehicle in the desert, they would shoot at us,” he said.


Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines

Updated 13 August 2022

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines

  • Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian authorities repeatedly have blocked efforts to provide state-subsidized drugs to people in occupied cities, towns and villages

KYIV: Ukraine’s health minister has accused Russian authorities of committing a crime against humanity by blocking access to affordable medicines in areas its forces have occupied since invading the country 5 1/2 months ago.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian authorities repeatedly have blocked efforts to provide state-subsidized drugs to people in occupied cities, towns and villages.
“Throughout the entire six months of war, Russia has not (allowed) proper humanitarian corridors so we could provide our own medicines to the patients that need them,” Liashko said, speaking at the Health Ministry in Kyiv late Friday.
“We believe that these actions are being taken with intent by Russia, and we consider them to be crimes against humanity and war crimes that will be documented and will be recognized,” the minister said.
The Ukrainian government has a program that provides medications to people with cancer and chronic health conditions. The destruction of hospitals and infrastructure along with the displacement of an estimated 7 million people inside the country also have interfered with other forms of treatment, according to United Nations and Ukrainian officials.
The war in Ukraine has caused severe disruptions to the country’s state-run health service, which was undergoing major reforms, largely in response to the coronavirus pandemic, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade on Feb. 24.
The World Health Organization said it recorded 445 attacks on hospitals and other health care facilities as of Aug. 11 that directly resulted in 86 deaths and 105 injuries.
But Liashko said the secondary effects were far more severe.
“When roads and bridges have been damaged in areas now controlled by the Ukrainian forces... it is difficult to get someone who had a heart attack or a stroke to the hospital,” he said. “Sometimes, we can’t make it in time, the ambulance can’t get there in time. That’s why war causes many more casualties (than those killed in the fighting). It’s a number that cannot be calculated.”


Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry

Updated 13 August 2022

Two more ships depart from Ukraine — Turkey’s defense ministry

ANKARA: Two more ships left from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Saturday, Turkey’s defense ministry said, bringing the total number of ships to depart the country under a UN-brokered deal to 16.
Barbados-flagged Fulmar S left Ukraine’s Chornomorsk port, carrying 12,000 tons of corn to Turkey’s southern Iskenderun province, it said. The Marshall Island-flagged Thoe departed from the same port and headed to Turkey’s Tekirdag, carrying 3,000 tons of sunflower seeds.
The statement added that another ship would depart from Turkey on Saturday to Ukraine to buy grains.

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul

Updated 13 August 2022

Taliban violently disperse rare women’s protest in Kabul

  • Some women protesters who took refuge in nearby shops were chased and beaten by Taliban fighters with their rifle butts

KABUL: Taliban fighters beat women protesters and fired into the air on Saturday as they violently dispersed a rare rally in the Afghan capital, days ahead of the first anniversary of the hard-line Islamists’ return to power.
Since seizing power on August 15 last year, the Taliban have rolled back the marginal gains made by women during the two decades of US intervention in Afghanistan.
About 40 women — chanting “Bread, work and freedom” — marched in front of the education ministry building in Kabul, before the fighters dispersed them by firing their guns into the air, an AFP correspondent reported.
Some women protesters who took refuge in nearby shops were chased and beaten by Taliban fighters with their rifle butts.
The protesters carried a banner which read “August 15 is a black day” as they demanded rights to work and political participation.
“Justice, justice. We’re fed up with ignorance,” chanted the protesters, many of them not wearing face veils, before they dispersed.
Some journalists covering the protest — the first women’s rally in months — were also beaten by the Taliban fighters.
After seizing power, the Taliban had promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterised their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
But many restrictions have already been imposed.
Tens of thousands of girls have been shut out of secondary schools, while women have been barred from returning to many government jobs.
Women have also been banned from traveling alone on long trips, and can only visit public gardens and parks in the capital on days separate from men.
In May, the country’s supreme leader and chief of the Taliban, Hibatullah Azkhundzada, even ordered women to fully cover themselves in public, including their faces — ideally with an all-encompassing burqa.
Some Afghan women initially pushed back against the curbs, holding small protests.
But the Taliban soon rounded up the ringleaders, holding them incommunicado while denying they had been detained.


‘Dead fish everywhere’ in Germany, Poland, after feared chemical waste dump

Updated 13 August 2022

‘Dead fish everywhere’ in Germany, Poland, after feared chemical waste dump

  • In Poland, the government has come under heavy criticism for failing to take swift action
  • Officials believe that the fish are likely to have been poisoned

SCHWEDT, Germany: Thousands of fish have washed up dead on the Oder river running through Germany and Poland, sparking warnings of an environmental disaster as residents are urged to stay away from the water.
The fish floating by the German banks near the eastern town of Schwedt are believed to have washed upstream from Poland where first reports of mass fish deaths were made by locals and anglers as early as on July 28.
German officials accused Polish authorities of failing to inform them about the deaths, and were taken by surprise when the wave of lifeless fish came floating into view.
In Poland, the government has also come under heavy criticism for failing to take swift action.
Almost two weeks after the first dead fish appeared floating by Polish villages, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday that “everyone had initially thought that it was a local problem.”
But he admitted that the “scale of the disaster is very large, sufficiently large to say that the Oder will need years to recover its natural state.”
“Probably enormous quantities of chemical waste was dumped into the river in full knowledge of the risk and consequences,” added the Polish leader, as German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke urged a comprehensive probe into what she called a brewing “environmental disaster.”
Standing by the riverbank, Michael Tautenhahn, deputy chief of Germany’s Lower Oder Valley National Park, looked in dismay at the river on the German-Polish border.
“We are standing on the German side — we have dead fish everywhere,” he told AFP.
“I am deeply shocked... I have the feeling that I’m seeing decades of work lying in ruins here. I see our livelihood, the water — that’s our life,” he said, noting that it’s not just fish that have died, but also mussels and likely countless other water creatures.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
The Oder has over the last years been known as a relatively clean river, and 40 domestic species of fish make their home in the waterway.
But now, lifeless fish — some as small as a few centimeters, others reaching 30-40 cm — can be seen across the river. Occasionally, those still struggling to pull through can be seen flipping up in the water, seemingly gasping for air.
Officials believe that the fish are likely to have been poisoned.
“This fish death is atypical,” said Axel Vogel, environment minister for Brandenburg state, estimating that “undoubtedly tons” of fish have died.
Fish death is often caused by the distortion of oxygen levels when water levels are too low, he explained.
“But we have completely different test results, namely that we have had increased oxygen level in the river for several days, and that indicates that a foreign substance has been introduced that has led to this,” he said.
Tests are ongoing in Germany to establish the substance that may have led to the deaths, but there are early indications of extremely high levels of mercury — although authorities said final results are still pending.
In Poland, prosecutors have also begun investigating after authorities came under fire over what critics said was a sluggish response to a disaster.
Tautenhahn said the disaster would likely carry consequences for years to come.
“If it is quicksilver, then it will also stay here for a long time,” he said, noting that mercury does not disintegrate but would then remain in the sediments.