Beijing tests millions, isolates thousands over COVID-19 cluster at 24-hour bar

The COVID-19 outbreak was traced to Heaven Supermarket Bar, above, a 24-hour bar known for cheap liquor and big crowds and which has recently just reopened. (Reuters)
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Updated 13 June 2022

Beijing tests millions, isolates thousands over COVID-19 cluster at 24-hour bar

  • Outbreak of nearly 200 cases linked to Heaven Supermarket Bar, which has just reopened
  • In all, Beijing reported 51 cases for Sunday, versus 65 the previous day

BEIJING: Authorities in China’s capital Beijing on Monday raced to contain a COVID-19 outbreak traced to a raucous 24-hour bar known for cheap liquor and big crowds, with millions facing mandatory testing and thousands under targeted lockdowns.
The outbreak of nearly 200 cases linked to the city center Heaven Supermarket Bar, which had just reopened as curbs in Beijing eased last week, highlights how hard it will be for China to make a success of its “zero COVID-19” policy as much of the rest of the world opts to learn how to live with the virus.
The re-emergence of COVID-19 infections is also raising new concerns about the outlook for the world’s second-largest economy. China is only just shaking off a heavy blow from a two-month lockdown of Shanghai, its most populous city and commercial nerve center, that also roiled global supply chains.
Dine-in service at Beijing restaurants resumed on June 6 after more than a month in which the city of 22 million people enforced various COVID-19 curbs. Many malls, gyms and other venues were closed, parts of the city’s public transport system were suspended, and millions were urged to work from home.
“We have to test every day now. It’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s necessary,” said a 21-year-old resident surnamed Cao, who runs a convenience store in Beijing’s largest district Chaoyang, where the bar cluster was discovered. “The virus situation has hurt our business a bit, it’s down about 20-30 percent.”
Chaoyang kicked off a three-day mass testing campaign among its roughly 3.5 million residents on Monday. About 10,000 close contacts of the bar’s patrons have been identified, and their residential buildings put under lockdown, and some planned school reopenings in the district have been postponed.
Queues snaked around some testing sites on Monday for more than 100 meters, according to Reuters’ eyewitnesses. Large metal barriers have been installed around several residential compounds, with people in hazmat suits spraying disinfectant nearby.
Last week, as dine-in curbs were lifted, Heaven Supermarket Bar, modelled as a large self-service liquor store with chairs, sofas and tables, reclaimed its popularity among young, noisy crowds starved of socializing and parties during Beijing’s COVID-19 restrictions.
The bar, where patrons check aisles to grab anything from local heavy spirits to Belgian beer, is known among Beijing revelers for its tables plastered with empty bottles, and customers falling asleep on sofas after midnight.
With the almost 200 COVID-19 cases linked to the bar since June 9, authorities described the outbreak as “ferocious” and “explosive” — people infected live or work in 14 of the capital’s 16 districts, authorities have said.
Officials have not commented on the exact cause of the outbreak, nor explained why they are not yet reinstating the level of curbs seen last month.
The bar cluster was caused by loopholes and complacency in epidemic prevention, state-backed Beijing Evening News wrote in a commentary piece on Monday.
“At a time when ... normality in the city is being restored, the fall of Heaven Supermarket Bar means the hardship and effort of countless people have been in vain,” the newspaper wrote.
If the outbreak grows, “consequences could be serious, and would be such that nobody would want to see,” it added.
Heaven Supermarket Bar, and other businesses nearby, including the Paradise Massage & Spa, were under lockdown, with police tape and security staff blocking the entrances.
A handful of customers and staff at the parlor would be locked in temporarily for checks, authorities said.
In all, Beijing reported 51 cases for Sunday, versus 65 the previous day, in line with a national trend of falling cases.


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

Updated 13 August 2022

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.