With hospitalizations up, France weighs return to masks

A man wears a protective mask against Covid-19 as he rides on the open deck of a double-decker tourist bus in Paris, on Friday. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 02 July 2022

With hospitalizations up, France weighs return to masks

  • From Paris commuters to tourists on the French Riviera, many people seem to welcome the government’s light touch
  • Virus-related hospitalizations rose quickly in France over the past two weeks

NICE, France: Tourism is booming again in France — and so is COVID-19.
French officials have “invited” or “recommended” people to go back to using face masks but stopped short of renewing restrictions that would scare visitors away or revive antigovernment protests.
From Paris commuters to tourists on the French Riviera, many people seem to welcome the government’s light touch, while some worry that required prevention measures may be needed.
Virus-related hospitalizations rose quickly in France over the past two weeks, with nearly 1,000 patients with COVID-19 hospitalized per day, according to government data. Infections are also rising across Europe and the United States, but France has an exceptionally high proportion of people in the hospital, according to Our World in Data estimates.
French government spokesperson Olivia Gregoire has said there are no plans to reintroduce national regulations that limit or set conditions for gathering indoors and other activities.
“The French people are sick of restrictions,” she said Wednesday on channel BFMTV. “We are confident that people will behave responsibly.”
France’s parliamentary elections last month resulted in President Emmanuel Macron losing his majority in the national legislature, while parties on the far right and the far left that had protested his government’s earlier vaccine and mask rules gained seats.
After the prime minister this week recommended that people resume wearing masks on public transportation, commuter Raphaelle Vertaldi said, “We need to deal with the virus, but we can’t stop living because of it.”
Vertaldi, who was boarding a train in Boussy-Saint-Antoine south of Paris, said she opposed mandatory mask use but would cover her mouth and nose again, if the government requires it.
Hassani Mohammed, a postal worker in Paris, didn’t wait for the government to decide. He masks up before his daily commute. With his wife recovering from surgery and two children at home, he does not want to risk contracting the coronavirus a third time.
“I realized that the pandemic does not belong to the past,” Mohammed said.
Masks have been contentious in France. Early in the pandemic, the French government suggested masks weren’t helpful. It ultimately introduced some of Europe’s toughest restrictions, including an indoors and outside mask mandate that lasted more than a year, along with strict lockdowns.
A Paris court ruled Tuesday that the French government failed to sufficiently stock up on surgical masks at the start of the pandemic and to prevent the virus from spreading. The administrative court in Paris also ruled that the government was wrong to suggest early on that that masks did not protect people from becoming infected.
The government lifted most virus rules by April, and foreign tourists have returned by land, sea and air to French Mediterranean beaches, restaurants and bars.
In the meantime, French hospitals are struggling with long-running staff and funding shortages. Local officials are contemplating new measures, including an indoor mask mandate in some cities, but nothing that would curb economic activity.
French tourism professionals expect a booming summer season despite the virus, with numbers that may even surpass pre-pandemic levels as Americans benefit from the weaker euro and others rediscover foreign travel after more than two years of a more circumscribed existence.
On the French Riviera, a slow economic recovery began last summer. But with attendance at gatherings still capped, social distancing rules and travel restrictions in place a year ago, most visitors to the area were French.
A tour guide and electric bicycle taxi driver in Nice described her joy at seeing foreign visitors again. During France’s repeated lockdowns, she transported essential workers, and took people to hospitals, to care for elderly relatives or for PCR tests.
Now, passengers on her bike from the US, Australia, Germany, Italy or beyond reach for the hand disinfectant taped to the barrier between the passenger and driver’s seats. She said she still diligently disinfects the bike before each ride, “like it’s 2020.”
A retired couple from the UK visited France this week on their first trip abroad since pandemic travel restrictions were lifted. They started with a cruise down the River Rhône – face masks were mandatory on the ship — and ended with a few days on the Mediterranean.
“It’s been delightful from start to finish,” said Ros Runcie, who was in Nice with her husband, Gordon. “Everyone is so pleased to see you, everyone is really polite and nice to visitors.”
Sue Baker, who was traveling with her husband, Phil, and the Runcies, observed: “It feels very much like pre-2020.”
Asked about the possible return of French mask rules, Phil Baker said, “Masks are a bit uncomfortable, especially in the heat.”
But his wife added, “If it means we can still go on a holiday, we’ll put them back on without hesitation.”


Greece accuses Turkey of forcing stranded migrants over border

Updated 10 sec ago

Greece accuses Turkey of forcing stranded migrants over border

  • The migrants were trapped on an islet in the Evros river at the border between the two countries
  • Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said the group were now being provided medical treatment in Greece
ATHENS: Greece on Tuesday accused Turkey of forcibly pushing a group of stranded migrants onto a small Greek island and leaving behind the body of a five-year-old child who died.
The incident follows years of tensions between the neighbors over migration issues, with each side blaming the other of avoiding their responsibilities.
The migrants were trapped on an islet in the Evros river at the border between the two countries.
In a statement issued while visiting the area, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said the group were now being provided medical treatment in Greece.
He said the 35 Syrians and three Palestinians had originally arrived on the Turkish side of the river.
“The Turkish authorities forced them to cross illegally into Greece,” he wrote on Twitter.
“It appears from statements that a 5-year-old child died on Turkish soil,” he added. Greek officials would work with the Red Cross to ensure her body was recovered for a proper burial.
Greek police suggested the group had not been found earlier as the migrants, who included a pregnant woman, were “some four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the point initially declared, which was outside Greek territory.”
The pregnant woman has been transferred to hospital.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR had previously expressed concern for the group and called for them to be cared for.
Greek police said they had informed Turkish border authorities about the case “twice” in recent days.
Tensions have simmered between Greece and Turkey over the issue of migrants, with both sides accusing the other of “pushbacks” on the border.
Earlier this year, Turkey said 12 migrants had frozen to death after being stripped of their clothes and moved on by Greek border guards.

Jill Biden tests positive for COVID-19, ‘mild’ symptoms

Updated 16 August 2022

Jill Biden tests positive for COVID-19, ‘mild’ symptoms

  • She has been prescribed the antiviral drug Paxlovid and will isolate at the vacation home for at least five days

KIAWAH ISLAND, South Carolina: First lady Jill Biden tested positive for COVID-19 and was experiencing “mild symptoms,” the White House announced Tuesday.
She had been vacationing with President Joe Biden in South Carolina when she began experiencing symptoms on Monday. She has been prescribed the antiviral drug Paxlovid and will isolate at the vacation home for at least five days.
Joe Biden tested negative for the virus on Tuesday morning, the White House said, but would be wearing a mask indoors for 10 days in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. He recovered from a rebound case of the virus on Aug.7.


Bus falls in gorge in Indian-administered Kashmir, kills six border policemen

Updated 2 min 19 sec ago

Bus falls in gorge in Indian-administered Kashmir, kills six border policemen

  • Police said 35 people survived the crash but some were badly injured
  • The bus was carrying members of the Indo Tibetan Border Police Force

SRINAGAR: A bus carrying personnel from India’s high-altitude border police rolled off a mountainous road and fell into a gorge in Indian-administered Kashmir on Tuesday, killing at least six officers, police said.

Kashmir police said on Twitter the injured were being flown to an army hospital in the Himalayan region’s main city of Srinagar, some 90 km (55 miles) from the accident site in Anantnag district.

A police officer told Reuters that 35 people survived the crash but some were badly injured.

The bus was carrying members of the Indo Tibetan Border Police Force, a federal force specializing in high-altitude operations, mainly on the Indo-China border.

Pictures from the site showed mangled remains of the bus by a fast-flowing river.


Taliban add more compulsory religion classes to Afghan universities

Updated 16 August 2022

Taliban add more compulsory religion classes to Afghan universities

  • Minister for higher education said they are adding five more religious subjects to the existing eight
  • Many conservative Afghan clerics in the hard-line Islamist Taliban are skeptical of modern education

KABUL: Afghan university students will have to attend more compulsory Islamic studies classes, education officials said Tuesday while giving little sign that secondary schools for girls would reopen.
Many conservative Afghan clerics in the hard-line Islamist Taliban, which swept back into power a year ago, are skeptical of modern education.
“We are adding five more religious subjects to the existing eight,” said Abdul Baqi Haqqani, minister for higher education, including Islamic history, politics and governance.
The number of compulsory religious classes will increase from one to three a week in government universities.
He told a news conference that the Taliban would not order any subjects to be dropped from the current curriculum.
However, some universities have altered studies on music and sculpture — highly sensitive issues under the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of sharia law — while an exodus of Afghanistan’s educated elite, including professors, has seen many subjects discontinued.
Officials have for months insisted that schools will reopen for girls, swaying between technical and financial issues as reasons for the continued closures.
Abdulkhaliq Sadiq, a senior official at the education ministry, on Tuesday said families in rural areas were still not convinced of the need to send girls to secondary school.
Under the Taliban’s last regime between 1996 and 2001, both primary and secondary schools for girls never reopened.
“We are trying to come up with a sound policy in coordination with our leaders... so that those in rural areas are also convinced,” he said.
Since seizing power on August 15 last year the Taliban have imposed harsh restrictions on girls and women to comply with their austere vision of Islam — effectively squeezing them out of public life.
Although young women are still permitted to attend university, many have dropped out because of the cost or because their families are afraid for them to be out in public in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, without a secondary school certificate, teenage girls will not be able to sit future university entrance exams.
The international community has made the right to education a key condition for formally recognizing the Taliban government.
Despite being in power for a year, no country has so far recognized the government.


Father and son linked to murders of Muslims, including two Pakistanis, in New Mexico

Updated 16 August 2022

Father and son linked to murders of Muslims, including two Pakistanis, in New Mexico

  • Police charged Afghan Muhammad Syed with two  murders, linked four killings to personal grudges
  • Son Shaheen Syed was arrested last week on federal firearms charges for providing a false address

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico: Police believe the son of the prime suspect in the killings of four Muslim men may have played a role in the murders, which have shaken the Muslim community in New Mexico's largest city.

Cellphone data shows Shaheen Syed, 21, was in the same "general area" of Albuquerque as his father at the time of the Aug. 5 killing of 25-year-old trucking entrepreneur Naeem Hussain, according to a filing by federal prosecutors for a Monday detention hearing during which Syed was denied bail.

Syed's attorney John Anderson said the allegations were "exceedingly thin and speculative."

Police last week charged Shaheen Syed's father, Muhammad Syed, 51, with two of the murders and linked the four killings to personal grudges, possibly fueled by intra-Muslim sectarian hatred. Shaheen Syed was arrested last week on federal firearms charges for providing a false address.

"Law enforcement officers also have recently discovered evidence that appears to tie the defendant, Shaheen Syed, to these killings," the filing said.

Agents believe Shaheen Syed observed Naeem Hussain leaving an Aug. 5 funeral service for two of the murdered Muslim men, based on FBI analysis of cell tower data. He then followed Hussain to the area of a parking lot where he was shot dead.

"Telephone calls between Muhammad Atif Syed and the defendant (Shaheen Syed) would be consistent with quick surveillance calls, both before and after the shooting," the filing said.

Prosecutors did not provide evidence on the other shootings.

Imtiaz Hussain said he believed at least two people were involved in the Aug. 1 murder of his brother Muhammad Afzaal Hussain.

A pistol and rifle were used to shoot Afzaal Hussain, a city planning director, 15 times in around 15 to 20 seconds, according to police records and Imtiaz.

“For one suspect it is difficult to use two weapons in that short an interval,“ said Imtiaz Hussain.

The victims Naeem Hussain and Afzaal Hussain were not related.

Muhammad Syed, an Afghan refugee, has been charged with killing Afzaal Hussain, who was from Pakistan, and cafe manager Aftab Hussein, 41, who had ties to Afghanistan and Pakistan. A fourth man, supermarket owner Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, was shot dead on Nov. 7, 2021.

Police have said they are working with prosecutors on potential charges for the murders of Naeem Hussain and Ahmadi.