Australia battles fresh omicron outbreak as COVID-19 deaths rise

Australian authorities have urged businesses to let staff work from home and recommended people get booster shots urgently, with only about 71 percent of the eligible population having received their boosters. (AFP)
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Updated 21 July 2022

Australia battles fresh omicron outbreak as COVID-19 deaths rise

  • Australia is reporting the highest daily numbers since the first omicron wave earlier this year
  • Australia avoided the high death tolls seen in other countries during the first waves of the pandemic

SYDNEY: Australia reported one of its highest daily death tolls from the coronavirus on Thursday while hospital admissions hovered near record levels, as authorities struggle to get ahead of highly contagious omicron variants.
The BA.4/5 variants are good at evading immune protection from vaccination or prior infection and have been driving a surge of new infections globally.
Australia is reporting the highest daily numbers since the first omicron wave earlier this year, with 89 deaths from the coronavirus on Thursday and 90 on Wednesday. Just over 55,600 new cases were recorded on Thursday, the highest since May 18.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said state leaders and federal health officials have not recommended making masks mandatory in indoor venues, despite calls by some doctors to do so.
Australia avoided the high death tolls seen in other countries during the first waves of the pandemic thanks largely to high levels of public compliance with tough social distancing restrictions.
But there is little public appetite for a return to such measures to defeat the latest surge in infections and Albanese has resisted pressure from some health experts to impose mask mandates.
“It’s no good having a mandate unless it’s enforced,” Albanese told ABC Radio.
He said health officials also had to take into account the effects of tough restrictions on mental health.
The latest omicron wave is pushing the number of people with COVID-19 in Australian hospitals close to the peak hit in January. About 5,350 patients are in hospitals, and several states are battling record admissions.
Authorities have urged businesses to let staff work from home and recommended people get booster shots urgently, with only about 71 percent of the eligible population having received their boosters. About 95 percent of people above 16 have had two doses.
Since the pandemic began, Australia has reported about 9 million COVID-19 cases and 10,968 deaths.


Beijing, Shenzhen scrap COVID-19 tests for public transport

Updated 1 min 56 sec ago

Beijing, Shenzhen scrap COVID-19 tests for public transport

  • Slight relaxation of COVID-19 testing requirements comes even as daily virus infections reach near-record highs
BEIJING: Local Chinese authorities on Saturday announced a further easing of COVID-19 curbs, with major cities such as Shenzhen and Beijing no longer requiring negative tests to take public transport.
The slight relaxation of COVID-19 testing requirements comes even as daily virus infections reach near-record highs, and follows weekend protests across the country by residents frustrated by the rigid enforcement of anti-virus restrictions that are now entering their fourth year, even as the rest of the world has opened up.
The southern technological manufacturing center of Shenzhen said Saturday that commuters no longer need to show a negative COVID-19 test result to use public transport or when entering pharmacies, parks and tourist attractions.
Meanwhile, the capital Beijing said Friday that negative test results are also no longer required for public transport from Dec. 5. However, a negative result obtained within the past 48 hours is still required to enter venues like shopping malls, which have gradually reopened with many restaurants and eateries providing takeout services.
The requirement has led to complaints from some Beijing residents that even though the city has shut many testing stations, most public venues still require COVID-19 tests.
The government reported 33,018 domestic infections found in the past 24 hours, including 29,085 with no symptoms.
As the rest of the world has learned to live with the virus, China remains the only major nation still sticking to a “zero-COVID” strategy which aims to isolate every infected person. The policy, which has been in place since the pandemic started, led to snap lockdowns and mass-testing across the country.
China still imposes mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers to the country, even as its infection numbers are low compared to its 1.4 billion population.
The recent demonstrations, the largest and most widely spread in decades, erupted Nov. 25 after a fire in an apartment building in the northwestern city of Urumqi killed at least 10 people.
That set off angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls. Authorities denied that, but the deaths became a focus of public frustration.
The country saw several days of protests across various cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, with protesters demanding an easing of COVID-19 curbs. Some demanded Chinese President Xi Jinping step down, an extraordinary show of public dissent in a society over which the ruling Communist Party exercises near total control.
Xi’s government has promised to reduce the cost and disruption of controls but says it will stick with “zero-COVID.” Health experts and economists expect it to stay in place at least until mid-2023 and possibly into 2024 while millions of older people are vaccinated in preparation for lifting controls that keep most visitors out of China.
While the government has conceded some mistakes, blamed mainly on overzealous officials, criticism of government policies can result in punishment. Former NBA star Jeremy Lin, who plays for a Chinese team, was recently fined 10,000 yuan ($1,400) for criticizing conditions in team quarantine facilities, according to local media reports.
On Friday, World Health Organization emergencies director Dr. Michael Ryan said that the UN agency was “pleased” to see China loosening some of its coronavirus restrictions, saying “it’s really important that governments listen to their people when the people are in pain.”

Russia likely planning to encircle Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut, Britain says

Updated 03 December 2022

Russia likely planning to encircle Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut, Britain says

  • Capture of the town would have limited operational value
  • But it can potentially allow Russia to threaten Kramatorsk and Sloviansk

Russia is likely planning to encircle the Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut with tactical advances to the north and south, Britain’s defense ministry said on Saturday.
The capture of the town would have limited operational value but it can potentially allow Russia to threaten Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the ministry added in a daily intelligence update.
“There is a realistic possibility that Bakhmut’s capture has become primarily a symbolic, political objective for Russia,” the ministry said in the update posted on Twitter.


UN human rights chief decries new Myanmar death sentences

Updated 03 December 2022

UN human rights chief decries new Myanmar death sentences

  • Military-installed government using capital punishment as a tool to crush opposition
  • At least seven university students were sentenced to death behind closed doors on Wednesday

BANGKOK: Myanmar’s military-installed government has sentenced more critics to death, bringing the total to 139, and is using capital punishment as a tool to crush opposition, the UN high commissioner for human rights said Friday.
High Commissioner Volker Turk said at least seven university students were sentenced to death behind closed doors on Wednesday, and there are reports that as many as four more youth activists were sentenced on Thursday.
“The military continues to hold proceedings in secretive courts in violation of basic principles of fair trial and contrary to core judicial guarantees of independence and impartiality,” Turk said in a statement. “Military courts have consistently failed to uphold any degree of transparency contrary to the most basic due process or fair trial guarantees.”
The military seized power in February last year, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The army’s action was met with widespread peaceful protests that were quashed with lethal force, triggering armed resistance that some UN experts have characterized as civil war.
Turk said the military-installed government has arrested nearly 16,500 people for opposing the army takeover, including about 1,700 who have been convicted in secret courts without access to lawyers.
The Students’ Union of Dagon University in Yangon, the country’s largest city, announced Thursday on its Facebook page that seven university students between the ages of 18 and 24 who were arrested on April 21 had been sentenced to death Wednesday by a military court in Yangon’s Insein Prison.
An executive member of the Dagon University Students’ Union told The Associated Press that the seven were accused of links to an urban guerrilla group opposed to military rule and convicted of murder for allegedly taking part in shooting a bank branch manager in April.
In late July, the government hanged four political activists, in the country’s first executions in at least three decades.
The hangings prompted condemnations from Western nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has sought to defuse the crisis with a five-point plan that the military government has failed to implement.
“By resorting to use death sentences as a political tool to crush opposition, the military confirms its disdain for the efforts by ASEAN and the international community at large to end violence and create the conditions for a political dialogue to lead Myanmar out of a human rights crisis created by the military,” Turk said.


US whistleblower Snowden gets a Russian passport – TASS

Updated 03 December 2022

US whistleblower Snowden gets a Russian passport – TASS

MOSCOW: Former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who exposed the scale of secret surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA), has sworn an oath of allegiance to Russia and received a Russian passport, TASS reported on Friday.
“Yes, he got [a passport], he took the oath,” Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s lawyer, told the state news agency TASS.
“This is still a criminal investigative matter,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday, referring any questions about the report on Snowden to the US Department of Justice, which declined to comment.
US authorities have for years wanted Snowden returned to the United States to face a criminal trial on espionage charges.
President Vladimir Putin in September granted Russian citizenship to Snowden, who fled the United States after leaking secret files that revealed the extensive eavesdropping activities of the United States and its allies.
“I’m in Russia because the White House intentionally canceled my passport to trap me here. They downed the President of Bolivia’s diplomatic aircraft to prevent me from leaving, and continue to interfere with my freedom of movement to this day,” Snowden, 39, said on Twitter on Friday, referring to events from 2013.
Snowden was referring an incident in July 2013, when Bolivia complained that its presidential jet carrying Evo Morales from Russia to Bolivia had been rerouted and forced to land in Austria over suspicion that Snowden was on board.
Defenders of Snowden hail him as a modern-day dissident for exposing the extent of US spying and alleged violation of privacy. Opponents say he is a traitor who endangered lives by exposing the secret methods that Western spies use to listen in on hostile states and militants.


EU bans cough syrup chemical over severe allergies

Updated 02 December 2022

EU bans cough syrup chemical over severe allergies

  • The European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommended that treatments containing pholcodine should be withdrawn from sale
  • "Use of pholcodine in the 12 months before general anaesthesia... is a risk factor for developing an anaphylactic reaction"

THE HAGUE: Cough medicines containing the chemical pholcodine should be banned due to the risk of potentially deadly allergic reactions in people under general anaesthetic, the European Union’s drug regulator said Friday.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommended that treatments containing pholcodine, which is used in adults and children to treat dry coughs, should be withdrawn from sale.
“Use of pholcodine in the 12 months before general anaesthesia... is a risk factor for developing an anaphylactic reaction” to muscle relaxants in the anaesthetic, the Amsterdam-based watchdog said.
Anaphylactic shock is a “sudden, severe and life-threatening allergic reaction,” it added.
Medicines with the chemical were “being withdrawn from the EU market and will therefore no longer be available by prescription or over the counter.”
Opioid-based pholcodine has been used as a cough medicine since the 1950s.
Medicines containing the chemical are currently authorized in the EU countries of Belgium, Croatia, France, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Slovenia, under brand names including Dimetane, Biocalyptol and Broncalene.
France had said in September that pholcodine could be banned due to the risk of allergies.
In April 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when a dry cough was one of the main symptoms of the disease, French authorities had recommended against the use of syrups with pholcodine.
The EMA in January had recommended updating packaging to warn of the risk of allergies, based on new data.