Global COVID-19 cases up 80% as new subvariant rises

Several countries in the Northern Hemisphere, including the United States, United Kingdom, France and Japan have seen a summer uptick in cases in recent weeks. Above, a social distancing sign posted on student lockers at a school in Baldwin, New York on Aug. 28, 2020. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 11 August 2023
Follow

Global COVID-19 cases up 80% as new subvariant rises

  • WHO declared in May that COVID-19 is no longer a global health emergency
  • But global body has warned that the virus will continue to circulate and mutate

PARIS: The number of new COVID-19 cases reported worldwide rose by 80 percent in the last month, the World Health Organization said on Friday, days after designating a new “variant of interest.”
The WHO declared in May that COVID-19 is no longer a global health emergency, but has warned that the virus will continue to circulate and mutate, causing occasional spikes in infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
In its weekly update, the UN agency said that nations reported nearly 1.5 million new cases from July 10 to August 6, an 80 percent increase compared to the previous 28 days.
However the number of deaths fell by 57 percent to 2,500.
The WHO warned that the reported number of cases and deaths do not reflect the true numbers, in part because countries carry out far less testing and monitoring than during earlier stages of the pandemic.
Many of the new cases came in the Western Pacific region, which saw infections jump by 137 percent, the WHO said.
Several countries in the Northern Hemisphere, including the United States, United Kingdom, France and Japan have seen a summer uptick in cases in recent weeks.
Experts have suggested that summer gatherings and travel, declining immunity and a new subvariant may have all played a role in the increase.
On Wednesday, the WHO designated the omicron subvariant EG.5 as a “variant of interest” following a steady rise in its prevalence.
More than 17 percent of all reported cases were EG.5 in mid-July, up from 7.6 percent a month before, according to the WHO.
EG.5, which has been unofficially nicknamed “Eris” online, is considered to be a descendant of the XBB lineage of the virus.
It seems to be more transmissible than other circulating variants, likely due to a mutation in its spike protein, and the WHO said it has shown an ability to evade immunity.
But there is no sign that EG.5 causes more severe COVID-19 symptoms and it poses a “low” risk to global public health, the WHO said, comparing its threat to other recent omicron subvariants.
Nonetheless, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that “the risk remains of a more dangerous variant emerging that could cause a sudden increase in cases and deaths.”
France’s Health Minister Aurelien Rousseau called for vigilance, while emphasizing that COVID-19 numbers remain at low levels.
“We will have to live with the resurgence of this virus for several seasons to come,” he said in a statement.
Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, said that the true COVID-19 situation remained unclear “just about everywhere in the world.”
“Health authorities urgently need to reinstate a reliable COVID-19 health monitoring system,” he said, calling for wastewater to be analyzed to detect virus trends.
While the impact of COVID-19 has been greatly diminished due to high levels immunity from either vaccination or prior infection, the virus still poses a threat — including long COVID-19, for which symptoms can last for months or years.
The WHO has urged countries to ramp up vaccination efforts.
Pharmaceutical firms Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax are all working on updating their COVID-19 vaccines to target XBB subvariants.


US keeps barring Chinese officials over rights

Updated 2 sec ago
Follow

US keeps barring Chinese officials over rights

The State Department didn’t identify or give a number of those who would be denied visas
The US has kept up pressure on China, including by expanding restrictions on technology exports

WAHSINGTON: The United States said Friday it would keep denying visas to Chinese officials over human rights concerns in Xinjiang, Tibet and elsewhere, vowing accountability despite a thaw in tensions between the powers.
Unlike previous high-profile actions against Chinese officials, the State Department did not identify or give a number of those who would be denied visas or specify if additional people were being blacklisted.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that United States was restricting visas to current or former officials “for their involvement in repression of marginalized religious and ethnic communities.”
Beijing “has not lived up to its commitments to respect and protect human rights, as demonstrated by the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, the erosion of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, persistent human rights abuses in Tibet and transnational repression around the world,” he said in a statement.
He called on China to accept recommendations in the latest UN review of its rights record, including releasing citizens “it has arbitrarily and unjustly detained.”
Under previous president Donald Trump, the United States publicly named several officials who would be denied entry including Chen Quanguo, the architect of China’s hard-line policies in Tibet and then Xinjiang who has since retired.
Under President Joe Biden, the United States has kept up pressure on China, including by expanding restrictions on technology exports, but has also pursued dialogue to keep tensions in check.
The United States says that China is carrying out genocide against the mostly Muslim Uyghur people in Xinjiang, pointing to accounts of vast detention camps, allegations strongly rejected by Beijing.

UN says world population to peak at 10.3 billion in the 2080s

Updated 12 July 2024
Follow

UN says world population to peak at 10.3 billion in the 2080s

  • Size of world’s population in 2100 will be six percent lower, or 700 million people fewer

NEW YORK: Earth’s population will peak in the mid-2080s at around 10.3 billion people, then drop slightly to a level much lower than anticipated a decade ago, the United Nations said.
The current population of 8.2 billion people will rise to that maximum over the next 60 years, then dip to 10.2 billion by the end of the century, says a report released Thursday entitled “World Population Prospects 2024.”
It said the size of the world’s population in 2100 will be six percent lower, or 700 million people fewer, than what was anticipated in June 2013.
“The demographic landscape has evolved greatly in recent years,” said Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs.
He said the unexpected population peak stems from several factors that include lower levels of fertility in some of the world’s largest countries, especially China.
He said this lower maximum will also come earlier than previously calculated and this is a hopeful sign as the world fights global warming: fewer humans accounting for less aggregate consumption would mean less pressure on the environment.
“However, slower population growth will not eliminate the need to reduce the average impact attributable to the activities of each individual person,” this official said.
More than a quarter, or 28 percent, of the world’s population now lives in one of 63 countries or areas where the population has already peaked, including China, Russia, Japan and Germany, the report said.
Nearly 50 other countries should join that group over the next 30 years, including Brazil, Iran and Turkiye.
But population growth will continue in more than 120 countries beyond 2054. These include India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and the United States, said the UN.
A rise in global life expectancy — interrupted by the Covid pandemic — has resumed, with an average of 73.3 years of longevity in 2024. It will average 77.4 years in 2054.
So the world’s population will get more and more gray. By the late 2070s, the number of people 65 or older is projected to be 2.2 billion, surpassing those under 18, the study predicts.


Four killed, nine hurt in Russian shelling of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, governor says

Updated 12 July 2024
Follow

Four killed, nine hurt in Russian shelling of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, governor says

  • In the town of Myrnohrad, two people were killed and six were injured
  • A separate attack on an unnamed enterprise in the town of Kostiantynivka killed two civilians

KYIV: Russian shelling killed at least four people and injured nine others in Ukraine’s eastern frontline Donetsk region on Friday, the governor said.
In the town of Myrnohrad, two people were killed and six were injured in an attack that landed near an administrative building and a bus stop, Vadym Filashkin, the governor, wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
A separate attack on an unnamed enterprise in the town of Kostiantynivka killed two civilians and injured three others, he said.
Images from the impact sites which he published alongside his post showed badly-damaged building facades and a bus with shattered windows. There was also a burnt car that appeared to have been thrown to the side by a blast.
Donetsk region, which Russian troops partially occupy, regularly comes under Russian shelling and airstrikes. Moscow denies targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure in its invasion of Ukraine, although thousands of people have been killed.


Kenya police chief quits after deadly protests

Updated 12 July 2024
Follow

Kenya police chief quits after deadly protests

  • The announcement came a day after Ruto sacked almost his entire cabinet in the face of widespread public anger at his government
  • The attorney-general and all cabinet ministers, with the exception of Foreign Minister Musalia Mudavadi and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, were axed

NAIROBI: Kenya’s police chief has quit following criticism over dozens of deaths during anti-government protests, the latest head to roll as President William Ruto struggles to contain the worst crisis of his near two-year rule.
Ruto has “accepted the resignation” of inspector general of police Japhet Koome, who has served in the role since November 2022, the presidency said, adding his deputy Douglas Kanja has been named acting chief.
The announcement came a day after Ruto sacked almost his entire cabinet in the face of widespread public anger at his government after largely peaceful demonstrations over proposed tax hikes descended into deadly mayhem.
The attorney-general and all cabinet ministers, with the exception of Foreign Minister Musalia Mudavadi and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, were axed.
Some of the young Gen-Z Kenyans behind the demonstrations had called for Koome to go, with police accused by rights groups of using excessive force, and reports of abductions of some protesters.
IT specialist Cyrus Otieno, 27, said Koome “must be prosecuted for police brutality.”
“Someone must be held accountable.”
Ruto, who took office in September 2022, has taken a series of measures seeking to placate the demonstrators, including abandoning the finance bill that contained the deeply unpopular tax increases.
But the cabinet announcement, while welcomed by some, did not appease some young Kenyans frustrated with Ruto’s failure to deliver on his 2022 election promises to create jobs and boost their fortunes.
“We will be back on the streets until Ruto goes. He has wasted two years in office traveling and telling lies,” said Hyrence Mwangi, 25.
Initially peaceful, the protests sharply escalated when police fired at crowds who stormed parliament on June 25, ransacking the partly ablaze complex.
While large-scale street action has subsided, anger against the government has not, particularly toward the police, with rights groups saying that 39 people were killed in the demonstrations and more than 360 injured.
“When we first went to the streets, Ruto dismissed us as a bunch of hired goons and criminals, only to come later and start saying he will make changes,” said 27-year-old Jackson Rotich. “We can’t trust him.”
Law student Melisa Agufana, 24, welcomed the cabinet dismissal, saying she wanted to “thank the president for listening.”
She added that ministers had “wasted two years doing nothing apart from being driven around with our national flag.”
Analysts said the cabinet move offered the possibility of a fresh start, but warned of further risks.
“The challenge that Ruto now faces is forming a new cabinet that includes various vested interests, whilst simultaneously calming popular anger in the face of an explicitly leaderless movement,” Gabrielle Lynch, professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick, told AFP.
Last week, Ruto announced sharp cuts to government spending, including travel and refurbishment costs, and said he would increase borrowing to pay for some services even as Kenya grapples with massive foreign debt of about $78 billion or about 70 percent of GDP.
The crisis led US-based Moody’s to downgrade Kenya’s debt rating further into junk territory, warning of a negative outlook, which will make borrowing even more expensive for the cash-strapped government.
Ruto said Thursday that he would “immediately engage in extensive consultations across different sectors and political formations, with the aim of setting up a broad-based government,” without elaborating.
Media reports this week have been filled with speculation of a “national unity” government, possibly including the coalition headed by Raila Odinga, the veteran opposition leader defeated by Ruto in the 2022 vote.


UK plans to release more prisoners early to tackle overcrowding

Updated 12 July 2024
Follow

UK plans to release more prisoners early to tackle overcrowding

  • Prisoners who are let out can be returned to jail if they reoffend or break other terms of their release

LONDON: Britain’s new Labour government plans to expand the early release of prisoners from September to tackle a jail overcrowding crisis which justice minister Shabana Mahmood said threatened to create “a total breakdown of law and order.”
Prisons in England and Wales have space for only 700 more male inmates and are likely to be full within weeks, after which cells in police stations would need to be used, preventing officers from patrolling the streets.
“We could see looters running amok, smashing in windows, robbing shops and setting neighborhoods alight,” Mahmood said in a speech at a prison in central England, blaming the crisis on her Conservative predecessors.
Under the plan, which is subject to parliamentary approval, most prisoners will become eligible for release after serving 40 percent of their sentences behind bars, down from 50 percent currently.
Prisoners who are let out can be returned to jail if they reoffend or break other terms of their release.
The early release plan would be reviewed in 18 months’ time, Mahmood said. Asked how many would be freed, she said the figure was in the “low thousands” in the short term.
Britain has western Europe’s highest rate of incarceration and prisoner numbers have risen sharply since the pandemic, due to longer sentences, court delays and a requirement for serious offenders to serve at least 65 percent of their sentences behind bars.
Labour, which came to power last week, has used the crisis as an example of the legacy of underfunded public services left by former prime minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government.
Mahmood said 10,000 prisoners had been released since October 2023 under a previous emergency scheme which she would scrap to allow for a more systematic program.
Violent offenders sentenced to at least four years, sex offenders and domestic abusers will not be eligible for the early-release program, the justice ministry said.
Britain’s Prison Governors’ Association had said on Thursday that a new government policy was imminent, and welcomed the move.
The Law Society, which represents most lawyers in England and Wales, said the problem reflected long-term cuts to criminal justice funding and the government would need to put appropriate safeguards in place to monitor newly released prisoners.
“The concerns of victims who are having to wait years for justice and then see offenders released early must also be recognized,” Law Society President Nick Emmerson said.
Britain’s justice ministry said an extra 1,000 trainee probation officers would be recruited by March 2025.
However, existing government budget plans — which Labour has said it will largely stick to — foresee real-terms cuts of nearly 3 percent a year over the next four years to a range of public services including justice.