World virus infections pass 200,000, Europe’s borders jammed

Trucks are stuck in a traffic jam stretching more than 65 km toward Berlin from the German-Polish border near the eastern German town of Frankfurt (Oder) due to travel restrictions to counteract the spread the new coronavirus COVID-19 on March 18, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 18 March 2020

World virus infections pass 200,000, Europe’s borders jammed

  • The border closings extended to North America
  • Johns Hopkins University said more than 82,000 people have recovered from the virus

BERLIN: Desperate travelers choked European border crossings Wednesday after countries across the Continent began shutting the doors against the coronavirus, which has now infected more than 200,000 people worldwide and killed over 8,000.
In the US, President Donald Trump pressed Congress to swiftly pass a potentially $1 trillion rescue package to prop up the economy and speed relief checks to Americans in a matter of weeks, as stocks tumbled again on Wall Street.
The border closings extended to North America, as the US and Canada agreed to close their shared boundary to nonessential travel. And the Trump administration was said to be considering a plan to turn back all people who cross into the United States illegally from Mexico.
Some bright spots emerged: Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus was first detected in late December and which has been under lockdown for weeks, reported just one new case for a second straight day Wednesday.
But in a grim illustration of the epidemic’s shifting center of gravity, the death toll in Italy moved closer to overtaking China’s. Italy had more than 2,500 dead and was averaging about 350 a day; China’s toll was just over 3,200.
Meanwhile, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization estimated that the crisis could cause nearly 25 million job losses and drain up to $3.4 trillion in income by year’s end, but that a coordinated global response in the form of fiscal stimulus and other measures could help reduce the toll.
In releasing the new global infection figures, Johns Hopkins University said more than 82,000 people have recovered from the virus, which causes only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough in most cases, though severe illness is more likely in the elderly and those with existing health problems.
Still, scientists have no doubt the true number of people infected is higher than the 200,000 reported by health authorities because of the possibility that many mild cases have gone unrecognized or unreported, and because of the lag in large-scale testing in the US, where the effort has been marked by bumbling and bureaucratic delay.
The US reported more than 6,500 cases and at least 107 deaths, half of them in Washington state, where dozens of residents from a suburban Seattle nursing home have died.
Across the Continent, European leaders closed borders to nonessential traffic, while leaving many frontiers open to cross-border workers and trucks carrying critical goods like food and medicine. That led to monumental traffic jams.
To alleviate some of the pressure from Eastern Europeans stuck in Austria and trying to return home, Hungary opened its borders in phases. Bulgarian citizens were first allowed to cross in carefully controlled convoys, then Romanians had a turn. Serbians were also allowed to pass through.
But at one point early on the Austrian side, trucks were backed up for 28 kilometers (17 miles) and cars for 14 kilometers (nearly 9 miles).
“The traffic jam is slowly starting to dissolve,” said Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer. “We’re trying to manage the traffic situation as best as possible.”
Thousands of trucks were backed up in Lithuania on roads into Poland. Traffic was similarly jammed along Germany’s border with Poland.
The European Union said that it was trying to help about 80,000 citizens stuck outside Europe get home, but that it faced huge challenges, including finding flights.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic expressed outrage as his citizens returned, claiming that 40,000 coming from jobs abroad had largely ignored orders to go into isolation at home, putting others in the country at risk.
Italy has been the second-hardest hit country with more than 31,000 cases, behind more than 81,000 in China. But Lothar Wieler, head of the Germany’s disease control institute, warned that unless social contacts are reduced, his country could have 10 million infected people in two to three months.
In Southeast Asia, the causeway between Malaysia and the financial hub of Singapore was eerily quiet after Malaysia shut its borders, while the Philippines backed down on an order giving foreigners 72 hours to leave from a large part of its main island.
Taiwan said that it, too, would ban foreigners from entry and citizens would have to quarantine at home for 14 days.
Even tourists on Ecuador’s Galapagos islands — 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off the South American mainland — have been affected. Canadian Jessy Lamontaine and her family were stuck there when flights were suspended.
“I was in tears this morning,” Lamontaine said. “I couldn’t get any answers from the airline. I had no money and didn’t know whether I was going to keep my job.”
In the US, the coronavirus is present in all 50 states after West Virginia reported an infection. In far-flung Hawaii, the governor encouraged travelers to postpone their island vacations, while Nevada ordered its casinos closed.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that residents should be prepared for the possibility of a shelter-in-place order within days — a near-lockdown like the one covering almost 7 million people in the San Francisco Bay area. In the most sweeping measure of its kind in the US, they are allowed to leave their homes only for food, medicine or exercise.


Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

Updated 12 August 2020

Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

  • President Ghani’s order to release 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners opens way for negotiations

KABUL: The Taliban have rejected calls for a truce before the long-awaited talks with the government get underway. They said that the possibility of a cease-fire could be debated only during the talks.

“When our prisoners are released, we will be ready for the talks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Tuesday.

“A cease-fire or reduction of violence can be among the items in the agenda of the talks,” he said.

This follows President Ashraf Ghani signing a decree for the release of 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners on Monday — who Kabul said were responsible for some of the worst attacks in the country in recent years — thereby removing the last obstacle to the start of the negotiations set by the Taliban.

However, Kabul has yet to announce the date of their release.

Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the government-appointed peace council, said that Doha, Qatar, would be the likely venue.

“Deliberations are continuing, and no decision has been made on a firm date yet,” he said.

Ghani pledged to release the prisoners after the Loya Jirga, or traditional assembly, voiced support for their freedom.

After three days of deliberations the Jirga, which comprises 3,400 delegates, said that its decision was for the sake of “the cessation of bloodshed” and to remove “the obstacle to peace talks.”

After the Jirga’s announcement, Ghani said that “the ball was now in the Taliban’s court” and that they needed to enforce a nationwide cease-fire and begin talks to bring an end to more than 40 years of war, particularly the latest chapter in a conflict that started with the Taliban’s ousting from power in the US-led invasion in late 2001.

The exchange of prisoners between the government and the Taliban was part of a deal signed between the insurgent group and the US in Doha in February
this year.

The prisoner swap program — involving the release of 5,000 Taliban inmates in return for 1,000 security forces held by the group — was to be completed within 10 days in early March, followed by the crucial intra-Afghan talks.

February’s deal between the Taliban emissaries and US delegates, led by the US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, came after 18 months of intensive and secret talks, amid growing public frustration in the US about the Afghan war — America’s longest in history.

Ghani, whose government was sidelined from the February accord, initially voiced his opposition to freeing the Taliban inmates.

However, faced with increasing pressure from the US, Kabul began releasing 4,600 prisoners in a phased manner.

The intra-Afghan talks are also crucial for US President Donald Trump, who is standing for reelection in November and is keen to use the pull-out of forces and the start of negotiations as examples of his successful foreign policy. However, experts say the next stage will not be easy.

Analyst and former journalist Taj Mohammad told Arab News: “The talks will be a long, complicated process, with lots of ups and downs. It took 18 months for the Taliban and US to agree on two points; the withdrawal of all US troops and the Taliban pledging to cut ties with militant groups such as Al-Qaeda. Now, imagine, how long it will take for the completion of a very complicated process of talks between Afghans who will debate women’s rights, minorities rights, election, Islamic values, … the form of government and so on.”

For some ordinary Afghans on the streets, however, the planned talks have revived hopes for peace and security and “are more needed in Afghanistan than in any other country.”

“I am more optimistic now than in the past. All sides have realized they cannot win by force and may have decided to rise to the occasion and come together,” Fateh Shah, a 45-year-old civil servant from Kabul, said.

Others spoke of their dreams to “go back home.”

“I have been away from my village for 19 years, and as soon as peace comes, we will pack up and go there,” said Rasool Dad, a 50-year-old porter who lives as a war-displaced person in Kabul, talking of his desire to return to his birthplace in southern Helmand province.

However, 30-year-old banker Sharif Amiri wasn’t very optimistic about the future.

“Even if the talks turn out to be successful, that will not mean an end to the war or the restoration of security. There are spoilers in the region, at home and at an international level who will try to sabotage peace here,” he said, hinting at rivalries among countries in the region, including major powers such as Russia, China and the US, who have used Afghanistan as a direct and indirect battleground for years.