Indian police clear out anti-government protest citing coronavirus

Dozens of people, many of them women, have been staging a sit-in protest since early December on a street in the Shaheen Bagh neighborhood. (AFP)
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Updated 24 March 2020

Indian police clear out anti-government protest citing coronavirus

  • Dozens of people, many of them women, have been staging a sit-in protest since early December on a street in the Shaheen Bagh
  • Shaheen Bagh has become a focal point for opposition to the law seen as discriminating against Muslims

NEW DELHI: Police in India’s capital broke up the longest-running protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s citizenship law on Tuesday, citing a ban on public gatherings because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Dozens of people, many of them women, have been staging a sit-in protest since early December on a street in the Shaheen Bagh neighborhood, which has become a focal point for opposition to the law seen as discriminating against Muslims.
Hundreds of police in riot gear surrounded the protesters early on Tuesday and told them to leave, said Delhi’s joint police commissioner D. C. Srivastava.
“It is a dangerous environment, with this coronavirus, we urged them to leave,” he told reporters.
Some demonstrators resisted the police and at least nine people had been detained, six of them women, Srivastava said, adding there was no violence.
Television showed police taking down tents and billboards at the protest site with bulldozers.
Delhi is under a lockdown until the end of the month to halt the spread of the virus and public gatherings of more than five people have been banned.
The Citizenship Amendment Act, which eases the path for non-Muslims from neighboring Muslim-majority countries to gain citizenship, triggered weeks of sometimes violent protests against Modi’s government after it was passed in December.
At least 78 people have been killed in demonstrations triggered by the law across the country, a large number of them in another part of Delhi in clashes between Hindus and Muslims.
Critics say the law discriminates against Muslims and it has deepened concern that Modi’s administration is undermining India’s secular traditions.
Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party denies any bias against India’s 180 million Muslims.
Even before the coronavirus epidemic, the protest at Shaheen Bagh had become a thorn in the government’s side, and there had been calls by hard-line Hindu groups linked to Modi’s alliance and residents in the area to clear it out.
India has reported 471 cases of the coronavirus but health experts have warned that a big jump is imminent, which would likely overwhelm the underfunded and crumbling public health infrastructure.


Afghan robotics team builds COVID-19 ventilator

Updated 10 April 2020

Afghan robotics team builds COVID-19 ventilator

  • Team drew up its own product design and sent to MIT, Harvard University for approval

KABUL: A team of Afghan female robotics experts has developed a lifesaving ventilator, made from Toyota car parts, to help with the treatment of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients.

The girls, who won a medal in a global competition for creating a robot that could distinguish between contaminated and clean water, were invited by the governor of the western Afghan city of Herat to try and build a version of the medical device due to a desperate shortage of ventilators in the province.

The impoverished region of war-torn Afghanistan has recently witnessed a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.

The team, aptly named the Afghan Dreamers, initially tried to source parts from abroad for an advanced digital machine, but high costs and flight suspensions caused by the pandemic made shipments to Afghanistan impossible.

Undaunted, the innovative group looked for supplies closer to home, and came up with the idea of using parts from Toyota Corolla cars sourced from local bazaars.

Based on copies of modern ventilators produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, the team drew up its own product design and sent copies to MIT and Harvard University for approval.

“We had to be prepared for the worst situation because we do not have access to Amazon and other companies for online orders. So, it was best to use local devices we have in our country,” tech entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, who set up the team, told Arab News.

“We discussed our design with a professor from MIT, and sent it, based on the MIT prototype, using Toyota Corolla parts. He (the professor) was so surprised and wrote back to us saying that it was a clever design but would need to see if the system worked.

“What we are hoping, is that with the help of MIT we will be able to improve our model and make it ready for actual use by the end of May or June,” added Mahboob.

The prototype ventilator would have to be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Afghan Public Health Ministry before the team could start producing more machines, said Dr. Mehdi Hadid, a member of the consultative board fighting the spread of COVID-19 in Herat.

“The machine (ventilator) will be able to supply a certain volume of oxygen and adjust the rate of respiration,” he told Arab News.

With acute shortages of electricity in many parts of the country, the ventilator can operate not only on mains supply, but also by battery and solar power, he said.

Afghanistan has 300 digital ventilators and hopes to buy more for its fight against the virus which has so far infected 484 people and claimed 15 lives.

The Afghan Dreamers’ locally made ventilator will cost around $400 and would mostly be used for emergency cases in remote areas where there were few clinics, said Farzana Nekpour, the team’s head of public relations.

“The current challenge for us is the risk of contracting the coronavirus by being in the workshop under one roof working on the design. We work very close together and there is no social distancing, so there is the chance of contamination despite us wearing masks and gloves,” she told Arab News.

Mahboob said that one of the main future challenges would be finding enough Toyota parts to produce more devices, as many shops and outlets were closing due to lockdowns imposed throughout Afghanistan. “But we have to find a means to help people and make this a successful project for our poor nation. It is vital.”

Entrepreneur Mahboob became one of Afghanistan’s first female chief executives at the age of 23. She set up a nonprofit organization to help young women to build digital literacy and has since been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.

In 2017, the members of her all-female robotics team made international headlines when their US visas were rejected not long before they were due to travel to an international robotics competition in Washington, DC. After individual appeals to the US Embassy in Kabul failed, the group took to social media to air their grievances. The team’s plight received international attention and led to US President Donald Trump intervening on their behalf.

The team returned from the competition with a silver medal for “courageous achievement” won by their ball-sorting robot, designed to distinguish between contaminated and clean water.

Since returning home, the team has become an inspiration for women seeking higher education in male-dominated Afghanistan, where about 40 percent of women are literate.

Its other achievements include the development of a device to help farmers pick saffron, one of the country’s main industries, and the building of drones and robots for use in the mining sector.