France’s COVID-19 crisis washes up in ocean territories

Passengers arrived from Paris prepare to board a bus taking them to a quarantine facility at Roland Garros airport in Saint-Denis de La Reunion on March 31, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 03 April 2020

France’s COVID-19 crisis washes up in ocean territories

  • There have been 13 coronavirus deaths in the overseas territories, mainly on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Martin, as well as two victims on Mayotte
  • There is also rising concern about the disease’s spread on Reunion in the Indian Ocean, in French Guiana in South America, and on French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific

PARIS: Anxiety is growing over the coronavirus threat for France’s overseas territories, located in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans thousands of kilometers from the mainland, with distance proving no protection for regions with fragile health infrastructure.
The “Outre-mer” or overseas departments, largely a legacy of the country’s colonial past, are considered fully integral to the nation, with inhabitants holding French passports, voting in national elections and sending MPs to the Paris parliament.
For many in France, they are best known as easily accessible and French-speaking destinations for holidays in areas resembling paradise. But the coronavirus crisis risks being even more grim there than on the mainland itself, where thousands have died from COVID-19.
There have so far been 13 coronavirus deaths in the overseas territories, mainly on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Martin, as well as two victims on the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte.
But there is also rising concern about the disease’s spread on Reunion in the Indian Ocean, in French Guiana in South America, and on French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the Pacific.
France is now sending two helicopter carriers — the Mistral and the Dixmude — to the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean to bolster local hospitals and clinics that risk being overwhelmed if the number of cases rises further.
The Dixmude left its Mediterranean port Friday morning carrying medical equipment including hand gel and over one million surgical masks for the Antilles, the army said in a statement, though it is not expected to arrive until mid-April.
And while the two ships will provide logistical support, they will not be used as hospital ships to take patients on board.
“We are following the situation in the overseas territories very closely and we are aware of the fragilities,” government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said this week. “It is a major subject of concern, attention and mobilization.”
The remoteness of the territories, coupled with their high poverty and unemployment rates, risks turning any outbreak into full-blown epidemic that could quickly overwhelm health professionals.
A source close to discussions between government ministries on containing the crisis, who asked not to be identified by name, told AFP, “It is going to be a catastrophe.”
“We feel there is no pilot on board,” Gabriel Serville, an MP for French Guiana, told AFP. “I fear for the worst for a territory that is behind in health terms, with poor areas where social distancing is not possible.”
Mayotte, where 82 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, often in shanty towns without running water, is a particular source of concern. “There has been no organization or preparation,” said Mansour Kamardine, a rightwing MP on the island.
“It feels like we’re just making it up as we go along.”
On France’s Pacific island territory of New Caledonia, located east of Australia between New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, early spring is usually a time of celebration for the yam harvesting season. But there is no mood for — or possibility of — festivity.
Indigenous Melanesians, known locally as Kanaks and counting for 39 percent of the population, already have prevalent health issues, particularly diabetes and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
If the virus were to spread, the impact would be “devastating,” said Georges Mandaoue, a prominent local politician.
“I’ve put all tribal chiefs in charge of explaining the consequences of the virus and the measures to protect everyone,” he told AFP.
People are aware of the danger, Mandaoue said, for example cultivating fields while respecting security distances. “They go to the river but not to the sea anymore, and greet each other from far away, without handshakes,” he said.
The memory of previous epidemics such as leprosy remains vivid, as do scars from the arrival and colonization of the island by Europeans, who brought unknown diseases with them that decimated the local populations.
“We know that epidemics have happened before, that people had to isolate members of the tribe and not see them before the burial,” said Gilbert Assawa, a tribal chieftain.
Regularly scheduled passenger flights between Paris and the overseas territories have been suspended, though cargo transit is continuing.
Most of the regions have also imposed lockdowns similar to that of mainland France, and some have also decreed nightly curfews.
The government insists that everything is being done to maintain control of the situation.
“The systems that have been put in place in the overseas territories match the same criteria and organization as mainland France,” said Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin.


Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire strained by fierce new clashes

Updated 21 October 2020

Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire strained by fierce new clashes

  • The cease-fire, agreed to on Saturday, has had little impact on fighting that began on Sept. 27

YEREVAN/BAKU: A cease-fire in the mountain territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was under severe strain on Tuesday after fierce new clashes between Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces fighting their deadliest battles since the 1990s. 

The cease-fire, agreed to on Saturday, has had little impact on fighting that began on Sept. 27, despite concerns it could spark a wider conflict involving Russia and Turkey.

In an interview, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian accused Turkey of destabilising the South Caucasus with its strong backing for Azerbaijan. But he said he did not advocate military intervention by Russia, which has a defense pact with Armenia.

“What I’m preaching is not involving Russia and then tomorrow Iran and a third party, and making Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Caucasus another Syria,” he told France-24 television.

“What I’m saying here is that instead of talking about involving Russia, we have to talk about excluding Turkey, which has a completely destructive role here.”

Ankara denies accusations by Armenia, France and Russia that it sent mercenaries from the conflicts in Syria and Libya to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh, which broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed.

In comments to Azerbaijan’s parliament, Turkish Parliament Speaker Mustafa Sentop portrayed Armenia as the aggressor and criticized mediation led for years by France, the United States and Russia under the auspices of the OSCE security watchdog.

“If they are sincere on their path to peace, those who have held Armenia’s leash and supported it for years need to end this dangerous game now and stop supporting Armenia. Azerbaijan does not have another 30 years to wait,” Sentop said.

The OSCE’s Nagorno-Karabakh mediating panel, known as the Minsk Group, “is brain dead,” he said.

Several hundred people have been killed since Sept. 27 in fighting involving drones, warplanes, heavy artillery, tanks and missiles, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis and concerns about the security of oil and gas pipelines in Azerbaijan.

The new cease-fire appears to have had no more effect on fighting than an earlier deal brokered by Russia that failed.

Azerbaijan wants an end to what it calls Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia rules this out and accuses Azerbaijan of making a land grab.

Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh reported new artillery battles on Tuesday and said fighting was intense in southern areas of the conflict zone.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry also reported fighting in several areas, including disputed territory close to the line of contact dividing the sides. It said Armenian forces were shelling the Azeri regions of Terter and Aghdam.

Azerbaijan said its foreign minister, Jeyhun Bayramov, would hold talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Minsk Group in Washington on Friday, but gave no details.

Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations said the Security Council had discussed the conflict on Monday. Asked about the possibility of UN observers going to the region, he said that would require a mandate from the Security Council.

“This is not a quick process,” the envoy, Vasily Nebenzya, was quoted as saying by TASS. He suggested any observer mission might involve the OSCE.