Indonesia eases coronavirus travel ban despite fears it is too early

Indonesia eases coronavirus travel ban despite fears it is too early
Above, an empty domestic arrival hall at Ngurah Rai airport in Tuban in Bali, Indonesia on May 8, 2020 with the air travel ban still in place. (AFP)
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Updated 08 May 2020

Indonesia eases coronavirus travel ban despite fears it is too early

Indonesia eases coronavirus travel ban despite fears it is too early
  • The ban, which came into effect on April 23, was scheduled to run until the end of May

JAKARTA: Two weeks after Indonesia banned air and sea travel to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the transport ministry has confirmed that flights and public transport will conditionally resume.
The ban, which came into effect on April 23, was scheduled to run until the end of May, but on Friday the transport ministry confirmed what has been criticized by civil society groups as a “confusing” policy backflip.
Those who work in security, defense and health services, or have emergency health reasons, will be allowed to travel if they have tested negative for the novel coronavirus and have a letter from their employer, the ministry told Reuters.
Migrant workers going home will also be allowed to travel.
“Operations will be limited and only for passengers who have been declared healthy and whose special interests are supported with documentation,” said Adita Irawati, a spokesman for the transport ministry.
Garuda Indonesia resumed domestic flights on Thursday, while Lion Air, Wings Air and Batik Air, all members of the Lion Air group, are scheduled to resume domestic flights on Sunday.
The government of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country had come under fire from some officials and health experts for being slow in announcing a ban on people traveling for the Eid Al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan, when traditionally millions head back to hometowns and villages.
There are fears mass movements would rapidly spread the virus across archipelago, including to remote areas ill-equipped to handle a health crisis. The end of Ramadan is on around May 23.
The ministry defended its policy revision saying that travel at the end of Ramadan remains banned, although there are concerns about how well the ban might be enforced.
On Friday, a coalition of civil society groups criticized inconsistent and confusing messaging on social restrictions, accusing the government of “prioritizing the economy over the rights to public health.”
Despite only mixed evidence the government has flattened the COVID-19 curve, or slowed the rate of new infections, it has appeared eager to resume economic activity and ease social restrictions.
This week, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said the coronavirus epidemic had set poverty-eradication efforts back a decade, with more than 2 million people losing their jobs in the past six weeks.
But in a country with more than 13,000 cases of the virus and the highest death toll in East Asia outside China, some believe the move to relax restrictions could be premature.
“It’s too early,” said Dono Widiatmoko, a public health expert at the University of Derby.
“If social restrictions are relaxed with flights and trains resumed, the public will see this as a signal of normality and public transport will get busier, denser.”


South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30

South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30
Updated 20 min 42 sec ago

South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30

South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30
  • South Korea on Wednesday suspended providing the AstraZeneca shot to people under 60
  • Risks of coronavirus are far worse than the rare possibility of side effects from the vaccines

SEOUL: South Korean authorities said on Sunday they will move ahead with a coronavirus vaccination drive this week, after deciding to continue using AstraZeneca PLC’s vaccine for all eligible people 30 years old or over.
South Korea on Wednesday suspended providing the AstraZeneca shot to people under 60 as Europe reviewed cases of blood clotting in adults.
People under 30 will still be excluded from the vaccinations resuming on Monday because the benefits of the shot do not outweigh the risks for that age group, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said in a statement.
Three vaccinated people in South Korea are reported to have developed blood clots, with one case determined to be correlated to the vaccine, Choi Eun-hwa, chair of the Korea Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, told a briefing.
That case was a type of blood clot considered less serious than the type being examined by European authorities, she said.
For most people, the risks of coronavirus are far worse than the rare possibility of side effects from the vaccines, Choi said, adding that the best way to end the pandemic was to vaccinate everyone who can receive it.
But she said, “the benefits are not as great for those under 30 years old, so we will not recommend the AstraZeneca vaccine for them.”
The AstraZeneca shot’s benefit-to-risk ratio rises the older people get as the risk of serious harm due to vaccination falls and ICU admissions prevented by vaccination rise sharply, according to the University of Cambridge’s Winton Center for Risk and Evidence Communication.
The drugmaker has said its studies have found no higher risk of clots because of its vaccine, millions of doses of which have been administered worldwide. The World Health Organization has said the benefits outweigh the risks.
Global controversy over the efficacy and side-effects of some COVID-19 vaccines has caused some delays in South Korea’s vaccination campaign, which kicked off in late February with the goal of reaching herd immunity in November.
The second-quarter vaccination program includes special disability school teachers and vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities and the homeless, the KDCA said.


Philippines’ defense chief says discusses South China Sea situation with US counterpart

Philippines’ defense chief says discusses South China Sea situation with US counterpart
Updated 11 April 2021

Philippines’ defense chief says discusses South China Sea situation with US counterpart

Philippines’ defense chief says discusses South China Sea situation with US counterpart
  • The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III reiterated the importance of the two countries’ Visiting Forces Agreement

MANILA: The Philippine defense chief discussed the situation in the South China Sea with his US counterpart in a telephone conference on Sunday, and said both sides were looking forward to conducting a joint military exercise called “Balikatan.”
They also discussed recent developments in regional security, according to a statement issued by Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s department. The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III reiterated the importance of the two countries’ Visiting Forces Agreement.


India reports record 152,879 new COVID-19 infections

India reports record 152,879 new COVID-19 infections
Updated 11 April 2021

India reports record 152,879 new COVID-19 infections

India reports record 152,879 new COVID-19 infections
  • The number of new fatalities stood at 839, the most deaths in more than five months

NEW DELHI: India reported a record 152,879 new COVID-19 cases, health ministry data showed on Sunday, as a second-wave of infections continued to surge and overwhelm hospitals in parts of the country.
The number of new fatalities stood at 839, the most deaths in more than five months, taking the toll to 169,275.
India’s tally of more than 13.35 million cases is the third-highest globally, behind only Brazil and the United States.


China’s plans for Himalayan super dam stoke fears in India

China’s plans for Himalayan super dam stoke fears in India
Updated 11 April 2021

China’s plans for Himalayan super dam stoke fears in India

China’s plans for Himalayan super dam stoke fears in India
  • The structure will span the Brahmaputra River before the waterway leaves the Himalayas and flows into India
  • The project is expected to dwarf China's record-breaking Three Gorges Dam

BEIJING: China is planning a mega dam in Tibet able to produce triple the electricity generated by the Three Gorges — the world’s largest power station — stoking fears among environmentalists and in neighboring India.
The structure will span the Brahmaputra River before the waterway leaves the Himalayas and flows into India, straddling the world’s longest and deepest canyon at an altitude of more than 1,500 meters (4,900 feet).
The project in Tibet’s Medog County is expected to dwarf the record-breaking Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in central China, and is billed as able to produce 300 billion kilowatts of electricity each year.
It is mentioned in China’s strategic 14th Five-Year Plan, unveiled in March at an annual rubber-stamp congress of the country’s top lawmakers.
But the plan was short on details, a timeframe or budget.
The river, known as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan, is also home to two other projects far upstream, while six others are in the pipeline or under construction.
The “super-dam” however is in a league of its own.
Last October, the Tibet local government signed a “strategic cooperation agreement” with PowerChina, a public construction company specializing in hydroelectric projects.
A month later the head of PowerChina, Yan Zhiyong, partially unveiled the project to the Communist Youth League, the youth wing of China’s ruling party.
Enthusiastic about “the world’s richest region in terms of hydroelectric resources,” Yan explained that the dam would draw its power from the huge drop of the river at this particular section.

Unique biodiversity threatened
Beijing may justify the massive project as an environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, but it risks provoking strong opposition from environmentalists in the same way as the Three Gorges Dam, built between 1994 and 2012.
The Three Gorges created a reservoir and displaced 1.4 million inhabitants upstream.
“Building a dam the size of the super-dam is likely a really bad idea for many reasons,” said Brian Eyler, energy, water and sustainability program director at the Stimson Center, a US think tank.
Besides being known for seismic activity, the area also contains a unique biodiversity. The dam would block the migration of fish as well as sediment flow that enriches the soil during seasonal floods downstream, said Eyler.
There are both ecological and political risks, noted Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, an environmental policy specialist at the Tibet Policy Institute, a think tank linked to the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamshala, India.
“We have a very rich Tibetan cultural heritage in those areas, and any dam construction would cause ecological destruction, submergence of parts of that region,” he told AFP.
“Many local residents would be forced to leave their ancestral homes,” he said, adding that the project will encourage migration of Han Chinese workers that “gradually becomes a permanent settlement.”

Water wars
New Delhi is also worried by the project.
The Chinese Communist Party is effectively in a position to control the origins of much of South Asia’s water supply, analysts say.
“Water wars are a key component of such warfare because they allow China to leverage its upstream Tibet-centered power over the most essential natural resource,” wrote political scientist Brahma Chellaney last month in the Times of India.
The risks of seismic activity would also make it a “ticking water bomb” for residents downstream, he warned.
In reaction to the dam idea, the Indian government has floated the prospect of building another dam on the Brahmaputra to shore up its own water reserves.
“There is still much time to negotiate with China about the future of the super-dam and its impacts,” said Eyler.
“A poor outcome would see India build a dam downstream.”


Indian opposition takes jab at Modi over vaccine shortage, COVID-19 crisis

Indian opposition takes jab at Modi over vaccine shortage, COVID-19 crisis
Updated 11 April 2021

Indian opposition takes jab at Modi over vaccine shortage, COVID-19 crisis

Indian opposition takes jab at Modi over vaccine shortage, COVID-19 crisis
  • Most Mumbai vaccine centers closed, city mayor tells Arab News

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of complacency and missteps in the handling of the pandemic by the country’s main opposition party, after six states reported a shortage of coronavirus vaccines and more than 145,000 new infections were recorded on Saturday.

The Congress Party also blamed the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for prioritizing “vaccine diplomacy” by exporting vaccine doses instead of reserving them for domestic use.

“The Modi government has mismanaged the situation – exported vaccines and allowed a shortage to be created in India,” Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi said during a special meeting on Saturday to address the COVID-19 crisis.

“We must focus on India’s vaccination drive first and foremost, then only export vaccines and gift them to other countries.”

She emphasized the need for “responsible behavior” and adhering to all laws and COVID-19 regulations “without exception.”

But the government insisted there were enough vaccines in stock, accusing the opposition of “playing politics” even as India grappled with a deadly second wave of infections.

“There is no shortage of vaccines,” BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma told Arab News, adding that state governments were following the “procedure laid down by the center.”

Six opposition-ruled states said earlier this week that they were running out of vaccines and would be forced to discontinue the vaccination drive if the central government did not send supplies.

One of the worst affected states is western India’s Maharashtra, which recorded 58,993 new cases on Saturday out of the nationwide total of 145,384.

“There are 108 vaccines centers in Mumbai, but most of them have been closed due to a lack of vaccines,” Mumbai Mayor Kishori Kishore Pandekar told Arab News.

“The number of doses we have cannot last more than two days. If this is the situation in India’s financial capital Mumbai, imagine the case in remote areas of the state.”

Pune, one of Maharashtra’s biggest cities, has also run out of vaccines.

“We have not been vaccinating since Thursday in Pune, and we don’t know when the next lot of doses will arrive in the city,” Dr. Avinash V. Bhondwe, president of the Indian Medical Association’s Maharashtra wing, told Arab News.

The eastern state of Odisha has reported a shortage in doses, leading to the closure of 700 vaccination centers, according to media reports.

Verma said the current situation was due to the “desperate” measures taken by state governments.

“People above 45 years was the target group for the vaccination (drive). Some state governments are getting desperate, and they want to give vaccines to one and all. This is not possible for a (country with a) size like India. Vaccine production and export needs have been calibrated.”

But the BJP’s explanation did not satisfy Pankaj Vohra, from the New Delhi suburb of Noida, who went to hospital on Friday for his second jab but could not get vaccinated due to a shortage.

“A day before going to the hospital, I got a confirmation that I should come for the second dose,” he told Arab News. “But when I reached the hospital, I was told that the Covishield vaccine was available and not Covaxin. If the government cannot fulfil its domestic demand, why is it exporting vaccines?”

India has allowed permission for the emergency use of Covishield – the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India – and Covaxin, directed by Bharat Biotech in the south Indian city of Hyderabad.

It launched its vaccination drive on Jan. 16 and has inoculated 94 million people, far below the initial target of 300 million.

Only 12.5 percent of the 94 million have received the second dose, based on an advisory by the Health Ministry, which recommends a 28-day gap between the first and second dose.

“The government did plan the vaccination drive,” Dr. Amar Jesani, a Mumbai-based public health expert, told Arab News. “Most of the developed countries made arrangements that they get enough doses of vaccines when they need them, but the Indian government did nothing about it.”

He wondered why just two companies in India were producing vaccines, and suggested the government use a compulsory licensing policy and allow other local companies to produce them.

“That way, you could have a large number of vaccines available,” he added.

There has been increased demand for COVID-19 vaccines in the past few weeks following a leap in cases, with Saturday’s daily infections rising by a record for the fifth time this week.

Last week experts told Arab News that India was on its way to becoming the “ground zero and global epicenter” for the coronavirus outbreak.

“The rising number of cases is due to the government’s failure to implement preventive measures,” Jesani said. “Political leadership is unhindered in their political campaigns addressing huge gatherings without following any COVID-19 protocol.”

Bhondwe urged the government to allow more companies to produce vaccines in India and to allow more foreign vaccines to come to India.

“People are in a state of panic, and they see some hope in vaccines. The government should not disappoint its people.”