WHO warns that 1st wave of pandemic not over; dampens hopes

WHO Executive Director Dr Mike Ryan: “We’re still very much in a phase where the disease is actually on the way up.” (AFP)
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Updated 26 May 2020

WHO warns that 1st wave of pandemic not over; dampens hopes

  • Russia, Brazil, India now key hubs of rise in infection rates
  • The virus has infected nearly 5.5 million people and killed over 346,000 worldwide

BANGKOK: As Brazil and India struggle with surging coronavirus cases, a top health expert is warning that the world is still smack in the middle of the pandemic, dampening hopes for a speedy global economic rebound and renewed international travel.
“Right now, we’re not in the second wave. We’re right in the middle of the first wave globally,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s executive director.
“We’re still very much in a phase where the disease is actually on the way up,” Ryan told reporters, pointing to South America, South Asia and other areas where infections are still on the rise.
India saw a record single-day jump in new cases for the seventh straight day. It reported 6,535 new infections Tuesday, raising its total to 145,380, including 4,167 deaths.
The virus has taken hold in some of India’s poorest, most densely populated areas, underscoring the challenges that authorities face in curbing the spread of a virus for which a vaccine or cure isn’t yet in sight.
Most of India’s cases are concentrated in the western states of Maharashtra, home to the financial hub of Mumbai, and Gujarat. Infections have also climbed in the east as migrant workers stranded by lockdowns returned to their native villages from India’s largest cities.
Despite this, India allowed domestic flights to resume Monday following a two-month hiatus, but at a fraction of normal traffic levels.
WHO poured cold water on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s hopes of quickly re-opening the economy, warning that authorities must first have enough testing in place to control the spread of the virus. Brazil has 375,000 coronavirus infections — second only to the 1.6 million cases in the US — and has counted over 23,000 deaths but many fear Brazil’s true toll is much higher.
Ryan said Brazil’s “intense” transmission rates means it should keep some stay-at-home measures in place, regardless of the negative impacts on its economy.
“You must continue to do everything you can,” he said.
But Sao Paulo Gov. João Doria has ruled out a full lockdown in Brazil’s largest state economy and plans to start loosening restrictions on June 1.
A US travel ban was taking effect Tuesday for foreigners coming from Brazil, moved up two days earlier than its original date. It does not apply to US citizens.
In Europe, Russia reported a record daily spike Tuesday of 174 deaths, bringing the country’s confirmed death toll to 3,807. Russia’s coronavirus caseload surpassed 360,000 — the third highest in the world — with almost 9,000 new infections registered.
The country’s comparatively low mortality rate has raised questions among experts. Russian officials, however, vehemently deny manipulating any figures and attribute the low numbers to the effectiveness of the country’s lockdown measures.
The question of who can travel where and when remains a dilemma that officials still have yet to solve.
Spain’s foreign minister said Tuesday that European Union members should commonly agree to open borders and jointly determine which non-EU countries are designated as safe for travel. Arancha González Laya told Cadena SER radio that resuming cross-border travel should be decided collectively even if countries in the 27-nation bloc are phasing out lockdowns at different dates.
“We have to start working with our European partners to retake the freedom of movement in European territories,” she said.
Spain is eager to welcome tourists to shore up an industry that accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP.
Aiming to entice travelers, Greek authorities will introduce cheaper tickets for sea travel from the mainland to Greek islands on June 1.
The Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia have struck a deal to open their borders for 48 hours of travel without quarantines among their citizens starting Wednesday. And Montenegro, which declared itself “virus-free” will open its border to nine countries but not Serbia — earning strong criticism from Serbian officials.
Indonesia said it will deploy 340,000 security forces in 25 cities to enforce health protocols as the world’s fourth most populous nation prepares to reopen shopping centers and other businesses in the capital Jakarta on June 4.
“We want to get into a new normal and enter a new order,” Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo after inspecting moves to reopen Jakarta’s subway and a shopping mall in Bekasi.
South Korea on Tuesday began requiring people to wear masks on public transit and in taxis. The country is tracing dozens of infections linked to nightclubs and other venues as it prepares for 2.4 million students to return to school on Wednesday.
South Korea’s Health Ministry said beginning in June “high-risk” businesses such as bars, nightclubs, gyms, karaoke rooms and concert halls will be required to use QR codes to register customers so they could be found more easily when infections occur. But rights groups including privacy watchdog Jinbo Net called the move excessive.
“That’s exactly how we step into a surveillance state,” they said in a statement.
Estonia, a country known for its high-tech approach, has started a trial using a mobile phone and online app that shares a person’s health data. The app dubbed ImmunityPass generates a temporary QR-code that can be shared with others to demonstrate that someone is virus free.
On the medical front, WHO said it will temporarily drop hydroxychloroquine — the malaria drug US President Donald Trump said he is taking — from its global study into experimental COVID-19 treatments. The announcement came after a paper in the Lancet showed that people taking the drug were at higher risk of death and heart problems.
Still, several countries in Europe and North Africa are using chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients.
Other treatments in the WHO study, including the experimental drug remdesivir and an HIV combination therapy, are still being pursued.
Britain’s medicines agency said Tuesday it has authorized the use of remdesivir to treat adults and teenagers hospitalized with severe COVID-19.
Clinical trials testing the antiviral are still under way globally, but initial results have suggested it can speed up the recovery time for people infected with the new coronavirus.
Seven public media outlets from the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia said they would work to beat back “the proliferation, particularly on social networks, of fake news about” COVID-19.
The broadcasters include France Médias Monde, Deutsche Welle, the BBC World Service, NHK World, CBC Radio-Canada, ABC Australia and the US Agency for Global Media, whose networks include Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 5.5 million people, killing over 346,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Europe has had about 170,000 deaths and the US has seen nearly 100,000. Experts say the tally understates the real effects of the pandemic due to counting issues in many nations.


Militant attack on Afghan prison frees hundreds

Afghan security personnel in front of a prison gate after an attack by Daesh that had freed hundreds in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, on Monday. (AP)
Updated 04 August 2020

Militant attack on Afghan prison frees hundreds

  • The attack, reportedly by Daesh, took place hours before end of cease-fire

KABUL: Militants affiliated with the Daesh group stormed a prison in eastern Afghanistan in a daylong siege that left at least 39 people dead, including the assailants, and freed nearly 400 of their fighters before security forces restored order, a government official said Monday.

The attack on the main prison in Jalalabad, in Nangarhar province, where several hundred Daesh fighters have been detained, began on Sunday afternoon with a car bomb detonated at the entrance to the jail.

The attack came hours before the end of a three-day ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who immediately denied any involvement in the assault. Several Western media outlets reported that the Daesh had claimed responsibility.

The Nangarhar governor’s spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, told Arab News that there was still gunfire on Monday morning, and that more than 20 civilians and personnel and three attackers have died in the fighting.

Two local security sources speaking on condition of anonymity said that nearly half of the prison’s 1,500 inmates managed to flee.

They said 20 assailants made their way into the prison and a number of explosions were heard from inside the jail.Residents said one group of attackers was firing on the jail from a nearby building and they reported heavy and sustained exchanges of small fire.

According to Khogyani, most of the escapees have been caught. He gave no further details about the attack.

The assault comes amid official claims that Daesh leaders have been arrested or killed in recent months, notably in Nangarhar, which used to be the group’s bastion.

“This is a major embarrassment for the government, which every now and then claims to have wiped out or paralyzed the Daesh. The government needs to answer why such a high security lapse has happened,” analyst Shafiq Haqpal said.

The Eid Al-Adha ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan government forces was a part of efforts to begin long-awaited peace talks following a US-Taliban agreement signed in Qatar in late February.

In accordance with the deal, the Taliban is releasing 1,000 Afghan troops in exchange for 5,000 militants held by President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

The process is near completion, but Kabul is refusing to free 400 remaining Taliban inmates, saying they have been behind “heinous crimes.”

After Eid prayers on Sunday, Ghani announced he would summon a traditional grand assembly, Loya Jirga, to help him decide whether the rest of Taliban prisoners should be freed.

The assembly is scheduled to start on Aug. 7. Loya Jirga has deep roots in Afghan history and tradition and is usually summoned during times of crisis or emergency.

The Taliban have voiced their opposition to the convocation of the jirga. Their Qatar-based spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, told TOLO News that Kabul’s decision would only complicate the peace process.

Afghan politicians are divided on the jirga announcement. Hamidullah Tokhi, a member of parliament from southern Zabul province, said: “The nation and parliament have deep doubts about Ghani’s goal for summoning the jirga to decide over the fate of 400 Taliban.

“All of the 4,500 Taliban already freed were involved in some sort of bloody attacks. Why did the government not ask for the jirga on the overall release of the Taliban?”

“Summoning the jirga now is a treason to this country and a clear blocking of the peace process,” he said.
Torek Farhadi, who served in the previous government as an adviser, said Ghani hopes that the victory of Democrats in the upcoming US elections, would sideline Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan who struck the Qatar deal with the Taliban, allowing Kabul to be in charge of the peace process.
“We should have one Loya Jirga to discuss substantive matters on peace with the Taliban and the type of future regime,” Farhadi said, adding that the Taliban, too, should participate in the assembly. “This meeting would be like a half-baked national dialogue (if it is) conducted by only one side of the conflict.”