US embassy in Kabul battles coronavirus outbreak

US embassy in Kabul battles coronavirus outbreak
The US State Department says Saturday, June 20, 2020 that COVID-19 infections have been reported at its embassy in the Afghan capital and the staff who are affected include diplomats, contractors and locally employed staff. (File/AP/Ahmad Nazar)
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Updated 20 June 2020

US embassy in Kabul battles coronavirus outbreak

US embassy in Kabul battles coronavirus outbreak
  • The infected staff are in isolation in the embassy while the remainder on the compound are being tested
  • Embassy staff were told they can expect tighter isolation orders

KABUL, Afghanistan: The US State Department says COVID-19 infections have been reported at its embassy in the Afghan capital and affected staff include diplomats, contractors and locals.
The State Department did not say how many were affected. An official at the embassy in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media, said up to 20 people were infected, the majority of them Nepalese Gurkhas, who provide embassy security.
“The embassy is implementing all appropriate measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” the State Department said in a statement late Friday.
The infected staff are in isolation in the embassy while the remainder on the compound are being tested, said the embassy official. That official added that embassy staff were told they can expect tighter isolation orders.
The State Department said a sanitization of the premises was being carried out to “prevent further outbreak.”
Afghanistan has 28,424 confirmed coronavirus cases. International aid organizations monitoring the pandemic’s spread in the country say the numbers are much higher because of a lack of testing capabilities as well as access to testing.
Observers also fear the highly contagious coronavirus has spread throughout the country with the return of nearly 300,000 Afghans from Iran, the hardest hit country in the region. Iran has recorded more than 200,000 cases and 9,392 deaths.
Few of the Afghans who returned from Iran were tested before they fanned out across the country to their homes.
Earlier this month, the International Rescue Committee warned Afghanistan was on the brink of a humanitarian disaster mostly because the government does not have the capacity to even test 80% of coronavirus cases.
A handful of NATO troops have also tested positive for the infection.


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 12 min 19 sec ago

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 41 min 50 sec ago

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.”


Explosions in two Somalia cities kill at least 5

Explosions in two Somalia cities kill at least 5
Updated 10 April 2021

Explosions in two Somalia cities kill at least 5

Explosions in two Somalia cities kill at least 5
  • A bomber was targeting the Bay region governor who was outside the Suez Cafeteria, officials reported
  • Another explosion went off in the Huriwa district of Mogadishu, killing one government soldier and wounding a bystander

MOGADISHU: A suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a cafe in Somalia’s city of Baidoa on Saturday, killing at least four people and wounding more than six others, police said.
The bomber was targeting the Bay region governor, Ali Wardhere, who was outside the Suez Cafeteria, officials reported. The governor escaped the explosion unharmed, according to the official government news agency, SONNA, which reported that at least two of his bodyguards, who were also policemen, were among the wounded.
“The explosion which was heard all around the town of Baidoa has terrorized the people and had created a momentary confusion,” said Amin Maddey, who witnessed the explosion and spoke to The Associated Press by telephone.
The Al-Qaeda linked group Al-Shabab has claimed the responsibility through a report they published on their website and radio Andalus which advocates for their extremists campaigns.
“The target was a convoy accompanying Mr. Ali Wardhere, the governor of Bay region, which was hit hard,” the Al-Shabab statement said, “three of Ali Wardhere’s bodyguards have died in the attack and the target which was Ali Wardhere himself got wounded,” added the statement.
The police have cordoned off the area for investigation as many bystanders gathered around to check whether their family members or friends are among the victims.
Meanwhile, another explosion went off in the Huriwa district of Mogadishu Saturday, killing one government soldier and wounding a bystander, police said.
It is not known whether the two explosions in Baidoa and Mogadishu are related. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing in Mogadishu.
The people of Somalia are seeing major security lapses as leaders remain in deadlock over the political situation after elections were delayed earlier this year.
“The meeting between the federal government and the federal member states has ended in total failure,” said the Minister of Information, Osman Abokor Dubbe, who blamed the two leaders of Puntland and Jubbaland for that failure.
However, both leaders of Puntland and Jubbaland have denied reports of a failed meeting.
There have been fears that the Al-Qaeda-linked group would be emboldened by Somalia’s current political crisis as President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed is under pressure to step aside.