Fastest-ever growth in global virus cases as US tops 8 million

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A patient arrives on Oct. 14, 2020 at the Emergency entrance to Maimonides Medical Center in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, as the spread of COVID-19 continues. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo)
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People dine in plastic tents for social distancing at a restaurant in Manhattan on October 15, 2020 in New York City, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP / Angela Weiss)
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Police officers try to assist a man in Soho, amid the outbreak of the COVID-19, in London, on Oct. 16, 2020. (REUTERS/Hannah McKay)
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French Prime Minister Jean Castex (2ndR) and Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo (R) meets medical staff at a Covid-19 test center located in the former 4th district City Hall in Paris on October 15, 2020. (AFP / POOL / Ludovic Marin)
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Updated 17 October 2020

Fastest-ever growth in global virus cases as US tops 8 million

  • India is second with 7.4 million cases and Brazil has 5.1 million
  • European countries tighten measures as second wave of COVID-19 strikes

PARIS: Coronavirus cases in the United States topped eight million Friday as the world saw the highest-ever number reported in a single day, while European countries tightened measures to control the pandemic’s spread.
The running US case tally from Johns Hopkins University is the highest in the world, followed by India at 7.4 million cases and Brazil with 5.1 million.
America has also suffered the most coronavirus deaths of any country, at over 218,000.
Worldwide, more than 400,000 new cases were reported on Friday alone, according to an AFP tally based on official data — a figure only partly explained by increased testing since the first wave of the pandemic in March-April.
Across Europe, the average number of daily infections leapt 44 percent in a single week to over 121,000.
“It’s terrible. It feels to me like being back in March,” said Hocine Saal, head of the emergency service at the hospital in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, adding that rising numbers of non-coronavirus patients made coping “really difficult.”
On Friday, Paris and other French cities marked their final night before an anti-virus curfew comes into effect, and Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Georges Gilkinet said bars and restaurants would be closed for four weeks starting Monday as “our hospitals are clogged.”
But in neighboring Germany a Berlin court overturned nighttime restrictions.
In England, millions of people were just hours away from stricter measures, including a ban on household mixing, while bars and restaurants closed in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia.
In Greece, the densely populated northern area of Kozani went into a new lockdown.
By imposing restrictions in certain regions only, or only during certain hours of the day, governments are trying to slow the spread of the pandemic while sparing their battered economies a damaging full-scale lockdown.
In the US, the government said its budget deficit in the year to September surged 281 percent to $3.1 trillion, after Washington massively increased spending to support activity through the outbreak.
The previous record was $1.4 trillion in 2009, during the global financial crisis.
On Friday, the number killed by the coronavirus so far topped 1.1 million worldwide, from almost 39 million cases.

Remdesivir's efficacy doubted
Meanwhile, hopes for one of the most promising coronavirus treatments, the antiviral drug remdesivir, were dashed when a study backed by the World Health Organization found it does little to prevent deaths from the disease.
But pharma giant Pfizer said that if safety data expected in the third week of November are positive, it will apply for emergency use authorization in the US for its coronavirus vaccine.
Massachusetts-based Moderna has already said it aims to apply for authorization for its candidate on November 25.
Funded by the US government, both companies have been running large-scale Phase 3 clinical trials since July and have already begun producing doses, with tens of millions potentially available by the end of the year.
But experts warn that even when vaccines are approved, it will take many months until they are widely available.
“We are operating at the speed of science. This means we may know whether or not our vaccine is effective by the end of October,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla wrote in an open letter.

Curfew in France
In France, the curfew affecting some 20 million people in Paris and eight other cities was due to start at midnight, and then come fully into force later Saturday from 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 am over the coming weeks.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex (2ndR) and Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo (R) meets medical staff at a Covid-19 test center located in the former 4th district City Hall in Paris on October 15, 2020. (AFP / POOL / Ludovic Marin)

While it has broad public support, officials are worried about the heavy social and economic costs of a measure set to last at least a month.
In many European countries, infection controls have led to a backlash from defiant local authorities and businesses desperate to make ends meet.
Marseille’s mayor Michele Rubirola — herself a doctor — said the curfew resulted from the French government’s insufficient efforts to bolster hospital systems, costing residents “their daily pleasures (and) their freedom,” and also harming hospitality businesses.

Similar unease was felt in England where London and seven other areas were facing new restrictions from Saturday, riling leaders in hard-hit northwest England, especially Manchester.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged the restrictions were “far from a pain-free course of action.”
“But I must stress the situation in Greater Manchester is grave and it worsens with each passing day,” he added.

Police officers try to assist a man in Soho, amid the outbreak of the COVID-19, in London, on Oct. 16, 2020. (REUTERS/Hannah McKay)

Over in Berlin, irate restaurant owners successfully challenged in court an order to close bars and eateries from 11 pm.
Judges said “it was not apparent” such a measure could help fight coronavirus.
The suspension echoed a similar court ruling in Madrid earlier this month that canceled restrictions on 4.5 million people in and around the capital.
In Barcelona, people working in hospitality took to the streets, banging pots and pans and throwing eggs at the town hall after bars and restaurants were shut.
And in Brussels, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin had to leave an EU summit after coming into contact with an infected person.
The infection risks prompted some leaders to urge the bloc a return to virtual meetings, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already canceled a summit in Berlin on November 16.

Internally displaced Afghans look to foreign donors for help

Updated 25 November 2020

Internally displaced Afghans look to foreign donors for help

  • UN warns of ‘grave consequences’ for Kabul if officials at global conference cut aid

KABUL: As they huddle around a makeshift fire a few meters away from their tents, a group of men, displaced by decades of war in Afghanistan, recall the number of times former and current government officials pledged to provide basic amenities to millions of refugees during routine visits to their camp.

One man in the group, 42-year-old Shah Tawoos, points at a dirty stream of water which is making its way beneath the rotten tent – his “home” for more than a decade.

“Look at the humidity inside and the mud outside the tent, even dogs can’t and won’t bear this, but we have nowhere to go,” Tawoos told Arab News.

The tent is one of many located in the Charahi Qambar (CQ) camp, on the western fringes of Kabul, where thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) like Tawoos are denied their rights and are continuously threatened with deportation.

“Ministers and other authorities came and went, pledging to help us with houses, but nothing has happened. We do not know where the government spends the national budget and foreign aid,” he said.

According to the Internal Monitoring Displacement Centre (IMDC), the CQ is one of 47 camps that house nearly 3 million IDPs, who had their lives upended either by natural disasters or a fresh bout of violence since the Taliban’s ouster in the US-led invasion in 2001.

The displacements were triggered by fighting and attacks involving the Taliban, government and US-led forces, Daesh and other nonstate armed groups.

“In the first half of 2020, there were 117,000 new displacements associated with conflict and violence and 30,000 as a result of disasters,” according to the IMDC.

The CQ camp is filled with refugees from Afghanistan’s south where, according to the United Nations, more than 5,000 families have fled the fighting between the Taliban insurgents and Afghan government forces, specifically in the Helmand province.

The conditions at these camps are deplorable, with IDPs residing in tents either donated by local or foreign relief agencies or in small mud houses built using their resources.

The tents are rotting. Their condition, residents say, gets worse in summer when heavy rain and snow weakens the fabric, resulting in gaping holes.

“Our tents become infested with mosquitoes in the summer heat and unbearably cold in winter times,” Rahmat Gul, another resident of the camp, said.

He laments about the lack of electricity and water supply and highlights the plight of thousands of children who have no access to education or, often, food.

There are other issues as well, Gul says, such as unemployment and poverty, forcing some men and women to beg to make ends meet.

The camp first attracted attention in 2012 after at least 15 IDP children froze to death due to the harsh winter conditions.

The displacements were the topic of discussion once again during a virtual donor conference in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday where ministers from nearly 70 countries and officials of humanitarian organisations spoke about funding cuts and tighter restrictions on vital aid for Afghanistan, marking further challenges for a nation that is preparing for an early withdrawal of US-led foreign troops and grappling with the COVID-19 crisis.

“We want the participants (in Geneva) to act with caution, take firm measures for accountability and transparency from our government. Otherwise we fear that just like in the past, much of the aid will be squandered either by foreign contractors or officials in our government,” Gul said.

Ahead of the conference which began on Monday, President Ashraf Ghani said he hoped for it to generate billions of dollars of aid.

“The outcome of this pledging conference will heavily influence the country’s future development and our path towards self-reliance and peace,” Ghani said during the weekend in Kabul.

It follows a similar event in Belgium in 2016 where donors pledged to extend $15 billion in aid to Afghanistan for the next five years.

However, finance ministry spokesman Shamrooz Khan Masjidi was unable to comment on how much of the pledged aid had been disbursed.

“We would like a major part of the aid to be channeled through government budgets,” he said.

He added that the focus of all future aid would be on building infrastructure, repatriation of refugees and aiding the war displaced.

“Kabul had fulfilled the benchmarks set by donors for the last conference with regards to combating corruption and was open for accountability for the cash it has spent,” he said.

The Geneva meeting comes amid a deadlock in the talks between the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar, that have been going on since Sept. 12, as well as rising discontent with Ghani’s government at home and abroad due to soaring corruption, weak governance and the alleged squandering of state resources.

A recent report released by US watchdog SIGAR said: “The Afghan government makes paper reforms, such as drafting regulations or holding meetings, rather than concrete actions that would reduce corruption, such as arresting powerful actors.”

Following the SIGAR report and ahead of the Geneva conference, Ghani’s government ordered the formation of another commission to fight graft.

However, Sayed Ikram Afzali, executive director of Integrity Watch, said that the government had “no will for fighting corruption and resorts to symbolic works for drawing the attention at international conferences.”

A survey conducted by the Afghan Civil Society Forum on Sunday said that 90 percent of participants believed that “the government is corrupt.”

Afghanistan’s last permanent ambassador to the United Nations, Mahmoud Saikal, said on Monday: “In this time of high corruption, it is extremely important donors demand strong accountability from those who claim to represent our people.”

It’s a thought echoed by UN Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi. He also warned of “grave consequences” if the world turned away from Afghanistan.

“Failure on either account would see Afghanistan slide backwards with disastrous consequences, including further displacement, possibly on a larger scale…” he said in a statement on Sunday.