WHO official: ‘Next pandemic may be more severe’

Senior officials warned that the virus is not necessarily the big one. (File/AFP)
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Updated 29 December 2020

WHO official: ‘Next pandemic may be more severe’

WHO official: ‘Next pandemic may be more severe’
  • It is not just COVID-19 that is killing people but also societal inequalities: Dr. Mark Ryan

NEW YORK : The “fragile” world needs to get its act together and honor those who have died by getting better at fighting COVID-19 because “the next pandemic may be more severe,” Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Emergencies Program, said on Monday.

In the WHO’s final COVID-19 press conference of the year, attended by Arab News, he and other senior officials warned that the virus is “not necessarily the big one.”

It is not just the virus, however, that is killing people, said Ryan. “It’s underprivilege. It’s lack of access. It’s years and years of living with health conditions that haven’t been properly managed because of the color of your skin, your ethnicity or your social group,” he added. “This is still a deeply unfair, deeply inequitable world.”

He said COVID-19 has “ripped away the bandage from an old wound this society has,” which is its refusal to deliver the basic human right of healthcare to the most downtrodden.

Epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said countries that had experienced other infectious-disease outbreaks have handled the current pandemic better than other, higher-income countries.

“We’re all kind of fed up with this and we want this to be over,” she added. “This should push us even further, to have even more resolve to end this pandemic. We can’t lose this battle now.”

Van Kerkhove joined WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in calling for the world to be better prepared for the next health crisis by providing innovative technology to healthcare workers, informing and engaging citizens, and ensuring fair and equitable distribution of the treatments and vaccines developed this year.

“History tells us that COVID-19 isn’t the last pandemic,” said Ghebreyesus, adding that the WHO continues to discover new things about the virus every day, including the transmissibility of new variants, their capacity to make people sick, and their potential impact on available therapeutics or vaccines.

“Only if countries are testing effectively will you be able to pick up variants and adjust strategies to cope,” he said.

“We must ensure that countries aren’t punished for transparently sharing new scientific findings.”

Looking back on an unprecedented year, Ghebreyesus said the pandemic has made clear that “health isn’t simply a byproduct of development or a luxury for those who can afford it. It’s the foundation of social, economic and political stability.”

While he praised tremendous advances in medical care, he insisted that “the most effective investments are in relatively cheap, essential public health functions like immunization, surveillance, lab capacity, infection prevention and control, health control, improved water and sanitation. These public health basics can be the difference between a local outbreak that’s quickly controlled and a global pandemic.”

He added: “History tells us COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic. We must learn the lessons it’s teaching us and we must be prepared.”

Sunday was the first International Day of Epidemic Preparedness. Ghebreyesus recalled how last year, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board had warned that the world remains dangerously unprepared for a pandemic, and said this time “if we fail to prepare, we’re preparing to fail.”

Ryan said vaccinations do not guarantee that infectious diseases will be rooted out, and talk of eradication of the virus is premature.

He urged societies to focus on getting back to full strength rather than on the “moonshot of eradication.”

UN fears return to ‘square one’ in treatment of Rohingya by Myanmar

UN fears return to ‘square one’ in treatment of Rohingya by Myanmar
Updated 20 min 36 sec ago

UN fears return to ‘square one’ in treatment of Rohingya by Myanmar

UN fears return to ‘square one’ in treatment of Rohingya by Myanmar
  • Coup leaders intend to review plans in place to address the refugee crisis and investigate war crimes, said envoy

NEW YORK: The UN’s special envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, on Wednesday warned of the latest threat to the Rohingya Muslim minority in the country.
The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, which seized control of the country last month in a coup, said it intends to review the recommendations of the 2018 Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. This was chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan with the aim of ending the Rohingya crisis.
On Aug. 25, 2017 attacks against police and military forces by an armed group identified as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), prompted the launch of so-called “clearance operations.” In addition to military and civilian casualties, this resulted in the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who were forced to flee from Rakhine across the border to Bangladesh.
In addition to reconsidering the recommendations of the Annan commission, the coup leaders are also reviewing the work of the Independent Commission of Inquiry. This was established at the request of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to investigate the 2017 attacks and their consequences, including allegations of human rights violations and war crimes, with a view to holding guilty parties accountable and finding a path to peace.
Schraner Burgener said that if the Tatmadaw follows through on its stated intention to reevaluate the work of the two commissions, “then I really fear that they will go back to square one with the treatment of Rohingya.”
In its report, the Annan commission presented the government with 88 recommendations, including the granting of full humanitarian and media access to the conflict zones, and an impartial investigation of human rights abuses allegedly carried out by the Tatmadaw.
It urged the government to close all camps for internally displaced people in Rakhine state in accordance with international standards, combat hate speech against members of the Muslim minority, and take steps to give them a voice in the country and allow freedom of movement.
It also called for Myanmar’s citizenship-verification process to be accelerated by overhauling the 1982 citizenship law, the provisions of which are responsible for thousands of Rohingya remaining stateless. There were also a number of recommendations relating to economic development, infrastructure, health, education, rule of law and cultural development.
Schraner Burgener said that Soe Win, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, initially assured her that efforts based on the commission’s report to address the Rohingya refugee crisis would “absolutely continue.”
However, she said she was later surprised to learn that the Administrative Council established after the coup planned to conduct an investigation into Annan’s work on the grounds that it had been carried out “in the self-interest of an individual without taking national interest into consideration.” The individual in question is Aung San Suu Kyi, the envoy said.
Schraner Burgener added that she intends to ask Soe Win for an explanation the next time they speak.

US envoy ‘pushing for new Kabul leadership’

US envoy ‘pushing for new Kabul leadership’
Updated 35 min 41 sec ago

US envoy ‘pushing for new Kabul leadership’

US envoy ‘pushing for new Kabul leadership’
  • Doha talks to be scrapped under draft plan to speed peace process, sources say

DOHA: The US special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, reportedly suggested setting up a new government in Kabul during recent talks with key Afghan leaders, two sources privy to the matter told Arab News on Wednesday.

The reported proposal follows a deadlock in US-brokered talks that began in September last year between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar.

One of the key conditions of a historic deal signed between the US and Taliban last February was for Washington to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, and end America’s longest war.

However, uncertainty remains over whether international forces will pull out troops by May as initially planned after US officials reportedly said that President Joe Biden’s administration was conducting a review of the February accord signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban.

A subsequent NATO statement said that the troops would leave Afghanistan “when the time was right.”

They argue that US-led foreign troops need to remain in Afghanistan because the Taliban “has stepped up its attacks and seeks to regain power once again by force.”

The Taliban has denied the claims, adding that it remains committed to the deal, and warning that the US will face consequences if it seeks to breach the accord.

On Sunday, the US State Department said that Khalilzad and his team were visiting Kabul and Doha, where the Taliban have their political headquarters, to ensure “a just and durable political settlement and permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”

The envoy’s discussions with Afghan leaders are the first since Biden assumed office in January this year.

On Wednesday, two sources — one close to former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the other a confidante of Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council of National Reconciliation — said that Khalilzad had submitted a draft plan for a “participatory government” to the two leaders and President Ashraf Ghani.

“He has shared this plan and expects a response,” one of the sources, who declined to be named since he is not authorized to speak to the media, told Arab News.

Meanwhile, Dawa Khan Menapal, a spokesperson for Ghani, and the Taliban refused to comment on the matter when contacted by Arab News.

Under Khalilzad’s proposal, the Doha peace talks would be scrapped and an international gathering — similar to the Bonn conference, which was held soon after the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001 — would be summoned.

Rumours surrounding the formation of a transitional government have been doing the rounds in Afghan political circles in recent months, with Ghani’s beleaguered administration facing growing criticism for inefficiency, corruption, and failure to curb violence and Taliban attacks across the country.

Several factional leaders, including the head of parliament, Mir Rahman Rahmani, and government-appointed peace negotiators for the intra-Afghan talks have been pushing for Ghani to be replaced.

“I think there is no other way than this. A similar Bonn meeting is needed because the talks have stalled and there is no hope for a revival. Fighting has escalated,” Hamidullah Tokhi, an MP from southern Zabul, told Arab News.

But before that all groups must agree to a “permanent cease-fire and on the setup of the future government, its composition and how it would be created,” he added.

“It is natural that Ghani will have to sacrifice, and the Taliban, too, for the sake of peace. Do we have to lose 200 to 300 soldiers every day until his term is over and a similar number of Taliban and civilians?” he said.

Ghani began his second five-year term last year and has repeatedly vowed to block the formation of a provisional government in Afghanistan after calls for establishing a temporary setup began to gain ground.

“As long as I am alive, they will not see the formation of an interim government. I am not like those willows that bend with the wind,” Ghani said on Feb. 21.

He argued that in such a scenario, Afghanistan could face a “similar bloody and chaotic situation like the 1990s” when the then Moscow-backed administration replaced an interim government.

Earlier, the Afghan leader said that he would transfer power to his successor only after his tenure ended in 2025. Experts believe that there is no option left for Afghanistan.

“To secure peace, one needs first to fix an internal accord between Afghans,” Torek Farhadi, an adviser for the former government and an advocate of a transitional administration, told Arab News.

“Afghanistan’s distressing situation has internal and regional drivers. We must obtain regional guarantees of non-interference from Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors and India. To arrange such guarantees, we need the US to take the lead before US and NATO leave, ” he added.

Farhadi said that if a “participative government” were formed, it would not accord all power to the Taliban, adding that “it is also a government where the decision-making process on resources and appointments are more democratic.”

“A Bonn type of meeting ensures everyone has a voice, including Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, plus the US, Russia and China and, of course, India. The international format offers a chance for all these players to be at the table. The outcome of the conference will gain legitimacy with a UN stamp and guarantee, ” he said.

Myanmar security forces shoot dead more protesters despite calls for restraint

Myanmar security forces shoot dead more protesters despite calls for restraint
Updated 38 min 35 sec ago

Myanmar security forces shoot dead more protesters despite calls for restraint

Myanmar security forces shoot dead more protesters despite calls for restraint
  • The violence took place a day after foreign ministers from Southeast Asian neighbors urged restraint but failed to unite behind a call for the release of Suu Kyi and the restoration of democracy

YANGON: Myanmar security forces opened fire on protests against military rule on Wednesday, killing nine people, witnesses and media reported, a day after neighboring countries called for restraint and offered to help Myanmar resolve the crisis.

The security forces resorted to live fire with little warning in several towns and cities, witnesses said, as the junta appeared more determined than ever to stamp out protests against the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“It’s horrific, it’s a massacre. No words can describe the situation and our feelings,” youth activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi told Reuters via a messaging app.

A spokesman for the ruling military council did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.

In the central town of Myingyan, where one teenaged boy was killed, protest leader Si Thu Maung, told Reuters police initially fired tear gas and stun grenades but quickly opened fire.

“They didn’t spray us with water cannon, no warning to disperse, they just fired their guns,” he said.

The heaviest toll was in another central town, Monywa, where five people — four men and one woman — were killed, said Ko Thit Sar, editor of the Monywa Gazette.

“We’ve confirmed with family members and doctors, five people have been killed,” he told Reuters.

“At least 30 people are wounded, some still unconscious.”

Two people were killed in the country’s second-biggest city Mandalay, a witness and media reports said, and one person was killed when police opened fire in the main city of Yangon, a witness there said.

At least 31 people have been killed since the coup.

The violence took place a day after foreign ministers from Southeast Asian neighbors urged restraint but failed to unite behind a call for the release of Suu Kyi and the restoration of democracy.

“The country is like the Tiananmen Square in most of its major cities,” the Archbishop of Yangon, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, said on Twitter, referring to the suppression of student-led protests in Beijing in 1989.

Security forces also detained about 300 protesters as they broke up protests in Yangon, the Myanmar Now news agency reported.

Video posted on social media showed lines of young men, hands on heads, filing into army trucks as police and soldiers stood guard.

Images of a 19-year-old woman, one of the two shot dead in Mandalay, showed her wearing a T-shirt that read “Everything will be OK.”

Police in Yangon ordered three medics out of an ambulance, shot up the windscreen and then kicked and beat the workers with gun butts and batons, video broadcast by US-funded Radio Free Asia showed. Reuters was unable to verify the video independently.

Democracy activist Esther Ze Naw told Reuters that the sacrifices of those who died would not be in vain.

“We will continue this fight and win. We shall overcome this and win,” she said.

On Tuesday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to make a breakthrough in a virtual foreign ministers’ meeting on Myanmar.

While united in a call for restraint, only four members — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore — called for the release of Suu Kyi and other detainees.

“We expressed ASEAN’s readiness to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner,” the ASEAN chair, Brunei, said in a statement.

Myanmar’s state media said the military-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, attended the video conference and “apprised the meeting of voting irregularities” in a November election.

The military justified the coup saying its complaints of voter fraud in the Nov. 8 vote were ignored. Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide, earning a second term.

The election commission said the vote was fair.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has said the intervention was to protect Myanmar’s fledgling democracy and has pledged to hold new elections but given no time frame.

State television has said agitators were mobilizing people on social media and forming “illegal organizations.”

Suu Kyi, 75, has been held incommunicado since the coup but appeared at a court hearing via video conferencing this week and looked in good health, a lawyer said.

She is one of nearly 1,300 people who have been detained, according to activists.

Ousted President Win Myint is facing two new charges, his lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, said, including one for a breach of the constitution that is punishable by up to three years on prison.

A former United Nations expert on Myanmar said on Wednesday foreign firms should suspend all business there to send a clear message to the military that its coup will hurt its people and ruin its economy.

In California, Christians who fled Iraq watch pope visit from afar

In California, Christians who fled Iraq watch pope visit from afar
Updated 04 March 2021

In California, Christians who fled Iraq watch pope visit from afar

In California, Christians who fled Iraq watch pope visit from afar
  • A community of Chaldean Catholics in California keenly await Pope Francis’s arrival in Baghdad
  • Visit stirs difficult memories and mixed emotions for congregation in El Cajon

El Cajon, CALIFORNIA: As Pope Francis begins his historic visit to Iraq on Friday, his journey will be closely watched by a community of Christians thousands of kilometers away in southern California.

El Cajon, near San Diego, is home to one of the largest populations of Iraqi Chaldean Catholics in the US.

As increasing numbers of Christians left Iraq in recent decades, fleeing violence and persecution, many Chaldeans arriving in America relocated to the city.

There are an estimated 15,000 Chaldeans living in El Cajon.

Emad Hanna Al-Shaikh, Rev. Msgr. of Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church in El Cajon, tends to a shrine to those killed in a 2010 Baghdad church attack. (Screengrab)

For many, the pope’s visit to Iraq is a time to reflect on their past lives and pray for the community still living there.

“This is a visit of love and support to Iraq as a whole and specifically to the Christians of Iraq,” Emad Hanna Al-Shaikh, Rev. Msgr. of Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church in El Cajon, told Arab News. 

“Enough with the rage and displacement. We need to have love among us and we look forward to his visit where we wish for love and peace to prevail in all religions and nationalities.”

Like many Catholic Christians around the world, the community in El Cajon has planned celebrations in support of the visit.

There are an estimated 15,000 Iraqi Christians in El Cajon, California. (Screengrab)

“We have a program that will start on Friday,” Al-Shaikh said. “We will do preparations for a small sort of festival especially this Sunday. We will have a celebration, prayers and hymns in the front yard.”

One parishioner, Hadeel Albert, told Arab News that he wished he could be back in his old country to see the pope.

“Since we are in the diaspora, we wish we were in Iraq to witness the decrees,” he said.

Another member of the congregation, Wameedh Tozy, said: “It will be a great dialogue between religions. It is an open message that we all believe in God and practice religions freely and in one brotherly relationship.”

The pope’s visit to Our Lady of Salvation Church, the same church in Baghdad where 58 people were killed in a horrific suicide attack, will have added significance for the community in California. There is a memorial for the victims of the 2010 massacre inside the church in El Cajon.

“Of course we would like to announce that we have a shrine for the church of the martyrs,” Al-Shaikh, who has met Pope Francis, said.

Danish PM under pressure for working with Israel on vaccines

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is under pressure to stop working with Israel on acquiring coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines. (AFP/File Photos)
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is under pressure to stop working with Israel on acquiring coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines. (AFP/File Photos)
Updated 03 March 2021

Danish PM under pressure for working with Israel on vaccines

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is under pressure to stop working with Israel on acquiring coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines. (AFP/File Photos)
  • Frederiksen’s political allies say COVID-19 vaccine surplus should be given to Palestinians instead

LONDON: Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is under pressure to stop working with Israel on acquiring coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines, it was reported on Wednesday.

Frederiksen’s political allies demanded that Israel’s vaccine surplus should be given to Palestinians instead.

She is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday along with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to discuss a joint vaccine production project to battle future COVID-19 variants.

Copenhagen and Vienna both criticized the European Union’s rollout of the vaccines as being “too slow,” so Frederiksen is looking at other options.

Before she left for Tel Aviv, Frederiksen said she planned to talk with Netanyahu about the possibility of financing new factories and purchasing surplus doses from Israel’s vaccination program, the Guardian reported.

“I do not rule out any ideas, not even to build factories,” Frederiksen said. “We are happy to buy vaccines from countries that cannot use them, either because they do not have time to roll them out at the same rate as us or for other reasons.”

Israel’s vaccine rollout has been praised internationally as more than half of all adults have received a dose. However, Netanyahu was criticized heavily for only approving doses for Palestinians last Sunday.

Human rights groups pointed out that international law requires Israel to provide Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza the same access to vaccines as Israeli citizens.

The Palestinian Authority said it has received only 2,000 doses from Israel and another 10,000 from Russia.

Frederiksen is facing pressure in Denmark to step back from dealing with Netanyahu.

Søren Søndergaard, an MP with the country’s Red-Green Alliance Group, which supports Frederiksen’s minority Social Democrat government, said: “We should not rely on Israel to produce vaccines for us.

“It would be a historic mistake for Denmark to cooperate with Israel as long as it does not live up to its obligations under international law. Instead, we should demand that Israel provides the Palestinians with the vaccines, which they have a rightful claim to.”