Australia records 10th day of no local COVID-19 cases

Australia records 10th day of no local COVID-19 cases
Australia’s international borders will likely remain shut to non-citizens this year although there may be exclusive travel arrangements with its South Pacific neighbors. (AFP)
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Updated 27 January 2021

Australia records 10th day of no local COVID-19 cases

Australia records 10th day of no local COVID-19 cases
  • Victoria state, which is hosting the Australia Open tennis tournament, has gone three weeks without a local case

SYDNEY: Australia recorded a 10th straight day of no new local COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, allowing its most populous state of New South Wales (NSW) to relax coronavirus restrictions after controlling a fast-spreading cluster.
NSW has recorded no local cases for 10 days after low single digit numbers earlier in January. Victoria state, which is hosting the Australia Open tennis tournament, has gone three weeks without a local case.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt tweeted Wednesday marked the 10th day of no community transmission of COVID-19 Australia wide, adding the country’s success comes at a time when global coronavirus cases have crossed 100 million with the death toll surpassing 2 million.
Australia has recorded more than 22,000 local cases since the pandemic began and 909 deaths.
The COVID-free run allowed NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklien to ease coronavirus restrictions from Friday, including relaxing rules around mask wearing and increasing numbers in house parties, weddings, funerals and places of worship.
The restrictions had kicked in late last year to successfully curb virus clusters in Sydney’s northern beaches and western suburbs. The outbreaks saw other states and territories close borders or restrict travel from NSW.
Berejiklien hinted that restrictions would be eased further in two weeks if there were no further cases, adding she was “striking the right balance” between economic growth and virus control.
“They both go hand in hand, you can’t have an open economy unless you make sure you get the health settings right,” she said, while urging Sydneysiders to come out and get tested for COVID-19 even for the “mildest of symptoms.”
Despite its relative success in handling the pandemic, Australia’s international borders will likely remain shut to non-citizens this year although there may be exclusive travel arrangements called “bubbles” with its South Pacific neighbors.
Australia suspended a one-way “travel bubble” which allowed New Zealanders entry after a highly infectious coronavirus strain was found in New Zealand.
New Zealand on Wednesday reported two more cases of the South African variant, both returned travelers in hotel quarantine who had previously returned negative test following their 14-day isolation. New Zealand has reported zero community transmission cases in the past three days.
Australia would make a decision on whether or not to lift the ‘trans-Tasman bubble’ suspension on Thursday.


Azerbaijan seizes large heroin shipment bound for Europe

Updated 11 sec ago

Azerbaijan seizes large heroin shipment bound for Europe

Azerbaijan seizes large heroin shipment bound for Europe
BAKU: Azerbaijan has impounded more than half a ton of heroin, one of the biggest ever seizures in the country situated on a major smuggling route to Europe, officials said Monday.
The state customs committee said in a statement that its officers in the town of Bilasuvar — the Caucasus nation’s south-east — inspected a car traveling from Iran to EU member Latvia.
The statement added that 527.6 kilogrammes, about 1,160 pounds, of “heroin were found during the inspection.”
The committee said that criminal groups have previously used “Azerbaijan’s occupied territories” as a drugs’ transit route.
It referred to territories in the Nagorno-Karabakh region that were under the de-facto control of neighboring Armenia until last November, when Yerevan ceded the disputed lands to Baku following a deadly six-week war.
According to the committee, since the “restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity” criminal groups have started using Azerbaijan’s customs and border points to smuggle drugs.
Azerbaijan has in the past reported numerous incidents involving drug traffickers attempting to cross over from Iran, with hundreds of kilogrammes of heroin seized annually.
The oil-rich ex-Soviet Caspian nation lies on a major drug smuggling route from Afghanistan and Iran to Europe and Russia, according to the 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released by the US Department of State.

Korean superstars BTS address UN General Assembly

Korean superstars BTS address UN General Assembly
Updated 20 min 19 sec ago

Korean superstars BTS address UN General Assembly

Korean superstars BTS address UN General Assembly
  • Pop group delivered speech that emphasized the youth’s hope and optimism in addressing global challenges
  • They also performed their hit song “Permission to Dance” in the General Assembly hall

NEW YORK: K-pop supergroup BTS addressed the UN General Assembly on Monday and performed a song ahead of a day of high-level dialogue about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

BTS are designated by the UN as special presidential envoys for future cultures and generations, and have taken a leading role in advocating for youth worldwide — particularly on environmental issues.

In a powerful speech delivered on Monday in the UN’s Headquarters, the Korean group said that the COVID-19 pandemic had been “a time to discover how precious each and every moment we had taken for granted was.”

And among the most special of those moments, they said, were those spent in nature — “I shudder to think about mourning the earth,” they added.

“Climate change is an important problem. But talking about what the best solution might be — that’s not easy. It’s a topic that is tough to draw conclusions about. But there are many young people who have an interest in environmental issues, and choose it as their field of study,” said the group’s members.

“I hope we don’t just consider the future as grim darkness. We still have many pages in our story, and we shouldn’t talk as if the ending is already written.”

After their speech, BTS performed their hit song “Permission to Dance” inside the General Assembly hall and the grounds of the UN headquarters.

BTS have been vocal in their advocacy on behalf of the youth, with a particular emphasis on climate change and environmental issues — and the group’s millions of dedicated fans have followed their lead, raising cash for forests and environmental disaster victims alike. 

The group delivered their speech ahead of a day of focus on the SDGs in the UN and a behind-closed-doors meeting between leaders, convened by British PM Boris Johnson, which will gather leaders to discuss how to best build consensus on environmental issues. 

The SDGs are a set of 17 goals aimed at delivering the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which “provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”

Poverty alleviation, climate action, preservation of nature and gender equality are among the 17 goals, which will be discussed throughout Monday and the rest of the week by world leaders and their UN delegates.  

Speaking ahead of BTS’ appearance, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the COVID-19 pandemic was putting the SDGs “further out of reach” and that “only by recovering together can we get the Sustainable Development Goals back on track.” 

But first, he said, “we need to end this pandemic.”


Trudeau future on the line as Canadians vote in pandemic election

Trudeau future on the line as Canadians vote in pandemic election
Updated 58 min 24 sec ago

Trudeau future on the line as Canadians vote in pandemic election

Trudeau future on the line as Canadians vote in pandemic election
  • Trudeau called the snap election hoping to parlay a smooth Covid-19 vaccine rollout into a new mandate to steer the nation's pandemic exit
  • At 49, Trudeau has faced tougher bouts and come out unscathed

OTTAWA, Canada: Voters lined up Monday to cast ballots in Canadian elections that are headed for a photo finish, with liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s bid for a third term threatened by rookie conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s strong challenge.
Trudeau called the snap election hoping to parlay a smooth Covid-19 vaccine rollout — among the best in the world — into a new mandate to steer the nation’s pandemic exit, without having to rely on opposition party support to pass his agenda.
But the contest, after a bumpy five weeks of campaigning, appears set for a repeat of the close 2019 general election that resulted in the one-time golden boy of Canadian politics clinging to power, yet losing his majority in parliament.
A sudden surge in Covid-19 cases led by the Delta variant late in the campaign, after the lifting of most public health measures this summer, has also muddied the waters.
Voting across Canada’s six time zones started early in the Atlantic island province of Newfoundland and was to wrap up in westernmost British Columbia at 7:00 p.m. (0200 GMT).
At 49, Trudeau has faced tougher bouts and come out unscathed.
But after six years in power, his administration is showing signs of fatigue, and it’s been an uphill battle for him to convince Canadians to stick with his Liberals after falling short of high expectations set in his 2015 landslide win.
Douglas O’Hara, 73, casting a vote in Trudeau’s Montreal electoral district of Papineau, told AFP he was “very disappointed” with the prime minister.
Although he believes Trudeau “did a half-decent job” managing the pandemic, he reminded that the leader had pledged not to go to the polls until the outbreak had subsided.
“Then as soon as he gets a chance (when) he thinks he’s going to get a majority, he calls an election,” O’Hara said. “I really believe he lied to us.”
Jennifer Hardy, 38, also expressed disappointment with the incumbent. “I’m actually embarrassed and ashamed because I voted for him last time. I’m here to rectify that. I think he’s ruining this country.”
Entering the final stretch, the two main political parties that ruled Canada since its 1867 confederation were neck and neck with about 31 percent support each, and four smaller factions nipping at their heels.
An estimated 27 million Canadians are eligible to vote to select 338 members of Parliament. To keep his job, Trudeau’s Liberals must win a plurality of seats and take at least 170 for a majority.
Due to the pandemic, a significant number of mail-in ballots (1.2 million) are expected, which could mean the results may not be known Monday evening.
Pollster and former political strategist Tim Powers advised not counting Trudeau out. “I still think Justin Trudeau will win a minority government,” he told AFP.
“But is that a win for him?” he added, suggesting Trudeau may be turfed as leader if the Liberals fare poorly at the ballot box.
The 36-day campaign saw the contenders spar over climate actions, indigenous reconciliation, affordable housing, Afghanistan, mandatory Covid-19 inoculations and vaccine passports.
Rivals criticized Trudeau for calling the election during a pandemic.
Meanwhile, the 48-year-old O’Toole was knocked for his backing of Alberta and two other Tory-led provinces’ loosening of public health restrictions too soon, with Covid outbreaks now forcing their overwhelmed hospitals to fly patients across Canada for care.
At rallies, Trudeau was dogged by what he described as “anti-vaxxer mobs,” including one that threw stones at him.
O’Toole, meanwhile, fumbled over gun control and was warned by Beijing, according to Chinese state media, that his proposed hard line on China — Canada’s second-largest trading partner, with whom relations have soured over its detention of two Canadian nationals — would “invite counterstrikes.”
Overall, commented Max Cameron, a professor at the University of British Columbia, “this hasn’t been a polarizing election. There’s actually a lot of clustering around the middle.”
O’Toole, a relative unknown who became Tory leader only last year, tracked his party to the political center, forcing the Liberals to compete for votes on the left with the New Democrats and Greens, as well as the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
The Conservatives, however, also saw their support clawed in the final week by former foreign minister Maxime Bernier’s far right People’s Party.


Faroe Islands mass dolphin slaughter casts shadow over tradition

Faroe Islands mass dolphin slaughter casts shadow over tradition
Updated 54 min 8 sec ago

Faroe Islands mass dolphin slaughter casts shadow over tradition

Faroe Islands mass dolphin slaughter casts shadow over tradition
  • The magnitude of the catch in the large fjord came as a shock as fishermen targeted a particularly big school of dolphins
  • Critics say that the Faroese can no longer put forward the argument of sustenance when killing whales and dolphins

COPENHAGEN: Every summer in the Faroe Islands hundreds of pilot whales and dolphins are slaughtered in drive hunts known as the “grind” that residents defend as a long-held tradition.
The hunt always sparks fierce criticism abroad, but never so much as last week when a particularly bountiful catch saw 1,428 dolphins massacred in one day, raising questions on the island itself about a practice that activists have long deemed cruel.
Images of hundreds upon hundreds of dolphins lined up on the sand, some of them hacked up by what appeared to be propellers, the water red with blood, shocked some of the staunchest supporters of the “grind” and raised concern in the archipelago’s crucial fishing industry.
For the first time, the local government of the autonomous Danish archipelago located in the depths of the North Atlantic said it would re-evaluate regulations surrounding the killing of dolphins specifically, without considering an outright ban on the tradition.
“I had never seen anything like it before. This is the biggest catch in the Faroes,” Jens Mortan Rasmussen, one of the hunter-fishermen present at the scene in the village of Skala, told AFP.
While used to criticism, he said this time round it was “a little different.”
“Fish exporters are getting quite a lot of furious phone calls from their clients and the salmon industry has NOW mobilized against dolphin-hunting. It’s a first.”
The meat of pilot whales and dolphins is only eaten by the fishermen themselves, but there is concern that news of the massacre will hit the reputation of an archipelago that relies considerably on exporting other fish including salmon.
Traditionally, the Faroe Islands — which have a population of 50,000 — hunt pilot whales in a practice known as “grindadrap,” or the “grind.”
Hunters first surround the whales with a wide semi-circle of fishing boats and then drive them into a bay to be beached and slaughtered by fishermen on the beach.
Normally, around 600 pilot whales are hunted every year in this way, while fewer dolphins also get caught.
Defending the hunt, the Faroese point to the abundance of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in their waters (over 100,000, or two per capita).
They see it as an open-air slaughterhouse that isn’t that different to the millions of animals killed behind closed doors all over the world, said Vincent Kelner, the director of a documentary on the “grind.”
And it’s of historical significance for the Faroe Islanders: without this meat from the sea, their people would have disappeared.
But still, on September 12, the magnitude of the catch in the large fjord came as a shock as fishermen targeted a particularly big school of dolphins.
The sheer number of the mammals that beached slowed down the slaughter which “lasted a lot longer than a normal grind,” said Rasmussen.
“When the dolphins reach the beach, it’s very difficult to send them back to sea, they tend to always return to the beach.”
Kelner said the fishermen were “overwhelmed.”
“It hits their pride because it questions the professionalism they wanted to put in place,” he added.
While defending the practice as sustainable, Bardur a Steig Nielsen, the archipelago’s prime minister, said Thursday the government would re-evaluate “dolphin hunts, and what part they should play in Faroese society.”
Critics say that the Faroese can no longer put forward the argument of sustenance when killing whales and dolphins.
“For such a hunt to take place in 2021 in a very wealthy European island community... with no need or use for such a vast quantity of contaminated meat is outrageous,” said Rob Read, chief operating officer at marine conservation NGO Sea Shepherd, referring to high levels of mercury in dolphin meat.
The NGO claims the hunt also broke several laws.
“The Grind foreman for the district was never informed and therefore never authorized the hunt,” it said in a statement.
It also claims that many participants had no license, “which is required in the Faroe Islands, since it involves specific training in how to quickly kill the pilot whales and dolphins.”
And “photos show many of the dolphins had been run over by motorboats, essentially hacked by propellers, which would have resulted in a slow and painful death.”
Faroese journalist Hallur av Rana said that while a large majority of islanders defend the “grind” itself, 53 percent are opposed to killing dolphins.


Greece begins moving migrants to new ‘closed’ camp

Greece begins moving migrants to new ‘closed’ camp
Updated 20 September 2021

Greece begins moving migrants to new ‘closed’ camp

Greece begins moving migrants to new ‘closed’ camp
  • The Samos camp, which will serve as a pilot for the other so-called closed and controlled access facilities, can only be entered via fingerprint scans and electronic badges
  • The EU has committed €276 million for the new camps on Greece’s five Aegean islands — Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos — that receive most of the migrant arrivals

SAMOS, Greece: Greece on Monday began moving asylum seekers to the first of several new EU-funded “closed” camps on its islands, despite activists complaining that controls on access are too harsh.
A double barbed-wire fence surrounds the camp on Samos island, a facility for 3,000 people that also has surveillance cameras, X-ray scanners and magnetic doors.
During the migrant crisis in 2015 and 2016, the previous camp on Samos sheltered nearly 7,000 asylum seekers despite being built to take just 680, and campaigners had long denounced conditions as deplorable.
“Today is a historic day... a day of joy for us,” Manos Logothetis of the Greek migration ministry told state TV ERT on Samos.
Logothetis told AFP that out of some 400 people at the current Vathy camp at Samos, 270 have said they want to move to the new Zervou facility.
At the entrance of the new camp, police lined up the residents, checking them for weapons or dangerous objects, an AFP reporter said. Asylum personnel handed out clean bedsheets and showed the migrants how to use the gate’s magnetic entry cards.
Some of the asylum seekers carried boxes containing stray cats from the old camp, where rats were an ever-present menace.
“People are just angry for what will happen in the new camp, they think that it’s prison, but I don’t think it,” said Didier Tcakonmer, a 28-year-old Cameroonian who has spent more than two years in Samos.
“It will be better than here, no mosquitos, no rats.”
The ministry is prepared to register up to 200 people today and the remainder on Tuesday, Logothetis said.
The Samos camp, which will serve as a pilot for the other so-called closed and controlled access facilities, can only be entered via fingerprint scans and electronic badges.
Gates will remain closed at night and disciplinary measures await those who return after 8:00 pm.
Late on Sunday, a fire broke out in an abandoned part of the Vathy camp — though the ministry said nobody was hurt.
Logothetis told ERT it was common for asylum seekers to sort through their belongings ahead of a camp move and burn anything they did not intend to bring with them.
According to the ministry, all the asylum seekers had been evacuated on Sunday to an empty space near the entrance of the camp as firefighters tackled the blaze.
The new Samos facility is the first of several such camps on five Greek islands created with EU funds.
The EU has committed 276 million euros ($326 million) for the new camps on Greece’s five Aegean islands — Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos — that receive most of the migrant arrivals by sea from neighboring Turkey.
The Leros and Kos camps will open in November, the government said Monday.
Logothetis said the new restricted-access Samos camp offers “safety and humanitarian values,” but rights groups say the measures are too restrictive.
The Samos community, which had for years demanded the relocation of all the migrants to mainland Greece and Europe, has also opposed the construction of the new Zervou camp.
On the nearby island of Lesbos, the similarly overcrowded camp of Moria was destroyed in two fires that left 13,000 without shelter for several days.