‘Give us money not jabs’ — In Pakistan’s refugee camps, skepticism over government’s vaccine plans

‘Give us money not jabs’ — In Pakistan’s refugee camps, skepticism over government’s vaccine plans
A mother and her son stand outside their tent in a slum, during a lockdown amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in Karachi. (Reuters)
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Updated 04 April 2021

‘Give us money not jabs’ — In Pakistan’s refugee camps, skepticism over government’s vaccine plans

‘Give us money not jabs’ — In Pakistan’s refugee camps, skepticism over government’s vaccine plans
  • Refugees say they are not interested in the vaccine, citing a lack of information

KARACHI: Afghan refugees in Pakistan’s southern provinces said they wanted money, not vaccines, from the government to protect against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as their camps had not been hit by the virus.

Representatives of Afghan refugees said they had no information regarding an immunization program. Some claimed the disease had not killed anyone in their camps, raising concerns about a lack of awareness of the virus among the refugee population.

At least 1.4 million Afghan refugees live in 54 camps across the country, mostly in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and southwestern Balochistan provinces, both of which border Afghanistan. Refugee settlements are also located in large urban centers like Karachi and Islamabad.

“No one has contacted us for vaccinations,” Zahir Pashtun, a youth activist at the New Saranan refugee camp in southwestern Balochistan province, told Arab News.

“I don’t think that even one percent (of refugees) will get the jab,” he said, adding: “Some are even convinced they will die if they get immunized.”

Pashtun said the virus had not killed anyone in his refugee camp but had severely damaged the financial conditions of the mostly daily wage laborers in his community, as the virus had wreaked havoc on the economy since last March.

In Pashtun’s camp, a worker said the government should give refugees money instead of vaccinations.

Last month, the National Command and Operation Center, the senior body for Pakistan’s coronavirus response, said the vaccination of foreigners living in the country had been approved, and the Health Ministry said the process would begin in the first week of April. It has yet to commence.

Zabihullah Ahmadi, a teacher at Sindh’s Syed Jamaluddin Afghani refugees’ school, said there was “no sign or sense” of COVID-19 in his community.

“When the government wants to vaccinate them (refugees), it will have to extend awareness about the virus. But even then, a majority of Afghan refugees may not take it as they don’t accept it as a disease,” Ahmadi added.

Over 14,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Pakistan since March 2020. There were 4,500 deaths in Sindh province and a little over 200 deaths in Balochistan.

Qaiser Afridi, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told Arab News that it would raise awareness “once a system is in place to register the numbers,” adding that it had constituted a technical working group for refugees to deal with the issue.

“Refugees will be included in the system meant for the Pakistani population. There is no separate system in place for them,” Afridi said, adding that Afghan nationals would register online like all other citizens by using their Proof of Registration cards and would then be invited to the nearest Adult Vaccination Center at government health facilities.

“There will be no vaccination inside the refugee villages,” he said.

“We haven’t seen anyone die of COVID-19,” Mullah Abdul Rehman, an Afghan refugee in southern Sindh province, told Arab News.

Rehman said that he always kept a mask with him but only used it after crossing the Sohrab Goth bridge towards Karachi.

He said his refugee settlement was a “mask-free land,” adding: “Since we see no coronavirus patients, people think it is not as important as the polio vaccine.”

In refugee camps beyond the southern provinces, Afghans have adopted a different attitude. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, refugees are more inclined to get themselves vaccinated.

“We have heard about the vaccine and are doing our best to create awareness about it since COVID-19 is a fatal disease,” Mohibullah Salman, a youth leader in the province’s Jalala refugee village, told Arab News.

“Youth groups are creating awareness and people are beginning to show their willingness to participate in the immunization drive.

“Once the government begins the vaccination campaign, a large number of refugees will join the queue.”


Victim of London terror attack will return to rehabilitating prisoners

Victim of London terror attack will return to rehabilitating prisoners
Updated 14 min 16 sec ago

Victim of London terror attack will return to rehabilitating prisoners

Victim of London terror attack will return to rehabilitating prisoners
  • Stephanie Szczotko was stabbed by Usman Khan at a rehabilitation event for prisoners
  • ‘I’ve always enjoyed support work and helping people, so I want to carry on with that’

LONDON: A criminology graduate who was injured during the 2019 Fishmonger’s Hall attack in London has said she will return to rehabilitating prisoners.

Stephanie Szczotko, 26, was stabbed in the arm by Usman Khan during his murderous spree at a rehabilitation event for prisoners on license. 

Khan, 28, killed two of his victims — Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23 — both of whom were workers from the Learning Together initiative, a rehabilitation scheme backed by Cambridge University.

The terrorist, who was shot dead on London Bridge by a firearm officer, was wearing a fake suicide vest.

Szczotko, from Bath in the west of England, visited prisons on behalf of the initiative during her criminology degree, and attended the Fishmonger’s Hall event as an alumni of the group.

She has remained an advocate of prisoner rehabilitation and restorative justice efforts, saying the attack “didn’t really change my opinion.”

She added that many of the ex-offenders at the event put themselves in harm’s way by challenging Khan as he started his rampage. 

“I’ve always enjoyed support work and helping people, so I want to carry on with that — maybe working with youth offenders,” Szczotko said.

The inquest into the deaths of Merritt and Jones starts on Monday. Witnesses will give evidence as the inquest seeks to establish what, if anything, the security services and the police knew ahead of the attack.


Official says Chinese vaccines’ effectiveness is low

Official says Chinese vaccines’ effectiveness is low
Updated 53 min 34 sec ago

Official says Chinese vaccines’ effectiveness is low

Official says Chinese vaccines’ effectiveness is low
  • Chinese vaccines “don’t have very high protection rates,” said the director of the China Centers for Disease Control

BEIJING: In a rare admission of the weakness of Chinese coronavirus vaccines, the country’s top disease control official says their effectiveness is low and the government is considering mixing them to give them a boost.
Chinese vaccines “don’t have very high protection rates,” said the director of the China Centers for Disease Control, Gao Fu, at a conference Saturday in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
Beijing has distributed hundreds of millions of doses in other countries while also trying to promote doubt about the effectiveness of Western vaccines.
“It’s now under formal consideration whether we should use different vaccines from different technical lines for the immunization process,” Gao said.
The effectiveness rate of a coronavirus vaccine from Sinovac, a Chinese developer, at preventing symptomatic infections has been found to be as low as 50.4% by researchers in Brazil. By comparison, the vaccine made by Pfizer has been found to be 97% effective.
Beijing has yet to approve any foreign vaccines for use in China, where the coronavirus emerged in late 2019.
Gao gave no details of possible changes in strategy but mentioned mRNA, a previously experimental technique used by Western vaccine developers while China’s drug makers used traditional technology.
“Everyone should consider the benefits mRNA vaccines can bring for humanity,” Gao said. “We must follow it carefully and not ignore it just because we already have several types of vaccines already.”
Gao previously raised questions about the safety of mRNA vaccines. He was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying in December he couldn’t rule out negative side effects because they were being used for the first time on healthy people.
Chinese state media and popular health and science blogs also have questioned the safety and effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine, which uses mRNA.
As of April 2, some 34 million people have received both of the two doses required by Chinese vaccines and about 65 million received one, according to Gao.
Experts say mixing vaccines, or sequential immunization, might boost effectiveness rates. Trials around the world are looking at mixing of vaccines or giving a booster shot after a longer time period. Researchers in Britain are studying a possible combination of Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.


Philippines to ease some tough COVID-19 restrictions from Monday

Philippines to ease some tough COVID-19 restrictions from Monday
Updated 11 April 2021

Philippines to ease some tough COVID-19 restrictions from Monday

Philippines to ease some tough COVID-19 restrictions from Monday
  • Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite will be placed under a less restrictive community quarantine status until April 30
  • The Philippines is battling one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Asia

MANILA: Strict COVID-19 lockdowns in the Philippines capital and four adjacent provinces will be eased from April 12, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte said on Sunday.
Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite will be placed under a less restrictive community quarantine status until April 30, spokesman Harry Roque told a virtual briefing.
Roque gave the briefing from hospital where he is being treated for COVID-19. He gave no details on which restrictions will be eased but said details would be released on Monday.
The Philippines is battling one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Asia, with hospitals in the capital overwhelmed amid record daily infections, while authorities face delays in delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.
On Sunday, the Department of Health recorded 11,681 new COVID-19 cases and 201 more deaths, bringing the country’s tallies to 864,868 confirmed infections and 14,945 fatalities.
New cases have surge in recent weeks, surpassing 15,000 on April 2, most of those in the congested capital.
Last week, Duterte canceled a weekly televised address and a meeting with his coronavirus task force as some of his staff and security detail were found to be COVID-19 positive.
Roque and Duterte’s defense minister, Delfin Lorenzana, also tested positive.
Roque said the government will work to increase the number of COVID-19 beds in health care facilities and free up more room in hospitals.
Under the current quarantine classification for Manila and surrounding areas, non-essential movement is banned, along with mass gatherings and dining in restaurants, with longer-than-usual curfews also in place since March 29.
The reimposition of strict lockdowns has raised concerns the economy will take longer to recover from last year’s worst slump on record.


South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30

South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30
Updated 11 April 2021

South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30

South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30
  • South Korea on Wednesday suspended providing the AstraZeneca shot to people under 60
  • Risks of coronavirus are far worse than the rare possibility of side effects from the vaccines

SEOUL: South Korean authorities said on Sunday they will move ahead with a coronavirus vaccination drive this week, after deciding to continue using AstraZeneca PLC’s vaccine for all eligible people 30 years old or over.
South Korea on Wednesday suspended providing the AstraZeneca shot to people under 60 as Europe reviewed cases of blood clotting in adults.
People under 30 will still be excluded from the vaccinations resuming on Monday because the benefits of the shot do not outweigh the risks for that age group, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said in a statement.
Three vaccinated people in South Korea are reported to have developed blood clots, with one case determined to be correlated to the vaccine, Choi Eun-hwa, chair of the Korea Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, told a briefing.
That case was a type of blood clot considered less serious than the type being examined by European authorities, she said.
For most people, the risks of coronavirus are far worse than the rare possibility of side effects from the vaccines, Choi said, adding that the best way to end the pandemic was to vaccinate everyone who can receive it.
But she said, “the benefits are not as great for those under 30 years old, so we will not recommend the AstraZeneca vaccine for them.”
The AstraZeneca shot’s benefit-to-risk ratio rises the older people get as the risk of serious harm due to vaccination falls and ICU admissions prevented by vaccination rise sharply, according to the University of Cambridge’s Winton Center for Risk and Evidence Communication.
The drugmaker has said its studies have found no higher risk of clots because of its vaccine, millions of doses of which have been administered worldwide. The World Health Organization has said the benefits outweigh the risks.
Global controversy over the efficacy and side-effects of some COVID-19 vaccines has caused some delays in South Korea’s vaccination campaign, which kicked off in late February with the goal of reaching herd immunity in November.
The second-quarter vaccination program includes special disability school teachers and vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities and the homeless, the KDCA said.


Philippines, US defense chiefs hope to resume joint military drill

Philippines, US defense chiefs hope to resume joint military drill
Updated 11 April 2021

Philippines, US defense chiefs hope to resume joint military drill

Philippines, US defense chiefs hope to resume joint military drill
  • The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III reiterated the importance of the two countries’ Visiting Forces Agreement

MANILA: Philippine and US defense chiefs on Sunday expressed hopes to resume the joint “Balikatan” military exercise that was canceled last year, as they discussed the situation in the South China Sea.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III also discussed in a telephone conference recent developments in regional security, according to a statement issued by Lorenzana’s department.

“Both are looking forward to the conduct of Exercise Balikatan,” the statement said.

Their conversation comes just days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, also in a phone call, expressed their shared concerns about Chinese vessels, which Manila believes are manned by militia, in the South China Sea.

The Philippines has protested against the presence of the Chinese boats inside its 200-mile exclusive economic zone at Whitsun Reef in the strategic waterway, repeatedly asking China to move the vessels away.

Chinese diplomats, however, have said the fishing boats were just sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.

Austin, during the telephone conference, reiterated the importance of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries, while Lorenzana committed to discussing the matter with President Rodrigo Duterte.

In February, Duterte said he had not made a decision yet on the future of the two-decade-old troop deployment agreement with the United States.

The VFA provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines.

Relations between the United States and its former Asian colony have been complicated since 2016 when Duterte, who has repeatedly made statements condemning US foreign policy while befriending China, rose to power.

Duterte has said the United States must pay more if it wants to maintain the VFA, which he unilaterally canceled last year in an angry response to an ally being denied a US visa.

The VFA’s withdrawal period has been twice extended, creating what Philippine officials say is a window for better terms to be agreed.

Lorenzana likewise sought the assistance of Austin in expediting the delivery of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical and biotechnology company Moderna that the Philippines has ordered.

Austin “would look into the issue and bring it to the attention of the office concerned,” the statement said.