Turkey grapples with COVID-19 surge ahead of tourism season 

Turkey grapples with COVID-19 surge ahead of tourism season 
A man wearing a facemask as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 walks by the seaside in the Uskudar neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey, March 16, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 08 April 2021

Turkey grapples with COVID-19 surge ahead of tourism season 

Turkey grapples with COVID-19 surge ahead of tourism season 
  • Turkey is re-introducing strict measures during Ramadan, with gatherings for iftar and suhoor banned
  • Health experts and many members of the public blame the government for the country’s third COVID-19 wave

ANKARA: On April 7, Turkey reported 54,740 new COVID-19 cases and 276 deaths — the highest daily level since the beginning of the pandemic. The number of tests per day is currently around 302,000, meaning that over one-fifth of tests were positive.

The country currently ranks fifth globally for the reported number of daily cases based on a seven-day average. 

“Monthly COVID-19 cases tripled recently, while only nine percent of the population have received the second dose of vaccine. There is a serious shortage of vaccinations, pushing us behind schedule,” Prof. Guner Sonmez, a radiologist from Uskudar University in Istanbul, told Arab News, adding that a further increase in cases is likely soon.

“We know that, within two or three weeks, this may lead to an increase in the number of patients in intensive care units,” he continued. “Therefore, a higher death rate is likely in the following weeks.” 

Turkey is re-introducing strict measures during Ramadan, with gatherings for iftar and suhoor banned, restaurants and cafés only open for takeaway service, and weekend lockdowns throughout the holy month. 

Health experts and many members of the public blame the government for the country’s third COVID-19 wave. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was widely criticized after it held overcrowded rallies throughout the country, violating social-distancing rules. Several AKP officials tested positive for the virus just days after attending the national congress in Ankara on March 24.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca recently told a press conference, having been asked about the wisdom of holding rallies during a pandemic, “There is no point in keeping this issue on the agenda.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s vaccination rollout continues to be slow, mostly because of an overreliance on a single supplier — China’s Sinovac. A first round of around 1.4 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was only recently administered. 

Sonmez says that Turkey’s reliance on the Chinese-manufactured vaccine has been a mistake. “The Sinovac vaccine that Turkey is using has a low success rate in protecting people against contagion,” he said, and said mRNA vaccines, such as the Pfizer-BioNTech one have around 90 percent efficacy after the second dose.

Some 75 percent of new cases in Turkey have reportedly been caused by the UK variant of COVID-19, with ICUs in major cities already getting full. Of the country’s 81 provinces, 70 are listed as ‘risky’ or ‘very risky,’ including Ankara and Istanbul.

If cases continue to rise as expected, Turkey’s tourism sector, which accounts for 11 percent of its economy, will likely be severely affected. Turkey’s tourism revenues dropped by 65.1 percent compared to last year, according to official statistics, and the government recently stopped its short-term work allowance scheme that had helped more than 3 million people financially during the pandemic. Last year, more than 100,000 small businesses went bankrupt in Turkey, mostly as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.  

“A full nationwide lockdown can only be effective if additional economic support is given to employees and employers (as it was) at the peak of the pandemic,” Sonmez said. 

On Thursday, Turkey began a vaccination campaign for its more than 1 million tourism-industry workers amid reports that Russia may restrict flights to Turkey for the summer. 


Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
Updated 5 min 5 sec ago

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together

Cyprus meeting, Riyadh visit latest examples of regional coalitions coming together
  • Foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus, UAE met in Paphos on Friday
  • ‘Greater Mediterranean region emerging based on new partnerships, initiatives,’ expert tells Arab News

ATHENS: Common interests are bringing together regional coalitions of like-minded countries in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean — favoring stability, combating extremism and respecting international law — in bilateral and multilateral formats.

The latest examples of this diplomatic activism are the meeting of the foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, Cyprus and the UAE that took place on Friday; and the forthcoming visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos to Saudi Arabia.

The four-way talks in the Cypriot city of Paphos marked the first time that the UAE had participated in one of the multilateral forums that have been created in the eastern Mediterranean since 2010.

In Riyadh, Dendias and Panagiotopoulos will sign a Status of Forces Agreement that will pave the way for the development of a Patriot-2 antimissile battery in Saudi Arabia in order to help the Kingdom in its fight against the Houthi militia in neighboring Yemen.

“The evolving web of regional cooperation is creating a new narrative, one that is cracking the glass ceiling of the prevailing, restrictive narrative of our neighborhood as a region of turmoil, conflict and crisis,” said Nikos Christodoulides, Cypriot foreign minister and host of the Paphos meeting.

The four-way talks will benefit from the recent normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE, and could offer an opportunity for the latter to join other regional efforts.

“A partnership that comprises both Israel and the UAE is very important for regional stability,” said Dendias. “We also welcome other regional initiatives undertaken with the aim of regional peace, such as the AlUla Accord, as well as the Saudi initiative that aims at bringing peace to the conflict in Yemen.”

Spyridon N. Litsas, professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia in Greece, and at the Rabdan Academy in Abu Dhabi, told Arab News: “The meeting of Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel in Paphos signals two main facts. Firstly, the UAE and Israel seem able and willing to jointly contribute to the stabilization of the region. Secondly, smart diplomatic deterrence is taking a more definitive shape, and is oriented toward countering Turkish revisionism in the region.”

Ankara’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean, and its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, have raised regional concerns.

“Alliances are formed either to balance the threat of an aggressor, or to balance the power of a revisionist actor,” Litsas said.

“Greece, the UAE, Cyprus and Israel prove that alliances can also be formed on the basis of a smart approach toward Αnkara’s atavism. Turkey produces more revisionism than neighboring states can tolerate.”

The visit of Greece’s foreign and defense ministers to Riyadh has been long in the making, having been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Athens wants to enhance its defense cooperation with Saudi Arabia, as it has done with the UAE.

Saudi F-15 fighter aircraft were stationed in Greece’s Souda Bay airbase last summer, and the two countries have engaged in political consultations at the highest level.

Athens aims to advance its role in linking the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. “A Greater Mediterranean region is emerging based on new partnerships and initiatives linking the Gulf with Mediterranean states,” Aristotle Tziampiris, professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus, told Arab News.

“Greece is in the middle of this important development that’s based on common interests and viewpoints, which include viewing Turkey as an increasingly unpredictable actor and Iran as a potentially serious, even existential threat.”

In February, “Athens established the Philia (Friendship) Forum, comprising Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said Tziampiris.

“Greece is coming, without any doubt, closer to several Gulf countries aiming to contribute to regional stability.”


Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement
Updated 44 min 4 sec ago

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement

Israel rescinds outdoor coronavirus mask requirement
  • Police-enforced wearing of protective masks outdoors scrapped from Sunday
  • But requirement still applied for indoor public spaces

JERUSALEM: Israel rescinded the mandatory wearing of face masks outdoors and fully reopened schools on Sunday in the latest return to relative normality, boosted by a mass-vaccination campaign against the COVID-19 pandemic.
With almost 54 percent of its 9.3 million population having received both shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Israel has logged sharp drops in contagion and cases.
The police-enforced wearing of protective masks outdoors, ordered a year ago, was scrapped from Sunday, but the Health Ministry said the requirement still applied for indoor public spaces and urged citizens to keep masks to hand.
With Israeli kindergarteners, elementary and high school students already back in class, middle school pupils who had been kept at home or attended class sporadically returned to pre-pandemic schedules.
The education ministry said that schools should continue to encourage personal hygiene, ventilation of classrooms and to maintain social distancing as much distance as possible during breaks and lessons.
Israel counts East Jerusalem Palestinians among its population and has been administering the vaccines there.
The 5.2 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Islamist Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have been receiving limited supplies of vaccines provided by Israel, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, the global COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme and China.


Israel and Greece sign record $1.65 billion defense deal

Israel and Greece sign record $1.65 billion defense deal
Updated 18 April 2021

Israel and Greece sign record $1.65 billion defense deal

Israel and Greece sign record $1.65 billion defense deal
  • Israel’s Elbit Systems will operate a training center for the Greek air force
  • The training center will be modeled on Israel’s own flight academy

JERUSALEM: Israel and Greece have signed their biggest ever defense procurement deal, which Israel said on Sunday would strengthen political and economic ties between the countries.

The agreement includes a $1.65 billion contract for the establishment and operation of a training center for the Hellenic Air Force by Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems over a 22-year period, Israel’s defense ministry said.

The training center will be modeled on Israel’s own flight academy and will be equipped with 10 M-346 training aircraft produced by Italian company Leonardo, the ministry said.

Elbit will supply kits to upgrade and operate Greece’s T-6 aircraft and also provide training, simulators and logistical support.

“I am certain that (this program) will upgrade the capabilities and strengthen the economies of Israel and Greece and thus the partnership between our two countries will deepen on the defense, economic and political levels,” said Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz.

The announcement follows a meeting in Cyprus on Friday between the UAE, Greek, Cypriot and Israeli foreign ministers, who agreed to deepen cooperation between their countries.


‘Full speed ahead’ on new Iranian nuclear deal

‘Full speed ahead’ on new Iranian nuclear deal
Updated 18 April 2021

‘Full speed ahead’ on new Iranian nuclear deal

‘Full speed ahead’ on new Iranian nuclear deal
  • China’s envoy to the talks said all participants had agreed to accelerate work on issues including which sanctions on Iran the US would lift

JEDDAH: Talks on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran will pick up speed after a second round of negotiations ended in Vienna, delegates said on Saturday.

China’s envoy to the talks said all participants — China, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and Iran — had agreed to accelerate work on issues including which sanctions on Iran the US would lift.

“All parties have agreed to further pick up their pace in subsequent days by engaging in more extensive, substantive work on sanctions-lifting as well as other relevant issues,” Wang Qun said.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions, collapsed in 2018 when the US pulled out. Donald Trump reimposed sanctions, and Iran responded by enriching fissile uranium to levels of purity banned under the deal.

New US President Joe Biden has offered to lift sanctions if Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA, but so far Iran has insisted that sanctions must be eased first. Talks to break the deadlock began in Vienna last week, involving a group of signatories to the deal known as the Joint Commission.

The US is not present as Iran has declined face-to-face negotiation, but EU officials chairing the talks are carrying out shuttle diplomacy with a US delegation in a nearby hotel.

Wang said: “In the next few days we hope the Joint Commission will immediately start negotiating the specific formula of sanction-lifting.”

EU envoy Enrique Mora said: “Progress has been made in a far from easy task. Now we need more detailed work.”

Tehran’s chief negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, said the Iranian delegation had submitted proposed texts on nuclear issues and the lifting of sanctions, and that work on a common text, “at least in areas where there are common views,” could begin. While serious disagreements remained, “a new understanding appears to be emerging and there is now a common final goal among all,” he said.

The talks have been complicated by an Israeli sabotage attack last week, causing an explosion that crippled Iran’s flagship nuclear development plant at Natanz. Iran on Saturday named a man it wants to arrest in connection with the blast.

“Reza Karimi, the perpetrator of this sabotage ... has been identified” by Iran’s intelligence ministry, but had fled the country before the explosion, state TV said. “Necessary steps are underway for his arrest and return to the country through legal channels,” it said.

State TV also broadcast footage of rows of what it said were uranium enrichment centrifuges that had replaced the ones damaged in the blast at Natanz.


Libya launches public vaccination drive

Libya launches public vaccination drive
A health worker prepares to administer the AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to a man, in Tripoli, Libya, April 17, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 17 April 2021

Libya launches public vaccination drive

Libya launches public vaccination drive
  • The AstraZeneca doses were delivered through the Covax program for lower and middle-income countries

TRIPOLI: Libya on Saturday launched its coronavirus vaccination campaign for the general population in Tripoli, with the elderly and healthcare workers given priority in the conflict-hit North African nation.
Those over 70 would get the AstraZeneca jab while the Russian Sputnik V vaccine would be administered to medical personnel and those aged 50-60, the National Center for Disease Control said.
NCDC head Badreddine Al-Najjar said the vaccines would be distributed across Libya “in the coming days,” adding that China’s Sinovac jab would also be available.
Libya has so far received 400,000 doses, including 200,000 Sputnik V shots, 57,600 AstraZeneca jabs and 150,000 from Turkey thought to be China’s Sinovac.
The AstraZeneca doses were delivered through the Covax program for lower and middle-income countries.
Since the pandemic emerged last year, there have been 171,131 confirmed COVID cases in Libya, including 2,882 deaths, out of a population of seven million, officials say.
On Saturday, dozens of men and women wore face masks and sat on chairs that were spread out to ensure physical distancing in the courtyard of a vaccination center in Tripoli as they waited to get a jab.
Libyan authorities have appealed on the general population, including illegal migrants, to register for vaccination and set up an electronic portal in March for that purpose.