Philippines, US begin two-week joint military drills

Philippines, US begin two-week joint military drills
A US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter prepares to land near an assault amphibious vehicle during the joint US and Philippine troops live fire exercise on April 30, 2015. (AFP)
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Updated 11 April 2021

Philippines, US begin two-week joint military drills

Philippines, US begin two-week joint military drills
  • 1,000 Filipino and 700 American troops will participate in the Balikatan exercises this year

MANILA: Nearly 1,700 Filipino and American military personnel will take part in a two-week joint exercise from Monday.

The exercises are taking place amid rising tensions over Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases across the Philippines.

Unlike in previous years, the Balikatan exercises 2021 (BK-21) will not be open to the public as part of safety protocols to limit the coronavirus outbreak’s spread.

“The exercises officially start tomorrow and will last for about two weeks,” Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters on Sunday.

“We will be conducting (the exercises), but it will be different from previous years because of the pandemic. There will be a virtual (portion) of the exercise,” he said.

The opening ceremonies for BK-21 will be held at the AFP General Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on Monday, Sobejana said, adding that 700 American and 1,000 Filipino troops would take part.

This year’s resumption of the annual BK-21 event, which was called off last year due to the pandemic, follows a phone call between the two countries’ defense chiefs on Sunday to “reaffirm their shared commitment to the US-Philippines alliance.”

In a statement, Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, said that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and his Filipino counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, “discussed the situation in the South China Sea, and the recent massing of People’s Republic of China maritime militia vessels at Juan Felipe (Whitsun) Reef.”

The boomerang-shaped Julian Felipe Reef is about 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf (CS).

Austin proposed several measures to “deepen defense cooperation between the United States and the Philippines, including by enhancing situational awareness of threats in the South China Sea,” according to Kirby.

He also “reiterated the US commitment to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, rooted in international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

The two leaders also affirmed the value of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), with Department of National Defense (DND) spokesperson, Arsenio Andolong, saying that the US official “reiterated the importance of the VFA and hopes that it would be continued.”

“Secretary Lorenzana committed to discussing the matter with the president as the final approval lies with him,” Andolong said.

In February last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte unilaterally terminated the VFA after Washington canceled the visa of one of his close political allies and former police chief, Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa.

He extended the withdrawal period twice “to allow both sides to find a more enhanced, mutually beneficial, mutually agreeable . . . and lasting arrangement.”

In December, however, he demanded that the US pay for the VFA.

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

Besides the VFA, Andolong confirmed that the two defense chiefs also “discussed the situation in the West Philippine Sea and recent developments in regional security.”

He said that the Balikatan exercises “would be a very scaled-down version” of the annual event.

“It will be just tabletop exercises, just a handful of people doing planning and simulation. There will be no amphibious exercises, and we won’t be seeing various (US military) assets rolling and flying here and there,” he told Arab News on Sunday.

“American forces participating in the activities will be subject to COVID-19 health protocols and guidelines that are used for all foreigners coming into the country. No exemption,” he added.

When asked about the significance of the exercises this year, Andolong said: “It’s really important because . . . in light of recent developments in the West Philippine Sea, I think it’s an affirmation that our (US-Philippines) alliance with our only defense treaty ally is still alive and well.”

“I think that’s important especially now that there are doubts not only due to (current) defense (issues), the pandemic, and all other reasons,” he said.

The Balikatan is an annual US-Philippine military training event focused on various missions, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-terrorism, and other combined military operations.

Philippine and US service members will conduct humanitarian civic action (HCA) activities throughout Luzon during BK-2021. The exercise will also demonstrate cooperation and interoperability between the Philippines and the US, consistent with the Mutual Defense Treaty and the VFA.


Indonesia’s COVID-19 vaccine drive gets a shot in the arm with private sector plan

Indonesia’s COVID-19 vaccine drive gets a shot in the arm with private sector plan
Indonesia aims to vaccinate 181.5 million people or 70 percent of its 270 million population to develop herd immunity by the end of 2021. (AFP)
Updated 49 min 49 sec ago

Indonesia’s COVID-19 vaccine drive gets a shot in the arm with private sector plan

Indonesia’s COVID-19 vaccine drive gets a shot in the arm with private sector plan
  • President wants to accelerate efforts to reach herd immunity by year-end

JAKARTA: Private sector companies in Indonesia on Tuesday began inoculating employees against COVID-19 with a paid-for vaccine plan aimed at boosting productivity and accelerating the government’s free, nationwide vaccination drive.

The plan was finally rolled out four months after President Joko Widodo — in a January meeting with the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (Kadin) — introduced the idea for the private sector to carry out and pay for its own vaccination drive, Kadin chairman Rosan Roeslani said.
“We discussed with the president on how to quickly reach herd immunity. The president came up with this idea, and the business community responded positively,” Roeslani told Arab News.
Widodo rolled out the private vaccination drive during a visit to a Unilever Indonesia plant in an industrial zone of Cikarang, West Java province.
The company began inoculating its employees along with 16 other companies and two private vaccination centers for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) from industrial zones around Jakarta.
Unilever, and 16 other labor-intensive companies began administering the jab on Tuesday.
There are also two centers for MSMEs that do not have their own premises for carrying out vaccinations.
Roeslani said 22,736 companies had registered to inoculate more than 10 million people through the private vaccination scheme, which the chamber coordinated.
The companies registered in the program have to buy the vaccine from Kimia Farma, a subsidiary of the state-owned vaccine manufacturer Bio Farma, which the government assigned to import the vaccines for private companies.
The Health Ministry has capped the price for a single dose of China’s Sinopharm vaccine at $35, but participating companies cannot charge their employees for it.
Widodo said Indonesia had secured 420,000 Sinopharm doses out of the committed 30 million for private inoculation.
Other vaccines to be used for the private companies are China’s CanSino, while negotiations are underway for Russia’s Sputnik V.

HIGHLIGHT

The plan was finally rolled out four months after President Joko Widodo introduced the idea for the private sector to carry out and pay for its own vaccination drive.

“It is really difficult to secure vaccines nowadays, with 215 countries around the world competing to get them,” Widodo said during an exchange with vaccine recipients from other companies via video conference. “You are among the lucky ones to get the jab today. We hope by August or September, we will have inoculated 70 million people and the curve will be flattened by then so that the manufacturing plants can resume normal operations.”
Iswar Deni, the corporate secretary of garment manufacturer Pan Brothers, said the company had started to inoculate 1,000 out of 3,000 people it had registered.
“We are inoculating those at the supervisor and higher up level since they are the ones with high mobility to manage production operations, as well as those at the front line such as security personnel, internal COVID-19 task force members and labor union committee members,” he told Arab News.
Indonesia aims to vaccinate 181.5 million people or 70 percent of its 270 million population to develop herd immunity by the end of 2021.
As of Tuesday, nearly 14 million people had received their first jab, while 9.2 million have had the second dose of China’s Sinovac and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines which the government used in its national drive.
Accelerating the number of people being vaccinated is timely as Indonesia is facing the prospect of increased infections after the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, when people gathered in large numbers during the festivities and flocked to markets during the last days of Ramadan for Eid shopping.


Virus-ravaged rural Indian communities left ‘at God’s mercy’

Virus-ravaged rural Indian communities left ‘at God’s mercy’
A health worker inoculates a woman in Noida, Uttar Pradesh on Monday. (AFP)
Updated 55 min 32 sec ago

Virus-ravaged rural Indian communities left ‘at God’s mercy’

Virus-ravaged rural Indian communities left ‘at God’s mercy’
  • Officials in Basi village, in Uttar Pradesh’s worst-affected district of Baghpat, have recorded 35 deaths out of a population of 7,000 in the last month

NEW DELHI: Virus-ravaged rural communities in India’s largest and most populated state had been left “at God’s mercy” due to the collapse of the health system.
Millions of lives in Uttar Pradesh were said to be at risk following a surge in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases with some villages reporting hundreds of deaths and new infections on a daily basis.
A lack of proper medical facilities has left remote parts of the state ill-equipped to deal with the crisis as the country battles another wave of COVID-19.
In a ruling on Monday, Allahabad high court described the situation in Uttar Pradesh as “grim.”
Judges had been sitting to preside over a petition demanding better care for COVID-19 patients in the Meerut district. Petitioners had slammed India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for “poor medical infrastructure and placing the lives of millions of people at the mercy of God.”
The court’s two-judge bench said: “If this is the state of affairs of treatment at a medical college in a city like Meerut, then the entire medical system of the state in the smaller cities and villages can only be taken to be at the mercy of God.”
Officials in Basi village, in Uttar Pradesh’s worst-affected district of Baghpat, have recorded 35 deaths out of a population of 7,000 in the last month.
“The situation is so grim that, in some houses, two or three deaths have taken place, wiping out the entire family,” Rajesh Nain, a social worker and village resident, told Arab News.
“In one house, both the father and son lost their lives in the space of two days, while in another, a middle-aged couple died in quick succession. It’s like the area has turned into a ghost village. No one comes out of the house; there is hardly any day when someone or other does not die,” he said.
On Tuesday, India logged more than 260,000 COVID-19 cases, a low figure compared to more than 400,000 last week, but the death rate remained high at in excess of 4,000 per day. Out of the national total, Uttar Pradesh reported 9,500 cases on Tuesday and 371 deaths.
However, experts and activists in rural areas disputed official figures, describing them as “under-reporting.”

BACKGROUND

Families reportedly ‘wiped out’ by COVID-19 as health system in parts of Uttar Pradesh collapses amid virus surge.

Basi’s former village leader, Satvir Pradhan, told Arab News: “The government is registering only those deaths which are happening in COVID-19 centers; they are ignoring villages where people are dying without oxygen, and hospital beds.
“There is no doctor, no medical centers, no testing. We asked the district administration to provide us with medical support, but despite assurances, no help has come,” he said.
The situation was reportedly similar in other parts of the state where more than 75 percent of its population of 200 million live in rural areas.
Devendra Dhammaa, a social activist and farmer from Basi’s neighboring village of Sankroub, told Arab News: “Villages in Uttar Pradesh are basically on their own as far as medical infrastructure is concerned.
“People have a fever; they take medicine supplied by local doctors who are mostly untrained, and then rest at home. If someone starts facing breathing problems, if he or she is lucky, they will find a doctor. Otherwise, they die,” he said.
Meanwhile, recent media reports said more than 2,000 bodies had been found “hastily buried or abandoned along the banks of Ganga (the Ganges)” in various districts of Uttar Pradesh.
In the Unnao district, a neighborhood of the state capital Lucknow, 900 bodies were recovered from riverbanks and similar instances were reported in districts including Ghaziabad, Kanpur, Ghazipur, Kannauj, and Ballia along the border with the eastern Indian state of Bihar.
Dr. Jagpal Singh Teotia, from Baghpat district, told Arab News: “What we are witnessing is an unprecedented horror and tragedy in the state. A huge part of the population has been left to fend for themselves with the government not providing any kind of support.
“An alertness on the part of the government and some focus on the health sector in the past one year could have saved many lives.”
Teotia, one of the few doctors in the area trained to treat COVID-19 patients, said several healthcare workers felt “helpless at the sight of tragedy” and blamed the government for “risking people’s lives.”
“When the government knew that the virus was spreading, what was the need to allow over 3 million people to gather at the Kumbh Mela (a large Hindu festival held in the northern Indian city of Haridwar)? What was the need to organize local body elections (in Uttar Pradesh last month) when the pandemic was at its peak?”
Arab News recently reported that more than 700 schoolteachers had died after participating in the local polls. A majority of the deaths took place in villages where medical facilities were non-existent.


London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally

London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally
Updated 18 May 2021

London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally

London police officer under investigation for shouting ‘free Palestine’ at rally
  • She was filmed accepting a white rose and hugging a protester amid a cheering crowd
  • It came as major cities across the UK have seen massive protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people

LONDON: London’s Metropolitan Police is investigating an on-duty officer who shouted “free Palestine” at a march condemning Israel’s bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip.

The uniformed female officer was captured on video at the demonstration in the capital. In the footage, she is seen accepting a white rose and hugging a protester.

She was heard shouting “free, free Palestine” to a cheering audience. The footage went viral on several social media sites.

It came as major cities across the UK have seen massive protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people.


‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey

‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey
Updated 18 May 2021

‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey

‘Long Covid’ symptoms ease after vaccine: Survey
  • Study suggests mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer, Moderna particularly beneficial
  • Analysis author: ‘Data very encouraging but we don’t know how long benefits last’

LONDON: COVID-19 vaccines tend to alleviate the symptoms of the medical phenomenon known as “long Covid,” according to a survey involving 800 people.

The study suggests that mRNA vaccines are particularly beneficial in battling long Covid symptoms.

The virus was initially understood to be a largely respiratory illness that most people would recover from within a month, but people started to report symptoms that continued for many months. 

Medical experts are still hunting for a consensus definition for the phenomenon, with people suffering from chronic fatigue to organ damage.

There are also mysteries surrounding appropriate and effective treatment plans that can be standardized across the population.

But anecdotal reports have so far suggested that vaccines can help some people who are still struggling with COVID-19 symptoms long after their original infection.

The analysis has yet to be peer reviewed, but the results of the survey by advocacy group LongCovidSOS could offer medical practitioners a pathway to restoring normalcy to many.

The survey consisted of 812 mostly white, female participants with long Covid in Britain and internationally, who were contacted via social media. 

The participants were asked to wait at least a week after their first dose of the jab to prevent their responses being affected by vaccine side effects.

Changes across 14 common long Covid symptoms were compared before and after the first inoculation. 

LongCovidSOS data found that 56.7 percent of respondents experienced an overall improvement in symptoms, with 24.6 percent reporting no changes and 18.7 percent finding that their symptoms worsened after the jab.

In general, participants who received mRNA vaccines (such as the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna jabs) reported more improvements in symptoms than those who got an adenovirus vaccine (Oxford-AstraZeneca). 

The Moderna vaccine was found to have the most promising results, with participants seeing the greatest improvements in symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog and muscle pain.

The analysis found that Moderna recipients were also less likely to endure a deterioration in their ailments.

“This survey will reassure people that they would have to be quite unlucky to really have an overall worsening of symptoms,” said LongCovidSOS analysis author Ondine Sherwood. “The data is very encouraging, but we don’t know how long the benefits last.”

Dr. David Strain, an analysis author and senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter medical school, said: “There isn’t a blood pressure tablet that fixes everybody … and similarly, there’s not one long Covid treatment that’s going to fix everyone — but the fact that one treatment does fix something means that there’s bound to be other treatments out there that will fix others.”

As the assessment was via survey, there can be no definitive proof to show that the vaccine caused the improvement in symptoms.

After suffering from long Covid symptoms for so long, the improvement could have come from natural regeneration. 

However, Strain said of the 130 people in the survey who received both vaccine doses, some improved after their first jab — before finding their situation worsening again — and then improved further after their second inoculation.

But Nisreen Alwan, an associate professor in public health at the University of Southampton, warned that as the improvement in symptoms had abated in about half the participants by the time they completed the survey, the analysis could show that the vaccine-inspired improvement was fleeting.

Mystery remains about the cause of long Covid, with some experts theorizing that it could involve the persistence of the virus remaining within the body — such as fragments of the virus lingering after infection — and the immune system overreacting to the remaining virus and damaging healthy tissues.

Strain said the LongCovidSOS analysis suggested that COVID-19 vaccines help to reset the immune system, telling it to target the virus and spare itself.

But he cautioned that this explanation is speculation and will need further investigation to be supported.

Prof. Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said: “How could a vaccine make a subset of long-term sufferers feel better? It’s tempting to hypothesise that this was the subset who had symptoms due to a reservoir of virus that was never properly cleared, and the enormous boost of a potent vaccine equipped them with the immune response to do this. This needs mechanistic investigation of the actual immune responses.”


Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study

Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study
Updated 18 May 2021

Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study

Over 96% of people build antibodies after single COVID-19 jab: Study
  • Lead author: ‘It’s a real feat of science in the face of the most devastating pandemic in a century’
  • ‘How well these vaccines work is remarkable, especially given the speed at which they’ve been developed’

LONDON: More than 96 percent of people develop coronavirus antibodies after receiving only a single dose of the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine, new research has revealed. 

The England- and Wales-based study, which monitored more than 8,000 participants, also discovered that almost 100 percent of people develop immune cells to successfully fight off coronavirus after two vaccine doses.

Researchers found that 96.42 percent of people who received the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine developed antibodies 28-34 days after a first dose. 

The figure grew to 99.08 percent within seven to 14 days of receiving a second jab, The Guardian newspaper reported.

“This is one of the earliest real-world vaccine studies in the UK and it is fantastic news,” said Dr. Maddie Shrotri, lead author of the research paper.

“More than nine out of 10 adults in the UK who had either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine produced antibodies against the virus within a month of their first shot,” she added.

“How well these vaccines work is remarkable, especially given the speed at which they’ve been developed. It’s a real feat of science in the face of the most devastating pandemic in a century.”

The study, conducted by University College London (UCL) scientists, could have positive implications on the worldwide fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It will be placed through a peer review process before submission to a medical journal.

UCL scientists found that both vaccines were equally capable of triggering the antibody response that can ward off severe coronavirus infections.

However, antibody levels after a single jab were discovered to be lower in older people and those with underlying health conditions, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. That discrepancy was later resolved after participants received a second vaccine dose.

The study is a “timely reminder” about the importance of receiving a second dose, said Prof. Rob Aldridge, chief investigator of the UCL study. “But it is also reassuring — vaccines are our way out of the pandemic.”