Court urges government to reveal pandemic plan as virus surge chokes India

Court urges government to reveal pandemic plan as virus surge chokes India
Health workers attend to a patient at the Jumbo COVID-19 filed hospital in Mumbai, India, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 23 April 2021

Court urges government to reveal pandemic plan as virus surge chokes India

Court urges government to reveal pandemic plan as virus surge chokes India
  • India logs more than 314,000 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours, world’s highest-ever daily tally
  • Oxygen supplies insufficient, people dying outside hospital buildings waiting for admission

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Thursday urged the Indian government to reveal its coronavirus disease (COVID-19) response plan as a second wave of cases overwhelmed medical facilities struggling to cope amid an acute shortage of oxygen and beds.

India reported more than 314,000 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours — the highest one-day tally so far recorded anywhere in the world — taking the total number of confirmed cases in the country close to 16 million. The daily death toll of 2,104 was also its worst since the beginning of the pandemic.

The surge is raising more fears about India’s overwhelmed healthcare system and the government’s mishandling of the crisis. Social media platforms in India have been flooded by desperate messages from people asking for help in getting hospital admission and oxygen for COVID-19 patients.

In Thursday’s hearing, India’s Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde, said: “We want to see the national plan on this issue.” He added that the court also wished to know what the government was doing with regard to oxygen and drug supplies throughout the country.

In the capital, New Delhi, oxygen supplies are insufficient, and people have reportedly been dying outside hospitals while waiting for admission.

FASTFACT

314,000

India reported more than 314,000 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday — the highest one-day tally so far recorded anywhere in the world — taking the total number of confirmed cases in the country close to 16 million.

On Thursday, chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, said: “Delhi needs 700 metric tons of oxygen daily, but it is getting 480.”

The city registered more than 24,000 cases in the last 24 hours and close to 200 deaths.

Monika Yadav, who moved to New Delhi with her brother to work, witnessed her sibling die from COVID-19 because she said they could not get medical help.

“My brother needed oxygen immediately and he was brought to the hospital but there was no one to take care of him. He came to Delhi to make a life for himself and his family, but everything is finished now,” she told Arab News.

The situation in India’s largest and most populated state, Uttar Pradesh, is also grim, with more than 33,000 new cases recorded in the last 24-hour period. On Wednesday, some private hospitals in the state capital Lucknow asked family members of critically ill patients to shift to other medical facilities as they had no oxygen to help them.

Lucknow-based political analyst and former civil servant, Surya Pratap Singh, told Arab News: “The state is in chaos and there is no political leadership to take care of the people. There is no medicine, no oxygen, and no hospital. It’s total collapse and people have been left at the mercy of God.”

He blamed the federal government for downplaying the danger of COVID-19 and not taking the pandemic response seriously, preferring to focus on regional elections.

“The government does not have a strategy. They just do firefighting, and the country is paying the price for this mismanagement,” he said.


Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court
Updated 16 min 39 sec ago

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court
  • Government resisting growing pressure to lift the Indian travel ban imposed last week until May 15
  • Almost one third of Australians are born overseas and most barred from leaving the country for more than a year

CANBERRA: Australia’s drastic COVID-19 strategies of preventing its citizens leaving the country and returning from India were challenged in court Thursday.
The government is resisting growing pressure to lift the Indian travel ban imposed last week until May 15 to reduce infections in Australian quarantine facilities.
A challenge to the ban by Gary Newman, one of 9,000 Australians prevented from returning home from India, will be heard by a Federal Court judge on Monday, Chief Justice James Allsop said.
The ban was made by order of Health Minister Greg Hunt under the Biosecurity Act which carries penalties for breaches of up to five years in prison and fines of up to $51,000 (A$66,000).
A libertarian group LibertyWorks took its case to the full bench of the Federal Court on Thursday against a separate order under the Biosecurity Act that has prevented most Australians from leaving the country without compelling reasons since March last year.
The government hopes to maintain Australia’s relatively low levels of community transmission of the virus by preventing its citizens from becoming infected overseas and bringing variants home. Travel to and from New Zealand has recently been exempted.
LibertyWorks argues that Hunt does not have the power to legally enforce the ban, which has prevented thousands of Australians from attending weddings and funerals, caring for dying relatives and meeting newborn babies.
With almost one third of Australians born overseas and most barred from leaving the country for more than a year, a win by LibertyWorks is likely to lead to a surge in citizens wishing to travel internationally. The three judges hearing the case will likely announce their verdicts at a later date.
The challenge to the Indian travel ban will be heard by Justice Michael Thawley five days before flights could potentially resume.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the pause was working in reducing infection rates among returned travelers within Australian quarantine facilities.
“The early evidence indicates that that temporary pause to May 15 is on track and that we are very hopeful and confident that on the other side of May 15 we’ll be able to start restoring those repatriation flights,” Morrison said.
A decision would be made before May 15, but Morrison could not say how long before that date that a decision would be announced. Around 20,000 Australians had been repatriated from India before the travel ban.
Newman’s lawyer Christopher Ward told a preliminary hearing on Thursday that the legal team wanted a verdict before May 15.
Newman’s lawyers argue that it is important that the minister’s power was reviewed by the court even if the travel ban was not extended.
The court cases were heard in Sydney where new pandemic restrictions were imposed on Wednesday due to two recent cases of community infections.
Masks have become compulsory in the greater Sydney area in all public indoor venues and on public transport from late Thursday and visitors to homes in Australia’s largest city have been capped at 20.
The measures follow a Sydney man on Wednesday becoming New South Wales state’s first case of COVID-19 community transmission in a month. The man’s wife on Thursday was confirmed as also being infected.
Authorities have yet to determine how the couple became infected with the same variant as a traveler from the United States had been diagnosed while in Sydney hotel quarantine.


Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil

Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil
Updated 06 May 2021

Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil

Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil
  • Pleads guilty to taking part in an ‘unlawful’ protest last year over the Tiananmen Square crackdown
  • Joshua Wong currently serving a total of 17.5 months in jail for two convictions linked to the 2019 protests

HONG KONG: Jailed Hong Kong dissident Joshua Wong was handed an additional 10-month sentence on Thursday after he pleaded guilty to taking part in an “unlawful” protest last year over the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Hong Kong has regularly marked the anniversary of Beijing’s deadly 1989 repression of protests in Tiananmen Square with huge candlelight vigils.
But last year’s event was banned for the first time, with police citing the coronavirus pandemic and security fears following huge democracy protests that roiled Hong Kong the year before.
Tens of thousands defied the ban and massed peacefully at the vigil’s traditional site in Victoria Park.
Since then prosecutors have brought charges against more than two dozen prominent democracy activists who showed up at the vigil, the latest in a string of criminal cases that have ensnared the city’s beleaguered democracy movement.
On Thursday, four of those activists – Joshua Wong, Lester Shum, Tiffany Yuen and Janelle Leung – were handed jail terms after pleading guilty to unlawful assembly charges last month.
Wong – one of the most recognizable faces of Hong Kong’s democracy movement – is currently serving a total of 17.5 months in jail for two convictions linked to the 2019 protests.
Judge Stanley Chan handed the 24-year-old a consecutive 10 months of jail for the new conviction which will start once current sentences are finished.
“The sentence should deter people from offending and reoffending in the future,” Chan said.
Shum, 27, was given six months while Yuen, 27, and Leung, 26, were both handed four months.
Wong, Shum and Yuen have also been charged under a new national security law Beijing imposed on the city last year.
Ahead of Thursday’s sentencing they were being held in pre-trial detention and face up to life in prison if convicted under the new security law.
The other defendants – who include some of the city’s most prominent activists, many of them also jailed or in detention – will be tried later this summer.
The annual Tiananmen vigil remembering victims of the 1989 suppression of pro-democracy protests has taken on particular significance as many Hong Kongers chafe under Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
Crowds grew in size in recent years, often chanting slogans like “End one party rule” and calling for democracy in China.
But it is unclear if Hong Kong will ever see another legal Tiananmen vigil.
Beijing has rolled out a sweeping crackdown against critics in the finance hub, with scores of opposition figures in detention, facing prosecution or fleeing overseas.
As well as the security law, a new campaign dubbed “patriots rule Hong Kong” will ensure everyone standing for public office is vetted for political loyalty first.
Officials have already signaled that this year’s Tiananmen vigil will be refused permission both as a security risk and because of the coronavirus.
Some have also suggested that chanting “End one party rule” – as well as the vigil itself – could now be illegal under the new law, which criminalizes a wide array of acts deemed to be subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces.
Chow Hang-tung, a barrister and a member of the coalition that organizes the annual vigil, criticized Thursday’s sentencing.
“The court has failed to draw a line between what is really unlawful, that is violence activities and what is completely within our rights – peaceful assembly,” she told reporters.
But Judge Chan said the four defendants’ attendance at the vigil was “deliberate, premeditated ... and openly defied the law.”
Protests can only go ahead in Hong Kong with police permission, something that has been routinely denied since the 2019 protests and subsequent coronavirus outbreak.
Chow said Hong Kongers would still mark each Tiananmen anniversary, even if the traditional vigil is banned.
“We will find a way to remember this and we will find a way to publicly do this,” she said.


US backs plan to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents

US backs plan to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents
Updated 06 May 2021

US backs plan to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents

US backs plan to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday announced support for a global waiver on patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, offering hope to poor nations that have struggled to access the life-saving doses.
India, where the death toll hit a new daily record amid fears the peak is still to come, has been leading the fight within the World Trade Organization (WTO) to allow more drugmakers to manufacture the vaccines — a move pharma giants oppose.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that while intellectual property rights for businesses are important, Washington “supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines” in order to end the pandemic.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” she said in a statement.
Biden had been under intense pressure to waive protections for vaccine manufacturers, especially amid criticism that rich nations were hoarding shots.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), called the US decision “historic” and said it marked “a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19.”
Tai cautioned however that negotiations “will take time given the consensus-based nature” of the WTO.
With supplies for Americans secured, the Biden administration will continue efforts “to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution,” and will work to “increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”
For months the WTO has been facing calls to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines, known as a TRIPS waiver in reference to the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property.
But that notion has been fiercely opposed by pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warned the move could hamper innovation.
“A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem,” the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations lobby group said, describing the US move as “disappointing.”
Countries such as New Zealand, however, welcomed the US announcement, while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the move “tremendous news,” adding that it would help his country manufacture mRNA vaccines locally.
France, on the other hand, has said it is opposed to the waiver, stating it prefers instead a donation-based model to help poor countries overcome a lack of vaccines.
While the United States has reached the point of offering donuts and beer to entice vaccine holdouts to get their shots, India reported 3,780 new pandemic deaths and not enough doses to inoculate its people.
India has in recent weeks endured a devastating surge in coronavirus cases, with more than 380,000 infections reported on Wednesday.
K Vijay Raghavan, the Indian government’s principal scientific adviser, said the country of 1.3 billion people had to prepare for a new wave of infections even after beating down the current wave, which has taken the country’s caseload above 20 million.
In an effort to boost the country’s collapsing health system, India’s reserve bank announced $6.7 billion in cheap financing for vaccine makers, hospitals and health firms.
India’s crisis has been partly fueled by a lack of vaccines. This has in turn exacerbated the global shortage as India is the world’s biggest producer of COVID-19 shots.
In London, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy democracies committed to financially support the vaccine-sharing program, Covax.
But there was no immediate announcement on fresh funding.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Denmark, where the spread of the virus has been deemed under control, will open up cinemas and theaters plus gyms and fitness centers Thursday. And bars, cafes and restaurants, which have already reopened, will no longer require reservations.
All patrons, however, must present a “corona pass” certificate confirming they have either tested negative in the past 72 hours, been vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19.
The pandemic has claimed more than 3.2 million lives worldwide since it first emerged in late 2019, but many wealthy nations have made progress in suppressing the virus as mass vaccination campaigns gather steam.
More than 1.2 billion doses have been administered globally, but fewer than one percent in the least developed countries.
Vaccine shortages are not an issue in the United States, which could soon be sitting on as many as 300 million extra doses — nearly equivalent to its entire population.
Biden on Tuesday said he wanted 70 percent of US adults to have received at least one shot by the July 4 Independence Day holiday.
He also said his administration was “ready to move immediately” if regulators authorize the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.
But some experts question the wisdom of devoting limited vaccine supplies to a low-risk group instead of sharing them with high-risk groups abroad.
In the Middle East, Egypt announced a partial shutdown of malls and restaurants and called off festivities for the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr to curb rising coronavirus cases.
And on Wednesday Argentina broke its record for COVID-19 deaths with 633 recorded fatalities in 24 hours, despite stepped-up measures to reduce movement of people across the country.


Anti-Arab bigotry ‘getting worse’ in US as 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches

Anti-Arab bigotry ‘getting worse’ in US as 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches
Updated 06 May 2021

Anti-Arab bigotry ‘getting worse’ in US as 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches

Anti-Arab bigotry ‘getting worse’ in US as 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches
  • Experts tell radio host Ray Hanania the rhetoric of hate began in aftermath of the terror attacks and led to the political rise of Donald Trump
  • Officials from American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee say political discourse has improved under Biden but the underlying problems have not

Discrimination in the US against Americans of Arab heritage is “getting worse” not better, experts say, as the country prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Samer Khalaf, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and Abed Ayoub, the organization’s legal counsel, said that while anti-Arab political rhetoric has subsided following last year’s presidential election, the underlying substance of the racism has not.

The ADC was founded in 1980 by former Congressman Abdeen Jabara and Arab American leaders in Chicago, Washington and other parts of the country. It has been at the forefront of efforts to defend the rights of Arab Americans, including those who were victimized after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which sparked a violent wave of anti-Arab bigotry.

During a discussion on “The Ray Hanania Show,” a radio program broadcast in Detroit and Washington DC, Ayoub said of the wave of bigotry: “It is getting worse. I think a lot of people look at the last four years of the Trump administration and think this is a new form of hate, bigotry and discrimination we have seen in this country.

“But the era of politics he ushered in, or he unveiled, started with 9/11. You began seeing an increase in the hate rhetoric. We began seeing it appear with our politicians.

“I often look at the ‘Ground Zero mosque’ in New York as the catalyst event which really launched a lot of the Islamophobia and a lot of the anti-Arab sentiment we see today.”

The “Ground Zero mosque” was at the center of a controversy in 2010 after plans were unveiled for an Islamic cultural and community center and prayer space at 51 Park Place in Manhattan, two blocks from the World Trade Center site. The project became a rallying cry for critics of Arabs and Muslims in America.

“A lot of the xenophobia started (with that),” said Ayoub. “That gave a platform to a lot of hate groups and really elevated the hate industry and ultimately led to the election of Trump, which has led to now seeing open bigotry, open hatred, against Arabs, against Muslims, against South Asians in our politics and (among) our elected officials, openly.”

Although the anti-Arab rhetoric in political circles has subsided since the election of President Joe Biden in November last year, Khalaf said the discrimination and bigotry continues in other ways because government has failed to fully respond to the needs of Arab Americans.

“We have been included more,” he said. “Could that go further? Could the administration include us even more? Absolutely. For the most part, the president of the United States really hasn’t recognized our community.

“(Biden) has done so on the down-low, or in little statements here and there. But when was the last time an American president addressed our community directly, either by video or at one of our meetings? It just doesn’t happen.”

Khalaf said Arab Americans must themselves shoulder at least part of the blame for this because as a community they do not participate as actively as other communities of color in elections or local government.

“We also have to do a better job of making ourselves more needed, more crucial to their elections,” he said. “That’s what we have to do, on our part. What they have to do on their part is a little less of the sort of token showing up at our events, that kind of stuff, (or) only dealing with us during Eid or during other holidays or even during tragic events.

“But having more of a one-on-one open dialogue with our community I think is the other issue we need to (address). We’ve gone a long way but we have a long way to go as well.”

Ayoub, who often files lawsuits on behalf of the ADC for Arab American victims of discrimination and racism, said there are different forms of bigotry.

“You’re going to have two types of discrimination,” he said. “You are going to have the rhetoric and the public discrimination, and that has quieted down since the prior administration left — at least the political rhetoric has quietened down but we still see some of the public engage in it.” He added that the rhetoric of Donald Trump had fueled the intensity of racism against Arabs.

“Then you have the structural discrimination problems and programs that we have to work toward dismantling, a lot of the programs that target the community,” he said. “And that is a longer fight. That is regardless of who is in office. We have to push back on that.”

Arabs continue to be excluded, for example, from the US census count, minority set-aside programs, and other Federal programs that can help to strengthen minority communities, Ayoub said. Although Biden has spoken about the rights of Arab Americans, his administration still has not decided whether they should be granted “minority status” and all the benefits that come with that, including hundreds of millions of dollars in federal-government support.

“We get all the negatives of being a minority — we are discriminated against, we see the hate — but we don’t get the help, as some of the other minority communities (do),” said Khalaf.

Ayoub pointed out that another problem is that not all victims of discrimination report it. “It is a struggle to get hate crimes reported,” he added.

Khalaf agreed, adding: “We have to fight to get our cases reported … We are seeing an under-reporting of hate crimes.”

 

“The Ray Hanania Show” is broadcast in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 Radio and in Washington DC on WDMV AM 700 radio on Wednesday mornings at 8 am. Hosted by the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News, the leading English language newspaper in the Middle East, the show is also streamed live at Facebook.com/ArabNews and the podcast is available at ArabNews.com/RayRadioShow.


Taliban seize key district in northern Afghanistan

Taliban seize key district in northern Afghanistan
Updated 06 May 2021

Taliban seize key district in northern Afghanistan

Taliban seize key district in northern Afghanistan
  • Spike in violence follows US withdrawal of troops, which began last week

KABUL: Taliban fighters have captured a key district in northern Afghanistan while thousands of civilians have fled their homes in the southern part of the country to escape violent attacks by the group after the withdrawal of US forces from a military base in the area, officials said on Wednesday. 

The rugged Burka district in Baghlan, one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban overnight after the militant group staged an attack on government forces, Javid Basharat, a spokesman for Baghlan’s governor, told Arab News. 

“I can confirm that the enemy has captured the Burka district as a result of an encounter. Security and defense forces tactically, without suffering any losses, withdrew and have plans to recapture it,” he added. 

The capture of Burka, which links various districts in the region, is being seen as a massive victory for the Taliban after clashes between the group’s fighters and Afghan forces intensified across the country last week after the US began withdrawing its remaining troops from the war-torn country after decades of conflict. 

Since then, government forces have unleashed a series of offensives against the Taliban, who in turn have their eye on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, where US forces handed over a pivotal base to the Afghan National Army on Sunday. 

Officials said thousands of civilians had fled their homes due to clashes in various parts of Helmand. 

“Around 1,000 families have been displaced because of the clashes in various districts. Some live in open areas now, others in hotels or with relatives,” Sayed Mohammad Ramin, head of Helmand’s department for displaced refugees and repatriation, told Arab News. 

Mohammad Alam, a 49-year-old displaced resident of a village adjacent to Lashkar Gah, said he “only had time to evacuate his four children and disabled wife on Monday evening when the clashes escalated.”

Alam told Arab News: “We had no time even to take our personal belongings. It was heavy fighting, now we are living in a makeshift tent in a relative’s yard.”

In a statement released in Kabul on Wednesday, Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said that more than 100 Taliban fighters had been killed in the clashes near Lashkar Gah, and Afghan forces had “foiled the Taliban’s push for its capture.”

However, Attaullah Afghan, chief of Helmand’s provincial council, told Arab News that the “Taliban had captured several posts from the government during the fighting in Lashkar Gah.”

He added that several civilians had been killed in the fighting without providing an approximate number of lives lost. 

One healthcare facility in Helmand, however, said it had admitted 106 wounded residents since May 1, while 13 people had died after succumbing to their injuries. 

“These are very difficult days in Lashkar Gah. My colleagues and I, both local and international, are doing everything we can to assist the people there…” Viktor Urosevic, medical coordinator for the Emergency Hospital, said in a statement on Tuesday. 

Amid the uptick in violence, some lawmakers have expressed concern about the fall of Lashkar Gah to the Taliban, while others urged Kabul to send reinforcements to the historically volatile province, which once served as the Taliban’s stronghold and is infamous as a key narcotics production hub. 

“Helmand, war, displacement, vagrancy, fear. How long this calamity will last?...Will we wake up a day with the announcement of ceasefire from our bed?”, Shahrzad Akbar, head of Afghanistan’s Independent Commission for Human Rights, said in a Twitter post on Tuesday. 

“The Taliban, showing no seriousness in participating in the talks and failing to agree to a ceasefire, bear most of the responsibility for the continuation of the current bloody situation in the month of Ramadan,” he added. 

With the fate of the US-sponsored peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in limbo, there has been an escalation in violence in recent weeks. 

It is expected to spike in the upcoming months as US-led troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, amid fears of the country descending into another civil war. 

By formally ending its most protracted conflict in history, which Washington started in late-2001 by ousting the Taliban from power, the US military began withdrawing the remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan on Saturday, based on a directive issued by President Joe Biden last month. 

All foreign troops were expected to exit the country by May 1 — the original deadline set by the Taliban before signing a landmark deal with Washington in Doha, Qatar, more than a year ago. 

The Taliban has blamed Washington for violating the key condition of the Doha accord, which also pushed Kabul and the Taliban to hold talks and draw a political roadmap for a future government in Afghanistan. 

Based on the Doha deal — which also required the Taliban to cut ties with Al-Qaeda and other militants and not use Afghan soil to launch attacks on any other country, including the US — the insurgents had halted attacks on foreign troops, but not on Afghan forces. 

Both domestic and foreign diplomats, including those from the US, fear that the troops’ departure from the country could propel the Taliban to return to power by force once again. 

According to media reports, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad — the chief architect of the Doha deal with the Taliban — spoke with Afghan leaders over the weekend, emphasizing that “there was strong consensus within both the regional and international community against any effort by the Taliban to pursue a military takeover.”