India records 400,000 COVID-19 cases as vaccine drive hits snag

India records 400,000 COVID-19 cases as vaccine drive hits snag
Indian authorities lowered their guard in the early part of the year after infections fell below 10,000 per day, lifting restrictions on most activity. (AP)
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Updated 02 May 2021

India records 400,000 COVID-19 cases as vaccine drive hits snag

India records 400,000 COVID-19 cases as vaccine drive hits snag
  • Health experts called the crisis “a failure” and the result of a “lack of planning”

NEW DELHI: India’s plans to inoculate 800 million residents aged 18 and above — as part of a new vaccination drive from Saturday — hit a snag after only six of 29 states participated in the campaign due to an acute shortage of COVID-19 vaccines.

It comes amid an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases, with more than 400,000 infections and 3,500 deaths registered in the past 24 hours, according to official data.

It has been a devastating month for the South Asian nation of 1.3 billion, which reported 100,000 cases every day from April 7 until a record spike of 400,000 infections on May 1.

Meanwhile, the positivity rate, which stood at 6.1 percent in early April, has surged to 22 percent, with 22 out of 100 people testing positive for the disease.

Faced with mounting criticism over his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, Inidan Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a new vaccination drive on April 21, which was set to begin from May 1.

“We could not start the vaccination drive for all age groups from Saturday due to the shortage of vaccines,” Munidra Nath Ngatey, director of health services and immunization in the northeastern state of Assam, told Arab News on Saturday.

“We have ordered extra vaccines but are not sure when they are arriving. Till then, we will focus on the people above 45 that we have been doing since January,” Ngatey said. India launched a vaccination drive on Jan. 16 with the ambitious goal to inoculate frontline health workers and 400 million people aged 45 and above by July.

However, by the end of April, only 10 percent of Indians had received their first dose of the vaccine, while 1.5 percent had received both doses, despite the country being one of the biggest producers of the vaccine in the world.

Health experts called the crisis “a failure” and the result of a “lack of planning.”

“The fact remains that there are not enough vaccines for the population. It’s another public relations exercise by the government,” Dr. T. Jacob John, an eminent epidemiologist at the Christian Medical College (CMC) in the south Indian city of Vellore, told Arab News.

“The government is saying the right thing if it cannot do the right thing. I wonder who is in command of the vaccination and COVID-19 strategy,” he said.

In December, India had approved two vaccines for emergency use: The Oxford-AstraZeneca produced domestically as Covishield by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) and a local product called Covaxin, made by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, an Indian company.

Recently, SII Chief Adar Poonawala said that his company could produce about 60-65 million doses a month while Bharat Biotech has an estimated production capacity of about 5 million doses a month, which is expected to double once a new manufacturing facility in Bengaluru starts operations.

To inoculate 400 million people aged 45 and above, India needs 800 million vaccine doses by August. However, with the current production rate, experts say it might be challenging to meet targets.

“Assam had the target of vaccinating 7 million people by April, but we have inoculated close to 2.5 million so far. It is due to the shortage of vaccine,” Ngatey said.

The western Indian state of Maharashtra was one of six states to kickstart the vaccination drive on Saturday.

“In Mumbai (the state capital), we started a vaccination drive for people above the age of 18 today, but it is just symbolic as we don’t have vaccines in stock,” Mumbai Mayor Kishori Kishore Pendekar told Arab News.

“The state is far ahead in vaccination than other states, and we can make great strides if the vaccines are available in large numbers,” he said.

To overcome the vaccine shortage, India allowed foreign vaccines such as Sputnik, Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and others, to enter the market in mid-April.

However, Dr. John questioned PM Modi’s reasons for promoting jabs not licensed in India, adding: “We had asked the government to set up a war room to monitor COVID-19 (cases) but nothing happened, and the government is indulging into the whimsical decision.”

“The government is promoting the sale of vaccines which are not registered . . . The government has not ordered vaccines in advance, and this shortage was bound to happen when there is no advance order for vaccines from the manufacturers,” he said.


Singapore to shut schools as coronavirus cases rise

Singapore to shut schools as coronavirus cases rise
Updated 16 May 2021

Singapore to shut schools as coronavirus cases rise

Singapore to shut schools as coronavirus cases rise
  • All primary, secondary and junior colleges will shift to full home-based learning from Wednesday

SINGAPORE: Singapore will shut most schools from Wednesday after the city-state reported the highest number of local COVID-19 infections in months, including several that were unlinked, according to authorities on Sunday.
All primary, secondary and junior colleges will shift to full home-based learning from Wednesday until the end of the school term on May 28.
“Some of these (virus) mutations are much more virulent, and they seem to attack the younger children,” said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.
On Sunday, Singapore confirmed 38 locally transmitted COVID-19 cases, the highest daily number since mid-September, of which 18 are currently unlinked.
Singapore has reported more than 61,000 virus cases, with the bulk linked to outbreaks last year in foreign worker dormitories, and 31 deaths. Sunday’s new cases were the highest number of local infections outside of the dormitories in a year.
“The sharp rise in the number of community cases today requires us to significantly reduce our movements and interactions in the coming days,” Chan added.
The Asian trade and financial hub of 5.7 million people had until recently been reporting almost zero or single-digit daily infections locally for months.
Though Singapore’s daily cases are still only a fraction of the numbers being reported among its Southeast Asian neighbors, infections have been increasing in recent weeks. From Sunday, the government implemented its strictest curbs on gatherings and public activities since a lockdown last year.
Over a fifth of the country’s population has completed the two-dose vaccination regimen with vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Authorities will invite people under 45 years of age to receive shots from the second half of May.
The speed of Singapore’s inoculation program is being limited by the pace of vaccine supply arrivals. Experts are studying whether to give one dose of the vaccine and extend the interval between shots, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung.
The government is also working on plans to vaccinate children below 16 years once regulatory approval is granted.


Pro-Palestinian protests held throughout Italy

Pro-Palestinian protests held throughout Italy
Updated 16 May 2021

Pro-Palestinian protests held throughout Italy

Pro-Palestinian protests held throughout Italy
  • Dockworkers refuse to load shipment of weapons headed for Israel
  • Imam tells Arab News: ‘Israeli army committing crimes against humanity against a people whose only fault is asking for freedom, justice’

ROME: Thousands of people gathered over the weekend in squares in Italy’s main cities and elsewhere in the country to express solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Thousands gathered in Piazza dell’Esquilino, a huge square in Rome, waving Palestinian flags and chanting slogans of support.

“We want to send a message to the world about the crimes committed by the Israeli occupation authorities against the Palestinian people, and the policy of racial discrimination, and expansion at the expense of the property and rights of the Palestinian people,” Youssef Salman, a Palestinian community leader in Rome, told Arab News.

Meanwhile, at the port in the city of Livorno, dockworkers belonging to an independent trade union organization refused to load weapons on a cargo ship after discovering that they were headed for Israel.

“Once we knew that containers with weapons and explosives headed for the Israeli port of Ashdod were loaded on the … ship, we decided not to carry on with our work,” said a spokesman for the Unione Sindacale di Base.

“We have no intention to facilitate the transportation of weapons and explosives that will be used to kill the Palestinian people, who are suffering so much and mourn hundreds of innocent civilian victims, including many children.”

Demonstrators also gathered in the city of Vicenza near Venice. “We want people to understand the situation in our land,” Rami Ayoub, a member of the local Palestinian community, told Arab News.

People also demonstrated at the Piazza San Lorenzo in the city of Florence. (Supplied)

He said in Vicenza the Palestinian community is small — about 40 people — “but here there are people of many nationalities, and many Italians, in solidarity with us. We’re so grateful for this.”

He added: “Israel says we’re terrorists, but we’re only defending our land, our homes, our rights. We want to make people understand the difference between Israelis and Jews: It’s the state of Israel that occupies us — it’s not a question of religion but of politics.”

People also demonstrated at the Piazza San Lorenzo in the city of Florence. “The Israeli army is committing crimes against humanity in Palestine, against a people whose only fault is asking for freedom and justice,” Izzedin Elzir, the imam of Florence, told Arab News. “We’re all here to say clearly that we’re on their side, that we’re with them.”

In his speech to the crowd, flying a huge Palestinian flag that was then spread over the steps of the 14th-century basilica, Elzir called for the “support of the politicians for the Palestinian people.”

Thousands marched in the center of the city of Turin. Arabic music was played from speakers and the slogan “Free free Palestine” was chanted.

The island of Lipari, which has no more than 8,000 inhabitants, also hosted a demonstration in the square facing its port.

“As in other cities of Italy, we too wanted to express our indignation at the ethnic cleansing taking place in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank, and the bombing of Gaza,” Paolo Arena, president of local NGO Magazzino di Mutuo Soccorso, told Arab News.

“Once again, we find ourselves reading disconcerting news about Israel’s heinous attacks against the entire population of Gaza,” he added.

“We join all those who condemn without hesitation this new violence, and the death of defenseless and innocent civilians.”


Pope Francis denounces violence between Israel, Hamas

Pope Francis denounces violence between Israel, Hamas
Updated 16 May 2021

Pope Francis denounces violence between Israel, Hamas

Pope Francis denounces violence between Israel, Hamas
  • Pope Francis prays for peace, calm and international help to open a path of dialogue

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis has denounced the “unacceptable” spiral of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, saying the deaths in particular of children was a “sign that they don’t want to build the future but want to destroy it.”
Francis prayed for peace, calm and international help to open a path of dialogue during his Sunday blessing, delivered from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
The pope said: “I ask myself: this hatred and vendetta, what will it bring? Do we truly think that we can build peace by destroying the other?”
In unusually pointed comments, Francis added: “In the name of God, who created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity and are called to live as brothers, I appeal for calm” and an end to the violence.
Israeli airstrikes have been pounding Gaza City for days as heavy fighting has broken out between Israel and the territory’s militant Hamas rulers. The Gaza Health Ministry said 10 women and eight children were among the 26 people killed in Sunday’s airstrikes, with another 50 people wounded in the attack.


Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks

Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks
Updated 16 May 2021

Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks

Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks
  • Even as the Taliban and government signed on to the cease-fire, violence continues unabated in Afghanistan

KABUL: A three-day cease-fire marked by violent attacks – some claimed by the Daesh group – ended Sunday in Afghanistan amid calls for renewed peace talks between the government and Taliban.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the negotiating teams of the government and the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban refer to their ousted regime, met briefly Saturday in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar. They renewed their commitment to finding a peaceful end to the war and called for an early start to talks that have been stalled, he said.
The US has been pressing for accelerated talks as it withdraws the last of its 2,500-3,500 soldiers and NATO its remaining 7,000 allied forces.
Even as the Taliban and government signed on to the cease-fire, which was declared to mark the Islamic holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, violence continued unabated in Afghanistan. A bombing Friday in a mosque north of the capital killed 12 worshippers, including the prayer leader. Another 15 people were wounded. The Taliban denied involvement and blamed the government intelligence agency. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
Daesh, however, claimed it blew up several electrical grid stations over the weekend. That left the capital Kabul in the dark for much of the three-day holiday that followed the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
In posts on its affiliated websites, Daesh claimed additional attacks over the last two weeks that destroyed 13 electrical grid stations in several provinces. The stations bring imported power from the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The attacks have left nine provinces including Kabul with disrupted power supplies, said Sanger Niazai, a government spokesman. There was also concern that local warlords, demanding protection money from the government to safeguard stations in areas they control, may have been behind some of the destruction.
At least one local warlord was arrested last year after demanding protection money.
The seemingly unstoppable violence in Afghanistan has residents and regional countries fearful the final withdrawal of US and NATO soldiers could lead to further chaos. Washington said it wants its last soldier out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 at the latest, but the withdrawal is progressing quickly and a Western official familiar with the exit said it is likely to be completed by early July. He spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the withdrawal are not being made public.
On Saturday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed concern about the rapid withdrawal of US and NATO forces in a phone call with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Wang called the withdrawal hasty and warmed it would “severely” impact the Afghan peace process and negatively affect regional stability, He called on the United Nations to play a greater role.


India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths
Updated 16 May 2021

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths

India records more than 4,000 daily COVID-19 deaths
  • India’s massive second wave of infections began in February, putting hospitals and medical workers under pressure

BENGALURU: India reported a smaller rise in daily COVID-19 cases for the third straight day on Sunday, but the number of deaths in 24 hours was higher than 4,000, taking the country’s death toll to 270,000.
Deaths grew by 4,077, while infections rose by 311,170 – the smallest rise in daily cases in over three weeks, health ministry data showed on Sunday. Total infections have risen by over 2 million this week and deaths by nearly 28,000.
India’s massive second wave of infections began in February, putting hospitals and medical workers under pressure. Cases have fallen steadily in states hit by an initial surge of infections, such as the richest state of Maharastra and the northern state of Delhi, after they imposed stringent lockdowns.
Federal health officials said on Saturday that the overall rate of positive cases per tests had dipped to 19.8 percent this week from 21.9 percent last week, sparking hopes that daily infections have begun to stabilize.
But surges have been seen in states such as Tamil Nadu in the south and rural areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday called on officials to strengthen health care resources in rural areas and step up surveillance as the virus spreads rapidly in those areas after ravaging the cities.
Bodies of COVID-19 victims have been found dumped in some Indian rivers, a state government letter seen by Reuters said, in the first official acknowledgement of the alarming practice.
The world’s largest vaccine-producing nation has fully vaccinated just over 40.4 million, or only 2.9 percent, of its 1.35 billion population as of Sunday, according to data from the government’s Co-WIN portal.
India will have 516 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by July, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Saturday.
The South Asian nation’s tally of infections stands at 24.68 million.