Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite

Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite
People walk in public in Sweden, which has shunned lockdowns throughout the pandemic, as health agency statistics showed on Tuesday the number of cases and intensive care patients dropped fast in the recent weeks. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 18 May 2021

Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite

Sweden’s third COVID wave ebbing fast as vaccines bite
  • More than 40% of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine
  • The Nordic country registered 10,017 new coronavirus cases since Friday, health agency statistics showed on Tuesday

STOCKHOLM: Sweden, which has shunned lockdowns throughout the pandemic, has seen the number of cases and intensive care patients drop fast in the recent weeks.
So far more than 40 percent of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine.
The Nordic country registered 10,017 new coronavirus cases since Friday, health agency statistics showed on Tuesday, a decline compared to the 13,812 cases reported during the corresponding period last week.
Sweden has experienced a powerful third wave of the virus with the number of people testing positive per capita among the highest in Europe for months, in stark contrast to its Nordic neighbors where infections have remained relatively subdued throughout the pandemic.
However, with over 40 percent percent of the adult population having received at least one shot of vaccine and around 12 percent fully vaccinated, the number of people in intensive care has still fallen more than 30 percent from a peak three weeks ago.
The vaccine roll-out is also credited for deaths being relatively low this year compared to previous waves of the disease with data suggesting no excess mortality so far in 2021.
The country of 10 million inhabitants registered 26 new deaths, taking the total to 14,301. The deaths registered have occurred over several days and sometimes weeks.
Sweden’s death rate per capita is many times higher than that of its Nordic neighbors’ but lower than in most European countries that opted for lockdowns.


Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain

Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain
Updated 23 June 2021

Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain

Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain
  • In the two decades since the US-led invasion, dozens of Afghan translators have been killed or tortured in targeted assaults by the radical Islamist group

London: Afghan translators who worked with the British military and fear reprisal attacks from the Taliban have arrived in the UK as part of a relocation scheme, campaigners said on Wednesday.
The Sulha Alliance for Afghan interpreters told AFP the first group of translators landed in Birmingham, central England, on Tuesday evening, adding they expected the arrivals would go into Covid quarantine for 14 days.
The government declined to comment on the reports about the departure of the flight over concerns about the safety of the relocating Afghan translators and their families.
At the end of May, Britain announced it would accelerate plans for the relocation of Afghan staff who worked with the military and their families ahead of a planned withdrawal of US-led NATO forces.
Under a relocation scheme for former and current Afghan staff, more than 1,300 workers and their families have been brought to Britain.
More than 3,000 Afghans are expected to be resettled under the accelerated plans, the government said.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has said the government has a “moral obligation” to relocate staff and to “recognize the risks they faced in the fight against terrorism and reward their efforts.”
Retired Col. Simon Diggins, the former British attache in Kabul and now a campaigner for the Sulha Alliance, said the translators would receive four months of support after which he said, “the real struggle begins.”
Afghan translators and other local staff who worked with Britain and other NATO members such as the United States, Germany and France have clamoured to be relocated for fear of Taliban reprisals.
In the two decades since the US-led invasion, dozens of Afghan translators have been killed or tortured in targeted assaults by the radical Islamist group.
Even more have been injured in attacks on foreign troops during patrols in armored vehicles.
Campaigners have criticized what they say are confusing relocation schemes by NATO members, which they claim have allowed many translators to fall through the gaps and will struggle to evacuate all necessary staff before the western alliance’s withdrawal.


What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?
Updated 23 June 2021

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?
  • Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible

India said on Wednesday it has found around 40 cases of the Delta coronavirus variant carrying a mutation that appears to make it more transmissible, and advised states to increase testing.
The variant, called "Delta Plus" in India, was first reported in a Public Health England bulletin on June 11.
It is a sub-lineage of the Delta variant first detected in India and has acquired the spike protein mutation called K417N which is also found in the Beta variant first identified in South Africa.
Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible.
"The mutation K417N has been of interest as it is present in the Beta variant (B.1.351 lineage), which was reported to have immune evasion property," India's health ministry said in a statement.
Shahid Jameel, a top Indian virologist, said the K417N was known to reduce the effectiveness of a cocktail of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.
As of June 16, at least 197 cases has been found from 11 countries - Britain (36), Canada (1), India (8), Japan (15), Nepal (3), Poland (9), Portugal (22), Russia (1), Switzerland (18), Turkey (1), the United States (83).
India said on Wednesday around 40 cases of the variant have been observed in the states of Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, with "no significant increase in prevalence". The earliest case in India is from a sample taken on April 5.
Britain said its first 5 cases were sequenced on April 26 and they were contacts of individuals who had travelled from, or transited through, Nepal and Turkey.
No deaths were reported among the UK and Indian cases.
Studies are ongoing in India and globally to test the effectiveness of vaccines against this mutation.
"WHO is tracking this variant as part of the Delta variant, as we are doing for other Variants of Concern with additional mutations," the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement sent to Reuters.
"For the moment, this variant does not seem to be common, currently accounting for only a small fraction of the Delta sequences ... Delta and other circulating Variants of Concern remain a higher public health risk as they have demonstrated increases in transmission," it said.
But India's health ministry warned that regions where it has been found "may need to enhance their public health response by focusing on surveillance, enhanced testing, quick contact-tracing and priority vaccination."
There are worries Delta Plus would inflict another wave of infections on India after it emerged from the world's worst surge in cases only recently.
"The mutation itself may not lead to a third wave in India - that also depends on COVID-appropriate behaviour, but it could be one of the reasons," said Tarun Bhatnagar, a scientist with the state-run Indian Council for Medical Research.


New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits
Updated 23 June 2021

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits
  • The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: After enjoying nearly four months without any community transmission of the coronavirus, New Zealanders were on edge Wednesday after health authorities said an infectious traveler from Australia had visited over the weekend.
New Zealand has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic and continues to pursue an elimination strategy.
The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths. But its vaccination campaign has been far slower than in most developed countries, with just 13 percent of the population having gotten their first dose.
Although there were no immediate cases confirmed as a result of the traveler’s visit from Sydney to New Zealand’s capital Wellington, authorities were asking people at more than a dozen locations to self-isolate for two weeks and get tested.
They also imposed physical distancing requirements in the Wellington region and restricted crowd sizes to 100 from Wednesday evening through Sunday.
“I’m confident that if we do all the things we have done in the past, if people do what is asked of them, we will reduce the risk,” said Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health.
Bloomfield said the traveler was linked to a Sydney outbreak of the more contagious Delta variant that originated in India.
The outbreak in Australia’s largest city has grown to 31 cases and led to a tightening of restrictions
It began last week when a Sydney airport limousine driver tested positive. He was not vaccinated and is suspected to have been infected while transporting a foreign air crew.
Residents living in the worst-affected parts of Sydney have been told they can only travel outside the city for essential reasons. Authorities have also made masks compulsory outside homes and limited the number of household visitors to five.
New Zealand has stopped quarantine-free travel from the Australian state of New South Wales for at least three days.
New Zealand and Australia opened a quarantine-free travel bubble in April, although it has been temporarily halted several times as Australia has dealt with small community outbreaks.
Health authorities said the traveler had visited New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa as well as a number of restaurants, stores and tourist spots. Te Papa announced it was closed and would provide updates as the situation unfolded.
Health authorities said the traveler visited Wellington from Saturday through Monday before returning to Australia and testing positive for COVID-19. They said four close contacts of the traveler were self-isolating and had all tested negative for the virus.


Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda
Updated 23 June 2021

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda
  • The United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses

Facebook’s recommendation algorithm amplifies military propaganda and other material that breaches the company’s own policies in Myanmar following a military takeover in February, a new report by the rights group Global Witness says.
A month after the military seized power in Myanmar and imprisoned elected leaders, Facebook’s algorithms were still prompting users to view and “like” pro-military pages with posts that incited and threatened violence, pushed misinformation that could lead to physical harm, praised the military and glorified its abuses, Global Witness said in the report, published late Tuesday.
That’s even though the social media giant vowed to remove such content following the coup, announcing it would remove Myanmar military and military-controlled pages from its site and from Instagram, which it also owns. It has since enacted other measures intended to reduce offline harm in the country.
Facebook said Tuesday its teams “continue to closely monitor the situation in Myanmar in real-time and take action on any posts, Pages or Groups that break our rules.”
Days after the Feb. 1 coup, the military temporarily blocked access to Facebook because it was being used to share anti-coup comments and organize protests. Access was later restored. In the following weeks, Facebook continued to tighten its policies against the military, banning all military entities from its platforms and saying it would remove praise or support for violence against citizens and their arrest.
“Once again, Facebook shows that it’s good at making broad sweeping announcements and bad at actually enforcing them. They’ve had years to improve their work in Myanmar but once again they are still failing,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower who found evidence of political manipulation in countries such as Honduras and Azerbaijan while she worked there.
The struggle between the military regime that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government and those opposing it has sharpened in recent months.
Soldiers and police have killed hundreds of protesters. Last week, the United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses after reports that a group opposed to the junta may have executed 25 civilians it captured and allegations that troops had burned down a village.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, had over 22.3 million Facebook users in January 2020, more than 40 percent of its population, according to social media management platform NapoleonCat.
“What happens on Facebook matters everywhere, but in Myanmar that is doubly true,” the report says. As in many countries outside the Western Hemisphere, mobile phones in Myanmar often come pre-loaded with Facebook and many businesses do not have a website, only a Facebook page. For many people in the country, Facebook effectively is the Internet.
On March 23, just before the peak of military violence against civilians, Global Witness said it set up a new, clean Facebook account with no history of liking or following specific topics and searched for “Tatmadaw”, the Burmese name for the armed forces. It filtered the search results to show pages, and selected the top result — a military fan page whose name translates as “a gathering of military lovers.”
Older posts on this page showed sympathy for Myanmar’s soldiers and at least two advertised for young people to join the military — but none of the newer posts since the coup violated Facebook’s policies. However, when Global Witness’s account “liked” the page, Facebook began recommending related pages with material inciting violence, false claims of interference in last year’s election and support of violence against civilians.
A March 1 post, for instance, includes a death threat against protesters who vandalize surveillance cameras.
“Those who threaten female police officers from the traffic control office and violently destroy the glass and destroy CCTV, those who cut the cables, those who vandalize with color sprays, (we) have been given an order to shoot to kill them on the spot,” reads part of the post in translation, according to the report. “Saying this before Tatmadaw starts doing this. If you don’t believe and continue to do this, go ahead. If you are not afraid to die, keep going.”
Facebook said its ban of the Tatmadaw and other measures have “made it harder for people to misuse our services to spread harm. This is a highly adversarial issue and we continue to take action on content that violates our policies to help keep people safe.”
Global Witness said its findings show that Facebook fails to uphold the “very basics” of its own guidelines.
“The platform operates too much like a walled garden, its algorithms are designed, trained, and tweaked without adequate oversight or regulation,” said Naomi Hirst, head of the digital threats campaign at Global Witness. “This secrecy has to end, Facebook must be made accountable.”


Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council

Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council
Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP file photo)
Updated 23 June 2021

Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council

Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council
  • The statement cited reports of torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents

GENEVA: More than 40 countries led by Canada voiced grave concerns at the UN Human Rights Council Tuesday about China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet — triggering a fierce backlash from Beijing.
The widely anticipated joint statement had been in the pipeline for several days and was delivered on day two of the 47th session of the council in Geneva.
“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Canada’s ambassador Leslie Norton said.
The statement was backed by Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States, among others.
Beijing must allow UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and other independent observers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang, and end the “arbitrary detention” of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, it said.
“Credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uyghurs and members of other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uyghur culture,” it said.
The statement cited reports of torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents.
The number of signatories is an increase from the 22 ambassadors who wrote to Bachelet in 2019 condemning China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
China denies mistreating the Uyghurs, once a clear majority in their ancestral homeland until the state helped waves of ethnic Han Chinese migrate there. Beijing insists it is simply running vocational training centers designed to counter extremism.
Bachelet told the council on Monday she hoped at last to visit Xinjiang this year and be given “meaningful access.”
Tuesday’s statement was bound to further enrage Beijing, which decries what it says is the interference by foreign powers in its internal affairs.
The joint declaration also expressed concern over the deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in Tibet.
The move came after US President Joe Biden’s first foreign trip, in which he garnered G7 and NATO unity in pushing back against Beijing, with Washington identifying China as the pre-eminent global challenge.
The statement “sends a crucial message to China’s authorities that they are not above international scrutiny,” said Agnes Callamard, head of the rights group Amnesty International.
But countries “must now move beyond handwringing and take real action,” she added.

Aware that the statement was coming, China had responded before it was even delivered.
Beijing’s representative read out a statement on behalf of a group of countries “deeply concerned about serious human rights violations against the indigenous people in Canada.”
Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela were among the co-signatories, according to the United Nations.
“Historically, Canada robbed the indigenous people of their land, killed them, and eradicated their culture,” the statement said.
It referenced the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in western Canada — one of many boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate Canada’s indigenous peoples.
“We call for a thorough and impartial investigation into all cases where crimes were committed against the indigenous people, especially children,” the statement said.
The representative of Belarus read another joint statement on behalf of 64 countries, supporting China and stressing that Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet were Chinese internal affairs.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada had acknowledged and was seeking to make amends for wronging its indigenous peoples.
“In Canada, we had a truth and reconciliation commission,” he told journalists. “Where is China’s truth and reconciliation commission. Where is their truth?
“The journey of reconciliation is a long one, but it is a journey we are on,” he said. “China is not recognizing even that there is a problem.
“That is a pretty fundamental difference and that is why Canadians and people from around the world are speaking up for people like the Uyghurs who find themselves voiceless, faced with a government that will not recognize what’s happening to them.”