Myanmar COVID-19 outbreak hits health system shattered after coup

A COVID-19 patient is comforted by a family member at the hospital in Cikha, Myanmar, on May 28, 2021. (Reuters)
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A COVID-19 patient is comforted by a family member at the hospital in Cikha, Myanmar, on May 28, 2021. (Reuters)
COVID-19 patients receive treatment at the hospital in Cikha, Myanmar, on May 28, 2021. (Reuters)
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COVID-19 patients receive treatment at the hospital in Cikha, Myanmar, on May 28, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 30 May 2021

Myanmar COVID-19 outbreak hits health system shattered after coup

Myanmar COVID-19 outbreak hits health system shattered after coup

CIKHA, Myanmar: Breathless, fevered and without the extra oxygen that could help keep them alive, the new coronavirus patients at a hospital near Myanmar’s border with India highlight the threat to a health system near collapse since February’s coup.
To help her tend the seven COVID-19 patients at Cikha hospital, day and night, chief nurse Lun Za En has a lab technician and a pharmacist’s assistant.
Mostly, they offer kind words and paracetamol.
“We don’t have enough oxygen, enough medical equipment, enough electricity, enough doctors or enough ambulances,” Lun Za En, 45, told Reuters from the town of just over 10,000. “We are operating with three staff instead of 11.”
Myanmar’s anti-COVID campaign foundered along with the rest of the health system after the military seized power on Feb. 1 and overthrew elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government had stepped up testing, quarantine and treatment.
Services at public hospitals collapsed after many doctors and nurses joined strikes in a Civil Disobedience Movement in the forefront of opposition to military rule — and sometimes on the frontline of protests that have been bloodily suppressed.
Thirteen medics have been killed, according to World Health Organization data that shows 179 attacks on health workers, facilities and transport — nearly half of all such attacks recorded worldwide this year, said WHO Myanmar representative Stephan Paul Jost.
Some 150 health workers have been arrested. Hundreds more doctors and nurses are wanted on incitement charges.
Neither a junta spokesman nor the health ministry responded to requests for comment. The junta, which initially set fighting the pandemic as one of its priorities, has repeatedly urged medics to return to work. Few have responded.

Testing collapsed
A worker at one COVID-19 quarantine center in Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon, said all the specialist health workers there had joined the Civil Disobedience Movement.
“Then again, we don’t receive new patients any more as COVID test centers don’t have staff to test,” said the worker, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution.
In the week before the coup, COVID-19 tests nationally averaged more than 17,000 a day. That had fallen below 1,200 a day in the seven days through Wednesday.
Myanmar has reported more than 3,200 COVID-19 deaths from over 140,000 cases, although the slump in testing has raised doubts over data that shows new cases and deaths have largely plateaued since the coup.
Now, a health system in crisis is raising concerns about the likely impact on the country from the wave of infections with variants that is sweeping through India, Thailand and other neighbors.
Patients with COVID-19 symptoms started showing up at Cikha hospital in mid-May. It is only 6 km (four miles) from India, and health workers fear the illness could be the highly infectious B.1.617.2 strain — though they lack the means to test for it.
“It’s very concerning that COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccinations are extremely limited in Myanmar as more lives are at risk with new, more dangerous variants spreading,” said Luis Sfeir-Younis, Myanmar COVID-19 operations manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Surge of cases
Twenty-four cases have been identified in Cikha, said Lun Za En. Seven were so serious they needed hospitalization — a sign of how few cases had likely been detected.
Stay-at-home orders have now been declared in parts of Chin state, where Cikha is located, and neighboring Sagaing region.
The WHO said it was trying to reach authorities and other groups in the area who could provide help, while recognizing the difficulties in a health system that was precipitously reversing years of impressive gains.
“It is not clear how this will be resolved, unless there is a resolution at the political level addressing the political conflict,” said Jost.
Lun Za En said her hospital was doing the best it could with nebulizers — machines that turn liquid to mist — to relieve breathlessness. Some patients have oxygen concentrators, but they only work for the two hours a day that the town gets electricity.
Refusing to abandon the sick, Lun Za En said she decided not to join the strikes.
“The junta will not take care of our patients,” she said.
Across Myanmar, some striking doctors have set up underground clinics to help patients. When Myanmar Red Cross volunteers established three clinics in Yangon neighborhoods, they quickly had dozens of patients.
At best, such options can provide basic care.
“Eighty percent of the hospitals are public health hospitals,” said Marjan Besuijen, head of mission for the Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) aid group. “As MSF or others we can’t step in, it’s too big.”
Although military hospitals have been opened to the public, many people fear them or refuse to go on principle — including for coronavirus vaccinations in a campaign the ousted government had launched days before the coup.
“I am very worried that these new infections will spread all over the country,” said Lun Za En. “If the infection spreads to the crowded cities, it could be uncontrollable.” (Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Richard Pullin and William Mallard)


Canary islanders flee as volcano vents its fury

Canary islanders flee as volcano vents its fury
Updated 21 sec ago

Canary islanders flee as volcano vents its fury

Canary islanders flee as volcano vents its fury
LOS LLANOS DE ARIDANE, Spain: Throwing a handful of belongings into her car alongside goats, chickens and a turtle, Yahaira Garcia fled her home just before the volcano erupted, belching molten lava down the mountainside.
She and her husband, who live near the Bodegon Tamanca winery at the foot of La Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma, decided to leave on Sunday afternoon just before the eruption kicked off.
“We decided to leave even before they gave the evacuation order after a really terrible night of earthquakes... my house shook so much it felt like it was going to collapse,” the 34-year-old told AFP by phone.
“We were on our way when we realized the volcano had erupted.” He left in his car and she took hers to go and pick up her parents and their animals: four goats, two pigs, 20 chickens, 10 rabbits, four dogs and a turtle.
“I am nervous, worried, but we are safe,” Garcia said.
In residential areas flanking the volcano, hundreds of police and Guardia civil officers were charged with evacuations, with the work continuing well into the night, police footage showed.
“This is the police. This is not a drill, please vacate your homes,” they shouted through loud speakers, their vehicles flashing blue lights on the drive through dark streets.
Elsewhere, the footage showed officers evacuating goats in pick-up trucks in an area which is above all agricultural.
They also filmed the slow collapse of a building whose walls caved in under a wall of red hot lava.
Although some 5,500 people have been evacuated and “around 100 homes destroyed,” there have so far been no reports of injuries.
As the lava beat an unstoppable path down the mountainside, Angie Chaux, who wasn’t home when the alarm was raised, rushed back to try and salvage some possessions.
“When we got there, the road was closed and the police gave us three minutes to get our things,” said the 27-year-old.
It was 4:30 am and there were people and cars everywhere.
“Right now, we’re watching the news and the lava is 700 meters from our home. I’m really worried because I don’t know what’s going to happen to it.”
Miriam Moreno, another local resident, said they had been ready to leave when the order came with emergency backpacks stocked with food and water.
“You can hear a rumble as if planes were flying overhead and see smoke out of the window although at night you could actually see the lava about two kilometers away,” she said, admitting they were worried about “toxic gases.”
For the evacuees, it is an anguished wait to see what happens with no-one sure when they will be able to go home — or what they will find when they get there.
“The worst of it is the anxiety about losing your home. My house on the beach is fine for the moment but I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back,” said 70-year-old Montserrat Lorenzo from the coastal village of El Remo.
And experts do not know how long the volcano will remain active nor when the flow of lava, which officials said was “about six meters (20 feet) high,” will stop.
“Now they are saying the volcano could continue erupting for three months... we don’t know when the volcano will settle down,” said Garcia.
Volcanology expert Stavros Meletlidis from Spain’s National Geographic Institute said it was too early to say.
“There are volcanoes in the Canary Islands that have erupted for days and others that have continued for several years,” he told Spain’s public television.

Azerbaijan seizes large heroin shipment bound for Europe

Azerbaijan seizes large heroin shipment bound for Europe
Updated 20 September 2021

Azerbaijan seizes large heroin shipment bound for Europe

Azerbaijan seizes large heroin shipment bound for Europe
  • Customs officers in the town of Bilasuvar inspected a car travelling from Iran to EU member Latvia
  • Criminal groups have previously used "Azerbaijan's occupied territories" as a drugs' transit route

BAKU: Azerbaijan has impounded more than half a ton of heroin, one of the biggest ever seizures in the country situated on a major smuggling route to Europe, officials said Monday.
The state customs committee said in a statement that its officers in the town of Bilasuvar — the Caucasus nation’s south-east — inspected a car traveling from Iran to EU member Latvia.
The statement added that 527.6 kilogrammes, about 1,160 pounds, of “heroin were found during the inspection.”
The committee said that criminal groups have previously used “Azerbaijan’s occupied territories” as a drugs’ transit route.
It referred to territories in the Nagorno-Karabakh region that were under the de-facto control of neighboring Armenia until last November, when Yerevan ceded the disputed lands to Baku following a deadly six-week war.
According to the committee, since the “restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity” criminal groups have started using Azerbaijan’s customs and border points to smuggle drugs.
Azerbaijan has in the past reported numerous incidents involving drug traffickers attempting to cross over from Iran, with hundreds of kilogrammes of heroin seized annually.
The oil-rich ex-Soviet Caspian nation lies on a major drug smuggling route from Afghanistan and Iran to Europe and Russia, according to the 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released by the US Department of State.


Korean superstars BTS address UN General Assembly

Korean superstars BTS address UN General Assembly
Updated 20 September 2021

Korean superstars BTS address UN General Assembly

Korean superstars BTS address UN General Assembly
  • Pop group delivered speech that emphasized the youth’s hope and optimism in addressing global challenges
  • They also performed their hit song “Permission to Dance” in the General Assembly hall

NEW YORK: K-pop supergroup BTS addressed the UN General Assembly on Monday and performed a song ahead of a day of high-level dialogue about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

BTS are designated by the UN as special presidential envoys for future cultures and generations, and have taken a leading role in advocating for youth worldwide — particularly on environmental issues.

In a powerful speech delivered on Monday in the UN’s Headquarters, the Korean group said that the COVID-19 pandemic had been “a time to discover how precious each and every moment we had taken for granted was.”

And among the most special of those moments, they said, were those spent in nature — “I shudder to think about mourning the earth,” they added.

“Climate change is an important problem. But talking about what the best solution might be — that’s not easy. It’s a topic that is tough to draw conclusions about. But there are many young people who have an interest in environmental issues, and choose it as their field of study,” said the group’s members.

“I hope we don’t just consider the future as grim darkness. We still have many pages in our story, and we shouldn’t talk as if the ending is already written.”

After their speech, BTS performed their hit song “Permission to Dance” inside the General Assembly hall and the grounds of the UN headquarters.

BTS have been vocal in their advocacy on behalf of the youth, with a particular emphasis on climate change and environmental issues — and the group’s millions of dedicated fans have followed their lead, raising cash for forests and environmental disaster victims alike. 

The group delivered their speech ahead of a day of focus on the SDGs in the UN and a behind-closed-doors meeting between leaders, convened by British PM Boris Johnson, which will gather leaders to discuss how to best build consensus on environmental issues. 

The SDGs are a set of 17 goals aimed at delivering the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which “provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”

Poverty alleviation, climate action, preservation of nature and gender equality are among the 17 goals, which will be discussed throughout Monday and the rest of the week by world leaders and their UN delegates.  

Speaking ahead of BTS’ appearance, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the COVID-19 pandemic was putting the SDGs “further out of reach” and that “only by recovering together can we get the Sustainable Development Goals back on track.” 

But first, he said, “we need to end this pandemic.”


Trudeau future on the line as Canadians vote in pandemic election

Trudeau future on the line as Canadians vote in pandemic election
Updated 20 September 2021

Trudeau future on the line as Canadians vote in pandemic election

Trudeau future on the line as Canadians vote in pandemic election
  • Trudeau called the snap election hoping to parlay a smooth Covid-19 vaccine rollout into a new mandate to steer the nation's pandemic exit
  • At 49, Trudeau has faced tougher bouts and come out unscathed

OTTAWA, Canada: Voters lined up Monday to cast ballots in Canadian elections that are headed for a photo finish, with liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s bid for a third term threatened by rookie conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s strong challenge.
Trudeau called the snap election hoping to parlay a smooth Covid-19 vaccine rollout — among the best in the world — into a new mandate to steer the nation’s pandemic exit, without having to rely on opposition party support to pass his agenda.
But the contest, after a bumpy five weeks of campaigning, appears set for a repeat of the close 2019 general election that resulted in the one-time golden boy of Canadian politics clinging to power, yet losing his majority in parliament.
A sudden surge in Covid-19 cases led by the Delta variant late in the campaign, after the lifting of most public health measures this summer, has also muddied the waters.
Voting across Canada’s six time zones started early in the Atlantic island province of Newfoundland and was to wrap up in westernmost British Columbia at 7:00 p.m. (0200 GMT).
At 49, Trudeau has faced tougher bouts and come out unscathed.
But after six years in power, his administration is showing signs of fatigue, and it’s been an uphill battle for him to convince Canadians to stick with his Liberals after falling short of high expectations set in his 2015 landslide win.
Douglas O’Hara, 73, casting a vote in Trudeau’s Montreal electoral district of Papineau, told AFP he was “very disappointed” with the prime minister.
Although he believes Trudeau “did a half-decent job” managing the pandemic, he reminded that the leader had pledged not to go to the polls until the outbreak had subsided.
“Then as soon as he gets a chance (when) he thinks he’s going to get a majority, he calls an election,” O’Hara said. “I really believe he lied to us.”
Jennifer Hardy, 38, also expressed disappointment with the incumbent. “I’m actually embarrassed and ashamed because I voted for him last time. I’m here to rectify that. I think he’s ruining this country.”
Entering the final stretch, the two main political parties that ruled Canada since its 1867 confederation were neck and neck with about 31 percent support each, and four smaller factions nipping at their heels.
An estimated 27 million Canadians are eligible to vote to select 338 members of Parliament. To keep his job, Trudeau’s Liberals must win a plurality of seats and take at least 170 for a majority.
Due to the pandemic, a significant number of mail-in ballots (1.2 million) are expected, which could mean the results may not be known Monday evening.
Pollster and former political strategist Tim Powers advised not counting Trudeau out. “I still think Justin Trudeau will win a minority government,” he told AFP.
“But is that a win for him?” he added, suggesting Trudeau may be turfed as leader if the Liberals fare poorly at the ballot box.
The 36-day campaign saw the contenders spar over climate actions, indigenous reconciliation, affordable housing, Afghanistan, mandatory Covid-19 inoculations and vaccine passports.
Rivals criticized Trudeau for calling the election during a pandemic.
Meanwhile, the 48-year-old O’Toole was knocked for his backing of Alberta and two other Tory-led provinces’ loosening of public health restrictions too soon, with Covid outbreaks now forcing their overwhelmed hospitals to fly patients across Canada for care.
At rallies, Trudeau was dogged by what he described as “anti-vaxxer mobs,” including one that threw stones at him.
O’Toole, meanwhile, fumbled over gun control and was warned by Beijing, according to Chinese state media, that his proposed hard line on China — Canada’s second-largest trading partner, with whom relations have soured over its detention of two Canadian nationals — would “invite counterstrikes.”
Overall, commented Max Cameron, a professor at the University of British Columbia, “this hasn’t been a polarizing election. There’s actually a lot of clustering around the middle.”
O’Toole, a relative unknown who became Tory leader only last year, tracked his party to the political center, forcing the Liberals to compete for votes on the left with the New Democrats and Greens, as well as the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
The Conservatives, however, also saw their support clawed in the final week by former foreign minister Maxime Bernier’s far right People’s Party.


Faroe Islands mass dolphin slaughter casts shadow over tradition

Faroe Islands mass dolphin slaughter casts shadow over tradition
Updated 20 September 2021

Faroe Islands mass dolphin slaughter casts shadow over tradition

Faroe Islands mass dolphin slaughter casts shadow over tradition
  • The magnitude of the catch in the large fjord came as a shock as fishermen targeted a particularly big school of dolphins
  • Critics say that the Faroese can no longer put forward the argument of sustenance when killing whales and dolphins

COPENHAGEN: Every summer in the Faroe Islands hundreds of pilot whales and dolphins are slaughtered in drive hunts known as the “grind” that residents defend as a long-held tradition.
The hunt always sparks fierce criticism abroad, but never so much as last week when a particularly bountiful catch saw 1,428 dolphins massacred in one day, raising questions on the island itself about a practice that activists have long deemed cruel.
Images of hundreds upon hundreds of dolphins lined up on the sand, some of them hacked up by what appeared to be propellers, the water red with blood, shocked some of the staunchest supporters of the “grind” and raised concern in the archipelago’s crucial fishing industry.
For the first time, the local government of the autonomous Danish archipelago located in the depths of the North Atlantic said it would re-evaluate regulations surrounding the killing of dolphins specifically, without considering an outright ban on the tradition.
“I had never seen anything like it before. This is the biggest catch in the Faroes,” Jens Mortan Rasmussen, one of the hunter-fishermen present at the scene in the village of Skala, told AFP.
While used to criticism, he said this time round it was “a little different.”
“Fish exporters are getting quite a lot of furious phone calls from their clients and the salmon industry has NOW mobilized against dolphin-hunting. It’s a first.”
The meat of pilot whales and dolphins is only eaten by the fishermen themselves, but there is concern that news of the massacre will hit the reputation of an archipelago that relies considerably on exporting other fish including salmon.
Traditionally, the Faroe Islands — which have a population of 50,000 — hunt pilot whales in a practice known as “grindadrap,” or the “grind.”
Hunters first surround the whales with a wide semi-circle of fishing boats and then drive them into a bay to be beached and slaughtered by fishermen on the beach.
Normally, around 600 pilot whales are hunted every year in this way, while fewer dolphins also get caught.
Defending the hunt, the Faroese point to the abundance of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in their waters (over 100,000, or two per capita).
They see it as an open-air slaughterhouse that isn’t that different to the millions of animals killed behind closed doors all over the world, said Vincent Kelner, the director of a documentary on the “grind.”
And it’s of historical significance for the Faroe Islanders: without this meat from the sea, their people would have disappeared.
But still, on September 12, the magnitude of the catch in the large fjord came as a shock as fishermen targeted a particularly big school of dolphins.
The sheer number of the mammals that beached slowed down the slaughter which “lasted a lot longer than a normal grind,” said Rasmussen.
“When the dolphins reach the beach, it’s very difficult to send them back to sea, they tend to always return to the beach.”
Kelner said the fishermen were “overwhelmed.”
“It hits their pride because it questions the professionalism they wanted to put in place,” he added.
While defending the practice as sustainable, Bardur a Steig Nielsen, the archipelago’s prime minister, said Thursday the government would re-evaluate “dolphin hunts, and what part they should play in Faroese society.”
Critics say that the Faroese can no longer put forward the argument of sustenance when killing whales and dolphins.
“For such a hunt to take place in 2021 in a very wealthy European island community... with no need or use for such a vast quantity of contaminated meat is outrageous,” said Rob Read, chief operating officer at marine conservation NGO Sea Shepherd, referring to high levels of mercury in dolphin meat.
The NGO claims the hunt also broke several laws.
“The Grind foreman for the district was never informed and therefore never authorized the hunt,” it said in a statement.
It also claims that many participants had no license, “which is required in the Faroe Islands, since it involves specific training in how to quickly kill the pilot whales and dolphins.”
And “photos show many of the dolphins had been run over by motorboats, essentially hacked by propellers, which would have resulted in a slow and painful death.”
Faroese journalist Hallur av Rana said that while a large majority of islanders defend the “grind” itself, 53 percent are opposed to killing dolphins.