Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations

Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations
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People shop at a market after the government eased restrictions as the number of new Covid-19 coronavirus infections dropped, in Gurgaon on June 13, 2021. (AFP)
Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations
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A worker disinfects an escalator at a shopping mall which will open its doors from tomorrow, in Kolkata on June 15, 2021. (AFP)
Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations
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Security guards get their temperature checked before starting duty at a shopping mall which will open its doors from tomorrow, in Kolkata on June 15, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 15 June 2021

Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations

Alarm rises in India over COVID-19 risks as crowds return to malls and rail stations
  • After a strict five-week lockdown, authorities in Delhi have fully re-opened shops and malls, and allowed restaurants to have 50% seating
  • Suburban rail networks can run at 50 percent capacity, and offices have been partially reopened

NEW DELHI: Having barely got over a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections, India was gripped with alarm on Tuesday over risks of a resurgence as crowds thronged railway stations and shopping malls a day after major cities relaxed curbs on movement.

The capital New Delhi, in the north, and tech hub Bengaluru, in the south, were among the cities that have begun lifting strict lockdowns as the nationwide tally of new infections dropped to its lowest level in more than two months.
After a strict five-week lockdown, authorities in Delhi have fully re-opened shops and malls, and allowed restaurants to have 50 percent seating. Suburban rail networks can run at 50 percent capacity, and offices have been partially reopened.
“Delhi’s top #mall saw a footfall of 19,000 people last weekend- as soon as it reopened. Have we gone totally mad?” Ambrish Mithal, a doctor with a Max HealthCare hospital in New Delhi said on Twitter. “Wait for #COVID19 to explode again- and blame the government, hospitals, country.”
Disease experts have cautioned that a race toward resuming business as usual would compromise vaccination efforts as only about 5 percent of all 950 million eligible adults have been inoculated.
Doctors say Delhi’s near-complete re-opening is concerning. The city’s authorities have said they would reimpose strict curbs if needed.
Thousands died in the capital in May, as oxygen supplies all but vanished and families pleaded on social media over scarce hospital beds. Many died in parking lots, and morgues ran out of space.
Yet, the city government said inoculation centers for people aged between 18 and 44 would start shutting down on Tuesday, as doses were scarce.
Challenge of inoculations, testing
India has been administering an average of 2.4 million shots a day. Health officials say vaccinations need to be at least four times higher to avoid a third wave of infections.
At the height of the second wave in April and May as many as 170,000 people died.
The Delta variant, first identified in India, has accelerated infections. And worryingly, the virus has spread to India’s vast hinterland where two-thirds of the population lives and vaccinations have been even slower.
As restrictions are lifted in big cities, migrant workers have begun returning from the countryside.
In the southern state of Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru, media reported large crowds of workers at railway stations.
“Unfortunately, citizens equate the government’s response to reopening, as a victory,” Dr. Vishal Rao, a member of the expert committee on Karnataka’s COVID task force, told Reuters.
Nationwide, India reported 60,471 new COVID-19 infections over the past 24 hours, the lowest since March 31, data from the health ministry showed.
India added 2,726 deaths overnight, taking the overall tally to 377,031.
Both the death toll and the case-load of infections, at 29.57 million, were the second highest after the United States, but experts say the official numbers are a gross underestimate. Only people who have tested positive are counted, and in India testing has been woefully inadequate.
The Times of India on Tuesday reported a staggering 100,000 people were issued fake ‘negative’ reports for COVID-19 infections in the northern city of Haridwar when tens of thousands of Hindu devotees gathered on the banks of the Ganges river for the ‘Kumbh Mela’, or pitcher festival, in April.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was widely criticized for failing to call off the Kumbh — he only belatedly urged religious leaders to celebrate symbolically — and for addressing large rallies during state elections also in April.
“One in every 4 tests during Kumbh was found fake. That is from just 1 sample collection agency. 8 more to go.” Rijo M John, a professor at the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences in the southern city of Kochi, said on Twitter.
“Basically, just the tip of the iceberg.”


Airlift begins for Afghans who worked for US during long military campaign

Airlift begins for Afghans who worked for US during long military campaign
Updated 30 July 2021

Airlift begins for Afghans who worked for US during long military campaign

Airlift begins for Afghans who worked for US during long military campaign
WASHINGTON: Some 200 Afghans were set to begin new lives in the United States on Friday as an airlift got under way for translators and others who risk Taliban retaliation because they worked for the US government during its 20-year war in Afghanistan, US officials said.
The operation to evacuate US-affiliated Afghans and family members comes as the US troop pullout nears completion and government forces struggle to repulse Taliban advances.
The first planeload of some 200 evacuees were expected to be bused to Fort Lee, a US military base in Virginia, for final paperwork processing and medical examinations.
The Afghans who worked for the United States are being granted Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) entitling them to bring their families. As many as 50,000 or more people ultimately could be evacuated in “Operation Allies Refuge.”
The first group is among some 2,500 SIV applicants and family members who have almost completed the process, clearing them for evacuation, said Russ Travers, President Joe Biden’s deputy homeland security adviser.
The Afghans were expected to remain at Fort Lee for up to seven days before joining relatives or host families across the country.
The evacuees underwent “rigorous background checks” and COVID-19 tests, Travers added. Some were already vaccinated, and the rest will be offered jabs at Fort Lee.
The surging violence in Afghanistan has created serious problems for many SIV applicants whose paperwork is in the pipeline amid reports — denied by the Taliban — that some have been killed by vengeful insurgents.
Some applicants are unable to get to capital Kabul to complete required steps at the US embassy or reach their flights.
“We do lack the capacity to bring people to Kabul from other parts of the country or to house them in Kabul,” Tracey Jacobson, State Department coordinator of the operation, told reporters.
The SIV program has been plagued by long processing times and bureaucratic knots — which the Biden administration and Congress are working to undo — that led to a backlog of some 20,000 applications. The State Department has added staff to handle them.
“The US has had 20 years to anticipate what the withdrawal would look like,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal aid to refugees. “It’s unconscionable that we are so late.”
Kim Staffieri, co-founder of the Association of Wartime Allies, which helps SIV applicants, said surveys the group has conducted over Facebook show that about half of SIV applicants cannot reach Kabul, including many approved for evacuation.
Congress created SIV programs in 2006 for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who risked retaliation for working for the US government.

India reports most new COVID cases in three weeks

India reports most new COVID cases in three weeks
Updated 30 July 2021

India reports most new COVID cases in three weeks

India reports most new COVID cases in three weeks
  • The nationwide tally of infections has reached 31.57 million, according to health ministry data

NEW DELHI: India reported 44,230 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, the most in three weeks, the latest evidence of a worrying trend of rising cases that has forced one state to lock down amid fears of another wave of infections.
India was battered by the Delta variant of the virus in April and May but the rate of spread of infections later eased off. It has again been rising, with higher numbers in seven of the past eight days.
The nationwide tally of infections has reached 31.57 million, according to health ministry data. Deaths rose by 555 overnight, taking the overall toll to 423,217.
Medical experts polled by Reuters in late June said a third wave of coronavirus infections was likely to hit India by October, though it would be better controlled than the devastating April-May outbreak.
Health experts have called for faster vaccinations to stave off another big surge.
The government estimates that 67.6% of the 1.35 billion population already have antibodies against the coronavirus, with nearly 38% of the adult population of about 944 million people having received at least one vaccine dose.
The disease's estimated reproduction rate, or R value, has also inched up in the past week,
The R value hit 1 on July 24 - meaning on average, every 10 people infected will infect 10 other people - for the first time since May when daily infections were near a peak of 400,000.
The southern state of Kerala announced a new lockdown on Thursday while movement restrictions are in place in some northeastern states reporting a rise in infection rates.
Other places, including the capital New Delhi, have recently reopened most economic activities.


Philippine leader recalls decision to void US security pact

Philippine leader recalls decision to void US security pact
Updated 30 July 2021

Philippine leader recalls decision to void US security pact

Philippine leader recalls decision to void US security pact
  • The 1998 agreement allows the entry of large numbers of American forces for joint combat training with Philippine troops
  • Duterte notified the US government in February 2020 that the Philippines intended to abrogate the agreement

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reversed his termination of a key defense pact with the United States that allows large-scale combat exercises between US and Philippine forces.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced Duterte’s decision at a joint meeting with reporters Friday with his visiting US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, in Manila.
Another Philippine official earlier told The Associated Press that Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. would hand over a document to Austin about Duterte’s decision to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement in a separate meeting later Friday.
“The president decided to recall or retract the termination letter for the VFA,” Lorenzana said. “We are back on track.”
Austin welcomed Duterte’s decision, which he said would help bolster defense relations between the longtime allies.
Duterte notified the US government in February 2020 that the Philippines intended to abrogate the 1998 agreement, which allows the entry of large numbers of American forces for joint combat training with Philippine troops and sets legal terms for their temporary stay.
The maneuvers involved thousands of American and Philippine military personnel in land, sea and air drills that often included live-fire exercises in pre-pandemic times and sparked China’s concerns when they were held in the periphery of seas Beijing claims as its own.
The pact’s termination would have taken effect after 180 days, but Duterte has repeatedly delayed the effectivity of his decision.
The US military presence in the region has been seen as a counterbalance to China, which has aggressively asserted claims to vast areas of the disputed South China Sea despite a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated their historic basis. China, the Philippines, Vietnam and three other governments have been locked in the territorial standoff for decades.


Malaysian PM digs in after royal rebuke sparks calls to quit

Malaysian PM digs in after royal rebuke sparks calls to quit
Updated 30 July 2021

Malaysian PM digs in after royal rebuke sparks calls to quit

Malaysian PM digs in after royal rebuke sparks calls to quit
  • It is unusual for Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, who is widely revered in the Muslim-majority country, to speak out so forcefully against the government

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s embattled leader defended his actions Thursday as he faced calls to quit after rare criticism from the king, who accused his government of misleading parliament over coronavirus laws.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin leads a scandal-plagued coalition that seized power last year without an election, but his government is on the verge of collapse after allies withdrew support.
Parliament convened this week after a months-long suspension under a state of emergency — ostensibly to fight the virus, but which critics said was a gambit by Muhyiddin to cling to power.
On Monday, the law minister told the legislature the emergency would end on August 1 and that several regulations enacted under it were being canceled.
But angry rival MPs claimed Muhyiddin was just seeking to dodge a vote that could test his support — and it was not clear the monarch had agreed to revoke the laws, as required under the constitution.
On Thursday the royal palace confirmed the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, had not given his consent, and said that he expressed his “great disappointment.”
The announcement about canceling the regulations was “inaccurate and confused the members of parliament,” said a statement from the palace.
It “did not just fail to respect the principles of the sovereignty of the law.... but it undermined the functions and powers of his majesty as head of state,” it said.
It is unusual for Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, who is widely revered in the Muslim-majority country, to speak out so forcefully against the government.
Muhyiddin was accused of treason and faced calls from the opposition and some members of his own coalition to quit.
But his office released a statement outlining discussions between the government and the monarch over the regulations, and insisted there had been no need for a parliamentary vote on the laws.
“The government is of the view that all these actions taken are in order and in accordance with the provisions of the law and the federal constitution,” it said, adding people should “remain calm.”
A key ally of Muhyiddin, Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yakoob, also said the government still enjoyed the support of more than 110 MPs in the 222-seat lower house.
Muhyiddin has faced mounting pressure in recent weeks with the biggest party in his coalition, the United Malays National Organization, withdrawing support.
The regulations enacted under the emergency give authorities extra powers to punish virus rule breakers, as well as some other tools to fight the pandemic.
Even when the emergency ends, the country will remain under a strict lockdown as it faces a worsening outbreak.


International Space Station thrown out of control by misfire of Russian module — NASA

International Space Station thrown out of control by misfire of Russian module — NASA
Updated 30 July 2021

International Space Station thrown out of control by misfire of Russian module — NASA

International Space Station thrown out of control by misfire of Russian module — NASA

LOS ANGELES/MOSCOW: The International Space Station (ISS) was thrown briefly out of control on Thursday when jet thrusters of a newly arrived Russian research module inadvertently fired a few hours after it was docked to the orbiting outpost, NASA officials said.
The seven crew members aboard — two Russian cosmonauts, three NASA astronauts, a Japanese astronaut and a European space agency astronaut from France — were never in any immediate danger, according to NASA and Russian state-owned news agency RIA.
But the malfunction prompted NASA to postpone until at least Aug. 3 its planned launch of Boeing's new CST-100 Starliner capsule on an uncrewed test flight to the space station. The Starliner had been set to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Thursday's mishap began about three hours after the multipurpose Nauka module had latched onto the space station. The module's jets inexplicably restarted, causing the entire station to pitch out of its normal flight position some 250 miles above the Earth, US space agency officials said.
The "loss of attitudinal control" lasted for a little more than 45 minutes, until flight teams on the ground managed to restore the space station's orientation by activating thrusters on another module of the orbiting platform, according to Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA's space station program.
In its broadcast coverage of the incident, RIA cited NASA specialists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as describing the struggle to regain control of the space station as a "tug of war" between the two modules.
At the height of the incident, the station was pitching out of alignment at the rate of about a half a degree per second, Montalbano said hours later in a NASA conference call with reporters.
The Nauka engines were ultimately switched off, the space station was stabilized and its orientation was restored to where it had begun, NASA said.
Communication with the crew was lost briefly twice during the disruption, but "there was no immediate danger at any time to the crew," Montalbano said.
A drift in the space station's normal orientation was first detected by automatic sensors on the ground, and "the crew really didn't feel any movement," he said.
What caused the malfunction of the thrusters on the Nauka module, delivered by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has yet to be determined, NASA officials said.
Montalbano said there was no immediate sign of any damage to the space station. The flight correction maneuvers used up more propellant reserves than desired, "but nothing I would worry about," he said.
After its launch last week from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, the module experienced a series of glitches that raised concern about whether the docking procedure would go smoothly.
Roscosmos attributed Thursday's post-docking issue to Nauka's engines having to work with residual fuel in the craft, TASS news agency reported.
"The process of transferring the Nauka module from flight mode to 'docked with ISS' mode is underway. Work is being carried out on the remaining fuel in the module," Roscosmos was cited by TASS as saying.
The Nauka module is designed to serve as a research lab, storage unit and airlock that will upgrade Russia's capabilities aboard the ISS.
A live broadcast showed the module, named after the Russian word for "science," docking with the space station a few minutes later than scheduled.
"According to telemetry data and reports from the ISS crew, the onboard systems of the station and the Nauka module are operating normally," Roscosmos said in a statement.
"There is contact!!!" Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, wrote on Twitter moments after the docking.