Philippines eyes stricter health measures amid variant threat

Officials report 16 new delta cases but warn real number could be higher. (AFP)
Officials report 16 new delta cases but warn real number could be higher. (AFP)
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Updated 21 July 2021

Philippines eyes stricter health measures amid variant threat

Officials report 16 new delta cases but warn real number could be higher. (AFP)
  • Duterte said that he hoped “existing infrastructure could cope,” adding that it also depended on whether COVID-19 vaccines “can be as effective in dealing with the delta variant”

MANILA: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has warned that the government may revert to tougher coronavirus restrictions to contain the spread of the delta variant in the country.
In a recorded address to the public aired late on Monday night, Duterte cited Department of Health (DoH) data that showed 16 new cases of the delta variant in the country as of July 16.
“That should put us in grave concern,” Duterte said, citing experts’ claims that “this kind of variant is more vicious, more aggressive and fatal.”
He added that compared to the alpha variant, where an individual testing positive for COVID-19 could infect four to five people, a delta-positive person could infect up to eight people.
“So, the total reported local cases in the country is a cause for serious alarm and concern. Again, it’s redundant, but still, it is as good as any warning that can be given to the people. We may need to reimpose stricter restrictions to avoid mass gatherings and prevent superspreader events,” Duterte added.
He said that other countries such as Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan were forced to enter new lockdowns because of the delta variant.
Earlier, health authorities had said that with the 16 new cases, the total number of delta variant infections in the Philippines stood at 35, of which 11 were locally transmitted, with three deaths reported.
However, in his report to the president, Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said that the actual number of delta cases in the country might be higher than was reported by the DoH. This, he said, is due to the difficulty in pinpointing real cases through the use of ordinary test kits.
“That’s why we all need to be more careful,” Ano said, giving the assurance that the government had a contingency plan “in case there will be a new surge in COVID-19 cases.”
Duterte said that he hoped “existing infrastructure could cope,” adding that it also depended on whether COVID-19 vaccines “can be as effective in dealing with the delta variant.”
He further urged the interior department and police to implement existing health protocols with “greater urgency and necessity.
“It is only by imposing these restrictions that we can fight the threat of delta variant,” he said.
As per the directive, local governments will implement all the laws, ordinances and community quarantine protocols to ensure public welfare, while border controls will also be strengthened, especially in the country’s international airports and seaports.

“At the same time, local CEOs will also lead the aggressive ‘Prevent-Detect-Isolate-Treat-Reintegrate’ campaign plus vaccination strategy,” Duterte said, adding that the government will also introduce more quarantine, isolation and health facilities.

Meanwhile, Metro Manila mayors have called on the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) to suspend its policy allowing children in areas under the general community quarantine to go outdoors, citing the threat posed by the delta variant.

“We (mayors) have met, and we wish to ask the IATF to suspend the policy for children aged five and up here in the region,” Metropolitan Manila Development Authority chair Benhur Abalos told the president.

Experts applauded the move, warning of the risks involved in allowing children outdoors.

“I highly recommend that it should be suspended at this point in time where we don’t yet know the extent of the transmission of the delta variant,” infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante told Arab News.

“Despite data showing that most children with COVID-19 don’t manifest with severe coronavirus, only very few, they can be superspreaders when they go back home if they were exposed to the virus outside, especially when they get in contact with elderly people at home or those with underlying conditions who are not yet vaccinated. Then they can be a potential source of the infection,” Solante said.

He further urged the government and the IATF to review the policy.

“They should suspend that policy as soon as possible, especially for now that we continue to monitor the extent of this delta variant. We have identified the primary index cases; the more tedious task now is to identify the secondary contacts,” he said.

However, the health expert added that when compared to other countries in the region, “we’re doing okay.”

Solante said: “If you look at other countries like Indonesia and Thailand, and even Malaysia, they have been experiencing a significant surge of cases, up to 10,000 to 15,000 per day. And if we compare our situation there, then I would say we’re still a bit better with handling the pandemic.”

The DoH on Tuesday reported 4,516 new COVID-19 infections in the country, taking total cases to 1,517,903, while the number of deaths reached 26,844. There are now 46,806 active cases.

“But I would say we should be more careful, we should be more strategic in the way we handle this, because we should also balance the impact on the economy,” Solante added, drawing attention to those flouting health rules.

“There are some people who behave as if the situation is already back to normal. That’s very bad because the way we see it, the experts see it, this will really be a long haul for us, especially since we haven’t vaccinated yet even one-third of the population,” he said.

The Philippines has fully vaccinated more than 4,708,073 people, while 10,388,188 have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to DoH data.

Solante said that the country has a “long way to go” with the population of 112 million, reminding the public to comply with health safety protocols “because that’s the first barrier to protect us against this delta variant.”

Similar to Interior Secretary Ano’s observation, Solante said that it is possible “there are more delta variant cases in the country than reported.

“Not only the delta variant, even the UK variant is highly-transmissible. Our problem here are the limitations in conducting genomic analysis, it is not as wide as we would like it to be,” he added, citing the high costs involved.

And because not all laboratories in the country can do the analysis, Solante said that the type of variant could not be pinpointed right away among positive COVID-19 carriers.

“These laboratories still have to send samples to the Philippine Genome Center. So that’s our limitation.”


Australia’s Scott Morrison: Canberra had ‘deep and grave concerns’ over French submarines

Australia’s Scott Morrison: Canberra had ‘deep and grave concerns’ over French submarines
Updated 5 sec ago

Australia’s Scott Morrison: Canberra had ‘deep and grave concerns’ over French submarines

Australia’s Scott Morrison: Canberra had ‘deep and grave concerns’ over French submarines
  • France is furious at Australia’s decision to withdraw from a multibillion-dollar deal to build French submarines
  • Canberra was unable to buy French nuclear-powered vessels because they require charging while the American submarines do not
SYDNEY: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Sunday the French government would have known Canberra had “deep and grave concerns” about French submarines before the deal was torn up last week.
France is furious at Australia’s decision to withdraw from a multibillion-dollar deal to build French submarines in favor of American nuclear-powered vessels, recalling its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington and accusing its allies of “lying” about their plans.
Morrison said he understood the French government’s “disappointment” but said he had raised issues with the deal “some months ago,” as had other Australian government ministers.
“I think they would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns that the capability being delivered by the Attack Class submarine was not going to meet our strategic interests and we made very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest,” he told a press conference in Sydney.
Morrison said it would have been “negligent” to proceed with the deal against intelligence and defense advice and that doing so would be counter to Australia’s strategic interests.
“I don’t regret the decision to put Australia’s national interest first. Never will,” he said.
Speaking to Sky News Australia earlier on Sunday, Defense Minister Peter Dutton said his government had been “upfront, open and honest” with France that it had concerns about the deal, which was over-budget and years behind schedule.
Dutton said he understood the “French upset” but added that “suggestions that the concerns haven’t been flagged by the Australian government just defy, frankly, what’s on the public record and certainly what was said publicly over a long period of time.”
“The government has had those concerns, we’ve expressed them, and we want to work very closely with the French and we’ll continue to do that into the future,” he said.
Dutton said he had personally expressed those concerns to his French counterpart, Florence Parly, and highlighted Australia’s “need to act in our national interest,” which he said was acquiring the nuclear-powered submarines.
“And given the changing circumstances in the Indo-Pacific, not just now but over the coming years, we had to make a decision that was in our national interest and that’s exactly what we’ve done,” he added.
Canberra was unable to buy French nuclear-powered vessels because they require charging while the American submarines do not, making only the latter suitable for nuclear-free Australia, Dutton said.
With Australia’s new submarine fleet not expected to be operational for decades, Dutton said the country may consider leasing or buying existing submarines from the United States or Britain in the interim.
Australia will get the nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new defense alliance announced with the United States and Britain on Wednesday, in a pact widely seen as aimed at countering the rise of China.

Australia reports 1,607 COVID-19 cases as states learn to live with coronavirus

Australia reports 1,607 COVID-19 cases as states learn to live with coronavirus
Updated 50 min 52 sec ago

Australia reports 1,607 COVID-19 cases as states learn to live with coronavirus

Australia reports 1,607 COVID-19 cases as states learn to live with coronavirus
  • Victoria premier said a weeks-long lockdown will end once 70 percent of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated, whether or not there are new cases

MELBOURNE: Australia reported 1,607 new coronavirus cases on Sunday as states and territories gradually shift from trying to eliminate outbreaks to living with the virus.
Victoria, home to about a quarter of Australia’s 25 million people, recorded 507 cases as its premier said a weeks-long lockdown will end once 70 percent of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated, whether or not there are new cases.
Premier Daniel Andrews said the state might reach that vaccination threshold around Oct. 26. About 43 percent Victorians have been fully vaccinated and just over 46 percent people nationwide.
“We will do so cautiously, but make no mistake, we are opening this place up. There is no alternative,” Andrews said. We “cannot perennially or permanently suppress this virus. Lockdowns have been about buying time to get to 70 percent and 80 percent vaccination.”
Many social distancing restrictions will remain and retail and hospitality venues will be limited, but people will be free to leave their house without a reason.
Andrews said the authorities aim to have 80 percent of the state’s eligible population fully vaccinated in time for the Nov. 2 Melbourne Cup, leaving the door open for crowds on track at Australia’s most famous horse race.
The COVID-19 plan follows a federal scheme that will end lockdowns at a 70 percent vaccination rate and gradually reopen international borders at 80 percent.
New South Wales has adopted a similar plan. Australia’s most-populous state reported 1,083 cases on Sunday as it uses lockdowns and vaccination blitzes to fight an outbreak of the Delta variant that began in mid-June.
The state, home to Sydney, eased some restrictions on gathering on Sunday. Some 52 percent of people have been vaccinated in New South Wales.
After eliminating COVID-19 outbreaks last year through lockdowns, border closures and strict public health measures, Australia has acknowledged in recent months that it may not be able to eradicate Delta outbreaks.
The country has had just over 84,000 coronavirus cases, but two-thirds of the infections have occurred this year, mostly since June. There have been 1,162 deaths COVID-19 deaths.


Indonesia retrieves most-wanted militant’s body from jungle

Indonesia retrieves most-wanted militant’s body from jungle
Updated 36 min 43 sec ago

Indonesia retrieves most-wanted militant’s body from jungle

Indonesia retrieves most-wanted militant’s body from jungle
  • The two men were fatally shot by a joint team of military and police officers in Central Sulawesi province’s mountainous Parigi Moutong district

PALU, Indonesia: The bodies of Indonesia’s most wanted militant with ties to the Daesh group and a follower, who were killed in a jungle shootout with security forces, were evacuated early Sunday to a police hospital for further investigation, police said.

The military earlier said the militants killed late Saturday were Ali Kalora, leader of the East Indonesia Mujahideen network that has claimed several killings of police officers and minority Christians, and another suspected extremist, Jaka Ramadan, also known as Ikrima.

The two men were fatally shot by a joint team of military and police officers in Central Sulawesi province’s mountainous Parigi Moutong district. It borders Poso district, considered an extremist hotbed in the province.

Several pictures obtained by The Associated Press from authorities showed an M16 rifle and backpacks laid near their bloodied bodies. The Central Sulawesi Police Chief Rudy Sufahriadi told a news conference on Sunday that security forces also seized two ready-to-use bombs from their backpacks, which also contained food and camping tools.

He said the bodies of Kalora and his follower have been evacuated to a police hospital in Palu, the provincial capital, after the rugged terrain and darkness hampered earlier evacuation efforts from the scene of the shootout in the forested village of Astina.

“We urged the other four wanted terrorists to immediately surrender and dare to take responsibility for their actions before the law,” said Sufahriadi, referring to remaining members of the East Indonesia Mujahideen who are still at large in the jungle on Sulawesi island.

The militant group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, and Indonesia has intensified its security operations in the area in recent months to try to capture its members, particularly the leader, Kalora.

Two months ago, security forces killed two suspected members in a raid in the same mountainous district, several days after authorities claimed that Kalora and three group members planned to surrender. The surrender was reportedly canceled after other members rejected the plan.

Kalora had eluded capture for more than a decade. He took over leadership of the group from Abu Wardah Santoso, who was killed by security forces in July 2016. Dozens of other leaders and members have been killed or captured since then, including a number of people from China’s ethnic Uyghur minority who had joined the Santoso-led group.

In May, the militants killed four Christians in a village in Poso district, including one who was beheaded. Authorities said the attack was in revenge for the killings in March of two militants, including Santoso’s son.

Santoso was wanted for running a radical training camp in Poso, where a Muslim-Christian conflict killed at least 1,000 people from 1998 to 2002. He was linked to a number of deadly attacks against police officers and Christians.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, has kept up a crackdown on militants since bombings on the resort island of Bali in 2002 killed 202 people, mostly Western and Asian tourists.

Militant attacks on foreigners in Indonesia have been largely replaced in recent years by smaller, less deadly strikes targeting the government, mainly police and anti-terrorism forces, and people militants consider to be infidels, inspired by Daesh group tactics abroad.


Former Malaysia PM Najib Razak may seek re-election to parliament despite conviction

Former Malaysia PM Najib Razak may seek re-election to parliament despite conviction
Updated 19 September 2021

Former Malaysia PM Najib Razak may seek re-election to parliament despite conviction

Former Malaysia PM Najib Razak may seek re-election to parliament despite conviction
  • Najib Razak, who served as premier for nine years until 2018, was found guilty of corruption last year

KUALA LUMPUR: Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has not ruled out seeking re-election to parliament within the next two years, he told Reuters in an interview, undeterred by a corruption conviction that would block him from running.
Najib’s graft-tainted party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), clinched the premiership last month after it was ousted from power three years ago over a multibillion-dollar scandal. Opponents had expressed fears that party leaders facing charges could secure leniency once back in control.
Najib, who served as premier for nine years until 2018, was found guilty of corruption last year and sentenced to 12 years in jail over one of many cases over the misappropriation of funds from now-defunct state fund 1MDB. He has denied wrongdoing and has appealed the verdict.
He is still a member of parliament but the constitution bars him from contesting elections unless he gets a pardon or a reprieve from the country’s monarch.
But speaking to Reuters on Saturday, Najib challenged his disqualification saying: “It is subject to interpretation.”
“It depends on interpretation in terms of the law, the constitution and whatever happens in court proceedings,” Najib said.
Asked if he would contest the next elections due by 2023, he said: “Any politician who would want to play a role would want a seat in parliament.”


Haitians on Texas border undeterred by US plan to expel them

Haitians on Texas border undeterred by US plan to expel them
Updated 19 September 2021

Haitians on Texas border undeterred by US plan to expel them

Haitians on Texas border undeterred by US plan to expel them
  • Department of Homeland Security have moved about 2,000 of the migrants from their camp to other locations Friday for processing and possible removal from the US

DEL RIO, Texas: Haitian migrants seeking to escape poverty, hunger and a feeling of hopelessness in their home country said they will not be deterred by US plans to speedily send them back, as thousands of people remained encamped on the Texas border Saturday after crossing from Mexico.
Scores of people waded back and forth across the Rio Grande on Saturday afternoon, re-entering Mexico to purchase water, food and diapers in Ciudad Acuña before returning to the Texas encampment under and near a bridge in the border city of Del Rio.
Junior Jean, a 32-year-old man from Haiti, watched as people cautiously carried cases of water or bags of food through the knee-high river water. Jean said he lived on the streets in Chile the past four years, resigned to searching for food in garbage cans.
“We are all looking for a better life,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security said Saturday that it moved about 2,000 of the migrants from the camp to other locations Friday for processing and possible removal from the US. Its statement also said it would have 400 agents and officers in the area by Monday morning and would send more if necessary.
The announcement marked a swift response to the sudden arrival of Haitians in Del Rio, a Texas city of about 35,000 people roughly 145 miles (230 kilometers) west of San Antonio. It sits on a relatively remote stretch of border that lacks capacity to hold and process such large numbers of people.
A US official told The Associated Press on Friday that the USwould likely fly the migrants out of the country on five to eight flights a day, starting Sunday, while another official expected no more than two a day and said everyone would be tested for COVID-19. The first official said operational capacity and Haiti’s willingness to accept flights would determine how many flights there would be. Both officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Told of the US plans Saturday, several migrants said they still intended to remain in the encampment and seek asylum. Some spoke of the most recent devastating earthquake in Haiti and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, saying they were afraid to return to a country that seems more unstable than when they left.
“In Haiti, there is no security,” said Fabricio Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian who arrived with his wife and two daughters. “The country is in a political crisis.”
Haitians have been migrating to the US in large numbers from South America for several years, many having left their Caribbean nation after a devastating 2010 earthquake. After jobs dried up from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, many made the dangerous trek by foot, bus and car to the US border, including through the infamous Darien Gap, a Panamanian jungle.
Jorge Luis Mora Castillo, a 48-year-old from Cuba, said he arrived Saturday in Acuna and also planned to cross into the US Castillo said his family paid smugglers $12,000 to take him, his wife and their son out of Paraguay, a South American nation where they had lived for four years.
Told of the US message discouraging migrants, Castillo said he wouldn’t change his mind.
“Because to go back to Cuba is to die,” he said.
US Customs and Border Protection closed off vehicle and pedestrian traffic in both directions Friday at the only border crossing between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña “to respond to urgent safety and security needs” and it remained closed Saturday. Travelers were being directed indefinitely to a crossing in Eagle Pass, roughly 55 miles (90 kilometers) away.
Crowd estimates varied, but Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano said Saturday evening there were 14,534 immigrants at the camp under the bridge. Migrants pitched tents and built makeshif t shelters from giant reeds known as carrizo cane. Many bathed and washed clothing in the river.
It is unclear how such a large number amassed so quickly, though many Haitians have been assembling in camps on the Mexican side of the border to wait while deciding whether to attempt entry into the US
The number of Haitian arrivals began to reach unsustainable levels for the Border Patrol in Del Rio about 2 ½ weeks ago, prompting the agency’s acting sector chief, Robert Garcia, to ask headquarters for help, according to a US official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Since then, the agency has transferred Haitians in buses and vans to other Border Patrol facilities in Texas, specifically El Paso, Laredo and Rio Grande Valley. They are mostly processed outside of the pandemic-related authority, meaning they can claim asylum and remain in the US while their claims are considered. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement makes custody decision but families can generally not be held more than 20 days under court order.
Homeland Security’s plan announced Saturday signals a shift to use of pandemic-related authority for immediate expulsion to Haiti without an opportunity to claim asylum, the official said.
The flight plan, while potentially massive in scale, hinges on how Haitians respond. They might have to decide whether to stay put at the risk of being sent back to an impoverished homeland wracked by poverty and political instability or return to Mexico. Unaccompanied children are exempt from fast-track expulsions.
DHS said, “our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey.”
“Individuals and families are subject to border restrictions, including expulsion,” the agency wrote. “Irregular migration poses a significant threat to the health and welfare of border communities and to the lives of migrants themselves, and should not be attempted.”
US authorities are being severely tested after Democratic President Joe Biden quickly dismantled Trump administration policies that Biden considered cruel or inhumane, most notably one requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting for US immigration court hearings.
A pandemic-related order to immediately expel migrants without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum that was introduced in March 2020 remains in effect, but unaccompanied children and many families have been exempt. During his first month in office, Biden chose to exempt children traveling alone on humanitarian grounds.
Nicole Phillips, legal director for advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance, said Saturday that the US government should process migrants and allow them to apply for asylum, not rush to expel them.
“It really is a humanitarian crisis,” Phillips said. “There needs to be a lot of help there now.”
Mexico’s immigration agency said in a statement Saturday that Mexico has opened a “permanent dialogue” with Haitian government representatives “to address the situation of irregular migratory flows during their entry and transit through Mexico, as well as their assisted return.”
The agency didn’t specify if it was referring to the Haitians in Ciudad Acuña or to the thousands of others in Tapachula, at the Guatemalan border, and the agency didn’t immediately reply to a request for further details.
In August, US authorities stopped migrants nearly 209,000 times at the border, which was close to a 20-year high even though many of the stops involved repeat crossers because there are no legal consequences for being expelled under the pandemic authority.