Half of Europeans vaccinated as Germany warns on rising virus cases

Half of Europeans vaccinated as Germany warns on rising virus cases
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Covid-19 cases in her country were rising "exponentially" as over half of European adults are now fully vaccinated, the EU said on Thursday, while countries battled fast-spreading Delta variant. (AFP)
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Updated 22 July 2021

Half of Europeans vaccinated as Germany warns on rising virus cases

Half of Europeans vaccinated as Germany warns on rising virus cases
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel said cases in her country were rising "exponentially"
  • In Japan the delayed Olympic Games were set to open with almost no spectators and with a blanket of Covid rules in place

BRUSSELS: More than half of all European adults are now fully vaccinated, the EU said on Thursday, as countries across Europe and Asia battled fresh outbreaks blamed on the fast-spreading Delta variant.
The European Central Bank said uncertainty over the wave of infections meant it was keeping the cash taps open to ensure the nascent economic recovery isn’t snuffed out.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said cases in her country were rising “exponentially,” while in Japan the delayed Olympic Games were set to open with almost no spectators and with a blanket of Covid rules in place.
The spotlight, meanwhile, once again turned on the origins of the virus after the WHO called for an audit of the Chinese lab at the heart of speculation about where it first emerged, sparking a fiery response from Beijing.
More than four million people have died from the virus since December 2019, and though rates of vaccination are picking up globally, Delta is fueling a rise in infections and prompting governments to re-impose anti-virus measures.
The EU said on Thursday that 200 million Europeans had been fully vaccinated, more than half of the adult population but still short of a 70 percent target set for the summer.
The fresh data came as Merkel urged more Germans to get jabs, sounding the alarm over a fresh spike in cases in Germany.
“We are seeing exponential growth,” she told a news conference in Berlin, adding that “every vaccination... is a small step toward a return to normality.”
Germany has seen an incidence rate of 12.2 new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days — more than double rates in early July.
“With a rising incidence rate, it could be that we need to introduce additional measures,” she said.
Germany joins a number of European nations that have seen cases climb in recent weeks fueled by the Delta variant, first detected in India.
European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde warned of growing economic uncertainty caused by Delta, as the bank kept its vast stimulus for the eurozone firmly in place following a meeting of its 25-member governing council.
“The euro area economy is rebounding strongly,” Lagarde said, but the Delta variant could damp the post-lockdown recovery “in services, especially in tourism and hospitality,” she said.
France this week rolled out new rules requiring a so-called health pass for all events or places with more than 50 people before being extended to restaurants, cafes and shopping centers in August.
People need to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain access, after the country reported a new surge — more 21,000 new cases on Wednesday, the highest level since early May.
Italy on Thursday also said a health pass would be mandatory for people wishing to access bars, restaurants, swimming pools, sports facilities, museums and theaters from August 6.
It will also be necessary for people wanting to attend sports events, concerts and seminars.
Cases are also soaring in the UK, where most restrictions were lifted this week, and on Thursday British supermarkets warned of possible food shortages because staff were being forced to self-isolate.
On Thursday, a one-day international cricket match between the West Indies and Australia at the Kensington Oval in London was canceled at the last moment due to a positive Covid test from a “non-playing member of the West Indies team.”
A furious Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis meanwhile blasted his country’s Olympic team as six athletes and officials tested positive for coronavirus in the Olympic Village. He called the incident a “scandal.”
Countries in Asia are seeing some of their worst outbreaks to date, with Indonesia becoming a new global hotspot as Vietnam and Thailand face new anti-virus rules.
In Tokyo, the Olympics were due to open on Friday after a year-long pandemic delay.
Spectators are mostly banned, and athletes, journalists and organizers are subject to strict virus measures.
“It’s completely different from the last Games (in 1964) when the whole city was filled with festive mood,” said 80-year-old Tokyo resident Michiko Fukui.
With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, attention turned once again to the international probe origins of the virus.
The WHO said last week that the probe should include audits of Chinese labs, but Chinese Vice Health Minister Zeng Yixin said on Thursday that he was “extremely surprised” by the WHO plan, which he said showed “disrespect for common sense and arrogance toward science.”


French court lengthens jihadist’s sentence on appeal

French court lengthens jihadist’s sentence on appeal
Updated 23 sec ago

French court lengthens jihadist’s sentence on appeal

French court lengthens jihadist’s sentence on appeal
PARIS: A French appeal court on Tuesday increased an extremist’s sentence for his senior role with Daesh group in Syria from 30 years to life in prison.
Frenchman Tyler Vilus had already been convicted for his work with the Daesh group there between 2013 and 2015.
On appeal, the court also ordered that the 31-year-old serve a minimum of 22 years in jail.
He was deemed a “major risk” to re-offend and still denied some of the charges.
Vilus led the “Al-MuHajjireen” (the immigrants) brigade, a squadron that tortured and carried out summary executions.
He was deported to France after being arrested at an Istanbul airport with a Swiss passport in July 2015 en route to Europe to carry out an attack.
His mother, dubbed “Mama Jihad” in the French press, traveled three times to Syria in support of her son and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in June 2017 for her “unfailing commitment” to jihad.
Among the charges, Vilus was found guilty of taking part in the public execution of two blindfolded prisoners, which was filmed for a propaganda video.
Vilus stood, head bowed, behind a glass screen to hear the verdict after an eight-day hearing under tight security in central Paris.

Wray: Afghanistan unrest could inspire extremism inside US

Wray: Afghanistan unrest could inspire extremism inside US
Updated 17 min 46 sec ago

Wray: Afghanistan unrest could inspire extremism inside US

Wray: Afghanistan unrest could inspire extremism inside US
  • FBI is confronting increasing threats from individuals motivated by racial and political grievances
  • The danger posed in Afghanistan by groups like al-Qaida and the Daesh is at the moment primarily a regional threat

WASHINGTON: The possibility of a 9/11-type attack has diminished over the last 20 years, but the Taliban victory in Afghanistan could embolden US-based extremists.
At the same time that the FBI is confronting increasing threats from individuals motivated by racial and political grievances, top national security officials warned Tuesday.
Christine Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee that the terrorism threat to the country is less “acute” than it was two decades ago, and that the danger posed in Afghanistan by groups like Al-Qaeda and the Daesh is at the moment primarily a regional threat. And FBI Director Christopher Wray said that though extremist groups have never stopped plotting attacks against the US, the FBI is better positioned to stop them.
Even so, the officials said, the collapse of the Afghanistan government and the potential ascendancy of foreign terror groups there could inspire Westerners to commit acts of violence. That’s on top of a domestic terrorism caseload that Wray said has “exploded” since the spring of 2020 from about 1,000 investigations to around 2,700.
“We are concerned that, with developments in Afghanistan — among other things — that there will be more inspiration to the first bucket,” Wray said of the international terrorism threat. “So I think we anticipate, unfortunately, growth in both categories as we look ahead over the next couple of years.”
US officials say they’re monitoring the situation in Afghanistan following the speedy Taliban blitz, particularly with an eye on how Al-Qaeda or IS could rebuild to the point of being able to conduct an attack targeting the US
“I think it is fair to assess that the development of those groups’ external operations capability, we’ve got to monitor and assess whether that’s going to happen faster than we had predicted otherwise,” Abizaid said. “Afghanistan is a very dynamic environment right now.”
Officials also defended the vetting process they have in place to screen the backgrounds of Afghanistan refugees seeking entry into the US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the number of refugees denied entry has been minimal because “we have not found many people with derogatory information relative to those who qualify for admission to the United States by reason of their status.”
“The (screening) architecture that has been built over 20 years since 9/11 remains in place and has only strengthened,” he said. “We have a screening and vetting architecture. We have greater cooperation among the federal agencies in the counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement communities. We remain ever vigilant in that regard.”


UK minister sorry over Afghan interpreters’ data breach

UK minister sorry over Afghan interpreters’ data breach
Updated 21 September 2021

UK minister sorry over Afghan interpreters’ data breach

UK minister sorry over Afghan interpreters’ data breach
  • British media reports said the people whose email addresses were distributed included some individuals who are in hiding from the Taliban
  • “On behalf of the Ministry of Defense, I apologize," Defense Minister Ben Wallace told Parliament

LONDON: Britain’s defense minister apologized and his ministry suspended an official Tuesday after a “significant” data breach involving the email addresses of dozens of Afghan interpreters hoping to settle in the UK
A Defense Ministry email to more than 250 Afghans who are eligible for relocation and still remain in Afghanistan was mistakenly copied to all applicants Monday instead of blind copied. British media reports said the people whose email addresses were distributed included some individuals who are in hiding from the Taliban.
“It is an unacceptable level of service that has let down the thousands of members of the armed forces and veterans. On behalf of the Ministry of Defense, I apologize,” Defense Minister Ben Wallace told Parliament.
Investigations are taking place, and officials will help provide security advice to those affected, Wallace added. He told lawmakers that authorities believe there are 900 “credible cases” of Afghan resettlement currently being processed.
The opposition Labour Party welcomed Wallace’s apology but said actions matter more than words.
“These Afghan interpreters worked alongside our British forces and the Government rightly pledged to protect them,” lawmaker John Healey said. “Ministers must make good on those promises now.”
Defense Committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood, who like Wallace is a member of the governing Conservative Party, said: “The Taliban haven’t changed, they seek to exact revenge on anybody that worked for NATO. We must get these interpreters out or they’ll be hunted and killed.”
Britain’s government dispatched over 1,000 soldiers, diplomats and officials to Afghanistan in August to evacuate some 15,000 British nationals and Afghan allies after the Taliban took control of the capital, Kabul.


Toxic gas, new rivers of molten lava endanger Spanish island

Toxic gas, new rivers of molten lava endanger Spanish island
Updated 21 September 2021

Toxic gas, new rivers of molten lava endanger Spanish island

Toxic gas, new rivers of molten lava endanger Spanish island
  • Several small earthquakes shook the island of La Palma in the Atlantic Ocean off northwest Africa on Tuesday
  • Authorities said the new fissure demonstrated that the area was unstable and unsafe, and kept people at least 2 kilometers away

EL PASO, Canary Islands: As a new volcanic vent blew open and unstoppable rivers of molten rock flowed toward the sea, authorities on a Spanish island warned Tuesday.
Also more dangers lie ahead for residents, including earthquakes, lava flows, toxic gases, volcanic ash and acid rain.
Several small earthquakes shook the island of La Palma in the Atlantic Ocean off northwest Africa on Tuesday, keeping nerves on edge after a volcanic eruption on Sunday. The island, with a population of 85,000, is part of the Canary Islands archipelago, a key tourist destination for Europeans.
Authorities said the new fissure demonstrated that the area was unstable and unsafe, and kept people at least 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) away.
The rivers of lava, up to six meters (nearly 20 feet) high, rolled down hillsides, burning and crushing everything in their path, as they gradually closed in on the island’s more densely populated coast. One was bearing down on Todoque, where more than 1,000 people live, and where emergency services were preparing evacuations.
So far, the eruption has destroyed around 190 houses and forced the evacuation of 6,000 people.
“The truth is that it’s a tragedy to see people losing their properties,” said municipal worker Fernando Díaz in the town of El Paso.
The lava’s advance has slowed to about 120 meters (400 feet) an hour, according to the head of the Canary Island Volcanic Emergency Plan, Miguel Ángel Morcuende, and wasn’t expected to reach the Atlantic Ocean before Wednesday.
Canary Islands government chief Ángel Víctor Torres said “when (the lava) reaches the sea, it will be a critical moment.”
The meeting of the lava, whose temperature exceeds 1,000 degrees Celsius (more than 1,800 F), with a body of water could cause explosions and produce clouds of toxic gas. Torres asked locals to remember the island’s last eruption in 1971, when one person died after inhaling the gas emitted as lava met the water.
A change in the wind direction blew the ashes from the volcano across a vast area on the western side of the island, with the black particles blanketing everything. Volcanic ash is an irritant for the eyes and lungs.
The volcano has also been spewing out between 8,000 and 10,500 tons of sulfur dioxide — which also affects the lungs — every day, the Volcanology Institute said.
Adding to the dangers, the emergence of new cracks in the earth spewing lava cannot be ruled out, said Nemesio Pérez, head of the Canary Islands Volcanology Institute, who noted there is “important superficial seismic activity in the area.”
The new fissure that appeared Monday night is 900 meters (3,000 feet) north of the Cumbre Vieja ridge, where the volcano first erupted Sunday after a week of thousands of small earthquakes. That earthquake swarm warned authorities that an eruption was likely and allowed many people to be evacuated, avoiding casualties.
The new fissure opened after what the Canary Islands Volcanology Institute said was a 3.8-magnitude quake.
Scientists say the lava flows could last for weeks or months.
Torres described the lava-hit region as a “catastrophe zone” and said he would request money to rebuild roads, water pipes and create temporary accommodations for families who have lost their homes as well as their farmland.
Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia are to visit the area on Thursday.


UK must save female Afghan judges, lawyers: Campaign

UK must save female Afghan judges, lawyers: Campaign
Updated 21 September 2021

UK must save female Afghan judges, lawyers: Campaign

UK must save female Afghan judges, lawyers: Campaign
  • #EvacuateHer appeal says women in hiding could face Taliban revenge attacks
  • Ex-judge: ‘Afghanistan is burning and all the women are on fire’

LONDON: A new appeal to provide support to female Afghan judges, lawyers and human rights activists has been launched by UK House of Lords member Helena Kennedy QC.

The #EvacuateHer campaign demands that the UK government provide urgent sanctuary to those groups and their families.

The UK’s Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy no longer includes judges in eligibility measures. 

The lobbying group includes several high-profile Afghan women who fled their country and are now based in the UK.

Over the past two decades, about 270 women have sat as judges in Afghanistan, and in their positions have presided over cases that human rights groups warn place them in immediate danger of Taliban “revenge” efforts.

Female Afghan judges have played a key role in changing legal norms in the war-torn country by freeing women from forced or abusive marriages, and protecting the right of girls and women to pursue education and jobs. 

Some have also been involved in the prosecution and imprisonment of Taliban and Daesh members. 

“It was not easy to become a female judge in Afghanistan. But now the Taliban have taken everything from us – our job, our family and our security,” one anonymous judge told The Guardian newspaper.

“I cannot sleep because I am not sure if I will be alive tomorrow. The Taliban can enter my house and kill me at any time.

“They believe it is against Islam for a woman to be a judge. I want the UK government to help us today. Tomorrow may be too late for us.”

Judge Anisa Dhanji, representing the International Association of Women Judges, said: “Our efforts are focused … on the judges who remain in Afghanistan and in trying to help to evacuate them, especially those who, because of their ethnicity, type of work or their individual profiles, are at exceptional risk.

“A group from the IAWJ board and other members have been working in shifts on these efforts for more than a month now. It has been extremely difficult, and often heartbreaking, when after days of intense efforts, hopes are dashed at the last minute, because of one obstacle or another.

“As women judges, they are at particular risk because they have had the temerity to sit in judgments on men. Judges have sent us specific details of the threats they have received, some to the effect that ‘now you have no power, and we will find you’.”

One woman taking part in the lobbying effort, 42-year-old Runna Alizoy, fled Afghanistan to the UK 19 years ago, but her older sister is a senior judge in Afghanistan and is now in hiding.

“It’s hard to put into words my grief for my sister,” she said. “The lives of female judges have been stolen. They say that the Taliban have changed — they have changed. Twenty years ago they whipped women in the street and sent them home. Now they shoot them and send them to their graves.”

Another member of the appeal, UK-based Marzia Babakarkhail — a former judge in Afghanistan who was threatened twice by the Taliban — said: “Afghanistan is burning and all the women are on fire.”