Thousands protest coronavirus lockdown in Sydney, several arrested

Thousands protest coronavirus lockdown in Sydney, several arrested
There was a heavy police presence in Sydney, including mounted police and riot officers in response to what authorities said was unauthorized protest activity. (AFP)
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Updated 24 July 2021

Thousands protest coronavirus lockdown in Sydney, several arrested

Thousands protest coronavirus lockdown in Sydney, several arrested
  • Greater Sydney has been locked down for the past four weeks, with residents only able to leave home with a reasonable excuse

SYDNEY: Thousands of people took to the streets of Sydney and other Australian cities on Saturday to protest lockdown restrictions amid another surge in cases, and police made several arrests after crowds broke through barriers and threw plastic bottles and plants.
The unmasked participants marched from Sydney’s Victoria Park to Town Hall in the central business district, carrying signs calling for “freedom” and “the truth.”
There was a heavy police presence in Sydney, including mounted police and riot officers in response to what authorities said was unauthorized protest activity. Police confirmed a number of arrests had been made.
New South Wales Police said it recognized and supported the rights of free speech and peaceful assembly, but the protest was a breach of public health orders.
“The priority for NSW Police is always the safety of the wider community,” a police statement said.
The protest comes as COVID-19 case numbers in the state reached another record with 163 new infections in the last 24 hours.
Greater Sydney has been locked down for the past four weeks, with residents only able to leave home with a reasonable excuse.
“We live in a democracy and normally I am certainly one who supports people’s rights to protest ... but at the present time we’ve got cases going through the roof and we have people thinking that’s OK to get out there and possibly be close to each other at a demonstration,” said state Health Minister Brad Hazzard.
In Melbourne, thousands of protesters without masks turned out downtown chanting “freedom.” Some of them lit flares as they gathered outside Victoria state’s Parliament House.
They held banners, including one that read: “This is not about a virus it’s about total government control of the people.”
A car protest rally is also planned in Adelaide, which is also under lockdown, with police warning they will make arrests over unlawful activity.


’Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy

’Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy
Updated 37 sec ago

’Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy

’Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy
  • China accounts for about half of Asia’s total and has increased defense spending every year for the last 26 years
  • But defense spending in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere is also gathering pace

SYDNEY, Australia: A quick barrage of missile tests and bumper defense deals in the Pacific have highlighted a regional arms race that is intensifying as the China-US rivalry grows.
“There’s a little frenzy in the Indo-Pacific of arming up,” said Yonsei University professor John Delury. “There’s a sense of everyone’s doing it.”
Within 24 hours this week, North Korea fired off two railway-borne weapons, South Korea successfully tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, and Australia announced the unprecedented purchase of state-of-the-art US nuclear-powered submarines and cruise missiles.
A remarkable flurry, but indicative of a region spending apace on the latest wonders of modern weaponry, experts say.
Last year alone, the Asia and Oceania region lavished more than half a trillion US dollars on its militaries, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“You’ve really seen an upward trend for the last 20 years,” the institute’s Lucie Beraud-Sudreau told AFP. “Asia is really the region where the uptick trend is the most noticeable.”
She points to a perfect storm of rapid economic growth — which puts more money in the government kitties — and changing “threat perceptions” in the region.

China accounts for about half of Asia’s total and has increased defense spending every year for the last 26 years, turning the People’s Liberation Army into a modern fighting force.
Beijing now spends an estimated $252 billion a year — up 76 percent since 2011 — allowing it to project power across the region and directly challenge US primacy.
But defense spending in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere is also gathering pace.
Michael Shoebridge, a former Australian defense intelligence official, now with the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, believes that spending is a direct reaction to China.
“The actual military competition is between China and other partners that are wanting to deter China from using force,” he said.
“That reaction has just grown, particularly since Xi (Jinping) has become leader. He’s clearly interested in using all the power that China gains fairly coercively and aggressively.”
Today around 20 percent of the region’s defense spending is on procurement, notably on maritime assets and long-range deterrence designed to convince Beijing — or any another adversary — that the cost of attack is too high.

File photo showing the USS Florida Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine launching a Tomahawk cruise missile during Giant Shadow in the waters off the coast of the Bahamas. (US Navy photo via AFP))

Shoebridge points to Australia’s landmark decision Thursday to acquire at least eight US nuclear-powered submarines and an unspecified number of Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“They’re all focused on raising the cost to China of engaging in military conflict. They’re a pretty effective counter to the kinds of capabilities the PLA has been building.”
But even South Korean spending “is as much driven by China as North Korea,” he said. “There’s no explanation for (Seoul’s decision to build) an aircraft carrier that involves North Korea.”
Similarly, “India’s military modernization is clearly driven by China’s growing military power,” Shoebridge added.
For its part China — fond of describing its relationship with the United States as “great power rivalry” — accuses the United States of fueling the arms race.
In the words of state-backed tabloid the Global Times, Washington is “hysterically polarizing its alliance system.”
If fear of China is the driving force behind regional defense spending, then the United States has appeared happy to speed the process along, actively helping regional allies to beef up.
As China and Japan were “blazing forward” with defense programs, Delury says Washington has been “aiding and abetting” allies “in the name of deterring China.”
“We’re not seeing arms control here, we’re seeing the opposite,” he said.


Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave

Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave
Updated 17 sec ago

Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave

Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave
  • Florida has the 11th worst per-capita death rate among the 50 states

MIAMI: Florida surpassed 50,000 coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began, health officials reported Thursday, with more than one fourth of those succumbing this summer as the state battled a fierce surge in infections fueled by the delta variant.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tallied 50,811 deaths after adding more than 1,500 COVID-19 deaths provided Thursday by the state’s health department. Those reported deaths occurred over various dates in recent weeks.
Florida has the 11th worst per-capita death rate among the 50 states, the CDC says. New Jersey, Mississippi and New York have had the worst, but Florida has risen from the 17th spot in the past two weeks.
Overall, about one in every 400 Florida residents who were alive in March 2020 has since died of COVID-19. Only cancer and heart disease have killed more Floridians during that period, according to state health department statistics. Those have each killed about 70,000 Floridians.
Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke somberly when asked about surpassing 50,000 COVID-19 deaths during a Fort Lauderdale news conference promoting the use of monoclonal antibodies, a treatment for people infected with the disease that reduces death and hospitalization if given early.
“It has been a really tough year and a half,” DeSantis said.
The Republican governor, who has advocated against mask and vaccine mandates, said the most recent wave, which began in June, has struck younger and healthier people. Numerous police officers and firefighters have died from the disease.
“It is affecting families in ways that we are not used to, so it has been really, really rough,” DeSantis said. Out of about 50 people present at the news conference, DeSantis was the only one who did not wear a mask when not speaking. He has promoted vaccination and has been inoculated, but did not receive his shot publicly as many elected officials did.
Epidemiologists say the state’s rates of vaccination outpaced the national average, but it was not enough to keep the highly contagious variant at bay because of its outsized population of elderly people and low vaccination rates among younger groups they interact with.
On a per-capita basis, rural and semi-rural counties in central and north Florida were hit the hardest. Most of those counties have vaccination rates that are at or below the statewide average of 63 percent of residents 12 and older. Florida counts someone as vaccinated if they have received at least one dose, even though both the Pfizer and Moderna versions both require two doses to be fully effective.
Monroe County, which consists mostly of the Florida Keys, has seen the fewest deaths per capita — one for every 1,115 residents and one of the highest vaccination rates. Another tourist mecca, Orange County, home to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, had the third-lowest per capita death count.
Alachua County, home to the University of Florida, and Leon County, home to the state capital Tallahassee and Florida State University, have been the second- and fourth-least deadly places.
Now, weeks since infections peaked, the state has seen steep drops in hospitalizations and infections. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals finally dropped below the 10,000 mark on Thursday with 9,917 patients, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. That number reached more than 17,000 COVID-19 people on Aug. 23.
The number of new cases per day is now averaging 12,200, down from 21,700 in mid August.
Deaths are expected to continue to climb for late August and early September because of the way they are logged in Florida and the lags in reporting.


France says Biden acted like Trump to sink Australia defense deal

France says Biden acted like Trump to sink Australia defense deal
Updated 13 min 21 sec ago

France says Biden acted like Trump to sink Australia defense deal

France says Biden acted like Trump to sink Australia defense deal
  • “It’s a stab in the back”: French FM Jean-Yves Le Drian
  • Diplomats say there have been concerns in recent months that Biden is not being forthright with his European allies

PARIS: France accused US President Joe Biden on Thursday of stabbing it in the back and acting like his predecessor Donald Trump after Paris was pushed aside from a historic defense export contract to supply Australia with submarines.

The United States, Britain and Australia announced they would establish a security partnership for the Indo-Pacific that will help Australia acquire US nuclear-powered submarines and scrap the $40 billion French-designed submarine deal.

“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr.Trump used to do,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told franceinfo radio. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”

It is the latest dramatic twist in a contest that has seen naval shipbuilding powers battle for years over what many observers called the world’s largest single arms export deal.

In 2016, Australia had selected French shipbuilder Naval Group to build a new submarine fleet worth $40 billion to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines.

Just two weeks ago, the Australian defense and foreign ministers had reconfirmed the deal to France, and French President Emmanuel Macron lauded decades of future cooperation when hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in June.

“It’s a stab in the back. We created a relationship of trust with Australia and that trust has been broken,” Le Drian said.

French relations with the United States soured during the presidency of Trump, who often irritated European allies by demanding they increase their defense spending to help NATO while reaching out to adversaries like Russia and North Korea.

Diplomats say there have been concerns in recent months that Biden is not being forthright with his European allies.

The French Embassy in Washington said it was canceling a gala event related to French-US ties on Friday following the day’s events.

France’s ties with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have also soured over the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Washington’s actions in Australia are likely to further strain transatlantic ties, political analysts said. The European Union was due to roll out its Indo-Pacific strategy on Thursday and Paris is poised to take on the EU presidency.

“This is a clap of thunder and for many in Paris a Trafalgar moment,” Bruno Tertrais, Deputy Director of the Paris-based think tank the Foundation of Strategic Research said on Twitter, referring to a French naval defeat in 1805 that was followed by a long period of British naval supremacy.

He said it would “complicate the transatlantic cooperation in and about the region. Beijing will benefit.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday said France was a “vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific region and that Washington would continue to cooperate with Paris, comments that appeared aimed at calming French anger.

Those comments are likely to fall on deaf ears in the immediate term.

A French official said they had not been informed of the deal until a few hours before it was announced and that Paris would not fooled by platitudes.

Morrison said Australia looked forward to continuing to work “closely and positively” with France, adding: “France is a key friend and partner to Australia and the Indo-Pacific.”

‘JAW-DROPPING’

It is the second setback to French defense exports in three months after Switzerland spurned Dassault’s Rafale to buy US-made Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters.

Analysts said the loss of the much bigger submarine contract was a significant blow to France, whose experienced arms sales machine had gone all out to wrest the submarine deal from likely winner Japan under then defense minister Le Drian in 2016.

Germany had also been in the race.

The 2016 win came a decade after France radically overhauled the way it handled arms sales following Paris’ embarrassment over the loss of a contest to sell fighters to Morocco.

Word of its cancelation dominated Europe’s largest arms fair in London where one delegate called it “jaw-dropping.”

France’s Thales, which analysts say stood to gain about $1 billion from sales of sonars and optronics — the eyes and ears of the French submarines — swiftly reassured investors its 2021 finances would not be hit.

But some analysts warned France’s furious reaction over the Australian contract could backfire and noted there had been reports of Australian doubts over the pace of implementation.

Thales, which owns 35 percent of Naval Group, remains Australia’s biggest local defense contractor through a subsidiary.

“Betrayal is the wrong language and hurts France’s position in Australia; it can poison the well,” said UK-based defense analyst Francis Tusa, adding France would now be more reliant on selling Rafales to secure its place in the global arms market.


British study to test mixed COVID-19 vaccine dose schedules in children

British study to test mixed COVID-19 vaccine dose schedules in children
Updated 17 September 2021

British study to test mixed COVID-19 vaccine dose schedules in children

British study to test mixed COVID-19 vaccine dose schedules in children
  • The study, called Com-COV3, will test different vaccine schedules in 12- to 16-year-olds, looking at the immune responses and milder side-effects

LONDON: A British study will look into the immune responses of children to mixed schedules of different COVID-19 vaccines as officials try to determine the best approach to second doses in adolescents given a small risk of heart inflammation.
Children aged 12-15 in Britain will be vaccinated from next week, while those aged 16-17 have been eligible for shots since August.
However, while the children will be offered a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, officials have said that advice about second doses will be given at a later date, while more data is gathered.
Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) initially declined to recommend shots for all 12- to 15-year-olds, citing uncertainty over the long-term impact of myocarditis, a rare side effect of mRNA-based vaccines such as Pfizer’s. The heart condition typically resolves itself with mild short-term consequences, health experts have said.
Hong Kong has advised children only get one shot, owing to similar concerns over heart inflammation.
The study, called Com-COV3, will test different vaccine schedules in 12- to 16-year-olds, looking at the immune responses and milder side-effects.
“The concern here is about the risks of myocarditis, particularly with the second dose with Pfizer vaccine in young men,” the trial’s lead researcher, Matthew Snape of the Oxford Vaccine Group, told reporters.
“This will provide the JCVI with information crucial to informing their advice about immunizing teenagers in the UK,” he said.
The trial will give all participants a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That will be followed eight weeks later by either a second full dose or a half dose of the Pfizer shot, a full dose of Novavax’s vaccine or a half dose of Moderna’s shot.
The trial is recruiting 360 volunteers, not large enough to directly assess the myocarditis risk of the different combinations, which Snape said was 1 in 15,000 after two doses of the Pfizer shot in young men.
But, he added, it “would be reassuring to see if there was a lower inflammatory response after one of these changes compared to Pfizer (followed by) Pfizer,” and that it might be “reasonable to infer that the risks of myocarditis might be lower” in such an instance.
Snape is running another arm of the trial in adults, giving mixed vaccine schedules both four and 12 weeks apart, and comparing the responses. He said the results of that would be coming “very shortly.”


Not gone yet: Angela Merkel to hang on as active caretaker

Not gone yet: Angela Merkel to hang on as active caretaker
Updated 16 September 2021

Not gone yet: Angela Merkel to hang on as active caretaker

Not gone yet: Angela Merkel to hang on as active caretaker
  • Germany votes in national election on Sept. 26

BERLIN: After 16 years in power, Chancellor Angela Merkel is not seeking reelection in Germany’s Sept. 26 election but she is anything but a lame duck.

The likelihood of protracted coalition talks after the vote means Merkel will not be leaving office any time soon and she fully intends to use her time after the election to press on with foreign policy initiatives, government officials say.

Under the German constitution, Merkel will remain chancellor until a majority of Bundestag lawmakers elects a successor, who is then sworn in.

There are no formal restrictions on her powers in this time, though Merkel is a consensus seeker and previous chancellors have not taken radical decisions during the window.

Ukraine and European Union climate talks are two issues in her sights.

“She will have to play an important role, because everybody in Berlin will be involved in the coalition talks,” a leading conservative in Berlin said of negotiations on the EU’s climate protection plans.

Armin Laschet, Merkel’s would-be conservative successor, and Greens co-leader Robert Habeck both expect coalition negotiations to run for the rest of the year. After the Sept. 24, 2017 election, they went on until the following March.

A fractured vote means coalition formation could be more complicated this time, meaning Merkel could easily surpass her former mentor, Helmut Kohl, as the longest-serving post-war chancellor — a record she would set on Dec. 17.

Such a scenario would give Merkel the chance to broker a new round of so-called “Normandy format” talks with Russia, Ukraine and France in an effort to quell the conflict in eastern Ukraine — negotiations she pushed for during a trip to Kyiv last month.

“I advocate working on having another meeting at the political leadership level with myself, the French president and of course the Russian and Ukrainian presidents,” she said during that trip, making clear this could happen after Sept. 26.

One person is especially nervous about her future role: French President Emmanuel Macron.

French diplomats say they are worried that coalition talks could drag on into the first half of next year, when Macron will need a strong German partner both to champion his European agenda during France’s rotating EU presidency and when he faces French presidential elections.

“In that case it would be even best for Macron if Merkel remained in office until the presidential election in April 2022,” said Claire Demesmay, France expert at the DGaP German Council on Foreign Relations.

 

Turbulent climate

Merkel and Macron’s governments have been scoping out what they can agree during the French EU presidency, and a productive tenure would boost Macron’s reelection chances, Demesmay said.

“It would be very bad for him if a new coalition were to form at the beginning of 2022 — because the German partner would then be largely absent for agreements,” she added.

Merkel has already indicated she will have a role to play beyond September in the EU’s climate protection plans, titled “Fit for 55.”

Saying tough negotiations on this could begin while a new German government was being formed and she was still acting chancellor, she said in July: “We want to make sure we have a good handover.”