Bangladesh schools reopen after 18-month COVID-19 shutdown

Bangladesh schools reopen after 18-month COVID-19 shutdown
Bangladesh’s schools resumption came after UNICEF warned that prolonged closures during the COVID-19 crisis were worsening inequities for millions of children across South Asia. (AFP)
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Updated 12 September 2021

Bangladesh schools reopen after 18-month COVID-19 shutdown

Bangladesh schools reopen after 18-month COVID-19 shutdown
  • In the capital Dhaka, students at one school were welcomed with flowers and sweets, and told to wear masks and sanitize their hands

DHAKA: Children in Bangladesh flooded back into classrooms on Sunday as schools reopened after 18 months, one of the world’s longest coronavirus shutdowns.
The resumption came after UNICEF warned that prolonged school closures during the COVID-19 crisis were worsening inequities for millions of children across South Asia.
In the capital Dhaka, students at one school were welcomed with flowers and sweets, and told to wear masks and sanitize their hands. Some hugged each other in excitement.
“We are really excited to be back at school,” 15-year-old Muntasir Ahmed said as he entered the campus.
“I am hoping to physically see all of my friends and teachers, not through a laptop window today.”
At the gate, school officials checked the body temperatures of students before allowing them to enter.
The school’s vice principal, Dewan Tamziduzzaman, said he “didn’t expect such a big number to be turning up on the first day.”
Only 41 percent of Bangladesh’s 169 million population have smartphones, according to the country’s telecom operators’ association, which means millions of children cannot access online classes.
Even with smartphones, students in many of Bangladesh’s rural districts do not have the high-speed Internet access usually required for e-learning.
UNICEF warned in a report released Thursday that the pandemic has accentuated “alarming inequities” for more than 430 million children in the region.
“School closures in South Asia have forced hundreds of millions of children and their teachers to transition to remote learning in a region with low connectivity and device affordability,” UNICEF’s regional director, George Laryea-Adjei, said in a statement.
“As a result, children have suffered enormous setbacks in their learning journey.”
In India, 80 percent of children aged 14-18 years said they learnt less than when they were in a physical classroom, according to UNICEF.
Among children aged between six and 13 years, 42 percent said they had no access to remote learning.
“Their future is at stake,” Deepu Singh, a farmer in India’s Jharkhand state, said last week of his children aged nine and 10.
The pair have not been to school in a year and have no Internet access at home, Singh said, adding: “I do not know English. I cannot help him (my son), even if I want to.”
Students in the rest of the region were similarly impacted, UNICEF reported.
In Pakistan, 23 percent of young children had no access to any device for remote learning.
Some towns in Nepal have been broadcasting radio lessons due to the lack of Internet access.
“We are (in) a dangerous situation,” Nepalese schoolteacher Rajani K.C. said last week.
“If the pandemic continues and the academic sector loses more years, what kind of human resource will the country have in the future?”


West braces for Turkey’s possible expulsion of 10 envoys

West braces for Turkey’s possible expulsion of 10 envoys
Updated 59 min 55 sec ago

West braces for Turkey’s possible expulsion of 10 envoys

West braces for Turkey’s possible expulsion of 10 envoys
  • The expulsions are a response to a joint statement calling on Erdogan to release a detained philanthropist
  • Erdogan’s rule has been punctuated by a series of crises and then rapprochements with the West

ANKARA: Turkey’s relations with Western allies edged Monday toward their deepest crisis of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 19-year rule, as world capitals braced for Ankara’s possible expulsion of ambassadors from the US and nine other countries.
The lira broke through historic lows ahead of a cabinet meeting that could prove fateful to Turkey’s economic and diplomatic standing for the coming months — and some analysts fear years.
The cabinet session will address Erdogan’s decision Saturday to declare the Western envoys “persona non grata” for their joint statement in support of jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala.
Expulsion orders are officially issued by foreign ministries and none of the Western capitals had reported receiving any by Monday.
Some analysts said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and a few other cabinet members were still trying to talk Erdogan out of following through on his threat and to change his mind.
But the Turkish lira — a gauge of both investor confidence and political stability — lost more than one percent in value on fears of an effective break in Ankara’s relations with its main allies and most important trading partners.
“Typically, the countries whose ambassadors have been kicked out retaliate with tit-for-tat expulsions, potentially in a coordinated manner,” Eurasia Group’s Europe director Emre Peker said.
“Restoring high-level diplomatic relations after such a spat would prove challenging.”
The crisis started when the embassies of the United States, Germany, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden issued a highly unusual statement last Monday calling for Kavala’s release.
The 64-year-old civil society leader and businessman has been in jail without a conviction for four years.
Supporters view Kavala as an innocent symbol of the growing intolerance of political dissent Erdogan developed after surviving a failed military putsch in 2016.
But Erdogan accuses Kavala of financing a wave of 2013 anti-government protests and then playing a role in the coup attempt.
The diplomatic escalation comes as Erdogan faces falling domestic approval numbers and a brewing economic crisis that has seen life turn more painful for ordinary Turks.
Main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan of trying to artificially deflect attention from Turkey’s economic woes ahead of a general election due by June 2023.
“These actions are not to protect the national interests, it’s an attempt to create false justifications for the economy that he has destroyed,” Kilicdaroglu tweeted on Saturday.
Erdogan’s rule as prime minister and president has been punctuated by a series of crises and then rapprochements with the West.
But analysts believe his latest actions could open up the deepest and most lasting rift to date.
They could also cast a pall over a G20 meeting in Rome this weekend at which Erdogan had expected to discuss with US President Joe Biden his hopes of buying a large batch of US fighter planes.
Erdogan this month further threatened to launch a new military campaign in Syria and orchestrated changes at the central bank that infuriated investors and saw the lira accelerate its record slide.
A dollar now buys about 9.75 liras. The exchange rate stood at less than 7.4 liras at the start of the year — and at 3.5 liras in 2017.
“I am really sad for my country,” Istanbul law office worker Gulseren Pilat said as the country awaited Erdogan’s next move.
“I really hope that it will not be as bad as we fear,” said Pilat. “But I am convinced that even more difficult days await us.”


Turkey’s financial problems have been accompanied by an unusual spike in dissent from the country’s business community.
The Turkish Industry and Business Association issued a veiled swipe at Erdogan last week by urging the government to focus on stabilising the lira and bring the annual inflation rate — now at almost 20 percent — under control.
But some analysts pointed out that some European powers — including fellow NATO member Britain — refrained from joining the Western call for Kavala’s release.
“The conspicuous absence of the UK, Spain, and Italy... is telling, pointing at the emergence of a sub-group within the Western family of nations adept at skipping confrontation with Ankara,” political analyst Soner Cagaptay wrote.


Greenhouse gas levels reach new record high: UN

Greenhouse gas levels reach new record high: UN
Updated 25 October 2021

Greenhouse gas levels reach new record high: UN

Greenhouse gas levels reach new record high: UN
  • The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin said the annual rate of increase last year was above the annual average between 2011 and 2020

GENEVA: Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere reached new record levels last year, the United Nations said Monday in a stark warning to the COP26 summit about worsening global warming.
The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, from the UN’s World Meteorological Organization, said the annual rate of increase last year was above the annual average between 2011 and 2020 — and the trend continued in 2021.


More than half of Afghans face ‘acute’ food shortage: UN agencies

More than half of Afghans face ‘acute’ food shortage: UN agencies
Updated 25 October 2021

More than half of Afghans face ‘acute’ food shortage: UN agencies

More than half of Afghans face ‘acute’ food shortage: UN agencies
  • More than 22 million Afghans will suffer “acute food insecurity” this winter, UN agencies said Monday

KABUL: More than 22 million Afghans will suffer “acute food insecurity” this winter, UN agencies said Monday, warning the already unstable country faces one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
“This winter, millions of Afghans will be forced to choose between migration and starvation unless we can step up our life-saving assistance,” said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme.


Amnesty International to close Hong Kong offices this year

Amnesty International to close Hong Kong offices this year
Updated 25 October 2021

Amnesty International to close Hong Kong offices this year

Amnesty International to close Hong Kong offices this year
  • Hong Kong implemented a sweeping national security law in 2020 following months of massive anti-government protests
  • Critics in Hong Kong say the national security law is an erosion of freedoms, such as those of expression and assembly

HONG KONG: Amnesty International said Monday it would close its two offices in Hong Kong this year, becoming the latest non-governmental organization to cease its operations amid a crackdown on political dissent in the city.
The human rights group said its local office in Hong Kong would close this month while its regional office will close by the end of the year, with regional operations moved to other offices in the Asia-Pacific region.
“This decision, made with a heavy heart, has been driven by Hong Kong’s national security law, which has made it effectively impossible for human rights organizations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s board, said in a statement.
Hong Kong implemented a sweeping national security law in 2020 following months of massive anti-government protests. The law outlaws secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and foreign collusion to intervene in the city’s affairs. More than 120 people, many of them supporters of the city’s democracy movement, have been arrested under the law.
The majority of the city’s prominent pro-democracy activists are behind bars for taking part in unauthorized assemblies, and dozens of political organizations and trade unions have ceased operations out of concern for their members’ personal safety under the security law.
Bais said the recent targeting of local human rights and trade union groups signaled authorities were intensifying their campaign to rid the city of dissenting voices. “It is increasingly difficult for us to keep operating in such an unstable environment,” she said.
Critics in Hong Kong say the national security law is an erosion of freedoms, such as those of expression and assembly, that were promised the city for 50 years when the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997.


Indonesia’s Widodo calls for ASEAN travel corridor to bolster recovery

Indonesia’s Widodo calls for ASEAN travel corridor to bolster recovery
Updated 25 October 2021

Indonesia’s Widodo calls for ASEAN travel corridor to bolster recovery

Indonesia’s Widodo calls for ASEAN travel corridor to bolster recovery
  • Level of coronavirus restrictions in Southeast Asia is the highest in the world
  • Intra-ASEAN travel typically accounts for around 40 percent of travel in the region and is key to reviving tourism in the region

KUALA LUMPUR: Indonesian President Joko Widodo has urged Southeast Asian countries to speed up plans to create a regional travel corridor to help revive tourism and speed up a recovery from the economic damage of the pandemic.
Citing UN and World Trade Organization data, Widodo said Monday that the level of restrictions in Southeast Asia was the highest in the world. With coronavirus cases in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations now declining, those limits should be eased to allow people to travel more freely, he said.
Speaking at a regional business forum Widodo urged immediate adoption of a regional travel corridor, a concept initiated by Indonesia in 2020, that would include faster immigration lanes, recognition of vaccine certificates and standardized health measures for departure and arrival, among other things.
“After 20 months of facing the daunting COVID-19 pandemic, we now see a light of hope. In the past week, COVID-19 cases in ASEAN fell by 14 percent, far exceeding the global average, which fell by 1 percent.,” he told the forum organized ahead of a three-day ASEAN leaders summit, which starts Tuesday.
“With the COVID-19 situation getting more under control, these restrictions could be eased, mobility could be relaxed, while also ensuring that it’s safe from the risk of the pandemic,” he said.
“If all ASEAN countries immediately facilitate the safe mobility of people, the wheels of economy shall soon run again,” he said.
Intra-ASEAN travel typically accounts for around 40 percent of travel in the region and is key to reviving tourism in the region.
Some countries, including Thailand, are cautiously moving to reopen to international tourism.
Indonesia re-opened its holiday resort island of Bali to foreign tourists this month after more than 80 percent of its population was fully vaccinated. Widodo said the government will gradually open up other areas in the country where vaccination rate exceeds 70 percent. Indonesia so far has fully vaccinated about a quarter of its people.
Widodo called for more equal distribution of vaccines to ensure that at least 70 percent of ASEAN’s more than 600 million people are inoculated. Vaccination is uneven in the region, with Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia moving the fastest with over 70 percent of their population inoculated and Myanmar at the bottom with less than 10 percent vaccinated.
Widodo said ASEAN, as the region with the fastest growth in Internet use in the world, should also expand its digital economy for future growth. The value of Indonesia’s digital economy value is expected to reach $124 billion in 2025 or equivalent to 40 percent of the total value of Southeast Asia’s digital economy, he said.
“Our rapid steps together in handling health challenges, reactivation of safe travels, as well as acceleration of a fair digital economy, will become our common gateway to recover and advance together,” he added.
ASEAN leaders will hold a three-day annual summit from Tuesday. Myanmar’s top general, whose forces seized power in February, was not invited after failing to take steps to end the deadly violence that followed the military takeover.