Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots

Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots
Time limits for outdoor exercise were lifted in Sydney, while fully vaccinated people can gather outside in groups of five. (AP)
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Updated 20 September 2021

Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots

Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots
  • Nearly half of Australia’s 25 million people is in lockdown after the Delta variant spread rapidly in Sydney and Melbourne

SYDNEY: Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) state on Monday reported its lowest rise in daily COVID-19 cases in more than three weeks as some lockdown restrictions were eased in Sydney, the state capital, amid higher vaccination levels.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said 935 new cases had been detected in the state, the lowest daily tally since Aug. 27, and down from 1,083 on Sunday. The state reported four more deaths.
“We’re feeling more positive than we have in a couple of weeks ... but I don’t want any of us to sit back and think the worst is behind us,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney, warning of more deaths in the days ahead.
“Because we have seen the accumulation of so many cases, we know that October is going to be very challenging for our hospital system.”
Nearly half of Australia’s 25 million people is in lockdown after the Delta variant spread rapidly in Sydney and Melbourne, its largest cities, forcing officials there to abandon a COVID-zero target and shift to rapid vaccinations to ease curbs.
As the vaccine rollout gathers speed, with 53 percent of NSW’s adult population fully vaccinated, some restrictions were relaxed on Monday in 12 of the worst-hit suburbs in Sydney’s west. Time limits for outdoor exercise were lifted, while fully vaccinated people can gather outside in groups of five.
Neighboring Victoria state, which includes Melbourne, logged one new death and 567 new infections, its biggest daily rise this year, a day after revealing its roadmap back to freedom when vaccinations reach 70 percent, expected around Oct. 26.
So far, 44 percent of people in the state have been fully vaccinated, below the national average of 47 percent.
Meanwhile, several workers protested outside a union office in Melbourne against Victoria’s mandatory vaccination rule in the construction sector, local media reported.
The New Zealand Breakers basketball team, which play in Australia’s National Basketball League, released guard Tai Webster on Monday after he decided not to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Australia has largely lived in COVID-zero for much of the pandemic, recording 1,167 deaths and some 87,000 cases. About 56,000 cases have been registered since mid-June when the first Delta infection was detected in Sydney.
While NSW and Victoria bear the brunt of the Delta outbreak, most other states with little or no community transmission fear opening up too soon could overwhelm their hospital systems.


Husband of UK-Iranian held in Iran starts hunger strike

Husband of UK-Iranian held in Iran starts hunger strike
Updated 5 sec ago

Husband of UK-Iranian held in Iran starts hunger strike

Husband of UK-Iranian held in Iran starts hunger strike
  • Tehran ‘remains the primary abuser in Nazanin’s case,’ but ‘the UK is also letting us down,’ Richard Ratcliffe said said.
  • Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained in Iran since 2016, accused of spying on the state

LONDON: The husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British Iranian held in Iran since 2016, began a hunger strike Sunday to denounce the British government for “also letting us down” and failing to secure her release.
Richard Ratcliffe plans to spend the night in a tent outside the Foreign Office, a week after his wife lost her appeal on a second jail term in Iran.
In an online petition with more than 3.5 million signatures, Ratcliffe said he began his hunger strike, his second since 2018, to force Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government to “take responsibility” for his wife’s fate.
Tehran “remains the primary abuser in Nazanin’s case,” but “the UK is also letting us down,” he said.
“Two years ago I went on hunger strike in front of the Iranian Embassy, on the eve of Boris Johnson taking over as Prime Minister,” Ratcliffe wrote.
“Two years ago we were allowed to camp in front of the Iranian Embassy for 15 days, much to their considerable anger,” he said.
“But it got Gabriella home,” he said, referring to the couple’s now seven-year-old daughter who had originally traveled to Iran with her mother.
“We are now giving the UK government the same treatment,” he said.
“In truth, I never expected to have to do a hunger strike twice. It is not a normal act,” Ratcliffe said.
“It seems extraordinary the need to adopt the same tactics to persuade government here, to cut through the accountability gap.
“It is increasingly clear that Nazanin’s case could have been solved many months ago, but for other diplomatic agendas,” he said.
“The PM (Johnson) needs to take responsibility for that. Who does the Government answer to for the choices it makes? Who takes responsibility?“
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 43-year-old project manager, who lived in London with her husband and daughter, has been held in Iran since 2016 and served a five-year sentence.
In late April, she was sentenced to another year’s imprisonment and banned from leaving the country for a further 12 months.
Her family fears she will soon return to prison, which she had been allowed to leave with an electronic bracelet in March 2020 amid Covid-19 concerns.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe is one of a number of Western passport holders being held by Iran in what rights groups condemn as a policy of hostage-taking aimed at winning concessions from foreign powers.
The project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the news agency and data firm’s philanthropic arm, was arrested in April 2016 while visiting family.
She was convicted of plotting to overthrow the regime, a charge she strenuously denied.
She completed that sentence in March this year, only to be slapped with a fresh one-year jail term for “propaganda against the system.”
The UK’s then-foreign minister Dominic Raab condemned the second sentence, saying that Iran’s treatment of Zaghari-Ratcliffe amounted to torture and she was being held unlawfully.


West braces for Turkey’s possible expulsion of 10 envoys

West braces for Turkey’s possible expulsion of 10 envoys
Updated 9 min 59 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 53 min 55 sec ago

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.