New Zealand admits it can no longer get rid of coronavirus

New Zealand admits it can no longer get rid of coronavirus
The normally bustling High Street in Auckland's CBD is largely deserted during a lockdown to curb the spread of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Auckland, New Zealand, August 26, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 04 October 2021

New Zealand admits it can no longer get rid of coronavirus

New Zealand admits it can no longer get rid of coronavirus
  • New Zealand began its vaccination campaign slowly compared to most other developed nations

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand’s government acknowledged Monday what most other countries did long ago: It can no longer completely get rid of the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a cautious plan to ease lockdown restrictions in Auckland, despite an outbreak there that continues to simmer.
Since early in the pandemic, New Zealand had pursued an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the virus through strict lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing.
Until recently, that elimination strategy had worked remarkably well for the country of 5 million, which has reported just 27 virus deaths.
While other nations faced rising death tolls and disrupted lives, New Zealanders went back to workplaces, school yards and sports stadiums safe from any community spread.
But that all changed when the more contagious delta variant somehow escaped from a quarantine facility in August after it was brought into the country from a traveler returning from Australia.
Despite New Zealand going into the strictest form of lockdown after just a single local case was detected, it ultimately wasn’t enough to crush the outbreak entirely.
One factor may have been that the disease spread among some groups that are typically more wary of authorities, including gang members and homeless people living in transitional housing.
The outbreak has grown to more than 1,300 cases, with 29 more detected on Monday. A few cases have been found outside of Auckland.
Ardern said that seven weeks of lockdown restrictions in Auckland had helped keep the outbreak under control.
“For this outbreak, it’s clear that long periods of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases,” Ardern said. “But that is OK. Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things.”
New Zealand began its vaccination campaign slowly compared to most other developed nations. Rates rocketed in August after the outbreak began but have dropped off significantly again since then.
About 65 percent of New Zealanders have had at least one dose and 40 percent are fully vaccinated. Among people age 12 and older, about 79 percent have had at least a single jab.
Under Ardern’s plan that starts Tuesday, Aucklanders will be able to meet outdoors with loved ones from one other household, early childhood centers will reopen and people will be able to go to the beach.
The dates for a phased reopening of retail stores and later bars and restaurants have yet to be decided.
Ardern said the elimination strategy had served the country incredibly well but the government always intended to eventually transition to the protection of vaccines, a change hastened by the delta variant “game changer.”
The government’s elimination approach had been broadly supported by New Zealanders but was facing increasing criticism. Over the weekend, hundreds of people turned out to rallies protesting the lockdown.
Opposition lawmaker Chris Bishop said the government had no clear strategy to deal with the outbreak other than total surrender.
But Ardern said that most measures would remain in place to keep the outbreak under control, including exhaustive contact tracing and isolating those who got infected.
“There’s good cause for us to feel optimistic about the future,” Ardern said. “But we cannot rush.”


South Korea’s leader vows final push for talks with North

South Korea’s leader vows final push for talks with North
Updated 5 sec ago

South Korea’s leader vows final push for talks with North

South Korea’s leader vows final push for talks with North
  • Moon praised himself for paving the way for a peace process on the Korean Peninsula by holding three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
SEOUL, South Korea: South Korea’s president said Monday he’ll keep striving to promote peace with North Korea through dialogue until the end of his term next May, after Pyongyang raised animosities with a resumption of provocative weapons tests.
While launching a spate of newly developed weapons in recent weeks, North Korea has also slammed Washington and Seoul over what it calls hostility toward the North. Its actions indicate North Korea wants its rivals to ease economic sanctions against it and accept it as a legitimate nuclear state, experts say.
In his final policy speech at parliament, President Moon Jae-in said he’ll “make efforts to the end to help a new order for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula be established through dialogue and diplomacy.”
Moon, a champion of greater reconciliation with North Korea, once shuttled between Pyongyang and Washington to help facilitate now-stalled nuclear diplomacy between the two countries. Pyongyang turned a cold shoulder on Moon after its diplomacy with Washington broke down in early 2019 amid bickering over the sanctions.
Moon praised himself for paving the way for a peace process on the Korean Peninsula by holding three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and helping arrange the first-ever North Korea-US summit between Kim and then-President Donald Trump in 2018.
But Moon acknowledged his push for peace through dialogue remains “incomplete.”
Moon’s single five-year term ends next May, and he’s barred by law from seeking reelection. The presidential candidate of Moon’s ruling liberal party has unveiled a similar North Korea policy as Moon’s. Surveys indicate a neck-and-neck race with a potential conservative candidate, who will likely take a harder line on the North.
Moon’s appeasement policy on North Korea has been divisive, with his supporters call him a peace-making mediator while his opponents accused him of helping North Korea find ways to weaken international pressure and perfect its weapons systems.
The North Korean weapons systems tested recently are mostly short- and medium-range weapons that place South Korea and Japan within their striking ranges. Last Tuesday, North Korea fired a ballistic missile from a submarine in its most significant weapons test since President Joe Biden took office in January.
Some experts say North Korea may test a longer-range missile that could pose a direct threat to the American homeland to increase its pressure on Washington in coming weeks.
In part of his efforts to ease tensions, Moon has recently been pushing for a symbolic declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. When Moon meets Pope Francis at the Vatican this week during his European tour, they’ll discuss a possible North Korea trip by Francis as the pope has repeatedly expressed hopes to visit the North, according to Moon’s office.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Monday the government will make efforts to help realize Francis’ trip to North Korea if related talks have progress. Spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said a North Korea visit by the pope would make a big contribution to peace on the Korean Peninsula.

China warns of further spread in latest COVID-19 outbreak

China warns of further spread in latest COVID-19 outbreak
Updated 25 October 2021

China warns of further spread in latest COVID-19 outbreak

China warns of further spread in latest COVID-19 outbreak
  • China is giving booster shots to adults whose last dose was at least six months earlier, with priority groups including essential workers, older people and those with weaker immune systems

BEIJING: China’s latest COVID-19 outbreak is increasingly likely to spread further, a health official said on Sunday, as authorities urged all regions to step up monitoring and called for a reduction in travel across provinces.

China has largely contained the virus but it is determined to stamp out any sporadic local outbreaks, particularly in the run-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics in February.

More than 100 locally transmitted cases have been confirmed over the last week across 11 provincial areas, with most linked to 13 different tour groups.

There is increasing risk that the outbreak might spread further, helped by “seasonal factors,” said Mi Feng, spokesman at the National Health Commission.

The Delta variant causing the outbreak is also highly transmissible, said commission deputy director Wu Liangyou, adding that sequencing showed it to be different from the source of an earlier outbreak, and suggesting that the new cases came from a new source from abroad.

Authorities have banned travel agencies from arranging cross-provincial tours that involve regions deemed of higher virus risk, and has imposed nationwide suspension on some travel services linking multiple tourist attractions.

The capital Beijing has said it will impose strict restriction on travels to the city by people who have been to counties with at least one infection.

Health authorities also said on Sunday that about 75.6 percent of China’s population had received complete vaccine doses as of Oct. 23, or some 1.068 billion people.

China is giving booster shots to adults whose last dose was at least six months earlier, with priority groups including essential workers, older people and those with weaker immune systems.

Data showed antibodies elicited by vaccines, including the most-used shots from Sinovac and Sinopharm, declined within months.

Wang Huaqing, chief expert for the immunization program at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said China would not keep giving people booster shots indefinitely.

“Even if it needs to be strengthened later, the number of boosters is limited,” Wang told the briefing.

“We hope in the future there will be better vaccines and better vaccination procedures to achieve solid protection among the public.”


COVID-19 cases recorded in eastern Europe hit 20 million

COVID-19 cases recorded in eastern Europe hit 20 million
Updated 25 October 2021

COVID-19 cases recorded in eastern Europe hit 20 million

COVID-19 cases recorded in eastern Europe hit 20 million
  • Three of the top five countries reporting the most deaths in the world are in eastern Europe — Russia, Ukraine and Romania

LONDON: The number of coronavirus infections recorded so far in eastern Europe surpassed 20 million on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally, as the region grapples with its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and inoculation efforts lag.

Countries in the region have the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, with less than half of the population having received a single dose.

Hungary tops the region’s vaccination rates with 62 percent of its population having gotten at least one shot, whereas Ukraine has given just 19 percent of its residents a single dose, according to Our World in Data.

New infections in the region have steadily risen and now average over 83,700 new cases per day, the highest level since November last year, Reuters data through Friday showed.

Although it has just 4 percent of the world’s population, eastern Europe accounts for roughly 20 percent of all new cases reported globally.

According to a Reuters analysis, three of the top five countries reporting the most deaths in the world are in eastern Europe — Russia, Ukraine and Romania.

More social gathering indoors after the lifting of restrictions just as winter sets in is driving a rise in COVID-19 infections in many countries across Europe, the World Health Organization’s emergency director Mike Ryan said on Thursday.

As the wave of infections intensifies, many people in eastern Europe are torn between defiance and regret over not getting vaccinated.

Hundreds have protested in Sofia and other cities against mandatory certificates that came into force on Thursday, limiting access to many indoor public spaces to those who have been vaccinated.

A European Commission poll, the Eurobarometer, has shown that at least one person in three in most countries in the European Union’s east does not trust the health care system, compared to a bloc average of 18 percent.

More than 40 percent of all new cases reported in eastern Europe were in Russia, with 120 people testing positive every five minutes, according to a Reuters analysis. The country’s health care system is operating under great strain, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said on Wednesday.

The nation on Friday reported record COVID fatalities for the fourth straight day.

So far, Russia has vaccinated about 36 percent of its population with one vaccine shot.

Moscow, the country’s most populous city and capital, will next week shutdown all businesses except essential stores such as supermarkets and pharmacies to stem the spread of the disease.

Slovakia reported 3,480 new COVID-19 cases on Oct. 19, its highest daily tally since March, health ministry data showed Wednesday. The country has one of the lower vaccination rates in the EU, with just over half the adult population fully inoculated in the country of 5.5 million. This has contributed to a faster rise in infections than in some neighboring countries.

In Romania, hospitals are stretched to breaking point, with emergency beds fully occupied across the country.

Morgues were also running at full capacity. The country reported record numbers of daily coronavirus fatalities and infections on Tuesday.

The virus was killing one person every five minutes on average this month in a country where the inoculation rate is low.

Ukraine registered a record daily high of new coronavirus infections and related deaths for the second consecutive day on Friday.

It also extended a state of emergency that allows authorities to impose curbs until year-end to rein in infections.


Myanmar activist arrested in junta raid: Wife

Myanmar activist arrested in junta raid: Wife
Updated 25 October 2021

Myanmar activist arrested in junta raid: Wife

Myanmar activist arrested in junta raid: Wife
  • 52-year-old Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, was arrested when soldiers raided a housing complex in the North Dagon township of Yangon

BANGKOK: An activist who rose to prominence during Myanmar’s 1988 student uprising has been arrested in an overnight raid, his wife said Sunday, the latest blow to the anti-junta movement as the military cracks down on dissent.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the generals ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a February coup, triggering nationwide protests that have seen more than 1,100 people killed by security forces.

Junta opponents — including allies of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and activists — have gone into hiding across the country, while some villagers have taken up arms, forming local militias to defend themselves.

On Saturday evening, 52-year-old Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, was arrested when soldiers raided a housing complex in the North Dagon township of Yangon.

“He was staying in a safe house together with two other activists who escaped from the back door,” his wife Nilar Thein said, adding that police had not informed her of his whereabouts.

Nilar Thein and Ko Jimmy are part of the so-called 88 Generation movement that challenged Myanmar’s previous military government.

They also played a major role in anti-government protests in 2007 — nicknamed the “Saffron Revolution” for the participation of orange-robed monks.

The couple have been in and out of prison for their activism.

Ko Jimmy’s last stint behind bars was from 2007 to 2012. He was released as the generals loosened their grip to start opening up Myanmar in preparation for 2015 elections.

After the February 1 putsch this year, the junta issued an arrest warrant for him alleging that he had incited unrest with his social media posts. Another 88 Generation member, Ko Ko Gyi, confirmed Ko Jimmy’s arrest, expressing worry for him and his family.

While the couple are intimately aware of the risks of activism in Myanmar, Nilar Thein said the situation is “riskier” under the current regime, which has dubbed itself the State Administration Council.

“I am afraid that I won’t see him alive” again, she said, adding that she was afraid to go to the police for fear of her own arrest.

“I urge the international community to keep their eyes (on the situation) to save the lives of Myanmar people.” Groups including the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners — which tracks arrests under the regime — have alleged that torture has taken place during the interrogation of dissidents.

The UN special rapporteur on Myanmar on Saturday raised alarm about troops amassing in the country’s north, warning the international community to be prepared for “more mass atrocity crimes.”


Husband of detained Iranian-British woman on hunger strike

Husband of detained Iranian-British woman on hunger strike
Updated 24 October 2021

Husband of detained Iranian-British woman on hunger strike

Husband of detained Iranian-British woman on hunger strike
  • Richard Ratcliffe started his fast on Sunday outside the British government’s Foreign Office in central London
  • He plans to maintain a “constant vigil” by sleeping in a tent outside the building’s main entrance

LONDON: The husband of UK charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained more than five years in Iran, has gone on a hunger strike again after a court decided she has to spend another year in prison.
Richard Ratcliffe started his fast on Sunday outside the British government’s Foreign Office in central London.
He plans to maintain a “constant vigil” by sleeping in a tent outside the building’s main entrance in an effort to pressure Prime Minister Boris Johnson to secure the release of his wife and other detained dual British-Iranian nationals, Amnesty International said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe served five years in prison after being taken into custody at Tehran’s airport in April 2016 and convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny.
In May, she was sentenced to an additional year in prison on charges of spreading “propaganda against the system” for having participated in a protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009 — a decision upheld this month by an appeals court. The verdict includes a one-year travel ban, meaning she wouldn’t be able to leave Iran until 2023.
Ratcliffe went on a 15-day hunger strike two years ago outside the Iranian Embassy, a move he credits with getting their 7-year-old daughter Gabriella released.
“We are now giving the UK government the same treatment. In truth, I never expected to have to do a hunger strike twice. It is not a normal act,” Ratcliffe said on his change.org petition.
He said Iran remains the “primary abuser” in Nazanin’s case, but the “UK is also letting us down.”
“It is increasingly clear that Nazanin’s case could have been solved many months ago – but for other diplomatic agendas. The PM needs to take responsibility for that.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, and was arrested as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family. Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual-nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies.
Iran doesn’t recognize dual nationalities, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe can’t receive consular assistance.