McSurgery: An Indian hospital restoring eyesight to millions

McSurgery: An Indian hospital restoring eyesight to millions
In this photo taken on September 27, 2021, a medical staff helps patient Venkatachalam Rajangam after his free cataract eye surgery was conducted at Aravind eye hospital in Madurai in India's Tamil Nadu state. (AFP)
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Updated 14 October 2021

McSurgery: An Indian hospital restoring eyesight to millions

McSurgery: An Indian hospital restoring eyesight to millions
  • There are an estimated 10 million blind people in India, with a further 50 million suffering from some form of visual impairment

MADURAI, India: Black ticks on their foreheads marking the eye to be operated on, dozens of patients in green overalls wait in line, beneficiaries of a pioneering Indian model that is restoring sight to millions.
With a highly efficient assembly line model inspired by McDonald's, the network of hospitals of the Aravind Eye Care System performs around 500,000 surgeries a year -- many for free.
More than a quarter of the world's population, some 2.2 billion people, suffer from vision impairment. Of which one billion cases could have been prevented or have been left unaddressed, according to the World Vision Report by the World Health Organization.
There are an estimated 10 million blind people in India, with a further 50 million suffering from some form of visual impairment. Cataracts -- clouding of the eye lens -- is the main cause.
"The bulk of this blindness is not necessary because a lot of it is due to cataract which can be easily set right through a simple surgery," said Thulasiraj Ravilla, one of the founding members of Aravind.
The hospital was set up by doctor Govindappa Venkataswamy who was inspired by McDonald's ex-CEO Roy Kroc and learned about the fast-food chain's economies of scale during a visit to the Hamburger University in Chicago.
"If McDonald's can do it for hamburgers, why can't we do it for eye care?" he famously said.
Aravind started as an 11-bed facility in 1976 in Madurai, a city in the southern state of Tamil Nadu but has expanded to care centres and community clinics across India.
The model has been so successful it has been the subject of numerous studies including by Harvard Business School.
But it is the outreach camps which have been the cornerstone of its no-frills high-volume work -- nearly 70 percent of India's population lives in rural areas.
"It is the access that is the main concern, so we are taking the treatment to people rather than waiting for them to come for us," Ravilla told AFP.
The free eye camps are a boon for those like Venkatachalam Rajangam who received care close to home.
Rajangam said he had to stop working because he was unable to see the money customers at his provisions store gave him, and also stumbled on the stairs or when out after dark.
The 64-year-old found out about a camp next to his village in Kadukarai, some 240 kilometres (150 miles) from Madurai, where doctors screened his eyes and detected a cataract in the left one.
Rajangam was taken in a bus with some 100 others to a shelter run by the hospital, which also provides basic meals and mats to sleep on free of charge, and underwent a procedure to remove the cataract.
"I thought the operation would be for an hour but within 15 minutes everything was over. But it didn't feel rushed. The procedure was done properly," Rajangam said after the bandage roll covering his eye was removed.
"I didn't have to spend even a penny... God has created eyes, but they are the ones who restored my eyesight," he gushed, clasping his hands in gratitude.
Aravind eye surgeon Aruna Pai said the doctors receive rigorous training to make sure they can perform surgeries quickly.
The complication rate is less than two per 10,000 at Aravind compared to Britain or the United States where it ranges from 4-8 per 10,000, according to the hospital.
"We have wet labs where we are taught to operate on goats' eyeballs. This helps us to sharpen our skills," said Pai, who performs some 100 surgeries in a day.
Aravind said it does not take charity money but instead uses the revenue generated from paying customers to help cover the cost of those who need free treatment.
It reduces costs further by manufacturing lenses for cataract treatment at its own facility called Aurolab.
Aurolab currently produces more than 2.5 million of these lenses a year at a sixth of the cost of those previously imported from the US, the hospital said.
Rajib Dasgupta, a community health expert based in New Delhi, lauded the clinics: "The Aravind model has emerged as an important one in blindness prevention."
But he warned that India still needed to look at root causes -- including diet, hygiene, and sanitation -- that could help avoid preventable blindness.
Dasgupta warned: "The communicable causes of blindness due to infectious conditions still exist and remain significant challenges."


UK knew last year Taliban would seize Afghanistan: Official

UK knew last year Taliban would seize Afghanistan: Official
Updated 21 sec ago

UK knew last year Taliban would seize Afghanistan: Official

UK knew last year Taliban would seize Afghanistan: Official
  • London only miscalculated how long it would take: National security adviser
  • Stephen Lovegrove: ‘We certainly did not have the speed of the collapse as the central scenario, in fact nobody did’

LONDON: Britain expected Afghanistan to fall to the Taliban from the moment the US signed its withdrawal deal with the group 18 months ago, a senior official has admitted.

Stephen Lovegrove, the UK’s national security adviser, told a parliamentary committee that the government only miscalculated how long it would take for the group to retake Afghanistan.

“There was a central assessment that ultimately what would happen would be that there would be a government which is either entirely Taliban or dominated by the Taliban,” Lovegrove told a joint committee convened to examine claims that the government failed to heed warnings by the British ambassador about the group’s advances.

“We thought that there was a considerably lower likelihood — though not negligible likelihood — of civil war,” said Lovegrove. 

“But when we were thinking about the Taliban-dominated government and how quickly that would come to pass, we certainly did not have the speed of the collapse as the central scenario, in fact nobody did. The Taliban didn’t, the Afghan government didn’t, the Americans didn’t.”

The rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban this year appeared to catch world powers off guard.

But Lovegrove’s admission is the first time a British official has acknowledged that the UK acted in expectation of a Taliban takeover, rather than their entry into a democratic or power-sharing government.

World powers are still coming to terms with Afghanistan’s new government, and most have not yet recognized the Taliban as the official rulers of the country.


Baku frees Iranian truck drivers as ties thaw with Tehran

Baku frees Iranian truck drivers as ties thaw with Tehran
Updated 6 min 35 sec ago

Baku frees Iranian truck drivers as ties thaw with Tehran

Baku frees Iranian truck drivers as ties thaw with Tehran
  • Standoff between the countries was sparked by allegations from Tehran that its sworn enemy Israel maintained a military presence in Azerbaijan

BAKU: Azerbaijan released Thursday two Iranian truck drivers whose arrest last month on charges of illegally crossing into the country strained ties between Baku and Tehran.
The move marks a thaw between Azerbaijan and Iran a week after their foreign ministers agreed to resolve a crisis in ties through dialogue.
Azerbaijan’s customs department said Thursday it had handed over the drivers to the Iranian side in a decision “guided by principles of humanitarianism, mutual respect and good neighborliness.”
The standoff between the countries was sparked by allegations from Tehran that its sworn enemy Israel maintained a military presence in Azerbaijan. Baku denied the claims.
Iran vowed to take any necessary action and staged military drills near its border with Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov spoke last week by phone with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and the pair agreed to resolve differences through dialogue.
Israel is a major arms supplier to Azerbaijan, which late last year won a six-week war with neighbor Armenia for control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan and Iran have long been at loggerheads over Tehran’s backing of Armenia in the decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The war last year ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire that saw Armenia cede swathes of territory — including a section of Azerbaijan’s 700-kilometer (430-mile) border with Iran.
Baku said the drivers entered Azerbaijan through that territory, bypassing border control to avoid customs duties it had imposed recently — to Iran’s fury — on cargo transit to Armenia.
Tehran has long been wary of separatist sentiment among its ethnic Azeri minority, who make up around 10 million of Iran’s 83 million population.


Malaysia urges ASEAN ‘soul-searching’ on non-interference

Malaysia urges ASEAN ‘soul-searching’ on non-interference
Updated 54 min 12 sec ago

Malaysia urges ASEAN ‘soul-searching’ on non-interference

Malaysia urges ASEAN ‘soul-searching’ on non-interference
  • Myanmar accused the bloc of violating its decades-old policy of not meddling in each others’ domestic affairs
  • Myanmar has been a thorn in ASEAN’s side since it joined in 1997

SINGAPORE: Southeast Asia’s regional bloc should do some “soul-searching” on its policy of not interfering in members’ internal affairs to deal effectively with issues like the Myanmar crisis, Malaysia said Thursday.
The comments came after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last week excluded Myanmar’s junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from a forthcoming leaders’ summit, a rare rebuke.
The junta has been accused of failing to stick to a roadmap drawn up with ASEAN aimed at defusing the bloody crisis that erupted after a February coup.
Following the snub, Myanmar accused the bloc of violating its decades-old policy of not meddling in each others’ domestic affairs — which critics say has made the grouping toothless.
Saifuddin Abdullah, foreign minister of member state Malaysia, said he understood that the policy is “almost sacrosanct” in ASEAN and had been “useful and practical” in the past.
“But when we are faced with situations like the one that is currently occurring in Myanmar, then perhaps ASEAN should actually do some soul-searching,” he said at a virtual dialogue on human rights in Myanmar.
“As much as the issue in Myanmar is local and national ... it has impact on the region and we should also recognize the concerns of the other nine member states,” he said.
The junta leader was excluded after authorities refused to allow an ASEAN special envoy to meet with ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar, mostly ruled by the military since a 1962 coup, has been a thorn in ASEAN’s side since it joined in 1997.
Elections in 2015 overwhelmingly won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party ushered in the start of civilian rule — but this was cut short by the most recent coup.
The Southeast Asian bloc has been under international pressure to address unrest and the junta’s brutal crackdown on dissent.
Diplomatic sources said key ASEAN members like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore pushed for tough action to stop the group’s credibility being tarnished.


Melbourne eases months-long COVID-19 lockdown restrictions

Melbourne eases months-long COVID-19 lockdown restrictions
Updated 21 October 2021

Melbourne eases months-long COVID-19 lockdown restrictions

Melbourne eases months-long COVID-19 lockdown restrictions
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday confirmed the state had reached that target, with more restrictions set to ease as inoculations hit 80% and 90%

MELBOURNE: One of the world’s most locked-down cities will reopen late Thursday, with Melbourne residents hoping this sixth bout of stay-at-home restrictions will be their last.

Five million people in Australia’s second-biggest city have endured lockdowns totalling more than 260 days since the beginning of the pandemic.

But now that 70 percent of eligible people in Melbourne and surrounding Victoria state are fully vaccinated, restrictions that began on August 5 will be lifted.

“When the clock strikes midnight tonight, the lockdown is over,” state deputy premier James Merlino said, hailing the state’s “extraordinary efforts.”

“I hope everyone enjoys those first reunions with their families, the first footy, netball, cricket training with the kids, the first pot and parma (beer and chicken parmesan) at the pub.”

Half a dozen lockdowns have taken their toll on the once-buzzing city, which prided itself on a vibrant arts scene and cafe culture.

In 2021, it lost the mantle of Australia’s most liveable city amid violent anti-lockdown protests and a small exodus of residents to Covid-free regional towns.

Authorities on Thursday announced a fresh boost to mental health funding and services, in a nod to the burden placed on Melbourne residents.

Multiple studies have found elevated levels of psychological distress during the pandemic, official government research shows.

David Malaspina, owner of loved Melbourne eatery Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, said lingering Covid-safe rules were “exceptionally challenging” but he was excited to welcome back customers.

“Our city’s great because of the people that are here. We would like to see our people back,” he said.

While fully vaccinated Melbourne residents will enjoy increased freedoms from midnight, they cannot leave the city and retail shops must remain closed until the double-dose rate lifts to 80 percent — likely within weeks.

Limits on patrons at cafes, bars and restaurants will remain in place, squeezing business owners who are also grappling with staff shortages caused by international border closures.

Australia’s ABC News reported on Thursday that Victoria will also lift quarantine requirements for international travelers at the end of the month. Sydney and surrounding New South Wales state are also set to scrap the requirements on November 1.

While varying rules make it difficult to directly compare lockdowns — Toronto eateries were reportedly closed to diners for more than 360 days while Buenos Aires was under harsh restrictions for much of 2020 — Melbourne has spent among the most days under stay-at-home orders.

Praising the reopening as well as Australia’s soaring vaccination rates, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared “victory is in sight” in what he described as the “battle of our generation.”

“You’re about to start reclaiming your lives,” he wrote in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper.

“It’s a new chapter, as you begin to open up safely. And stay safely open.”

Australia so far has been spared the worst of the pandemic, recording about 150,000 cases and 1,500 deaths in a population of 25 million.

Authorities in Victoria have warned hospitals will likely come under “intense pressure” as a result of the decision to reopen even as Covid surges there, with 2,200 new cases recorded Wednesday.

But after pursuing “Covid zero” for much of the pandemic, Melbourne has followed Sydney’s lead in abandoning the strategy after failing to contain the highly infectious Delta variant.

Tony Kay, owner of Melbourne restaurant CopperWood, said he was confident the vibrant city would “be back better than ever.”

“Even better, as soon as the restrictions are lifted,” he said. “Melbourne is very resilient.”


Taliban strike journalists at Kabul women’s rights protest

Taliban strike journalists at Kabul women’s rights protest
Updated 13 min 33 sec ago

Taliban strike journalists at Kabul women’s rights protest

Taliban strike journalists at Kabul women’s rights protest
  • One foreign journalist was struck with the butt of a rifle by one Taliban fighter
  • Afghans have staged street protests across the country since the Taliban returned to power

KABUL: The Taliban struck several journalists to prevent media coverage of a women’s rights protest in Kabul on Thursday.
A group of about 20 women marched from near the ministry of education to the ministry of finance in the Afghan capital.
Wearing colorful headscarves they chanted slogans including: “Don’t politicize education,” as traffic drove by shortly before 10 am.
The women held placards saying: “We don’t have the rights to study and work,” and” “Joblessness, poverty, hunger,” as they walked with their arms in the air.
The Taliban authorities allowed the women to walk freely for around an hour and a half, AFP journalists saw.
However, one foreign journalist was struck with the butt of a rifle by one Taliban fighter, who swore and kicked the photographer in the back as another punched him.
At least two more journalists were hit as they scattered, pursued by Taliban fighters swinging fists and launching kicks.
Zahra Mohammadi, one of the protest organizers, said the women were marching despite the risks they face.
“The situation is that the Taliban don’t respect anything: not journalists — foreign and local — or women,” she said.
“The schools must reopen to girls. But the Taliban took this right from us.”
High school girls have been blocked from returning to classes for more than a month, while many women have been banned from returning to work since the Taliban seized power in mid-August.
“My message to all girls and women is this: ‘Don’t be afraid of the Taliban, even if your family doesn’t allow you to leave your home. Don’t be afraid. Go out, make sacrifices, fight for your rights’,” Mohammadi said.
“We have to make this sacrifice so that the next generation will be in peace.”
Children walked alongside the protest in downtown Kabul, although it was unclear if they were part of the organized group.
Some Taliban fighters policing the march wore full camouflaged combat gear, including body armor, helmets and knee pads, while others were wearing traditional Afghan clothing.
Their weapons included US-made M16 assault rifles and AK-47s.
Unthinkable under the hard-line Islamist group’s last rule in the 1990s, Afghans have staged street protests across the country since the Taliban returned to power, sometimes with several hundred people and many with women at forefront.
But a ban on unauthorized demonstrations has meant protests against Afghanistan’s new masters have dwindled.