Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change
In this Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 file photo, people wade their way through water in flooded St. Mark's Square following a high tide, in Venice, Italy. (File/AP)
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Updated 20 October 2021

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change

Flooding in Venice worsens off-season amid climate change
  • Venice’s worse-case scenario for sea level rise by the end of the century is a startling 120 centimeters

VENICE, Italy: After Venice suffered the second-worst flood in its history in November 2019, it was inundated with four more exceptional tides within six weeks, shocking Venetians and triggering fears about the worsening impact of climate change.
The repeated invasion of brackish lagoon water into St. Mark’s Basilica this summer is a quiet reminder that the threat hasn’t receded.
“I can only say that in August, a month when this never used to happen, we had tides over a meter five times. I am talking about the month of August, when we are quiet,” St. Mark’s chief caretaker, Carlo Alberto Tesserin, told The Associated Press.
Venice’s unique topography, built on log piles among canals, has made it particularly vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea levels are increasing the frequency of high tides that inundate the 1,600-year-old Italian lagoon city, which is also gradually sinking.
It is the fate of coastal cities like Venice that will be on the minds of climate scientists and global leaders meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, at a UN climate conference that begins Oct. 31.
Venice’s worse-case scenario for sea level rise by the end of the century is a startling 120 centimeters (3 feet, 11 inches), according to a new study published by the European Geosciences Union. That is 50 percent higher than the worse-case global sea-rise average of 80 centimeters (2 feet, 7 1/2 inches) forecast by the UN science panel.
The city’s interplay of canals and architecture, of natural habitat and human ingenuity, also has earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding universal value, a designation put at risk of late because of the impact of over-tourism and cruise ship traffic. It escaped the endangered list after Italy banned cruise ships from passing through St. Mark’s Basin, but alarm bells are still ringing.
Sitting at Venice’s lowest spot, St. Mark’s Basilica offers a unique position to monitor the impact of rising seas on the city. The piazza outside floods at 80 centimeters (around 30 inches), and water passes the narthex into the church at 88 centimeters (34.5 inches), which has been reinforced up from a previous 65 centimeters (25.5 inches).
“Conditions are continuing to worsen since the flooding of November 2019. We therefore have the certainty that in these months, flooding is no longer an occasional phenomenon. It is an everyday occurrence,” said Tesserin, whose honorific, First Procurator of St. Mark’s, dates back to the ninth century.
In the last two decades, there have been nearly as many inundations in Venice over 1.1 meters — the official level for “acqua alta,” or “high water,” provoked by tides, winds and lunar cycles — as during the previous 100 years: 163 vs. 166, according to city data.
Exceptional floods over 140 centimeters (4 feet, 7 inches) also are accelerating. That mark has been hit 25 times since Venice starting keeping such records in 1872. Two-thirds of those have been registered in the last 20 years, with five, or one-fifth of the total, from Nov. 12-Dec. 23, 2019.
“What is happening now is on the continuum for Venetians, who have always lived with periodic flooding,” said Jane Da Mosto, executive director of We Are Here Venice. “We are living with flooding that has become increasingly frequent, so my concern is that people haven’t really realized we are in a climate crisis. We are already living it now. It is not a question of plans to deal with it in the future. We need to have solutions ready for today.”
Venice’s defense has been entrusted to the Moses system of moveable underwater barriers, a project costing around 6 billion euros (nearly $7 billion) and which, after decades of cost overruns, delays and a bribery scandal, is still officially in the testing phase.
Following the devastation of the 2019 floods, the Rome government put the project under ministry control to speed its completion, and last year start activating the barriers when floods of 1.3 meters (4 feet, 3 inches) are imminent.
The barriers have been raised 20 times since October 2020, sparing the city a season of serious flooding but not from the lower-level tides that are becoming more frequent.
The extraordinary commissioner, Elisabetta Spitz, stands by the soundness of the undersea barriers, despite concerns by scientists and experts that their usefulness may be outstripped within decades because of climate change. The project has been delayed yet again, until 2023, with another 500 million euros ($580 million) in spending, for “improvements” that Spitz said will ensure its long-term efficiency.
“We can say that the effective life of the Moses is 100 years, taking into account the necessary maintenance and interventions that will be implemented,’’ Spitz said.
Paolo Vielmo, an engineer who has written expert reports on the project, points out that the sea level rise was projected at 22 centimeters (8 1/2 inches) when the Moses was first proposed more than 30 years ago, far below the UN scientists’ current worse-case scenario of 80 centimeters.
“That puts the Moses out of contention,” he said.
According to current plans, the Moses barriers won’t be raised for floods of 1.1 meters (3 feet, 7 inches) until the project receives final approval. That leaves St. Mark’s exposed.
Tesserin is overseeing work to protect the Basilica by installing a glass wall around its base, which eventually will protect marshy lagoon water from seeping inside, where it deposits salt that eats away at marble columns, wall cladding and stone mosaics. The project, which continues to be interrupted by high tides, was supposed to be finished by Christmas. Now Tesserin says they will be lucky to have it finished by Easter.
Regular high tides elicit a blase response from Venetians, who are accustomed to lugging around rubber boots at every flood warning, and delight from tourists, fascinated by the sight of St. Mark’s golden mosaics and domes reflected in rising waters. But businesses along St. Mark’s Square increasingly see themselves at ground zero of the climate crisis.
“We need to help this city. It was a light for the world, but now it needs the whole world to understand it,’’ said Annapaola Lavena, speaking from behind metal barriers that kept waters reaching 1.05 meters (3 feet, 5 inches) from invading her marble-floored cafe.
“The acqua alta is getting worse, and it completely blocks business. Venice lives thanks to its artisans and tourism. If there is no more tourism, Venice dies,” she explained. “We have a great responsibility in trying to save it, but we are suffering a lot.”


British woman testifies about grooming by Ghislaine Maxwell

In this courtroom sketch, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Moe, left, questions Special FBI Agent Kelly McGuire on the witness stand, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in New York. (AP)
In this courtroom sketch, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Moe, left, questions Special FBI Agent Kelly McGuire on the witness stand, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in New York. (AP)
Updated 5 sec ago

British woman testifies about grooming by Ghislaine Maxwell

In this courtroom sketch, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Moe, left, questions Special FBI Agent Kelly McGuire on the witness stand, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in New York. (AP)
  • Maxwell, 59, has denied charges she groomed girls as young as 14 for Epstein, who killed himself in jail in 2019

NEW YORK: A British woman testified Monday that Ghislaine Maxwell pressured her into giving Jeffrey Epstein sexual massages when she was still a teenager, assuring her she would have “fun” with him.
The woman — testifying at Maxwell’s sex-abuse trial in New York City using the pseudonym “Kate” to protect her privacy — described one episode during the mid-1990s at Epstein’s Palm Beach, Florida estate where Maxwell left out a schoolgirl’s outfit with a pleated skirt for her to wear for the financier.
“I thought it would be fun for you to take Jeffrey his tea in this outfit,” the witness recalled Maxwell telling her.
After a sexual encounter that followed, the British socialite “asked me if I had fun” and told her, “You are such a good girl,” she said.
The witness was the second woman to take the witness stand against Maxwell in federal court in Manhattan. But unlike the first, she was at the age of consent in Great Britain and the United States during her sexual contact with Epstein, so the judge barred her from detailing specific sex acts.
Maxwell, 59, has denied charges she groomed girls as young as 14 for Epstein, who killed himself in jail in 2019. Her lawyers say the government is making her a scapegoat for Epstein’s alleged sex crimes.
The woman who testified on Monday said she met Maxwell at age 17 through a friend of hers she had dated on and off, and was eager to be friends with the British socialite. Maxwell told her Epstein, then her boyfriend, was a philanthropist who could help her with her singing career, she said.
Maxwell also told her that Epstein was “demanding” when it came to sexual massages, saying it was “very difficult to keep up” with his needs, the witness said. After agreeing to give him massages in London, she was later flown on commercial flights to Florida, where she said the interactions continued when she was 18.
She recalled that the first time she saw Epstein naked, Maxwell was standing right next to him. “I remember it so clearly because I was terrified and frozen,” she said.
By contrast, Maxwell’s demeanor was “almost like a schoolgirl,” she said. “Everything was fun. Everything seemed to be like a fun, silly joke.”
She said she resisted “disengaging” from Maxwell and Epstein “because I had witnessed how connected they both were and I was fearful.”
Asked about wanting to testify anonymously, she said, “I have a huge amount of humiliation and shame around the events that took place” and wanted to protect her child from knowing details.
On cross-examination, a lawyer for Maxwell got the witness to acknowledge instances where she had spoken out publicly about Epstein and Maxwell using her real name. The lawyer also asked whether her history of drug and alcohol abuse affected her memory.
“It has not had an impact on the memories I have always had,” she said.
The jury also saw bank statements on Monday showing that between 1999 and 2007, roughly $30 million was transferred from Epstein’s accounts to those of Maxwell’s. About $7 million of that was used in the purchase of a helicopter, the records showed.

 


Myanmar democracy in new era as Suu Kyi sidelined by army

Myanmar democracy in new era as Suu Kyi sidelined by army
Updated 2 min 52 sec ago

Myanmar democracy in new era as Suu Kyi sidelined by army

Myanmar democracy in new era as Suu Kyi sidelined by army
  • Suu Kyi, whose pro-democracy efforts won her the Nobel Peace Prize, and her allies have played important roles in the past, even when sidelined or jailed by the generals

BANGKOK: In sentencing Myanmar’s iconic democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to prison, the country’s generals have effectively exiled her from electoral politics. But that doesn’t mean the Southeast Asian nation is back to square one in its stop-start efforts to move toward democracy.
In fact, a younger generation that came of age as the military began loosening its grip on politics and the economy and has tasted some freedoms is well positioned to carry on the struggle.
A de facto coup on Feb. 1 pushed Suu Kyi’s elected government from power, throwing the country into turmoil. But erasing the gains of a decade of opening up has proved more difficult.
People took to the streets en masse almost immediately and have continued sporadic protests since then. As a military crackdown on demonstrations grew increasingly violent, protesters moved to arm themselves.
Within days, a mix of old and new guard, including elected lawmakers who were prevented from taking their seats by the takeover, announced a shadow administration that declared itself the nation’s only legitimate government. It was very consciously assembled to be a diverse group, including representatives of ethnic minorities and one openly gay member, unusual in socially conservative Myanmar.
It, not Suu Kyi, who was arrested in the takeover, has been at the forefront of the opposition — and has garnered significant support among the general population.
While no foreign government has recognized the so-called National Unity Government, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan met virtually with two of its representatives. And it has accomplished a kind of standoff at the U.N., which delayed action on a request by Myanmar’s military government for its representative to take its seat. The country’s current delegate has declared his allegiance to the unity government.
“The coup and its aftermath are not so much the end of a democratization process in Myanmar as they are proof that democratization has actually taken hold of the younger generation,” Priscilla Clapp, who served as the U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002. “In fact, the coup may ultimately prove to be the dramatic end to the older generation of leadership in Myanmar.”
The pro-democracy movement now faces the challenges of continuing to resist military rule, keeping up international pressure for restoring an elected, civilian government, and consolidating support from ethnic groups that have long fought the central government.
Suu Kyi, whose pro-democracy efforts won her the Nobel Peace Prize, and her allies have played important roles in the past, even when sidelined or jailed by the generals. On Monday, the 76-year-old was convicted on charges of incitement and violating coronavirus restrictions and sentenced to four years in prison, though that was almost immediately reduced to two. She faces other charges that could see her imprisoned for life.
But the younger generation may be better placed to carry the mantle anyway.
Unlike their elders, younger people in Myanmar, especially those in the cities, have spent most of their lives without having to worry about being imprisoned for speaking their minds. They have had access to mobile phones and Facebook and grew up believing the country was moving toward greater, not less democracy.
They also seem more willing to reach out to Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Not only did the unity government include ethnic minority officials in its Cabinet, but it sought out alliances with the powerful ethnic militias, which are fighting for autonomy and rights over their resource-rich lands.
“Even as they are fighting against the military takeover, they are debating among themselves to determine the outlines of a new form of a more democratic and ethnically diverse political system,” said Clapp, who is also a senior adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Asia Society. “This did not happen with earlier rebellions against military rule before the people had experience with democratic institutions that gave the public a voice.”
Suu Kyi’s own reputation abroad was deeply marred by her seemingly condoning, or at times even defending, abuses committed by the military against the Muslim Rohingya minority while her government was in power. She disputes allegations that troops killed Rohingya civilians, torched houses and raped women.
The unity government has also been criticized for seeming to neglect the long-oppressed Rohingya, and it remains to be seen how its uneasy alliance with ethnic groups will play out.
But Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya is just one element that complicates her legacy.
An icon of resistance during her 15 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi agreed to work alongside the generals after she was freed. It was a gamble that left Myanmar’s fledgling democracy in limbo, with the military keeping control of key ministries and reserving a large share of seats in parliament.
Some overseas admirers were disappointed that during its time in power Suu Kyi’s government used British colonial-era security laws to prosecute dissidents and critical journalists, in part of “an ongoing pattern of silencing dissent,” said Jane Ferguson, a lecturer at Australian National University.
In seizing power, the military claimed there was massive fraud in the 2020 election that saw Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy win in a landslide. It said that justified the takeover under a constitution that allows it to seize power in emergencies — though independent election observers did not detect any major irregularities. Critics also assert that the takeover bypassed the legal process for declaring the kind of emergency that allows the army to step in.
Security forces have since quashed nonviolent nationwide protests with deadly force, killing about 1,300 civilians, according to a tally compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Despite the risks, the verdict against Suu Kyi, who remains popular, provoked more spirited protests. In the city of Mandalay on Monday, demonstrators chanted slogans and sang songs popularized during pro-democracy protests in 1988.
“In Yangon, we are seeing local residents resume banging pots and pans late at night in protest,” said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director for the U.S. Institute of Peace. “These types of moves by the junta are also a key driver and motivation for local people to join people’s defense forces.”
Those forces, which began as a way to protect neighborhoods and villages from the depredations of government troops, are also being supported by the opposition unity government that hopes to turn them into a federal army one day.
In the meantime, the military will keep trying to “terrorize the public into obedience,” said Christina Fink, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “They have done so successfully in the past, but this time the opposition is more widespread and takes many different forms so it has been much harder for the regime to achieve its goal.”


Huge fire in overcrowded Burundi prison kills 38 inmates

Burundi's Vice President Prosper Bazombanza visits the main prison where at least 38 inmates were killed and dozens more injured in a fire in Gitega, Burundi December 7, 2021. (REUTERS)
Burundi's Vice President Prosper Bazombanza visits the main prison where at least 38 inmates were killed and dozens more injured in a fire in Gitega, Burundi December 7, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 4 min 34 sec ago

Huge fire in overcrowded Burundi prison kills 38 inmates

Burundi's Vice President Prosper Bazombanza visits the main prison where at least 38 inmates were killed and dozens more injured in a fire in Gitega, Burundi December 7, 2021. (REUTERS)
  • The blaze broke out at about 4:00 am (0200 GMT) and grim pictures posted on social media showed huge flames engulfing the prison, and bodies of men lying on the floor

NAIROBI: A massive fire tore through an overcrowded prison in Burundi before dawn on Tuesday, killing dozens of inmates and seriously injuring many more, the country’s vice president said.
Many prisoners were still asleep when the blaze took hold in a penitentiary in Burundi’s political capital Gitega, witnesses said/
Some survived only by clambering out — completely naked — to safety through the roof.
Much of the facility was destroyed, with images showing piles of charred and smoldering rubble in burnt-out rooms as plumes of grey smoke rose into the sky.
Vice President Prosper Bazombanza, who visited the scene of the tragedy with several ministers, told reporters that 38 people were killed and 69 seriously hurt.
Of the dead, 26 suffered burns and 12 were asphyxiated, he said.
The blaze broke out at about 4:00 am (0200 GMT) and grim pictures posted on social media showed huge flames engulfing the prison, and bodies of men lying on the floor.
“We started shouting that we were going to be burned alive when we saw the flames rising very high, but the police refused to open the doors of our quarters, saying ‘these are the orders we have received’,” one inmate reached by phone told AFP.
“I don’t know how I escaped, but there are prisoners who were burned completely,” he said.
Several sources said the inmates were trapped because the wardens did not have the keys to certain parts of the prison overnight as they were held by an official who was not on the premises.

The interior ministry said on Twitter that the disaster was caused by an electrical short-circuit at the nearly century-old prison.
A police source said the emergency services were late to the scene, with the first fire truck arriving two hours after the start of the blaze before others joined.
Victims with the most serious burns were taken to hospital, some ferried in police pick-up trucks, while others with milder cases were treated at the scene, witnesses said.
“Some prisoners escaped completely naked. Others were only in the clothes they had on at the time,” said one witness who was inside the prison.
The fire was later brought under control, but many parts of the site were left in charred ruins behind a stone wall showing the date of construction in 1926, when Burundi was a Belgian colony.
It was the second fire at the penitentiary in just a matter of months, after another incident in August also blamed on an electrical problem.
Bazombanza spoke of DIY “tinkering” by inmates who wanted to charge their phones or power a small light.

Chronic overcrowding is a problem in prisons in Burundi, one of the poorest nations in the world, and inmates often complain about their cramped living conditions and lack of food.
Gitega prison, the third largest in Burundi, was home to more than 1,500 inmates as of the end of November, according to prison authority figures, far higher than its designed capacity of 400.
One witness said the fire broke out in the most populated part of the prison holding common criminals. There are three other wings, for women, for minors and a high security area for political prisoners.
Across the country there were a total of 12,878 inmates living in accommodation designed for 4,294, according to November figures, despite a presidential amnesty in March which saw 5,200 released.
“Sometimes we have gone for up to three days without being given supplies by the prison, and our families cannot help us because since June 2020 we have not been allowed visits under the pretext of protecting us from Covid-19,” one prisoner told AFP.


Putin visit to India balances strained ties: Experts

Putin visit to India balances strained ties: Experts
Updated 08 December 2021

Putin visit to India balances strained ties: Experts

Putin visit to India balances strained ties: Experts
  • India to receive S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia this month
  • Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a meeting on Monday after a two-year freeze on relations

NEW DELHI: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s day-long visit to New Delhi on Monday has been labeled by foreign policy experts as “symbolic” and “substantive,” and an attempt to restore strong Russia-India relations.

Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a meeting on Monday after a two-year freeze on relations. They signed 28 agreements covering bilateral defense and an Indian purchase of 600,000 Russian assault rifles.

Both countries also held their first first 2+2 ministerial talks involving defense and foreign ministers, and held a strategic dialogue to discuss reinforcing ties.

New Delhi and Moscow have a long history of friendship, but the relationship between the two has suffered in recent years following India’s growing relationship with the US, which the South Asian republic considers critical to countering its northern neighbor, China.

In his opening remarks at the summit, Modi underlined the long-standing relationship between India and Russia.

“A lot of geopolitical equations have emerged. But the India-Russia friendship has been a constant among all these variables,” he said.

“It is truly a unique and reliable model of inter-state friendship.”

In his own comments, Putin called India a “time-tested friend.”

He said: “Our colleagues, foreign and defense ministers are here; this is the first meeting in this format. It means that we continue to develop our relations on the international scene and in the military sphere.

“We perceive India as a great power, a friendly nation and a time-tested friend.”

Foreign policy experts have said that the visit was an attempt to arrest the drift in the Russia-India relationship. “Putin’s visit to an extent arrested the drift in the relationship between the two nations,” Prof. Harsh V. Pant, head of the strategic studies program at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, told Arab News.

“The visit went well given that there has been this perception that that the two nations are drifting apart because of China, the Indo-Pacific and the Quad. Russia was vocal in its disagreement of all those things, and I think this visit seems to be a recognition from the top of the two countries that despite the divergences, they do see great value in keeping each other a priority country,” said Pant.

Russia has reservations over the formation of the Quad, a quadrilateral grouping involving the US, India, Japan and Australia initiated in response to China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, India’s foreign secretary, said in a press briefing on Monday that “concern over the Indo-Pacific strategy was raised with Russia.”

Putin’s visit also comes at a time when New Delhi’s relationship with Beijing — a close ally of Moscow — is strained. A tense military stand-off between the two large Asian neighbors at the Himalayan borders in Ladakh has lasted for more than a year. In a border clash between the two nations in June 2020, at least 20 Indian soldiers died.

“It’s going to be a sticky point going forward, there is no doubt about that. This is a challenge in the relationship,” said Pant.

“India has to convey to Russia how strongly it feels on the China question.”

Pant added that “if the relationship between India and Russia is broad and not one-dimensional, then both nations would be able to tide over these differences on China.”

India has also begun to receive S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia this month.

“The supply of S-400 air-defense missile systems had “begun this month and will continue to happen,” said the Indian foreign secretary.

Political analyst and the former Indian ambassador to Jordan and Libya Anil Trigunayat said that the S-400 sale is a matter of India’s “strategic autonomy.”

Trigunayat told Arab News: “India has to secure her national interests, which are an integral part of her strategic autonomy.

“India hopes that the global comprehensive strategic partnership that New Delhi and Washington share will enable the US to appreciate India’s genuine quest and concerns.”


Duterte pledges ‘better days’ as Filipinos prepare to celebrate Christmas

Duterte pledges ‘better days’ as Filipinos prepare to celebrate Christmas
Updated 08 December 2021

Duterte pledges ‘better days’ as Filipinos prepare to celebrate Christmas

Duterte pledges ‘better days’ as Filipinos prepare to celebrate Christmas
  • Nikkei Asia’s COVID-19 Recovery Index showed that the Philippines jumped 46 spots to 57th in November from 103rd in October this year
  • Makati Medical Center, which has been dealing with hundreds of COVID-19 infections for nearly two years, reported zero in-patient cases on Monday

MANILA: President Rodrigo Duterte said that better days are ahead for the country during a televised Cabinet meeting on Monday night as the downward trend in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases continues.

The Philippines on Tuesday reported only 356 new COVID-19 infections, the lowest single-day figure since July 2020. The new figure pushed the country’s total tally to 2,835,345,  of which 97.8 percent or 2,772,728 have recovered.

Nikkei Asia’s COVID-19 Recovery Index also showed that the Philippines jumped 46 spots to 57th in November from 103rd in October this year.

During his address, Duterte expressed optimism that the Philippines has a good chance of overcoming the pandemic with the government’s aggressive immunization campaign, saying that “better days” lay ahead.

He noted that since Dec. 1, the daily average case number has remained between 500 and 600, while the “number of active cases continues to go down.”

“Very impressive,” Duterte said, as he also pointed out that the positivity rate is “now only less than 2 percent,” which means that for every 100 persons tested for COVID-19, only a maximum of two turned out to be positive.

“It’s Christmas. I hope that everything will be for the good of everybody, and I am very happy that it is really going down. It’s on a nosedive,” he added.

Duterte further said this development is a “miracle,” noting how “other countries are still reeling from the pandemic,” especially with the emergence of the omicron variant.

“We are not hoping for the best, but we pray to God that it will not come to our shores. But if (it) ever arrives, we can cope with it just as we did (in the past),” Duterte said.

Independent group OCTA Research fellow Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, a Catholic priest and molecular biologist, said the Philippines has attained substantial population immunity from natural infections and vaccinations in the urban areas based on current data.

Austriaco, who virtually joined the Cabinet meeting, made a presentation where he noted that the country had the highest mobility levels in the past 20 months and experienced the lowest levels of cases and hospitalizations during the same period, even with the presence of the COVID-19 delta variant.

“It suggests that we have attained substantial population immunity from natural infections and vaccinations in the urban areas of the Philippines because the pandemic has raged and spread primarily in our cities and in our first-class municipalities,” he said, adding: “The fact that the virus is struggling to find new Filipinos to infect, suggests that we have attained substantial population immunity.”

Austriaco compared the Philippines with its neighbors in Southeast Asia, Thailand and Malaysia, which he said still have not seen a dip in cases despite having much earlier surges. The two nations are still experiencing 5,000 cases per day.

Vietnam, he said, also had a delta peak and is still experiencing significant numbers of COVID-19 infections at 15,000 or so every day.

“The difference is that the Philippines, unlike these three other countries, had substantial waves of previous variants, especially the alpha and beta, which struck the country in March and April of this year,” Austriaco said.

“Combining the vaccinations and the natural immunity, what you are seeing here is that many of our cities where the pandemic tends to focus are now stable enough to prevent transmission,” he added.

The expert also advised Filipinos not to panic amid the threat posed by the omicron variant and instead move with caution and prepare for Christmas.

“Let us celebrate Christmas. This is the best time in 20 months for the entire country,” Austriaco said, adding: “This is not the time to panic. It is time to be careful. We have to prepare.”

Austriaco suggested that the country prepare its hospital infrastructure and increase healthcare workers’ staffing capacity, considering during the alpha and delta surges, the country had nursing shortages, especially in Metro Manila. He also recommended that the government continue vaccinating and boosting the immunity of its population, especially senior citizens.

“It must also strengthen population immunity around international gateways,” he said, predicting that the omicron variant will likely enter the country through an airport. “We have to build a wall of vaccinated Filipinos around these airports.”

On Monday, the Makati Medical Center, which has been dealing with hundreds of COVID-19 infections for nearly two years, reported zero in-patient cases as confirmed by its Medical Director Dr. Saturnino Javier. The medical center is located in the financial district of Metro Manila, which had become the epicenter of COVID-19 infections during the past months.

Last Friday, the Philippine General Hospital, the country’s biggest COVID-19 referral facility, also reported it had zero COVID-19 patient admission for two consecutive days.