COVID-19 cases recorded in eastern Europe hit 20 million

COVID-19 cases recorded in eastern Europe hit 20 million
A member of the medical staff walks in a crowded COVID-19 isolation room at the University Emergency Hospital in Bucharest, Romania, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. (AP)
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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.


Google disrupts cybercrime web infecting 1 mn devices

 People are silhouetted as they pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with a Google logo, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica. (REUTERS file photo)
People are silhouetted as they pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with a Google logo, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 08 December 2021

Google disrupts cybercrime web infecting 1 mn devices

 People are silhouetted as they pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with a Google logo, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica. (REUTERS file photo)
  • Google said the network includes about one million Windows-using devices worldwide for crimes that include stealing users’ credentials, and has targeted victims from the United States, India, Brazil and southeast Asia

WASHINGTON: Google said Tuesday it has moved to shut down a network of about one million hijacked electronic devices used worldwide to commit online crimes, while also suing Russia-based hackers the tech giant claimed were responsible.
The so-called botnet of infected devices, which was also used to surreptitiously mine bitcoin, was cut off at least for now from the people wielding it on the Internet.
“The operators of Glupteba are likely to attempt to regain control of the botnet using a backup command and control mechanism,” wrote Shane Huntley and Luca Nagy from Google’s threat analysis group.
Large technology companies like Google and Microsoft are increasingly pulled into the battle against cybercrime, which is conducted via their products thus giving them unique understanding of and access to the threats.
Google said the network includes about one million Windows-using devices worldwide for crimes that include stealing users’ credentials, and has targeted victims from the United States, India, Brazil and southeast Asia.
The company also filed a lawsuit in a New York federal court against Dmitry Starovikov and Alexander Filippov seeking an injunction to block them from wrongdoing on its platforms.
Cybersecurity experts first noticed Glupteba in 2011, which spreads by masquerading as free, downloadable software, videos or movies that people unwittingly download onto their devices.
However, unlike conventional botnets that rely on predetermined channels to ensure their survival, Glupteba is programmed to find a replacement server in order to keep operating even after being attacked, says Google’s lawsuit.
Because the botnet web combines the power of some one million devices it possesses unusual power that could be used for large-scale ransomware or other attacks.
To maintain that network, the organization “uses Google advertisements to post job openings for the websites” carrying out the illegal work.
The hackers also used Google’s own services to distribute the malware — the Internet giant took down some 63 million Google Docs and terminated over 1,100 Google accounts used to spread Glupteba.
The botnets can “recover more quickly from disruptions, making them that much harder to shutdown. We are working closely with industry and government as we combat this type of behavior,” Google said in a blog post.


UN refugee chief warns of world’s inability to restore peace

 United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. (AFP file photo)
United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. (AFP file photo)
Updated 08 December 2021

UN refugee chief warns of world’s inability to restore peace

 United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. (AFP file photo)
  • Grandi said UNHCR works in highly politicized situations, and increasingly it has to deal with “de facto authorities” who are not internationally recognized but control areas in many countries where it operates because people need help

UNITED NATIONS: The growing inability of the international community to restore peace in countries like Yemen, Libya and Ethiopia is forcing humanitarian and refugee organizations to work increasingly during conflicts which they can’t solve despite the expectations of many people caught up in these crises, the UN refugee chief warned Tuesday.
Filippo Grandi reminded the UN Security Council that in the absence of political solutions to conflicts — “and those political solutions seem to be more and more scarce and far apart” — the consequences on people caught in these violent confrontations “continue to become more and more serious.”
The UN high commissioner for refugees said his office and other organizations are dealing with about 84 million refugees who fled across borders and people displaced within their own countries, trying to provide humanitarian support, shelter and safety.
Grandi spoke to the council and UN correspondents from Geneva where donors pledged a record of more than $1 billion Tuesday to support UNHCR’s work in 2022. While he welcomed their crucial support, Grandi said the pledges won’t be enough to support the growing challenges the agency foresees next year, largely driven by conflict, climate change and COVID-19.
The high commissioner said UNHCR is appealing for nearly $9 billion to cover its operations in 136 countries and territories next year. Almost half the money is for emergencies to assist a record number of forcibly displaced people, especially in the Middle East and Africa as well as millions who have fled their homes in places like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Venezuela and beyond, he said.
Asked whether he saw any hope for the many millions of refugees and displaced people in 2022, Grandi said “I see glimmers of hope everywhere — if certain things are done.”
“The question is will these things be done?” he asked. “Will states cooperate more to try and solve these issues? Will more resources be put into responses? Will be will the neutrality and safety of humanitarian operations be granted?”
“I remain not terribly optimistic about progress on these matters, especially on cooperation and the search of solutions,” he said.
Grandi said if it took “excruciating negotiations” in the Security Council to get approval to continue delivery of humanitarian aid through a single crossing point from Turkey into Syria, “then we are in trouble, then we cannot really aim at moving forward.”
“So yes, I think the prospects, unfortunately, are rather grim in terms of the size of the problem and the complexity of the causes,” he said.
Grandi said UNHCR works in highly politicized situations, and increasingly it has to deal with “de facto authorities” who are not internationally recognized but control areas in many countries where it operates because people need help. These situations are very often complicated by political difficulties, sanctions and other restrictions on dialogue and engagement which aggravate the provision of humanitarian needs, he said.
Grandi said he is often warned by countries that UNHCR should not politicize humanitarian action, but “I keep reminding states that if anybody politicizes humanitarian action it is the states, not the United Nations as an institution, not UNHCR for sure.”
Nonetheless, he said, UNHCR is being accused by all sides in Ethiopia, for example, of supporting the other side which he warned is not safe for its staff or conducive to effective humanitarian action.
“We operate in context in which there is more burden, expectation that humanitarian actors can solve problems, when in reality, the space is reduced even for us to save lives,” he said.
Grandi said he just returned from a tour of Mexico and northern Central America where he saw “the incredible complexity of the causes of displacement” — conflict, human rights abuses, violence by criminal gangs, poverty, inequality, climate change and an inadequate response by states.
He said the complexity of causes in Central America, Africa’s Sahel region, and elsewhere leads to “increasingly complicated forced displacement.”
Grandi said his message to the Security Council was to focus on one of the causes — conflict — because if progress can be made toward stability then perhaps “the vicious circle” leading to the displacement of millions of people can be unblocked.
He also appealed to the council to provide “the widest scope for humanitarian exception” to UN sanctions on Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers to help the 23 million Afghans facing extreme levels of hunger and other humanitarian challenges.
Grandi warned that a widespread implosion of the Afghan economy will almost inevitably trigger a much bigger exodus of Afghans seeking a better life in neighboring countries and beyond.
“This is something that can still be prevented at this point, but it requires quicker action” to ensure that the economy functions including the flow of cash and services, he said. this with its leaders.


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 08 December 2021

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 08 December 2021

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 08 December 2021

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.