Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 01 December 2021

Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
  • Border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect for at least a month

BRASILIA/TOKYO: Japan has expanded its travel ban on foreigners coming into the country, preventing entry to those with resident status from 10 southern African nations.

Two Japanese airlines ANA and JAL also said they were suspending new reservations for international flights to Japan until the end of December and NHK public television said the government was seeking a halt to all such reservations.

Japan took some of the strictest steps globally on Monday by closing its borders to non-Japanese for about a month in light of the emergence of omicron. A day later, Japan’s first omicron case – in a Namibian diplomat – was discovered.

Japanese media also reported on Wednesday that a second case of the omicron virus had been confirmed in a traveller. NHK said it was a foreign man and FNN television said it was a traveller from Peru.

The border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect from midnight on Wednesday for at least a month. It applies to foreign residents from South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Brazil and Nigeria also joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.

The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

The pandemic has shown repeatedly that the virus “travels quickly because of our globalized, interconnected world,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination drive reaches every country, “we’re going to be in this situation again and again.”

Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were tested on Nov. 25, authorities said.

France likewise recorded its first case, in the far-flung island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who had returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20.

It has decided to extend until at least Saturday its suspension of flights from southern African countries which have been hit hard by the omicron variant.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and “we’ll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us.”

In the meantime, a WHO official warned that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.

“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.

Cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, which is now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.

Before news of the Brazil cases broke, Fauci said 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, adding: “I think you’re going to expect to see those numbers change rapidly.”

Those countries include Britain, 11 European Union nations, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said omicron could already be in the US, too, and probably will be detected soon.

“I am expecting it any day now,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect it is here.”

While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is unclear where and when it originated, information that could help shed light on how fast it spreads.

The announcement from the Dutch on Tuesday could shape that timeline.

Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Dutch and other EU members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.

NOS, the Netherlands’ public broadcaster, said that one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had been in southern Africa.

Belgium reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not become sick with mild symptoms until Nov. 22.

Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.

Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency, said that the 27-nation EU is well prepared for the variant and that the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if necessary.

England reacted to the emerging threat by making face coverings mandatory again on public transportation and in stores, banks and hair salons. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.

After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”

World markets seesawed on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street over virus fears as well as concerns about the Federal Reserve’s continued efforts to shore up the markets.

Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.


Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air
Updated 7 sec ago

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air
KABUL: Women presenters on Afghanistan’s leading TV channels went on air Saturday without covering their faces, defying a Taliban order that they conceal their appearance to comply with the group’s austere brand of Islam.
Since surging back to power last year the Taliban have imposed a slew of restrictions on civil society, many focused on reining in the rights of women and girls.
Earlier this month Afghanistan’s supreme leader issued a diktat for women to cover up fully in public, including their faces, ideally with the traditional burqa.
The feared Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ordered women TV presenters to follow suit by Saturday.
Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf.
However, broadcasters TOLOnews, Shamshad TV and 1TV all aired live programs Saturday with women presenters’ faces on show.
“Our female colleagues are concerned that if they cover their faces, the next thing they will be told is to stop working,” said Shamshad TV head of news Abid Ehsas.
“This is the reason they have not observed the order so far,” he told AFP.
Mohammad Sadeq Akif MoHajjir, spokesman for the vice ministry, said the women were violating the Taliban directive.
“If they don’t comply we will talk to the managers and guardians of the presenters,” he told AFP.
“Anyone who lives under a particular system and government has to obey the laws and orders of that system, so they must implement the order,” he said.
The Taliban have demanded that women government employees be fired if they fail to follow the new dress code.
Men working in government also risk suspension if their wives or daughters fail to comply.
MoHajjir said media managers and the male guardians of defiant women presenters would also be liable for penalties if the order was not observed.
The Taliban previously promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterised their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
During two decades of US-led military intervention in Afghanistan, women and girls made marginal gains in the deeply patriarchal nation.
But since August women have already been banned from traveling alone and teenage girls barred from secondary schools.
In the 20 years after the Taliban were ousted from office many women in the conservative countryside continued to wear a burqa.
However, most Afghan women, including TV presenters, opted for the Islamic headscarf.
Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities.

Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war

Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war
Updated 37 min 41 sec ago

Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war

Zelensky: Only ‘diplomacy’ can end Ukraine war
  • War ‘will be bloody, there will be fighting but will only definitively end through diplomacy’

KYIV: The Ukraine war can only be resolved through “diplomacy,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday amid a deadlock in negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow.
“The end will be through diplomacy,” he told a Ukrainian television channel. The war “will be bloody, there will be fighting but will only definitively end through diplomacy.”
“Discussions between Ukraine and Russia will decidedly take place. Under what format I don’t know — with intermediaries, without them, in a broader group, at presidential level,” he said.
“There are things that can only be reached at the negotiating table,” he said.” We want everything to return (to as it was before)” but “Russia does not want that,” he said, without elaborating.
The results of negotiations, which could have a variety of subjects “according to the timing of the meeting,” would have to be “fair” for Ukraine, Zelensky stressed.
The president spoke of a document about security guarantees for his nation, saying it would be signed by “friends and partners of Ukraine, without Moscow.” A bilateral discussion would be held with Russia at the same time, he added.
He also recalled Kyiv’s absolute precondition for continuing talks that Russia does not kill Ukrainian troops who defended the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
Zelensky noted Russian troops “offered the possibility, found a way for these people to come out alive,” from Azovstal.
“The most important thing for me is to save the maximum number of people and soldiers.”
According to Moscow 2,439 Ukrainians have surrendered at the plant since May 16, the final 500 on Friday.
On Tuesday, Kyiv’s lead negotiator Mykhaylo Podolyak said talks with Russia were “on hold” after taking place regularly in the earlier stages of the conflict but without substantial results.
The following day Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Kyiv authorities of not wanting to continue talks to end hostilities.
“Talks are indeed not moving forward and we note the complete lack of will of Ukrainian negotiators to continue this process,” he said.
The last talks took place on April 22, according to Russian news agencies.
After failing to take Kyiv following the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops are now concentrating on the east of the country, where fierce clashes are ongoing.


Australians vote to determine conservative government future

Australians vote to determine conservative government future
Updated 21 May 2022

Australians vote to determine conservative government future

Australians vote to determine conservative government future
  • Opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s center-left Labour Party is a favorite to win its first election since 2007

CANBERRA: Vote counting started in Australia’s election on Saturday that will decide whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government can defy odds and rule for a fourth three-year term.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s center-left Labour Party is a favorite to win its first election since 2007. But Morrison defied the opinion polls in 2019 by leading his coalition to a narrow victory.
His coalition holds the narrowest of majorities — 76 seats in the 151-member House of Representatives, where parties need a majority to form a government.
Both leaders campaigned in Melbourne on Saturday morning before voting in their hometown of Sydney.
Labor is promising more spending on care for children and the elderly. The coalition is promising better economic management as Australia’s deficit soars because of the pandemic.
Morrison said if reelected, his government would deliver lower taxes as well as downward pressure on interest rates and costs of living.
“It’s a choice about who can best manage our economy and our finances because a strong economy is what guarantees your future,” Morrison said.
A federal judge ordered the removal of mostly green-colored campaign signs near Melbourne polling stations that urged voters to “Put Labor Last.” The signs were designed to look like they were authorized by the Australian Greens, an environmental party that prefers the policies of Labor to Morrison’s coalition. But a business group was responsible for them.
Albanese went with his partner Jodie Haydon, his 21-year-old son Nathan Albanese and his cavoodle Toto to vote at the Marrickville Town Hall in his inner-Sydney electorate.
Albanese would not be drawn into saying whether Toto would move into the prime minister’s official residence in Sydney or Canberra if Labor wins.
“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” Albanese said. “I’m very positive and hopeful about a good outcome tonight.”
He referred to his humble upbringing as the only child of a single mother who became a disabled pensioner and lived in government housing.
“When you come from where I’ve come from, one of the advantages that you have is that you don’t get ahead of yourself. Everything in life’s a bonus,” Albanese said.
Morrison voted with his wife Jenny at the Lilli Pilli Public School in his southern Sydney electorate.
He later used the rare interception of a suspected asylum seeker boat attempting to enter Australian waters as a reason why voters should reelect his government.
Australian Border Force said in a statement the boat had been intercepted in a “likely attempt to illegally enter Australia from Sri Lanka.”
The Australian policy was to return those on board to their point of departure, the statement said.
Morrison argues Labor would be weaker on preventing people smugglers from trafficking asylum seekers.
“I’ve been here to stop this boat, but in order for me to be there to stop those that may come from here, you need to vote Liberal and Nationals today,” Morrison told reporters, referring to his coalition.
The boat carrying 15 passengers was intercepted near the Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island on Saturday morning, The Weekend Australian newspaper reported.
The number of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat peaked at 20,000 in 2013, the year Morrison’s coalition was first elected.
Morrison’s first government role was overseeing a military-led operation that turned back asylum seeker boats and virtually ended the people trafficking trade from Asia.
The first polling stations closed on the country’s east coast at 6 p.m. (0800 GMT). The west coast is two hours behind.
Due to the pandemic, around half of Australia’s 17 million electors have voted early or applied for postal votes, which will likely slow the count.
Voting is compulsory for adult citizens and 92 percent of registered voters cast ballots at the last election.
Early polling for reasons of travel or work began two weeks ago and the Australian Electoral Commission will continue collecting postal votes for another two weeks.
The government changed regulations on Friday to enable people recently infected with COVID-19 to vote over the phone.
Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers said more than 7,000 polling stations opened as planned and on time across Australia despite 15 percent of polling staff falling sick this week with COVID-19 and flu.
Albanese said he had thought Morrison would have called the election last weekend because Australia’s prime minister is expected at a Tokyo summit on Tuesday with US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“If we get a clear outcome today then whoever is prime minister will be on a plane to Tokyo on Monday, which isn’t ideal, I’ve got to say, immediately after a campaign,” Albanese said.
Analysts have said that Morrison left the election until the latest date available to him to give himself more time to reduce Labor’s lead in opinion polls.
The closely watched Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper on Saturday put Labor ahead with 53 percent of voter support.
The poll surveyed 2,188 voters across Australia from May 13 to 19 and had a 2.9 percentage points margin of error.
At the last election in 2019, the split of votes between the government and Labor was 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent — the exact opposite of the result that Australia’s five most prominent polls including Newspoll had predicted.
As well as campaigning against Labor, Morrison’s conservative Liberal Party is fighting off a new challenge from so-called teal independent candidates to key government lawmakers’ reelection in party strongholds.
The teal independents are marketed as a greener shade than the Liberal Party’s traditional blue color and want stronger government action on reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions than either the government or Labor are proposing.
The government aims to reduce Australia’s emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Labor has promised a 43 percent reduction.


Russian military says it destroyed Western arms consignment in Ukraine

Russian military says it destroyed Western arms consignment in Ukraine
Updated 21 May 2022

Russian military says it destroyed Western arms consignment in Ukraine

Russian military says it destroyed Western arms consignment in Ukraine
  • Moscow also said Russia had struck numerous Ukrainian command posts

LONDON: The Russian military said on Saturday it had destroyed a major consignment of Western arms in Ukraine’s Zhytomyr region, west of Kyiv, using sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles.
The defense ministry said in a statement the strike took out “a large batch of weapons and military equipment delivered from the USA and European countries” and intended for Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donbas region where the fighting is concentrated.
Reuters could not independently verify the report, which also said Russian missiles had struck fuel storage facilities near Odesa on the Black Sea coast and shot down two Ukrainian Su-25 aircraft and 14 drones.
In its latest update on the war, which Russia calls a “special military operation,” the defense ministry also said Russia had struck numerous Ukrainian command posts.
The West has stepped up weapons supplies to Ukraine since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion and Russia’s military is trying to intercept and destroy them. Moscow says Western arms deliveries for Kyiv, and the imposition of drastic sanctions against the Russian economy, amount to a “proxy war” by the United States and its allies.


US, others walk out of APEC talks over Russia’s Ukraine invasion – officials

US, others walk out of APEC talks over Russia’s Ukraine invasion – officials
Updated 21 May 2022

US, others walk out of APEC talks over Russia’s Ukraine invasion – officials

US, others walk out of APEC talks over Russia’s Ukraine invasion – officials
  • Representatives from Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia joined the Americans

BANGKOK: Representatives of the United States and several other nations walked out of an Asia-Pacific trade ministers meeting in Bangkok on Saturday to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, officials said.
The walkout was “an expression of disapproval at Russia’s illegal war of aggression in Ukraine and its economic impact in the APEC region,” one diplomat said.
Representatives from Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia joined the Americans, led by Trade Representative Katherine Tai, in walking out of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, two Thai officials and two international diplomats said.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, saying it aimed to demilitarize and “denazify” its neighbor. Ukraine and the West say President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked war of aggression, which has claimed thousands of civilian lives, sent millions of Ukrainians fleeing and caused economic fallout around the world.
Another diplomat said the five countries that staged the protest wanted “stronger language on Russia’s war” in the group’s final statement to be issued on Sunday.
“The meeting will not be a failure if (a joint statement) cannot be issued,” Thai Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit told reporters, adding that the meeting was “progressing well” despite the walk out.
The walkout took place while Russian Economy Minister Maxim Reshetnikov was delivering remarks at the opening of the two-day meeting from the group of 21 economies.
The delegations from five countries that staged the protest returned to the meeting after Reshetnikov finished speaking, a Thai official said.