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

Duterte pledges ‘better days’ as Filipinos prepare to celebrate Christmas
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. (AP)
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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.


UK must urge global shift in Afghanistan aid, experts warn

UK must urge global shift in Afghanistan aid, experts warn
Updated 24 January 2022

UK must urge global shift in Afghanistan aid, experts warn

UK must urge global shift in Afghanistan aid, experts warn
  • The group of experts laid out five practical outcomes that the UK should encourage the international community to work toward
  • They called on the UK government to convene an urgent international conference

LONDON: Experts in Britain are calling on the UK government to press the international community to broaden the definition of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to “avert an irreversible humanitarian disaster.”
In a letter sent to The Guardian newspaper, a group of experts, including former defense, national security and foreign policy chiefs, laid out five “practical outcomes” that the UK should encourage the international community to work toward.
The outcomes include meeting the UN’s appeal for humanitarian funding, preserving state delivery systems, resuming technical support to the country’s central bank to prevent economic collapse, reinstating the Afghan reconstruction trust fund and releasing some of the frozen Afghan foreign reserves so that salaries of essential workers can be paid and key social services maintained.
“But these measures are not enough to avert an irreversible humanitarian disaster,” the letter said, adding: “We believe the UK government needs to act in accordance with two fundamental principles: Afghan lives should not be used for political leverage; and economic and state collapse in Afghanistan is not in our own national interest.”
It called on the government to convene an urgent international conference, in partnership with the UN and key international partners, but to distinguish aid into two types: “Money that can be withheld to try to leverage political concessions from the Taliban, and money to enable government institutions to deliver basic human services and to keep the economy from collapsing.”
Afghanistan’s dire humanitarian situation has worsened following the Taliban takeover and withdrawal of the last remaining US troops. As a result, aid was suspended and many countries and international organizations froze the country’s assets.
The World Food Program said that it urgently needs $220 million per month this year as it ramps up operations to provide food and cash assistance to the more than 23 million Afghans facing severe hunger.
“The freezing of state assets and the cut in international funding for health and education risk tipping the country into a famine not seen before in Afghanistan’s 40 years of conflict. Economic collapse will cause death and suffering, and increase terrorism and migration,” the letter said.
Its authors include Valerie Amos, former UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs; Mark Lowcock, former UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs; and Mark Sedwill, former national security adviser, cabinet secretary and ambassador to Kabul, among others.
The letter added that the proposals do not seek to give any succour to the Taliban.
“Humanitarian agencies are ready and able to pay medical staff, teachers and other civil servants delivering public services. But they need the money to do so — far more than has yet been delivered. And they need a clear political mandate from donors, not least the US,” the signatories said.
The letter comes after Norway hosted a Taliban delegation for three days of talks in Oslo with Western officials and Afghan civil society representatives to discuss the deteriorating humanitarian situation.
“We are extremely concerned about the grave situation in Afghanistan, where millions of people are facing a full-blown humanitarian disaster. In order to be able to help the civilian population in Afghanistan, it is essential that both the international community and Afghans from various parts of society engage in dialogue with the Taliban,” said Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt.
She added that though the meetings did not represent a legitimate recognition of the Taliban, it was necessary to communicate with the country’s authorities to avoid worsening the humanitarian disaster.


Soldiers mutiny in Burkina Faso, govt dismisses talk of coup

Soldiers mutiny in Burkina Faso, govt dismisses talk of coup
Updated 23 January 2022

Soldiers mutiny in Burkina Faso, govt dismisses talk of coup

Soldiers mutiny in Burkina Faso, govt dismisses talk of coup
  • Mutineers demand resignations of top security officials

OUAGADOUGOU: Sustained gunfire rang out from military camps in Burkina Faso on Sunday as mutinying soldiers demanded more support for their fight against Islamist militants and protesters ransacked the headquarters of President Roch Kabore’s political party.

The government called for calm, denying speculation on social media that the army had seized power or detained Kabore.

A spokesperson for the mutineers said they were demanding “appropriate” resources and training for the army in its fight against militants linked to Al-Qaeda and Daesh and the resignation of the army and intelligence chiefs.

Frustration in the West African gold-producing country has grown in recent months over deteriorating security.

The deaths of 49 military police in a militant attack in November prompted violent street protests calling for Kabore to step down.

Protesters in the streets of the capital Ouagadougou on Sunday urged the soldiers to go further, chanting “Free the country!”

The mutiny underlines the threat posed by growing insurgencies across West Africa’s Sahel region, a semi-arid strip of land beneath the Sahara Desert.

The militants have seized control of swathes of territory across Burkina Faso and its neighbors, Mali and Niger.

Heavy gunfire was first heard on Sunday at Ouagadougou’s Sangoule Lamizana camp, which houses a prison whose inmates include soldiers involved in a failed 2015 coup attempt.

Hundreds of people later came out in support of the mutineers.

At the Lamizana camp, where a crowd of about 100 sang the national anthem and chanted, the soldiers responded by firing into the air. It was not clear if this was meant to show support for the demonstrators or to disperse them.

In downtown Ouagadougou, near the Place de la Nation, police fired teargas to disperse around 300 protesters. Soldiers also fired into the air at an air base close to Ouagadougou International Airport.

The US Embassy also reported gunfire at three other military bases in Ouagadougou and at bases in the northern towns of Kaya and Ouahigouya.


Elephant deaths lift lid on Sri Lanka waste problem

Elephant deaths lift lid on Sri Lanka waste problem
Updated 23 January 2022

Elephant deaths lift lid on Sri Lanka waste problem

Elephant deaths lift lid on Sri Lanka waste problem
  • Open garbage dumps a growing hazard for wildlife — and humans, too

COLOMBO: Disturbing images of a herd of elephants grazing in a garbage pit in Ampara, in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, have been making the rounds ever since media reports suggested that many had died after ingesting plastic waste. 

The reports estimate at least 20 of the elephants that fed on the open dump had died in the past eight years.

While conservationists question the findings, saying ingestion of plastic is not directly linked to the animals’ deaths, the issue reveals a broader problem: Sri Lanka’s poorly regulated garbage disposal.

The island generates about 7,000 tons of solid waste a day, most of which lands in unchecked open dumps. Landfill sites, banned in many countries, are often close to forest cover or water sources, and wild animals have begun to see them as sources of food.

“About 75 percent of the garbage dumps in the country are open dumps,” Pubudu Weerarathne, director of the Species Conservation Center at the University of Colombo, told Arab News.

“Animals get used to the taste of human food and begin to look for it more.”

He added: “In the case of elephants, this leads to raids and more conflict with humans. And then, of course, there is the more direct impact on their health as a result of ingesting waste.”

But it is not plastic waste that proves lethal for elephants, which are protected by their simple digestive systems. Cattle and deer often die a painful death as polythene stays in their bodies, leading to bowel obstruction.

The body of a wild elephant lies in an open landfill in Pallakkadu village in Ampara district, about 210 kilometers east of the capital Colombo, Sri Lanka.  (AP)

“Elephants are what we call ‘hindgut fermenters,’” Prof. Prithiviraj Fernando, an expert in research relating to elephants and human-elephant conflict, told Arab News.

“Their digestive systems are less complex than that of ruminants like cattle. As a result, plastics and polythene don’t get stuck in the digestive system, but pass through.”

Even though plastic waste is not the immediate cause of elephant deaths, landfills are no less hazardous for the animals. Some die from poisoning after eating fermented organic matter.

Dr. Tharaka Prasad, wildlife health director at the Department of Wildlife Conservation, said the process through which bacteria break down food refuse makes it dangerous for animals.

“Anaerobic digestion causes excretion of toxins into the food environment, which in turn can lead to a collapse of bowel movement, consequently causing partial paralysis of the gut, ending in death,” he said.

But the greatest danger for the animals comes as they encroach human settlements while feeding on landfills.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • In 2019, Sri Lanka recorded 407 elephant deaths due to conflict with humans — the highest in the world.
  • Most of Sri Lanka’s 7,000 tons of solid waste generated everyday lands in unchecked open dumps.

“More elephants die as a result of gunshot wounds, or hakka patas,” U.L. Taufeek, deputy director for elephants at the wildlife department, said, referring to small, improvised explosive devices in the shape of firecrackers that people use to scare animals away from villages.

There are about 5,000 elephants in the country, and the animals are a symbol of national and cultural pride. The Sri Lankan elephant, a subspecies of the Asian elephant, is classified as endangered.

Killing elephants is prohibited, but their deaths due to human-elephant conflict are commonplace. In 2019, 407 such deaths were reported in Sri Lanka — the highest rate in the world.

Elephants are not the only victims of ineffective waste management policies. In 2017, a landslide at the Meethotamulla dump in the capital Colombo killed 19 people.

Toxic landfill fires and pollution from the same dump, as well as in other parts of the country, have for years troubled local communities, with residents complaining of health complications.

“We have a huge waste management issue in this country,” Dr. Ajantha Perera, an environmentalist and campaigner for recycling, told Arab News.

The activist and academic, who contested the 2019 presidential election on the promise of addressing the country’s mounting garbage issue, said that national action plans and waste management policies have been in place for years.

“But until there is political will, there will be no change.”


Armenian president quits over lack of influence in ‘difficult times’

Armenian president quits over lack of influence in ‘difficult times’
Updated 23 January 2022

Armenian president quits over lack of influence in ‘difficult times’

Armenian president quits over lack of influence in ‘difficult times’
  • “This is not an emotionally-driven decision and it comes from a specific logic,” Sarkisian said
  • His role is largely ceremonial and executive power rests primarily with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan

YEREVAN: Armenian President Armen Sarkisian announced Sunday that he is resigning his largely symbolic position, citing the inability of his office to influence policy during times of national crisis.
“This is not an emotionally-driven decision and it comes from a specific logic,” Sarkisian said in a statement on his official website.
“The president does not have the necessary tools to influence the important processes of foreign and domestic policy in difficult times for the people and the country,” he said.
Sarkisian was at the center of a domestic political crisis last year that erupted in the wake of a war between Armenia and its long-standing rival Azerbaijan for control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
His role is largely ceremonial and executive power rests primarily with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
Sarkisian and Pashinyan had disagreed over a decision to remove the chief of the military’s general staff in the wake of the war and amid protests that brought thousands onto the streets of the Caucasus nation.
“I hope that eventually the constitutional changes will be implemented and the next president and presidential administration will be able to operate in a more balanced environment,” the statement added.
Sarkisian was born in 1953 in the capital Yerevan. He served as prime minister between 1996-1997, according to an official biography, before being elected president in March 2018.
Armenia’s economy has struggled since the Soviet collapse and money sent home by Armenians abroad has aided the construction of schools, churches and other infrastructure projects, including in Nagorno-Karabakh.


UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists

UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists
Updated 23 January 2022

UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists

UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists
  • Alex Chalk QC calls for “no hierarchy” in tackling militants after resentencing of neo-Nazi
  • UK police warn far-right radicalization on the rise, taking up more resources and higher proportion of live investigations

LONDON: The UK’s solicitor general has called for far-right and Islamist extremists to be punished equally, saying there should be “no hierarchy” when it comes to dealing with terrorists.

Alex Chalk QC was speaking after the Court of Appeal in London overturned an “unduly lenient” sentence handed down to a convicted neo-Nazi, Ben John, who as part of his punishment had been told to read novels by 18th-century writers, including Jane Austen, instead of extremist material. John was resentenced to two years in prison.

The solicitor general argued for the 22-year-old to receive a harsher sentence, telling the Independent: “Those who reach for terrorism to advance their warped worldview, whether that’s extreme right-wing terrorism or Islamist terrorism, or whether it’s anarchic terrorism, need to understand that the authorities will intervene and they should expect a robust penalty.”

UK police arrest twice as many people for suspected involvement in far-right activity as they do people of Asian ethnicity. 

In December 2021, Dean Haydon, the UK’s senior national coordinator for counterterrorism policing, told the Independent the far-right makes up around 13 percent of live terror cases.

Since March 2017, authorities have stopped 12 far-right plots, in addition to 18 planned by Islamists.

John was part of an increasing number of cases where police intervene early before attacks or escalation can be planned. He was convicted of possessing a document containing instructions on how to make explosives.

The far-right extremist previously had been referred to the UK’s counter-extremist Prevent program twice, but was found to have white supremacist, antisemitic and satanic material, including propaganda from the neo-Nazi terrorist groups National Action and Atomwaffen Division.

Chalk told the Independent: “We thought that, given all the circumstances — the nature of the terrorism manual he was in possession of, plus the failure to respond to respond to efforts to de-radicalize him through Prevent — meant that a suspended sentence didn’t meet the justice of the case and was insufficient to protect the public.”

He added: “Possession of these materials is not a minor offense, it’s a serious offense and rightly so. The point is that if somebody harbors an extremist mindset then those materials, if ready to hand, can be the very tool they need to perpetrate the atrocity. That’s why it’s so serious — it’s that unholy alliance of the terrorist manual and the warped worldview that can lead to really significant and dangerous outcomes. That’s why we make no apology for taking a robust approach.”

At John’s first trial, he was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence, and Judge Timothy Spencer QC asked him: “Have you ever read Dickens? Austen? Well, start now. Start with ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Shakespeare? Try ‘Twelfth Night.’ Dickens, start with ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and, if you have time, think about Hardy and think about Trollope.”

At the subsequent resentencing, Lord Justice Holroyde said the issue with the original sentence was not the instruction to read works of British literature in place of radicalizing material, but that the original suspended sentence was unlawful, and should have been custodial. 

“It was certainly a very lenient sentence, but we are not persuaded that in the circumstances in this case, the length of the term of imprisonment was itself unduly lenient. It is because the term was unlawful that we conclude it was unduly lenient,” he said.

Nick Lowles, CEO of pressure group Hope Not Hate, welcomed the new sentence.

“While prison often fails to rehabilitate and isn’t always the answer, (Spencer’s) baffling suggestion that Ben John read classic literature reduced the serious offenses he committed to a parody. The far right represents the fastest-growing threat of violence in Britain today.”