BEIJING: Cities across China further unwound Covid restrictions on Friday, loosening testing and quarantine rules in the wake of nationwide protests calling for an end to lockdowns and greater political freedoms.
Anger and frustration with China’s hardline pandemic response spilled onto the streets last weekend in widespread demonstrations not seen in decades.
China’s vast security apparatus has moved swiftly to smother the rallies, deploying a heavy police presence while boosting online censorship and surveillance of the population.
A number of cities have now begun loosening COVID-19 restrictions, such as moving away from daily mass testing — a tedious mainstay of life under Beijing’s stringent zero-Covid policy.
But sporadic localized clashes have continued to flare up.
Social media footage posted on Thursday night and geolocated by AFP showed dozens of people clashing with health workers in hazmat suits outside a school in Yicheng, in central China’s Hubei province.
The author of the post said people in the video were parents of students who had tested positive for the virus and been taken to quarantine facilities.
Parents are seen kneeling in front of the school gate, pleading to take their children home. Another video showed at least a dozen police officers at the scene.
Signs have emerged of a possible shift in the policy of sending positive cases to central quarantine facilities.
An analysis by state-run newspaper People’s Daily on Friday quoted a number of health experts supporting local government moves to allow patients to quarantine at home, which would be a marked departure from current rules.
When called on Friday, some officials in the Chaoyang district of Beijing said people who tested positive there would no longer have to go to central quarantine.
Authorities in the southern factory hub of Dongguan on Thursday also said those who meet “specific conditions” should be allowed to quarantine at home. They did not specify what those conditions would be.
The southern tech hub of Shenzhen on Wednesday rolled out a similar policy.
Central government officials have signaled that a broader relaxation of the zero-COVID-19 policy could be in the works.
Speaking at the National Health Commission Wednesday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the Omicron variant was weakening and vaccination rates were improving, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
A central figure behind Beijing’s pandemic response, Sun said this “new situation” required “new tasks.”
She made no mention of zero-COVID-19 in those remarks or in another meeting on Thursday, suggesting the approach, which has disrupted the economy and daily life, might soon be relaxed.
The southwestern metropolis of Chengdu from Friday no longer required a recent negative test result to enter public places or ride the metro, instead only demanding a green health code on an app confirming people have not travelled to a “high-risk” area.
Beijing also announced on Friday that using public transport in the city would no longer require a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours.
The day before, the capital’s health authorities called on hospitals not to deny treatment to people without a 48-hour test.
In January, a pregnant woman in the city of Xi’an miscarried after being refused hospital entry for not having a PCR result.
China has seen a string of deaths after treatment was delayed by COVID-19 restrictions, including the recent death of a four-month-old baby who was stuck in quarantine with her father.
Those cases became a rallying cry during the protests, with a viral post listing the names of those who died because of alleged negligence linked to the pandemic response.
Many other cities with virus outbreaks are allowing restaurants, shopping malls and even schools to reopen, in a clear departure from previous tough lockdown rules.
In the northwestern city of Urumqi, where a fire that killed 10 people spurred anti-lockdown protests, authorities announced Friday that supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and ski resorts would gradually be reopened.
The city of more than four million in the far-western Xinjiang region endured one of China’s longest lockdowns, with some areas shut from early August.
Trump kicks off White House campaign with events in New Hampshire, South Carolina
Rob Godfrey, a Columbia-based political strategist, said many Republicans are holding off on a Trump endorsement because of the wide range of possible candidates who could run for the party's nomination
Updated 29 January 2023
COLUMBIA, South Carolina: Former U.S. President Donald Trump hit the campaign trail on Saturday for the first time since announcing his bid to reclaim the White House in 2024, visiting two early-voting states and brushing aside criticism that his run was off to a slow start.
"I'm more angry now, and I'm more committed now, than I ever was," Trump, a Republican, told a small crowd at the New Hampshire Republican Party's annual meeting in Salem, before heading to Columbia, South Carolina, for an appearance alongside his leadership team in the state.
New Hampshire and South Carolina are among the first four states to hold presidential nominating contests, giving them outsized influence as candidates jockey for position.
In contrast to the raucous rallies in front of thousands of devotees that Trump often holds, Saturday's events were comparatively muted. In Columbia, Trump spoke to about 200 attendees, with Governor Henry McMaster and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina flanking him.
Once the undisputed center of gravity in the Republican Party, an increasing number of elected officials have expressed concerns about Trump's ability to beat Democratic President Joe Biden, if he decides to run again as is widely expected.
Numerous Republicans are considering whether to launch their own White House bids, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, widely seen as the biggest threat to Trump.
Several top Republicans in both states that Trump visited on Saturday - including New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley - are weighing presidential campaigns. Many high-ranking Republicans in New Hampshire, where Trump's 2016 victory confirmed his status as a top contender, say they are looking for an alternative.
There were several conspicuous absences in South Carolina, including the state party chairman, several Republican U.S. representatives from the state and South Carolina U.S. Senator Tim Scott, who has himself been floated as a potential Republican presidential candidate. Scott and others have cited scheduling conflicts.
Several Republican state lawmakers decided against attending after failing to gain assurances from Trump's team that doing so would not be considered an endorsement, according to a person with knowledge of the planning.
Rob Godfrey, a Columbia-based political strategist, said many Republicans are holding off on a Trump endorsement because of the wide range of possible candidates who could run for the party's nomination.
"I think there are a fair number of people that are keeping their powder dry because there's such a deep bench for Republicans this year," he said.
At both stops on Saturday, Trump echoed some of the themes that animated his first campaign, including railing against illegal immigration and China.
But he also emphasized social issues such as transgender rights and school curricula on race, perhaps in response to DeSantis, whose relentless focus on culture wars has helped build his national profile.
To be sure, Trump retains a significant base of support, particularly among the grassroots. While he loses in some head-to-head polls against DeSantis, he wins by significant margins when poll respondents are presented with a broader field of options.
Trump did not spent much time echoing his familiar grievances over the 2020 election, though he made allusions to his false claim that the election was stolen from him.
Since launching his campaign in November, Trump has maintained a relatively low profile. He called multiple conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives in early January to persuade them to vote for Kevin McCarthy, an ally, for the new Speaker.
Most brushed off his entreaties, though McCarthy was elected to the position after a bruising battle.
Unified global effort to repair Earth’s ozone layer infuses new life into climate change fight
Scientists say the hole in the planet’s shield, first detected in the 1980s, will return to normal by around 2066
Same cooperation seen under the 1987 Montreal Protocol needed to slow global warming, say experts
Updated 29 January 2023
LONDON: You cannot see it with the naked eye but high over your head, just above the altitude at which the highest-flying passenger jets cruise, there is a fragile layer of naturally occurring gas that shields all life on Earth from the deadly effects of the ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun.
This is the ozone shield, a belt of gas — specifically ozone, or O3, which is made of three oxygen atoms — formed by the natural interaction of solar ultraviolet radiation with O2, the oxygen we breathe.
Without it, we’d all be cooked. In the words of the UN Environment Program’s Ozone Secretariat, “long-term exposure to high levels of UV-B threatens human health and damages most animals, plants and microbes, so the ozone layer protects all life on Earth.”
But now, after decades of battling to save it — and us — scientists have announced that the hole in the ozone layer, which was detected in the 1980s, is healing.
The announcement this month is a victory for one of the greatest international scientific collaborations the world has ever seen. And, as the world struggles to tackle climate change, it is a timely and hugely encouraging demonstration of what the international community can achieve when it really puts its mind to something.
As the nations of the world prepare to gather at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, in the UAE, where in November they will be expected to account for the progress they have made toward the climate-change goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, the brilliant success of the ozone-saving 1987 Montreal Protocol can only be an inspiration.
The ozone layer, and its role in absorbing the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, was first identified by two French physicists, Charles Fabry and Henri Buisson, in 1913, but it was not until 1974 that an article in the journal Nature warned that we were in danger of destroying it.
Chemists F. Sherwood Rowland, of the University of California Irvine, and Mario Molina, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discovered that human-created gases, such as the chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, used in appliances and products such as fridges and aerosols, were destroying ozone.
In 1995, Rowland and Molina, together with Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.”
But, the Nobel citation continued, “the real shock came” in 1985, when scientists with the British Antarctic Survey, which had been monitoring the Antarctic ozone layer since 1957, detected “a drastic depletion of the ozone layer over the Antarctic.”
The size of the hole identified over the survey’s Halley and Faraday Antarctic research stations seemed to vary, which at first was a puzzle.
It is now understood, the BAS explains, “that during the polar winter, clouds form in the Antarctic ozone layer and chemical reactions in the clouds activate ozone-destroying substances.
“When sunlight returns in the spring, these substances — mostly chlorine and bromine from compounds such as CFCs and halons — take part in efficient catalytic reactions that destroy ozone at around 1 percent per day.”
The discovery “changed the world.” NASA satellites were used to confirm that “not only was the hole over British research stations, but it covered the entire Antarctic continent.”
This was the so-called “ozone hole” and, as Crutzen noted in his 1995 Nobel lecture, “it was a close call.”
He said: “Had Joe Farman and his colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey not persevered in making their measurements in the harsh Antarctic environment … the discovery of the ozone hole may have been substantially delayed and there may have been far less urgency to reach international agreement on the phasing out of CFC production.”
It was the work of the survey that led to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an agreement, adopted in 1987, that regulated the production and consumption of nearly 100 man-made chemicals identified as “ozone depleting substances.”
“There had been suggestions in the 1960s and 1970s that you could put gases into the atmosphere which would destroy ozone,” atmospheric scientist Professor John Pyle, former head of chemistry at the University of Cambridge and one of the four international co-chairs on the Scientific Assessment Panel for the Montreal Protocol, told Arab News.
“At the time there was also concern about the oxides of nitrogen from high-flying supersonic aircraft, such as Concorde, which could destroy ozone.
“But after Rowland and Molina published their paper, suggesting that CFC gases could get high enough up into the atmosphere to destroy ozone, there was about a decade during which this was just a theoretical idea before, thanks to the British Antarctic Survey, the ozone hole was discovered.”
The global reaction, choreographed by the UN and the World Meteorological Organization, was almost startlingly rapid.
The British Antarctic Survey paper was published in 1985, and by 1987 the Montreal Protocol had been agreed. In the words of the UN Environment Program: “The protocol is considered to be one of the most successful environmental agreements of all time.
“What the parties to the protocol have managed to accomplish since 1987 is unprecedented, and it continues to provide an inspiring example of what international cooperation at its best can achieve.”
Without doubt, millions of people have lived longer, healthier lives thanks to the Montreal Protocol. In 2019, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in the US alone the protocol had prevented 280 million cases of skin cancer, 1.6 million deaths, and 45 million cases of cataracts.
The battle is not over, however. It will take another four decades for the ozone layer to fully recover, according to the latest four-yearly report from the UN-backed Scientific Assessment Panel to the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances, which was published this month.
But according the “Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2022” report: “The phase out of nearly 99 percent of banned ozone-depleting substances has succeeded in safeguarding the ozone layer, leading to notable recovery of the ozone layer in the upper stratosphere and decreased human exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun.”
If current policies remain in place, it adds, “the ozone layer is expected to recover to 1980 values” — that is, before the appearance of the ozone hole — “by around 2066 over the Antarctic, by 2045 over the Arctic, and by 2040 for the rest of the world.”
This is “fantastic news,” Meg Seki, executive secretary of the UN Environment Program’s Ozone Secretariat, told Arab News. And it has had an additional benefit in the fight against global warming.
In 2016, an additional agreement, known as the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, resulted in the scaling down of production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, the compounds that were introduced to replace banned CFCs but which were found to be powerful climate change gases. It is estimated that by 2100, the Kigali Amendment will have helped to prevent up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming.
“The impact the Montreal Protocol has had on climate-change mitigation cannot be overstressed,” said Seki. “Over the past 35 years, the protocol has become a true champion for the environment.”
It is also a shining example of what could be achieved in the battle against climate change.
Sept. 16 each year is the UN’s International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer. As Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, said as he marked the occasion in 2021: “The Montreal Protocol … has done its job well over the past three decades. The ozone layer is on the road to recovery.”
He added: “The cooperation we have seen under the Montreal Protocol is exactly what is needed now to take on climate change, an equally existential threat to our societies.”
EU chief highlights support for Ukraine ahead of summit
North Korea slammed Washington’s decision to supply Ukraine with tanks, claiming the US is “further expanding the proxy war” to destroy Russia
Updated 29 January 2023
FRANKFURT: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said ahead of an EU-Ukraine summit next week that Ukraine had unconditional support from the bloc and that the country needed to prevail against Russian attacks to defend European values.
“We stand by Ukraine’s side without any ifs and buts,” von der Leyen said in a speech at an event of her party, the Christian Democrat CDU, in Duesseldorf, Germany.
Ukraine “is fighting for our shared values, it is fighting for the respect of international law and for the principles of democracy and that is why Ukraine has to win this war,” she said.
Von der Leyen and her fellow EU commissioners plan an EU-Ukraine summit on Feb. 3.
US President Joe Biden recently promised 31 Abrams tanks, one of the most powerful and sophisticated weapons in the US army, to help Kyiv fight off Moscow’s invasion.
North Korea slammed Washington’s decision to supply Ukraine with tanks, claiming the US is “further expanding the proxy war” to destroy Russia.
Along with China, Russia is one of the North’s few international friends and has previously come to the regime’s aid.
In a statement, Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, blamed Washington for the crisis in Ukraine, accusing it of “further crossing the red line” by sending the tanks.
“Lurking behind this is the US sinister intention to realize its hegemonic aim by further expanding the proxy war for destroying Russia,” she said in the statement.
Washington is “the arch criminal”, she added, and Pyongyang will “always stand in the same trench with the service personnel and people of Russia.”
“The world would be brighter, safer and calmer now if it were not for the US,” she said.
Other than Syria and Russia, North Korea is the only country to recognize the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, two Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has long held the line against increasing pressure on North Korea, even asking for relief from international sanctions for humanitarian reasons.
Kim Jong Un declared North Korea an “irreversible” nuclear state in September, and the country conducted sanctions-busting weapons tests nearly every month last year — including firing its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile.
Retired Gen. Petr Pavel wins Czech presidential election
Turnout in the EU and NATO member country of 10.5 million people was unusually high at 70 percent following an acrimonious campaign marked by controversy
Updated 29 January 2023
PRAGUE: Retired NATO general Petr Pavel beat a billionaire former prime minister in an election runoff to become the fourth president of the Czech Republic, official results showed.
Pavel, a former paratrooper, won 58 percent of votes while Andrej Babis scored 42 percent, with 99 percent of the vote counted, according to the Czech Statistical Office.
“I would like to thank those who voted for me and also those who did not but came to the polls, because they made it clear they honored democracy and cared about this country,” Pavel said after the results showed his victory.
“I can see that values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility have won in this election,” he added.
The 61-year-old Pavel will in March replace President Milos Zeman, an outspoken and divisive politician who fostered close ties with Moscow before making a U-turn when Russia invaded Ukraine last year.
I can see that values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility have won in this election.
Gen. Petr Pavel
Turnout in the EU and NATO member country of 10.5 million people was unusually high at 70 percent following an acrimonious campaign marked by controversy.
Babis and his family have been targeted by death threats, while Pavel was the victim of a hoax claiming he was dead as disinformation plagued the final campaign.
“Our community is somewhat hurt by the presidential campaign, by the multiple crises we have faced and are facing, but also by the political style that has recently prevailed here,” said Pavel.
“This has to change, and you have helped me to take the first step on the path towards this change.”
While the role is largely ceremonial, the Czech president names the government, picks the central bank governor and constitutional judges, and serves as commander of the armed forces.
Voting for Pavel in the small town of Dobrichovice southwest of Prague, Irena Cihelkova said that the new president should “be forthcoming and friendly, an asset for the country, and not make problems abroad like some other Czech statesmen.”
Pavel will be the fourth Czech president since the country’s independence following its peaceful split with Slovakia in 1993, four years after former Czechoslovakia shed four decades of totalitarian communist rule.
His predecessors were Vaclav Havel, an anti-communist dissident playwright who led the country from 1993-2003, economist Vaclav Klaus and Zeman.
A graduate of a military university, Pavel was decorated as a hero in the Serbo-Croatian war when he helped free French troops from a war zone.
He rose to chief of the Czech general staff and chair of NATO’s military committee.
Like Babis, Pavel was a member of the Communist Party in the 1980s.
But the man with a carefully trimmed beard and white hair, who has a passion for powerful motorbikes, has since become a strong advocate of EU and NATO membership.
“We have no better alternative. We should use all opportunities offered by membership and try to change that which we don’t like,” he said on his campaign website.
“Czechia is a sovereign state and a full member, therefore we can’t just sit quietly, nod and then slam the result. We have to be more active and, at the same time, constructive.”
Pavel has vowed to be an independent president unaffected by party politics and to continue to support aid to war-torn Ukraine as well as its bid to become an EU member.
“Naturally, Ukraine first has to meet all conditions to become a member, such as progress in battling corruption. But I believe it is entitled to get the same chance we got in the past,” he said.
Finnish, Swedish FMs: NATO membership process hasn’t stopped
To admit new countries, NATO requires unanimous approval from its existing members, of which Turkiye is one
Hungary and Turkiye are the only countries in the 30-member Western military alliance that haven't signed off on Finland’s and Sweden’s application
Updated 28 January 2023
HELSINKI: The foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland reiterated in separate interviews published Saturday that the process for the two Nordic nations to join NATO is continuing despite Turkiye’s president saying Sweden shouldn’t expect his country to approve its membership.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström acknowledged in an interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen that Turkish anger over recent demonstrations and the burning of the Qur’an in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm had complicated Sweden’s NATO accession.
To admit new countries, NATO requires unanimous approval from its existing members, of which Turkiye is one. Despite this, the Swedish government is hopeful of joining NATO this summer, Billström said.
“It goes without saying that we’re looking toward the (NATO) summit in Vilnius,” Lithuania’s capital, in July, Billström told Expressen when asked of the timetable for Sweden’s possible accession.
Hungary and Turkiye are the only countries in the 30-member Western military alliance that haven’t signed off on Finland’s and Sweden’s applications.
While Hungary has pledged to do so in February, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday that a planned meeting in Brussels to discuss Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership was postponed.
Such a meeting would have been “meaningless” following the events of last weekend in Stockholm, Cavusoglu said. They included protests by pro-Kurdish groups and the burning of Islam’s holy book outside the Turkish Embassy by a far right Danish politician, Rasmus Paludan.
Expressen quoted Billström on Saturday as saying that the work to get Sweden and Finland into NATO was not on hold.
“The NATO process has not paused. The (Swedish) government continues to implement the memorandum that exists between Sweden, Finland and Turkiye. But it is up to Turkiye to decide when they will ratify,” he said.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto echoed his Swedish counterpart and said the two countries planned to continue making a joint journey toward NATO.
“In my view, the road to NATO hasn’t closed for either country,” Haavisto said in an interview with Finnish public broadcaster YLE.
He said that Ankara’s announcement to defer trilateral talks with Finland, Sweden and Turkiye for now “represents an extension of time from the Turkish side, and that the matter can be revisited after the Turkish elections” set for May 14.
Haavisto said he was hopeful that time frame would allow for Finland and Sweden’s membership to be finalized at the July 11-12 NATO summit in Lithuania.