China will bring cruise ships to Spratly islands

China will bring cruise ships to Spratly islands
In this May 6, 2016 photo, soldiers from the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy watch as the USS Blue Ridge arrives at a port in Shanghai. (AP)
Updated 23 June 2016

China will bring cruise ships to Spratly islands

China will bring cruise ships to Spratly islands

BEIJING: Chinese cruise ships will regularly bring tourists to the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea by 2020, reports said Wednesday, as tensions mount in the region. Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the strategically vital South China Sea, despite rival claims from Southeast Asian neighbors, and has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
Chinese companies already operate cruises — for Chinese nationals only — to the Paracel Islands.
A new proposal seeks to develop routes to the Spratlys, much further south, said the China Daily, which is published by the government.


Ghani appoints new officials after setbacks in Afghanistan

Ghani appoints new officials after setbacks in Afghanistan
Updated 33 min 39 sec ago

Ghani appoints new officials after setbacks in Afghanistan

Ghani appoints new officials after setbacks in Afghanistan
  • Taliban seized 10 more districts on Friday amid withdrawal of US-led foreign troops

KABUL: President Ashraf Ghani replaced his ministers of interior and defense on Saturday after several territorial gains by the Taliban and the surrender of hundreds of government troops to the insurgent group in recent weeks.

The Taliban have captured dozens of small bases and districts across Afghanistan since May 1, when US-led foreign troops began withdrawing from the war-torn country as part of the last phase of their combat mission, amid stalled aerial support for Afghan forces.

In a statement on Saturday, the presidential palace said that under Ghani’s latest order, Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi would succeed Assaduallah Khalid as defense minister while Kunduz’s governor, Abdul Sattar Mirzakawal, will replace Hayatullah Hayat as the interior minister. 

Mohammadi, a senior member of a faction involved in Afghanistan’s politics, war and economy, has served in the past as both interior and defense minister.

He is accused of squandering tens of millions of dollars of US aid in his previous role as defense minister and is an ally of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, head of the national reconciliation council, who has shared power with Ghani since 2014.

Officials in Ghani’s office refused to comment on the move when contacted by Arab News on Saturday.

However, the development comes amid rising complaints by lawmakers and civilians over Ghani’s poor performance as commander-in-chief, and the interior and defense ministers’ failure to curb the Taliban’s gains.

“At least 10 districts in various regions across the country have been taken over by the Taliban since Friday,” two security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the media, told Arab News.

Before that, the Taliban seized more than 25 districts in recent weeks. Afghanistan comprises 34 provinces and at least 420 districts.

Hundreds of security forces have also surrendered to the insurgent group since May 1, when foreign troops began their exit from Afghanistan, which is expected to be completed by Sept. 11.

The loss of territory to the Taliban comes amid divisions among government leaders, particularly between Ghani and Abdullah, over the distribution of power and government resources.

Experts say that the issue of war management cannot be resolved by replacing officials.

“... because apart from division among leaders over which ministry should go to who, Ghani’s inner circle is a group of young people who have no experience in war, and they are dealing with war management,” Taj Mohammad, a Kabul-based analyst, told Arab News.

“The new appointments will have some symbolic and psychological short-term importance, but I doubt they will change much in favor of the government.”


Indonesians call for tighter curbs after 500% surge in COVID-19 cases

Indonesians call for tighter curbs after 500% surge in COVID-19 cases
Updated 36 min 59 sec ago

Indonesians call for tighter curbs after 500% surge in COVID-19 cases

Indonesians call for tighter curbs after 500% surge in COVID-19 cases
  • On Saturday, Indonesia reported 12,906 new infections, raising the total tally to 1,976,172 cases

JAKARTA: Calls are mounting for the Indonesian government to restrict public movement again after the country saw a 500 percent rise in COVID-19 cases in one month.

The daily tally of new COVID-19 infections rose from 2,385 on May 15 to 12,624 on June 17, according to official data. The surge was expected, especially after the Eid Al-Fitr holiday when millions of people traveled between cities on Indonesia’s most populated island of Java, despite a travel ban imposed at the end of Ramadan.

Experts say the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, which was first detected in India and is more virulent, could have compounded the problem.

On Saturday, Indonesia reported 12,906 new infections, raising the total tally to 1,976,172 cases. 

The capital city, Jakarta, registered 4,737 cases on Friday, which its governor, Anies Baswedan, described as “the highest number ever recorded during the pandemic.”

On Saturday, however, Jakarta set a new record with 4,895 new cases.

“The spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases has been occurring gradually for the past ten weeks, even though initially the surge was gradual,” Masdalina Pane, an expert on health policies and epidemiologist at the Indonesian Epidemiologists Association, told Arab News on Saturday.

“We have issued warnings since the start, but it fell on deaf ears because the rise was insignificant,” she added.

Pane alleged that the issue began after the government reduced the mandatory self-quarantine for international arrivals — and those in close contact with someone infected with the coronavirus — from 14 days to five days from earlier this year.

At the end of April, Indonesia banned arrivals from India for two weeks.

“We could have prevented the new variants from entering Indonesia by mandating 14 days quarantine for international arrivals,” she said.

“We are harvesting the results of policies that disregards the basic principles of disease control,” she added.

On Friday, medical associations issued a joint call for the central government to impose wide-scale restrictions on public activity across Java.

Doctors said that hospitals in cities on the island were running out of bed space while the health care system could collapse unless the government intervened to curb the spread of the disease.

“Don’t let us become the second India,” Erlina Burhan of the Indonesian Association of Pulmonologists (PDPI) said in a virtual press conference.

Aman Pulungan, chairman of the Indonesian Pediatric Society (IDAI), also called on limiting children’s outdoor activities at a time when the government is set to reopen schools for the next academic year.

“The national data on COVID-19 cases showed that 12.5 percent of the cases are children; it means that one in every eight patients is a child,” Pulungan said, adding that the association’s data showed Indonesia’s case-fatality rate on children infected with the coronavirus is up to 5 percent or “the highest in the world.”

Meanwhile, thousands of citizens have signed an online petition to President Joko Widodo urging him to step up the government’s response to the health crisis.

“We have almost 2,000 signatures so far since we distributed the letter on Friday afternoon. We want to draw the president’s attention to the surge of cases and the few availability of beds to treat COVID-19 patients and for those who need to self-isolate,” Irma Hidayana, public health consultant and founder of Lapor COVID-19 (Report COVID-19) community movement, which initiated the letter, told Arab News.


Duterte’s special envoy arrives in Saudi Arabia to enhance bilateral, trade ties

Duterte’s special envoy arrives in Saudi Arabia to enhance bilateral, trade ties
Updated 43 min 24 sec ago

Duterte’s special envoy arrives in Saudi Arabia to enhance bilateral, trade ties

Duterte’s special envoy arrives in Saudi Arabia to enhance bilateral, trade ties
  • The Filipino delegation includes Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs Sarah Lou Arriola and Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary for Global Media and Public Affairs J. V. Arcena

MANILA: President Rodrigo Duterte’s Special Envoy and Presidential Assistant on Foreign Affairs Robert E. A. Borje began his five-day official visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday to enhance bilateral ties and labor reforms cooperation and ensure the “well-being of Filipino workers” in the Kingdom.

During the visit, which ends on June 24, Borje is also expected to convey Duterte’s key messages to Saudi Arabia on the “importance of partnership and cooperation between the two countries.”

In a statement on Friday, the Malacañang said the visit was in line with the president’s promise of “kalinga and malasakit,” or care and concern, for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), especially in light of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Filipino officials are expected to hold talks with Saudi authorities from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development and the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking on Sunday.

The Filipino delegation includes Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs Sarah Lou Arriola and Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary for Global Media and Public Affairs J. V. Arcena.

“We are now in Saudi Arabia. Tonight, we have a virtual town hall meeting with the Filipino community. Meetings with the Saudi side will start tomorrow,” Arcena said in a message to Arab News on Saturday.

The group will also meet officials from the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, the Philippine Consulate General in Jeddah and members from the expatriate community and overseas repatriation missions for Filipinos affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the second time Duterte has assigned Borje as a special envoy. In 2019, he was designated for a visit to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Tunisia to check on OFWs in North Africa and the Middle East.

The Philippines and Saudi Arabia marked 50 years of diplomatic ties in 2019, with President Duterte congratulating King Salman for the Kingdom’s “landmark” Labor Reform Initiative, which, among other benefits, abolished the kafala system for migrant workers last year.

In a phone call with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in May, Duterte renewed the Philippines’ commitment to strengthen bilateral and trade ties and intensify cooperation on migrant workers’ rights.

He also conveyed his appreciation for the Kingdom’s free COVID-19 vaccinations for Filipinos and the financial assistance extended to the Philippine health sector during outgoing Saudi Ambassador to the Philippines Abdullah N.A. Al-Bussairy’s farewell event in the Malacañang last week.

Al-Bussairy assured the president of the Saudi government’s continued support to the Philippines, including in the international fora and with regard to migrant workers’ rights.

He also underscored the contributions of Filipino workers to Saudi Arabia’s socio-economic development and added that the Kingdom is working to increase two-way trade and investments with the Philippines to facilitate the country’s economic recovery.

Meanwhile, the Malacañang said on Saturday that Borje’s visit to the Kingdom kicked off with the repatriation of 347 distressed Filipinos, including five children affected by the pandemic.

In a statement, Borje expressed gratitude on behalf of the president to the embassy in Riyadh, the consulate general in Jeddah, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the king and crown prince for making the repatriation possible.

The repatriates flew home via a Philippine Airlines chartered flight as part of the Philippine government’s repatriation mission from Saudi Arabia, with a second repatriation flight expected next week.

Upon arrival in Manila, the repatriates will receive cash assistance from the Philippine government, as instructed by the president.

As of Friday, 403,234 OFWs have been repatriated by the government since the start of the pandemic. Some 105,582 are seafarers, while 297,652 are land-based workers.

Saudi Arabia hosts more than 800,000 Filipinos, the highest in any Gulf state, according to a 2020 government estimate. About half work as domestic laborers, while others are employed in the Kingdom’s construction, outsourcing and health care sectors.


Russia reports 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, 466 deaths

Russia reports 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, 466 deaths
Updated 19 June 2021

Russia reports 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, 466 deaths

Russia reports 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, 466 deaths
  • The government coronavirus task force confirmed 466 coronavirus-related deaths in the past 24 hours

MOSCOW: Russia on Saturday reported 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, including a record 9,120 in Moscow, pushing the national infection tally up to 5,299,215 since the pandemic began.
The government coronavirus task force confirmed 466 coronavirus-related deaths in the past 24 hours, raising the death toll to 128,911.
The state statistics agency, which keeps separate figures, has said Russia recorded around 270,000 deaths related to COVID-19 from April 2020 to April 2021.


Singapore sees early rush for Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine

Singapore sees early rush for Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine
Updated 19 June 2021

Singapore sees early rush for Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine

Singapore sees early rush for Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine
  • Singapore has vaccinated almost half its 5.7 million population with at least one dose of the vaccines
  • Singapore allowed the usage of the Sinovac vaccine by private health care institutions under a special access route

SINGAPORE: Offering Sinovac Biotech COVID-19 vaccines to the public in Singapore for the first time since Friday, several private clinics reported overwhelming demand for the Chinese-made shot, despite already available rival vaccines having far higher efficacy.
Singapore has vaccinated almost half its 5.7 million population with at least one dose of the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Both have shown efficacy rates of well over 90 percent against symptomatic disease in clinical trials, compared with Sinovac’s 51 percent.
Earlier this week, officials in neighboring Indonesia warned that more than 350 medical workers have caught COVID-19 despite being vaccinated with Sinovac and dozens have been hospitalized, raising concerns about its efficacy against more infectious variants.
Evidence from other countries showed people who had taken the Sinovac vaccine were still getting infected, Kenneth Mak, Singapore’s director of medical services, said on Friday. “There is a significant risk of vaccine breakthrough,” he said, referring to the report on Indonesian health care workers.
A number of the people rushing for the Sinovac shot on the first day of its availability in Singapore were Chinese nationals, who felt it would make it easier to travel home without going through quarantine.
Singapore allowed the usage of the Sinovac vaccine by private health care institutions under a special access route, following an emergency use approval by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this month. Singapore said it is awaiting critical data from Sinovac before including it in the national vaccination program.
Meantime, authorities have selected 24 private clinics to administer its current stock of 200,000 doses. The clinics are charging between S$10-25 ($7.5-$18.6) per dose.
“We have about 2,400 bookings, so that stretches from right now until end of July,” Louis Tan, CEO at StarMed Specialist Center, said on Saturday. He said many of those who made the Sinovac bookings tend to be in their 40s and above.
Wee Healthfirst, another approved clinic, put a notice at its entrance on Friday, saying it had stopped reservations for the vaccine until next Thursday, citing “overwhelming demand.” A receptionist said about 1,000 people had registered there.
Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases doctor at Rophi Clinic, also said he had been “overwhelmed” by people wanting the Sinovac shot.
Tang Guang Yu, a 49-year-old engineer, was among the Chinese nationals resident in Singapore who waited for the Sinovac shot rather than take a foreign-made vaccine that he thought might not be recognized by authorities back home.
“No one wants to be quarantined for a month, I don’t have so many days of leave,” Tang told Reuters as he queued outside a clinic.
Travelers to China may have to be quarantined at a facility and at home for up to a month depending on their destination city, regardless of vaccination status, according to the Chinese government website.
Other people said they have more confidence in the Sinovac vaccine since it is based on conventional technology, while those developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna use a newly developed messenger RNA platform.
“The mRNA technology has been around for 30 years, but it has never been injected into human until recently due to COVID-19 emergency, how safe it is?” asked Singaporean Chua Kwang Hwee, 62, as he lined up outside a clinic to enquire about getting the Sinovac shot.
Singapore’s health ministry says persons with a history of allergic reaction or anaphylaxis to mRNA COVID-19 vaccine or its components as well as severely immunocompromised individuals should not receive the mRNA-based vaccines.
Sinovac vaccine uses an inactivated or killed virus that cannot replicate in human cells to trigger an immune response.
In recent weeks, several social media messages have popped up saying inactivated virus COVID-19 vaccines, like Sinovac’s, provide superior protection against variants than mRNA vaccines. Other messages on platforms have said the mRNA vaccines are less safe.
Authorities have rejected these claims, saying they are safe and highly effective.