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Ban on travel from Africa widens as new Covid variant sparks fear

WHO names new variant as Omicron which is more infectious than Delta: New virus reaches Europe 

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Ban on travel from Africa widens as new Covid variant sparks fear
GNN Media: Representational Photo

New York: The United States, Brazil, Canada, and Saudi Arabia became the latest countries to restrict travel from southern Africa, where a new Covid strain labelled a "variant of concern" has been discovered in a potentially heavy blow to the world's efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Health Organization said the new variant is more infectious than the dominant, highly transmissible Delta strain, and renamed this B.1.1.529 strain of Covid-19 as Omicron.

It has reached Europe with one confirmed case in Belgium after being found in South Africa, Botswana and then in Hong Kong.

Anxious tourists in Johannesburg rushed to the airport to catch a last flight out as nations across the globe started shutting their doors, while many worried the new variant could be more resistant to vaccines.

Markets around the world plunged as news of the latest setback in the fight against the pandemic sank in.

US President Joe Biden said countries should donate more Covid-19 vaccines and give up intellectual property protections to manufacture more doses worldwide to stem the spread of the virus.

"The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations," he said.

Scientists are now racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, and whether the current coronavirus vaccines should be adjusted.

The WHO said it could take several weeks to understand the variant and cautioned against imposing travel curbs while scientific evidence was still scant.

EU officials holding an emergency meeting agreed to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from southern Africa, even though many members had already announced flight suspensions.

 

- 'Draconian' travel bans -

Europe is already struggling with a coronavirus surge, and the Netherlands on Friday became the latest country to ramp up anti-Covid restrictions with the early closure of bars, restaurants and shops.

"From Sunday, the whole of the Netherlands is effectively closed between 5pm and 5am," Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.

Belgium announced the first publicly known case of B.1.1.529 in Europe: an unvaccinated person who returned on November 11 from Egypt via Turkey. The health ministry did not give the individual's nationality, age or gender.

"It must be repeated that this is a suspect variant -- we don't know if it is a very dangerous variant," Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said.

Israel said it has quarantined three people, one having just returned from Malawi.

Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Cyprus and the Netherlands joined Britain Friday in suspending flights from southern Africa. 

The United States, Brazil, Canada and Guatemala also restricted travel from the region. The US measures go into force on Monday.

Japan said it will require a 10-day quarantine period for travelers from the area.

The shock measures included South Africa, as well as many of the following: Botswana, Eswatini (Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

South Africa's health ministry called the global rush to impose travel bans "draconian."

Germany on Friday used a military plane to transfer intensive-care patients to less afflicted regions, in an unprecedented move as it battles a vicious fourth wave of the pandemic.

"The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant," Germany's acting health minister Jens Spahn said.

The Philippines also suspended flights from southern Africa, while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco announced bans, as well.

 

- 'Ridiculous' -

The rush to close off southern Africa comes a day after scientists in Johannesburg said they had detected the new strain with at least 10 mutations, compared with two for the Delta.

The variant is of "serious concern" and had been blamed for a surge in infection numbers, authorities in South Africa said. 

Spooked European markets fell at close by three percent, with airline shares especially hit. Tokyo closed down 2.53 percent.

The new variant caused Wall Street to plunge in Friday's holiday shortened session, with the Dow Jones index suffering its worst loss of the year as it plunged 2.5 percent.

And next week's World Trade Organization ministerial conference, the global trade body's biggest gathering in four years, was called off at the last minute Friday due to the new variant, a source told AFP.

The European Medicines Agency said it was "premature" to talk about modifying current vaccines to target the new variant.

Germany's BioNTech and US drugmaker Pfizer said they were studying the variant, with impact data expected "in two weeks at the latest" to say whether their jointly developed vaccine should be adjusted if Omicron spreads globally.

But Moderna said it will develop a booster specific to the new variant as part of a three-pronged strategy to fight it.  

Omicron variant poses 'high to very high' risk to Europe

The new Covid variant, dubbed Omicron and originally detected in South Africa, poses a "high to very high" risk to Europe, the EU health agency warned on Friday.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) noted in a threat assessment report that there was still "considerable uncertainty related to the transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness, risk for reinfections and other properties of the Omicron variant."

However, the overall risk that Omicron posed to the European Union and European Economic Area (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) was "high to very high."

Given the possibility that current vaccines may not protect against the variant, and the fact that it may be more transmissible, "we assess the probability of further introduction and community spread in the EU/EEA as high," the Stockholm-based agency said. 

"In a situation where the Delta variant is resurgent in the EU/EEA, the impact of the introduction and possible further spread of Omicron could be very high," it added. 

Apart from South Africa, Omicron has been detected in Israel in a person coming from Malawi as well as in Botswana, Hong Kong and EU member Belgium.

The agency urged countries to conduct genomic sequencing and contact tracing of confirmed cases, and called for people to not travel to affected areas.

The World Health Organization on Friday declared the recently-discovered strain to be a variant of concern.

The classification puts Omicron into the most-troubling category of Covid-19 variants, along with the globally-dominant Delta, plus its weaker rivals Alpha, Beta and Gamma.

Nations rushed to ban flights to slow the spread of Omicron on Friday, while stock markets and oil prices plunged on fears surrounding the variant, potentially dealing a heavy blow to the global economic recovery.

SOURCE: AFP

Siddra Sumreen

Syeda Siddra has been working as a web journalist for over the past seven years. She earned her M.Phil degree in Mass Communication from the Lahore Leads University. Ms. Siddra has previously worked with other renowned channels and is now associated with GNN as Senior Content Writer.

Pakistan

Govt wants to hold talks with opposition for reforms in electoral process, says Fawad

“Such a leader not considered respectful,” Fawad said.

Published by Mehak Javed

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Govt wants to hold talks with opposition for reforms in electoral process, says Fawad

Islamabad: Minister for Information and Broadcasting Chaudhry Fawad Hussain Monday said that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government wants to hold talks with the opposition for reforms in electoral process and judicial as well as accountability systems. 

On his official twitter handle, the federal minister said this is not possible without negotiations with the opposition. 

However, minister said, the corrupt leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is not interested to discuss any issue except relief in this cases. 

He further added that if the PML-N detaches itself from the ‘Sharif family’, it would be a positive development.  

“The political parties need to change the leadership involved in moral and financial corruption,” added minister. 

Criticizing PML-N’s Supremo, Fawad said that Nawaz Sharif left his workers behind and went to London in difficult times.

“Such a leader not considered respectful,” he said.

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Taliban pledge to open all schools for girls after March 21

Taliban say they hope to be able to open all schools for girls across the country after late March.

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Taliban pledge to open all schools for girls after March 21

Kabul: Afghanistan s new Taliban rulers say they hope to be able to open all schools for girls across the country after late March, their spokesman told The Associated Press, offering the first timeline for addressing a key demand of the international community.

Since the Taliban takeover in mid-August, girls in most of Afghanistan have not been allowed back to school beyond grade 7. The international community, reluctant to formally recognize a Taliban-run administration, is wary they could impose similar harsh measures as during their previous rule 20 years ago. At the time, women were banned from education, work and public life.

Zabihullah Mujahid, who is also the Taliban s deputy minister of culture and information, said their education departments are looking to open classrooms for all girls and women following the Afghan New Year, which starts on March 21. Afghanistan, like neighbouring Iran, observes the Islamic solar Hijri Shamsi calendar.

Education for girls and women “is a question of capacity,” Mujahid said in the interview.

Girls and boys must be completely segregated in schools, he said, adding that the biggest obstacle so far has been finding or building enough dorms, or hostels, where girls could stay while going to school. In heavily populated areas, it is not enough to have separate classrooms for boys and girls — separate school buildings are needed, he said.

“We are not against education,” Mujahid stressed, speaking at a Kabul office building with marble floors that once housed Afghan attorney general s offices and which the Taliban have adopted for their culture and information ministry.

The Taliban dictates so far have been erratic, varying from province to province. Girls have not been allowed back to classrooms in state-run schools beyond grade 7, except in about 10 of the country s 34 provinces. In the capital, Kabul, private universities and high schools have continued to operate uninterrupted. Most are small and the classes have always been segregated.

“We are trying to solve these problems by the coming year,” so that schools and universities can open, Mujahid said.

The international community has been skeptical of Taliban announcements, saying it will judge them by their actions — even as it scrambles to provide billions of dollars to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that the UN chief this week warned could endanger the lives of millions.

With a breakdown of services and only sporadic electricity in the bitterly cold Afghan winters, most people rely on firewood and coal for heat. Among the hardest hit are some 3 million Afghans who live as refugees within their own country, having fled their homes because of war, drought, poverty or fear of the Taliban.

Earlier this month, the United Nations launched a $5 billion appeal for Afghanistan, the single largest appeal for one country.

Washington has spent $145 billion on reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime. Yet even before the Taliban recaptured the country, the poverty rate was 54 per cent —and a 2018 Gallup poll revealed unprecedented misery among Afghans.

Mujahid appealed for economic cooperation, trade and “stronger diplomatic relations.” So far, neither Afghanistan s neighbours nor the United Nations seem ready to grant formal recognition which would help open up the Afghan economy. However, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for greater economic development, saying it s critical to rapidly inject liquidity into the Afghan economy “and avoid a meltdown that would lead to poverty, hunger and destitution for millions.”

The international community has called for a more representative government that includes women as well as ethnic and religious minorities. While all members of the new Taliban Cabinet are men and most are Taliban members, Mujahid said there are exceptions, such as the deputy finance minister and officials in the economics ministry who are holdovers from the previous, US-backed administration.

Mujahid also said 80 per cent of civil servants who have returned to work were employees under the previous administration. Women are working in the health and education sector and at Kabul International Airport in customs and passport control, he added. He did not say if or when women would be allowed to return to work in government ministries.

He also told the AP that most of the new government s revenue will come from customs that the Taliban will collect at border crossings with Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian nations to the north. Without offering figures, he claimed the Taliban have brought in more revenue in their first four months in power than the previous government in over a year.

He appealed to Afghans who have fled to return to their homeland. Since the takeover, there have been cases of opponents arrested, journalists beaten, rights workers threatened and demonstrations by women dispersed by heavily armed Taliban troops firing in the air.

Mujahid acknowledged incidents of Taliban members harassing Afghan civilians, including humiliating young men and forcibly cutting their hair.

“Such crimes happen, but it is not the policy of our government," he said, adding that those responsible were arrested.

“This is our message. We have no dispute with anyone and we don t want anyone to remain in opposition or away from their country.”

SOURCE: AP

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Mali ex-president Keita dies two years after coup ouster

Mali’s interim government issued a statement hailing the memory of the illustrious Keita

Published by Faisal Waqas

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Mali ex-president Keita dies two years after coup ouster

Bamako: Mali’s former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who led the West African country from 2013 until he was ousted in a coup in 2020, died at the age of 76 in the capital Bamako on Sunday, his family said.

Looming over most of Keita’s presidency was the militant insurgency that has rocked the poor Sahel country since 2012, while his toppling marked the rise of the military junta which is now under regional sanctions for failing to restore civilian rule.

Mali’s interim government issued a statement hailing “the memory of the illustrious” Keita, adding that the former president died “after a long illness”.

Keita was forced out of office on August 18, 2020, by young military officers who staged an uprising at a base near Bamako before heading into the city, where they seized Keita and other leaders.

Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said he was “saddened to learn of the death of former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita”, adding that “it is with great emotion that I bow before his memory”.

Macky Sall, president of neighbouring Senegal, said in a Tweet he was “saddened” by the news, while Niger’s ex-president Mahamadou Issoufou, a former comrade of Keita’s in the Socialist International, hailed him as “a cultured man, a great patriot and a pan-Africanist”.

Politicians and other public figures went to Keita’s home southwest of Bamako to offer their condolences, with police guarding the entrances, according to AFP journalists at the scene.

The government statement said funeral plans would be announced at a later date.

– Protests, coups –

In the weeks before the 2020 coup, Keita had been struggling with protests fuelled by his handling of the jihadist insurgency and failure to turn around Mali’s floundering economy.

Snail-paced political reforms, decrepit public services and schools, and a widely shared perception of government corruption also fed anti-Keita sentiment, driving tens of thousands of protesters into the streets.

Seized by the putschists, the junta that emerged from the rebellion — under pressure from the West African bloc ECOWAS — released Keita weeks later and returned him to his residence in Bamako, under surveillance.

He suffered a mini-stroke the following month and was sent to the United Arab Emirates for treatment. He had been based at his Bamako home since staying out of public life.

The ruling junta would stage another coup in May 2021, toppling a civilian transitional government.

The junta had vowed to hold elections next month to transition the country back to civilian rule. But at the end of the last year, the junta revised its timetable, saying it could stay in power for up to five years.

In response, ECOWAS agreed to sanction Mali earlier this month, imposing a trade embargo and shutting borders, in a decision backed by the United States, the European Union and former colonial power France.

Landlocked Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, is already feeling the effects of the sanctions, prompting thousands to protest in Bamako on Friday.

– Political veteran –

The son of a civil servant, Keita was born in the southern industrial city of Koutiala, the declining heartland of cotton production.

After studying literature in Mali, Senegal and France, Keita became an adviser for the EU’s overseas development fund before heading a development project in northern Mali.

He then rose through the ranks under Alpha Oumar Konare, the country’s first democratically elected president.

As a socialist prime minister between 1994 and 2000, he quelled a series of crippling strikes, earning a reputation as a firm leader and helping to set up his landslide election in 2013.

Keita was then re-elected in the 2018 elections, beating opposition leader Soumaila Cisse, who died in December 2020 of Covid.

Cisse’s kidnapping by jihadists in March 2020 further illustrated Keita’s inability to stop the violence, with rising public outrage culminating in the coup months later.

Source: AFP

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