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EU urges China to respect Hong Kong autonomy

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS - China must respect Hong Kong’s autonomy, the European Union said on Tuesday, amid controversy over Chinese plans to adopt a national security law for the city.

“We attach great importance to the preservation of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy in line with the Basic Law and international commitments,” European Council President Charles Michel, who represents European governments, said.

Speaking after a video conference with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he said Europe and Japan “share the same ideas” on China. “We are not naive about Chinese behaviour,” Michel said.

He said Europe supported the “one country, two systems” principle that governs Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has proposed a security law that would reduce Hong Kong’s separate legal status and is expected to be discussed by China’s National People’s Congress and approved on Thursday.

EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss the issue at a regular meeting on Friday. A spokeswoman for the EU’s executive Commission said it was too early to say if the bloc would consider sanctions against Beijing. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said on Monday that the EU needs a “more robust strategy” for Beijing.



Spain declares 10-day official mourning for coronavirus victims

MADRID - The Spanish government declared a 10-day official mourning period from Wednesday to honour the nearly 30,000 people who died from the coronavirus pandemic in one of the world’s worst-hit countries, government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero said.

During the mourning period, flags will fly at half-mast all over the country’s public buildings and navy ships, she told a news briefing after a cabinet meeting.

The period will end with an official ceremony led by the head of state in remembrance of the 26,834 fatalities recorded in the country. Spain has reported a total of 235,400 confirmed cases of the disease.


UK COVID-19 death toll tops 47,000 as pressure heaps on PM Johnson

By Andy Bruce

LONDON - The United Kingdom’s COVID-19 death toll surpassed 47,000 on Tuesday, a dire human cost that could define the premiership of Boris Johnson.

The Office for National Statistics said 42,173 people had died in England and Wales with suspected COVID-19 as of May 15, bringing the UK total to 47,343 - which includes earlier data from Scotland, Northern Ireland, plus recent hospital deaths in England.

A death toll of nearly 50,000 underlined Britain’s status as one of the worst-hit countries in a pandemic that has killed at least 345,400 worldwide.

Johnson, already under fire for his handling of the pandemic, has had to defend his top adviser Dominic Cummings who drove 250 miles from London to access childcare when Britons were being told to stay at home to fight COVID-19.

One Johnson’s junior ministers, Douglas Ross, resigned on Tuesday in protest. Johnson has stood by Cummings, saying the aide had followed the “instincts of every father”.

The government says that while it may have made some mistakes it is grappling with the biggest public health crisis since the 1918 influenza outbreak and that it has ensured the health service was not overwhelmed.

Unlike the daily death toll published by the government, Tuesday’s figures include suspected cases and confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

But even these figures underestimate the true number of deaths.

In March, Britain’s chief scientific adviser said keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”. In April, Reuters reported the government’s worst-case scenario was 50,000 deaths.

Disease experts are watching the total number of deaths that exceed the usual for amount for the time of year, an approach that is internationally comparable.

The early signs suggest Britain is faring badly here too.

Excess deaths are now approaching 60,000 across the UK, ONS statistician Nick Stripe said, citing the latest data - a toll equivalent to the populations of historic cities like Canterbury and Hereford.



Europe: Millions of women facing insecurity and violence amidst Covid-19

LONDON - The COVID-19 pandemic has increased levels of insecurity and violence against women across Europe and, without focussed government attention, risks exacerbating gender inequalities and levels of discrimination, a guide by Amnesty International, Women's Link Worldwide and the International Planned Parenthood Federation warned today.

A Guide for Europe: Protecting the rights of women and girls in times of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath provides governments with a roadmap for taking necessary measures to protect the rights of women and girls, who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, especially those experiencing intersecting and persistent forms of discrimination.

“During this health crisis and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, women’s and girls’ rights must be respected and guaranteed,” said Viviana Waisman, President & CEO of Women’s Link Worldwide.

“These guidelines give us the framework to demand that European states comply with their obligations and maintain their commitment to the rights and lives of women and girls during this crisis and beyond.”

Domestic and sexual violence

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, one in five women suffered violence from their partner at home in Europe. Lockdowns and isolation measures to contain the spread of the virus have exposed women and girls to increased risks of domestic abuse at the hands of their partners or other family members, and often cut them off from the much-needed support.

Some European countries have taken measures to support women and girls at risk of domestic violence, but the pandemic has exposed the existing shortcomings of the responses in place, which in turn are limiting the capacity to react to the overwhelming needs during the crisis.

Data shows that reports of violence against women, and particularly domestic violence, have increased alarmingly in several countries. According to recent data by the World Health Organization, emergency calls have risen by up to 60 percent compared with last year in many European countries. In some countries, the authorities point to a decrease in domestic violence incident reports, which may indicate limited reporting options for women living under the same roof as their abuser.

For those affected by gender-based violence, including sexual violence, high levels of impunity and barriers to access to justice, have been one of the greatest challenges in the region even in pre-COVID-19 times. It is crucial that while taking appropriate public health measures, states must also live up to their international obligations to ensure due diligence in the investigation and prosecution of all gender-based violence cases, both during lockdowns and after restrictions are lifted.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Whilst some countries have enacted specific measures to ensure safe and timely access to essential sexual and reproductive health services, products and information during the pandemic, many have not. Some countries appear to be using the restrictions as an opportunity to further undermine or restrict access to sexual and reproductive rights.

Hospitals and clinics have reduced sexual and reproductive health services to a bare minimum, or closed them altogether due to staff shortages and reassignments, among other reasons. In many places, accessing normal clinical services has become extremely difficult.

“European governments must not exacerbate the harm caused to women by the COVID-19 crisis by failing to guarantee access to essential sexual and reproductive healthcare,” said Caroline Hickson, Regional Director of IPPF European Network.

“Restricting essential services is putting the lives, health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of women at risk. Countries that put care first have taken steps to protect the safety and freedom of women and girls. It can be done; there is no excuse to let women and girls down.”


All this is happening against the backdrop of grim economic prospects for millions of women and girls in Europe, post-COVID-19. The aftermath of the health crisis is expected to gravely impact women’s livelihoods, particularly those working in the care or informal sector and those who are already experiencing marginalisation. Women and girls’ needs and rights must be placed at the centre of the responses to COVID-19 and beyond.

Women who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, such as Roma, migrant or asylum-seeking women, sex workers, women with disabilities, trans women and others in situations of marginalisation, face an increased risk of being targeted by state agents and suffering harms including racial profiling. It is crucial that states ensure increased police powers do not affect these women disproportionately.

“Europe will not be the same after COVID-19. The pandemic is an unprecedented crisis with grave human rights consequences for women and girls. Paradoxically, this dark time gives us an opportunity to do more to overcome discrimination and inequality,” said Marie Struthers, Europe Regional Director, Amnesty International.

“We call on states to hear women’s voices and make the post-COVID-19 Europe a better place for all women and girls.”

The three organisations are urging the European governments to do everything in their power to ensure that human rights of women and girls are upheld and that they are not left behind.





New wave of locusts raises fear for summer crops in India

By Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI - A new wave of locust attacks has alarmed India’s farmers and experts warn of extensive crop losses if authorities fail to curb fast-spreading swarms by June when monsoon rains spur rice, cane, corn, cotton and soybean sowing.

Desert locusts have engulfed around 35,000 hectares in India’s seven heartland states, threatening some vegetable and pulse crops, government officials and farm experts said.

Despite large-scale infestations, the government and agricultural experts do not foresee major crop damage for now as it is the lean season - the gap between the previous harvest and the next planting season.

But experts warn that the federal and state governments will have to stop locusts in their tracks in the next couple of weeks to ensure that swarms do not end up devouring summer crops.

“Despite the unprecedented scale of the locust attack, we haven’t seen any major crop loss, but we’ve got a very short window to tackle the problem. Otherwise, we won’t be able to save our summer crops,” said Bhagirath Choudhary, director of the South Asia Biotech Centre, a non-profit scientific society.

India is battling its worst desert locust outbreak in decades with infestations radiating through much of the western states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, central state of Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, and Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the north.

Higher than normal temperatures have helped locusts spread more rapidly, Choudhary said.

Earlier this year, farmers salvaged their wheat and oilseed crops from a previous locust scourge.

India is determined to tackle the problem by bolstering the state-run Locust Warning Organization (LWO), said Kailash Choudhary, a junior minister for agriculture. The government has beefed up the LWO workforce and bought new equipment and vehicles to survey and spray insecticides, he said.



Afghan president releases Taliban prisoners

KABUL - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has started the process to release up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners as a "goodwill gesture", his spokesperson said, in a move that came after the government welcomed the armed group's surprise announcement of a three-day ceasefire during the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
The decision to release the prisoners was taken "to ensure success of the peace process", Ghani's spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on Twitter on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the ceasefire appeared to hold as there were no reports of clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces by the end of the first day on Sunday.
Ghani said a government delegation was "ready to immediately start the peace talks" with the Taliban.
Government negotiators would be headed by Ghani's former rival Abdullah Abdullah after the two signed a power-sharing deal last week that ended a months-long political crisis.(FA)

More patients than beds in Mumbai as India faces surge in virus cases

By Abhirup Roy

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI - When Manit Parikh’s mother tested positive for the new coronavirus, she was rushed by ambulance to Mumbai’s private Lilavati Hospital, but officials told the family no critical-care beds were available.

Five hours and dozens of phone calls later the family found a bed for her at the private Bombay Hospital. A day later, on May 18, Parikh’s 92-year-old diabetic grandfather had breathing difficulties at home and was taken to the city’s Breach Candy Hospital, another top private facility, but there were no beds.

“My dad was pleading with them,” Parikh told Reuters. “They said they didn’t have a bed, not even a normal bed.” Later that day, they found a bed at Bombay Hospital but his grandfather died hours later. His test results showed he was infected with the virus.

Parikh said he believes the delays contributed to his grandfather’s death. Officials at Lilavati and Bombay Hospital declined to speak with Reuters. Representatives of Breach Candy hospital did not respond to requests for comment.

For years, India’s booming private hospitals have taken some of the strain off the country’s underfunded and dilapidated public health network, but the ordeal of Parikh’s family suggests that as coronavirus cases explode in India, even private facilities are at risk of being overrun.

India on Sunday reported 6,767 new coronavirus infections, the country’s biggest one-day increase. Government data shows the number of coronavirus cases in the world’s second-most populous country are doubling every 13 days or so, even as the government begins easing lockdown restrictions. India has reported more than 131,000 infections, including 3,867 deaths.

“The increasing trend has not gone down,” said Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, referring to India’s cases. “We’ve not seen a flattening of the curve.”

Mukherjee’s team estimates that between 630,000 and 2.1 million people in India - out of a population of 1.3 billion - will become infected by early July.

More than a fifth of the country’s coronavirus cases are in Mumbai, India’s financial hub and its most populous city, where the Parikhs struggled to find hospital beds for their infected family members.

India’s health ministry did not respond to a request for comment on how it will cope with the predicted rise in infections, given that most public hospitals are overcrowded at the best of times. The federal government has said in media briefings that not all patients need hospitalization and it is making rapid efforts to increase the number of hospital beds and procure health gear.

The federal government’s data from last year showed there were about 714,000 hospital beds in India, up from about 540,000 in 2009. However, given India’s rising population, the number of beds per 1,000 people has grown only slightly in that time.

India has 0.5 beds per 1,000 people, according to the latest data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), up from 0.4 beds in 2009, but among lowest of countries surveyed by the OECD. In contrast, China has 4.3 hospital beds per 1,000 people and the United States has 2.8, according to the latest OECD figures.

While millions of India’s poor rely on the public health system, especially in rural areas, private facilities account for 55% of hospital admissions, according to government data. The private health sector has been growing over the past two decades, especially in India’s big cities, where an expanding class of affluent Indians can afford private care.

Mumbai’s municipal authority said it had ordered public officials to take control of at least 100 private hospital beds in all 24 zones in the city of almost 20 million people to make more beds available for coronavirus patients.

Still, there is a waiting list. An official at a helpline run by Mumbai’s civic authorities told Reuters that patients would be notified about availability.


It is not just beds that are in short supply. On May 16, Mumbai’s municipal authority said that it did not have enough staff to operate beds required for patients critically ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

As a result, resident doctors will receive less time off than what is prescribed by the federal government, the authority said. Some medical professionals told Reuters they already are overburdened and treating patients without adequate protective gear, exposing them to a higher risk of infection.

Several hospitals in Mumbai, western Gujarat state, the northern city of Agra and Kolkata in the east have in recent weeks shut partially or fully for days because some medical staff were infected with the virus. The federal government has not reported any deaths of medical staff from the virus.

“In our country, healthcare has never gotten priority,” said Dr Adarsh Pratap Singh, head of the 2,500-strong resident doctors association at New Delhi’s top public hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. “The government is now realizing the reality, but it’s already too late.”

The AIIMS group has in recent weeks protested about the lack of health gear and publicly rejected Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for doctors to donate a part of their salaries to his coronavirus fund.

Some health experts say India’s struggle to treat virus patients is the result of chronic underinvestment in healthcare. The Indian government estimates it spends only about 1.5% of its GDP on public health. That figure is higher than it was - about 1% in the 1980s and 1.3% five years ago - but India still ranks among the world’s lowest spenders in terms of percentage of GDP.

This year, Modi’s federal government raised its health budget by 6%, but that is still short of the government’s own goal of increasing public health spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2025, according to New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation.


Keshav Desiraju, a former Indian health secretary, said more investment in the health system before the virus outbreak might have made the health system more resilient. “At the times of a crisis, all the holes show up,” he told Reuters.

Dr. Chaitanya Patil, a senior resident doctor at King Edward Memorial government hospital, one of Mumbai’s largest, said the facility had a shortage of medical staff and the 12 coronavirus wards catering to about 500 patients were almost full.

“There are just too many patients coming in,” said Patil, “It is lack of preparedness or a lack of insight of the people planning.”

Last week Rajesh Tope, health minister of the state of Maharashtra, which contains Mumbai, said the lack of hospital beds for critically ill patients will not last long.

“In the next two months, more than 17,000 vacant posts of doctors, nurses, technicians and other health workers will be filled,” he said in a public address.

India’s United Nurses Association, which represents 380,000 medics, took a list of 12 issues they said they are facing - including lack of protective gear and accommodation - to the Supreme Court in April. The court told them they can lodge complaints on a government helpline.

Some nurses are leaving the big cities. Earlier this month, about 300 nurses working at hospitals in Kolkata city left for their hometowns 1,500 km (930 miles) away in India’s remote northeastern state of Manipur. A group representing them said they had left because of irregular salaries and inadequate safety gear, among other issues.

“We love our profession,” said 24-year-old Shyamkumar, who quit his nursing job in one of Kolkata’s hospitals and is planning to head back to Manipur. “But when we are going to work, please give us proper equipment.”




Hong Kong and Beijing officials defend security laws, citing threat of terrorism

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG - China’s foreign ministry office in Hong Kong and the city’s security chief on Monday defended proposed national security laws by describing some acts in mass pro-democracy protests last year as terrorism.

Several government departments issued statements in defence of the proposal after the biggest protest in the city since the coronavirus lockdown on Sunday.

The security legislation, some details of which were announced last week, aims to tackle secession, subversion and terrorist activities and could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, one of the world’s leading financial hubs.

Pro-democracy activists and politicians say the legislation could erode Hong Kong’s freedoms, guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” agreement under which former colonial power Britain returned the territory to China in 1997.

At a briefing for diplomats, foreign business chambers and correspondents, China’s Foreign Commissioner in Hong Kong, Xie Feng, said the laws would only target a minority of “troublemakers” who had posed “imminent danger” to China’s national security.

“The legislation will alleviate the grave concerns among local and foreign business communities about the violent and terrorist forces,” Xie said.

He declined to clarify specifics of the proposed laws that have stoked concerns, including when the full legislation would be enacted, what specific acts would be outlawed, and whether it would have retroactive effect.

Asked whether the security agencies to be set up in Hong Kong would have law enforcement powers, Xie said: “Concerning the details, they are still being deliberated so I’m not in a position to tell you right now.”

Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials have come out in recent days seeking to reassure investors their interests would not be harmed and criticisng protesters.

Police Commissioner Chris Tang cited 14 cases involving explosives which he said were commonly used in terrorist attacks overseas, and five seizures of firearms and ammunition since protests began.

Secretary for Security John Lee said “terrorism is growing” and harmful activities such as calling for Hong Kong’s independence were becoming more rampant.

In scenes evoking memories of last year’s protests, crowds thronged city streets on Sunday, many chanting “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.”

Police said they arrested more than 180 people, firing tear gas and water cannon for the first time in months.

Calls for independence are anathema to Beijing, which considers Hong Kong an inalienable part of the country. The proposed framework stresses Beijing’s intent to crack down on such acts.

Protests are expected to flare again on Wednesday, with the city’s legislature set to debate a bill to criminalise abuse of China’s national anthem.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan wrote on his blog that the national security law itself does not affect investor confidence, only the “misunderstanding” of it does.


The United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and others have expressed concerns about the legislation, widely seen as a potential turning point for China’s freest city.

Washington is considering whether to maintain Hong Kong’s special status in U.S. law, which has helped it maintain its position as a global financial centre.

Several foreign businessmen and diplomats expressed direct concerns towards the proposed law during Xie’s briefing.

In Bejing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the United States of “flagrantly interfering” in China’s national security legislation.

Taiwan is also considering revoking the special status it extends to Hong Kong due to China’s planned legislation, a move that could make it harder for Hong Kongers to visit and is likely to anger Beijing.

Business figures said the legislation could lead to money and talent leaving the city.

The Hong Kong Bar Association on Monday questioned the legality of a mechanism Beijing is expected to use to introduce the legislation, which annexes it to the city’s mini-constitution, bypassing public consultation and the legislature.

It also raised doubts about the legality of any new mainland agencies in the city as well as whether the independence of the judicial system will be preserved.

A Hong Kong government spokesperson said most residents and overseas investors “have nothing to fear” from the new security legislation.




Burundi ex army chief wins presidential election

BUJUMBURA - Burundi's election commission has declared the governing party's candidate, Evariste Ndayishimiye, as the winner of the country's presidential election last week.
The retired army general won 68.72 percent of the votes, while Agathon Rwasa, the main opposition leader, received 24.19 percent, the body said on Monday. Since Ndayishimiye has received over 50 percent of the vote, he has avoided a runoff.
Ndayishimiye was picked by the governing CNDD-FDD party to succeed outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose controversial decision to seek a third term in the last election in 2015 sparked mass unrest and an opposition boycott.
Rwasa has already alleged foul play, saying early numbers showing his National Congress for Liberty party heading for a bruising defeat are a "fantasy".
The May 20 vote, which was contested by seven presidential hopefuls, is meant to usher in the first democratic transfer of power in 58 years of independence.
There were few international election monitors on Wednesday after the government said they would have to spend 14 days in quarantine to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Rwasa has already hinted he would not take to the streets in protest and would appeal to the Constitutional Court, though he considers the process imperfect. The final election results will be declared by the Constitutional Court on June 4.
Ndayishimiye is expected to be sworn in for a seven-year term in late August, when Nkurunziza's term ends.
It is unclear whether Ndayishimiye would be able to rule free from interference by Nkurunziza, who in February was elevated by Parliament to the rank of "supreme guide for patriotism" and will remain chairman of the party's highly influential council of elders.(FA)

Russian fighters flown out of Libya

TRIPOLI - Russian fighters in Libya were flown out to a town south of Tripoli by their eastern-based allies after retreating from front lines at the capital, Tripoli, according to a local official.
The reported departure of the Russians on Sunday was another blow to renegade eastern commander Khalifa Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and his foreign allies, who have been trying to take the capital for more than a year from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
The Russian fighters allied to the LNA retreated with their heavy equipment from the capital to the airport of Bani Walid, a town some 150km (93 miles) southeast of Tripoli, said Salem Alaywan, Bani Walid's mayor.
He told Reuters news agency the Russians were then flown out of western Libya to Jufra, a remote central district and LNA stronghold.
"They [the Russians] were flown in three military planes to Jufra, and their military vehicles were driven there," he said.
LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari denied any foreigners were fighting with his force.
But the presence of the Russian fighters has been widely documented by diplomats and journalists, and photographs purporting to show Russians in Bani Walid have been posted on social media.
According to a leaked United Nations report, Russian private military contractor Wagner Group deployed about 1,200 mercenaries to Libya to strengthen Haftar's forces. They have been identified by their equipment, typically reserved for Russia's armed forces.
UN monitors identified more than two dozen flights between Russia and eastern Libya from August 2018 to August 2019 by civilian aircraft "strongly linked to or owned by" Wagner Group or related companies.
Al Jazeera's Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Tripoli, said Haftar's immediate gains in the assault on Tripoli, which was launched in April 2019, have been attributed to the fighting prowess of these military contractors.
"We don't know why they're leaving at this crucial time, because Haftar is losing on the ground. The withdrawal of the Russian [fighters] could have major consequences for Haftar's forces," he said.
Haftar's forces are backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The GNA is supported by Syrian fighters allied to Turkey, while Haftar is also using Sudanese fighters.(FA)

Nigeria fines UK firm for flight ban

ABUJA - Nigeria has fined British aviation company Flairjet after its plane contravened a ban on commercial flights imposed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the aviation minister has said.
The FlairJet plane was impounded on 17 May for carrying passengers despite only having approval for humanitarian operations.
The west African country has banned passenger flights into the country, except those repatriating Nigerian citizens or evacuating foreign nationals.
Minister Hadi Sirika said on Twitter the company was fined for violating civil aviation regulations and had been reported to the UK Civil Aviation Authority.(FA)

Buhari worried over Covid-19 impact

ABUJA - Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari has lamented the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Africa's biggest economy following stringent measures imposed to contain coronavirus outbreak.
In the capital Abuja, and the commercial hub Lagos, businesses were closed for more than four weeks before restrictions were eased from 4 May. Inter-state passenger travel is still banned across the country, while school and restaurants are closed.
President Buhari has said the country has no money to import food and urged farmers to get back to work to produce enough food for the country.
Mr Buhari said the increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the country was frightening.
The International Monetary Fund predicts that Africa's economy will contract by 1.5% points in 2020.
Nigeria was to proceed to a second phase of easing restrictions last week, but the task force in charge of fighting the pandemic said the country was not yet ready for full reopening of the economy.
Mr Buhari opted for private Eid prayers in State House as opposed to the usual large celebrations he holds every year.
He urged Nigerians to follow the ministry of health's guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus.(FA)

South Africans warned covid-19 will get worse

PRETORIA - The president of South Africa has warned that the country's coronavirus outbreak is going to get much worse, while announcing that lockdown measures are to be eased.
Cyril Ramaphosa said a third of the country's more than 22,000 cases had been recorded in the last week.
Despite that, the president said the current lockdown could not be sustained indefinitely.
He announced that, from 1 June, more restrictions would be lifted.
Mr Ramaphosa was speaking after a mining company in South Africa said 164 workers at a gold mine near Johannesburg had tested positive for coronavirus.
There have so far been 429 recorded Covid-19 deaths in the country.
An overnight curfew will no longer be in place, more businesses will be allowed to open and schools will re-start, the president said.
A controversial ban on alcohol will also end, with limited sales allowed for home consumption only and "only under strict conditions on specified days and for limited hours", the president said.(FA)


Bolsonaro brought in his generals to fight coronavirus but losing the battle

By Stephen Eisenhammer

SÃO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO - In mid-March, Brazil took what seemed to be a forceful early strike against the coronavirus pandemic.

The Health Ministry mandated that cruises be canceled. It advised local authorities to scrap large-scale events. And it urged travelers arriving from abroad to go into isolation for a week. Although Brazil had yet to report a single death from COVID-19, public health officials appeared to be getting out in front of the virus. They acted on March 13, just two days after the World Health Organization called the disease a pandemic.

Less than 24 hours later, the ministry watered down its own advice, citing “criticism and suggestions” it had received from local communities.

In fact, four people familiar with the incident told Reuters, the change came after intervention from the chief of staff’s office for Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.

“That correction was due to pressure,” said Julio Croda, an epidemiologist who was then the head of the Health Ministry’s department of immunization and transmissible diseases. The intervention by the chief of staff’s office has not been previously reported.

The about-face, given scant attention at the time, marked a turning point in the federal government’s handling of the crisis, according to the four people. Behind the scenes, they said, power was shifting from the Health Ministry, the traditional leader on public health matters, to the office of the president’s chief of staff, known as Casa Civil, led by Walter Souza Braga Netto, an Army general.

Brazil has lost two health ministers in the past six weeks - one was fired, the other resigned - after they disagreed publicly with Bolsonaro over how best to combat the virus. The interim leader now in charge of the Health Ministry is another Army general.

More importantly, the revisions underlined the hardening of Bolsonaro’s view that keeping Brazil’s economy running was paramount, the people said. Bolsonaro, a far-right former Army captain, has never wavered on that stance formulated during a crucial few days in mid-March, despite domestic and international criticism of his handling of the crisis, and a snowballing death toll.

Brazil now has the world’s second-worst outbreak behind the United States, with more than 374,000 confirmed cases. More than 23,000 Brazilians have died from COVID-19.

“So what?” Bolsonaro said recently when asked by reporters about Brazil’s mounting fatalities. “What do you want me to do?”

Casa Civil said changes to the March 13 guidance were made by the Health Ministry, following input from states and municipalities.

The Health Ministry said there had been a divergence of views due to differing situations in states and cities nationwide. It said the implementation of physical distancing measures was the responsibility of local health authorities.

“The strategy of the Brazilian response to COVID-19 was not impaired at any point,” the ministry said.

Bolsonaro’s office declined to comment for this story.

Reuters interviewed more than two dozen current and former government officials, medical experts, healthcare industry representatives and doctors to paint the most complete picture yet of Brazil’s missteps in containing the coronavirus outbreak in South America’s largest country.

They described a response that began promisingly, but which was soon hobbled by the president’s clashes with Health Ministry and cabinet officials who could not persuade him that Brazil’s economic fortunes ultimately hinged on how effectively it tackled its public health emergency.

Health experts were sidelined, the people said, and Bolsonaro embraced an unproven remedy to treat COVID-19 infections. Federal coordination foundered. State governors – some of whom Bolsonaro regards as re-election rivals – were left to set their own physical distancing policies and secure much of their own tests and equipment, the sources said.

Some experts said Brazil’s stumbles are all the more shocking because of its previous success containing malaria, Zika and HIV.

“One thing that has been a shining light in Brazil has been their public health system,” said Albert Ko, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health who has decades of experience in Brazil. “To see that all disintegrate so quickly, it’s just been very sad.”


When Brazil’s first coronavirus case was confirmed on February 26, the Health Ministry had been preparing for nearly two months.

Its personnel were running models to estimate when and how to implement stay-at-home orders in collaboration with state and local officials, sources said. The ministry was the command center for an emergency committee coordinating the federal response across multiple agencies.

Brazil’s vast size, underfunded public hospitals and widespread poverty were vulnerabilities. But the country boasts top medical scientists and a competent private healthcare sector. It had weeks of advance warning, as the virus hit countries like China and Italy first. Those on the frontline thought Brazil was in good shape to respond.

But the people who spoke with Reuters said things began to unravel along two main fronts: Bolsonaro’s opposition to shutdown measures favored by the Health Ministry and the government’s inability to scale up testing quickly.

Cabinet members tried numerous times to persuade Bolsonaro to endorse a nationwide lockdown, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions. Bolsonaro refused, the person said, believing the virus would soon pass and that health officials were exaggerating the need for physical distancing that had proved effective in other parts of the world.

“The masses aren’t able to stay at home because the fridge is empty,” Bolsonaro said to the media on April 20 outside his official residence in Brasília.

Bolsonaro’s office declined to comment on why he prioritized the economy. He faced pressure to do so, however. Members of his conservative base have protested in cities across Brazil against lockdowns that threaten his promise to rekindle economic growth.

Yet Bolsonaro’s economic advisors appeared slow to grasp the scale of the crisis. Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, a hardline free-market advocate, in mid-March told CNN Brasil that the nation’s economy in 2020 could “reasonably grow 2% or 2.5% with the world falling” because of coronavirus.

That prediction was far off the mark. Manufacturing activity has collapsed, unemployment is rising and Brazil’s currency is down around 30% against the dollar this year. On May 15, Barclays cut its 2020 gross domestic product forecast for Brazil to -5.7% from -3.0%. It cited Brazil’s “ineffective” policy in dealing with the pandemic.

The Economy Ministry now projects GDP will contract by 4.7% this year. In an emailed statement, it said its forecasts have evolved in line with the gravity of the situation.

Guedes declined a request to comment on his earlier prediction.

A Guedes ally, Solange Vieira, who was involved in the government’s landmark pension reform last year, likewise showed little urgency when presented with forecasts in mid-March from the Health Ministry, according to epidemiologist Croda. The ministry predicted widespread fatalities among Brazil’s elderly if the virus wasn’t contained.

“‘It’s good that deaths are concentrated among the old,” Croda recalled Vieira saying. “‘That will improve our economic performance as it will reduce our pension deficit.’”

Croda’s account was backed by another official, speaking on condition of anonymity, who was told what happened but was not in attendance.

Vieira did not respond to a message on LinkedIn. The Superintendence of Private Insurance, which she leads, said in response to questions about her comments that she attended the mid-March meeting at the invitation of then-Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta to understand the ministry’s projections.

Vieira observed the impacts of various scenarios “always with a focus on the preservation of lives,” it said in a statement.


For a few days in March, it looked like the fallout from a trip to Florida to meet U.S. President Donald Trump might have altered Bolsonaro’s thinking on coronavirus.

Just after returning from the visit, on March 12, Bolsonaro’s press secretary tested positive for COVID-19. In the following days, nearly two dozen Brazilians who had made the trip would test positive, embarrassing the government and sparking fears that both Bolsonaro and Trump might have been infected.

After undergoing a coronavirus test on March 12, Bolsonaro called on his supporters to suspend nationwide rallies planned for March 15 for fear of worsening the spread. The following day, he said his test came back negative. The Health Ministry, meanwhile, announced its initial social distancing recommendations at a press conference in the capital.

Then things changed.

Shortly after the new guidelines were issued on March 13, Croda said he got a call from his former boss, Health Surveillance Secretary Wanderson Oliveira, who said he was “under lots of pressure from Casa Civil and had to change the communique” published by the ministry outlining the measures. Croda said Oliveira did not say specifically who at Casa Civil had demanded the guidelines be weakened.

Within 24 hours, the ministry had changed the recommendations on its website. It removed guidance on self-quarantines for travelers and the cancellation of cruises, saying those measures were up “for review.” And it revised the cancellation of large events to apply only to areas with local transmission.

Oliveira did not respond to requests for comment. He recently left the Health Ministry.

On March 15, Bolsonaro ignored his own pronouncement from three days earlier discouraging mass rallies by his supporters. He met with a friendly crowd of demonstrators outside the presidential palace. Wearing the Brazil national soccer jersey, the president bumped fists and posed for selfies.

“It was the first time we saw that totally different stance,” then-Health Minister Mandetta told Reuters.

The next day, on March 16, Bolsonaro formalized the shift of power away from the Health Ministry, creating an inter-governmental “crisis cabinet” led by Braga Netto, the Army general heading Casa Civil. Brazil registered its first coronavirus death on March 17.

In a response to Reuters’ questions, Braga Netto’s office said the group was formed because the pandemic “transcended” public health.

Three people familiar with the situation told Reuters the new cabinet effectively superseded the cross-agency group that had already been set up inside the Health Ministry. The big difference, they said, was that Braga Netto now had the final say, instead of public health experts, and that economic concerns were given more weight.

The Health Ministry said it would not comment on economic matters. It said the response to coronavirus cut across government departments.

Croda left shortly after the creation of the new command center. He told Reuters he did not want to be held responsible for “excessive deaths.”

In the weeks that followed, policy differences between Bolsonaro and Health Minister Mandetta broke out in the open. Mandetta continued to advocate for stay-at-home measures in defiance of the president. He also urged caution about the malaria drug chloroquine. Bolsonaro, following the lead of U.S. President Donald Trump, was increasingly promoting the drug as a possible cure for COVID-19 despite little evidence of its efficacy.

Mandetta’s popularity added to the tension. An early-April survey by pollster Datafolha showed that the Health Ministry under his leadership had a 76% approval rating, more than twice that of Bolsonaro.

On April 16, after days of mounting speculation, Bolsonaro fired Mandetta. He replaced him with Nelson Teich, a respected oncologist and healthcare entrepreneur with no public health experience.

Two recently departed Health Ministry sources said the last half of April was lost while Teich “found his feet.” Decisions on testing and new equipment were delayed, they said. More than 15 public health experts, including experienced epidemiologists, left with Mandetta, one of the sources said. Many were replaced by military personnel.

“These changes greatly affect the capacity, speed, and the very quality of the response,” said José Temporão, a former health minister who led Brazil’s crisis response to the 2009 swine flu epidemic. “It was a disastrous decision.”

The Health Ministry denied that its response was hampered by the changes.

On May 15, Teich resigned after less than a month on the job. Bolsonaro had criticized him for being too timid in promoting the re-opening of Brazil’s economy and the usage of chloroquine.

Teich did not respond to a request for comment.

In a televised interview with GloboNews on Sunday, Teich said Bolsonaro’s desire for a rapid expansion of the use of chloroquine in Brazil was what led him to quit.

Teich’s departure accelerated military influence within the Health Ministry. Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty Army general with no medical background, is now interim health minister. Of the eight people at the top of the ministry, only one had a military background in March. Now three of them do. At least 13 military personnel also have been appointed to lower ministry positions.

Days after Teich’s departure, the ministry cleared the way for the widespread use of chloroquine to treat patients with mild cases of COVID-19.

The armed forces are widely respected in Brazil and often help with logistics during emergencies. But Wildo Araujo, a former Health Ministry official who co-authored one of the country’s first major COVID-19 studies, said military personnel were being placed in unsuitable roles.

“I have the utmost respect for the armed forces, but I pity those entering now because they have no idea what to do,” he said. “They don’t know how to deal with the Brazilian public health system.”

Brazil’s Army declined to comment, referring questions to the Health Ministry, which also declined to comment on the military’s role.




Bolsonaro’s opposition to social distancing and refusal to support local authorities in their attempts to impose lockdowns have helped erode compliance with those measures, experts said.

A Reuters analysis of Google mobility data, which collates cell phone movement and compares it to a pre-pandemic benchmark, showed a far smaller reduction in people coming and going from transit hubs and places of work in Brazil than in European countries such as Italy, France and the United Kingdom where shelter-in-place measures have been effective.

Reuters also found Brazil’s mobility reduction was less than that of other developing nations, for example Argentina, India and South Africa. Reuters analyzed data from 17 countries across Africa, Europe, Latin America and Asia for the month of April.

Like other countries, including the United States, Brazil has also struggled to secure the tests it needs. That’s a major failing, some epidemiologists say, which has made it harder to track and control the virus in Brazil.

The shortage of tests is due in part to the Health Ministry’s over-reliance on one institution.

According to an internal Health Ministry document viewed by Reuters, the ministry began purchasing diagnostic test kits through the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a respected public health institute, between January and February.

By April 7, however, Fiocruz had only delivered 104,872 - or 3.5% - of the roughly 3 million kits the ministry had ordered, the document said. Croda and others said Fiocruz struggled to acquire crucial reagents on the international market. Industry sources said years of budget cuts may also have been a factor.

The Health Ministry should have established a broad network of private and public labs, one source said, which would have improved the ability to procure reagents and process tests.

In a statement, Fiocruz said it had met all its obligations to the Health Ministry.

It said it surpassed an initial target of 220,000 tests by April 13 and delivered nearly 1.3 million tests by the last week of that month. It said it expects to deliver 11.7 million tests by September.

“The worldwide competition for this type of test was very large,” it said, “which caused a shortage of products.”

Bureaucracy also hamstrung Brazil. A batch of 500,000 antibody tests, used to determine who has had the virus, got stuck at São Paulo’s Guarulhos airport for 9 days as the health regulator processed an exception for them to be distributed without Portuguese labels, two people with knowledge of the situation told Reuters.

The Health Ministry declined to comment on the incident. It said it has increased testing capacity and will conduct 46.2 million tests, without specifying a time frame. “The initiative is part of efforts to find new purchases in the national and international market,” it said.

As of May 12, however, Brazil had processed just 482,743 tests. Of the 10 countries with the highest COVID-19 death toll, only the Netherlands had tested fewer people than Brazil - a country with a twelfth of the population.



US bans travellers from Brazil

WASHINGTON - As coronavirus continues its rampage across Latin America, the United States has banned travellers from Brazil.
Rocketing infection rates in South America have pushed the worldwide caseload to nearly 5.4 million, with deaths approaching 350,000, but with the global economy battered, governments are scrambling to provide relief however they can to businesses and citizens wearying of mass confinement.
Hard-hit Spain eased restrictions in Madrid and Barcelona, with the capital's popular Retiro Park opening its gates Monday for the first time in 10 weeks.
"The reopening of Retiro brings me a feeling of serenity, gives me comfort," said Rosa San Jose, a 50-year-old schoolteacher who had come to the park to walk, wearing a white mask.
Meanwhile, restaurants, bars and swimming pools were among several types of businesses set to reopen in the Czech Republic, which has reported nearly 9,000 cases.
The nation will even allow events with up to 300 people, and Czechs are no longer obliged to wear face masks in public except in shops and on public transport.
Elsewhere in Europe, cafes and restaurants in Greece were gearing up to reopen on Monday -- but only those with outdoor service.(FA)

US CDC reports total of 1.6 million coronavirus cases and 97,049 deaths

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Sunday reported 1,622,114 cases of the new coronavirus, an increase of 26,229 cases from its previous count, and said the number of deaths had risen by 1,047 to 97,049.

The CDC reported its tally of cases of the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, caused by the new coronavirus, as of 4 p.m. ET on May 23, compared with its count a day earlier.

The CDC figures do not necessarily reflect cases reported by individual states.


Americans spend holiday at beaches and parks as virus death toll nears 100,000

By Lisa Shumaker

NEW YORK - Americans sunbathed on beaches, fished from boats and strolled on boardwalks this holiday weekend, even as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 fast approaches 100,000.

The Memorial Day weekend that signals the start of the U.S. summer is normally a time when cemeteries across the nation fill with American flags and ceremonies to remember those who died in U.S. wars.

This year it has also become a time to mourn the loss of more than 97,000 people due to the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

The New York Times filled its entire front page with the names and selected details of 1,000 victims on Sunday seeking to illustrate the humanity of the lives lost.

“We were trying to capture that personal toll,” Marc Lacey, the newspaper’s national editor, told Reuters. “We were trying to humanize these numbers which keep growing and have reached such unfathomable heights that they’re really hard to grasp any more. ...This is about everyday people. It’s about a death toll, reaching a number that’s really just jaw-dropping.”

Among the victims, drawn from obituaries and death notices in hundreds of U.S. newspapers: Lila Fenwick, 87, the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Law; Romi Cohn, 91, saved 56 Jewish families from the Gestapo; Hailey Herrera, 25, budding therapist with a gift for empathy.

All 50 states have relaxed coronavirus restrictions to some degree. In some states, like Illinois and New York, restaurants are still closed to in-person dining and hair salons remain shuttered. In many southern states, most businesses are open, with restrictions on capacity.

Last week, 11 states reported a record number of new COVID-19 cases, including Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Maryland, Maine, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to a Reuters tally. It is not clear if the cases are rising from more testing or a second wave of infections.

Total U.S. cases are over 1.6 million, the highest in the world, while forecast models for possible COVID-19 deaths predict the death toll will exceed 100,000 by June 1.

A plea by health officials and many state governors to wear masks in stores and in public is being met with protest and resistance from some Americans. Social media is filled with videos of businesses turning away a few angry customers who refuse to cover their mouths and noses.

“We need to be wearing masks in public when we cannot social distance. It’s really critically important we have the scientific evidence of how important mask-wearing is to prevent those droplets from reaching others,” Dr. Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

While Americans were largely adhering to warnings to maintain social distancing over the holiday weekend, there were notable exceptions.

These included some packed beaches in Florida and other gulf states, forcing authorities to break up large gatherings. Videos posted on social media showed parties in other states where people crowded into pools and clubs elbow-to-elbow.

One such party at a Houston club called Cle prompted the city’s Mayor Sylvester Turner on Sunday to order firefighters across the metropolitan area to enforce social distancing rules.

Last week Turner said authorities would not forcibly make sure businesses were operating at capacity restrictions of 50% for restaurants and 25% for bars. But he reversed course after more than 250 crowd complaints were phoned into the city by Sunday evening.

“There are too many people who are coming together going to some of our clubs, our bars, to swimming pool parties, with no social distancing, no masks,” Turner said. “It’s clear people are crowding in, looks like to maximum capacity, almost on top of one another.”



US condemns China's 'disastrous proposal' on Hong Kong: Pompeo

WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday called China’s proposed national security legislation on Hong Kong disastrous and said it could have an impact on the favorable economic treatment the territory receives from the United States.

“The United States condemns the ... proposal to unilaterally and arbitrarily impose national security legislation on Hong Kong,” Pompeo said.

“The United States strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal, abide by its international obligations, and respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties, which are key to preserving its special status under U.S. law.”

Pompeo’s statement went further than Thursday’s State Department warning and underscored how rapidly the world has responded to Beijing’s plans after Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy protests last year.

The “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” approved by U.S. President Donald Trump last year requires the State Department to certify at least annually that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify favorable trading terms that have helped it maintain its position as a world financial center.

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, told Fox News on Thursday Washington has “lots of tools to express our displeasure.” Neither he nor Pompeo detailed actions Washington might take.

“There are privileges that Hong Kong accrues because it’s considered a free system. We’d have to look over whether those concessions could continue to be made,” he said.

“If China moves forward and takes strong action under this new national security law ... America will respond, and I think other countries in the world will respond, including the United Kingdom and many other of our allies and friends.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s likely challenger in November’s election, on Friday assailed Trump for what he characterized as his silence on human rights issues. If the State Department decertifies the territory, it ultimately falls to Trump to decide which of Hong Kong’s privileges to deny.




Australia & Pacific

New Zealand leader continues TV interview during earthquake

WELLINGTON - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern barely skipped a beat when an earthquake struck during a live television interview on Monday morning.

She interrupted Newshub host Ryan Bridge to tell him what was happening at the parliament complex in the capital, Wellington.

"We're just having a bit of an earthquake here Ryan, quite a decent shake here," she said, looking up and around the room.

"But, um, if you see things moving behind me."

New Zealand sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is sometimes called the Shaky Isles for its frequent quakes.

Monday's magnitude 5.6 quake struck in the ocean about 62 miles northeast of Wellington, according to the US Geological Survey.

The quake hit just before 8 am and was felt by thousands of New Zealanders who were getting ready to start their work weeks.

It was strong enough to rattle food from shelves and stop train services.

But there were no reports of major damage or injuries.

Ms Ardern continued on with her interview, telling the host the shaking had stopped.

"We're fine Ryan," she said. "I'm not under any hanging lights, I look like I'm in a structurally sound place."

A 2011 quake in the city of Christchurch killed 185 people and destroyed much of the downtown area. The city is continuing to rebuild.



Ardern becomes New Zealand's most popular PM in a century: poll

WELLINGTON - Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s most popular prime minister in a century, a Newshub-Reid Research poll showed on Monday, thanks to her COVID-19 response that made the country among the most successful in curbing the spread of the disease.

The first public poll since the coronavirus crisis took hold showed popularity for Ardern’s Labour jumped 14 points to 56.5% - the highest for any party ever.

Conversely, the biggest party in parliament - the Nationals, slumped to 30.6%, after sliding by 12.7 points.

The poll was conducted between May 8 and May 16, with half of the responses taken after the federal budget on Thursday.

As preferred PM, Ardern was at 59.5%, up 20.8 points on the last poll and the highest score for any leader in the Reid Research poll’s history.

The poll took into account public sentiment in the final days of the country’s strict level three lockdown, which also got massive support with almost 92% respondents saying it was the right call.

The Pacific nation was locked down for more than a month under “level 4” restrictions that were eased by a notch in late April. It has continued to enforce strict social measures on many of its citizens and businesses, helping prevent widespread community spread of the virus.

Businesses in the country including malls, cinemas, cafes and gyms reopened last Thursday.

Ardern’s stratospheric rise to become the country’s youngest prime minister and third woman to hold the office resulted in New Zealanders coining the phrase “Jacinda-mania.”

The rate of new cases have slowed dramatically in New Zealand in recent weeks. The virus has so far infected 1,499 people in New Zealand and killed 21. Globally more than 4.7 million cases have been reported while over 315,000 people have died, a Reuters tally shows.



62 countries back Australia-EU initiative for independent inquiry into COVID-19

SYDNEY - A coalition of 62 countries, including Britain, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey, have backed a joint Australia-EU initiative for an independent investigation into the coronavirus outbreak, ABC news reported. It calls for an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation of the World Health Organisation-coordinated international response to COVID-19".

Australia was the first nation to call for an inquiry into the origins of the virus. This prompted an aggressive response from China, with Beijing describing the decision as a propaganda war launched by the United States and accusing Canberra of parroting some US officials.

However, the joint EU-Australian motion does not mention China or Wuhan, where the first cases of the coronavirus were reported. It stressed the need for the WHO to work with the World Organisation for Animal Health to conduct "scientific and collaborative field missions" and "identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts".

"This is about collaborating to equip the international community to better prevent or counter the next pandemic and keep our citizens safe", said Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

The development comes as the number of those infected with the SARS-CoV-2 strain of coronavirus is gradually approaching the five million mark. Almost 314,000 people have succumbed to the disease and 1.8 million have recovered.

Neither the United States nor China has backed the motion. Previously, senior US officials, including President Donald Trump, called for a specific probe into Beijing's handling of the virus. The US president accused Chinese authorities of a cover up, which he said allowed the virus to spread all over the world.

Virginie Battu-Henriksson, the European Union's spokeswoman for foreign affairs, assured that the motion tabled by Canberra and Brussels is not focused on putting the blame on a certain party, saying it was about "getting together and finding a solution which is workable for all".



New Zealand reports no new virus cases

AUCKLAND - New Zealand today reported no new cases of coronavirus for the first time since the crisis began.
The number of 'confirmed and probable' infections remained at 1,487 after one suspected case 'already known to us' tested positive, the health ministry said.   
The death toll was also unchanged at 20, while only four people are currently in hospital, none of them in intensive care.
New Zealand's director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said the figures were a 'cause for celebration' and 'symbolic of the effort that everybody has put in' but warned that Kiwis would need to keep up 'continuing vigilance'.
New Zealand only confirmed its first case on February 26, but had shut its borders by March 19 and started imposing a full-scale lockdown on March 26.
The lockdown was eased last week, allowing takeaways to resume from restaurants and hundreds of thousands of people to return to work.
Gatherings of up to 10 people are now allowed for events such as weddings or funerals under the so-called Level 3 restrictions, down from the highest Level 4.
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern is due to decide in the next week whether the country can move down to Level 2, in which gatherings of 500 could be allowed.
Public venues and 'most businesses' would be allowed to re-open under Level 2, subject to health restrictions.
Speaking today, health director Bloomfield said the 'real test' would come later this week when any new cases caused by the move to Level 3 start to become visible.(FA)


Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's trial begins in Jerusalem

By Linda Gradstein

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on trial Sunday on three cases of fraud, corruption and breach of trust. If convicted, Netanyahu faces years in jail. He maintains his innocence and accuses the justice system of trying to engineer a coup against him.

Benjamin Netanyahu had already made history as the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history. Sunday, he did it again, becoming the first sitting prime minister to go on trial for fraud and breach of trust. He arrived at the court from a Cabinet meeting of his new national unity government.

Outside the prime minister's house, hundreds of Israelis demonstrated against Netanyahu, calling on him to resign. Outside the courthouse in east Jerusalem, a similar number rallied for Netanyahu.

Before entering the courtroom, Netanyahu lashed out against the court and the media, insisting that he is innocent of all charges.

He said the trial is an attempt at a political coup against the will of the people. He said he will continue to fight and continue to lead the state of Israel.

Netanuyahu entered the small courtroom that seats about 20 people with two of his lawyers, and refused to sit on the defendant's bench until photographers had been removed from the courtroom.

The judges then read the charges against him, including fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu is accused of performing favors in exchange for both gifts totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, and positive press coverage.

His attorneys said they needed several more months to study all of the materials, a request the prosecution said was unnecessary as the indictment was filed over a year ago.

The trial is expected to take at least a year. In the new government formed earlier this month, Netanyahu is supposed to serve as prime minister for a year and a half, before turning the job over to his former rival and head of a centrist party, Benny Gantz.

A few months later, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is due to retire. The president is a mostly ceremonial, although prestigious, job in Israel. It also confers immunity from prosecution. Many in Israel believe that Netanyahu is already competing for this job.



Israeli prime minister faces Jerusalem court

JERUSALEM - Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu goes on trial for corruption on Sunday, the first time a serving leader will have done so in the country's history.
Mr Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust - allegations which he strongly denies.
The 70-year-old has rejected calls by opponents to step down while he fights the cases.
It comes just a week after he was sworn back into office as head of a rare national unity government.
His political rival, Benny Gantz, agreed to share power following three inconclusive elections in under a year.(FA)

Khashoggi family forgive killers, clearing way to legal reprieve

RIYADH - The family of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi said on Friday that they had forgiven the men who murdered their father, paving the way for a legal reprieve for five defendants sentenced to death for the October 2018 killing.

“If a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah,” Khashoggi’s son Salah tweeted. “Therefore, we the sons of the martyr Jamal Khashoggi announce that we pardon those who killed our father”.

In Saudi Arabia, which lacks a codified legal system and follows Islamic law, forgiveness from a victim’s family in cases of murder can allow for a formal pardon.

The Saudi court which issued the five death sentences in December said the killing was not premeditated, a ruling which backed assertions by Saudi officials but which contradicted the findings of a U.N.-led inquiry into Khashoggi’s killing.

However, Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz said on Friday that no one could pardon his killers. “Nobody has the right to pardon the killers. We will not pardon the killers nor those who ordered the killing,” she said in a tweet.

Khashoggi was last seen at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, where he had gone to obtain documents for his impending wedding. His body was reportedly dismembered and removed from the building, and his remains have not been found.

The murder caused a global uproar and tarnished the image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Some Western governments, as well as the CIA, said they believed he had ordered the killing.

Saudi officials denied he played a role, though in September 2019 the prince indicated some personal accountability, saying “it happened under my watch”.

Eleven suspects in all were put on trial in secretive proceedings in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Three were jailed and another three had the charges against them dismissed.

The trial was condemned by the United Nations and rights groups. Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions, accused Saudi Arabia of making a “mockery” of justice by allowing the masterminds of the 2018 killing to go free.

Human Rights activists believe the family has been bribed and threatened to go along the decision.


UN Mid-East envoy warns against Israel threatening West Bank annexation

THE UNITED NATIONS - The UN’s Middle East peace envoy issued a stern warning on Wednesday against any unilateral action – including an Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank – that could undermine diplomatic efforts to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council that all sides must do their part in the coming weeks and months to preserve the prospect of a two-State solution, in line with internationally agreed parameters, international law and UN resolutions.

“These efforts must begin immediately. There is no time to lose”, said Mr. Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.

“The fate of the Palestinian and Israeli people must not be determined by destructive unilateral action that cements division and may put peace beyond reach in our lifetime.”

Ending ‘all agreements’

He addressed the Council – meeting via video-teleconference - just hours after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly announced that he is ending "all agreements" with Israel and the United States in response to Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

His remarks also came three days after a new coalition Government was sworn into office in Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to news reports, determined to declare Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the occupied territory.

Such a move would dovetail with US President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” blueprint for the region, which he unveiled in January alongside Mr. Netanyahu - and which the Palestinians have rejected as a denial of their rights.

Annexation: ‘A most serious violation of international law’

Mr. Mladenov told the 15-member Council that annexation would represent “a most serious violation of international law” and deal a devastating blow to the two-State solution.

It would also slam the door on fresh negotiations and threaten efforts to advance regional and international peace, he said.

The Palestinian reaction to annexation is “a desperate cry for help (and) a call for immediate action” from a generation of Palestinian leaders who have been preparing for full Statehood since the Oslo Accords signed in Washington, in 1993.

“The Palestinian leadership is not threatening. It is calling for urgent action to preserve the prospect of peace”, said the Special Coordinator, who plans to meet Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Thursday.

He added: “Whatever the future young Palestinians and Israelis decide to build, we have an obligation to prevent violence and protect the chance for peace.”

Council plea

He urged the Council to join Secretary-General António Guterres in his call against unilateral action, noting that recent opinion polls indicate that the Israeli public is split on the annexation question.

He also urged the Middle East Quartet – comprising the Russian Federation, United States, European Union and United Nations – to quickly come up with a proposal that would enable it to take up its mediation role, and work jointly with countries in the region to advance prospects for peace.

Everyone must do their part

“Israel must abandon threats of annexation”, he added, “and the Palestinian leadership must re-engage with all members of the Quartet. Everybody must do their part.”

For the moment, the situation on the ground remains dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Palestinian and Israeli authorities – despite growing political tensions – continuing to coordinate their efforts to limit the spread of the deadly virus while also carefully reopening economic life, Mr. Mladenov said.

However, while Palestinians are experiencing the same shock and uncertainty as the rest of the globe, their Government – the Palestinian Authority - cannot respond with the same agency as an independent and sovereign country, he noted.