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UK risks twice-as-big second Covid wave without better testing, study

LONDON - Britain faces a second wave of Covid-19 this winter twice as widespread as the initial outbreak if it reopens schools without a more effective test-and-trace system in place, according to a study published on Tuesday.

Researchers from University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine modelled the impact of reopening schools either on a full- or part-time basis, thus allowing parents to return to work, on the potential spread of the virus.

They concluded a second wave could be prevented if 75% of those with symptoms were found and tested and 68% of their contacts were traced, or if 87% of people with symptoms were found and 40% of their contacts tested.

"However, we also predict that in the absence of sufficiently broad test–trace–isolate coverage, reopening of schools combined with accompanied reopening of society across all scenarios might induce a second Covid-19 wave," said the study, published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health.

"Our modelling results suggest that full school reopening in September 2020 without an effective test-trace-isolate strategy would result in R rising above 1 and a resulting second wave of infections that would peak in December 2020 and be 2.0-2·3 times the size of the original Covid-19 wave."

The lead author of the study, Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, said the test-and-trace system in England was currently reaching only about 50% of contacts of all those testing positive for Covid-19.

Panovska-Griffiths, lecturer in mathematical modelling at University College London, told BBC radio that the worst scenarios could still be avoided.

"Importantly, what we find is that it is possible to avoid a second epidemic wave if enough people with symptomatic infections can be diagnosed. Their contacts can then be traced and effectively isolated," she said.

"We are the first study that has quantified this, how much this needs to be for the UK."

Schools in Britain closed in March during the national lockdown, except for the children of key workers, and reopened for a small number of pupils in June.

However, the government says all pupils will return to school across the United Kingdom by early September with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying it is a national priority.

"I think we all accept that test-and-trace is a programme which needs to continue to improve. There is total humility in government about that," junior local government minister Simon Clarke told BBC radio.

"We fully accept that we need to keep driving those numbers up," he said.

OECD Sovereign Borrowing Outlook 2020

PARIS - The OECD Sovereign Borrowing Outlook provides regular updates on trends and developments associated with sovereign borrowing requirements, funding strategies, market infrastructure and debt levels from the perspective of public debt managers.

The Outlook makes a policy distinction between funding strategy and borrowing requirements. The central government marketable gross borrowing needs, or requirements, are calculated on the basis of budget deficits and redemptions.

The funding strategy entails decisions on how borrowing needs are going to be financed using different instruments and which distribution channels are being used.

This edition reviews developments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic for government borrowing needs, funding conditions and funding strategies in the OECD area, updating 2020 estimates released prior to the outbreak.

It examines debt issuance trends for government securities in emerging market and developing economies since 2020, and presents novel insights on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on issuance conditions in these economies.

It then discusses how debt management offices can adapt their governance practices to prioritise and deal with the aggravated operational and market risks presented by the COVID-19 crisis.


Leaving No Roma behind during pandemic, and beyond: UN Resident Coordinator

GENEVA -Roma people in Europe face widespread discrimination in many areas of life, including housing and health. In this opinion piece, Francoise Jacob, the UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia, explains how the UN is helping Roma communities, many of which have no access to safe water or electricity, to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first time I met Roma people in the Western Balkan region was in 1999, while I was working in Montenegro. I had just come out of a few hard years in South Sudan and Rwanda, and I was looking forward to coming closer to home.

I was working for an NGO and spent my days in the Roma camp outside of the town of Podgorica, where thousands of people were struggling to make a living. Despite the tensions, past and recent, and the lack of many things, the camp was not a sad place, somehow.

I remember being amazed by the incredible diversity of facial features in that community, feeling sometimes like I was in an international airport with people coming from around the world. I remember thinking the history of these people is on their face. Many families had similar stories and ancestry, but others recalled different paths, India, the Middle East, northern Africa.

I could see the camp as a lake, where different rivers had converged, over the centuries; and the lake was tempted between remaining a lake or turning back into a river.

We used to sit with Roma women, and share stories. After a while, they read my future in the coffee grounds, and of course, it involved love.

We probably were working on needs assessment or something like that, but I just remember the two things that all women kept mentioning to me: they wanted better teeth (their teeth were damaged quickly due to poor nutrition and hygiene conditions), and they wanted nail polish. They were 15, 35, 50-year-old, and in the midst of chaos and despair, they wanted beauty, and love.

This was one of these moments that captured the reality of inequalities: not just a sophisticated macro-economic concept, but something people experience as individuals, something which prevents them from fulfilling their potential and their dreams, in whatever shape and scope.

A year later, I met them again. In Gujarat, India, in the wake of the 2001 devastating earthquake. There, they are called Kuchis, the nomadic tribes of India and Afghanistan. Same faces, same stories, same music. Same extraordinary resilience within different chaos. The first migrants.

Addressing the needs of the most vulnerable Roma communities in Serbia

I meet Roma families now again, in Serbia, in my position of the UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia, in the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. According to the official data, there are at least 150,000 Roma people living in Serbia, though unofficial figures point this number may be significantly higher.

During the first three months of the UN response to COVID-19, our teams, along with government counterparts, identified that tens of thousands of Roma lacked basic access to safe water and electricity, which is a serious health risk in the time of a pandemic, besides being a threat to life and human dignity.

We assessed humanitarian needs in 500 substandard Roma settlements (out of over 760 estimated settlements) and quickly started acting. In close cooperation with the Serbian Red Cross at the local level and many other local stakeholders, the UN has provided assistance packages and tailor-made health messages to thousands of Roma families at risk.

The UN also put in place assistance so that Roma children could attend some form of remote education, in communities where access to the internet and to computer is extremely limited.

Eighty-two Roma health mediators in 70 municipalities switched to telephone consultations. In just a few weeks' they reached 9,260 Roma families, advised over 4,500 persons on preventive measures, and referred over 100 persons to COVID-19 testing centres.

For a long period of time, Roma people in Serbia have been structurally neglected, which resulted in inadequate housing, unequal access to education for Roma children and unequal position in the open labour market. 

Roma communities face multiple risks of discrimination and marginalization: Roma women and girls are traditionally engaged in early marriages, social and family neglect; Roma children consistently work in informal, dangerous labour, and Roma Internally Displaced Person (IDPs) are amongst the most destitute people in the region. In the months and years to come, as a response to COVID-19 threats and beyond, the UN will continue to work with Roma communities and assist the government in adopting national policies that are in line with human rights standards. We will also continue to work on building capacities of Roma civil society for effective advocacy and human rights monitoring.

In the true spirit of Leave No One Behind, it is our duty to ensure that this particular group of people gets a fair deal in the face of COVID-19 and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and blossom on their own path. I hope that we will succeed!

Who are the Roma?

- “Roma” is used to describe a number of sub-groups, such as Sinti, Kalé, and Gitano, who live in several European countries. Formerly nomadic, the majority are now sedentary.

- Roma have been described as “the world's most populous marginalized community”. They have been persecuted for hundreds of years and, during the Second World War, hundreds of thousands were murdered by the Nazi regime.

- Roma Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked annually on 2 August. This year, Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, issued a reminder that, nearly eight decades on, hatred, exclusion and vilification of the Roma still persist today in many parts of the world.


Spain secretly lobbied US Congress on getting joint sovereignty over Gibraltar

LONDON - Spain embarked on a secret lobbying drive to push US congressmen into supporting a plan to strip Britain of sole sovereignty over Gibraltar,according to the Daily Telegraph.

Seven current and former members of the House of Representatives say the Spanish Embassy in the US protested after Washington signed a resolution backing Gibraltar's British status.

One congressman said: “The Spaniards went nuts.”



UN report says North Korea has made nuclear breakthrough

THE UNITED NATIONS - North Korea has probably developed nuclear devices to fit ballistic missiles, according to the United Nations (UN).

An interim report has concluded that the regime’s past six nuclear tests had almost certainly helped it develop miniaturised nuclear devices.

North Korea’s mission to the UN in New York did not respond to a request for comment on the report’s findings.

IFAD and Uzbekistan bring improved incomes and livelihoods to the Fergana valley

Rome/Tashkent – Uzbekistan is one of the five most agriculture-dependent countries in the world, where the sector accounts for 35 per cent of GDP and about 40 per cent of employment. Seventy-five per cent of the country’s lower income people live in rural areas and, though rural poverty has decreased in recent years, several challenges remain pertinent. More than 375,000 rural people in eastern Uzbekistan’s Fergana valley will benefit from new financing that aims to increase their incomes through the introduction of modern farming techniques, provide access to long-term financing for agriculture, and create jobs in rural areas.

Inclusive and profitable value chains, accessible markets and modern, climate-resilient rural infrastructure will enable dehkan farmers (small household plots) to diversify agricultural production from low to high value crops, increase land productivity and address challenges of drought due to climate change.

The US$47 million investment provides additional financing to the ongoing Agriculture Diversification and Modernization Project (ADMP). Gilbert F. Houngbo, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development of the United Nations (IFAD), and Sardor Uktamovich Umurzakov, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Investment and Foreign Trade met virtually to sign the financing agreement on 4 August.

ADMP has a total project value of $356.9 million, of which $93.5 million is from IFAD. In addition to the new top-up loan of $46.2 million, IFAD has financed the project with a loan of US$ 46.2 million (original loan), a grant (original) of $0.3 million, and a grant (additional top up grant) of $0.8 million. The World Bank cofinanced the project with a loan of $200 million. Moreover, US$63.4 million is provided through domestic cofinancing, including $24.5 million from the government, $19.4 million from beneficiary contributions and $19.5 million financing from participant financing institutions.

The Uzbek economy has been one of the best performers in the world in recent years, with economic growth averaging 8 per cent for the past ten years. However, since March 2020, the economic outlook has worsened as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. “The crisis has created challenges that significantly impact the poverty levels in rural areas. IFAD is working in close partnership with the Uzbek government to help offset the economic and social implications of the pandemic,” said Vrej Jijyan, IFAD Country Director for Uzbekistan.

The overarching goal of the ADMP project, currently in the second year of its implementation, is to create a business environment that enables increased productivity and market access for small-scale agribusinesses and rural enterprises in value chain systems. It will link the agribusinesses to rural households of dehkan farms and small-scale producers engaged in horticulture and livestock. The project will pay special attention to ensuring the participation of female-headed households, as well as to reach out to young women.

Uzbekistan joined IFAD in 2011. Since 2014, IFAD has supported three investment projects totalling more than $435.3 million ($128.7 million from IFAD) and directly targeting about 105,000 rural families.

Philippines Duterte reimposes coronavirus lockdown

MANILA - The Philippines will reimpose a stricter coronavirus lockdown in and around the capital for two weeks from Tuesday, President Rodrigo Duterte announced early on Monday, as the country struggles to contain infections that have jumped to more than 100,000 cases.

Duterte has approved placing Metro Manila and nearby provinces such as Laguna, Cavite, Rizal and Bulacan under so-called "Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine" (MECQ) until August 18, his spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.

The lockdown will affect an estimated 25 million people, almost a quarter of the Philippines' more than 100 million population.

Some businesses and public transport are expected to be closed in the capital, which is currently under the less-restrictive General Community Quarantine classification. It is unclear if domestic flights from Manila are also affected, as in the previous lockdown of the country's capital.

Work and quarantine passes will also be required, as authorities seek to restrict movements.

Some of the president's allies have advised against a new lockdown saying it could cripple the already ailing economy.

Duterte's move came after 80 local groups representing 80,000 doctors and a million nurses called for tighter controls, saying the country was losing the fight against the coronavirus.

"I have heard you. Don't lose hope. We are aware that you are tired," Duterte said in a late-night televised address that lasted early on Monday.

The Philippines recorded 5,032 additional infections on Sunday, the country's largest single-day increase, taking its confirmed coronavirus cases to 103,185. The death toll jumped by 20 to 2,059.

It was the second-highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Southeast Asia, behind Indonesia.

Duterte also approved the hiring of 10,000 medical professionals to beef up the current workforce and additional benefits for healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients, Roque said.(FA)


Human rights report details ‘heartbreaking’ accounts of women detained in DPRK

GENEVA - Women forcibly returned to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are subjected to torture, ill treatment, sexual abuse, and other violations, according to a report published on Tuesday by the UN Human Rights office.

The study is based on 100 first-hand accounts by North Korean women who said they were beaten or suffered other individual or collective punishment while in detention between 2009 and 2019.

The women eventually managed to escape the DPRK, more commonly known as North Korea, and gave detailed interviews to staff from the UN rights office, OHCHR.

Heartbreaking stories

“It is heartbreaking to read these stories of women who fled their country looking to make ends meet, but who ended up being punished. These are women who have often been the victims of exploitation and trafficking who should be taken care of, not detained and subjected to further human rights violations,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. “These women have a right to justice, truth and reparation.”

Although the DPRK effectively bans citizens from travelling abroad, women undertake dangerous journeys to pursue work or a new life abroad.

They often fall into the hands of human traffickers, who push them into cheap bonded labour or sexual exploitation, and even forced marriage.

‘Traitors’ systematically punished

On return to their homeland, the women are detained by State authorities and sentenced to imprisonment, often without a trial, or after proceedings that do not meet international standards for due process.

The report revealed that returnees, particularly “traitors” – the label frequently given to those who have attempted to reach neighbouring South Korea, or contacted Christian groups – are systematically punished and subjected to numerous human rights violations.

One witness who had escaped to China recounted her harrowing experience.

“I was beaten with a club by a preliminary investigation officer and was kicked by the officer. The treatment was particularly harsh at the Ministry of State Security. If one is found to have gone to a South Korean church while staying in China, they are dead. I therefore tried hard not to reveal my life in China. I was beaten up as a result. I was beaten to a level that my rib was broken. I still feel the pain,” she said.

Inhumane conditions, malnutrition and death

The women also spoke of the inhumane, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in detention, where they were under constant surveillance by male guards.

They had little or no access to daylight and fresh air, insufficient food, and were denied access to facilities and items required for women’s specific hygiene needs. Because they were malnourished, some suffered irregularities with their menstrual cycles.

“During my time in prison about five to six people died. Most of them died due to malnutrition,” one woman told UN Human Rights staff.

Detainees were regularly beaten or otherwise tortured, including for failing to complete the hard manual labour assigned to them.

Forced nudity, invasive searches

Witnesses said they were subjected to forced nudity and invasive body searches. Some reported sexual violence by guards, or seeing other detainees subjected to sexual violence.

Several women said that in some cases, prison officials sought to cause pregnant detainees to abort, either by beating them or making them do hard labour.

The practices documented in the report are in violation of the DPRK’s obligations under international human rights law, the authors stated.

‘Systematic’ violations

“These accounts show once again the systemic nature of human rights violations in the DPRK, and the need to keep seeking pathways to proper accountability for such crimes”, said Ms. Bachelet, the UN Human Rights Chief.

“The UN Human Rights Office will continue to gather evidence of this kind to support a process of criminal accountability, whenever and wherever possible.”

The report concludes with recommendations calling for the Government to bring the detention system into line with international norms and standards.

Other recommendations include ensuring that all citizens are guaranteed the fundamental right to enter and leave the DPRK, and that anyone returned or repatriated there is not subjected to imprisonment or other punishment.

The report further urged other countries not to repatriate North Koreans if there are substantial grounds for believing they would face serious human rights violations. Other States were also asked to support any process to investigate whether crimes against humanity, and other international crimes, have been or are being committed, in the DPRK




Mali: New witness testimony reveals horrors of protest shootings

LONDON - Dozens of witnesses to the shootings of protesters in Mali last month told Amnesty International they had clearly identified some of the perpetrators as the bodyguards of Manassa Danioko, President of the Constitutional Court.

The protests between 10 and 12 July were organized by the ‘Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des forces patriotiques (M5-RFP)’, that has been demonstrating against poor governance and electoral fraud in Mali since 5 June and has called for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. The demonstrations coincided with the call for civil disobedience by the M5-RFP, but they were brutally repressed by the security forces across Bamako, the capital, resulting in the deaths of at least 11 protesters and bystanders, and dozens being injured.

“Rumors of the arrest of the leader of the M5-RFP, Imam Mahmoud Dicko, led on 11 July, to a mobilization of demonstrators and residents in the neighborhood of Badalabougou. Some of them moved towards the house of Manassa Danioko, which is not far from Dicko’s residence,” said Ousmane Diallo, Amnesty International’s West Africa Researcher.

“This led to the firing of live ammunition by security guards and by the police, at the protesters, causing the deaths of four individuals during that incident alone. A fair and impartial investigation into these deaths must urgently be launched, and those responsible must be brought to justice.”

Horrific accounts of violence perpetrated by police

Amnesty International interviewed 41 respondents, including witnesses to the violence, injured demonstrators, journalists, opposition leaders and public officials. Witnesses and families of victims shared horrific accounts of the violence perpetrated by police in Badalabougou and Sogoninko neighborhoods where protests were held on 11 July, along with the responsibility of bodyguards to the President of the Constitutional Court in the deaths of protesters in Badalabougou.

The organization also collected photos and video evidence of the injuries sustained by the protesters, of the impact of bullets on civilian buildings, and of the clashes between demonstrators and security forces, which all concord with the testimonies collected.

Several killed not involved in the protests

Several of those killed during the three days of repression were not involved in the protests.  Fayçal Cissé, 25, was the first victim of the lethal use of force. He was a former madrassa student who was not part of the protest and was at a mosque around 300 m from the National Assembly. A relative told Amnesty International  that he was hit by a bullet fired from the National Assembly, while he was between the ablutions area and the prayer room. He fell in the courtyard of the mosque and died subsequently of his wounds.

A 37-year-old protestor told Amnesty International how they were dislodged from the   public broadcaster’s premises by security forces who started beating and injuring many of them, including women. They hit them on their heads and arms with sticks.  They were dispersed by the security forces who fired live ammunition at the protestors, causing one death near the National Assembly.

Among those killed was Halidou Bouaré, 21.  Like Sidi Mohamed Doumbia, Bouaré was working when he was struck by a bullet,  fired by security forces.

One of his relatives, who witnessed the incident from outside his house, told Amnesty International:

“Halidou Bouaré was shot while he was at the carwash where he worked.  He wasn’t demonstrating but since he was close to scene, he was hit by two bullets, one in the stomach and one in the shoulder, while he was doing his work.  He lost consciousness while I was transporting him to the hospital. Blood was flowing from his mouth. He died at the hospital soon after our arrival.”

Violence escalated on 11 and 12 July

The violence escalated on 11 and 12 July, following news  that security forces planned to arrest Imam Mahmoud Dicko after they had arrested several other M5-RFP leaders.

Amnesty International spoke to several witnesses who identified the bodyguards of Manassa Danioko, the President of the Constitutional Court, as shooting at protesters on the afternoon of 11 July. Aly Sylla, 29, was among the victims.


A relative of his told the organization:

“During the clashes with the police, Aly was shot in the head. Several youths identified the gunman as one of Manassa Danioko's bodyguards. He was with one of his friends who took pictures of the bodyguard and identified him. He told the shooter that he took a good picture of him and that he would pay for this crime. The police tried to arrest him, but he escaped.”

While Aly Sylla died on the spot, two other victims of the same incident died at the hospital from their wounds.

One of them was Sidi Mohamed Doumbia, a 16-year old student who was at work in Badalabougou, repairing motorcycles when he was shot. He was hit in the stomach and arm while he stood at a good distance from the policemen and the demonstrations. His father recounted the heartbreaking experience of watching his son die:

“I remember my son telling me "Daddy, I cannot breathe anymore". … I could see that he was dying in front of me, while at the hospital. I don't know who fired, but the children around said it was one of the bodyguards .”

FORSAT is witnessed launching an assault on a mosque

The role of the FORSAT,  a special government antiterrorist unit in the arrests of leaders of the M5-RFP and in the assault of the mosque of Imam Mahmoud Dicko is also of grave concern and deserves thorough investigations.

Several witnesses told Amnesty International that during an 11 July meeting of M5-RFP, hooded men in heavy gear suspected to belong to FORSAT arrived heavily armed in two unmarked public buses to disrupt the meeting.

“Other witnesses recounted seeing FORSAT members deployed to arrest the leaders of the M5-RFP on 11 July. They also were witnessed launching an assault on the mosque of Imam Mahmoud Dicko during the evening,” said Ousmane Diallo.

“The deployment of the FORSAT to maintain public order during the demonstrations is a clear violation of its mandate. Another red line was crossed when the security forces fired live ammunition at protesters.”

In an official letter dated on 14 July addressed to the Ministry of Public Security, the Prime Minister asked for the reasons behind the deployment of the FORSAT and who authorized it.  While welcoming this development, Amnesty International calls for responsibilities to be clearly established regarding who gave the security forces order to fire at the demonstrators, when they presented no danger to them.

Medical student killed; journalist beaten

While trying to control demonstrators and destroy barricades, police also killed Mamadou Ba, a doctoral student in medicine, who was called by a health center to support them in their work.

According to a witness, Mamadou Ba was shot near the health center by policemen positioned a hundred meters further from the street. The bullet caused serious injuries and after losing much blood, he died of his wounds in the hospital during surgery.

In addition to Ba, at least four people were shot and wounded at that scene.  In the same area a building was hit by the bullets of the security forces when they were responding to the demonstrations.

Koudedja Doucouré, a 22-year old woman was wounded by a bullet to the chest when she went to her window to inquire about the commotion.  Amnesty International obtained pictures of bullet impact on the windows and walls of a building next to where security forces were positioned.

Journalists also came under attack during the protests

According to one journalist, police officers prevented him from doing his job while he was capturing the evidence of the ill-treatment of three youngsters on 11 July. He told Amnesty International that when he refused to hand over his cellphone, policemen started beating him with a baton on his head, back and hips. They forcefully took his cellphone, deleted all evidence of their conduct, accused him of being a member of the M5-RFP, before eventually letting him go with his cellphone.

The  UN Human Rights Committee states that “peaceful assemblies can play a critical role in allowing participants to advance ideas and aspirational goals in the public domain, and to establish the extent of support for or opposition to those ideas and goals. Where they are used to air grievances, peaceful assemblies may create opportunities for inclusive, participatory and peaceful resolution of differences. …A failure to respect and ensure the right of peaceful assembly is typically a marker of repression.”

 “The lethal use of force by the security forces must be investigated. Protesters and their families deserve to know who gave the license for the security forces to fire at them and their relatives, and there cannot be any credible solution to the political crisis if human rights are not respected and justice is not delivered,” said Ousmane Diallo.

“The freedom of peaceful assembly must be respected by the authorities and it is outrageous that security forces, including special forces, fired live bullets at the demonstrators. No citizen deserves to die for expressing their opinion, or for denouncing the poor governance of their own country.”


Gambian ministers virus positive

BANJUL - Three cabinet ministers in The Gambia have tested positive for coronavirus, according to a statement from the presidency.

President Adama Barrow last week went into self-isolation after Vice-President Isatou Touray tested positive for the virus.

Finance Minister Mambureh Njie, Petroleum and Energy Minister Fafa Sanyang and Agriculture Minister Amie Fabureh have also contracted the virus, the presidency said in a tweet.

The Gambia has so far confirmed nearly 500 coronavirus cases and nine deaths.

The government has made the wearing of face masks mandatory in public places and has also prohibited social gatherings.(FA)


Zimbabweans 'dying in hospital car park'

HARARE - Doctors in Zimbabwe say the country is facing a crisis from a shortage of healthcare workers as the number of Covid- 19 infections begins to rise.

Dr Rashida Ferrand, an epidemiologist at the main public hospital in the capital Harare told the BBC there are too few doctors and nurses because of a health workers' strike, which began before the pandemic, and a shortage of protective equipment.

She told the BBC's Newsday programme:

As a result of that, many wards, including the Covid centre, do not have enough staff. So whilst we have the capacity, we're currently relying on two volunteer doctors and a small group of nurses per shift. Even though we have extremely sick patients we are taking in only a maximum of 30 patients."

The hospital is having to turn patients away:

The reality is that if there are patients who are about to die and are at home I ask relatives and doctors to make them comfortable.

We've had patients dying in the car park and unfortunately as soon as [we reach] the limit of 30 beds which I can cope with, given the staff I have, I have to say 'no' [to their admission to the hospital].

And that is a very very gut wrenchingly difficult decision we've had to make over the last couple of weeks."

Zimbabwe has had nearly 4,000 confirmed virus cases, with 70 deaths officially registered, but doctors say the actual numbers argher.(FA)


Kenyan nurse dies of Covid-19 after giving birth

NAIROBI - A Kenyan nurse has died from Covid-19 days shortly after giving birth for the first time while undergoing treatment for the disease in hospital.

Local media report that the nurse, identified as Marian Awuor Adumbo, was admitted to a hospital west of the capital, Nairobi, and had initially tested negative for Covid-19.

Her condition worsened and she was admitted to another health facility where she tested positive.

She delivered her baby and went into the intensive care unit where she later died.(FA)


Namibia to suspend school attendance

WINDHOEK - School attendance for most students is set to be suspended in Namibia again on Tuesday as coronavirus cases increase in the country.

The closure comes after parents and teachers had threatened to demonstrate if schools remained open despite the rising number of new infections.

Learning in all classes, except for final year students, will be suspended for 28 days.

President Hage Geingob on Friday tightened the rules prohibiting drinking in bars and taverns but drinking is allowed at home.

The president relaxed the rules for tourists not to undergo 14 days mandatory quarantine if they present a negative Covid-19 test conducted within 72 hours before arrival.

The country has so far recorded more than 2,200 cases of the virus.(FA)


US prepares for ‘count chaos’ and ‘states seceding’

WASHINGTON - The upcoming US election may plunge the nation into a crisis in which military force is needed to help break a stalemate and states threaten to secede from the union, experts have predicted.

A series of “war gaming” exercises have been conducted in Washington to prepare for potential scenarios that could result from “counting chaos” in the wake of the vote, The Times reports.

“Millions of Americans are expected to vote by post for the first time in November due to concerns over coronavirus,” says the newspaper. But Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that postal votes will lead to voter fraud - fuelling fears that the result may be contested.

What did the war games involve?

In “what became a disturbing exercise in the fragility of American democracy”, a group of political operatives, former government and military officials and academics dubbed the Transition Integrity Project “quietly convened online” in June to “game out possible results of the November election”, The Boston Globe reports.

The experts set about “grappling with questions that seem less far-fetched by the day”, the newspaper continues, including “what if President Trump refuses to concede a loss... How far could he go to preserve his power? And what if Democrats refuse to give in?”

“All of our scenarios ended in both street-level violence and political impasse,” said Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and former Defense Department official who co-organised the group.

According to the Financial Times (FT), two of the scenarios began with a “narrow” victory by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden “and an inconclusive electoral college result”.

“In both cases, Mr Trump threatened to federalise the national guard to skew or shut down ballot recounts in contested states,” the newspaper reports. “Bill Barr, the US attorney-general, helped Republican legislatures certify results that contradicted their Democratic governors.”

In a seperate scenario in which Biden won the popular vote and the electoral college, the group hypothesised that Trump would only agree to leave office after being promised a blanket pardon by the incoming administration.

The experts also considered was what would happen if Biden lost the election despite winning the popular vote, as happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

They concluded that Biden’s party might “not allow him to admit defeat in such circumstances”, with the Democratic candidate instead claiming that “voter suppression had swung the result”, reports The Times.

In an exercise playing out this scenario, the Democrats ended up persuading the Democratic governors of Michigan and Wisconsin, two states which supported Trump in 2016, to send Biden supporters to the electoral college.

“In the ensuing chaos, California, Oregon and Washington state said they would secede from the US if Mr Trump was sworn in,” The Times reports. “The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives asserted that Mr Biden was the true president; the Republican-controlled Senate said it was Mr Trump.”

Are such role-playing exercises really necessary?

The FT says that the Pentagon and White House has long found war games “indispensable”, while the Boston Globe reports that such role-playing exercises are a “fixture of military and national security planning”.

But experts believe pre-election preparations may prove especially helpful this year, as Trump continues to claim, without evidence, that the vote may be “rigged” in favour of Biden, The New York Times reports.


Why Trump is at war with TikTok

WASHINGTON - Donald Trump has paused his plan to ban TikTok from operating in the US in order to pave the way for the sale of the Chinese-owned app to Microsoft, according to reports.

The US president appeared to have scuppered the deal after warning on Friday that TikTok poses a national security risk because the video-sharing platform’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, has access to the personal data of US users.

But Reuters reports that “people familiar with the matter” say that following a discussion with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on Sunday, Trump has agreed to give ByteDance 45 days to negotiate the sale.

Trump facing expanded criminal inquiry

WASHINGTON - Prosecutors seeking President Donald Trump’s tax returns in New York have widened their probe to investigate claims of “protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization”.

The BBC says the new court filing suggests the inquiry is broader than alleged hush money payments made to two women who claim they had affairs with Trump.

The US president has dismissed the probe, describing it as a “witch hunt”.

Storms, coronavirus pose ‘double threat’ for children in Central America and Caribbean – UNICEF

NEW YORK - Across Central America and the Caribbean, the more than 70 million children impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic could soon face another threat – catastrophic hurricane storms, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned on Monday.

“In the coming days and weeks, children and families will be at risk of being hit simultaneously by two disasters, COVID-19 and hurricanes,” cautioned Bernt Aasen, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Roadblocks ahead

While acknowledging that displacement, infrastructure damage and service interruptions caused by storms – particularly in coastal areas – could render individuals more vulnerable to the disease and its impacts, the UN children’s agency expressed special concern that a powerful storm could severely undermine ongoing efforts to stem COVID-19.

The coronavirus could spread easily in crowded emergency shelters or displacement sites where physical distancing would be difficult to ensure, according to UNICEF.

At the same time, existing control measures like handwashing could falter if water, sanitation and health infrastructure were to be damaged or destroyed.  

“This is the perfect storm we fear for the Caribbean and Central America,” said the UNICEF official.

Hampered efforts

In addition to straining national and local health systems in the region, the pandemic is also raising serious questions about the aftermath of a catastrophic hurricane, including movement restrictions and budget shortfalls, which may hinder national hurricane preparedness efforts.

“As we continue to take precautions to keep families safe from COVID-19, efforts to prepare for hurricane now are vital to mitigate the spread of virus among the most vulnerable communities”, Mr. Aasen explained.

Danger on the horizon

As UNICEF reported in a recent Child Alert, over the coming years the Caribbean region is expected to experience intensified storms and subsequent population displacements.

In late May, tropical storm Amanda caused flooding and landslides in parts of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. At least 33 people were killed in the region and thousands were displaced. All three countries have confirmed cases of COVID-19.

And in the 10-year period from 2010 to 2019, storms caused 895,000 new displacements of children in the Caribbean and 297,000 in Central America, according to the UN children’s agency.

Stepping up

Across the region, UNICEF is working to support hurricane preparedness efforts and public health responses to COVID-19 through education, community outreach and technical support.

In collaboration with Governments and other partners, the agency is working to build disaster resilience among communities in the region, including by adjusting hurricane preparedness and response plans to reflect COVID-19 risks with a focus on vulnerable groups, like children, pregnant women and single-headed female families.

Moreover, UNICEF is also working to improve coordination mechanisms and tools for timely needs assessments and response based on evidence and with Governments on climate change adaptation policies to ensure that they are child sensitive and informed by the long-term perspectives of youth and adolescents.



Microsoft to pursue acquiring TikTok after speaking with Trump

WASHINGTON - Microsoft said on Sunday that it would continue to pursue acquiring TikTok after consulting with President Trump, who seemed to be backing off a pledge to ban the app.

The announcement came as Mr. Trump has expressed repeated concerns about TikTok and concerns around national security in recent weeks.

On Friday, Mr. Trump threatened to ban the app entirely within the United States.

Those plans appeared to change after Satya Nadella, the chief executive of Microsoft, spoke over the weekend with the president, assuaging his worries over the safety of the app.

The latest move may clear the way for a potential blockbuster deal between the software giant and the viral social media phenomenon.

Microsoft said it would pursue the deal over the coming weeks, and expected to complete the discussions no later than Sept. 15. Such a deal would involve purchasing the TikTok service in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, would continue to own the social media app’s operations in Beijing and other markets.




Australia & Pacific

Melbourne deserted as curfew kicks in

MELBOURNE - In the Australian city of Melbourne, police have been seen patrolling the deserted streets after a night-time curfew was imposed to stem the spread of Covid-19.

As we reported earlier, Victoria, where Melbourne is based, has declared a state of disaster after lockdown measures introduced in July failed to curtail coronavirus cases.

Now even stricter restrictions have been implemented by Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews, who said he was not prepared to see more residents “choked to death by an invisible enemy”.

Under the curfew, which came into effect on Sunday, Melbourne residents are not allowed outside from 20:00 to 05:00.

Pictures of empty streets from Melbourne suggest many residents have complied by the new rules, which police have new powers to enforce.

Other images showed people waiting in line for the supermarket, hours before the curfew was due to start.(FA)


Kidnap scam targets Chinese students

SYDNEY - Chinese students in Sydney are being targeted in a kidnapping scam forcing them to pay massive ransoms to fraudsters, Australian police say.

In many cases, blackmailed students were forced to stage their own kidnapping and send video proof to relatives in China to obtain funds.

Eight "virtual kidnappings" have been reported this year, including one where a A$2m (£1.1m;$1.43m) ransom was paid.

Victims had believed they or their loved ones were in danger, police said.

New South Wales (NSW) Police said the scheme had "really increased in frequency throughout 2020" and was operating on an "industrial scale".

They have urged students to immediately report any threatening calls they receive.

Authorities said the "call centre-type" scam was being operated offshore, which made it difficult to track.

It typically involves a fraudster pretending to be from the Chinese embassy or another authority, ringing victims and informing them that they have been implicated in a crime in China or are facing some other threat.

The scammers, who usually speak Mandarin, then demand the student pay ongoing fees in order to avoid arrest or deportation.

In some cases, the students are also convinced to cease contact with their family and friends, rent a hotel room and fake a hostage situation to obtain funds from their relatives overseas.

In one case, a father had already paid more than A$2m (£1.1m; $1.43m) in ransom payments, before receiving a video of his daughter gagged and bound in an unknown location.

He then contacted police in Sydney who, after an hour's search, found the woman safe and well at a hotel room in the city.

In other cases reported to police this year, payments ranged from A$20,000 to A$300,000.

"On some occasions, [families] have basically paid every cent they've got," said Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett.

In many of the cases, when police were contacted they typically found the victim safe the next day. Often the victims felt too embarrassed or ashamed to report the crime.

"The victims of virtual kidnappings we have engaged are traumatised by what has occurred, believing they have placed themselves, and their loved ones, in real danger," said NSW Police.

Police said the scam was operating on a mass scale, and appeared to involve a blitz of automated phone calls sent to anyone with a Chinese surname in the phone book.

"They cast their net very widely and they're getting a few people who fall for it, which is very lucrative for them," said Mr Bennett.

He noted that there had been a sharp increase in the past few months, where "pretty much every weekend we've had a victim fall for one of these scams."

Advocates for international students in Australia say they have been more vulnerable amid the pandemic due to their reliance on casual work, and their exclusion from government welfare.

Police said "cultural factors", as well as the isolation of some international students, made them a vulnerable target.

Victims could then be manipulated into extremes such as faking a kidnap because they had fallen under the scammer's "psychological control", Mr Bennett said.

"Students can do two important things to protect themselves against these types of crimes - firstly, be aware they exist and secondly, ask for help early if they think it might be happening to them or someone they know," said NSW Police.

There have also been reports of such frauds occurring in New Zealand and the United States.(FA)


Alarming statistic shows impact of people in Australia not self-isolating

SYDNEY - Nearly 90% of people in the Australian state of Victoria with Covid-19 symptoms did not self-isolate, alarming new analysis has shown.

According to 9 News, 3,400 of the 3,810 cases who made up the analysis carried on as normal, despite suffering symptoms of coronavirus.

Victoria premier Daniel Andrews said he was "very unhappy and sad" with the figure and criticised those who ignored the advice about staying at home.

He said: "That's an interesting measure in that people have felt sick, they've got symptoms, and they've kept going shopping, they've kept going to work...

"You must go and get tested when you feel sick.

"That is the only thing that you can and must do. And if people don't do that, then we will continue to see numbers increase."

Figures also showed that over half (53%) of Victorians did not stay home between when they were tested for coronavirus and when they got their results.

Andrews said the current lockdown in the state would go on for "much longer" than six weeks if cases did not begin to go down.

Australia placed millions back into lockdown following a spike of coronavirus cases earlier this month.

The country has been among the world's most successful in containing its coronavirus outbreak – with the exception of Melbourne, Victoria's capital and the country's second-largest city.

The south-eastern state had some of the nation's toughest pandemic measures and was among the most reluctant to lift restrictions when the worst of the outbreak seemed to have passed.

But as most of the country emerges from lockdown restrictions, in Melbourne the virus has resumed spreading at an alarming rate.

It comes as weekly coronavirus deaths in England and Wales have fallen by almost a third within seven days and remain at the lowest level since before the lockdown.

There were 366 deaths registered in the week ending 10 July involving Covid-19 – accounting for 4.2% of all deaths in England and Wales, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

This is a 31.2% fall from the previous week, when there were 532 deaths where coronavirus was mentioned on the death certificate.

It is also the fourth week in a row that deaths have been below the number that would usually be expected at this time of year, based on an average from the previous five years.

There were a total of 8,690 deaths registered in England and Wales in the week to 10 July, according to the ONS, 560 fewer than the five-year average of 9,250.

Mask wearing mandatory in Australia's Melbourne

MELBOURNE, Australia - The Australian city of Melbourne is set to make mask wearing in public mandatory as it faces a spike in cases.

Victoria state, where Melbourne is located, reported a further 363 infections on Sunday. A lockdown is currently in place in Melbourne and some of its surrounding areas.

Premier Daniel Andrews said people in the city and in Mitchell Shire would be required to wear a face covering from midnight on Wednesday.

“You won’t be able to leave home without your mask and then wear it where it is absolutely essential to stop the spread of the virus,” he said.

Those who do not comply with the rule will face a $200 fine (£111, $140).

Australia has reported 12,000 cases of the virus since the pandemic began and 122 deaths.(FA)


Massive blast rocks Beirut killing 70

BEIRUT - A massive explosion has rocked central Beirut, sending a mushroom cloud of dust into the air, and reportedly leaving at least 70 dead and thousands injured.

The explosion appeared to take place in the Lebanese capital’s port area, which is right next to the central Downtown area of the city.

Nearby buildings were severely damaged, with windows blown in and streets covered in shattered glass.

Crowds of stunned people, many of them wounded, gathered outside hospitals in Beirut.

Lebanon’s Health Minister Hamad Hasan said the explosion has caused a “very high number of injuries” and extensive damage.

AFP news agency, quoting a security source, has reported that ”dozens” have been hurt, but citing the Lebanese Health Ministry, the Al-Mayadeen channel said the number could be in the hundreds.

“I saw a fireball and smoke billowing over Beirut. People were screaming and running, bleeding. Balconies were blown off buildings. Glass in high-rise buildings shattered and fell to the street,” a witness told Reuters.

The aftershock was felt in the mountains above Beirut, at least 13 miles away, and was so strong it blew out doors and windows in buildings across the city.

The army has reportedly sent reinforcements to the port.

It is unclear what caused the explosion, but Lebanon’s state news agency NNA and two security sources said the blast had occurred in the port area where there are warehouses housing explosives.

It was not immediately clear what caused the blast or what kind of explosives were in the warehouses.(FA)


Lebanon foreign minister resigns

BEIRUT - Lebanon's Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti has submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Hassan Diab, saying the country risked becoming a "failed state" and the government showed a lack of reformist will.

"I participated in this government on the basis that I have one employer named Lebanon, and I found in my country many employers and conflicting interests," Hitti said in his resignation letter, made public on Monday.

"If they don't come together around the interests of the Lebanese people and save them, then the ship, God forbid, will sink with everyone on board."

In his resignation letter, Hitti chided the "absence of a vision for Lebanon as I believe in it as a free, independent and capable nation" and the absence of a "real will to achieve structural reforms ... which our national society asks for and the international community are calling on us to do".

"Lebanon today is sliding towards becoming a failed state," he wrote.

The letter also implicitly criticised Hezbollah, a major backer of Diab’s government, by calling for a need for Lebanon to strengthen its ties with the "Arab community" and be "radiant in its Arab environment".

Lebanon’s formerly strong ties with Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, have been harmed by the growing role of the Iran-backed group in Lebanese politics and in regional conflicts, including the war In Yemen.

In a statement on Monday, the Lebanese prime minister's office said Diab met Hitti and "accepted the resignation on the spot", adding that it is "examining options in order to appoint a new minister".(FA)


Security Council: Poverty deepens, along with need, across Syria

THE UNITED NATIONS - Humanitarian operations across war-shattered Syria are reaching 6.8 million people a month, but a worsening economic crisis is deepening poverty and pushing more and more Syrians into humanitarian need, the Security Council heard Wednesday.

UN humanitarian affairs chief Mark Lowcock said that the United Nations and its partners are working to address operational challenges arising from the Council’s decision following weeks of division, on 11 July, to reduce to just one, the number of border crossing through which food, medicine and other forms of aid can pass from Turkey into Syria.

The UN is also helping to tackle COVID-19 in Syria, where the number of confirmed cases remains in the hundreds, but the true number is certainly higher, Mr. Lowcock told the Council’s monthly meeting on the humanitarian aspects of the conflict in Syria that erupted in 2011.

Time of ‘extreme fragilty’

“The Syrian economy, devastated by nearly a decade of conflict, has entered a period of extreme fragility,” he added, marked by exchange-rate volatility, high inflation, dwindling remittances from Syrians working abroad, and lockdown measures to contain the novel coronavirus.

This year, the economy is expected to contract by more than 7 per cent, he said. Unemployment is close to 50 per cent, compared with 42 per cent last year and food prices are 240 per cent higher than in June 2019.

“What this means is that families across the country can no longer afford the very basics”, he said, noting that 9.3 million people in Syria are living with food insecurity – with over two million more, at risk of joining them.

Respect and protect

On the need to respect and protect civilians, Mr. Lowcock said that the ceasefire in northwest Syria - reached in March between the Russian Federation and Turkey - is largely holding, despite periodic shelling, airstrikes and bomb attacks that have killed or injured dozens of people, including children.

Elsewhere in Syria, the lack of regular humanitarian assistance is creating a critical situation for 12,000 civilians thought to be still in Rukban, near the Jordanian border.  Mr. Lowcock added that his team is also monitoring with concern an uptick in violence in the southern city of Dara’a.

Water, school woes

Water is another worry, with the Euphrates river at low levels and disruptions involving the Alouk water station affecting 460,000 people in Al-Hasakeh governorate, in northeast Syria, he said.

Meanwhile, a third of Syria’s school-aged children – some 2.5 million youngsters – are out of school, with another 1.6 million at risk of dropping out. Yet thousands of students are crossing frontlines to take national exams, hoping their future will take a turn for the better.

Mr. Lowcock reported that the fourth Brussels Pledging Conference on 30 June generated $7.7 billion in pledges for humanitarian, resilience and development activities in Syria and the region.  The biggest pledges came from the European Commission, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, France and Denmark.

$384 million still needed

This year’s $3.4 billion Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria is 32 per cent funded so far, “making it one of our better funded operations,” Mr. Lowcock said, adding however that another $384 million is required for Syria under the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan – of which 28 per cent has been received.

COVID, a crisis within a crisis

Also briefing the Council today was Amany Qaddour of Syria Relief and Development, a non-governmental aid agency, who described the COVID-19 pandemic as a crisis within a crisis that has exposed how fragmented the health sector in Syria is.

“We know that negative health outcomes don’t emerge in a vacuum,” Ms. Qaddour told the Council, which has been meeting via video-teleconference since mid-March when UN headquarters in New York closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the initial focus has been on trauma and emergency services, healthcare must be seen as a continuum that includes provisions for primary and community health, rehabilitative care for persons with disabilities, and mental health, she said.

Yemen: Crisis reaches new low, UN officials tell Security Council

THE UNITED NATIONS - The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has never been worse, with conflict escalating, famine on the horizon, the economy in tatters and COVID-19 out of control, senior UN officials told the Security Council on Tuesday as they issued a fresh call for an immediate ceasefire.

Four months on, negotiations between the Government and Houthi rebels on a ceasefire and the resumption of peace talks are continuing, but compromises must be made before the window of opportunity slams shut, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths said.

‘Verge of collapse’

UN humanitarian affairs chief Mark Lowcock, echoing calls for an immediate ceasefire, added that funding for aid operations in Yemen is “frankly on the verge of collapse” with only 18 per cent of the money required for 2020 having been received so far.

“Without more funding, we should all expect large increases in hunger, malnutrition, cholera, COVID-19 and, above all, death,” he said, just as demand for assistance is set to rise sharply.

The two officials delivered their grim messages as the 15-member Council debated the ongoing war in Yemen in only its second in-person meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic, shut down UN Headquarters in New York in mid-March.

No progress on any front

Mr. Griffiths said that the military situation in Yemen has not improved during the past month, with fighting in the oil-producing Marib region, liable to undermine ceasefire prospects. He also called on all sides to protect civilians, following recent that included children among the casualties.

With food prices rising, the value of the Yemeni rial depreciating, and most Yemenis without enough money to meet their basic needs, the two sides must agree on ways to keep the economy out of the conflict, he added.

Noting that the number of active front lines in Yemen has grown to 43 from 33 in January, Mr. Lowcock said that nearly 1 million displaced people are sheltering in and around Marib – and if the city comes under assault, waves of already vulnerable people are certain to flee the area.

Ceasefire key

“Yemenis need a nationwide ceasefire”, he said, calling on the partied to do everything possible to immediately de-escalate the violence.

He implored donors to make good on their pledges to this year’s UN humanitarian appeal for Yemen. “There is no time to lose”, he said, noting that a sharp drop in payments from Yemen’s neighbours in the Gulf region is the main reason for the yawning gap in funding. In its latest situation report, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday put the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Yemen at 1,695, with 484 deaths - but with the data from Houthi-controlled areas unclear, officials fear the real number could well be much higher.

Stricken vessel in limbo

Updating the Council on the floating oil storage vessel FSO Safer, threatening to spill an estimated 1.148 million barrels of crude into the Red Sea, Mr. Griffiths said that the United Nations is still awaiting permission from the Houthis to deploy a UN-supervised technical mission to the aging one-time supertanker.

Mr. Lowcock briefed the Council two weeks ago on the potential environmental and humanitarian consequences of the Safer either blowing up or triggering a massive oil spill, after the Houthis confirmed in writing that it would allow the UN mission to go ahead.

“An independent and expert-driven assessment is critical for allowing us to fully understand the scope and size of the issue and the possible solutions”, Mr. Griffiths said, promising to keep the Council informed of any developments.