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How India’s Silicon Valley saw its COVID-19 success come undone | India News

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On June 9, a minister in southern Karnataka state posted an infographic on Twitter showing the number of recorded COVID-19 infections in the city of Bengaluru were half that recorded in New Zealand, a country celebrated for getting the spread of the disease under control early on in the pandemic.

At the time, only about 450 cases of the novel coronavirus had been recorded among Bengaluru’s 12.5 million people, compared with about 1,150 among New Zealand’s 4.88 million population.

The city – which has more than double the population of New Zealand – “stumps the Kiwis”, said the caption to the image posted by Minister for Medical Education of Karnataka Sudhakar K.

His tweet was liked and retweeted by thousands. But the celebration was short-lived.

Thanks partly to a high-tech testing and tracing system monitored by masked officials on giant screens in a city “war room”, Bengaluru had contained the outbreak better than cities like Mumbai, which tallied more than 100 times as many cases.

People wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus walk down in busiest avenue road area in Bengaluru [File: Jagadeesh NV/EPA]

Two and a half months on, Bengaluru, dubbed India’s Silicon Valley for its technology firms and startups, has reported more than 110,000 cases. Where its infections in early June rose by approximately 25 a day, the daily infection rate is now more than 2,500. In New Zealand, the total caseload stood at 1,339 as of August 25.

Sudhakar did not respond to requests for comment, but his tweet remains online.

Bengaluru’s early response was lauded by India’s government as a model for its use of health surveys combined with efforts to tap technology expertise and cutting-edge software in order to analyse the spread of the disease.

But after India eased a nationwide lockdown in early June, epidemiologists and government officials involved in the city’s response to the pandemic said they realised they had not planned enough.

The experience shows the extent of the challenge faced by large cities around the world, showing how rapidly an outbreak can snowball out of control.

“The city had three to four months to plan for a surge in cases, but the city did not plan for the future. They mostly assumed that the lockdown implementation was sufficient,” said Giridhara Babu, an epidemiologist advising the state of Karnataka.

Curfew and contact-tracing

In late March, India enforced one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. Karnataka state was ahead of that with its own measures.

It collaborated with the NASSCOM trade association to mobilise 150 employees from half a dozen IT firms to feed 20,000 international traveller records into a central system every day.

epa08614307 Indian Health workers holds swab samples of suspected people for coronavirus COVID-19 Rapid Antigen detection testing at Government Health Care Center hospital in Bangalore, India 20 Augus

Health workers holds swab samples of suspected people for coronavirus COVID-19 Rapid Antigen detection testing in Bengaluru [File: Jagadeesh NV/EPA]

Karnataka conducted a mammoth health survey. More than 40,000 government health workers roamed the state in pink uniforms and masks, surveying nearly 16 million households.

Residents were subject to a curfew that emptied parks, malls and the city’s notoriously clogged roads, and officials tapped companies such as Intel, Alphabet’s Google and Mumbai-based Fractal Analytics for expertise and tools to help trace, predict and control the spread.

Many gave up their personal information for these purposes. At thousands of drugstores, officials collected contact details for people who bought drugs like paracetamol, to keep tabs on their health.

A federal government study shows Karnataka on average tested 47.4 contacts of every COVID-19-infected person between January 22 and April 30, compared with the national average of six contacts per infected individual.

‘That many people’

But in June, when lockdown restrictions eased, people flocked back to markets that sell fresh produce and flowers.

Besides locals, officials say tens of thousands of travellers streamed in from Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, many unwittingly bringing the virus with them. The neighbouring states have been the two worst hit by COVID-19 in India.

“We were sandwiched between these two states which already had a very high viral load … so we were bound to get affected,” said Pankaj Pandey, the health commissioner for Karnataka.

An estimated 45,000 people from Maharashtra and another 20,000 from Tamil Nadu’s capital, Chennai, streamed into Bengaluru in June, he added.

“In the initial phase, the case numbers in Bangalore [currently named Bengaluru] were so few, that people all over the country felt Bangalore is the safest. That may also have caused people to ‘reverse-migrate’ back to Bangalore,” said one official involved in Bengaluru’s response.

“We didn’t look at the inbound travellers as a major source of infections,” the official said. “We never anticipated that many people would come.”

Officials from Bengaluru’s municipal body, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), did not respond to queries on whether it failed to address gaps in its modelling systems.

But Hephsiba Rani Korlapati, a bureaucrat running the Bengaluru “war room” said easing the lockdown complicated the city’s efforts.

Since late June, Bengaluru has been sealing areas where cases jump, said Korlapati, noting this involves placing barricades at entry and exit points – in effect quarantining entire neighbourhoods.

“Aggressive testing of contacts and home isolation is the way to contain the spread,” she said. “That is being taken very seriously and is being done right now.”



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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COVID vaccine scarcity and fake doses hamper efforts in Americas | Latin America News

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Amid a limited supply of vaccines, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise across the Americas, PAHO officials said.

Amid a scramble to secure enough coronavirus vaccines in the Americas, there are reports of fake doses proliferating on the black market in several countries in the region, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

“We have received some information from Mexico, Argentina and Brazil that some doses have been offered through social media, illegal markets offering vaccines that probably are falsified,” Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of PAHO said during a weekly news conference.

“They are not real vaccines or maybe they are stolen doses from a health facility that no one can assure that they were properly stored,” Barbosa said.

A woman receiving a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, during a vaccination day campaign in Duque de Caxias near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Pfizer had identified counterfeit vaccines in Mexico and in Poland. According to the report, 80 people in Mexico had been jabbed with fake doses in a clinic, after paying $1,000 per dose.

According to the report, the people who received the fake vaccines were not adversely affected. Citing authorities, the report said in Poland the fake vaccines were seized before they were administered.

During Wednesday’s news conference, PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said the organisation was also concerned about vaccine hesitancy. She said “insidious rumours and conspiracy theories” were “inspiring fear and costing lives”.

She said PAHO was working with tech companies to tackle misinformation that has quickly proliferated on the internet and on social media sites.

“Because unreliable information spreads quickly, PAHO is collaborating with tech companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook to address fake news and ensure the public can easily find accurate information,” she said.

The reports of fake vaccines and vaccine hesitancy in the Americas came amid a scarce supply of vaccines in the region, and a rising number of COVID-19 cases.

Brazil has so far vaccinated 11.6 percent of its population and Mexico has vaccinated 8.7 percent. Other nations in the region are lagging behind [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]

“Latin America is the region that currently has the greatest need for vaccines,” Etienne said, “this region should be prioritised for distribution of vaccines.”

“No one will be safe until we are all safe.”

Nearly half of the world’s coronavirus deaths during the weekend were in the Americas, Etienne said, adding that nearly every country in Central America is reporting a rise in infections. Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, she said were the worst hit.

“Over the weekend, the world reached a tragic milestone – more than three million have lost their lives to COVID, and nearly half of these deaths happened right here in the Americas,” Etienne said.

Chile is seeing a plateau in cases, while Brazil is reporting a drop. But despite the drop, Etienne said, cases in Brazil “remain alarmingly high.” Argentina ranked third regionally in the weekly number of new cases. Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay were also seeing a worsening. And Mexico, after weeks of decline in new cases, is seeing a slight increase.

Regionally, the United States and Chile have made the most progress in their vaccination campaigns – both have vaccinated about 40 percent of their population – according to Our World in Data.

Uruguay has inoculated more than 30 percent of its population while Brazil has so far vaccinated 11.6 percent and Mexico has vaccinated about 8.7 percent. Other nations in the region are lagging behind.

During the news briefing, officials said most of the region’s countries are relying on the global COVAX mechanism, which aims to equitably distribute vaccines to developing nations.

Etienne said more than 4.2 million vaccine doses have so far been supplied to 29 countries in the Americas through COVAX, and more doses are on the way.





Source – www.aljazeera.com

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US commission: Put India, Russia on religious freedom blacklist | Human Rights News

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An independent United States’ commission has called for India, Russia, Vietnam and Syria to be added to a State Department blacklist on religious freedom.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government panel that gives recommendations to presidential administrations and Congress, said the four countries should be designated as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) on the State Department list, which currently includes Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

In particular, the recommendation of India as a CPC, the second year the commission has done so, has in the past been controversial.

The report said the “religious freedom conditions in India continued their negative trajectory”, adding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government “promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom”.

It pointed to allegations of police complicity in violence against Muslims during deadly riots last year in New Delhi and continued concerns about a citizenship law championed by Modi that critics have said defines Muslims as non-Indian.

New Dehli did not immediately respond to the newest annual report, but last year dismissed the recommendation as “biased” and a “new level of misrepresentation”.

The report also said Sudan, Bahrain and Central African Republic no longer met the “high threshold” to be recommended for the State Department’s special watch list (SWL). All three countries had been recommended for that list in the previous annual report.

Biden administration recommendations

In further recommendations to the Biden administration, the commission called for a review of policies for blacklisted countries that currently have waivers in place to protect them from US penalties for abuses of religious liberties.

It called on the administration to review the waivers for Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan “and make appropriate policy changes to demonstrate meaningful consequences and encourage positive change commission”.

Commissioners also called on the Biden administration to raise its cap on refugee admissions. The administration has said it will announce a new cap by May 15, after facing blowback for plans to keep the administration of President Donald Trump’s historically low quota.

The Biden administration, the commission said, should also officially label the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar as “genocide” and lift the cap on refugee admissions.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Anurima Bhargava, a civil rights lawyer and vice chair of the commission, said they were urging “the administration to definitively and publicly conclude that the atrocities committed, and that are ongoing against the Rohingya people by the Burmese military constitute genocide, and acting accordingly, as a State Department recently determined regarding China’s genocide of Uighur and other Turkic Muslims.”

In China, the report said, religious freedom had again “deteriorated” in 2020, as the government targeted “religions perceived to have foreign connections, such as Christianity, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism”. The commission cited reports the persecuted groups were subject to surveillance, detention, torture, and rape.

Commissioner, Johnnie Moore, a Trump appointee to the panel, said “the Democratically-appointed and Republican-appointed commissioners on this commission speak with one voice on the threats of the of the Communist Party in China.”

“This is the more than the consensus view, this has become the passion of this commission,” he said.

Coronavirus pandemic

The report released Wednesday also noted the effect of the coronavirus pandemic, with Chairwoman Gayle Conelly Manchin saying the pandemic had an overall net negative effect on freedom of religion.

While some restrictions on religious gatherings were in line with public health concerns, there were also instances “where minorities were targeted in a much stricter fashion and their activities restricted much more harshly than other religions”.

“There were countries that literally blamed the COVID-19 virus on a particular religion, that they were responsible for the spread of … the virus across their country,” she said.

The report specifically cited Dalits in India blamed for spreading the coronavirus, suggestions in Iran that the coronavirus was a Jewish conspiracy, Protestant Christians accused of spreading the virus in Russia, and a Saudi lockdown on the majority Shia province of Qatif.

Meanwhile, the commissioners praised some blacklisted countries, including Eritrea, for releasing religious prisoners during the pandemic.



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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Sri Lanka archbishop criticises gov’t over Easter attacks probe | Sri Lanka News

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On the second anniversary of the Easter attacks, the head of Sri Lanka’s Catholic church says he was ‘deeply saddened’ by the lack of progress in the investigation.

The head of Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday accused the government of stalling investigations into Easter Sunday bombings two years ago that killed 279 people.

Nearly 200 people were arrested within days of the attacks on hotels and churches, but no one has yet been charged.

Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who led commemorations on the second anniversary Wednesday, said he was “deeply saddened” by the lack of progress in the investigation.

“We have to stress that what is happening at the moment is an attitude of ‘no care’ where all factors are not properly investigated,” the cardinal said at a commemorative service in Colombo.

Catholic priests and nuns march while holding images of the victims of April 21’s Easter Sunday bomb attack in 2019, next to St. Sebastian’s Church, one of the attacked churches, during the second anniversary, in Katuwapitiya, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2021 [Dinuka Liyanawatte/REUTERS]

Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez, reporting from Negombo, Sri Lanka, said Ranjith accused the government of political posturing and the need to protect alliances had hindered the probe.

“He went as far a few days ago as saying that the bombings had nothing to do with religious extremism, but rather were about politics and people who wanted to ensure essentially grabbing power,” she added.

The cardinal has previously called for former president Maithripala Sirisena to be prosecuted for failing to prevent the attacks despite advance warnings.

An investigation ordered by Sirisena soon after the bombings found that he and his intelligence officials had precise information from India about the attack 17 days earlier, but failed to act.

Sirisena, who did not offer himself for re-election in November 2019 polls, is currently a legislator with the party of his successor Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Although none of the 200 in custody have been indicted, 16 Muslim men among them were charged on Tuesday in connection with desecrating Buddhist statues in December 2018.

The authorities have said that the destruction of the statues in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka was the forerunner to the Easter Sunday attacks four months later.

Anniversary service

Wednesday’s multi-faith remembrance service was held at the St. Anthony’s Church where 56 people died in the attacks, which came 10 years after the end of Sri Lanka’s 37-year Tamil separatist war.

Cardinal Ranjith appealed to the country’s Muslims on Wednesday to join Catholics in determining the truth behind the Easter bombings.

Two local groups that had pledged allegiance to the ISIS [ISIL] group have been blamed for the attacks.

A family member kisses the grave of one victim of April 21’s Easter Sunday bomb attack in 2019, next to St. Sebastian’s Church, one of the attacked churches, during the second anniversary [Dinuka Liyanawatte/REUTERS]

Islamic cleric Hassan Moulana, who also spoke at the service, said Muslims around the world condemn the attacks and that Islam offers no justification for the crime.

He said the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has disowned the attackers and has not allowed their bodies to be buried in its cemeteries to show their acts are not part of Islam.

Last week Sri Lanka banned 11 organisations, including the ISIL (ISIS) group and al-Qaeda.

Anyone linked to the groups – the other nine of which are local religious and social organisations – faces up to 20 years in jail, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said in a gazette notification.

Muslims, who make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people, have faced increased attacks from majority Sinhala Buddhist hardliners following the end of a civil war between Tamil separatists and government forces in 2009.



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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