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Afghanistan faces vaccine delay as it battles COVID-19 surge | Coronavirus pandemic News



Afghanistan is battling a brutal surge in COVID-19 infections as health officials plead for vaccines, only to be told by the World Health Organization that the three million doses the country expected to receive by April will not be delivered until August.

“We are in the middle of a crisis,” health ministry spokesman Ghulam Dastagir Nazari said this week, expressing deep frustration at the global vaccine distribution that has left poor countries scrambling to find supplies for their people.

Nazari has knocked on the door of several embassies, and so far, “I’ve gotten diplomatic answers” but no vaccine doses, he said.

Over the past month, the escalating pace of new cases has threatened to overwhelm Afghanistan’s health system, already struggling under the weight of relentless conflict. In part, the increase has been blamed on uninterrupted travel with India, bringing the highly contagious Delta variant which was first identified there.

Also, most Afghans still question the reality of the virus or believe their faith will protect them and rarely wear masks or socially distance, often mocking those who do. Until just a week ago, the government was allowing unrestricted mass gatherings.

The Delta variant has helped send Afghanistan’s infection rate soaring, hitting 16 provinces and the capital, Kabul, the hardest. This week, the rate of registered new cases reached as many as 1,500 a day, compared to 178 a day on May 1.

A hospital worker receives the first dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine at a hospital in Kabul [File: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

Hospital beds are full, and it is feared rapidly dwindling oxygen supplies will run out. Afghan ambassadors have been ordered to seek out emergency oxygen supplies in nearby countries, the foreign minister, Haneef Atmar, said in a tweet on Friday.

Massive undercount

By official figures, Afghanistan has seen a total of 78,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths from the pandemic. But those figures are likely a massive undercount, registering only deaths in hospitals, not the far greater numbers who die at home.

Testing is woefully inadequate. In only the past month, the percentage of positive COVID tests has jumped from about eight percent to 60 percent in some parts of the country. By WHO recommendations, anything higher than five percent shows officials are not testing widely enough, allowing the virus to spread unchecked.

At most, only 3,000 tests a day are carried out, as Afghans resist testing, even after the country dramatically ramped up its capabilities to 25,000 a day.

Only recently, the government tried to take steps to clamp down to contain the surge. It closed schools, universities and colleges for two weeks. It also shut down wedding halls, which had been operating unhindered throughout the pandemic.

But it is rare to see anyone wearing a mask in the streets, and even where masks are mandatory, like in government offices, the rule is rarely enforced. As many as 10 flights arrive daily from India, packed with Afghans, particularly students and people who had gone to India for medical treatment.

Nazari said banning flights was not an option since many Afghans cannot afford to be stranded in India and the government cannot prevent citizens from re-entering their own country.

In Afghanistan, people hardly mask up and social distance is rarely followed [File: Parwiz/Reuters]

Relies on donation

For vaccines, Afghanistan so far has relied on a donation of AstraZeneca doses from India and then purchases of Sinopharm from China.

About 600,000 people have had at least one dose, about 1.6 percent of the population of 36 million. But the number to have received a second dose is minute – “so few I couldn’t even say any percentage,” Nazari said.

Last month, the ministry received a letter from the WHO saying the expected shipment of three million vaccine doses will not arrive until August due to supply problems, Nazari said.

With just 35,000 vaccine doses remaining in the country, the authorities were forced to stop giving first jabs to use remaining supplies to give second jabs, he said.

Poor countries around the world have been pleading for vaccines even as developed nations have been able to inoculate significant portions of their populations.

COVAX, set up with United Nations help to try to prevent vaccine inequities, has struggled to fill the gap. It faced a major setback when its biggest supplier, the Serum Institute of India, announced last month that it would not export any vaccines until the end of the year because of the surge in that country.

“Honestly speaking, I lost my faith in COVAX,” Nazari said.

“Unfortunately, there are countries who vaccinated more than their 50 percent or 60 percent of the population … and there are countries who did not receive vaccines to even vaccinate one percent of their population.”

Men wear protective masks as they work at a mask factory in Kabul [File: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

On Thursday, the administration of United States President Joe Biden announced its plans to share with the world a stockpile of 25 million unused COVID-19 vaccine doses. The UN-backed COVAX global vaccine sharing programme will receive 75 percent of those doses, while the rest will go directly to US allies.

More than 63 percent of adults in the US have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

At the Afghan-Japan Communicable Disease Hospital, Kabul’s only hospital dedicated solely to COVID treatment, all 174 beds are full. The health ministry opened roughly 350 more beds for coronavirus patients in another three hospitals, but they too quickly filled up. This week, people were being turned away.

Each day three or four people die of COVID at the Afghan-Japan Hospital, said hospital administrator Dr Zalmai Rishteen.

Doctors say they are struggling with the public’s refusal to take precautions and follow safety protocols. “Our people believe it is fake, especially in the countryside,” Rishteen said. “Or they are religious and believe God will save them.”

In the hospital’s intensive care unit, Dr Rahman Mohtazir said that only makes it more dangerous for him as he does his job. “I am afraid I will catch it, but I am here to help,” he said. “I listen to people and they say it’s fake. Then they come here.”

The health ministry has recruited prominent religious leaders and local elders to encourage vaccination and anti-coronavirus precautions.

The worsening COVID situation prompted the US embassy on Thursday to issue a health alert warning of shortages of supplies, oxygen and beds at hospitals and urging American citizens to “to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible”.

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New Zealand’s Hubbard selected as first transgender Olympian | LGBTQ News




Laurel Hubbard, 43, will compete in the super-heavyweight women’s event in Tokyo.

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after being selected by New Zealand for the women’s event at the Tokyo Games, a decision set to test the ideal of fair competition in sport.

New Zealand Olympic Committee chief Kereyn Smith said 43-year-old Hubbard – who was assigned male at birth but transitioned to female in 2013 – had met all the qualification criteria for transgender athletes.

“We acknowledge that gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the field of play,” Smith said in a statement.

Hubbard will compete in the super-heavyweight 87-kg category after showing testosterone levels below the threshold required by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The 43-year-old had competed in men’s weightlifting competitions before transitioning.

“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” Hubbard, an intensely private person who rarely speaks to the media, said in a statement issued by the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) on Monday.

Hubbard has been eligible to compete at Olympics since 2015, when the IOC issued guidelines allowing any transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided their testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months before their first competition.

Some scientists have said the guidelines do little to mitigate the biological advantages of people who have gone through puberty as males, including bone and muscle density.

Advocates for transgender inclusion argue the process of transition decreases that advantage considerably and that physical differences between athletes mean there is never a truly level playing field.

Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group for women athletes, criticised Hubbard’s selection.

“It is flawed policy from the IOC that has allowed the selection of a 43-year-old biological male who identifies as a woman to compete in the female category,” the group said in a statement.

Weightlifting has been at the centre of the debate about the fairness of transgender athletes competing against women, and Hubbard’s presence in Tokyo could prove divisive.

Her gold medal wins at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa, where she topped the podium ahead of Samoa’s Commonwealth Games champion Feagaiga Stowers, triggered outrage in the host nation.

Samoa’s weightlifting boss said Hubbard’s selection for Tokyo would be like letting athletes “dope” and feared it could cost the small Pacific nation a medal.

Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen said last month allowing Hubbard to compete at Tokyo was unfair for women and “like a bad joke”.

Australia’s weightlifting federation sought to block Hubbard from competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast but organisers rejected the move.

Hubbard was forced to withdraw after injuring herself during competition, and thought her career was over.

“When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end,” Hubbard said on Monday, thanking New Zealanders.

“But your support, your encouragement, and your aroha (love) carried me through the darkness.”

Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand President Richie Patterson said Hubbard had worked hard to come back from the potentially career-ending injury.

“Laurel has shown grit and perseverance in her return from a significant injury and overcoming the challenges in building back confidence on the competition platform,” he said.

Hubbard is currently ranked 16th in the world in the super heavyweight category.

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Apple Daily could shut ‘in days’ after Hong Kong asset freeze | Freedom of the Press News




Company adviser says action under security law means it cannot access some $50 million in funds to pay staff and vendors.

Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily will be forced to shut “in a matter of days” after authorities used the national security law imposed by China to freeze the company’s assets as it arrested the paper’s editor and four other directors, an adviser to jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai told Reuters on Monday.

Mark Simon, speaking by phone from the United States, said the company was no longer able to access its funds and would be holding a board meeting on Monday to discuss how to move forward.

“We thought we’d be able to make it to the end of the month,” Simon told the news agency. “It’s just getting harder and harder. It’s essentially a matter of days.”

His comments signal closure is imminent even after Apple Daily said on Sunday the freezing of its assets had left the newspaper with cash for “a few weeks” for normal operations.”

The news comes two days after editor Ryan Law, 47, and chief executive Cheung Kim-hung, 59, were denied bail after being charged under the security law with collusion with foreign forces.

Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief Ryan Law arrives back at the detention centre after he was remanded in custody on Saturday [Lam Yik/Reuters]

Three other senior executives were also arrested last Thursday when 500 police officers raided the newspaper’s offices in a case that has drawn condemnation from Western nations, human rights groups and the chief United Nations spokesperson for human rights.

The three have been released on bail.

Simon told Reuters it had become impossible to conduct banking operations.

“Vendors tried to put money into our accounts and were rejected. We can’t bank. Some vendors tried to do that as a favour. We just wanted to find out and it was rejected,” he said.

Speaking earlier to US news channel CNN, Simon said the company had about $50 million available, but was unable to access the funds.

The publisher has come under increasing pressure since its owner Jimmy Lai was arrested under the national security law last August, which marked the first time the company’s headquarters was raided. Lai, 73, is now jailed and facing trial under the national security law. In May, the authorities also froze some assets belonging to the longtime critic of Beijing has also had some of his assets frozen.

Three companies related to Apple Daily are also being prosecuted for collusion with a foreign country and authorities have frozen HK$18 million ($2.3 million) of their assets.

China imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last June saying it was necessary to restore “stability” to a territory that had been rocked by mass protests in 2019, some of which turned violent.

The broadly-worded law criminalises acts such as subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life imprisonment, but critics have said it is being used to suppress legitimate political debate with dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists among the more than 100 arrested since it was brought into force.

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Birmingham Classic: Ons Jabeur beats Daria Kasatkina to win first title




Tunisian second seed Ons Jabeur defeated Russia’s Daria Kasatkina in straight sets to win her first singles title at the Birmingham Classic.

World number 24 Jabeur triumphed 7-5 6-4 against the fourth seed to become the first Arab woman to win a WTA title.

In Berlin, Russian qualifier Liudmila Samsonova stunned Swiss fifth seed Belinda Bencic to win her first title.

The 22-year-old world number 106 battled back from a set down to win 1-6 6-1 6-3 in her first final.

Victories for Jabeur and Samsonova mean there have now been 10 first-time singles winners on the women’s Tour this year.

Jabeur broke Kasatkina’s serve three times to prevail in the first set, before successive breaks at the start of the second put the 26-year-old in control at 4-0.

Two-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist Kasatkina recovered to 4-3, but Jabeur held on to win a singles final at the third attempt.

It was a breakthrough week for Samsonova in Germany, during which she also defeated seventh seed Victoria Azarenka of Belaurus in the semi-final.

World number 12 Bencic won the first five games as she dominated the opening set, but Samsonova matched that feat in the second before completing her comeback with breaks in the first and ninth games in the deciding set.

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