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Kashmir: Surviving COVID-19 under the military boot | Coronavirus pandemic

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In April and May, as India experienced a massive surge in coronavirus cases due to the Indian government’s criminal mismanagement of the COVID-19 response, the news from Indian-administered Kashmir was disturbing. The highly militarised region, which had already suffered a debilitating lockdown before the pandemic started, was struggling.

Reported infections and deaths were breaking grim records each day as Kashmir’s healthcare system was overwhelmed by thousands of new cases. The public health response was crippled by inadequate equipment and staffing of medical facilities.

Hospitals in the region have an intensive care capacity of 450 units for a population of 12.5 million – or one ICU bed for every 27,000 residents. In one district in northern Kashmir which is home to 400,000 people, there are six ventilators available that could not be used during the surge of patients, as there was an acute shortage of trained medical staff.

In Kashmir, one doctor is employed for every 3,866 people, way below the average for India of 1 to 2,000. By contrast, the region has no shortage of military infrastructure and personnel. Known as the world’s most intensely militarised zone, it hosts one Indian soldier for every 14 residents.

Kashmir also lost people due to the shortage of oxygen – something the government continues to deny. During the surge, one just had to open social media to see the shocking scale of shortages of oxygen, hospital beds and medicines. The desperate pleas of people trying to save their loved ones were heart-breaking. Yet the government continued to insist that everything was under control.

Worse still, it was New Delhi’s triumphalist projections of normalcy in Kashmir taking precedence over people’s health that helped trigger the coronavirus surge in the region. In early April, when the second wave of coronavirus was already under way, the Indian authorities in Kashmir organised crowded cultural festivals and encouraged unregulated tourism from India and elsewhere.

With no proper testing or quarantine regime in place, more lethal variants of the virus slid into Kashmir. According to local doctors, these new variants were more transmissible and intensified the severity of the disease. Consequently, by early May, Kashmir recorded a 700-percent increase in the number of active coronavirus cases.

A lockdown was swiftly announced but, in a militarised space such as Kashmir, it resembled more of a siege, with roads and intersections blocked by barbed wire, armoured vehicles and paramilitary personnel. Doctors, paramedics and journalists reported being assaulted at these roadblocks.

This was the third lockdown Kashmiris had to suffer through in the past two years. The first one, which started in August 2019, after New Delhi revoked the region’s special status against the will of its people, lasted six months. A curfew was imposed, internet and mobile phone access were cut off, businesses were forced to close, schools and universities suspended classes, and life came to a complete halt under the full control of the Indian army. Shortly after some of these restrictions started to be relaxed, COVID-19 hit the country and another lockdown was imposed.

These three lockdowns have devastated the local economy. In just the past year, according to estimates by business groups, Kashmir’s economy has lost about $5.5bn. Another $2.4bn was lost during the 2019 lockdown, which eroded the Kashmiri people’s economic resilience and their ability to cope with the subsequent COVID-19 lockdowns.

A social support culture of local non-governmental organisations and volunteers, however, remains robust and was able to mobilise to provide medical and economic assistance to people. They had to work in a rather hostile environment where Indian authorities created various barriers to stem their efforts. For example, in early May the local government issued an order banning the supply of medical oxygen to NGOs, which made the work of volunteers trying to help patients who could not breathe extremely difficult.

Keeping people well-informed about the pandemic was also a major challenge in Kashmir. This was because Kashmiri doctors were banned from speaking to the media and people had to rely solely on information issued by the local authorities, whose reliability in some cases was questionable. On top of that, internet shutdowns in some areas of Kashmir continued during the coronavirus surge, hindering access for some Kashmiris and Kashmiri medical professionals to up-to-date information on COVID-19-related research.

Having no internet access also prevented some Kashmiris from registering in the national vaccination system. Lack of access to the online portal is one of several problems that have plagued the vaccination campaign in Kashmir, the massive shortage of vaccines being another one.

As of mid-May, 2.8 million jabs had been administered in the region, but a great number of those did not go to civilians. Priority was given to security forces and the police, most of whom had received two doses by then.

Many in Kashmir also worried about the thousands of Kashmiri political prisoners held in Indian jails in horrendous conditions. As the pandemic ripped through state prisons with increased intensity, the Indian government did not announce any plans to release political detainees.

Due to censorship, it is hard to estimate how many prisoners have been infected by the virus, but some tragic cases have already surfaced. In early May, 78-year-old Ashraf Sehrai, a popular political leader, died in prison. His family maintains that he was ill with COVID-19 for some time and was denied proper medical care.

For those Kashmiris who survived the COVID-19 surge and the latest lockdown, the future, however, also looks bleak. Having learned nothing from the superspreader events it allowed in the spring, the Indian government now plans to conduct the annual Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage from June to August. The event draws more than half a million Hindu pilgrims to ecologically fragile, remote areas in Kashmir.

To provide security, the Indian government will also mobilise tens of thousands of troops and station them in residential areas along the routes leading to the destination of this pilgrimage. This influx of masses of people will undoubtedly put the local population at risk of yet another surge in infections.

Kashmir would have to face that new COVID-19 wave with the same inadequately equipped and short-staffed hospitals and with the same shortages of oxygen and medicines. Kashmiris would likely have to go through yet another debilitating militarised lockdown that would push them even closer to the edge.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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Former winners Spain, holders Portugal face early Euro 2020 exit | Euro2020 News

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Portugal take on world champions France while Spain will face Slovakia on last day of group matches.

Spain and reigning champions Portugal are at risk of a shock early exit from Euro 2020 on Wednesday.

Former world champions Germany, meanwhile, need a draw at the Allianz Arena in the Bavarian capital to reach the last 16 on the last day of group matches but defeat would send Hungary through and possibly condemn Joachim Loew’s side to another group-stage exit, just like at the 2018 World Cup.

That is unthinkable for Germany, who beat Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal 4-2 at the weekend to kickstart their campaign but could be without Thomas Mueller due to a knee injury.

Portugal, who beat France at the last edition’s final to claim the trophy, will be eliminated if they lose to the same opponents and Hungary win but a draw will definitely take the 2016 champions through to the last 16.

France have already qualified but will want to win to secure top spot, meaning a theoretically easier tie in the next round.

Portugal’s neighbours Spain are in a similarly tricky position heading into their final Group E game against Slovakia in Seville.

The 2008 and 2012 European champions have drawn both matches so far against Sweden and Poland.

They need to win this time to be sure of reaching the knockout phase, although a draw would be enough to qualify as a best third-placed team, provided Poland fail to beat Sweden in Saint Petersburg.

“I have a feeling that we are like a bottle of cava that is about to be uncorked,” said coach Luis Enrique.

“As soon as we put in one complete performance and get a big victory, the confidence will come and you will start to see the best of us.”

Slovakia need a point to be certain of progressing, while Robert Lewandowski’s Poland have to beat already-qualified Sweden to advance.



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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UAE-produced film slammed for depicting Qatar a ‘terrorist state’ | GCC News

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The Misfits, a Hollywood film co-produced by an Emirati company, condemned as ‘immoral’ and ‘absurd’.

A Hollywood film co-produced by an Emirati film company has been condemned as “immoral” and “absurd” for portraying Qatar as a “terrorist state”.

The Misfits, co-produced, filmed, and financed by the UAE-based FilmGate Production in partnership with Paramount Pictures and Highland Film Group, tells the story of savvy thief Richard Pace, played by Pierce Brosnan, who escapes from a high-security US prison and goes on to steal millions from the world’s most secure facilities.

In the film, the director refers to Qatar as “Jazeeristan” and accuses its citizens of supporting “terrorist organisations” while Abu Dhabi’s mercenaries are depicted as heroes, Doha News reported.

It added that the film portrays Qatar-based Egyptian Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi as “the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and the sponsor of global terrorism”.

‘Absurd’

The report cited Egyptian journalist, Mohamed Nasser, as saying in a video posted online that The Misfits is nothing more than an attempt by the UAE to “destroy Qatar’s reputation”.

A Twitter user, who watched a leaked copy of the movie, describes it as “absurd” and not worthy of feedback.

“Shame on whoever funded this nonsense,” he added.

Palestinian journalist Jamal Rayyan described the film as “immoral”.

In a series of tweets, Qatari scholar Muhammad al-Kubaisi also slammed the film.

“May God never bless the Emirati leadership. They are using Hollywood and producing a movie called The Misfits, which cost them more than $50m dollars to damage Qatar’s reputation and accuse its peaceful society of terrorism,” he said.

“I do not know why exactly the UAE wants to damage Qatar’s reputation? Is it because we are Muslims and united with God and it wants to eliminate Islam and Muslims? Does the UAE want to distance Qatar from the essence of Islam and support of Muslims everywhere?”

The development came just months after Qatar and its neighbours renewed ties after more than three years of a blockade imposed on Doha by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE.

Qatari and UAE officials held their first meeting since the detente in February this year. In January, the UAE resumed air and sea entry points to Qatar.



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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Air raid kills dozens in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, say witnesses | Ethiopia News

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Witnesses say Tuesday’s attack targeted a busy market in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray village of Togoga.

Dozens of people have been reportedly killed after an air attack targeted a busy market in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray village of Togoga on Tuesday, a day after residents said fighting had flared north of the regional capital Mekelle.

The bomb hit the market at approximately 1pm (10:00 GMT), according to a woman who told Reuters news agency that her husband and two-year-old daughter were injured in the attack.

“We didn’t see the plane but we heard it,” she said. “When the explosion happened, everyone ran out. Later, we came back and were trying to pick up the injured.”

Two doctors and a nurse in Mekelle told the Associated Press (AP) they were unable to confirm how many people were killed, but one doctor said health workers at the scene reported “more than 80 civilian deaths”.

The health workers spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Increased fighting

The reported air attack comes amid some of the fiercest fighting in the Tigray region since the conflict began in November as Ethiopian forces supported by those from neighbouring Eritrea pursue Tigray’s former leaders.

Reuters reported that Ethiopian military spokesperson Colonel Getnet Adane did not confirm or deny the incident. He said air attacks were a common military tactic and the force does not target civilians.

Three other health workers told Reuters that the Ethiopian military was blocking ambulances from reaching the scene.

Wounded patients being treated at Mekele’s Ayder Hospital told health workers that a plane dropped a bomb on Togoga’s marketplace.

A nurse at the hospital said the wounded included a two-year-old child with “abdominal trauma” and a six-year-old. She added that an ambulance carrying a wounded baby to Mekelle was blocked for two hours and the baby died on the way.

Hailu Kebede, foreign affairs head for the Salsay Woyane Tigray opposition party and who comes from Togoga, told AP that one fleeing witness had counted more than 30 bodies and other witnesses were reporting more than 50 people killed.

“It was horrific,” said an official for an international aid group who told the AP he had spoken with a colleague and others at the scene.

“We don’t know if the jets were coming from Ethiopia or Eritrea. They are still looking for bodies by hand. More than 50 people were killed, maybe more.”

Witnesses said several more ambulances were turned back later in the day and on Wednesday morning, but one group of medical workers reached the site on Tuesday evening via a different route.

“We have been asking, but until now we didn’t get permission to go, so we don’t know how many people are dead,” said one of the doctors in Mekelle.

Another doctor said the Red Cross ambulance he was travelling in on Tuesday, trying to reach the scene, was shot at twice by Ethiopian soldiers who held his team for 45 minutes before ordering them back to Mekelle.

“We are not allowed to go,” he said. “They told us whoever goes, they are helping the troops of the TPLF.”

The TPLF refers to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which governed Tigray until it was overthrown by a federal government offensive in November. The subsequent fighting has killed thousands and forced more than two million people from their homes.

While the United Nations has said all sides have been accused of abuses, Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers have been repeatedly accused by witnesses of looting and destroying health centres across Tigray and denying civilians access to care.

This month, humanitarian agencies warned that 350,00 people in Tigray are facing famine. Aid workers have said they have been repeatedly denied access to several parts of the region by soldiers.

The government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed says it has nearly defeated the rebels. But forces loyal to the TPLF recently announced an offensive in parts of Tigray and have claimed a string of victories.



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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