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This Indian village refused COVID vaccines, fearing a god’s wrath | Coronavirus pandemic News



Malana, Himachal Pradesh – On May 22, a team of health workers trekked for about 5km (3.1 miles) on foot to set up a coronavirus vaccination camp in Malana, a remote Himalayan village in northern India’s Himachal Pradesh state.

Only 36 people turned up to take the shot in the village with more than 2,200 residents. But even this meagre turnout was a huge victory.

Residents of Malana were reluctant to take the vaccine for months because the village council, a religious authority, had stonewalled the inoculation drive claiming the local deity, known as Jagadamani Rishi, had not agreed to it.

According to the villagers, it took about five months of rituals, prayers and petitions for the deity to “convey its assent” to the council for vaccination, the divine permission coming in mid-May when India was undergoing a ferocious second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the deity’s “permission”, only 1.8 percent of the village’s population showed up for vaccination as villagers claimed Jagadamani Rishi spoke to them directly through a woman he had “possessed” two days before the May 22 camp.

The deity, through her, told them to shun vaccines as he would “protect” the village through “his divine powers”.

Superstition, misinformation and vaccine hesitancy are not limited to Malana. Experts say the trend is prevalent in many parts of rural India.

In the western state of Maharashtra, tribespeople in Palghar believe they cannot be infected because they work in the sun.

The Potraj community in India’s Western Ghats have said their goddess Kadak Lakshmi told them they do not need to take the COVID vaccine.

And in Rajasthan’s Sirohi district, tribespeople living in the Aravali ranges have refused to take the shot.

In the eastern state of Jharkhand – also mostly tribal – some people refused the vaccine and instead performed a “havan” (sacred ritual) to keep infection away.

India started its coronavirus vaccination drive in January, starting with senior citizens. After ravaging India’s cities, a devastating second wave of the virus is now sweeping across its villages, which have almost non-existent health infrastructure.

Anant Bhan, a researcher who studies global health, bioethics and health policy, told Al Jazeera the situation is alarming.

“Currently, India does not have enough vaccines. Even if it somehow manages the stock, the immunisation drive will be unsuccessful if these gaps are not plugged. These are one of the most vulnerable communities,” he said, referring to residents in remote areas, mostly rural.

‘We are blessed by Jamlu Devta’

Malana is fairly well known for “Malana cream” – counted among the world’s most expensive cannabis – making the village a centre of recreational drug tourism in Himachal Pradesh.

Located on a narrow plateau at 2,650 metres (8,700 feet) and nestled between Parvati and Kullu valleys, the village is hemmed in by wild cannabis on one side and a brook that flows on another. With no paved roads reaching the village, residents make their way through snow in winters and slush during the rains.

Namo Devi, front, her daughter Jiti Devi and daughter-in-law Balma Devi holding her infant son, rest while trekking to Malana village [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

The isolation imposed on Malana by its geography has, over time, evolved into self-imposed seclusion as the village shunned the outside world, including the local administration, and believed in the rule of Jagadamani Rishi.

Only Hindus of the more privileged castes are allowed inside the village, while Dalits (formerly referred to as “the untouchables”), Muslims and Christians are not “permitted to even touch a wall” in Malana, or else they will be fined, according to residents.

Al Jazeera met Namo Devi, her daughter Jiti Devi and daughter-in-law Balma Devi as they were trekking to the village. They said none of them was vaccinated.

“When for over a year there was no case of coronavirus in Malana, why should they get vaccinated now?” asked Namo Devi.

The temple of Jagadamani Rishi, also known as Jamlu Devta, in Malana village [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

Sabheya Devi, another villager, firmly believes their deity will protect them. “We are blessed by Jamlu Devta,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the other name by which the deity is called in the village.

According to Hindu mythology, Jagadamani Rishi is one of the seven great sages, together called Saptarishi (in Sanskrit, sapt means seven and rishi is a sage).

‘I, too, fear Jamlu Devta’

Often, unflinching faith in the local deity has collided with modern science, with villagers staunchly believing modern medicine is against their culture.

In 2015, Nirma Devi became Malana’s only public health worker. She describes how a vaccination drive for children against polio and other diseases was met with a lukewarm response in the village.

“During the first vaccination camp, only two children turned up. Parents would never agree to vaccinate their kids. I then decided to visit each house in the village to convince their parents. A month later, only 10 kids turned up,” she told Al Jazeera.

Nirma Devi, the only public health worker in Malana village [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

“Whenever I encourage them to get vaccinated, take iron or vitamin tablets, or deliver their children at the hospital, they ask me: ‘What will Jamlu Devta say?’” Nirma said.

Nirma also believes in the local deity. “I don’t think it is superstition. I, too, fear Jamlu Devta,” she said.

“If you do not agree to Jamlu Devta’s will, he will either wreck your fields or something will happen to your family or you will fall sick. No one can say no to him. Bad fortune would come to those who would speak ill of him.”

Since she became a health worker, Nirma says she has oscillated between modern science and superstition. Last year, she felt she had to seek Jamlu Devta’s permission to go to a hospital for the treatment of a family member.

“It is mostly the elderly and the women who have vaccine hesitancy in Malana. They believe the vaccines contain cow blood and if they consume it, they would become impure and unholy. It is a sin,” said Nirma.

“They have read it on WhatsApp and YouTube.”

In spite of this, Nirma believes the situation in 2021 is better than in 2015.

“In 2015, people used to shame me for prescribing medical science. Now at least the village council is supportive,” she said, adding that the first COVID vaccine dose in the village was taken by the council head, Raju Ram.

“Now all the kids in the village are vaccinated under the universal immunisation programme,” Nirma said. “But only Jamlu Devta knows how I have convinced their families. I often wonder how things were before I joined.”

After the second COVID wave struck in early April, Nirma and Raju Ram doubled their efforts to “convince” Jamlu Devta to allow vaccination in the village. They communicated multiple times with the deity through a “gur”, a person who is possessed by the deity and acts as his mouthpiece.

But Jamlu Devta said no each time.

“This is a place of god. There can be no coronavirus in this holy land,” Chetram, caretaker of the deity’s temple, told Al Jazeera between puffs of cannabis.

Temple caretaker Chetram smoking his ‘chillum’ (cannabis) in Malana [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

The matter reached Himachal Pradesh’s health department in May, which asked the village council to help persuade the deity to allow vaccination.

“We told Jamlu Devta that vaccines are the only way to protect us from coronavirus. It is a lethal disease. Please allow us to take the vaccines. Then the deity told us that we have his blessings for vaccination,” said Budhram, one of the council members.

After the deity’s “approval” in mid-May, the medical team visited Malana and vaccinated 36 villagers on May 22 and 28 more on May 28.

“However, in that week, two women, Bhudhi Devi and Kesri Devi, were possessed by Jamlu Devta and the god warned villagers against vaccination through them,” Nirma said.

When Al Jazeera met Bhudhi Devi at her house, she refused to talk, repeating the same words over and over: “Devta said no to us. We only have our devta. He dislikes vaccines.”

Her daughter-in-law Doli Devi said she will also say no to vaccination. “Devta has said no to it. How can I go against his wishes?” she told Al Jazeera.

Many villagers are still not convinced, believing their deity is against vaccines.

Balram is one of the few to get vaccinated in the village. “I am old and I don’t want to die. That is why I took the vaccine. I hope others will see this soon,” he said.

Balram is one of the few Malana residents who took the first dose of the vaccine [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

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‘Suddenly, she’s gone’: Mud and death in COVID-hit Indonesia | Coronavirus pandemic News




Jakarta/Kudus, Indonesia – It should have been a time of celebration for Puji Apriani’s family – she was pregnant with her second child, and just weeks away from giving birth.

But instead of welcoming a new life, her family is now in mourning.

“I miss her. She was healthy, her pregnancy was normal. And suddenly, she’s gone,” her younger sister Ery Jurniastuti said.

The family lives in Kudus, Central Java – one of the worst affected areas by Indonesia’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

“She felt out of breath, and she was coughing. She felt contractions in her stomach, too,” Ery said.

Home to almost 900,000 people, Kudus has recorded a 7,594 percent increase in cases since the beginning of this year.

Following a steep rise in cases this month, overwhelmed hospitals have been forced to turn patients away.

After being rejected by two hospitals, Puji was finally admitted, and her oxygen levels increased slightly.

But it was too late. Her condition deteriorated and she died in hospital.

“She died first, then they checked the heart of the baby. The baby is still inside, they didn’t take it out. It died there.”


Puji Apriani was pregnant and only a few weeks away from giving birth when she caught COVID-19. Now, instead of celebrating a new arrival, her family are morning the death of both Puji and her baby [Jamaah/Al Jazeera]

Doctors vs Delta

At the Loekmono Hadi General Hospital in Kudus, Dr Abdul Aziz Achyar said he was “surprised” by the ferocity of the surge, which has pushed bed occupancy rates in hospitals to more than 90 percent.

“During Ramadan, it was so quiet. We only had 18 patients. But then, when it started … I myself was also hospitalised,” he told Al Jazeera.

One hundred fifty-three of his colleagues also contracted the virus, and two of them died.

Indonesia’s capacity to track variants is limited, but doctors believe the current outbreak in Kudus is driven in part by the spread of the Delta variant, which was first detected in India.

“We sent cases from health centre [for genome sequencing]… from 72 samples, 62 were the new variant,” Dr Abdul said.

At Aisyiyah Kudus Hospital, Dr Najib Budhiwardoyo said his hospital is completely at capacity.

“We are full of COVID patients. This second wave started after Eid,” he said.

“All hospitals in Kudus are experiencing this problem … oxygen scarcity. We have to be selective; we can only use oxygen for patients with very low saturation.”

Swamp turned cemetery

It is not just the hospitals in Java that are close to capacity, but cemeteries too.

In the Indonesian capital, the designated COVID-19 burial sites, such as Pondok Rangon Cemetery, that were opened in the early months of the pandemic are already full.

Cemetery workers told Al Jazeera they are struggling to keep up with their workload.

“Before COVID, I used to dig 10 graves each day. But yesterday, we dug 46 graves. The day before, it was 51,” Darsiman, a gravedigger of 20 years, said.

“We are very tired. We work from morning until night.”

Darsiman, a gravedigger of 20 years, waits for Wahyudin to finish writing on a wooden headstone [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

In Rorotan, North Jakarta, a new burial site for those who have died from COVID-19 opened just weeks ago – and already, more than 800 people have been buried there.

As the death toll continues to rise, finding room for the dead in this densely packed city is becoming a challenge.

The land at Rorotan used to be an empty swamp – the families of the deceased have to trek through the mud, to pay respects to their loved ones.

“This is a new cemetery … the other locations are full. There are just so many COVID cases, so they have to bring them here,” Darsiman said.

“It’s been raining so it’s muddy. It’s very sad to see funerals here, even the ambulances get stuck trying to come in.”

Headstone writer Wahyudin said his workload has increased because of the pandemic – and working at the cemetery takes an emotional toll.

“I feel so sad seeing this many burials. Seeing those families cry, I think about my own family,” he said.

“Before COVID, I also made headstones but it’s busier now. So many people have died.”

Moments to rest are scarce – just as workers lower a plastic-wrapped coffin into the ground, more ambulances arrive, with more dead to bury.


‘India should be our lesson’

This week, Indonesia surpassed two million confirmed cases of coronavirus – and more than 55,000 confirmed deaths.

Dr Nadia Siti, the head of Infectious Diseases at the Ministry of Health, said the rise in cases is not surprising.

“We know that if there is a holiday or event, there is an increasing number of people moving and travelling from other cities,” she said.

The cemetery at Rorotan has been built on what was once a swamp in northern Jakarta [Fakhrur Roz/Al Jazeera]
The cemetery at Rorotan has only been open for a few weeks and more than 800 people have already been buried there [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

“The government had restrictions on mudik, which is the tradition of Muslims to visit their hometown [during Eid Al Fitr]. Still, there are four to six million people who travelled.”

The situation in Kudus and capital are of particular concern to the Ministry of Health, where bed occupation rates are high and hospital workers are already overwhelmed by the crisis.

“In Jakarta, the bed occupation rate is almost 80 to 90 percent. We instruct hospitals to convert their beds into COVID-19 services, so they can be available for patients,” she said.

“The last strategy is to establish field hospitals with the coordination of the army or police.”

Long before the pandemic, Indonesia had a shortage of medical professionals – and there are concerns about how its stretched healthcare system will cope when infections are expected to peak in July.

“With the existing doctors, paramedics and nurses, it might not be enough. We might need an experienced doctor to supervise five or 10 new ones, who don’t have experience in taking care of patients,” Dr Nadia said.

“We do hope we won’t face the same situation like India. What happened in India should be our lesson.”

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Former Philippine president Benigno Aquino dies at age of 61 | Obituaries News




Aquino was the country’s 15th president from 2010 to 2016, and was succeeded by current president , Rodrigo Duterte.

Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III died early on Thursday, after a prolonged illness, according to several news reports.

Aquino, 61, served as the country’s 15th president from 2010 to 2016, and was succeeded in office by the incumbent, Rodrigo Duterte.

According to ABS-CBN News, he was hospitalised last Thursday.

But he has been undergoing dialysis for at least five months and had recently undergone a heart operation.

It was during Aquino’s administration that Manila took on China and filed a case before the Court of Arbitration at The Hague over the South China Sea dispute.

The Philippines later won that landmark case a month after Aquino left office in 2016.

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The scrappy Hong Kong tabloid that refused to bow to Beijing | Freedom of the Press News




Hong Kong, China – The last edition of the Apple Daily, the small scrappy Hong Kong tabloid that emerged as a champion of democracy and outspoken critic of China, has rolled off the presses, four days after the newspaper celebrated its 26th anniversary.

The paper had been raided by police twice during the past 10 months on suspicion of violating the National Security Law that was imposed by Beijing almost a year ago. Since the first raid last August, founder Jimmy Lai, 73, has been in jail awaiting trial under the law.

Last week’s raid saw five top executives, including its chief editor, arrested for alleged security offences as 500 police officers swooped in on Apple’s headquarters, with another staffer – the head editorial writer – apprehended on Wednesday morning.

The final nail in the coffin, however, was Hong Kong authorities’ freeze on the bank accounts of the media group that owns the paper. The move made it impossible for the paper to pay its staff and vendors, even as readers snapped up copies to show their support.

The decision was based on “employee safety and manpower considerations”, Apple Daily said as it announced its closure on Wednesday.
“Here we say goodbye. Take care of yourselves.”

Staff members of Apple Daily and its publisher Next Digital clap out the final edition of a paper that began publishing in 1995 and became a thorn in Beijing’s side [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework meant to guarantee rights and liberties absent in the mainland. For most of the past 20 years, the territory has remained a bastion of press freedom in a country where media is muzzled.

“The demise of Apple Daily negates ‘one country, two systems’ and sets the stage for ‘one country, one system,’” said Willy Lam, a longtime commentator on Chinese politics and a veteran newspaper editor.

Bold, brash

Founded just two years before the handover, Apple Daily was at once a gamble and a leap of faith.

“The paper wanted to have some impact not just on Hong Kong but also to support the liberalisation of China,” Lam told Al Jazeera. “But as China has become less open to Western values, the paper has focused on defending Hong Kong values and holding Beijing to account.”

In its inaugural editorial, Apple Daily said it aimed to be a paper for the Hong Kong people.

Lai, its founder and funder, a devout Catholic who had made a fortune in the fashion business, named the paper after the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Its rhyming couplet jingle – “An Apple a day, no liars can hold sway” – caught the attention of Hong Kong readers used to more staid offerings.

It was loud. It was bold, It was flashy.

The paper grabbed attention when it splashed a surreptitiously shot photo of Deng Xiaoping – China’s then-paramount leader died in February at the age of 92 – on his deathbed on the front page.

Brashness was its selling point.

Its reporters frequently skewered public officials and needled the comfortable.

“It speaks truth to power and finds a way to do profitably,” said Lokman Tsui, assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Jimmy Lai, standing by one of the printing presses in 2009, created a hugely popular paper that supported democracy, was unafraid to speak truth to power and critical of the Communist Party in Beijing [File: Alex Hofford/EPA]
Apple Daily’s founder and funder, Jimmy Lai, was arrested in August under the national security law and the paper’s headquarters raided. He has now been jailed [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

The paper catered to high brow and low. Colourful spreads of scantily-clad female models appeared in the same section of the paper as erudite columns featuring quotes in Latin and Classical Chinese. With a couple of exceptions, its ranks of columnists were the who’s who of the territory’s pro-democracy circle.

Giving people what they want

Launched at the dawn of the internet age, the daily was quick to adapt to the digital world. Its website pioneered animated news – a mix of stills, short clips and clever graphics with narration dripping with sour sarcasm. Its lifestyle channel on YouTube built a fervent following.

A decade in, the paper’s circulation peaked at 500,000 in a city of approximately six million people with a dozen dailies.

Apple Daily’s brand of advocacy journalism would soon make the paper a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party. But to Lai, a rags-to-riches maverick millionaire now named Public Enemy No. 1 by Beijing, it was all about giving his customers what they would buy, even down to protest poster inserts.

In the summer of 2019, amid popular opposition to legislation that would send Hong Kong residents for trial in mainland China, the paper shorthanded “extradition to China” into the homophonic colloquial Cantonese expression of seeing someone to the grave. The expression immediately caught on and became a rallying cry in the protest movement.

“At times, we might have gone overboard but everything we did fell within the bounds of the law,” said Robert Chan, 45, who has covered mainland China for the paper for the past three years.

That is until the passage of the security law, which punishes what the authorities deem subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life sentences.

Prosecutors have used Lai’s frequent meetings with US officials in recent years, from the then-vice president on down, as “evidence” of his alleged “collusion with foreign powers”.

Staff from Apple Daily and its publisher Next Digital work on the final edition of their newspaper on June 23. In its first-ever editorial, the paper said it wanted to be a publication of the Hong Kong people. It printed a million copies of its final edition [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Early last month, rumours started to circulate that Beijing wanted to see the paper be shuttered in time for the Communist Party’s centenary celebrations on July 1.

Technology reporter for a decade, Alex Tang, 37, said like most of his colleagues he had become conditioned to taking unsubstantiated gossip with a grain of salt – until the second raid and the company asset freeze.

During the past few days, some of the 800 reporters at the paper were frustrated by the lack of a definitive answer on the last publishing date and severance.

“Management said they’d hang on till the bitter end, and they’ve kept their word,” said Tang. “The company has done its best.”

Apple Daily will live on as a website on the self-governing island of Taiwan, where it ceased paper publication last month.

But in Hong Kong, China news reporter Chan said he will mourn the loss of far more than his livelihood.

“With the paper gone, so would the values it represents: pursuit of freedom and democracy,” he said.

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