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'Indiscriminate' Afghan Fighting Hurting Civilians The Most, Says UN
[Kandahar, Afghanistan] --- Afghan forces battled the Taliban for control of a key provincial capital Tuesday, as the United Nations warned "indiscriminate" gunfire and air strikes were hurting civilians the most.

"Taliban ground offensive & ANA air strikes causing most harm," UNAMA tweeted.

Officials said insurgents had seized more than a dozen local radio and TV stations in Lashkar Gah -- capital of Helmand province and the scene of days of fierce fighting -- leaving only one pro-Taliban channel broadcasting Islamic programming.

In Herat, another city under siege, hundreds of residents chanted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) from their rooftops after government forces repulsed the latest Taliban assault.

The hardline Islamist group has seized control of much of rural Afghanistan since foreign forces began the last stage of their withdrawal in early May, but are meeting resistance as they try to take provincial capitals.

That urban fighting, however, is taking its toll on civilians.

"Taliban ground offensive & ANA air strikes causing most harm," the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) tweeted Tuesday, referring to the Afghan national army.

"Deep concerns about indiscriminate shooting & damage to/occupation of health facilities & civilian homes."

"Fighting was intense this morning," said Sefatullah, director of Sukon radio in Helmand's capital, whose station was captured by the Taliban.

"We stopped broadcasting two days ago because the Taliban captured the building of our station."

Afghan officials said Tuesday that 11 radio and four television stations in the city had been seized by the Taliban.

"Terrorists do not want the media to publish the facts and expose their injustices," the Ministry of Information and Culture said.

The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government, which has pledged to defend cities at all costs after losing much of the rural countryside to the Taliban over the summer.

In Herat, Afghan officials said government forces had managed to push back the insurgents from several areas of the city -- including near the airport, which is vital for resupplies.

"Afghan security forces plus resistance forces launched a big operation in west of the city," Jailani Farhad, spokesman for Herat's governor, told AFP.
Greece Suffering Worst Heatwave In More Than 30 Years
[Athens] --- Firefighters were battling two large wildfires in Greece on Monday, as the prime minister said the country was suffering its worst heatwave in more than three decades.

Tourists walk through water sprayed by a mister at a cafe during a heatwave in Athens, Greece.

Fires have also raged across Turkey, Spain and Italy over the weekend with experts warning climate change was increasing both the frequency and intensity of such blazes.

More than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of pine and olive groves have been torched by a fire that broke out on Saturday near the city of Patras, 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of Athens, according to the National Observatory of Athens citing EU satellite images.

And the authorities were rushing to bolster crews fighting a blaze on the island of Rhodes near Turkey.

"We are facing the worst heatwave since 1987," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, adding that the authorities were doing "everything possible" to deal with the situation.

After meeting electricity providers, he warned that the brutal heat was putting a strain on the power network and asked for Greeks to limit their consumption in the early afternoon and during the night.

Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias said that there had been 1,584 fires across Greece in July compared to 953 in 2019, and that there had been 116 new blazes in just the last 24 hours.

"We are no longer talking about climate change but about a climate threat," he told Star TV.

The fire near Patras was not fully under control on Monday, the country's weather service told the ANA news agency.

And temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) have been forecast for nearby areas, posing new risks for land already parched by the heatwave.

Officials have evacuated five villages and a seaside town and eight people have been hospitalised with burns and respiratory problems.

Help sent to Rhodes

However, officials were optimistic that a fire on the island of Rhodes, near the Turkish coast, was on the back foot after more firefighters and resources were deployed overnight.

"Dawn finds Rhodes much better than the day before," South Aegean Governor George Hatzimarkos said in a statement.

He added that the fronts of the fire were receding and "almost under control".

More than 100 firefighters, helped by 20 vehicles, three planes and six helicopters, were sent to Rhodes on Monday morning, officials said.

Dozens more firefighters and 14 vehicles were due to arrive from Athens later in the day.

Firefighters evacuated a central area on the island known as "the Valley of the Butterflies" popular with hikers and tourists on Sunday.

Temperatures of between 40 and 42 degrees Celsius have been forecast for the island in the coming days, with the heatwave expected to peak on Monday and Tuesday.

Nearby Turkey is suffering its worst fires in at least a decade, claiming the lives of eight people and forcing hundreds to evacuate in southern areas popular with tourists.
Myanmar Seeks International Help Amid COVID-19 Surge
[Yangon, Myanmar] --- Junta authorities in Myanmar are seeking help from the international community to tackle the coronavirus, state media said Wednesday, as the impoverished country looks beyond ally China in its struggle to beat back a new wave.

Coronavirus: Health worker stands near an ambulance, amid COVID-19 outbreak in Myanmar.

The nation has been in turmoil since the military took power in February, with many hospitals ill-equipped to cope with a surging caseload after many medical staff walked out in protest at the coup.

Stay-at-home orders affecting millions have failed to halt the surge, with crematoriums working at capacity and volunteers working to bring out the bodies of people who have died in their homes.

Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing told a "coordination meeting to beef up cooperation with the international community" that Myanmar should seek money from a Covid-19 response fund set up by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Efforts were being made to work with ASEAN "and friendly countries", the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported, without giving details.

Just under 5,000 new cases of Covid-19 were reported Wednesday -- up from around 50 per day in early May -- but analysts say the real count is likely much higher.

Around 1.75 million people have so far been vaccinated according to the State Administration Council -- as the junta dubs itself -- out of a population of 54 million.

Last week a batch of donated Sinopharm doses arrived from China, junta authorities said, but they would be prioritised for those living along the China-Myanmar border.

China has also supplied more than 10,000 shots to a rebel group operating near its southern frontier in Myanmar, as Beijing seeks to halt an influx of cases from the coup-wracked country.

The junta has ordered a total of four million vaccine doses from China, it said earlier this month, and Beijing will donate a further two million.

A shipment of 1.5 million doses also arrived from India earlier this year.
Spacing Pfizer Covid shots boosts antibody levels after initial drop, says study
A longer gap between doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine leads to higher overall antibody levels than a shorter gap, a British study found on Friday, but there is a sharp drop in antibody levels after the first dose.

People wait after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, in a vaccination center of Lyon, central France, Wednesday, July 7, 2021. (AP Photo)

The study might help inform vaccination strategies against the Delta variant, which reduces the effectiveness of a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine even though two doses are still protective.

“For the longer dosing interval … neutralising antibody levels against the Delta variant were poorly induced after a single dose, and not maintained during the interval before the second dose,” the authors of the study, which is being led by the University of Oxford, said.

“Following two vaccine doses, neutralising antibody levels were twice as high after the longer dosing interval compared with the shorter dosing interval.”

Neutralising antibodies are thought play an important role in immunity against the coronavirus, but not the whole picture, with T cells also playing a part.The study found overall T cell levels were 1.6 times lower with a long gap compared with the short dosing schedule of 3-4 weeks, but that a higher proportion were “helper” T cells with the long gap, which support long-term immune memory.

The authors emphasised that either dosing schedule produced a strong antibody and T cell response in the study of 503
healthcare workers.

The findings, issued as a pre-print, support the view that while a second dose is needed to provide full protection against Delta, delaying that dose might provide more durable immunity, even if that’s at the cost of protection in the short-term.Last December, Britain extended the interval between vaccine doses to 12 weeks, although Pfizer warned there was no evidence to support a move away from a three-week gap.

Britain now recommends an 8-week gap between vaccine doses to give more people high protection against Delta more quickly, while still maximising immune responses in the longer term.”I think the 8 week is about the sweet spot,” Susanna Dunachie, joint chief investigator on the study, told reporters.
Covid Delta Variant To Dominate Within Months: WHO
[Geneva] --- The highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 is expected to become the dominant strain of the virus over the coming months, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

WHO said overall, 3.4 million new COVID-19 cases were reported in the week ending July 18 (File)

Delta, which was first detected in India, has now been recorded in 124 territories -- 13 more than last week -- and already accounts for more than three-quarters of sequenced specimens in many major countries, the WHO said.

"It is expected that it will rapidly out-compete other variants and become the dominant circulating lineage over the coming months," the UN health agency said in its weekly epidemiological update.

Of the three other coronavirus variants of concern (VOCs), Alpha, first detected in Britain, has been reported in 180 territories (up six from last week), Beta, first detected in South Africa, in 130 (up seven) and Gamma, first detected in Brazil, in 78 (up three).

According to SARS-CoV-2 sequences submitted to the GISAID global science initiative over the four weeks to July 20, the prevalence of Delta exceeded 75 percent in several countries.

Those included Australia, Bangladesh, Botswana, Britain, China, Denmark, India, Indonesia, Israel, Portugal, Russia, Singapore and South Africa.

"Growing evidence supports the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant as compared to non-VOCs. However, the exact mechanism for the increase in transmissibility remains unclear," said the WHO.

Cases Up 12%

The Geneva-based organisation said overall, 3.4 million new COVID-19 cases were reported in the week to July 18 -- up 12 percent on the week before.

"At this rate, it is expected that the cumulative number of cases reported globally could exceed 200 million in the next three weeks," said the WHO.

The organisation said the global increases in transmission appeared to be driven by four factors: more transmissible variants; the relaxation of public health measures; increased social mixing and large numbers of unvaccinated people.

Cases were up 30 percent in the WHO's Western Pacific region and up 21 percent in its European region.

The highest numbers of new cases were reported from Indonesia (350,273 new cases; up 44 percent), Britain (296,447 new cases; up 41 percent), and Brazil (287,610 new cases; down 14 percent).

The number of weekly deaths, however, remained steady at 57,000, similar to the previous week and following a steady decline for more than two months.
Taliban Introduces Multiple Restrictions On Women, School-Going Girls And Afghan Citizens Upon Takeover
Taliban’s initial orders following their capture of a northern Afghanistan district restrict women from visiting bazars without any male companion and even prohibit men from shaving their beards.

“It said women can't go to the bazaar without a male companion, and men should not shave their beards,” Sefatullah, 25, a resident of Kalafgan district was quoted as saying.

The directives have been issued to a local imam, and it also introduces a ban on smoking with a threat that mentions that the violators ‘will be seriously dealt with’.

After capturing the northern customs port Shir Khan Bandar, the Taliban ordered women not to step out of their houses, many of whom were already engaged in productive activities such as shoe-making, embroidery, tailoring etc, AFP reports.

Moreover, Taliban has also come out with statements mandating villagers to marry off their daughters and widows to their terrorists.

“All imams and mullahs in captured areas should provide the Taliban with a list of girls above 15 and widows under 45 to be married to Taliban fighters,” the letter reportedly reads.

The terrorist organization called the residents of Yawan district, on the Tajikistan border, at a local mosque after gaining control over the area.

It then clearly told people to not leave their homes at night and prevented them from wearing clothes of red and green colour that depict the Afghan national flag.

Furthermore, school-going girls have been forbidden from attending classes beyond the sixth grade as Taliban insists on protecting women rights only according to the ‘Islamic values’.

The Jihadist group has begun enforcing harsh religious code of conduct that characterised its rule from 1996 to 2001.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 according to the interpreted laws of Koran. Its rule was characterized by systematic violations against women and girls; cruel corporal punishments, including executions; and extreme suppression of freedom of religion, expression, and education.

The group is daily capturing new districts, seizing key border crossings, and encircling provincial capitals even as the final withdrawal of foreign troops takes place. In the occupied areas, the group is reportedly distributing leaflets asking the people to strictly adhere to Sharia law-mandated conduct.

In the past, it has been observed that as the Taliban consolidate control over new areas, their restrictions tightened, not eased. This raises serious concerns that as the foreign troops retreat and government influence wanes, the Taliban's abusive tactics will only worsen, more so because they have now brought a superpower down to its knees.
Fr. Swamy's death will 'remain a stain' on India's human rights record: UN expert
[Geneva] --- A UN human rights expert has said that she is devastated to hear about the demise of Jesuit priest Stan Swamy in custody, saying there is “no reason” for a human rights defender to be denied his rights and that his death will forever “remain a stain” on India's human rights record.

FILE | People during a silent protest over Father Stan Swamys death, outside Buddha Smriti park in Patna, Bihar, India.

Swamy, 84, who was arrested last year under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in connection with the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case, died at a Mumbai hospital on July 5.

In a statement issued on Thursday, UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor said Father Swamy’s case should remind all states that human rights defenders and all those detained without sufficient legal basis, should be released.

Lawlor said the death in custody of Catholic priest Swamy, “renowned human rights and social justice advocate for over four decades, will forever remain a stain on India's human rights record.”

"There is no excuse, ever, for a human rights defender to be smeared as a terrorist, and no reason they should ever die the way Father Swamy died, accused and detained, and denied his rights,” she said.

India has rejected international criticism over the handling of Swamy's case.

The Ministry of External Affairs has said the concerned authorities act against violations of law and do not restrain the legitimate exercise of rights.

It said India remains committed to the promotion and protection of the human rights of all its citizens and that the country's democratic polity is complemented by an independent judiciary and a range of national and state-level human rights commissions.

"Swamy was arrested and detained by the National Investigation Agency following due process under the law. Because of the specific nature of charges against him, his bail applications were rejected by the courts. Authorities in India act against violations of law and not against legitimate exercise of rights. All such actions are strictly in accordance with the law,” the MEA said in a statement in New Delhi soon after Swamy's death.

It said Swamy was receiving all possible medical attention at a private hospital where he was admitted since May 28. His health and medical treatment were being closely monitored by the courts. He passed away on July 5 following medical complications.

Lawlor said Swamy was jailed last October “on fabricated terrorism charges” and had been subjected to harassment and repeated interrogations.

“I was devastated to hear that Father Stan, a Jesuit priest who had dedicated much of his life to defending the rights of indigenous peoples and the Adivasi minority, died in custody on July 5, despite many requests for his release as his health deteriorated in prison,” she said.

She added that in early November 2020, UN experts joined her in raising his case with the Indian authorities, reminding them of their international human rights obligations. “I now ask again why he wasn’t released, and why he had to die in custody?” she said.

Lawlor added that Swamy had been working for decades to protect the rights of Adivasi minority indigenous peoples and the Dalit minority, in particular violations involving forced displacement and illegal land acquisitions.

“We know that defenders working on environmental, land or indigenous people's rights are among the most vulnerable to being targeted,” said Lawlor.

Lawlor's call has been endorsed by Special Rapporteur on minority issues Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health Tlaleng Mofokeng.

Lawlor of Ireland is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in Trinity College Dublin. She was previously Director of the Irish Office of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.
WHO chief says it was 'premature' to rule out Covid lab leak
[Berlin] --- The head of the World Health Organisation acknowledged it was premature to rule out a potential link between the Covid-19 pandemic and a laboratory leak, and he said Thursday he is asking China to be more transparent as scientists search for the origins of the coronavirus.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that "checking what happened, especially in our labs, is important" to nailing down if the pandemic had any laboratory links. (File Photo)

In a rare departure from his usual deference to powerful member countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said getting access to raw data had been a challenge for the international team that traveled to China earlier this year to investigate the source of Covid-19. The first human cases were identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Tedros told reporters that the UN health agency based in Geneva is “asking actually China to be transparent, open and cooperate, especially on the information, raw data that we asked for at the early days of the pandemic”.

He said there had been a “premature push” to rule out the theory that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan – undermining WHO’s own March report, which concluded that a laboratory leak was “extremely unlikely”.

“I was a lab technician myself, I’m an immunologist, and I have worked in the lab, and lab accidents happen,” Tedros said. “It’s common.”

In recent months, the idea that the pandemic started somehow in a laboratory “and perhaps involved an engineered virus” has gained traction, especially with President Joe Biden ordering a review of US intelligence to assess the possibility in May.

China has struck back aggressively, arguing that attempts to link the origins of Covid19 to a lab were politically motivated and suggesting that the virus might have started abroad. At WHO’s annual meeting of health ministers in the spring, China said that the future search for Covid-19’s origins should continue in other countries.

Most scientists suspect that the coronavirus originated in bats, but the exact route by which it first jumped into people — via an intermediary animal or in some other way — has not yet been determined. It typically takes decades to narrow down the natural source of an animal virus like Ebola or SARS.

Tedros said that “checking what happened, especially in our labs, is important” to nailing down if the pandemic had any laboratory links.

“We need information, direct information on what the situation of this lab was before and at the start of the pandemic,” the WHO chief said, adding that China’s cooperation was critical. “If we get full information, we can exclude (the lab connection)”.

Throughout the pandemic, Tedros has repeatedly praised China for its speed and transparency despite senior WHO officials internally griping about obfuscation from their Chinese counterparts.

Last year, The Associated Press found that WHO was frustrated by a lack of details from China during the early stages of the coronavirus’ spread and showed that China was clamping down on the hidden hunt for the pandemic’s origins.

Numerous public health experts have also called for an independent examination of Covid-19’s origins, arguing WHO does not have the political clout to conduct such a forensic analysis and that the UN agency has failed after more than a year to extract critical details from China.

Any WHO-led mission to China also requires government approval for all experts who travel to the country, as well as permission to visit field sites and final approval on any trip report. WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan has previously said the agency works by consensus and cannot compel countries to cooperate.

Tedros’ appeal for transparency was echoed by German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who urged Chinese officials to allow the investigation into the origins of the virus to proceed.

“We do appreciate the cooperation of the Chinese government so far for the first mission,” Spahn said. “But that’s not yet enough.”
Free, open internet 'under attack' in countries: Google's Sundar Pichai warns
[Los Angeles] --- The free and open internet is under attack around the world, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has warned, asserting that many countries are restricting the flow of information and the model is often taken for granted.

In an in-depth interview with the BBC at the Google headquarters at Silicon Valley in California, the tech boss covered a wide range of topics, including the threat to free and open internet and also narrowed down on two developments that he feels will further revolutionise the world over the next quarter of a century as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing.

Pichai, 49, who was born in Tamil Nadu and grew up in Chennai, has said India is deeply rooted in him and a big part of who he is. “I’m an American citizen but India is deeply within me. So it’s a big part of who I am, he said, when asked about his roots.

Pichai also addressed the controversies around tax, privacy and data. He argued artificial intelligence was more profound than fire, electricity or the internet. I view it [artificial intelligence] as the most profound technology that humanity will ever develop and work on. You know, if you think about fire or electricity or the internet, it’s like that. But I think even more profound," said Pichai, the CEO of Google and its parent company Alphabet.

Pichai, the chief executive of one of the most complex, warned the free and open internet is under attack in countries around, the report said, adding that he said many countries are restricting the flow of information, and the model is often taken for granted. When asked about whether the Chinese model of the internet based on surveillance is in the ascendant, Pichai said the free and open internet “is being attacked". While he didn’t refer to China directly, he said: “None of our major products and services are available in China." On the controversial issue of tax, he said: We are one of the world’s largest taxpayers, if you look at on an average over the last decade, we have paid over 20 per cent in taxes.

We do pay the majority of our share of taxes in the US, where we originate and where our products are developed. I think there are good conversations and we support the global OECD conversations figuring out what is the right way to allocate taxes, this is beyond a single company to solve, he said.

He was also asked about his own personal tech habits and encouraged everyone to adopt two-factor authentication when it comes to passwords to ensure multiple protections and admitted he is constantly changing his phone to test out new technology.

Pichai is universally regarded as an exceptionally kind, thoughtful, and caring leader, the report said.
Sputnik V gives 90 pc protection against Delta strain of COVID-19: Scientist
Viral vector and mRNA vaccines, including Russia's Sputnik V, provide enough protection against the new Delta strain of the coronavirus, Head of the Novosibirsk State University's Laboratory and corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) Sergey Netesov told Sputnik. "According to data from the UK, the US and other countries, mRNA and vector vaccines, including our Sputnik V, protect against it [the Delta variant], albeit to a lesser extent, but they do protect against it. They offered 95 per cent protection against the initial strain and now they give 90% protection against the 'delta' variant," Netesov said.

He added that the vaccines already developed should be used as they are quite effective.

At the end of June, Vladimir Gushchin, the head of the population variability mechanisms laboratory of the Gamaleya research center that developed the Sputnik V vaccine, said that the Russian shots guarantee almost 100 per cent protection against severe and fatal cases of COVID-19 caused by the Delta strain.

Russia became the first country in the world to register a vaccine against the coronavirus, dubbed Sputnik V, in August 2020.

Sputnik V, also known as Gam-COVID-Vac, uses two different engineered adenoviruses (rAd26 and rAd5 for the first and second doses, respectively) to deliver the genetic code for the spike protein of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) into human cells.

Adenoviruses usually cause only mild illness in humans and by opting for two different delivery mechanisms, instead of just using one engineered adenovirus like the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines do, the Russian developers were aiming to increase the efficacy of the vaccine.

According to an interim analysis from a trial published in The Lancet medical journal, the Sputnik V vaccine has 91.6 per cent efficacy.

Meanwhile, the Gamaleya National Research Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology, which developed Sputnik V, and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) have reported that Sputnik V has 97.6 per cent efficacy.

Unlike for both the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, there have been no reports of rare blood-clotting conditions in people vaccinated with Sputnik V from Russian health authorities or from over 60 countries now using Sputnik V.
Oxfam: 11 people die of hunger each minute around the globe
[Cairo] --- Anti-poverty organisation Oxfam said that 11 people die of hunger each minute and that the number facing famine-like conditions around the globe has increased six times over the last year.

The report listed a number of countries as "the worst hunger hotspots" including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen -- all embroiled in conflict. (Representational)

In a report titled “The Hunger Virus Multiplies,” Oxfam Thursday said that the death toll from famine outpaces that of COVID-19, which kills around seven people per minute.

“The statistics are staggering, but we must remember that these figures are made up of individual people facing unimaginable suffering. Even one person is too many,” said Oxfam America’s President and CEO Abby Maxman.

The humanitarian group also said that 155 million people around the world are now living in crisis levels of food insecurity or worse — some 20 million more than last year. Around two thirds of them face hunger because their country is in military conflict.

“Today, unrelenting conflict on top of the COVID-19 economic fallout, and a worsening climate crisis, has pushed more than 520,000 people to the brink of starvation,” added Maxman.

“Instead of battling the pandemic, warring parties fought each other, too often landing the last blow to millions already battered by weather disasters and economic shocks.”

Despite the pandemic, Oxfam said that global military spending increased by $51 billion during the pandemic — an amount that exceeds by at least six times what the U.N. needs to stop hunger.

The report listed a number of countries as “the worst hunger hotspots” including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — all embroiled in conflict.

“Starvation continues to be used as a weapon of war, depriving civilians of food and water and impeding humanitarian relief. People can’t live safely or find food when their markets are being bombed and crops and livestock are destroyed,” said Maxman.

The organisation urged governments to stop conflicts from continuing to spawn “catastrophic hunger” and to ensure that relief agencies could operate in conflict zones and reach those in need. It also called on donor countries to “immediately and fully” fund the U.N.’s efforts to alleviate hunger.

“We work together with more than 694 partners across 68 countries. Oxfam aims to reach millions of people over the coming months and is urgently seeking funding to support its programs across the world,” the report’s press release said.

Meanwhile, global warming and the economic repercussions of the pandemic have caused a 40% increase in global food prices, the highest in over a decade. This surge has contributed significantly to pushing tens of millions more people into hunger, said the report.
Men Suffer Bigger Job Losses Across Euro Zone During Pandemic: Study
[Frankfurt] --- Men suffered bigger jobs losses across the euro zone during the COVID-19 pandemic, a European Central Bank study found on Wednesday, confounding some earlier predictions that women would take a bigger hit as they are overrepresented in the most affected sectors.

Men accounted for more than 60% of the jobs losses last year (Representational)

Men accounted for more than 60% of the jobs losses last year, while in terms of hours worked they suffered more than two-thirds of the overall drop, the ECB said in an Economic Bulletin article.

With women heavily represented in the leisure and hospitality sector, some economists and even ECB officials warned that women were at risk of losing more, but the study suggests that women found new work more easily then men.

"Employment losses between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the fourth quarter of 2020 were mainly concentrated in the wholesale and retail trade and transportation sectors for men and in the recreation and personal services sectors for women," the ECB said.

"Conversely, the employment gains in public administration and in education were tilted towards female workers," the ECB added.

While underemployment has been historically higher for women, the gap narrowed somewhat by the end of 2020, the ECB added.
Global Displacement From War, Crises Doubles In A Decade: UN
[Geneva] --- Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people fleeing war and persecution continued rising last year, with global displacement climbing to over 82 million -- double the figure a decade ago, the UN said Friday.

An internally displaced Syrian girl holds a sign during a protest against the closure of Bab al-Hawa crossing in the opposition-held Idlib, Syria June 7, 2021.

A fresh report from the UN refugee agency showed global displacement figures swelled by around three million in 2020 after an already record-breaking year in 2019, leaving a full one percent of humanity uprooted and displaced.

The report highlighted how drawn-out crises like those in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen were continuing to force people to flee, while eruptions of violence in places like Ethiopia and Mozambique were causing surging displacement.

The fact that the numbers rose for the ninth straight year was all the more devastating because Covid-19 restrictions had been expected to limit displacement.

During the pandemic, "everything else has stopped, including the economies, but wars and conflict and violence and discrimination and persecution, all the factors that pushed these people to flee, have continued," UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi told AFP.

The UN agency found that by the end of 2020, a record 82.4 million people were living as refugees or asylum seekers, or in so-called internal displacement within their own countries, up from some 40 million in 2011.

Nearly half under 18

A full 42 percent of the world's displaced are girls and boys under the age of 18.

"The tragedy of so many children being born into exile should be reason enough to make far greater efforts to prevent and end conflict and violence," Grandi said.

Some 26.4 million people were living as refugees at the end of 2020, including 5.7 million Palestinians.

Some 3.9 million Venezuelans were also displaced beyond their borders without being considered refugees, while 4.1 million people were registered worldwide as asylum seekers.

But while both refugee and asylum seeker numbers remained relatively flat from 2019, the number of people displaced within their own countries surged by more than two million to 48 million, the report said.

This was perhaps not surprising, given that the factors that generally force people to flee did not disappear during the pandemic, but the possibility to cross borders largely did.

In 2020, at least 164 countries closed their borders because of Covid-19, and more than half of them made no exceptions for asylum seekers and refugees fleeing for their lives.

"In a situation of increased conflict and violence, in a situation in which borders have been difficult to cross because of Covid, inevitably the figure... that has gone up is that of internally displaced people (IDPs)," Grandi told reporters.

'Egoistic approach'

Last year, more than 11 million people were newly displaced -- slightly more than in 2019 -- with most in just a handful of conflict-wracked countries and regions, the report showed.

They include Syria, which after more than a decade of war counts 13.5 million people displaced either inside or outside the country -- more than half of its population and a sixth of the global displacement total.

More than two-thirds of the world's refugees meanwhile come from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.

A number of new crises have also sparked significant displacement, the report said, pointing to Ethiopia's violence-hit Tigray region, which saw an exodus into Sudan of over 54,000 people in the final months of 2020 alone.

Hundreds of thousands of people also escaped deadly jihadist violence in northern Mozambique, while hundreds of thousands more were freshly displaced in Africa's restive Sahel region.

The vast majority of the world's refugees are hosted in countries neighbouring crisis areas, mainly in poorer parts of the world.

Turkey remained the host of the world's largest refugee population totalling some 3.7 million, followed by Colombia with 1.7 million, Pakistan and Uganda with 1.4 million each and Germany with 1.2 million.

While needs are continuously rising, solutions for the displaced seemed to dwindle last year.

Over the course of 2020, only around 3.2 million IDPs and just 251,000 refugees returned to their homes, marking drops of 40 and 21 percent respectively from 2019.

And only 34,400 vulnerable refugees were resettled in third countries last year -- the lowest level in 20 years, the report said.

"Solutions require global leaders and those with influence to put aside their differences, end an egoistic approach to politics, and instead focus on preventing and solving conflict and ensuring respect for human rights," Grandi said.
Pandemic Led to Rise In Child Abuse, Racism: European Union Rights Agency
[Vienna] --- The coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented and profound effect on human rights, fuelling racism and child abuse, the European Union (EU)'s rights agency said Thursday in its annual report.

COVID-19: The EU agency's report said in 2020, domestic violence also increased (Representational)

"The pandemic and the reactions it triggered exacerbated existing challenges and inequalities in all areas of life, especially affecting vulnerable groups," a report by the Vienna-based Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) said.

"It also sparked an increase in racist incidents," the FRA added, calling the pandemic's effects on rights "profound".

Marginalised groups such as Roma, refugees and migrants were not only at higher risk of contamination, but also lost jobs owing to strict lockdown measures.

In addition, they were the targets of "racist and xenophobic incidents, including verbal insults, harassment, physical aggression and online hate speech", according to evidence collected by the FRA and other groups.

In 2020, domestic violence and sexual abuse also increased, the report said.

It cited sources in the Czech Republic and Germany as saying that calls to national domestic violence hotlines rose by 50 percent in the former and by 20 percent in the latter between March and June last year.

Child sexual abuse online also increased, FRA said, citing Europol.

The agency urged countries to tackle the pandemic and its "unprecedented collective challenge" to human rights with "balanced measures that are based on law" and which were "temporary and proportional".

The report covers the 27 European Union member states, along with North Macedonia and Serbia.
Global Warming Blamed For 1 In 3 Heat-Related Deaths
[Paris] --- More than a third of summer heat-related fatalities are due to climate change, researchers said Monday, warning of even higher death tolls as global temperatures climb.

The number could be an underestimate since data for South Asia, Central Africa was missing. (File)

Previous research on how climate change affects human health has mostly projected future risks from heatwaves, droughts, wild fires and other extreme events made worse by global warming.

How much worse depends on how quickly humanity curbs carbon emissions, which hit record levels in 2019 but dipped sharply during the pandemic.

But a new study by an international team of 70 experts is one of the first -- and the largest -- to look at health consequences that have already happened, the authors said.

The findings, published in Nature Climate Change, were stark: data from 732 locations in 43 countries spread across every inhabited continent revealed that, on average, 37 percent of all heat-related deaths can be attributed directly to global warming.

"Climate change is not something in the distant future," senior author Antonio Gasparrini, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told AFP.

"We can already measure negative impacts on health, in addition to the known environmental and ecological effects."

The authors said their methods -- if extended worldwide -- would add up to more than 100,000 heat-related deaths per year laid squarely at the feet of manmade climate change.

Differences across countries

That number could be an underestimate because two of the regions for which data was largely missing -- south Asia and central Africa -- are known to be especially vulnerable to extreme heat deaths.

The 100,000 figure is consistent with a recent analysis from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations (IHME), published in The Lancet.

Th IHME calculated just over 300,000 heat-related deaths worldwide from all causes in 2019. If just over a third of those deaths are due to climate change, as Gasparrini's team reported, the global total would indeed be more than 100,000.

India accounted for more than a third of the total in the IHME tally, and four of the five worst-hit countries were in south Asia and central Africa.

The share of heat-related deaths attributable to global warming in the new study varied widely from country to country.

In the United States, Australia, France, Britain and Spain, for example, that percentage was roughly in line with the average across all countries, between 35 and 39 percent.

For Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and Chile, the figure rose above 40 percent.

And for half-a-dozen countries -- Brazil, Peru, Colombia, the Philippines, Kuwait and Guatemala -- the percentage of heat-related mortality caused by climate change was 60 percent or more.

A complex methodology combining health data and temperature records from 1991 to 2018, coupled with climate modelling, allowed researchers to contrast the actual number of heat-related deaths with how many fewer deaths there would have been without manmade warming.

Adapt or die

The researchers found that it is not the increase in average summer temperature -- up 1.5C since 1991 in the locations examined -- that boosted death rates, but heatwaves: how long they last, nightime temperatures, and humidity levels.

Also crucial is the ability of the population to adapt.

If 95 percent of the population has air conditioning, mortality will be lower. But if they don't, or if farmers must work outside in 45C (113F) heat to feed their families, the impacts can be catastrophic.

Even wealthy nations remain vulnerable: in 2003, a relentless heatwave in western Europe claimed 70,000 lives.

Deadly heatwaves that might have occurred once a century before climate change kicked in could, by mid-century, happen far more frequently, scientists warn.

The burgeoning field of attribution climate science measures by how much, for example, a typhoon's intensity, a drought's duration, or a storm surge's destruction has been amplified by global warming.

But little research has tried to do the same for human health, notes Dan Mitchell, a researcher at the Cabot Institute for the Environment at the University of Bristol.

"This shift in thinking is essential ... so that global leaders can understand the risks," he said in a comment in Nature Climate Change.
Covid Origins Probe 'Being Poisoned By Politics': World Health Organisation
[Geneva, Switzerland] --- The World Health Organization warned Friday that efforts to uncover the Covid-19 pandemic's origins were being hampered by politics, insisting scientists needed space to work on solving the mystery.

WHO had managed to send a team of independent, international experts to Wuhan in January.

"We would ask that we separate the science from the politics, and let us get on with finding the answers that we need in a proper, positive atmosphere," WHO emergencies chief Michael Ryan told reporters.

"This whole process is being poisoned by politics," he warned.

The UN health agency has been facing intensifying pressure for a new, more in-depth investigation of where Covid-19 came from, but so far there is no timeline for the next stage in the probe.

US President Joe Biden this week ordered the US intelligence community to investigate whether the Covid-19 virus first emerged in China from an animal source or from a laboratory accident.

The move hints at growing impatience with waiting for a conclusive WHO investigation into how the pandemic that has killed more than 3.5 million people worldwide began.

During an ongoing meeting of WHO member states, European Union countries and a range of others also pressed for clarity on the next steps in the organisation's efforts to solve the mystery, seen as vital to averting future pandemics.

'No timeline'

But the UN health agency said earlier Friday it was still waiting for recommendations from a team of WHO technical experts on how to move forward.

"The technical team will prepare a proposal for the next studies that will need to be carried out and will present that to the director-general," spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told reporters.

"He will then work with member states about the next steps," she said, acknowledging "there is no timeline".

The WHO finally managed to send a team of independent, international experts to Wuhan in January, more than a year after Covid-19 first surfaced there in late 2019, to help probe the pandemic origins.

But in their long-delayed report published in late March, the international team and their Chinese counterparts drew no firm conclusions, instead ranking a number of hypotheses according to how likely they believed they were.

'Impossible position'

The report said the virus jumping from bats to humans via an intermediate animal was the most probable scenario, while a theory involving the virus leaking from a laboratory was "extremely unlikely".

But the investigation and report have faced criticism for lacking transparency and access, and for not evaluating the lab-leak theory more deeply -- a mere 440 words of the report were dedicated to discussing and dismissing it.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has also continued to insist that all theories remain on the table and further investigation is needed.

Long dismissed as a right-wing conspiracy theory, and vehemently rejected by Beijing, the idea that Covid-19 emerged from a lab leak in Wuhan in China has been gaining increasing momentum in the United States.

While not suggesting that a lab leak was necessarily the source, a number of prominent international scientists have said a deeper, more scientific look at the theory was needed.

"Every country and every entity is free to pursue their own particular theories of origin... It's a free world," Ryan said.

But he complained that the discourse around the origins search, and around WHO's role in it, was making it difficult to focus on the science.

"Putting WHO in a position like it has been put in is very unfair to the science we're trying to carry out," he said.

"It puts us, as an organisation, frankly in an impossible position to deliver the answers that the world wants."
Moderna says its COVID-19 shot works in kids as young as 12
[Washington] --- Moderna said Tuesday its COVID-19 vaccine strongly protects kids as young as 12, a step that could put the shot on track to become the second option for that age group in the U.S. With global vaccine supplies still tight, much of the world is struggling to vaccinate adults in the quest to end the pandemic. But earlier this month, the U.S. and Canada authorized another vaccine — the shot made by Pfizer and BioNTech — to be used starting at age 12.

Moderna aims to be next in line, saying it will submit its teen data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other global regulators early next month.

The company studied more than 3,700 12- to 17-year-olds. Preliminary findings showed the vaccine triggered the same signs of immune protection in kids as it does in adults, and the same kind of temporary side effects such as sore arms, headache and fatigue.

There were no COVID-19 diagnoses in those given two doses of the Moderna vaccine compared with four cases among kids given dummy shots. In a press release, the company also said the vaccine appeared 93% effective two weeks after the first dose.

While children are far less likely than adults to get seriously ill from COVID-19, they represent about 14% of the nation's coronavirus cases. At least 316 have died in the U.S. alone, according to a tally by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

With plenty of vaccine supply in the U.S., younger teens flocked to get Pfizer's shot in the days after FDA opened it to them, part of a push to get as many kids vaccinated as possible before the next school year.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have begun testing in even younger children, from age 11 down to 6-month-old babies. This testing is more complex: Teens receive the same dose as adults, but researchers are testing smaller doses in younger children. Experts hope to see some results in the fall.
Half Of All US Adults Fully Vaccinated Against Covid, Says White House
[Washington] --- Half of all US adults will have received full Covid-19 vaccines on Tuesday, the White House said, marking another huge milestone in the fight against the pandemic.

US is now a world leader in rolling out vaccinations (Representational)

"Today, the United States will reach 50 percent of American adults fully vaccinated," a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

More than half a million Americans have died from the coronavirus but the country is now a world leader in rolling out vaccinations.

The US has reached almost 50 percent of its population of 332 million with at least one dose, but its vaccination campaign is slowing in the face of hesitancy.

President Joe Biden has set a target of having 70 percent of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4. The current figure is almost 62 percent.
At Least 115,000 Health Workers Have Died From Covid-19: WHO Chief
At least 115,000 health and care workers have died from Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO chief said Monday, calling for a dramatic scale-up of vaccination in all countries.

The WHO chief stressed the need to urgently fix the imbalance.

At the opening of the World Health Organization's main annual assembly, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the sacrifices made by health workers around the world to battle the pandemic.

"For almost 18 months, health and care workers all over the world have stood in the breach between life and death," he said.

"They have saved countless lives and fought for others who, despite their best efforts, slipped away.

"Many have themselves become infected, and while reporting is scant, we estimate that at least 115,000 health and care workers have paid the ultimate price in the service of others."

He said many health workers have since the start of the crisis felt "frustrated, helpless and unprotected, with a lack of access to personal protective equipment and vaccines."

And they are not alone. He described the overall inequity in access to vaccines as "scandalous", warning it was "perpetuating the pandemic."

More than 75 percent of all Covid-19 vaccines have gone to just 10 countries.

"The number of doses administered globally so far would have been enough to cover all health workers and older people if they had been distributed equitably," he said.

"There is no diplomatic way to say it: that small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world's vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world."

He urged those countries that have large stocks of vaccines to share them, and greater cooperation to scale up production and distribution of the jabs.

The WHO and others have created Covax, a global vaccine-sharing programme, but it remains severely underfunded and has faced significant supply shortages, delaying efforts to roll out jabs in poorer countries.

"We have shipped every single one of the 72 million doses we have been able to get our hands on so far to 125 countries and economies," Tedros said.

But he lamented that those doses were only enough to barely cover one percent of the combined populations in those countries.

The WHO chief stressed the need to urgently fix the imbalance.

"Today, I'm calling on member states to support a massive push to vaccinate at least 10 percent of the population of every country by September," he said, calling for the coverage to be expanded to 30 percent by the end of the year.
'We Are At War' Against COVID-19, Says UN Chief
[Geneva] --- The world is "at war" against Covid-19, the UN chief said Monday, calling for the application of wartime logic to the inequitable access to the weapons needed to fight the pandemic.

"We need the logic and urgency of a war economy, to boost the capacity of our weapons," Antonio Guterres

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decried the "tsunami of suffering" sparked by the coronavirus crisis.

Addressing the opening of the World Health Organization's main annual assembly of member states, he pointed out that more than 3.4 million people have died and some 500 million jobs had disappeared since the disease first surfaced in China in late 2019.

"The most vulnerable are suffering most, and I fear this is far from over," Guterres said, stressing the ongoing dangers of "a two-speed global response."

"Sadly, unless we act now, we face a situation in which rich countries vaccinate the majority of their people and open their economies, while the virus continues to cause deep suffering by circling and mutating in the poorest countries," he said.

"Further spikes and surges could claim hundreds of thousands of lives, and slow the global economic recovery," he said, insisting that "Covid-19 cannot be beaten one country at a time."

Faced with this dire situation, Guterres urged recognition of the fact that "we are at war with a virus."

"We need the logic and urgency of a war economy, to boost the capacity of our weapons," he said.

The UN chief last week called on the G20 to set up a task force that brings together all countries with vaccine production capacities and others who can help boost manufacturing of vaccines and other tools needed to battle Covid.

"It should aim to at least double manufacturing capacity by exploring all options, from voluntary licenses and technology transfers to patent pooling and flexibility on intellectual property rights," he said.

The task force should also address equitable global distribution of vaccines, treatments and diagnostics.

The WHO and others have created Covax, a global vaccine-sharing programme, but it remains severely underfunded and has faced significant supply shortages, delaying efforts to roll out jabs in poorer countries.

To date, only 0.3 percent of Covid vaccine doses have been administered in the world's poorest countries, which are home to nearly 10 percent of the global population.

In addition to battling Covid-19, Guterres stressed the importance of preparing for the next pandemic, backing a range of recommendations put before the assembly for reform and strengthening of the WHO and of the global health system.

"The world needs political commitment at the highest level to transform the existing system," he said.

"The WHO must be at the heart of global pandemic preparedness. It needs sustainable and predictable resources, and it must be fully empowered to do the job demanded of it."

Guterres urged member states to decide a way forward to "take the bold decisions necessary to end this pandemic."

"Covid-19 must be a turning point."
Hundreds come forward with stories of sexual harassment in schools: 'SaveTheSchoolsMY' creator
In a bid to make Malaysian schools safer for students, a media executive decided to create an online space for students to come forward with stories of sexual harassment. In just two weeks, the @Savetheschoolsmy Instagram page received hundreds of submissions.

“My ustaz (religious teacher) used to make rape and sexual jokes during my class,” one of them read, while another said, “Back then when I was in primary school, boys my age will make sexual sounds as jokes and they’ll [laugh] it off.”

Page creator Puteri Nuraaina Balqis, 26, decided to create the account on April 27 amid controversies concerning alleged menstruation spot checks in schools and teachers telling rape jokes – both spawning the #MakeSchoolASaferPlace online movement. To date, Puteri, who is from Taiping, Perak, has posted 200 horror stories she said came from former and current students all over the country, recounting incidents of sexual abuse and harassment. Over 2,000 people are following the account.

“Within 24 hours of creating the page, I received 50 submissions,” she said. Seven new submissions were added to her collection of nearly 500 stories this morning.

“I’m glad that people are willing and unafraid to share their experiences, but it’s way more than I expected,” she said.
‘Pissed off’

The idea for the Instagram page came about when she became “pissed off” by the numerous attempts made by people online to invalidate famed student activist Ain Husniza, 17, after the SMK Puncak Alam student spoke out against her teacher for telling a rape joke in class.

“Ain shared that a group of teachers had started a rumor saying she’s autistic, so people shouldn’t take her seriously,” Puteri said. “That to me is super messed up because so what if she is [autistic], that doesn’t mean the rape joke didn’t happen.”

“People need to know that this is definitely an issue. Just because it didn’t happen to you, doesn’t mean it’s not happening to other people,” Puteri added.

Ain has filed a police report over her teacher as well as against the rape threat she received in response to her TikTok video. Her school has also threatened to expel her for being absent from school. Her father told Coconuts that his daughter did not feel safe about returning to school.

Puteri collects the anonymous submissions via a Google form. Other than stories of harassment, some also talked about being groomed. The various issues affected both genders, Puteri said.

“The numbers are smaller, but more male victims are speaking up about their experiences,” she said. An example would be a student who was blamed for being “too soft” when he complained to a school counselor about being touched inappropriately by his fellow male classmates.

Another submission was about a female student who was sexually groomed by an ustazah (female religious teacher).

“She gave me flying kisses and called us lovers,” the anonymous poster said. “She called me sexy after a peck on the cheek… I used to feel glad when she called me baby.”

A few of these confessions have named their respective schools and perpetrators, according to Puteri. Lawyers have also reached out offering legal help.

“Pro-bono lawyers have reached out to me with offers for legal aid just in case the page gets sued for defamation, or if people attempt to hunt down the victims,” Puteri said.

She has not received feedback from the Ministry of Education regarding the page. Senior Education Minister Radzi Jidin previously denied there were period spot checks, stories of which surfaced last month, were happening in schools.

“The authorities are good at what they do – doing nothing,” Puteri later remarked.

(This article, Hundreds come forward with stories of sexual harassment in schools: ‘SaveTheSchoolsMY’ creator, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company.)
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