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What you need to know about the coronavirus right now



Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now, writes Linda Noakes.

Asian countries scramble for vaccine supplies

Several Asian countries scrambled to find alternative sources for COVID-19 inoculations on Tuesday (30 March) after export restrictions by manufacturer India left a World Health Organization-backed global vaccine-sharing programme short of supplies.

South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines are among countries to be hit by shipment delays to vaccines they have been promised under the COVAX programme, which was created mainly to ensure supplies for poorer countries.

India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker, put a temporary hold on exports of AstraZeneca’s vaccine being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, as officials focus on meeting rising domestic demand.

UK wants to vaccinate all adults before sharing shots

Britain will focus on vaccinating the whole of its adult population before it can provide any surplus shots to other countries such as Ireland, British business minister Kwasi Kwarteng said on Tuesday.

More than 30 million Britons have received their first shots in the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, with the aim of offering shots to all adults by the end of July.

However, Britain has found itself involved in a public spat with the European Union, where the vaccination programme has been much slower, over the supply of doses.

Pfizer and Moderna vaccines 'highly effective' after first dose

COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer with BioNTech and by Moderna reduced risk of infection by 80% two weeks or more after the first of two shots, according to data from a real-world US study released on Monday (29 March).

The risk of infection fell 90% by two weeks after the second shot, the study of nearly 4,000 US healthcare personnel and first responders found.

The results validate earlier studies that had indicated the vaccines begin to work soon after a first dose, and confirm that they also prevent asymptomatic infections.

Queensland warns of more cases

Australia’s Queensland state warned on Tuesday that more cases of COVID-19 were expected to emerge as authorities scrambled to contain an outbreak linked to the virulent UK variant, throwing Easter travel plans into disarray.

Officials reported eight new locally acquired cases on Tuesday, taking the total in the latest outbreak to 15 so far. All of the cases were linked to two distinct virus clusters, one related to a doctor and the second to a nurse.

Brisbane, the state capital, has been placed under a three-day lockdown until Thursday, requiring more than 2 million city residents to stay home except for essential work, healthcare, grocery shopping or exercise.

Vietnam sentences flight attendant for spreading virus

A court in Vietnam handed a two-year suspended jail term to a Vietnam Airlines flight attendant on Tuesday after finding him guilty of breaking quarantine rules and spreading the virus to others, police said.

Duong Tan Hau, 29, was convicted of “spreading dangerous infectious diseases” at the one-day trial at the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam has been praised for its efforts to contain the virus through mass testing and tracing and strict centralised quarantining. It has recorded fewer than 2,600 COVID-19 infections and only 35 deaths due to the disease.


EU set to add United States to safe travel list



European Union governments agreed on Wednesday (16 June) to add the United States to their list of countries from which they will allow non-essential travel, EU diplomats said, writes Philip Blenkinsop, Reuters.

Ambassadors from the EU's 27 countries approved the addition of the United States and five other countries at a meeting on Wednesday, with the change to take effect in the coming days.

Albania, Lebanon, North Macedonia, Serbia and Taiwan will be added, while Chinese administrative regions Hong Kong and Macau will be included with a requirement for reciprocity removed.

EU countries are recommended gradually to lift travel restrictions for the current eight countries on the list - Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.

Individual EU countries can still opt to demand a negative COVID-19 test or a period of quarantine.

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G7: Collaboration, not competition is key to COVID vaccinations drive



The G7 summits of the world’s richest countries are not generally known for epochal decisions influencing global politics for years to come. In that sense, this year’s edition in the UK could be considered a rare exception to the rule, because of the united front the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Canada and the United States presented against China, increasingly viewed as their systemic rival, writes Colin Stevens.

Calling on China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms” as well as a “timely, transparent, expert-led and science-based” enquiry into the causes of the coronavirus pandemic, the G7 leaders affirmed a contrarian attitude towards China’s rising global influence. In its response, Beijing unsurprisingly decried the summit as “political manipulation” and “baseless accusations” against it.

While the anti-Chinese stance has profound geopolitical implications, the strong attention on blows traded between the G7 bloc and China largely drowned out – if not actively undermined – another equally important political decision of the summit: the issue of increasing global Covid-19 vaccination rates. Despite this being the main objective of the Summit, world leaders fell off the mark.

Falling short by 10 billion doses

At the summit, G7 leaders pledged to provide 1 billion doses of Covid vaccine to the world’s poorest countries through various sharing schemes, with French President Emmanuel Macron announcing that Germany and France would commit additional 30 million doses each. Highly outspoken about the need to vaccinate world if the pandemic is to be brought under control ahead of the event, Macron also demanded to waive vaccine patents to achieve the goal of vaccinating 60 percent of Africa by the end of March 2022.

Although these demands and the pledge for 1 billion doses seem impressive, the hard reality is that they will not be nearly enough to lead to a meaningful vaccination rate across Africa. According to estimates by campaigners, low-income countries need at least 11 billion doses to the tune of $50 billion. This means that at a time when infection rates across Africa are surging at unprecedented speeds, the doses promised by the G7 is but a drop in the ocean.

Donations, IP wavers and expanding production

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The G7 did add an unexpected twist in the final communiqué: a call for increasing the production of vaccines, “on all continents”. The underlying idea is that the world will be more resilient if it is more nimble and can quickly scale up production in case of need – for example, for booster shots or for the next pandemic.

This model of distributed production will not be able to rely solely on India’s Serum Institute. Luckily, other countries have gotten involved, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) becoming earlier this year the first Arab country that manufactures a vaccine – the Hayat-Vax’, the indigenously produced version of the Sinopharm vaccine.

The UAE began manufacturing Hayat-Vax at the end of March this year, and following the inoculation of the majority of its population, is positioning itself as a main exporter of the vaccine to lower-income countries as part of the global COVAX initiative. Several African countries have already received doses from the UAE, as have several Latin American countries, as the Emirates and China are planning to deepen their cooperation to increase regional vaccine production. There is little doubt that other countries will take part in this historic effort.

The G7’s warped priorities

When Macron talked about expanding the production of vaccines worldwide, he was likely referring to the steps taken by regional vaccine producers like the UAE. Yet considering the urgency of the situation, this year’s G7 is a costly missed opportunity in moving global vaccine diplomacy forward in a meaningful way.

It’s already evident that the EU, the US and Japan cannot alone produce enough vaccine doses for export while their own national vaccination programmes are still under way. This has been particularly evident in Europe, where internal political tensions have emerged as the debate on whether EU adolescents should be prioritized over the countless millions in the Global South has risen in prominence, indicating that Europe is currently unable to see the bigger picture in the fight against the virus – namely that every dose counts.

Moreover, export restrictions on certain ingredients vital in the production of vaccines needs to be addressed without delay. The same goes for the (difficult) question of patents and intellectual property.

If G7 nations fail on both these counts, the world’s largest economies will have undermined their own credibility at a time when vaccinating the world should be at the very top of the agenda. Besides engaging with non-Western producers, this must necessarily include sharing American and European vaccine technology with third countries as well, something Germany in particular has stonewalled.

If this year’s G7 shows the world one thing, then it is that the needy cannot buy anything with the underwhelming promises made. Good intentions are simply not enough: now is the time for action.

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French Muslims pay heavy price in COVID pandemic




Volunteers of the Tahara association pray for 38-year-old Abukar Abdulahi Cabi, a Muslim refugee who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a burial ceremony in a cemetery in La Courneuve, near Paris, France, May 17, 2021. Picture taken May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Volunteers of the Tahara association bury the casket of 38-year-old Abukar Abdulahi Cabi, a Muslim refugee who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a burial ceremony in a cemetery in La Courneuve, near Paris, France, May 17, 2021. Picture taken May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Every week, Mamadou Diagouraga comes to the Muslim section of a cemetery near Paris to stand vigil at the grave of his father, one of the many French Muslims to have died from COVID-19, writes Caroline Pailliez.

Diagouraga looks up from his father's plot at the freshly-dug graves alongside. "My father was the first one in this row, and in a year, it's filled up," he said. "It's unbelievable."

While France is estimated to have the European Union's largest Muslim population, it does not know how hard that group has been hit: French law forbids the gathering of data based on ethnic or religious affiliations.

But evidence collated by Reuters - including statistical data that indirectly captures the impact and testimony from community leaders - indicates the COVID death rate among French Muslims is much higher than in the overall population.

According to one study based on official data, excess deaths in 2020 among French residents born in mainly Muslim North Africa were twice as high as among people born in France.

The reason, community leaders and researchers say, is that Muslims tend to have a lower-than-average socio-economic status.

They are more likely to do jobs such as bus drivers or cashiers that bring them into closer contact with the public and to live in cramped multi-generational households.

"They were ... the first to pay a heavy price," said M'Hammed Henniche, head of the union of Muslim associations in Seine-Saint-Denis, a region near Paris with a large immigrant population.

The unequal impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities, often for similar reasons, has been documented in other countries, including the United States.

But in France, the pandemic throws into sharp relief the inequalities that help fuel tensions between French Muslims and their neighbours - and which look set to become a battleground in next year's presidential election.

President Emmanuel Macron's main opponent, polls indicate, will be far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who is campaigning on issues of Islam, terrorism, immigration, and crime.

Asked to comment on the impact of COVID-19 on France's Muslims, a government representative said: "We don't have data that is tied to people's religion."

While official data is silent on the impact of COVID-19 on Muslims, one place it becomes apparent is in France's cemeteries.

People buried according to Muslim religious rites are typically placed in specially-designated sections of the cemetery, where graves are aligned so the dead person faces Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

The cemetery at Valenton where Diagouraga's father, Boubou, was buried, is in the Val-de-Marne region, outside Paris.

According to figures Reuters compiled from all 14 cemeteries in Val-de-Marne, in 2020 there were 1,411 Muslim burials, up from 626 the previous year, before the pandemic. That represents a 125% increase, compared to a 34% increase for burials of all confessions in that region.

Increased mortality from COVID only partially explains the rise in Muslim burials.

Pandemic border restrictions prevented many families from sending deceased relatives back to their country of origin for burial. There is no official data, but undertakers said around three quarters of French Muslims were buried abroad pre-COVID.

Undertakers, imams and non-government groups involved in burying Muslims said there were not enough plots to meet demand at the start of the pandemic, forcing many families to call around desperately to find somewhere to bury their relatives.

On the morning of May 17 this year, Samad Akrach arrived at a mortuary in Paris to collect the body of Abdulahi Cabi Abukar, a Somali who died in March 2020 from COVID-19, with no family who could be traced.

Akrach, president of the Tahara charity that gives Muslim burials to the destitute, performed the ritual of washing the body and applying musk, lavender, rose petals and henna. Then, in the presence of 38 volunteers invited by Akrach's group, the Somali was buried according to Muslim ritual at Courneuve cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.

Akrach's group conducted 764 burials in 2020, up from 382 in 2019, he said. Around half had died from COVID-19. "The Muslim community has been affected enormously in this period," he said.

Statisticians also use data on foreign-born residents to build a picture of the impact of COVID on ethnic minorities. This shows excess deaths among French residents born outside France were up 17% in 2020, versus 8% for French-born residents.

Seine-Saint-Denis, the region of mainland France with the highest number of residents not born in France, had a 21.8% rise in excess mortality from 2019 to 2020, official statistics show, more than twice the increase for France as a whole.

Excess deaths among French residents born in majority Muslim North Africa were 2.6 times higher, and among those from sub-Saharan Africa 4.5 times higher, than among French-born people.

"We can deduce that... immigrants of the Muslim faith have been much harder hit by the COVID epidemic," said Michel Guillot, research director at the state-funded French Institute for Demographic Studies.

In Seine-Saint-Denis, the high mortality is especially striking because in normal times, with its younger than average population, it has a lower death rate than France overall.

But the region performs worse than average on socio-economic indicators. Twenty percent of homes are over-crowded, versus 4.9% nationally. The average hourly wage is 13.93 euros, nearly 1.5 euros less than the national figure.

Henniche, head of the region's union of Muslim associations, said he first felt the impact of COVID-19 on his community when he began receiving multiple phone calls from families seeking help burying their dead.

"It's not because they're Muslims," he said of the COVID death rate. "It's because they belong to the least privileged social classes."

White collar professionals could protect themselves by working from home. "But if someone is a refuse collector, or a cleaning lady, or a cashier, they cannot work from home. These people have to go out, use public transport," he said.

"There is a kind of bitter taste, of injustice. There is this feeling: 'Why me?' and 'Why always us?'"

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