The World Bank said its executive board on Monday approved a $723 million package of loans and grants for Ukraine, providing desperately needed government budget support as the country battles a Russian invasion. The package includes a $350 million loan supplement to a prior World Bank loan, augmented by about $139 million through guarantees from the Netherlands and Sweden, the bank said in a statement. It also includes $134 million in grants from Britain, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania and Iceland as part of a trust fund that will continue to take in grant contributions on Ukraine's behalf. Japan is providing parallel financing of $100 million. A World Bank spokesperson said the funds are expected to be transferred to Ukraine's government in the next few days. The World Bank's budget support loans typically do not carry restrictions on how the funds can be spent, but the bank said the "fast-disbursing" support will help Ukraine's government provide critical services, pay hospital workers, fund pensions and continue social programs. "The World Bank Group is taking quick action to support Ukraine and its people in the face of the violence and extreme disruption caused by the Russian invasion," World Bank President David Malpass said in a statement. "The World Bank Group stands with the people of Ukraine and the region. This is the first of many steps we are taking to help address the far-reaching human and economic impacts of this crisis." The bank said it was continuing to work on another $3 billion package of support for Ukraine in coming months and additional support for neighboring countries that are taking in Ukrainian refugees, now exceeding 1.7 million, mostly women, children and the elderly.
Russia on Tuesday faced increasing isolation over its invasion of Ukraine, with fierce resistance on the ground denying President Vladimir Putin decisive early gains despite heavy shelling and a huge military convoy outside the capital, Kyiv. Ukrainian officials reported a Russian bombardment of Kharkiv, the country's second largest city, had killed dozens of civilians. It was not possible to independently verify the casualty figures. "Barbaric rocket attacks and MLRS (multiple launch rocket systems) of peaceful cities are evidence that they are no longer able to fight armed Ukrainians," Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Facebook. Ceasefire talks between Russia and its southern neighbour held Monday failed to reach a breakthrough and negotiators have not said when a new round would take place. Putin faces mounting international pressure for last week launching the biggest assault on a European state since World War Two, and the systemic impact of Western sanctions led to a near 30% collapse in the rouble on Monday before central bank intervention rescued the currency from its lows. Staging a push for the capital, Russia has massed a convoy of armoured vehicles, tanks and other military equipment that stretches about 40 miles (64 km), U.S. satellite company Maxar said. "What I think is pretty certain is Russia is off their timeline. I think they thought that within 72 hours they'd hold Kyiv," U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio said after a classified briefing with top Biden administration officials. But fighting on several fronts was taking a toll. Some 70 Ukrainian servicemen were killed on Sunday by Russian shelling of a base in the town of Okhtyrka, between Kharkiv and Kyiv, the regional governor said on Facebook. The United States and its allies have imposed sanctions on Russia's central bank, its top businesses, oligarchs and officials, including Putin himself, and barred some Russian banks from the SWIFT international payments system. read more TURKEY SHUTS STRAITS TO WARSHIPS NATO ally Turkey delivered another blow to Moscow on Monday by warning warring countries not to send warships through its Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits that separate the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, effectively bottling up Russia's Black Sea Fleet. read more Washington has ruled out sending troops to fight Russia or enforcing a no-fly zone as requested by Ukraine, fearing an escalation between the world's top two nuclear powers. But, the United States and its allies have instead promised military aid to Kyiv, as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned the capital was under constant threat. "For the enemy, Kyiv is the key target," Zelenskiy said in a video message late on Monday. "We did not let them break the defence of the capital, and they send saboteurs to us ... We will neutralise them all." Zelenskiy said Russia, which calls its actions in Ukraine a "special operation", was targeting a thermal power plant providing electricity to Kyiv, a city of 3 million people. Human rights groups and Ukraine's ambassador to the United States accused Russia of using cluster bombs and vacuum bombs. The United States said it had no confirmation of their use. read more Public health experts say Ukraine is running low on critical medical supplies and fears of a wider public health crisis are growing as people flee their homes and health services and supplies are interrupted. Russia says its actions are not designed to occupy territory but to destroy Ukraine's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists. PRIVATE SECTOR PULLOUT More than 500,000 people have fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations refugee agency, setting off a refugee crisis as thousands await passage at European border crossings. A stream of companies pulling out of Russia is expected to grow on Tuesday. Oil companies Shell (SHEL.L), BP and Norway's Equinor (EQNR.OL) have said they would exit positions in Russia, which relies on oil and gas for export earnings. Canada said it would ban imports of Russian crude oil, and U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham urged the Biden administration to target the Russian energy sector with sanctions. "We're not using the energy sector as a weapon," Graham told reporters. "We're failing to hit Putin where it hurts the most." Leading banks, airlines, and auto makers have cut shipments, ended partnerships and called Russia's actions unacceptable, with more considering similar actions. Mastercard said it had blocked multiple financial institutions from its payment network as a result of sanctions on Russia and Visa (V.N) said it would take action too. Moves to isolate Russia have extended to culture and sports, as well. Three major studios, Sony, Disney and Warner Bros., said they would pause theatrical releases of upcoming films in Russia while FIFA and the International Olympic Committee moved to bar Russian teams and athletes from competing. Putin, who takes pride in athleticism and is passionate about martial arts, had his honorary black belt from World Taekwondo stripped from him over the invasion, the group said.
Hong Kongers stripped shop shelves bare Tuesday as panic buying set in following mixed messaging from the government over whether it plans a China-style hard lockdown this month. Uncertainty over Covid rules has sent the city's residents flocking to supermarkets, chemists and vegetable stores to stock up, leaving shelves empty across the city. Photos circulating on social media showed people had trouble finding a variety of items including meat, vegetables, frozen foods, noodles, paracetamol and testing kits. "We are like ants going home, grabbing a bit at one spot at a time," a woman, who gave her surname Wu, told AFP on Tuesday in a supermarket where most vegetables and meat had been snapped up. The financial hub is in the grips of its worst coronavirus outbreak, registering tens of thousands of new cases each day, overwhelming hospitals and shattering the city's zero-Covid strategy. Authorities plan to test all 7.4 million residents this month and isolate all infections either at home or in a series of camps that are still being constructed with the help of mainland China. City leader Carrie Lam had initially ruled out a mainland style lockdown where people are confined to their homes during the testing period. But on Monday, health chief Sophia Chan confirmed it was still on the table, a day after a senior Chinese health official described it as the best option. On Tuesday multiple Hong Kong media including HK01, Singtao and South China Morning Post also said authorities were planning a variety of lockdown options for the test period, citing sources. SCMP's said the current favoured option was a nine-day "large-scale lockdown" where most residents would only be allowed out to by food. One of the most densely populated cities on Earth, Hong Kong's supermarkets have limited backroom storage space and saw waves of panic buying at the start of the pandemic two years ago. City apartments are also some of the smallest in the world leaving little space to stock up. - 'Rules change every day' - The vast majority of HongKong's food is imported from mainland China and the current supply crunch has been worsened by cross border truckers getting infected by the high transmissible Omicron variant. More than 190,000 infections have been recorded in the last two months compared to just 12,000 for the rest of the pandemic. The government released a statement late Monday saying food supplies remained constant and that there was no need for panic buying. "You don't need to worry about food and other necessities, Hong Kong has sufficient goods and material reserve," the city's number two official John Lee told reporters as he presided over the opening of a 3,900 bed isolation facility where mild infections will be treated. But analysts said uncertainty and distrust were fuelling consumer habits. "We have so many questions but all answers are 'to be confirmed'," Chan Ka-lok, an international politics scholar at Baptist University, wrote on social media. "Rush to buy and stock up, let the people decide how to live their life." Tom Grundy, editor of the Hong Kong Free Press news website, described the latest panic buying as "a massive failure of gov't communications". "Rules changing every few days, u-turns, botched stats, poor data disclosure," he wrote on Twitter. Faith in government assurances is low in Hong Kong, where authorities have carried out a two-year crackdown on dissent after huge democracy protests and have a history of backpeddling on promises. The decision to mass test residents was itself a policy U-turn -- Lam had previously ruled out such a step before backing it last month. It is not yet clear when testing will take place and what the government will do with all the cases it finds. Some 70,000 isolation units for mild cases are due to come online in the coming weeks, in requisitioned hotels, public housing units and camps being built with Chinese help. That will cover roughly two days of infections at Hong Kong's current official caseload. su/jta/mtp © Agence France-Presse
Hong Kong may impose a China-style hard lockdown that confines people to their homes, authorities signalled yesterday, with the city’s zero-Covid strategy in tatters and bodies piling up in hospitals. Two years of strict zero-Covid policies kept the coronavirus largely bay but a breakthrough of the highly transmissible Omicron variant exposed how little authorities had done to prepare for a mass outbreak. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam previously ruled out a citywide lockdown and instead has ordered all 7.4mn residents to be tested in March. But in a U-turn, health secretary Sophia Chan confirmed yesterday that it was still an option. Asked by a presenter at Commercial Radio whether a lockdown was still ruled out she replied: “No. We are still discussing.” “From a public health perspective, to bring out the best effect of compulsory universal testing, we need to reduce people’s movements to some extent,” she added. Chan’s comments came a day after Li Dachuan, a senior mainland Chinese official involved in a joint taskforce on the virus with Hong Kong authorities, described a lockdown as “the most ideal and best approach to achieve the best effect of universal tests”. The revelation adds fresh uncertainty and anxiety for residents and businesses in a city gripped by the kind of chaos that was more familiar at the start of the pandemic. Hong Kong has now recorded 193,000 cases and 636 deaths in the current wave since December 31. That compares to just 12,000 infections and 205 deaths for the whole of the rest of the pandemic. Hospitals have been stretched to breaking point for weeks and on Sunday officials revealed bodies were piling up at hospitals because mortuaries are full. “At this moment, we face a problem of transportation of dead bodies from hospital to public mortuary,” hospital authority chief manager Lau Ka-hin told reporters. “That’s why there are some bodies who were initially planned to be transported to a public mortuary, but stayed in hospital.” Hong Kong’s seven-day average death rate is currently running at around eight per 1mn people. That compares with five per million for the US, 1.80 for Britain and 1.36 for Singapore which, like Hong Kong, initially opted for zero-Covid but shifted more recently to a mitigation strategy and reopening to the wider world. Officials have revealed that 91% of those who have died in the current wave were not fully vaccinated. The vast majority of the dead – 92% – are people aged 60 or above with the median age 84 years old as the virus rips through care homes in the densely populated city. Despite ample supplies Hong Kong had a dismal vaccination rate among over-70s before Omicron struck. China is now increasingly calling the shots on Hong Kong’s response with the joint taskforce operating out of the neighbouring city of Shenzhen. Mainland crews are working on constructing temporary hospitals and isolation wards for the infected, although the current caseload far outstrips supply. Among those advising the government is Liang Wannian, a senior mainland official who was greeted by Lam as he arrived in Hong Kong yesterday. Liang was a key architect of the successful two-month lockdown in Wuhan where the coronavirus first emerged, a strategy China has continued to deploy in other cities as soon as cases are detected.
Missiles pounded the Ukrainian capital on Friday as Russian forces pressed their advance and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pleaded with the international community to do more, saying sanctions announced so far were not enough. Air raid sirens wailed over Kyiv amid unconfirmed reports that a Russian plane had been shot down and crashed into a building a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion that has shocked the world. A senior Ukrainian official said Russian forces would enter areas just outside the capital, Kyiv, later on Friday and that Ukrainian troops were defending positions on four fronts despite being outnumbered. An estimated 100,000 people fled as explosions and gunfire rocked major cities. Dozens have been reported killed. Russian troops seized the Chernobyl former nuclear power plant north of Kyiv as they advanced on the city from Belarus. US and Ukrainian officials say Russia aims to capture Kyiv and topple the government, which Putin regards as a puppet of the United States. Zelenskiy said he understood Russian troops were coming for him but vowed to stay in Kyiv. "(The) enemy has marked me down as the number one target," Zelenskiy said in a video message. "My family is the number two target. They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state." "I will stay in the capital. My family is also in Ukraine." Russia launched its invasion by land, air and sea on Thursday following a declaration of war by Putin, in the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two. Putin says Russia is carrying out "a special military operation" to stop the Ukrainian government from committing genocide against its own people - an accusation the West calls baseless. He also says Ukraine is an illegitimate state whose lands historically belong to Russia. Ukrainian forces downed an enemy aircraft over Kyiv early on Friday, which then crashed into a residential building and set it ablaze, said Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the interior minister. It was unclear whether the aircraft was manned or whether it could be a missile. Kyiv municipal authorities said at least eight people were injured when the object crashed into an apartment block. "Horrific Russian rocket strikes on Kyiv," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter. "Last time our capital experienced anything like this was in 1941 when it was attacked by Nazi Germany." Authorities said intense fighting was under way in the city of Sumy in the northeast. A border post in the southeastern Zaporizhzhya region had been hit by missiles, causing deaths and injuries among border guards, and air raid sirens sounded over the city of Lviv in the west of the country. Asked if he was worried about Zelenskiy's safety, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS: "To the best of my knowledge, President Zelenskiy remains in Ukraine at his post, and of course we're concerned for the safety of all of our friends in Ukraine - government officials and others." SANCTIONS BUILD A democratic nation of 44 million people, Ukraine voted for independence at the fall of the Soviet Union and has recently stepped up efforts to join the NATO military alliance and the European Union, aspirations that infuriate Moscow. The United States, Britain, Japan, Canada, Australia and the EU unveiled more sanctions on Moscow on top of penalties earlier this week, including a move by Germany to halt an $11 billion gas pipeline from Russia. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the bloc's measures as "the harshest package of sanctions we have ever implemented". China came under pressure over its refusal to call Russia's assault an invasion. US President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters at the White House, said: "Any nation that countenances Russia's naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association." He declined to comment directly on China's position. read more The UN Security Council will vote on Friday on a draft resolution that would condemn Russia's invasion and require Moscow's immediate withdrawal. However, Moscow can veto the measure, and it was unclear how China would vote. Russia is one of the world's biggest energy producers, and both it and Ukraine are among the top exporters of grain. War and sanctions will disrupt economies around the world. Oil prices soared as much as $2 per barrel on Friday as markets brace for the impact of trade sanctions on major crude exporter Russia. US wheat futures hit their highest in nearly 14 years, corn hovered near an eight-month peak and soybeans rebounded on fears of grain supply disruptions from the key Black Sea region. Airlines were also facing disruptions, with Japan Airlines (9201.T) cancelling its Thursday evening flight to Moscow and Britain closing its airspace to Russian carriers.
Russia intends to take the whole of Ukraine but the Russian army failed to deliver on the first day of its invasion, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said on Friday. Russia launched its invasion by land, air and sea on Thursday following a declaration of war by President Vladimir Putin, in the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two. Missiles pounded the Ukrainian capital on Friday as Russian forces pressed their advance and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pleaded with the international community to do more, saying sanctions announced so far were not enough. "It's definitely our view that the Russians intend to invade the whole of Ukraine," Wallace told Sky. Putin says Russia is carrying out "a special military operation" to stop the Ukrainian government from committing genocide against its own people - an accusation the West calls baseless. He also says Ukraine is an illegitimate state whose lands historically belong to Russia. Wallace cast Putin, Russia's paramount leader since 1999, as illogical. "I certainly think he has gone full tonto," Wallace said. "No-one else in their right mind would do what we are seeing on our telly screens today." Russia says Western leaders are gripped by Russophobia and that the United States and its allies have been plotting to undermine Russia for decades. Wallace said the Russian army had failed to deliver any of its key objectives, directly contradicting the Russian defence ministry which said it had achieved all of its main aims on the first day of the military operation. "Contrary to great Russian claims, and indeed President Putin's sort of vision that somehow the Ukrainians would be liberated and would be flocking to his cause, he's got that completely wrong, and the Russian army has failed to deliver, on day one, its main objective," Wallace said. Russia, Wallace said, had lost more than 450 personnel so far.
Hong Kong’s government yesterday invoked emergency powers to allow doctors, nurses and other personnel from the Chinese mainland to help combat a spiralling coronavirus outbreak. The densely populated metropolis is in the throes of its worst-ever Covid wave, registering thousands of cases every day, which are overwhelming hospitals and government efforts to isolate all infected people in dedicated units. Hong Kong authorities have followed a zero-Covid strategy similar to mainland China’s, which has kept infections mostly at bay throughout the pandemic. But they were caught flat-footed when the highly infectious Omicron variant broke through those defences, and have since increasingly called on the mainland for help. “Hong Kong is now facing a very dire epidemic situation which continues to deteriorate rapidly,” the government said in its statement announcing the use of emergency powers. Mainland medics are not currently allowed to operate in Hong Kong without passing local exams and meeting licensing regulations. The emergency powers “exempt certain persons or projects from all relevant statutory requirements... so as to increase Hong Kong’s epidemic control capacity for containing the fifth wave within a short period of time,” the statement said. The move came after Chinese President Xi Jinping last week ordered Hong Kong to take “all necessary measures” to bring the outbreak under control, signalling the city would not be allowed to move towards living with the virus like much of the rest of the world. Allowing mainland medics to work in Hong Kong has been a source of debate for years. Even before the pandemic, supporters argued it could alleviate shortages in the city’s stretched healthcare system. Local medical practitioners in the past have objected, citing issues such as language and cultural barriers — though critics have dismissed such talk as protectionism. Hong Kong has recorded more than 62,000 Covid cases in the current wave, compared with just 12,000 during the two years before. Health experts fear the real number is far higher because of a testing backlog and people avoiding testing for fear of being forced into isolation units if they are positive. Over the last fortnight, stories have emerged of parents being separated from children and babies who test positive, as well as elderly patients lying on gurneys outside hospitals.
When Gucci-owner Kering (PRTP.PA) and Hermes report earnings this week, investors will be looking for signs that the big luxury fashion groups are confident that wealthy shoppers are willing to pay higher price tags for designer accessories. Rival Louis Vuitton (LVMH.PA), the world's largest luxury label, said on Tuesday it would raise prices globally from Feb. 16 due to higher manufacturing and transport costs - one of the first major luxury brands to do so this year. read more Pricing power could emerge as a key driver of revenue growth again in 2022 for the top tier of the fashion and leather goods industry, following a string of price hikes in 2021 and 2020. Consumers came out of lockdowns eager to spend their cash on luxury fashion and accessories, after months of being stuck at home. Brands are taking advantage of that spending power to make their wares even more costly and exclusive. Bloggers on China's social media platform Xiaohongshu are forecasting higher prices from Kering profit engine Gucci from as soon as Friday. Gucci's small Marmont shoulder bag, which currently costs 16,500 yuan ($2,602), is seen going up around 3%, while other Gucci accessories could climb 10-15%. Users of the Xiaohongshu site, known in the industry as Little Red Book, often cite sales associates for the fashion labels and have a track record of correctly predicting price increases but do not always specify their sources. Kering's Balenciaga already raised prices in early January in China, according to the Xiaohongshu site. The cost of the label's curvy Hourglass handbags in size small and extra-small, for instance, has risen by 3.5-4% to 17,500 yuan and 11,550 yuan respectively. Kering declined to comment, noting it is in a closed period ahead of its annual earnings on Thursday. Hermes told Reuters it would be likely to address the pricing issue when it reports earnings on Friday, denying analysts' reports that the company had already increased prices last month by 3% to 10%. Chanel raised the prices of some of its most sought after handbags three times last year, with its small classic handbag now costing around $8,200, or 60% more than in 2019. "This year is likely to bring a virtuous circle of pricing power and brand desirability," UBS said in a note to clients. Kering is expected to report organic sales growth of 20% over the fourth quarter, HSBC has forecast, helped by marketing investments generating buzz around Gucci's 100th anniversary - last year. Sales at Hermes are expected to rise 12% at constant foreign exchange rates over the period, HSBC said.
New Zealand Covid-19 infections reached a record high Wednesday as anti-vaccine protesters claimed victory after police failed to clear vehicles blocking the streets around parliament. Health authorities reported 1,160 new coronavirus cases, the most since the pandemic began, as the Omicron variant continues to spread in a country that was largely virus-free until August. While there have only been 53 virus deaths in the nation of five million, some protesters have taken to the streets railing against Covid-related restrictions and a government vaccination drive. Demonstrators inspired by Canada's "Freedom Convoy" jammed roads with cars, trucks and campervans last week, then set up camp on the lawns of parliament in the capital Wellington. A tense stand-off in the city centre has stretched for nine days, with police largely taking a hand-off approach, aside from violent clashes last Thursday that led to the arrest of 122 protesters. But law enforcement officials ramped up the rhetoric late Tuesday, describing the protests as "untenable" and saying tow trucks would be used to clear the streets. Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said he had asked for the military's help, warning anyone who obstructed the "imminent" operation that they faced arrest. However, no tow trucks were deployed Wednesday, and when a line of police tried to take control of an area near the parked vehicles, they were met by massed demonstrators chanting "whose streets, our streets". The protesters cheered when police withdrew behind barricades a short time later. Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers defended the cautious approach taken by police. "This remains an incredibly challenging and complex situation to manage, and police are taking care not to escalate matters unnecessarily," he said. Police have previously expressed concern about the large number of children in the protest camp, accusing demonstrators of trying to use them as human shields to avoid arrest. Parliamentary speaker Trevor Mallard, who is responsible for running the legislature, took matters into his own hands over the weekend, blasting pop music at the demonstrators on a loop. Mallard subjected the protesters to "Baby Shark" and Barry Manilow's "Mandy", also activating the lawn's sprinkler system to soak the camp. Police said they did not condone the tactics. ns/djw/cwl © Agence France-Presse
Shoppers thronged Hong Kong's markets fearing a shortage of food Wednesday, familiar scenes in a city that is back under gruelling Covid restrictions in contrast to much of the world. Hong Kong has followed mainland China in maintaining a strict ‘zero-Covid’ policy that has kept infections low through targeted lockdowns and extensive social distancing measures. On Tuesday the city recorded 625 new infections, a daily record but a number that pales in comparison with outbreaks around the world. The Omicron-fuelled spike has alarmed authorities and leader Carrie Lam announced renewed curbs on the 7.5 million residents of the financial hub. In scenes reminiscent of early 2020, when the coronavirus first emerged in China, Hong Kongers this week scrambled to stock up as panic set in over food supply shocks. "It feels like the government isn't prepared at all, and we ordinary citizens can only look out for ourselves," a woman surnamed Siu, 42, told AFP Wednesday. She was among the throng of morning shoppers anxious over fresh produce supply, which the city mostly imports from the mainland. This week a cross-border truck driver tested positive for Covid, spurring a temporary hold-up of delivery trucks. Hong Kong's vegetable supply has since decreased by about a third, the government said. The shortage — coupled with business savvy among suddenly popular veg sellers -- has sent produce prices in Hong Kong's wet markets soaring with shelves in supermarkets sitting bare. "I don't remember vegetables ever being this expensive," Siu said, adding that her daily grocery bill had doubled this week. Choy sum — a leafy green popular in Chinese cuisine — now costs around HK$25 ($3.20) for a half kilo, double its usual price. A vegetable stall owner told AFP his supply, sparse earlier in the week, has recovered -- for now. "Hopefully things can get back to normal -- I don't know how long we can keep this up," he said as he fielded shouted requests from customers. - 'Very dispiriting' - Unlike much of the rest of the world — where governments opting to adapt to a new Covid-present normal have gradually opened up — Hong Kong's "zero Covid" policy has meant doubling down on restrictions. Leader Lam on Tuesday said it was still the best strategy, given the city's low vaccination rate among the elderly, as she introduced new measures banning public gatherings of more than two people. More significantly, Lam announced that meetings in homes of more than two families were forbidden. She also ordered religious sites and hair salons to close by Thursday -- sending Hong Kongers rushing to barbers for a last-minute trim. Five hair salons in Central district said they were fully booked. "They say the closure is temporary but who knows when it will reopen," a man surnamed Cheung told AFP as he waited for a haircut. "It feels like we have gone back to the start of the pandemic. It's very dispiriting." Hong Kongers also took to social media to express their frustration. "We have done all you ask, we sat quietly as mental health takes a toll, as families are torn apart and as businesses close down because it is all in the hope of China reopening our borders," wrote one resident in an open letter that went viral. "You have tried for two years, and failed," it continued. "When will you stop holding the citizens of this... city hostage?"
Streets in some of Myanmar’s main cities were nearly deserted yesterday as opponents of military rule held “silent strikes”, making the first anniversary of a coup that sparked deadly chaos and snuffed out tentative steps towards democracy. The United States, Britain and Canada imposed new sanctions on the military and joined other countries in calling for a global halt in arms sales to Myanmar, a year after Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government was overthrown. Since its bloody suppression of protests in the weeks following the coup, the military has faced armed resistance on multiple fronts in the countryside from groups allied with the ousted government. Yesterday, an explosion took placed during a procession of military supporters in the eastern border town of Tachileik, two witnesses told Reuters. The blast killed two people, said one of the witnesses, and wounded more than 30 others. Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing extended a state of emergency imposed at the time of the coup for a further six months, state media announced, amid threats from “internal and external saboteurs” and “terrorist attacks and destruction”. Activists urged people to stay indoors and businesses to close on Tuesday in a silent show of defiance, despite warnings of arrests, jail and a seizure of businesses. “We might be arrested and spend our life in jail if we’re lucky. We might be tortured and killed if we’re unlucky,” said youth activist Nan Lin. Images on social media showed quiet streets in various cities including Mandalay, Magway, Myitkyina and Yangon, where pictures on a page put up by strike organisers later showed a small protest at which people threw red paint on the ground. Pictures on an online portal and Telegram channel supportive of the military showed pro-junta rallies in the central town of Tase, and the capital, Naypyitaw, where thousands attended a rally, some dancing and holding aloft photographs of Min Aung Hlaing, with banners wishing him good health. State media said the military was striving to hold an election when the country was “peaceful and stable”. A military government spokesman did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment yesterday. The was no immediate claim of responsibility for the explosion in Tachileik and a local militia group did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The town’s news agency said a soldier was among the two killed, and veterans among the wounded. “We all heard an explosion and people ran randomly, shouting loudly,” a witness told Reuters by phone. “I hid inside the house.” Another witness told Reuters the town was now deserted. “I don’t know how it started... We went there to help at about 12 noon today. Two people died on spot.” Such violence has become commonplace in Myanmar in the year since Suu Kyi and other ruling party members were arrested as they prepared to take their seats in parliament, after winning a 2020 election the generals accused them of rigging. The coup triggered a huge backlash, with strikes and protests that led to about 1,500 civilians being killed in crackdowns and more than 11,787 unlawfully held, according to United Nations human rights office figures yesterday. A junta spokesman did not respond to calls seeking comment on the UN figures. It has previous disputed the similar numbers from human rights groups. Protesters have formed militias, some linking up with ethnic minority insurgents, to take on the well-equipped army. The UN human rights expert on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said the junta was functioning like a criminal enterprise, harming its people and stealing their resources. “The international community must take strong, meaningful steps to cut the junta’s access to weapons, funds and legitimacy,” Andrews said. The military has accused the UN of bias and interference and is refusing to bow to international pressure, despite a corporate retreat from Myanmar and sanctions. The military ruled for decades after a 1962 coup but had begun to withdraw from politics in 2010, freeing Suu Kyi after years of house arrest. Her party formed a government after a 2015 election, but was required to share power with the army until the military abruptly ended the experiment with reform a year ago. Life has become a grind for many since then with the economy withering regular power cuts and internet curbs and, for some, constant fear of being rounded up. Suu Kyi, 76, is on trial in more than a dozen cases that carry a combined maximum sentence of more than 150 years in prison, charges critics say are designed to ensure she can never return to politics. An internationally backed diplomatic effort led by Southeast Asian countries has faltered. “It’s very lamentable, until this time there has not been significant progress,” Indonesia’s foreign ministry said. Singapore said conditions for the Myanmar people continued to deteriorate and called for progress and Suu Kyi’s release.
The Nobel laureate is facing a raft of charges — including violating the country’s official secrets laws — and if convicted of all of them could face sentences tallying more than 100 years in prison Myanmar’s junta has charged Aung San Suu Kyi with influencing election officials during 2020 polls, a source said yesterday, a year after it staged a coup alleging massive voter fraud. Suu Kyi, 76, has been detained since the February 1 coup last year that triggered mass protests and a bloody crackdown on dissent with more than 1,500 civilians killed, according to a local monitoring group. The Nobel laureate is facing a raft of charges — including violating the country’s official secrets laws — and if convicted of all of them could face sentences tallying more than 100 years in prison. She will face a further trial on charges of influencing the country’s election commission during the 2020 polls that saw her party defeat a military-aligned rival, a source with knowledge of the case said. The case will be wrapped up within six months, the source added. Former president and stalwart of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party Win Myint will face the same charge, the source said. Several senior members of the national electoral commission have also been arrested since the coup, accused of masterminding the NLD’s landslide victory. The junta cancelled the results of the 2020 election in July last year, saying it had found some 11.3mn instances of fraud. Independent monitors said the polls were largely free and fair. The junta has promised to hold another election by August 2023 if the country — currently riven by fighting between the military and anti-coup fighters — is restored. Ahead of the Tuesday anniversary of the putsch, the junta has warned that noisy protests or sharing “propaganda” against the military could be charged with high treason or under the anti-terrorism law. On Monday ousted Myanmar lawmakers from a shadow “National Unity Government” addressed the media in Paris. The human rights spokesman Aung Myo Min urged the international community to implement an arms embargo and tighten economic sanctions to cut off all trade with the regime.
Tajikistan said Friday that two of its citizens were killed and 10 injured during overnight clashes at its contested border with Kyrgyzstan, where a ceasefire is now in place. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan said they had reached a ceasefire early Friday following the latest lethal flare up at the pair's contested border. The violence that broke out Thursday evening was the bloodiest escalation between the countries since clashes that killed dozens last year. The Kyrgyz and Tajik frontier communities regularly clash over land and water supplies, with border guards often involved. As a result of the latest conflict, "10 people were injured on the Tajik side, of which six were servicemen and four were civilians," Tajikistan's national security committee said in a statement. Tajikistan added that the two dead were a man born in 1986 "killed by a mortar shell fired by Kyrgyz soldiers into his yard" and an ambulance driver born in 1964. Following the overnight clashes, Kyrgyzstan's national security committee said Friday that it had reached an agreement for "a complete ceasefire" with Tajikistan during a meeting at the border between provincial governors and border service representatives. The neighbours also agreed to withdraw forces, coordinate patrols of the frontier and ensure the flow of traffic along a strategic road that passes between both countries. Tajikistan, a closed authoritarian country, confirmed the agreement several hours later. "At present, the situation on the state border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is stable, the causes and factors of the border conflict are being studied by a joint commission of the relevant structures of both parties," a statement from the Tajik national security committee said. Asia Plus, a private Tajik news agency, reported that as many as 17 Tajiks had been injured. Kyrgyzstan's health ministry said Friday that at least eleven of its citizens were being treated for moderately serious injuries. Close to 1,500 Kyrgyz citizens were evacuated from villages near where the conflict took place at the intersection of Sughd province and Kyrgyzstan's southwestern Batken province, the emergencies ministry said. Last year's violence between the two militaries was unprecedented, leaving more than 50 people dead and raising fears of a wider conflict. Almost half of the pair's 970-kilometre-long border is disputed and progress on delimitation in recent years has been glacial.
Hong Kong may only reopen in early 2024 because of its stringent Covid-19 policies, which could trigger an exodus of foreign firms and staff and jeopardise its role as a financial hub, the city's European Chamber of Commerce said in a draft report. The limited effectiveness of locally developed vaccines is forcing mainland China to maintain tight restrictions on travel, the chamber said in the draft, which was reviewed by Reuters but has not been made public. The European Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on the report. The most likely scenario for Hong Kong would be that it would not reopen until China rolls out its mRNA vaccine across its 1.4 billion population, which could take until late 2023 or early 2024, it said. If that was the case, the chamber said there was a risk of a "cascade effect" of firms leaving the Asian financial hub. "We anticipate an exodus of foreigners, probably the largest than Hong Kong has ever seen, and one of the largest in absolute terms from any city in the region in recent history," it said. While Hong Kong has succeeded in keeping the virus under control for much of 2021, it has become one of the world’s most isolated places because of its travel restrictions and intermittent lockdowns that have accelerated a brain drain from the former British colony. Hong Kong saw a surge of infections in January, which authorities have struggled to control. Given the scenario, multinational firms would increasingly relocate China-focused teams to the mainland or shift their Asian regional teams to Singapore or Seoul, the chamber said. Hong Kong could lose its appeal as an international business hub as well as its potential to contribute to China's economy. The departure of international talent could also undermine the city's "potential to maintain world class universities", it said. FASTER VACCINES, SHORTER QUARANTINE Unlike the mainland, Hong Kong is dependent on business travellers and imported goods. Its role as one of the world’s main transhipment and passenger hubs has been drastically curtailed by tough flight restrictions, which mean very few people are allowed to land and hardly anyone is allowed to transit. In contrast, the rival financial hub of Singapore has eased its coronavirus curbs including border controls. Only about 70% of people in Hong Kong have been double-vaccinated compared with 91% of Singapore's eligible population. Most of Hong Kong's elderly people have not been vaccinated. The chamber outlined other scenarios of "average likelihood" including the possibility of an uncontrolled outbreak in the mainland leading to Hong Kong sealing its boundary with China and reopening with the rest of the world. Another scenario was an uncontrolled outbreak in Hong Kong, which would made any additional restrictions meaningless. This could cause up to 20,000 deaths among the elderly. The chamber made recommendations to the government including accelerating vaccinations and shortening quarantine from 21 days to 7 to 14 days, which would please the international business community. Foreign businesses should assume that Hong Kong would very likely be "semi-closed for international travel in the coming 12-36 months". Talent, and holding on to it, would be "a precious commodity", it said.
• Hun Sen pressed to hold generals to agreement • Myanmar breakdown a setback for Asean image • Malaysia PM: Suu Kyi, political detainees must be freed Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday confirmed he had invited Myanmar’s junta chief to a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), on the condition he makes progress on a peace plan he agreed to last year. Hun Sen, the Asean chair, said he would talk to military chief Min Aung Hlaing by video link, noting that since their Jan 7 meeting in Myanmar, ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been sentenced to four years’ detention and military aircraft had been deployed in operations. Min Aung Hlaing led a coup in Myanmar last year and Asean made a surprise move in barring his junta from key meetings over its failure to honour a five-point Asean “consensus” that included ceasing hostilities and allowing dialogue. “He (Hun Sen) said that he had invited Min Aung Hlaing to attend the Asean summit if there was progress in the implementation of the five points agreed unanimously,” said a statement on Hun Sen’s Facebook page, summarising a call with Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. “But if not, he must send a non-political representative to Asean meetings.” As new chair of Asesan, Cambodia has indicated it wants to engage not isolate the junta, but Hun Sen has been pressed by several Asean leaders, including those of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, not to give way on the agreement, which is backed by the United Nations and United States. The overthrow of Suu Kyi’s elected government in Myanmar has been a setback for Asean and its efforts to present itself as a credible and integrated bloc. Hun Sen’s Myanmar visit caused concern within the group that it could suggest Asean recognition of the generals, who have overseen a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy forces. Fissures have been exposed over the Myanmar issue and Hun Sen last week took a swipe at Malaysia’s foreign minister, calling him arrogant for voicing concern about him meeting the junta chief. The Asean consensus includes halting offensives and granting full access to a special Asean envoy to all parties in the conflict. Malaysian leader Ismail Sabri told Hun Sen there was an urgent need to de-escalate the Myanmar situation and release Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, according to a foreign ministry statement.
US President Joe Biden was caught on a live microphone Monday calling a Fox News journalist a "stupid son of a b*t*h" on the sidelines of a White House photo op. As journalists were leaving the room after the event, a reporter from Fox News, the favourite channel of conservatives, asked whether inflation is a political liability. The Democratic leader, possibly unaware that his microphone was still on, began by deadpanning: "It's a great asset. More inflation." And then muttered, "What a stupid son of a b*t*h," before glancing briefly down. A pool reporter who was in the room at the time admitted to not being able to hear what Biden actually said over the noise. But he added that he would "direct your attention to video of the event if you are curious how the president really feels about being asked about inflation from Fox's Peter Doocy." Doocy shrugged the insult off in a later interview on Fox. "Yeah nobody has fact-checked him yet and said it's not true," he said, nonchalantly. Doocy later said that Biden called him within the hour and said: "It's nothing personal, pal." When Biden has gaffed before the White House has rushed to explain or roll back his comments. But this time, the White House appeared to have no qualms about owning it, putting out a transcript of the event that included the comment -- thereby ensuring it passes into the official historical record. "Just adds a certain something," tweeted Katie Rogers, White House correspondent for the New York Times, with a screen grab of the transcript.
The following is a summary of some recent studies on Covid-19. They include research that warrants further study to corroborate the findings and that has yet to be certified by peer review. Omicron survives longer on plastic and skin The Omicron variant can survive longer than earlier versions of the coronavirus on plastic surfaces and human skin, Japanese researchers found in laboratory tests. Its high "environmental stability" - its ability to remain infectious - might have helped Omicron replace Delta as the dominant variant and spread rapidly, they said. On plastic surfaces, average survival times of the original strain and the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants were 56 hours, 191.3 hours, 156.6 hours, 59.3 hours, and 114.0 hours, respectively. That compared to 193.5 hours for Omicron, the researchers reported on bioRxiv ahead of peer review. On skin samples from cadavers, average virus survival times were 8.6 hours for the original version, 19.6 hours for Alpha, 19.1 hours for Beta, 11.0 hours Gamma, 16.8 hours for Delta and 21.1 hours for Omicron. On skin, all of the variants were completely inactivated by 15 seconds of exposure to alcohol-based hand sanitizers. "Therefore," the researchers conclude, "it is highly recommended that current infection control (hand hygiene) practices use disinfectants... as proposed by the World Health Organization." Nose swabbing best for rapid antigen tests Users of rapid antigen tests to detect Covid-19 should swab their nostrils as directed by the manufacturer and not swab the throat or cheek instead, new research shows. Earlier this month, with Omicron accounting for nearly all coronavirus infections in San Francisco, researchers there performed both PCR and Abbott Laboratories' (ABT.N) BinaxNOW rapid antigen test on 731 people requesting Covid-19 tests. Nasal swabbing "detected over 95% of persons with the highest levels of virus who are most likely contagious," said Dr. Diane Havlir of the University of California, San Francisco. In 115 volunteers with positive PCR tests, her team compared BinaxNOW results using swab samples from the nose and the throat obtained by trained professionals. Throat swabs detected nearly 40% fewer cases than nose swabs, they reported on medRxiv ahead of peer review. A separate study from Spain, also posted on medRxiv, found that swabbing the inside of the cheek also is far less reliable than nostril swabbing for detecting infectious virus. Recent studies had suggested that Omicron is detectable earlier in the throat than in the nose, leading some experts to advise users to swab the throat, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintained the tests should be used as directed. "These data support using BinaxNOW from nasal swabs as directed on the package," Havlir said. "Repeat rapid testing is recommended for those with negative BinaxNOW rapid tests and symptoms or an exposure" to an infected person. Long-term care facilities hit less hard by Omicron Even the highly vulnerable residents of long-term care facilities are generally experiencing less severe disease from Omicron than from earlier versions of the coronavirus, according to new data. Researchers in England compared hospitalization rates in residents of 333 facilities before and after the Omicron variant became dominant. Among 398 residents infected prior to the emergence of Omicron, 10.8% required hospitalization, compared with 4% of 1,241 infected with Omicron. The average age of infected residents was 85 years. After accounting for other risk factors, the odds of hospitalization were 50% lower for infected patients in the Omicron period, the researchers reported on Sunday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. While most facility residents had been vaccinated and about 10% had been previously infected, the reduction in relative risk of hospitalization between the pre-Omicron and Omicron periods was greatest among Omicron-infected patients who had received vaccine booster doses, at 77%. The researchers have also seen fewer deaths from Covid-19 in the Omicron period, although they said it was too soon to draw firm conclusions about the variant's effect of mortality. "Overall," they conclude, "the markedly decreased severity combined with high vaccination uptake and prior natural infection can be expected to significantly limit the impact of the current wave of Omicron infections on hospitalisations and deaths in residents of long-term care facilities."
The Tonga volcanic eruption unleashed explosive forces that dwarfed the power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, NASA scientists have said, as survivors on Monday described how the devastating Pacific blast "messed up our brains". The NASA Earth Observatory said the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano spewed debris as high as 40 kilometres into the atmosphere during the January 15 eruption that triggered huge tsunami waves. "We think the amount of energy released by the eruption was equivalent to somewhere between five to 30 megatons (five to 30 million tonnes) of TNT," NASA scientist Jim Garvin said in a press release. NASA said the eruption was hundreds of times stronger than the US atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in August 1945, which was estimated to be about 15 kilotons (15,000 tonnes) of TNT. The agency said the eruption "obliterated" the volcanic island about 65 kilometres north of the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa. It blanketed the island kingdom of about 100,000 in a layer of toxic ash, poisoning drinking water, destroying crops and completely wiping out at least two villages. It also claimed at least three lives in Tonga and resulted in the drowning deaths of two beachgoers in Peru after freak waves hit the South American country. Peruvian authorities have declared an environmental disaster after the waves hit an oil tanker offloading near Lima, creating a huge slick along the coast. In Tonga, the scale of destruction remains unclear after communications to remote islands were knocked out. Nuku'alofa-based journalist Mary Lyn Fonua said locals were still coming to terms with the scale of the disaster. "It's so beyond what anyone here has ever experienced," she told AFP. "The shockwave from the eruption just messed up our brains, we're just starting to return to normal now." Fonua said the coating of fine grey grime covering everything was proving difficult to live with and raising concerns about long-term health issues. "It gets everywhere," she said. "It irritates your eyes, you get sores in the corner of your mouth, everyone has blackened fingernails -- we look like a grubby lot. "We need a good tropical deluge to wash everything away." Japanese, New Zealand and Australian defence forces have started delivering urgent relief supplies, particularly water, while maintaining strict Covid-19 protocols to preserve Tonga's virus-free status.
Twitter has suspended hundreds of accounts reportedly linked to supporters of Philippine presidential frontrunner Ferdinand Marcos Jr, which the social media giant said had violated its rules on manipulation and spam. The son and namesake of the country’s former dictator is drawing support from a massive social media campaign seeking to get him elected in May, which critics say is attempting to rewrite the family’s history. Twitter said it had reviewed the accounts and hashtags identified in a recent article by Philippine news site Rappler. More than 300 accounts had been removed “for violating our platform manipulation and spam policy,” Twitter said in a statement sent to AFP Saturday. Most of them had been taken down before the Rappler article was published on Tuesday and an investigation was ongoing, it said. Filipinos are among the world’s heaviest users of social media and the country has become a key battleground for fake news. “With the Philippine elections taking place this May, we remain vigilant about identifying and eliminating suspected information campaigns targeting election conversations,” Twitter said. Marcos Jr’s spokesman Vic Rodriguez said there was “no certainty” that all the suspended accounts belonged to supporters of the presidential hopeful. Election victory for Marcos Jr would mark the ultimate political comeback for the family, which was chased into exile in the United States after its patriarch’s humiliating downfall in 1986. Marcos Sr and his wife Imelda were accused of massive corruption while in power. Recent voter surveys show Marcos Jr holding a huge lead over his nearest rival and nemesis Leni Robredo, who is the incumbent vice president. Rappler said Marcos Jr supporters were “looking to dominate Twitter” and that many of the accounts it investigated were created around the time he announced his bid for the presidency in October. The accounts pushed the narrative that the Marcoses were “victims” of the 1986 revolt and their return to Malacanang presidential palace is “long overdue”, it added. Twitter said sharing political content on an account or rallying people do so via hashtags was allowed, “unless the accounts are inauthentic, compensated or automated, which we see no clear evidence of in this case.” Last Monday, the social media giant said it was expanding a test feature that will allow users in Brazil, Spain and the Philippines to report misleading content.
Tongans said they were determined to rebuild their battered homeland in the wake of last week’s devastating eruption and tsunami as a massive clean up continued yesterday in the Pacific kingdom. The powerful eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano last Saturday triggered a tsunami that crashed across the Tongan archipelago, affecting more than 80% of the population, according to the United Nations. Toxic ash polluted drinking water supplies, crops were destroyed and at least two villages have been completely wiped out. Delivering humanitarian supplies remains a challenge after the undersea cables connecting Tonga to the rest of the world were severed. But Tongan journalist Marian Kupu said most locals are adamant on remaining as the huge recovery efforts began. “We want to stay here in our country because this is what identifies us as Tongans. We want to rebuild our country and unite and move on,” Kupu told AFP. An estimated one cubic kilometre of material blasted from the volcano, and experts expect Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai to remain active “for weeks to months”. “Tonga’s people are going to need sustained support responding to a disaster of this scale,” Sione Hufanga, the United Nations Co-ordination Specialist in Tonga said. “The people of Tonga are still overwhelmed with the magnitude of the disaster.” Tonga ranks third on the World Risk Report, which measures countries on their susceptibility to experiencing natural disasters. Despite the risk, Kupu said most Tongans wanted to stay. “It’s this feeling of pride that we have here, that we don’t want to leave the country we were born and raised in,” she said. One survivor from the island of Atata, which was flattened by the tsunami, told her he would return to the island even after the devastation, she added. “He explained he wished to go back because his parents are buried there, he was born there and his life is there. “He wished the government or anybody would help rebuild his little island so he could go back.” Japanese, New Zealand and Australian defence forces have started delivering urgent relief supplies, particularly water, to Tonga but an Australian minister said fears of unleashing a “Covid crisis” were complicating aid efforts. Tonga is Covid-free and has strict border control policies, requiring contactless delivery of aid, and a three week quarantine period for any humanitarian personnel who wish to enter the country. “It’s a very, very difficult time for the people of Tonga,” Australia’s international development minister Zed Seselja said, but added: “We respect absolutely the desire of the Tongan government not to add a Covid crisis to a humanitarian crisis caused by a tsunami.” Yesterday, a Japanese plane brought potable water to the kingdom, Kyodo News reported, with three other aircraft and a transport vessel carrying high-pressure cleaners expected soon. Meanwhile, a third New Zealand navy vessel carrying helicopters, water, tarpaulins, milk powder and engineering equipment is on its way to Tonga and is expected early next week. Defence Minister Peeni Henare said all deliveries will be contactless in accordance with Tonga’s Covid-19 protocols. The Tongan government has called the dual eruption-tsunami “an unprecedented disaster” and declared a nearly one-month national emergency. The eruption broke a vital undersea communications cable, and it is expected to be at least a month before all communication services are fully restored. In the meantime, partial communications has been established, although mobile network provider Digicel said the high number of calls to the island was producing delays. Relief supplies are unloaded from Japan Self-Defence Forces’ C-130 Hercules after the airplane arrived at Fua’amotu International Airport in Tonga yesterday.