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COVID-19: Omicron rapidly spreads across countries
In the news
On 22 December, the UK reported 1,06,122 cases recording the highest number of daily cases reported. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Omicron has spread to 106 countries.
On 22 December, according to the New York Times, a South African study highlighted that risk of hospitalization was 70 per cent lesser among people infected with Omicron as compared to other variants. On the same day, according to CNBC, a Scottish study suggested that the Omicron is two-thirds less likely to result in hospitalization in comparison to the Delta. Additionally, a study from England shows that omicron infection was 15 to 20 per cent less likely to lead to hospitalization than Delta.
On 20 December, the WHO said that Omicron cases doubled in one to one-and-a-half days, making it more transmissible than the Delta variant of COVID-19. It added that Omicron is also infecting vaccinated and recovered from COVID-19. According to Reuters, the WHO chief scientist said: "We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we're in a different situation to a year ago."
On 6 December, US Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci said: "Thus far, it does not look like there's a great degree of severity to it [Omicron]."
Issues at large
First, the South African case. On 23 November, the first case of the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant was detected in South Africa. On 26 November, the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) classified Omicron as a "variant of concern." Since then, South Africa has been at the forefront of dealing with Omicron. On 16 December, the country reported 27,000 cases of Omicron. On 21 December, it reported 15,424 cases. The reduction in the cases suggests that the flattening of Omicron surge. This hints at a short-lived wave as compared to the delta variant. According to a study conducted by South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Omicron is causing fewer hospitalizations and is less severe as compared to previous variants.
Second, the vaccine inequality. The developed and developing countries have been successful in vaccinating their population. Due to the lack of vaccines, the least developed countries have become breeding grounds for COVID-19 mutations. The South African origin of Omicron reflects the ineffective side of the global system attempting at vaccination. Unless the less developed countries are fully vaccinated, the new variants will find their way to the developed countries sooner or later.
Third, the uncertainty over the new variant. According to the three studies conducted in South Africa, Scotland and England, the variant is less severe and less hospitalized. However, this can be due to vaccination and recovery from COVID-19, which immunizes the population in the countries. Some scientists suggest that there can be high hospitalization as the variant is more transmissible. There is a lot of uncertainty revolving around the variant.
Fourth, the urgent need for boosters. The surge in the Omicron cases has pushed the case for booster shots. Boosters can help increase the antibodies in the body, which can prevent hospitalization and a severe wave due to new variants. Moderna and Pfizer have announced that their mRNA boosters can provide increased immunity against Omicron.
First, the need for enhanced surveillance. Even though some studies have found the variant less severe and mild, there is a need for better surveillance and genome sequencing to understand the new variant better. The international community and the countries need to perform more studies and laboratory assessments, employ effective public health measures and diagnostic methods to predict the behaviour of the variant.
Second, significant concerns for the unvaccinated. The countries that have not achieved 100 per cent vaccination are at a higher risk of infection and a possible new wave. Countries need to fully vaccinate their population and provide booster shots for better prevention.
Afghanistan: UN and US to lift sanctions to allow humanitarian aid
In the news
On 20 December, the United Nations Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths held a special session with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Foreign Ministers regarding the economic situation in Afghanistan. As a result, to deal with the crisis, the OIC set up a humanitarian trust fund, food security program, and a special envoy appointed to Afghanistan.
On 21 December, around 200 protestors marched to Kabul, demanding the US to release the frozen foreign assets. The Taliban allowed the protest as the future of the country seemed dire. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that Washington was "looking intensely at ways to put more liquidity into the Afghan economy…." to help the people of Afghanistan cope with the crisis.
On 22 December, the UN Security Council passed a resolution to permit the removal of a few sanctions to facilitate humanitarian aid to the country. The resolution was sponsored by the US and will be effective for a year. The decision came after the UNICEF warned about the "alarming disruptions in health and nutrition services" in the country and "a disastrous food crisis," with the pandemic, loss of foreign aid and frozen currency reserves.
Issues at large
First, the dire situation in Afghanistan. According to the World Food Program reports, "drought, economic collapse and hunger push Afghanistan to brink of famine". The problem was worrisome as United Nations Development Programme said: "it took five years of war in Syria for its economy to contract as much as Afghanistan's has since August." Health care facilities in Afghanistan had run out of essential medicines and paychecks due to the sanctions in place. Around USD 600 million funds for health care aid were frozen after the Taliban seized power. Foreign aid, which used to keep the public expenditure afloat, as it contributed to 75 per cent of the country's expenses, had now stopped.
Second, the US draft resolution. The US halted most of its aid after the Taliban took over and froze USD 9.5 billion foreign reserves. But, due to the fragile economy, harsh winters and a possible refugee crisis, the US recalled its previous resolutions towards Afghanistan. Instead, the US acted under the Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations to send humanitarian assistance to support the country's basic needs, which were not in violation of paragraph one of the charter.
Third, the role of international organizations. Organizations like Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies were deeply concerned about the harsh winters coming. Even the UN had urged donors to help the organizations to reach their commitments so that societies would be able to pay for their humanitarian programs. However, a few organizations have demanded the new government to meet certain conditions, like guaranteeing women's rights to receive aid. Around 18 million Afghans urgently need humanitarian assistance. Fourth, international responses. China blocked a broader version of the draft that the US had prepared to deal with the development assistance but allowed the current humanitarian assistance resolution to pass. As a result, the world bank has assured to transfer USD 280 million to UNICEF and the World food program to facilitate humanitarian aid. At the same time, the OIC countries had already decided to set up a humanitarian trust fund and food security program for Afghanistan through a Saudi-based Islamic development bank.
First, even though the UN has lifted sanctions, it will take at least a few months for aid to make it to the people. Second, Biden's administration understood the critical the situation and sponsored the draft to tackle the situation. Third, international organizations have mixed responses as a few are still sceptical of the funds directly reaching the people. Fourth, while China had blocked the broader version of the draft, the new draft is a start to better the country's situation.
Also, from around the world By Apoorva Sudhakar and Abigail Miriam Fernandez
Peace and Conflict from East and Southeast Asia
China: Beijing warns against Western countries' remarks on Hong Kong elections; the US sanctions five Chinese officials
On 21 December, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Beijing condemns Western countries making remarks on Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) elections. Xinhuanet reported that the spokesperson said China will oppose any interference into "Hong Kong's democracy and the rule of law and their gross interference in China's internal affairs." The development comes after statements by the foreign ministers of the G7 and Five Eyes alliance and EU high representatives on the LegCo elections. On 20 December, the US placed sanctions on five Chinese officials, deputy directors of the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in Hong Kong. The spokesperson termed these sanctions "illegal and invalid." Global Times quoted the spokesperson: "I don't understand why the US is announcing another round of sanctions against these people under the pretext of the so-called Hong Kong Autonomy Law. It's ridiculous and disgusting."
South Korea: Vice Foreign Ministers hold talks
On 23 December, South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun and China's Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun held talks, making it the first such interaction between South Korean and Chinese diplomats since 2017. Reuters quoted China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson: "We hope this meeting can have a positive effect on enhancing communication and mutual trust and the promotion of bilateral relations." However, the talks were held shortly after a spat took place between Taipei and Seoul over the latter's cancellation of an invitation to a Taiwanese minister previously. On 22 December, South Korea's Blue House said the invitation was withdrawn due to their "diplomatic principles, not because of China."
Malaysia: Floods claim 33 lives; over 60,000 displaced across six states
On 23 December, The Statesman reported that the death toll from floods in Malaysia had risen. As of 22 December, the total number of people displaced during the floods crossed 62,300 across six states and the capital Kuala Lumpur. Pahang remains the worst hit on the east coast, followed by Selangor; 37,000 and 22,000 people were evacuated from these states, respectively.
The Philippines: 375 people killed in Typhoon Rai
On 23 December, the death toll from Super Typhoon Rai stood at 375; the number of people injured was recorded at 500, and 56 were reported missing. Meanwhile, communication to several areas remained cut off and rescue teams termed the aftermath a "complete carnage." The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has issued an appeal for USD 22 million to address long-term relief needs.
Myanmar: Former NLD speaker, Karen state CM sentenced to jail; airstrikes in the Sagaing region; hundreds flee to Thailand
On 22 December, sources told The Irrawaddy that former deputy Parliament speaker U Tun Tun Hein had been sentenced to four years in jail. A court found the National League for Democracy members guilty of sedition for denouncing the coup, the subsequent violence, and calling on the people to support the civil disobedience movement. On the same day, a prison court sentenced the former Chief Minister of Karen State Daw Nan Khin Htwe Myint to three additional years in jail, thereby bringing his total jail time to 80 years; he was previously sentenced to 77 years in jail on incitement and corruption charges. On 20 December, the junta carried out an airstrike on the Yay Myat Village in Sagaing region. The Irrawaddy quoted from a state-run media that the airstrikes targeted "the KIA (Kachin Independence Army), extremist members of the NLD (National League for Democracy) and so-called PDF (People's Defense Force) terrorists." Similarly, on 22 December, a Thai government official said 700 villagers from Myanmar's Lay Kay Kaw had crossed into Thailand after clashes erupted between military troops and the Karen National Union forces.
Peace and Conflict from South Asia
India-Sri Lanka: Eight Indian boats ceased for 'illegal fishing;' Fishermen talks to resume
The Sri Lankan Navy on 19 December ceased eight Indian fishing vessels and arrested 55 fishermen on the charge of 'illegal fishing.' The Sri Lankan government agencies state that six trawlers and 43 fishermen were initially ceased and arrested, followed by the arrested of another 12 fishermen, all of whom were mainly from Rameswaram. Meanwhile, the Ministry of External has directed the Tamil Nadu government to submit a list of probable participants from the fishing community in the State and submit the tentative dates for the proposed talks between its fisherfolk and the Northern Province in Sri Lanka.
India: J&K Delimitation Commission proposes six seats for Jammu, one for Kashmir
On 20 December, the J&K Delimitation Commission proposed to increase six seats for the Jammu division and one for the Kashmir division. The commission also decided to reserve 16 seats for the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Schedule Tribe (ST) communities in the Union Territory. This proposal came as the commission, headed by Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai, met its five associate members, which earlier boycotted the meeting. The proposal was met with strong criticism; Mehbooba Mufti said: "They want to pitch people against each other by ignoring the population census and preposing six seats for one region and only one for Kashmir."
Afghanistan: the US to continue providing humanitarian aid and assistance
On 20 December, over 60 representatives from the US Congress in an opened letter called on President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to unfreeze Afghanistan's central bank reserves. Following the Taliban's take over the US, administration ceased all assets. The representative called for "conscientiously but urgently modifying current US policy regarding the freeze of Afghanistan's foreign reserves and ongoing sanctions." Meanwhile, protesters took to the streets in Kabul calling for the release of the assets of Afghanistan's central bank. The protesters argued that the money belongs to the people of Afghanistan and the US should release it. Meanwhile, the US State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, stated the US will continue its humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. He said: "When it comes to humanitarian assistance, the United States is the global leader in providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. We have provided, since August, $208 million alone, we provided nearly $475 million over the course of this year." Similarly, US State Secretary Antony Blinken stated that while the US is closely watching the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, they would continue to provide humanitarian support for the people of Afghanistan.
Pakistan: Protests come to an end in Gwadar after government agrees to all demands On 16 December, leader of the Gwadar Ko Haq Do movement, Maulana Hidayatur Rehman called off the sit-in in Gwadar. He said: "Our all demands have been accepted and official notifications have been issued in this regard. An agreement has been signed with the government about our demands." However, he warned the government's failure to implement the agreement would be met with a "million march" in Quetta. The agreement, which was reached after 31 days of protests, includes 11 points aimed at resolving the trawling issue, border grievances, removal of unnecessary check posts, packages for fishermen, compensation for people along the expressway, compensation to fishermen impacted by cyclones, among others.
Peace and Conflict from Central Asia, Middle East and Africa
Iraq: Torrential rains claim eight lives in northern Iraq
On 17 December, a provincial governor said at least eight people, including women and children, had lost their lives in flash floods and lightning strikes in northern Iraq's Erbil. Several people have also gone missing, and a civil defence spokesperson said search operations were ongoing. Al Jazeera explains that Iraq has witnessed a series of extreme weather events in recent years, including repeated droughts and intense floods.
Yemen: Saudi-led coalitions target Houthis at Sanaa; WFP warns of shortage of funds for aid
On 20 December, the Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrikes targeting Houthis, including locations for launching attacks and training drone operators, at Sanaa's international airport. Prior to the airstrikes, the coalition reportedly called on citizens and UN officials to evacuate; Al Jazeera quoted from the coalition's statement: "The operation comes in response to threats and the use of the airport's facilities to launch cross-border attacks." Meanwhile, the UN said the damage caused has made the airport inoperable "to receive aircraft operated by the United Nations or international humanitarian organizations." In another development on 22 December, the World Food Programme announced a shortage in funds and said it would be forced to cut down aid to Yemen. Al Jazeera quoted from the WFP statement: "From January, eight million will receive a reduced food ration, while five million at immediate risk of slipping into famine conditions will remain on a full ration." The WFP outlined a need for USD 813 million to continue food aid until May and a total of USD 1.97 billion in 2022.
Middle East: NYT series outlines heavy damage caused by US' air wars since 2014
On 18 December, The New York Times published the first part of a series covering the US' air wars in the Middle East since 2014, after drawing information from a hidden Pentagon archive. The series outlines 1,300 civilian casualties and says this figure "lays bare how the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children, a sharp contrast to the American government's image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs." The series also says that despite the Pentagon's pledge to ensure transparency and accountability, opacity and impunity have taken precedence.
Ethiopia: The TPLF announces withdrawal from neighbouring regions
On 20 December, the head of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) Debretsion Gebremichael wrote a letter to the UN, announcing the withdrawal of the TPLF from Tigray's neighbouring regions. Gebremichael believed this step would pave the way to peace. He further urged the UN to introduce a mechanism to ensure that external forces exit from Tigray and requested for a no-fly zone of hostile aircraft over Tigray, and an arms embargo on Ethiopia and Eritrea. Al Jazeera also quoted the TPLF spokesperson: "We are not interested in taking over the province of Afar. We are not interested in squeezing a hard bargain in Addis Ababa…We are not interested in taking over the province of Afar.
Nigeria: ISWAP terrorists killed by the military; a clash between farmers and herders claims 45 lives
On 21 December, sources told AFP that Nigerian military forces had killed more than 100 jihadist fighters in the country's northeast on 13 December. The military operation targeted terrorists belonging to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). In another development, on 21 December, the office of the President released a statement announcing the death of 45 farmers after clashes erupted with herders in Nasarawa state on 17 December. President Muhammadu Buhari termed the violence "senseless and barbaric."
The Mediterranean: More than 160 refugees die in two separate shipwrecks
On 21 December, The Guardian reported the death of more than 160 people in two separate shipwrecks on 17 and 18 December in the Mediterranean Sea. On 17 December, ten people were reported dead, and eight were rescued after their boat capsized while they were escaping to Europe. On 18 December, the second accident took place, and the Libyan coastguard received 62 bodies. The spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration said, with this, the total number of people who drowned in the Mediterranean in 2021 has reached 1,500.
Peace and Conflict from Europe and the Americas
France: Cancel culture and Grenoble academic row on Islamophobia
On 22 December, the BBC reported that several French academics have warned that freedom of expression is at risk after a German professor was suspended over accusations of Islamophobia at Sciences Po Grenoble. In an open letter to Higher Education Minister Frédérique Vidal, they warn that pluralism in teaching and research is under threat, with teachers and students resorting to self-censorship. The suspension of the university professor has started a new fight in the French cultural war over academic freedom, Islam and cancel culture.
Hungary: Orban to defy EU over immigration law despite the European court ruling
On 21 December, Prime Minister Viktor Orban stated that his government would defy the ruling of the European Court of Justice and maintain its immigration laws. He said: "The government decided that we will not do anything to change the system of border protection," adding, "We will maintain the existing regime, even if the European court ordered us to change it. We will not change it and will not let anyone in." Previously, the ECJ ruled that Hungary's law criminalizing lawyers and activists who help asylum seekers was in breach of European law. The refusal to comply with the court's decision may possibly result in heavy fines being levied on Hungary by the EU.
Russia: Moscow expect talks with NATO and Washington in January 2022
On 22 December, Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, announced that negotiations with the US and NATO would start "at the very beginning of next year." He said: "The first round will be held in the form of a bilateral contact between our and US negotiators, who have already been named and are acceptable for both sides." Also, Moscow's demands for "security guarantees" in Europe, including a ban on Ukraine's entrance into the NATO military alliance, is also set to be discussed.
The US: Jury finds ex-police office guilty of manslaughter
On 23 December, a 12-member jury in the United States found former Minnesota police officer Kimberly Potter guilty of two counts of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright in April. Potter faces a maximum sentence of 15 years on the first-degree manslaughter conviction and ten years on the second-degree manslaughter. According to the prosecutors, Potter "betrayed her badge" and flouted years of training by mistakenly drawing her firearm instead of her Taser during the fatal incident.
Mexico: Asylum requests have tripled in 2021 when compared to 2020
On 21 December, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard stated that the applications for refugee status in Mexico have tripled in 2021 compared with 2020 amid the influx of people moving towards the United States. According to the Minister, Mexico has received 123,187 requests in 2021, up from 41,230 last year, describing the increase as "enormous." Most of the asylum seekers are from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El which are experiencing violence, corruption, poverty and unemployment.