News, December 21st

AP Interview: China signals shift but no letup in Xinjiang

BEIJING — An official from China’s Communist Party signaled Monday that there would likely be no letup in its crackdown in the remote Xinjiang region, but said the government’s focus is shifting more to addressing the roots of extremism.

China’s policies in Xinjiang, home to the Uighur and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, have become a major point of division with the US and other Western nations over alleged human rights violations.

“We cannot be complacent at this moment, because the threats are still out there,” Xu Guixiang, the deputy director-general of the Xinjiang Communist Party publicity department, said in an interview with The Associated Press in Beijing.

Analysts say China has detained more than a million people in Xinjiang, forcing many to give up at least elements of their faith and traditions. Activists accuse China of mass detentions, forced labor, forced birth control and wiping out the Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) language and culture.

Chinese officials deny the accusations and tout what they say has been a successful effort to deradicalize the population and provide job training, saying the region hasn’t had a terrorist attack in four years.

Xu said the party is consolidating the measures taken to date and would also explore ways to achieve sustained stability in multi-ethnic border areas such as Xinjiang, a western region about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) from Beijing. To Xinjiang’s south is Tibet, another region marked by past unrest.

“We need to think more about how to solve the deep-seated issues, including the social foundation and the soil that give rise to extremism and terrorism,” Xu said.

China built up an intensive police state in Xinjiang after a series of attacks in the region and elsewhere. A Uighur drove a car into crowds at Beijing’s Tienanmen Square in 2013, and men threw bombs from two SUVs on a busy market street in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, killing 43 people in 2014.

The threat appears to have receded. The US removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Xinjiang group, from its terrorist list in November.

Xu did not directly answer whether or not security measures would be relaxed, but said that the US move could embolden the group to act. “Four years free of terrorism does not mean there is no threat or danger at all,” he said.

He repeated the government’s vehement denials of forced labor, in which vocational training graduates are allegedly pressured to work in factories both in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

Xu said that 117,000 people have gone to work in other parts of China since 2014 through programs that have enabled them to develop skills and leave farms for higher-paying factory work.

The US customs agency has blocked imports of clothing and other goods from Xinjiang this year over the forced labor issue, and UK. politicians are demanding that British companies ensure their supply chains are free of forced labor.

The US restrictions have driven some of the region’s firms to seek other markets, Xu said, noting there are amply opportunities both at home and abroad.

“One can’t assume that Xinjiang companies can’t live without the US market or some US companies,” he said.

Earlier Monday, Xu and other officials held a three-hour news conference in Beijing to refute persistent and mounting international criticism of the government’s actions in Xinjiang.

They brought two graduates of vocational training centers and two workers, and showed video interviews with others. All extolled the opportunities given to them. None said they were forced to do anything.

Xinjiang authorities have not allowed journalists for foreign news media to report freely in the region, giving access only on controlled visits that they arrange.

Elijan Anayat, a spokesperson for the Xinjiang government and an ethnic Uighur, said that reports of forced sterilization to limit Uighur population growth was sheer fabrication by anti-Chinese forces.

The birthrate in Xinjiang fell to 10.7 per 1,000 people in 2018, after holding steady at around 15.5 for the previous eight years.

Xu attributed the fall in Xinjiang’s birthrate to a younger generation wanting smaller families and stricter implementation of limits on the number of children since 2017.

The family planning policy was revised that year to allow two children for urban families in Xinjiang, and three for rural families.

Australia initiates WTO dispute complaint against Chinese barley duties

Australia has requested WTO dispute consultations with China concerning anti-dumping and countervailing duties imposed by China on imports of Australian barley. The request was circulated to WTO members on 21 December. Australia claims the duty measures are inconsistent with provisions under the WTO’s Anti-Dumping Agreement, the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) 1994. The request for consultations formally initiates a dispute in the WTO. Consultations give the parties an opportunity to discuss the matter and to find a satisfactory solution without proceeding further with litigation. After 60 days, if consultations have failed to resolve the dispute, the complainant may request adjudication by a panel.

Indian health minister says first COVID-19 vaccine may be available in January

NEW DELHI, Dec. 21 (Xinhua) — Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan Monday said the COVID-19 vaccine may be available in the country in January next year.

“I personally feel may be in January in any stage or any week, there can be a time when we can be in a position to give first COVID-19 vaccine shot to the people of India,” said Vardhan in an interview with a local television news agency.

The minister said the government’s priority has been the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. “We do not want any compromise on that (vaccine). Our regulators are analyzing them with seriousness.”

At present, there are six COVID-19 vaccine candidates in different clinical trial stages in India.

The government has initiated a preparation for the largest immunization drive in the country.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the country on Monday morning has reached 10,055,560 and the death toll has risen to 145,810, the federal health ministry said.

New COVID-19 variants under the microscope as travel bans mount over UK mutation

The UN health agency chief said on Monday that scientists have been working to understand new COVID-19 variants that have been reported in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

According to news reports, more than 40 countries have now banned arrivals from the UK, because of mounting concerns over a new, more transmissible mutation of the new corona-virus, although health officials there stress that there is no evidence it is more deadly, or that it would not respond in the same way to the vaccines cleared for emergency use.

“The bottom line is that we need to suppress transmission of all SARS-CoV-2 viruses as quickly as we can”, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a regular press briefing.

“The more we allow it to spread, the more opportunity it has to change”, he added.

In early 2021, $4.6 billion in additional funding will be needed to purchase COVID-19 vaccines for at least 20 per cent of low and lower middle income countries, according to the WHO chief.

“This will ensure health workers and those at highest risk of severe disease are vaccinated, which is the fastest way to stabilize health systems and economies and stimulate a truly global recovery”, he said.

As part of the hundred-hundred initiative – a major sprint by WHO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank to support 100 countries in conducting rapid readiness assessments and develop country-specific plans within 100 days for vaccines and other COVID-19 tools – 89 countries have already completed assessments and teams are working round the clock to ensure that governments and health systems are ready for the global vaccine roll-out.

While the pandemic has exploited the world’s vulnerabilities and inequalities, it has also shown that “in the face of an unprecedented crisis, we can come together in new ways to confront it”, said Tedros.

“Every crisis is an opportunity to question the way we do things, and to find new ways of doing them”, he upheld.

For 30 years, the UN Development Program (UNDP) has published an annual snapshot of global development. The 2020 Human Development Report, released last week, takes an in-depth look at the COVID-19 pandemic and what it might mean for the future.  

While acknowledging that the corona-virus outbreak has led to an unprecedented development crisis, UNDP chief Achim Steiner told journalists at the regular WHO briefing that it can, however, be turned into a “gateway” for deploying social norms, incentives and nature-based solutions.

He flagged that the equitable distribution of COVID vaccinations requires governments to work together in unprecedented ways and called it “the ultimate stress test for planetary health” as it will be delivering the “largest public health intervention of a lifetime and driving an inclusive and green recovery”.

Mr. Steiner doubled down on the belief that empowering people can bring about the action needed to live in balance with the planet in a fairer world.

He reiterated UNDP’s commitment to play its part, along with WHO, the UN family, and GAVI, the vaccine alliance, and others through the ACT Accelerator and the third Sustainable Development Goal’s (SDGs) Global Action Plan.

New, more contagious COVID strain in UK doesn’t appear to be deadlier: Indian-American physician Vivek Murthy

Indian-American physician Vivek Murthy, US President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Surgeon General, has said there is no evidence to suggest that a new and more contagious corona-virus variant reported in the UK is any deadlier.

Murthy, 43, said that there was no reason to believe that the corona-virus vaccines that have already been developed would not be effective against the new strain as well.

“This news from the UK appears to be about a new strain of the virus that’s more transmissible, more contagious than the virus we’ve seen prior to this,” he said.

“While it seems to be more transmissible, we do not have evidence yet that this is a more deadly virus to an individual who acquires it,” Murthy told NBC News on Sunday.

Several countries have announced restrictions on UK travel and suspended flights amid growing concerns of an “out of control” new variant of corona-virus spreading at a much faster pace in parts of England.

It is thought the variant either emerged in a patient in the UK or has been imported from a country with a lower ability to monitor corona-virus mutations.

“The bottom line is if you’re at home and you’re hearing this news, it does not change what we do in terms of precautions as individuals that can reduce the spread of this virus. It turns out that masking, that keeping physical distance, washing our hands – these are still the pillars of preventing COVID transmission, Murthy said.

Asked if he agreed the vaccine would be rolled out by spring in the US, he said: “I think when it comes to the vaccine timeline, we all want the vaccine to be delivered as quickly (and) as fairly as possible .

“But we also want to be realistic about the timeline. I think that if everything goes well, we may see a circumstance where, by late spring, people who are in lower-risk categories can get this vaccine, but that would really require everything to go exactly on schedule…We want to be optimistic but we want to be cautious as well, he said.

Biden nominated Murthy as his Surgeon General this month, exuding confidence that the renowned Indian-American physician will be a key voice on his response to the corona-virus pandemic to restore public trust and faith in science and medicine.

After his nomination, Murthy had said that he will dedicate himself to caring for every American, will be driven always by science and facts, by head and heart – and be endlessly grateful to serve one of the few countries in the world where the grandson of a poor farmer in India can be asked by the president-elect to look out for the health of the entire nation.

“That is a testament to the promise of America – one that I will work to fulfill every day as Surgeon General,” he had said. Murthy served as Surgeon General of the United States during the Obama administration and had to leave abruptly when Donald Trump became the US President.

Murthy was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire to immigrants from Karnataka. In 1978, the family crossed the Atlantic to Newfoundland, where his father worked as a District Medical Officer.

Quiet Bethlehem Christmas means ‘less business, more religion’

BETHLEHEM, Palestinian Territories: Deprived of its usual tourist influx by the pandemic, Bethlehem will celebrate a quiet Christmas this year that is less about commerce and more about religion, says its parish priest.

In a normal year hundreds of thousands of visitors flood the Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, located less than 10 kilometers (six miles) from Jerusalem.

Those seeking a quiet moment of contemplation in the Church of Nativity — the site of Christ’s birth, according to tradition — generally have to use their elbows to maneuver through the crowds.

While the lack of visitors has been devastating for business owners, it has also offered a rare opportunity for solemn worship, said Father Rami Asakrieh, Bethlehem’s parish priest.

“Sometimes there are more than half million people who arrive in this period to visit the Nativity Church,” he told AFP.

But with corona-virus restrictions making travel to Bethlehem all but impossible for foreign worshipers, the Church of the Nativity has been eerily calm in the days before Christmas.

Under the Grotto of the Nativity, the recitation of Armenian prayers by four monks echoed clearly through the basilica deserted of its typical throngs of visitors.

The Christmas Eve mass on Thursday, regarded as the most important annual event at the church, will be closed to the public.

Not even representatives of the Palestinian Authority will come to Bethlehem on December 24, Asakrieh said.

“It has never happened before,” he explained, citing only past restrictions during the Palestinian intifada, or uprisings, against Israel’s occupation.

“I think that this Christmas is different because people are not busy with the external manifestations of the feast,” the priest said, referring to the gift-buying that has, for many, become synonymous with Christmas.

“Now (people) have the time, and they are obligated, to concentrate on the essential… the theological spirit of Christmas,” he said.

“Less business, but more religion.”

In the lead-up to Christmas, the small Chapel of Saint Catherine, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, was opened to the local Palestinian population.

Many turned out in their Sunday best, including Nicolas al-Zoghbi who said that this year the joyfulness of Christmas had been replaced by “depression”.

He recounted the “heartache and pain” felt by those like his son who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

“We hope the Lord will destroy corona, just get rid of it so we can return to our previous life,” said Zoghbi, who is in his 70s.

Bethlehem’s economy is driven partly by an annual Christmas rush that benefits small shops selling postcards, rosaries carved from olive tree wood and other Nativity-related souvenirs.

Sitting outside his Bethlehem store on a plastic chair, Georges Baaboul told AFP he “hadn’t sold anything for nine months”.

“In the last few days I sold about 170 shekels ($52)” worth of goods, he said.

Sixty-year-old trader Saif said he had never seen things this bad through his 60 years in business, including during the intifada.

This year, West Bank tradesmen cannot even count on Christian customers from Gaza, the coastal Palestinian enclave controlled by the Islamist group Hamas that is under Israeli blockade.

Gaza Christians generally receive special permission to cross to Bethlehem for Christmas, but this year those permits have not been issued, said Father Youssef Asaad of the Latin monastery in Gaza.

Hamas has imposed strict measures to limit the spread of the virus in the strip, including the closure of mosques and the Latin Church, but masses are being broadcast online.

Christian Gaza resident Issa Abou George said he could not buy gifts for his children this year, but will participate in services online.

“My family and I will pray to God for the pandemic to end as well as for peace, in the Holy Land and the world,” he told AFP.

UK’s late-night executive meeting turns into clash over call for travel ban

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with his ministers Monday amid chaos over travel bans enacted by dozens of countries barring travelers from the United Kingdom because of a new strain of the corona-virus discovered in England.

Johnson called a meeting with the Cobra emergency committee — senior government ministers — to discuss the flow of freight in and out of Britain after several European countries closed their doors to the British. France said it was barring all people from the United Kingdom for 48 hours beginning Sunday, including freight carriers by road and sea.

Johnson spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron over the ban, which caused a dire situation around a key port in Dover. The move left the 6,000 trucks that cross from England to France each day on ferries from Dover or on trains through the Euro-tunnel stuck, for now, in England.

A stretch of highway to Dover in southeast England turned into a defacto parking lot for cargo trucks.

“These delays only apply to a very small percentage of food entering the UK.,” the prime minister said during a press conference.

He added that he wanted to sort out the problem “in the next few hours”.

The ban comes days before the UK is expected to formally leave the European Union. The break will mean new customs inspections and paperwork — and even worse disruption if the two sides don’t have a new trade agreement in place.

Ursid meteor shower peaks this week. Here’s how and when to watch

Keep your eyes on the early morning skies for the oft-neglected Ursid meteor shower on Dec. 22, on the heels of the winter solstice.

This small meteor shower can really be seen only from the Northern Hemisphere with between five and 10 meteors streaking across the sky per hour.

The Ursids peak on the evening of Dec. 21, leading into the early morning hours of Dec. 22. The moon will be 50% full. That, combined with the often cloudy winter nights of December, could obscure your view of this little shower.

If you want the best perspective of the shower, wait for the moon to set around 12:30 am. ET Dec. 22, according to NASA. Then watch the skies for about an hour.

The meteor shower originates from the Ursa Minor constellation, known as the Little Dipper, but the meteors will be visible streaking across the entire sky.

The Ursids are a relatively new meteor shower, according to EarthSky.org’s sky-watching guide. While many of the meteor showers we see throughout the year have been annual occurrences for centuries, the Ursids weren’t observed until the 20th century.

The meteor shower happens when Earth passes close to the orbit of comet 8P/Tuttle and this year, our close pass includes several trails of debris that also follow this comet, according to the American Meteor Society. This could cause more activity during the meteor shower.

Don’t look straight up at the sky. Aim for about halfway up in the sky, according to the American Meteor Society.

The Geminid meteor shower is also ongoing through Sunday, and the winter solstice occurs a day later on Dec. 21.

And don’t forget to keep an eye out for the so-called “Christmas Star” (which isn’t actually a star) on Dec. 21. That’s when Jupiter and Saturn come the closest together in our sky than they have in centuries. This conjunction will make them appear like a double planet during twilight.

Published by jim

Curator of things...

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