MANILA: The Philippines has detected two imported cases of the omicron coronavirus variant of concern, its first reported cases, the Department of Health said on Wednesday.
The two omicron variant cases, detected from 48 samples sequenced on Dec. 14, are currently isolated in a quarantine facility, it said in a statement.
The Arctic continues to deteriorate from global warming, not setting as many records this year as in the past, but still changing so rapidly that federal scientists call it alarming in their annual Arctic report card.
The 16th straight health check for the northern polar region spotlighted the first ever rainfall at Greenland summit station, record warm temperatures between October and December 2020, and the new problem of expansion of beavers in the Arctic.
“The trends are consistent, alarming and undeniable,” US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Rick Spinrad said presenting the findings by 111 scientists from 12 countries at the American Geophysical Union conference Tuesday. “The loss of the great white cap that once covered the top of the world is one of the most iconic indicators of climate change.”
“The Arctic is Earth’s air conditioning,” Spinrad said. “Billions of people rely on its moderating influence on climate. We have a narrow window of time to avoid very costly, deadly and irreversible future climate impacts.”
The 2020-2021 polar year — scientists study the Arctic on a yearly basis from October to September — was only the 7th warmest on record. However, October to December in 2020 set a record for the warmest autumn.
This report card comes out as the Arctic warms two to three times faster than the rest of the planet. The region’s melting ice opens the door to more pressures, including the potential for more oil and gas drilling and more mining and more tensions between countries wanting to exploit the area. For the people who live there, it means having to adapt to a ground that is getting softer as permafrost melts and changes to traditional hunting and fishing.
“It’s really tough for us to live up there, let alone thrive,” said report co-author Kaare Sikuaq Erickson, a community science liaison from the Bering Sea village of Unalakleet.
When sea ice hit its annual minimum in September for how far it extends, it was only the 12th lowest on record. But the rarer thick sea ice, which stays around for more than a year, was the second lowest at the end of the summer since records began in 1985, reflecting a problem in the more crucial type of ice for the Arctic.
“The sea ice loss in the Bering Sea is extremely, extremely scary,” Erickson said. “It’s an ecosystem collapse situation. I think the sea ice loss in my region is probably the biggest concern.”
Report editor Twila Moon, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said people may think “if something is not setting a brand new record, then it’s going pretty well. And that is not true.”
The Arctic is on a roller coaster of acceptable conditions and horrible ones, Moon said, pointing to Greenland.
“If you had asked me in early July how we’re doing for the Greenland ice sheet, I would have given you two thumbs up. We were having, surprisingly, what felt like a normal year,” Moon said. “And then we had these really extreme melt events coming in late July and in August, creating brand new records, giving us rainfall observed at the summit of Greenland for the first time ever.”
It’s usually so cold there that precipitation always had fallen as snow.
Another weird situation was the expansion of beavers into western Alaska, something Moon called “stunning.” There are more than 12,000 dams there, double the amount from two decades ago.
Beavers are a problem because they dam an area causing more water to pool on the surface, which enhances permafrost thaw, making roads, airports, pipelines and structures less stable, Moon said. It’s changed where fish and even beluga whales live, Erickson said.
“It’s a real transformation or disruption of the existing ecosystem,” Moon said.
Hours before the report card release, the World Meteorological Organization announced that it confirmed a new record warm temperature set for the Arctic in June 2020 in the Russian town of Verkhoyansk. Temperature in that Siberian town hit 100.4 degree s (38 degrees Celsius). That’s an absurd temperature for the Arctic, Moon said.
BUEA, Cameroon: There are no students in the playground of the high school in the Bomaka district of Buea — just the odd goat grazing on overgrown grass.
Buea is the capital of Cameroon’s Southwest Region — one of two regions gripped by violence after anglophones launched a campaign to break away from the country’s French-speaking majority.
In Bomaka, almost all the schools have been closed since 2016. It has just one junior school that remains open, but whose rollcall has slumped from around 600 to just 69 today.
“The crisis has killed the schools,” said Isaac Bissong, its headmaster. “Many pupils have left this neighborhood to study elsewhere because they are afraid.”
In one classroom, only eight students were present when AFP visited. The silence in the once-bustling corridors was heavy.
Unlike other schools in the country, the green, red and yellow flag of Cameroon was nowhere to be seen — “that could get us into trouble,” said Bissong.
The school is located less than three kilometers (two miles) from Muea, one of the separatists’ strongholds and the scene of many clashes.
Bissong provides whatever security he can for the school, although he is not armed.
He sits on a chair at the school entrance, on the lookout for potential trouble.
Anglophone separatists in the Southwest and neighboring Northwest Region regularly attack schools that they accuse of teaching in French.
Teachers and other civil servants have been killed after being accused of “collaborating” with the central government in Yaounde.
The predominantly French-speaking country is ruled with an iron fist by President Paul Biya, 88, who has been in power for 39 years.
Years-long grievances among the anglophone minority brewed for years, overflowing into a declaration of independence on October 1, 2017.
Armed separatists launched attacks on the security forces, triggering a violent crackdown.
The spiral of bloodshed has claimed more than 3,500 lives and forced around 700,000 people to flee their homes, according to monitors.
NGOs say that killings of civilians and abuses have been committed by both sides.
According to UNICEF, in 2019, some 850,000 children were not in school in the English-speaking regions.
In October 2020, a dozen men stormed the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba, in the Southwest Region, opening fire on pupils.
They killed seven children aged between nine and 12. A dozen others were shot or macheted.
On November 24 this year, four students and a teacher were killed by gunmen in the Southwest.
“Children are dying, and teachers too, for providing an education that these armed people do not want, believing it is not good for their region,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told AFP during a visit to Buea.
“There’s a generation of children who are on the verge of becoming illiterate because they have not been to school.”
In the streets of downtown Buea, armed soldiers were on patrol.
Blaise Chamango, a parent, said she was constantly worried for the children’s safety.
“Before leaving them at school in the morning, I pray.”
“When we send our children to school, we can receive threats,” said another parent, Manu Dao. “I am sad because their future is at stake.”
Many families have fled.
In the Southwest’s coastal area of Souza, one school is hosting 596 displaced English-speaking children this year, out of a total of 1,087 pupils.
The pupils are sometimes crammed 90 to a class.
“Many of them are in a state of shock,” said school official Joseph Mencheng.
“Many have seen people killed, their parents in some cases. Sometimes, in the middle of a lesson, they bring up some horror they have experienced.”
Stephanie, aged 12, is in a class with children years younger than her.
“I left my village because there was a war and I couldn’t go to school for three years,” she explained.
Nine-year-old Dipanda is talking with three classmates in another crowded classroom.
She comes from a small village in the Northwest Region. She says she is delighted to be back in school after classes were stopped “because of the war.”
The US death toll from COVID-19 topped 800,000 on Tuesday, a once-unimaginable figure seen as doubly tragic, given that more than 200,000 of those lives were lost after the vaccine became available practically for the asking last spring.
The number of deaths, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University, is about equal to the population of Atlanta and St. Louis combined, or Minneapolis and Cleveland put together. It is roughly equivalent to how many Americans die each year from heart disease or stroke.
The United States has the highest reported toll of any country. The US accounts for approximately 4% of the world’s population but about 15% of the 5.3 million known deaths from the coronavirus since the outbreak began in China two years ago.
The true death toll in the US and around the world is believed to significantly higher because of cases that were overlooked or concealed.
A closely watched forecasting model from the University of Washington projects a total of over 880,000 reported deaths in the US by March 1.
Health experts lament that many of the deaths in the United States were especially heartbreaking because they were preventable by way of the vaccine, which became available in mid-December a year ago and was thrown open to all adults by mid-April of this year.
About 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated, or just over 60% of the population. That is well short of what scientists say is needed to keep the virus in check.
“Almost all the people dying are now dying preventable deaths,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “And that’s because they’re not immunized. And you know that, God, it’s a terrible tragedy.”
When the vaccine was first rolled out, the country’s death toll stood at about 300,000. It hit 600,000 in mid-June and 700,000 on Oct. 1.
The U.S. crossed the latest threshold with cases and hospitalizations on the rise again in a spike driven by the highly contagious delta variant, which arrived in the first half of 2021 and now accounts for practically all infections. Now the omicron variant is gaining a foothold in the country, though scientists are not sure how dangerous it is.
Beyrer recalled that in March or April 2020, one of the worst-case scenarios projected upwards of 240,000 American deaths.
“And I saw that number, and I thought that is incredible — 240,000 American deaths?” he said. “And we’re now past three times that number.” He added: “And I think it’s fair to say that we’re still not out of the woods.”
CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti: A gasoline tanker overturned and exploded in northern Haiti, unleashing a fireball that swept through homes and businesses on its way to killing at least 60 people Tuesday in the latest tragedy to befall the Caribbean nation.
The blast occurred shortly after midnight in Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city, along the northern coast. Hours later, buildings and overturned vehicles were still fuming as firefighters covered the burned bodies of the young victims in white sheets and loaded them onto the back of a construction truck.
Hundreds of Haitians — who aren’t easily shocked amid their country’s multiple misfortunes — looked on from rooftops in disbelief at the loss of so much life. Prime Minister Ariel Henry, himself a physician, visited a hospital where victims bandaged head to toe were fighting for their lives amid a shortage of medical supplies and health workers.
“It’s horrible what happened,” said Patrick Almonor, deputy mayor of Cap-Haitien, adding that he expects the death toll to rise as first responders comb through buildings gutted by the fire. “We lost so many lives.”
Among survivors who spoke with the prime minister was Riche Joseph, who spent hours on the floor of Justinien University Hospital, the city’s largest, connected to an IV while he waited for a bed.
His sister, Bruna Lourdes, said her brother stepped out of the house late at night where they lived together with their mother to look for something to eat. When she heard the explosion, she rushed down from the hillside shantytown in panic.
“I’m praying to God that he won’t take his life,” said Lourdes, who is studying to be a nurse and plans to spend the night by her brother’s beside to offer whatever assistance she can to the overstretched medical staff.
Early reports indicate that the tanker was trying to avoid an oncoming motorcycle when it flipped. Onlookers then rushed to the scene with buckets to scoop up what they could of the tanker’s valuable cargo, likely for resale on the black market, as the fuel spilled toward a nearby pile of smoldering trash.
“It was after midnight and I heard a loud noise so I asked one of my boys to go and look. He told me a gasoline truck exploded,” said Abraham Joanis, 61, as he carried around a guitar rescued unscathed from the charred remains of his home, one of 50 gutted by the blaze.
“Right away, I left with my family, and I headed the other way to the bridge,” he added.
Contributing to the high death toll is the desperation that has forced impoverished Haitians in recent months to scramble for gasoline due to severe shortages that have shuttered gas stations, sent fuel prices on the black market spiraling and forced businesses to close as the U.S. and Canadian governments warn their citizens to leave while they still can.
The shortages are the latest manifestation of a society that has been on the brink since the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moise and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake a few weeks later that killed more than 2,200 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes.
The country of more than 11 million people also has been hit by a spike in gang-related kidnappings, including 17 people with a U.S. missionary organization who were abducted in mid-October. Five of them have been released but another 12 are still being held.
“It’s terrible what our country has to go through,” said Dave Larose, a civil engineer who works in Cap-Haitien.
Hospitals in Haiti’s second largest city seemed ill equipped to deal with the disaster and 15 victims had to be evacuated by air to hospitals in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Some of the burn victims were being treated by teams from Doctors without Borders.
“Surviving and recovering from a severe burn is a difficult process that requires specialized medical care, often for weeks or months,” Jean-Gilbert Ndong, the group’s medical coordinator. “We will continue to receive patients according to the needs and our capacity.”
Burn victims at Justinien hospital screamed in agony as they pleaded for basic supplies and more medical staff.
Henry, wearing a biohazard suit, clasped his hands and leaned over to console one man collapsed on the hospital’s concrete floor because there were not enough beds in the historic city’s largest hospital.
The prime minister promised more help in the form of field hospitals and a contingent of medical professionals. But minutes after he left the facility, five more patients died.
“The entire Haitian nation is grieving,” Henry said on Twitter while declaring three days of national mourning. “It is with a torn heart that I see the critical condition of some of our compatriots admitted to this facility.”
TAIPEI: Nicaragua’s decision last week to cut ties with Taiwan was part of a deliberate move by China to target the island’s diplomatic allies after it was excluded from a democracy summit hosted by Washington, Taiwan’s foreign minister said on Tuesday.
Nicaragua broke its longstanding diplomatic ties with Taiwan last week, switching allegiance to Beijing in a recognition of the Chinese Communist Party’s One China policy and reducing Taipei’s dwindling pool of international allies.
“When democratic countries were holding a democratic summit, China was excluded, China was a target, so China chose this opportunity to set about targeting our diplomatic allies,” said Foreign Minister Joseph Wu on the sidelines of a forum on regional security.
Digital Minister Audrey Tang and Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Washington Hsiao Bi-khim represented the island at the Biden administration’s “Summit for Democracy” last week. China was not on the US State Department’s invited participants list.
“Losing a diplomatic ally is a very painful thing for us,” Wu told reporters.
China’s foreign ministry said in a statement to Reuters the comments were an attempt to “cover up the failures of separatist activities”.
Beijing has increased military and political pressure on Taiwan to accept its sovereignty claims, drawing anger from the democratically ruled island, which has repeatedly said it would not be bullied and has the right to international participation.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said the island would not bend to pressure or change its determination to uphold democracy and freedom.
“The more successful Taiwan’s democracy is, the stronger the international support, and the greater the pressure from the authoritarian camp,” she said in Taipei.
China and Nicaragua’s move to re-establish diplomatic ties will likely boost Beijing’s influence in a part of the world long considered the United States’ backyard, angering Washington.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega first cut ties with Taiwan in 1985, but they were re-established with the island in 1990 under then-Nicaraguan President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
Wu said all of his colleagues in the foreign ministry “put forth their greatest efforts to maintain these diplomatic ties.”
Nicaragua’s move to cut ties with Taiwan leaves the island with just 14 formal diplomatic allies, most of them in Latin America and the Caribbean, plus a handful of small states.