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The Syrian Health Ministry has only confirmed 112 Covid-19 deaths in the country since March, with a total of 2,765 cases in regime-held areas.

Just in the last three weeks, the official number of cases has doubled but, according to health workers in Syrian regime-held areas, the figures do not begin to reflect the real scale of the outbreak.

CNN spoke to three doctors in Damascus and Aleppo on the condition of anonymity, for fear of retribution from a government that tightly controls information.

According to all three doctors, the number of cases exploded at the end of July. One doctor in Aleppo said his hospital went from receiving four to five suspected Covid-19 cases in April to being swamped with 90-100 patients daily at the end of July and early August.

CNN contacted the Syrian ministry of health with a list of questions about the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in the country but has not received a response.

With serious equipment shortages, doctors say they are scrambling to save lives. Doctors in Damascus described recent scenes of panic with health workers making frantic calls to try to secure beds with ventilators for their patients. The struggle has been compounded by a lack of protective equipment for medical professionals.

“Patients are literally waiting for other patients to die so they can be on a ventilator with people using contacts to pressure hospitals to move their loved ones up on the ventilator waiting list,” an Aleppo doctor using the name Ihsan told CNN.

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“In all of this pandemic the hospital gave me only six N95 masks and I am sometimes working for 14 hours straight,” Dr. Ihsan said. Some doctors and nurses are not even wearing masks in his hospital. “I see that daily and I have to say this is completely the fault of hospital management for not providing (masks); don’t expect staff to buy $60 masks when they make about $35 a month,” he said.

In Damascus, another doctor, who called himself Abd, said he was forced to sterilize his own disposable mask, and only following a social media campaign did some medical companies step in to provide additional supplies.

The lack of protective equipment has meant the country’s medical system — already drained by years of civil war — is losing doctors and healthcare staff to the virus.

While there has been no confirmation of the total number of deaths of health care workers since the start of the pandemic, a list with the names of 61 medical professionals who have reportedly died has been circulating on pro-government sites.

A senior Damascus health official confirmed some of the names on the list, but he could not confirm the total number of deaths.

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There is a “loss of lives among the best doctors and nurses in Syria due to coronavirus,” Dr. Shadi al-Najjar, the director of the Damascus Health Department told pro-government Sham FM. One doctor in Aleppo who spoke to CNN also confirmed the names of five doctors on the list.

“They forced us to work the entire week and expose the crew to danger, and the doctors, in this case, also became virus transmitters to others,” another medic, who asked to be called Dr. Ahmad, told CNN.

Officially, at least 76 health workers have tested positive for coronavirus as of August 21 — according to ministry of health figures. That is nearly 4% of all test-confirmed cases.

“This highlights the particular risks faced by health care workers; and underscores — given Syria’s fragile healthcare system with already insufficient numbers of qualified health care personnel — the potential for its overstretched health care capacity to be further compromised,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the World Health Organization said in an August 24 report.

A doctor prepares equipment for Covid-19 patients at a hospital in Hasakah, Syria, in April 2020.

The emotional impact of the crisis has been devastating for the country’s health care workers who say they feel powerless and helpless as they watch patients, sometimes their own family members, die.

Dr. Abd recalled the most shocking experience after he witnessed four colleagues in his hospital unable to save the lives of their own fathers.

“The worst feeling is the feeling of helplessness and inability to help,” said Dr. Abd.

“This made me feel concerned about my family, as a doctor who is in direct touch with corona cases every day. I could bring this back to them. Many doctors sent their families outside Damascus,” he said.

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For supporters of the regime like Al-Najjar, from the Damascus Health Department, the low official case count is due to a lack of testing capacity, not a concerted effort to hide the numbers. “We are suffering from shortage of PCR testing kits … there is no capacity to do major testing,” he said in an interview with Sham FM.

But even some vocal supporters of the regime like Dr. Bassam Zwan, a London-based Syrian doctor who is a frequent guest on Syrian government media, are critical of the Syrian health authorities’ handling of the pandemic. Zwan warned that concealing the true extent of the spread of the virus is “dangerous.”

“We should announce that we have a high number, we should not hide the real numbers … even if they have not been diagnosed, because we should be sounding the alarm, we would be placing the responsibility on international organizations. It is not something to be ashamed of, this is a pandemic that is spreading,” Zwan said in a video message last month.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says Syria poses a challenging operating environment for mitigating the impact of the pandemic. Syria’s testing capacity, for example, is low although the country has made considerable headway since the outbreak. Current testing capacity is around 500 tests per day with plans to increase to 3,000 daily, according to WHO.

Doctors wearing protective gear check equipment at the first specialized hospital for coronavirus cases in Idlib, northern Syria.

The virus has hit Syria at a time when the country is already on its knees after more than nine years of civil war, facing an economic crisis and the harshest US sanctions to date. Its currency, the Lira, has lost much of its value in recent months and with rising unemployment and inflation, most of the population can no longer afford basic goods.

“Syria is in its 10th year of complex emergency with four concurrent crises affecting the capacity of the country and its health system to cope with the effects of the pandemic,” WHO said.

The socio-economic impact of the pandemic is compounded by the overall emergency context created by years of conflict, the financial crisis in Lebanon, and international sanctions, “which despite having exemptions for humanitarian aid are greatly affecting the relief operations,” according to WHO.

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The governments initially imposed a brief lockdown but faced with unprecedented economic pressure and a large part of its population depending on daily wages, the country reopened for business.

The government has been promoting mask wearing and social distancing in awareness campaigns but so far enforcement and adherence has been low.

There is still time to flatten the curve and prevent a complete collapse of the health sector through more testing, effective contact tracing and raising more awareness, according to the United Nations.

“It is absolutely not too late to take action that can at least mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Syria” Imran Riza, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria told CNN.

But for Syrians like Diaa, it feels like death lurks around every corner. “There isn’t a single street in Aleppo that doesn’t have several houses with multiple coronavirus cases,” the 31-year-old who asked to be identified only as Diaa for fear of government retribution told CNN.

Diaa’s sister began showing Covid-19 symptoms earlier this month, but she was turned away by the hospital. When her family asked for a test, hospital staff told them she would have to travel to Damascus.

Since then the Syrian government has said they have opened up new facilities in cities outside the capital and will allow private laboratories to ramp up testing but time is running out.

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France teacher attack: Macron urges Russia to boost anti-terror fight

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image copyrightReuters

image captionA silent march was held in honour of Samuel Paty on Tuesday in the Paris suburb where he was killed

French President Emmanuel Macron has urged Russia to boost co-operation in fighting terrorism after the beheading of a teacher by a Russian-born man.

Mr Macron’s comments came in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who described Friday’s attack near Paris as a “barbarous murder”.

Samuel Paty, 47, was killed after showing controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils.

The attacker was named as Abdullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old ethnic Chechen.

Anzorov was shot dead by police shortly after the attack close to the teacher’s school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, north-west of the French capital.

image copyrightAFP
image captionSamuel Paty, a well-liked teacher, had been threatened over showing the cartoons

The brutal murder has shocked France.

  • Beheading of teacher deepens divisions in France

On Wednesday evening, Mr Macron will attend an official memorial at the Sorbonne University to award Mr Paty posthumously the Légion d’honneur – France’s highest order of merit.

What did Macron and Putin say?

Mr Macron said he wanted to see a “strengthening of Franco-Russian co-operation in the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration”, the French presidency said.

It provided no further details about Tuesday’s phone call with President Putin.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin published a brief statement quoting Mr Putin as saying that both parties “reaffirmed their mutual interest in intensifying joint efforts in the fight against terrorism and the propagation of extremist ideology”.

What is known about Anzorov?

Anzorov was born in Moscow but had lived in France since 2008. His family is from Russia’s Muslim-majority Chechnya region in the North Caucasus.

He arrived in France with his family as refugees, French media report.

His grandfather and 17-year-old brother have been questioned and released in the aftermath of the attack.

Russia has played down any association with the attacker.

“This crime has no relation to Russia because this person had lived in France for the past 12 years,” Sergei Parinov, a spokesman of the Russian embassy in Paris, told the Tass news agency on Saturday.

Mosque closed amid mass raids

Meanwhile, French media reported that the father of a pupil accused of launching an online campaign against the teacher had sent messages to the killer before the attack.

The father – who has not been named – is accused, along with a preacher described by the media as a radical Islamist, of calling for Mr Paty to be punished by issuing a so-called “fatwa” (considered a legal ruling by Islamic scholars).

media captionFrench minister: Lessons on freedom of expression will continue

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said the two men had been arrested and were being investigated for an “assassination in connection with a terrorist enterprise”.

Police have raided some 40 homes, following the attack. Sixteen people were taken in custody but six were later released.

On Tuesday, Mr Macron said the Sheikh Yassin Collective – an Islamist group named after the founder of the Palestinian militant group Hamas – would be outlawed for being “directly involved” in the killing.

He said the ban was a way of helping France’s Muslim community, Europe’s largest, from the influence of radicalism.

The government also ordered a mosque to close for sharing videos on Facebook calling for action against Mr Paty and sharing his school’s address in the days before his death.

The Pantin mosque, which has about 1,500 worshippers and is situated just north of Paris, will close for six months on Wednesday. The mosque expressed “regret” over the videos, which it has deleted, and condemned the teacher’s killing.

Why was Samuel Paty targeted?

On Monday, anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-François Ricard said Mr Paty had been the target of threats since he showed the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a class about freedom of speech earlier in October.

The history and geography teacher advised Muslim students to leave the room if they thought they might be offended.

Mr Ricard said that the killer had gone to the school on Friday afternoon and asked students to point out the teacher. He then followed Mr Paty as he walked home from work and used a knife to attack him.

The issue is particularly sensitive in France because of the decision by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

A trial is currently under way over the killing of 12 people by Islamist extremists at the magazine’s offices in 2015 following their publication.

media captionRallies in Paris, Toulouse, Lyon and other French cities in support of Samuel Paty

France’s Muslim community comprises about 10% of the population.

Some French Muslims say they are frequent targets of racism and discrimination because of their faith – an issue that has long caused tension in the country.

Related Topics

  • Emmanuel Macron

  • France
  • Paris
  • Vladimir Putin
  • Islamist extremism
  • Freedom of expression
  • Samuel Paty: Beheading of teacher deepens divisions over France’s secular identity

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Nigeria protests: Eyewitnesses say security forces fired at protesters

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Demonstrators have taken part in daily protests across the country for nearly two weeks over widespread claims of kidnapping, harassment, and extortion by a police unit know as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Tuesday saw the state governor impose a 24-hour curfew and deploy anti-riot police to the city.

One witness at the protests, Akinbosola Ogunsanya, said the shooting began after the lights were turned off at the Nigerian city’s Lekki tollgate. “Members of the Nigerian army pulled up on us and they started firing,” he said. “They were shooting, they were firing straight, directly at us, and a lot of people got hit. I just survived, barely.”

Ogunsanya added that barricades on either side of the scene were blocking ambulances.

Another witness, Temple Onanugbo, said he heard what he believed were bullets being fired from his home nearby and that the sound lasted “for about 15 to 30 minutes.”

Speaking to CNN from the scene of the shooting, Onanugbo said he saw “multiple bodies laying on the ground,” when he arrived to help those injured.

CNN has not yet been able to confirm casualties.

The State Government has ordered an investigation into the incident, according to the Lagos Governor’s spokesman, Gboyega Akosile. According to a tweet by Akosile, Lagos Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has also “advised security agents not to arrest anyone on account of the curfew.”

The protests at the Lekki toll gate have been mostly peaceful, with demonstrators singing the national anthem, staging sit-ins, and praying.

Earlier in the day, Sanwo-Olu had imposed a 24-hour curfew, including the closure of all Lagos schools. Only essential service providers and first responders have permission to be on the streets of Lagos, which has an estimated population of more than 20 million people.

“Dear Lagosians, I have watched with shock how what began as a peaceful #EndSARS protest has degenerated into a monster that is threatening the well-being of our society,” Sanwo-Olu tweeted as he announced the 4 pm (local time) curfew.

SARS was disbanded on October 11 and a new police unit to replace it will be trained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Reuters reported Monday. Protesters are demanding further protections against the police, including independent oversight and psychological evaluation of officers.

Death and severe injuries amid the protests have been reported since the weekend.

Amnesty International said on its Twitter account Tuesday that it has received “credible but disturbing evidence” of “excessive use of force occasioning deaths of protesters.”

A 17-year-old died in police custody on Monday in Kano, a city in the north of the country, after allegedly being tortured, according the human rights group. Many protestors and journalists were assaulted by police and thugs in the capital Abuja on the same day. Videos on social media show dozens of cars belonging to protestors burning and Amnesty International said three people died.

“While we continue to investigate the killings, Amnesty International wishes to remind the authorities that under international law, security forces may only resort to the use of lethal force when strictly unavoidable to protect against imminent threat of death or serious injury,” Amnesty also tweeted.

Other videos show a mass breakout of hundreds of prisoners from the Benin Correctional Center in Edo state in southern Nigeria. It is uncertain who is to blame for the breakout, with protestors claiming it was staged by police. The Nigeria Police Force said in a tweet that protestors carted away arms and ammunition from the armory before freeing suspects in custody and setting the facilities alight.

Edo state governor Godwin Obaseki imposed a curfew on Monday, tweeting about “disturbing incidents of vandalism and attacks on private individuals and institutions by hoodlums in the guise of #EndSARS protesters.”

Riot police have been deployed across the country. According to a tweet from the Nigerian Police Force on Tuesday evening, the Inspector-General of Nigeria’s Police has ordered the immediate nationwide deployment of anti-riot police officers “to protect lives and property of all Nigerians and secure critical national infrastructure across the country.”

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Judge tosses lawsuit challenging DeVos’ sexual misconduct rule for schools, colleges

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Background: The ruling comes as a major victory for DeVos, whose Title IX policies will be a key part of her legacy as secretary. She has said the rule officially codifies protections to hold schools accountable by ensuring survivors are not brushed aside and no student’s guilt is predetermined.

The ACLU had charged that DeVos’ Title IX rule, which took effect in August, violated the Administrative Procedure Act because the provisions “were arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion.” The lawsuit had sought to vacate the rule.

On behalf of four plaintiffs, the ACLU argued that the rule will reduce the number of sexual assault and harassment complaints requiring a response from schools.

The lawsuit took aim at the rule’s definition of sexual harassment, as well as provisions that allow institutions to use a “clear and convincing evidence standard.” The groups that brought the lawsuit also take issue with the fact that DeVos’ rule only holds institutions accountable under Title IX for “deliberate indifference” and only requires a school or school official to respond to sexual harassment if there is “actual knowledge.”

Other legal challenges: The lawsuit was one of four ongoing cases challenging the Title IX rule. The other three are still pending but have been largely unsuccessful. All argue that the Education Department violated the law with its new rule by acting beyond its authority, and that the rule is arbitrary and capricious.

A circuit court judge in the District of Columbia denied a request from attorneys general in 17 states and the District of Columbia to stop the new rule and to block it as legal action continues. Another judge also denied a motion to block the rule from taking effect in New York while the litigation is ongoing. Southern District of New York Judge John G. Koeltl said state officials failed to show they are likely to win in their argument that the Trump administration acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when it finalized its rule.

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