An alarming flare-up in coronavirus cases in Iran has raised fresh fears of a broad COVID-19 resurgence, sparking official warnings of new restrictions and underlining the sanctions-battered country’s challenge of returning to post-virus normality.
Since June 1, the number of new COVID-19 infections has been hovering near or above 3,000, reaching on Thursday its highest-ever daily total: 3,574.
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“It is a worrying sign,” Mansoureh Bagheri, the Iran Red Crescent Society’s director of international operations, told Al Jazeera.
While Bagheri acknowledged that a factor behind the jump was an increase in coronavirus testing, she noted that another reason was that “some don’t take it [the pandemic] seriously anymore” as fewer people seem to strictly obey physical distancing rules and avoid long-distance travel.
According to a poll cited last week by Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, public belief in physical distancing has dropped from 90 percent to 40 percent, while trust in stay-at-home orders has also slumped, from 86 percent to 32 percent.
Calling the findings “a disaster”, Harirchi has been just one of several government officials in recent days to rebuke the public for ignoring public health advice including maintaining physical distancing and wearing masks in public.
“People seem to think the coronavirus is over,” Health Minister Saeed Namaki said during a news conference on Tuesday. “The outbreak is not over yet, and at any moment it may come back stronger than before.”
A day later, it was time for President Hassan Rouhani to warn Iranians to “seriously take into consideration” the possibility of a resurgence of the disease that would force authorities “to bring back some of the restrictions” previously imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus – a move, he said, that would affect “the normal life of citizens and badly harm the economy”.
In the past two weeks, the number of daily new deaths has remained below the hundreds [AFP]
However, some argued that people’s behaviour was not to blame for the recent surge in infections.
“This is 100 percent due to wrong policies,” said Kamiar Alaei, an expert on Iran’s public health and president of the Institute for International Health and Education in Albany, New York.
“There is no coordination between the trend of infections and the government’s decision-making,” he added. The doctor explained that “a new peak is inevitable” every time restrictions are lifted without a steady and constant decrease in the number of infections for two weeks.
On May 12, mosques across the country were temporarily allowed to reopen for three days to celebrate the nights of Laylat al-Qadr for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Some took the chance to travel on that weekend. From May 25 to June 1, the number of hospitalisations rose from 338 to 652, and fatalities from 34 to 84, according to the health ministry.
While the epicentres of the Iranian outbreak were originally the capital, Tehran, and the central city of Qom, one of the so-called “red zones” currently is the western province of Khuzestan, where the number of people infected with COVID-19 is “steadily increasing”, according to officials.
“The increase in patients with coronavirus in Khuzestan shows that this province is still in a worrying situation,” Qasem Jan Babaei, also a deputy health minister, said on Thursday.
Iran was one of the first countries to be hit hard by an outbreak of the new coronavirus following the emergence of the highly contagious pathogen in China late last year.
On February 19, Iranian authorities announced that two elderly people had died after testing positive for coronavirus. The pair were the country’s first cases, and only the seventh and eighth fatalities caused by the virus outside mainland China. Since then, COVID-19 has infected more than 167,000 people and caused 8,143 deaths – even though there have been suggestions that the actual figures are much higher.
With Iran swiftly becoming one of the pandemic’s hot spots in the Middle East, the government in March announced a series of containment measures including ordering the closure of non-essential businesses and banning intercity travel. Schools and universities were also shut, while religious, cultural and sporting events were banned.
But as the number of daily cases began to wane in early April, following a peak in late March, authorities began rolling back restrictions amid concerns that extended curbs on economic life activity were not sustainable in an economy already squeezed from punishing United States sanctions.
Bazaars and shopping centres in certain areas were allowed to reopen, while travel between provinces was eased.
As the country continued its efforts to contain the disease while also striving to revive its economy, most restrictions on business activity were removed and mosques were allowed to reopen by the end of May, even as the number of infections began rising again.
“By telling the people to go back to work and that the outbreak was under control, the government sent the wrong message and it undermined the significance of the outbreak,” Alaei argued.
In the past two weeks, the number of daily new deaths has remained below the hundreds, ranging from 34 on May 25 to 81 on June 1. In the past 24 hours, Iran reported 63 deaths. The highest number of daily fatalities was 158 on April 4.
Looking ahead, the prospect of another shutdown has not been greeted well by those struggling to make ends meet.
“President Rouhani is living on ‘Easy Street’, he is not thinking about us young Iranians,” Amin Rezaie, a barista in Tehran, told Al Jazeera. “I am 31 and I have nothing of my own. No car, no flat, not even a motorbike.”
But according to Ebrahim Mohseni, economist and senior analyst at the University of Tehran’s Center for Public Opinion Research, the government, at most, could shut down schools, mosques and recreational centres – but not touch businesses and economic activities.
“Most agree that the economic impact of any major shutdown would be more than what the coronavirus could cause for a relatively young population of Iran,” he said.
Joe Biden braces for Donald Trump offensive in debate
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — Joseph R. Biden is expected to walk into a buzzsaw Tuesday when he climbs onto the stage for the first time to debate President Trump, and the way the Democratic presidential nominee responds could shape the contours of the race for the closing weeks of the campaign. The megahyped 90-minute event, hosted…
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — Joseph R. Biden is expected to walk into a buzzsaw Tuesday when he climbs onto the stage for the first time to debate President Trump, and the way the Democratic presidential nominee responds could shape the contours of the race for the closing weeks of the campaign.
The megahyped 90-minute event, hosted by the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western University, will be a sink-or-swim moment for the gaffe-prone former vice president, who is leading in most polls less than 40 days from Election Day.
“He is going to have to prove to all kinds of normal, nonpartisan, average voters that he is physically capable of doing the job and able to process the information on the fly,” said Rob Steele, a member of the Republican National Committee in Michigan, a crucial battleground state. “Certainly as a physician, I hope they will be looking closely because there are a lot of red flags.”
Mr. Steele said, “I would like him to release his CT of the brain.”
Mr. Biden has momentum in the race. Polls show him leading Mr. Trump nationally and in key swing states where voters trust the president more on the economy but question his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the start of this year, with a strong economy, Mr. Trump suggested that he might not take part in debates at all.
But after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, forcing 22 million people out of work and causing the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans, the president lobbied in vain for more than three debates.
The quest for more debates underscores how Mr. Trump, a reality TV star and master showman, thinks he has the edge on stage.
Indeed, the Biden team is on guard.
The ghosts of Mr. Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 and lingering concerns over Mr. Biden’s fitness for the job elevate the sense that the 77-year-old’s presidential aspirations could evaporate overnight if he drops a stink bomb on the debate stage.
Mr. Trump signaled that he will take the fight to Mr. Biden. His first debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016 set a record with a viewership of 84 million, and Mr. Trump received far more mentions on social media than his Democratic opponent did afterward.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both of them former prosecutors, are helping Mr. Trump prepare by taking turns playing the role of Mr. Biden.
“Either one of them is about five times smarter than Sleepy Joe,” the president said.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also has been attending the debate preparation sessions, but the president said he hasn’t devoted much time to rehearsals.
“I’m running a country. I don’t have the luxury,” Mr. Trump told reporters. He said he thinks some candidates make the mistake of overpreparing for debates. “Sometimes you can go too much in that stuff.”
Mr. Trump said he considers his almost daily question-and-answer sessions with journalists as good preparation.
“What I do is debate prep every day,” he told reporters Sunday. “I’m taking questions from you people all the time. I’ve taken a lot of questions from you over the last number of years, and [Mr. Biden] doesn’t.”
Questioning Mr. Biden’s mental agility has become one of the president’s favorite gibes. Mr. Trump has called for drug tests to be administered before the debate after speculating that Mr. Biden took a performance-enhancing drug before a debate against Sen. Bernard Sanders during the Democratic primaries, though there is no evidence supporting that theory.
“Whether he is or not, it doesn’t matter, but I would love to take a test and he can take a test, too,” the president said.
Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield fired back. “If the president thinks his best case is made in urine, he can have at it.
“We’d expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200K Americans when he didn’t make a plan to stop COVID-19.”
Mr. Trump took that to be a drug test refusal.
“Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?” he tweeted.
Mr. Biden, meanwhile, has urged voters not to be distracted by Mr. Trump’s shenanigans and been holed up in Delaware with advisers and close aides preparing for the face-off.
When the two candidates meet at 9 p.m. EST, they won’t shake hands — a nicety omitted under coronavirus restrictions. The final two debates will take place on Oct. 15 and Oct. 22.
In the run-up to the debate, Mr. Biden is projecting confidence in his ability to go toe to toe with Mr. Trump.
His campaign sees the debate as a chance to highlight Mr. Trump’s bungled response to COVID-19 and warn that the headstrong Republican has tarnished the nation’s reputation.
He will accuse Mr. Trump of trying to strip away health care coverage from millions of Americans, including those with pre-existing conditions, by backing efforts to dismantle Obamacare.
“The people know the president is a liar,” Mr. Biden said in a recent MSNBC interview. “He doesn’t know how to debate the facts because he’s not that smart.”
Mr. Biden has a 7-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls and is running ahead of the president in key battleground states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that backed Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton after supporting Democrats for decades.
Mr. Biden has been under the bright lights before. His performances in vice presidential debates against Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul D. Ryan in 2012 were well-received.
Eight years later, Mr. Biden’s low-key and meandering campaign has provided a stark contrast with Mr. Trump’s hard-charging approach. It has given rise to “Weekend at Bernie’s” quips, armchair medical diagnoses and the president’s “Sleepy Joe” and “Joe Hidin” broadsides.
The unconventional nature of his bid has fueled questions about whether Mr. Biden has lost his fastball and has fed into deep-seated fears among Democrats that the party is headed toward a repeat of four years ago.
Nate Keifer, 49, hopes he is wrong, but he said the race “is feeling eerily similar to when Hillary lost” in 2016.
“The polls are all saying Biden, but listen, I live in northern Michigan. I live in a very right-wing rural area, and those people are voting. Every single one of them,” Mr. Keifer said. “I think again they are underestimating the middle of America.”
With a shrug of his shoulders and a look of disappointment, he said Mr. Biden is “lame.”
Mr. Trump’s supporters say Mr. Biden is going to be exposed on the debate stage.
“The Democratic Party has picked someone who is clearly not fit to be in any type of office,” said Bill Baxter, a 47-year-old mechanic. “I think Trump is going to attack the hell out of Biden.”
His wife, Laureen, who works at a bank, said Mr. Biden is “obviously” showing symptoms of early onset dementia, and she predicted the Democrat will struggle to keep up without a teleprompter.
“If he gets attacked and gets agitated, that is when he is going to go off and somebody is going to be [called] a lying dog-faced pony soldier,” she said.
• Dave Boyer reported from Washington.
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Hong Kong braces for protests on heels of proposed security law |NationalTribune.com
Hong Kong police have fired volleys of tear gas at demonstrators as thousands of people protested against Beijing’s controversial plan to directly impose national security laws on the semi-autonomous financial hub. Images posted on social media on Sunday showed protesters gathering in the busy Causeway Bay and Wan Chai districts. More: China plans new national…
Hong Kong police have fired volleys of tear gas at demonstrators as thousands of people protested against Beijing’s controversial plan to directly impose national security laws on the semi-autonomous financial hub.
Images posted on social media on Sunday showed protesters gathering in the busy Causeway Bay and Wan Chai districts.
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The demonstrators set up makeshift barricades and chanted slogans such as “Five demands, not one less” in reference to their demands from the government, including investigation of alleged police brutality against anti-government protesters last year.
Water cannon trucks and armoured police vehicles were seen rolling into Causeway Bay, while in Wan Chai police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds after protesters tried to block a road. Local media reported that more than 100 people were detained.
“This is the first large demonstration in Hong Kong since COVID-19 arrived here,” Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from a protest site, said. “The protesters are not just defying social-distancing rules, they’re also defying an order by Hong Kong’s police not to hold this unauthorised assembly – and, of course, they are once more defying Beijing.”
The planned legislation is expected to ban treason, subversion and sedition, and comes after Hong Kong was shaken in 2019 by months of massive, often-violent protests sparked by opposition to a now-shelved bill to extradite criminal suspects for trial in mainland China.
Beijing’s proposal on Thursday sent a chill through financial markets and drew a swift rebuke from foreign governments, international human rights groups and some business lobbies.
In drafting the tough new laws, which could also see the setting up of Chinese government intelligence agencies in the finance hub, Beijing would be circumventing Hong Kong’s lawmaking body, the Legislative Council.
Tear gas was fired around 1:25pm as protesters sought to march to Wan Chai. pic.twitter.com/ZPRKJ5N5WM
— Hong Kong Free Press HKFP (@HongKongFP) May 24, 2020
The move has sparked concerns over the fate of the “one country, two systems” formula that has governed Hong Kong since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 and which guarantees the city broad freedoms not seen on the mainland.
Some local commentators have described the proposal as “a nuclear option” that is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-stakes power play.
A backlash intensified on Saturday as nearly 200 political figures from around the world said in a statement the proposed laws were a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms”.
“If the international community cannot trust Beijing to keep its word when it comes to Hong Kong, people will be reluctant to take its word on other matters,” they wrote.
The statement, which was also signed by Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, said the proposed law is a “flagrant breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that returned Hong Kong to China in 1997.
The proposed national security law has sparked concerns over the fate of the ‘one country, two systems’ formula that has governed Hong Kong since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]
China has dismissed other countries’ complaints as “meddling” and rejected concerns the proposed laws would harm foreign investors.
Briefing reporters on Sunday, the Chinese government’s top diplomat Wang Yi said the new legislation would target a narrow category of acts and would have no impact on the city’s freedoms or rights, or interests of foreign firms.
State Councillor Wang said people should be more confident of the stability of Hong Kong, instead of being more worried.
Sunday’s rally was initially organised against a controversial national anthem bill, which is due for a second reading at the Legislative Council on Wednesday, but the proposed national security laws sparked calls for more people to take to the streets.
Hong Kong has increasingly become a pawn in deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing, and observers will be watching for any signs of acceptance among the broader local community or indications that activists are gearing up for a fresh challenge.
Anti-government protests that escalated in June last year plunged the city into its biggest political crisis in decades, battered the economy and posed the gravest popular challenge to Xi since he came to power in 2012.
The sometimes violent clashes that roiled the city saw a relative lull in recent months as the government imposed measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.
In an op-ed published on Sunday by the Nikkei Asian Review, former Hong Kong legislator, Nathan Law, who is also the founding chairperson of pro-democracy group Demosisto, wrote that if the new law is imposed on Hong Kong, residents “truly fear for our safety.”
“Our freedom of speech, assembly and political beliefs are no longer safeguarded by the city’s legal system. Torture and imprisonment inflicted on human rights defenders in China may occur in Hong Kong, with activists like Joshua Wong and myself likely targets of the authorities,” he warned.
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