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Victorian hotel worker tests positive to coronavirus, NSW issues alert

Victoria's Department of Health says a full public health response is underway after a quarantine hotel worker in Melbourne tested positive to Covid-19. File image. Photo: 123RF The department said the man worked at the Holiday Inn hotel at Melbourne Airport, and it was contacting the hotel along with the case's close contacts. The worker returned a negative test result on 4 February and returned to work on 7 February, where they developed symptoms and tested positive. "We are contacting Holiday Inn Airport workers and others who are considered primary close contacts," the department said. "They are required to immediately isolate, get tested and remain isolated for 14 days." Warning in NSW NSW Health has issued a precautionary alert for sites in Wollongong and south-eastern Sydney after a returned overseas traveller tested positive to Covid-19 two days after leaving their mandatory two-week hotel quarantine. In a statement issued on Sunday evening, the health department said the person was not showing any symptoms, but had been tested on day 16 as part of an enhanced follow-up strategy for people returning from overseas. They returned two negative tests during their 14 days in isolation. The statement said the person has a low level of infection and their household contacts have so far returned negative results. Their close contacts have already been identified and are in self-isolation. The statement said investigations so far suggested the person was infected overseas, and there was no indication at this stage of transmission in hotel quarantine. - ABC
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After a decade of change in Myanmar, fear of the past drives anti-coup protests

Analysis - A communications blackout, the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi without word, wild rumours fed by a paucity of information. Protesters in Myanmar hold posters during a demonstration against the military coup near the royal palace in Mandalay on 7 February. Photo: AFP Protesters have recalled the darkest days of a succession of military juntas that ruled Myanmar during half a century of ruinous isolation - driving many people to mass protests in fear that such times could return. That included a Generation Z who grew up with somewhat greater freedom and prosperity in what nonetheless remains one of Southeast Asia's poorest and most restrictive countries. "We don't want a dictatorship for the next generation or for us," said Thaw Zin, a 21-year-old among the sea of people massed in the shadow of Sule Pagoda in the centre of the commercial capital of Yangon on Sunday. Some carried posters that read: "You f**ked with the wrong generation". Shaking with emotion, Thaw Zin said, "If we don't stand this time for our country, our people, there is no one. Evil will fall on us. We will never forgive them for the trouble they have brought to us." Protesters in Yangon in one of the rallies against the coup in Myanmar. Photo: AFP Myanmar's army seized power last Monday, detaining Suu Kyi and halting an unsteady transition to democracy, citing unsubstantiated fraud in the election landslide won by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in November. Successive military juntas ruled Myanmar from 1962 until 2011, when a quasi-civilian government started opening up the country and its economy after Suu Kyi was freed from a spell of what totalled nearly 15 years under house arrest. In 2012, only 1.1 percent of the population used the internet and few people had telephones, according to the International Telecommunication Union. But after liberalisation in 2013, the price of SIM cards dropped from more than $200 to as little as $2 almost overnight. By 2016, nearly half the population had cell phones and most were smartphones with internet access. Pre-publication censorship was abolished and private media proliferated. While journalists remained under heavy scrutiny and arrests continued, it was a far cry from the days when the only news was state-produced propaganda that glorified the generals and lambasted "foreign axe-handles of the West". After the military seized power, activists responded with calls for a mass civil disobedience movement that spread rapidly online, something that would not have been possible before. The parliament that had been due to be sworn in on Monday, the day of coup, held a symbolic first session by Zoom. Anger over the internet shutdown on Saturday - so reminiscent of the old days - drove both older generations all too familiar with isolation and younger ones suddenly cut off. "Most of us youths work at IT companies," said one 22-year-old protester. "Since the whole server is shutdown, we can't do anything. It affects our business as well as our opportunities." 'We hate dictatorship' "We all know how terrible it was," said 40-year-old Maw Maw Aung, who was also among the crowds beside Sule Pagoda, of direct army rule. "We cannot live under the boot of the military. We hate dictatorship. We really hate it." She remembered the legacy of crippled education and healthcare systems under the junta. When the World Health Organization last did rankings, in 2008, Myanmar's health system came last. "We lived in fear everyday," she said. "We are behind our neighbouring countries in everything." As the generals shut the internet on Saturday, echoes of the old era reappeared. Activists and politicians went into hiding. Wild rumours began to spread: that various high-profile NLD leaders were dead, that Suu Kyi had been freed, and the army chief toppled. Without explanation on Sunday evening, the internet was switched back on. But there was no sign of the protests abating. Many are fearful about what comes next: previous uprisings against the military - in 1988 and 2007 - have been subdued with deadly force. "With the anti-coup protests gaining steam, we can well imagine the reaction to come," author and historian Thant Myint-U wrote on Facebook. "But Myanmar society is completely different from 1988 and even 2007," he said. "I have tremendous faith in today's younger generation. Anything is possible." - Reuters
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Rescue mission underway after glacier bursts India dam with around 125 missing

At least 125 people are missing and so far seven bodies have been recovered after a Himalayan glacier crashed into a dam and triggered a huge flood in northern India. Members of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police during a rescue operation after the broken glacier caused a major river surge that swept away bridges and roads, at Reni village in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Photo: AFP / Indo-Tibetan Border Police As the dam broke open, a deluge of water poured through a valley in the state of Uttarakhand. Villages have been evacuated, but officials warned more than 125 people may have been caught in the torrent. Video showed the floodwater barrelling through the area, leaving destruction in its wake. "It came very fast, there was no time to alert anyone," Sanjay Singh Rana, who lives near to the Dhauli Ganga river, told the Reuters news agency. "I felt that even we would be swept away." Uttarakhand police said the avalanche struck at about 11am local time, destroying a dam known as the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project. Police said the impact catapulted water along the Dhauli Ganga river, damaging another power project downstream in the Tapovan area. One witness compared the flash flood to "a scene from a Bollywood film". Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said 125 people were confirmed missing so far, but that number could rise. "Seven bodies have been recovered from the site and rescue operations are going on," Singh Rawat told reporters at a briefing on Sunday. Most of those missing were workers at the two power projects swept away by the deluge. Dozens of emergency workers have been deployed to the region. Photo: AFP More than 50 people working at the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project were feared dead, Uttarakhand police chief Ashok Kumar said. But he said some workers had been rescued from the site. Emergency crew managed to rescue 16 workers who had been trapped inside a tunnel that had been filled with debris. Indian media said around 30 others were trapped in a second tunnel, with emergency crews prepared to work through the night to rescue them. Singh Rawat said teams from the police and the army were "doing their best to save the lives of the workers". Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was monitoring the situation. "The nation prays for everyone's safety there," he wrote on Twitter shortly after speaking with the state minister. Emergency workers evacuated dozens of villages, but authorities later said the main flood danger had passed. Hundreds of troops along with military helicopters and other aircraft have been sent to the region. The neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh has put some riverside areas on high alert for flooding. Experts are investigating the incident. Uttarakhand is prone to flash floods and landslides. Photo: SCREENSHOT What caused the glacial burst? Uttarakhand, in the western Himalayas, is prone to flash floods and landslides. Some 6000 people are believed to have been killed in floods in June 2013 which were triggered by the heaviest monsoon rains in decades. Sunday's disaster has prompted calls by environment groups for a review of power projects in the ecologically sensitive mountains. - BBC
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Covid-19: Oxford vaccine protection against South Africa variant 'limited'

The Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid jab gives limited protection against mild disease caused by the South Africa variant, the firm said early trials had suggested. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP It also said it had not yet fully determined whether the vaccine protects against severe disease caused by the more transmissible coronavirus variant. The preliminary findings from a small study of more than 2000 people have not yet been peer-reviewed. More than 100 cases of the South Africa variant have been found in the UK. The preliminary findings, first reported by the Financial Times, suggest the vaccine offers limited protection against mild and moderate disease caused by the variant. The study is due to be published on Monday. A spokesman for AstraZeneca said they had not yet been able to properly establish whether the jab would prevent severe disease and hospitalisation caused by the South Africa variant because those involved in the study had predominantly been young, healthy adults. But the company expressed confidence that the vaccine would offer protection against serious cases, because it created neutralising antibodies similar to those of other coronavirus vaccines. A spokesman for AstraZeneca said the company and the University of Oxford had started adapting the vaccine against the South Africa variant, adding that a new vaccine to work against mutated versions of the virus could be ready to deploy in the autumn if needed. Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said that if the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was less protective against mild disease but prevented severe disease this would "still be a pretty good outcome". "I don't think we need to be too alarmed by [the reported findings] as yet but we do need to see the full study to work out what the implications really are," he said. NHS England medical director of primary care Dr Nikki Kanani encouraged people to take a vaccine when offered, adding that evidence shows they are "very protective" - particularly against hospitalisation and death from Covid. However, she said scientists will have to keep looking at how coronavirus vaccines are working as they will likely have to be given on a yearly basis to "reflect any changes" in variants of the virus, like the flu jab. It comes as the company on Saturday said its vaccine provided good protection against the variant first discovered in Kent, which is now dominant in the UK. Current vaccines were designed around earlier versions of coronavirus, but scientists believe they should still work against the new ones, although it is not yet clear how well against different mutations. Early results suggest the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine protects against the new variants. Data on two new coronavirus vaccines that could be approved soon - one from Novavax and another from Janssen - appear to offer some protection. And early results from Moderna suggest its vaccine is still effective against the South Africa variant. Experts say vaccines could be redesigned and tweaked to be a better match for new variants in a matter of weeks or months if necessary. - BBC
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Biden administration suspends Trump asylum deals with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

The Biden administration says it is immediately suspending Trump-era asylum agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, part of a bid to undo his Republican predecessor's hardline immigration policies. US President Joe Biden Photo: AFP In a statement, State Department Secretary Antony Blinken said the United States had "suspended and initiated the process to terminate the Asylum Cooperative Agreements with the Governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as the first concrete steps on the path to greater partnership and collaboration in the region laid out by President Biden." The so-called "safe third country" agreements, inked in 2019 by the Trump administration and the Central American nations, force asylum seekers from the region to first seek refuge in those countries before applying in the United States. Part of a controversial bid by Trump to crack down on illegal immigrants from Central America who make up a large part of migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border, the policies were never implemented with El Salvador and Honduras, the State Department said on Saturday. Transfers under the US-Guatemala agreement have been paused since mid-March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the statement added. The moves announced Saturday came after Biden unveiled a host of measures last week aimed at revamping the US immigration system, including a task force to reunite families separated at the United States-Mexico border and another to increase an annual cap on refugees. One of the orders called for Blinken to "promptly consider" whether to notify the governments of the three countries that the United States intended to suspend and terminate the safe third country deals. It also called on the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to determine whether to rescind a rule implementing the agreements. - Reuters
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More than 100 feared dead after Himalayan glacier bursts in India

As many as 150 people were feared dead after a Himalayan glacier broke and crashed into an Indian dam early on Sunday, with floods forcing the evacuation of villages downstream. Police personnel prepare after a glacier broke off in India's Chamoli district causing flash floods in the Dhauli Ganga river Photo: AFP "The actual number has not been confirmed yet," but 100 to 150 people were feared dead, Om Prakash, chief secretary of Uttarakhand state where the incident happened, told Reuters. An eyewitness said he saw a wall of dust, rock and water as an avalanche roared down a river valley. "It came very fast, there was no time to alert anyone," Sanjay Singh Rana, who lives on the upper reaches of Raini village, said. "I felt that even we would be swept away." India has put many of its northern districts on high alert after the flooding in Uttarakhand state Photo: SCREENSHOT Locals fear that people working at a nearby hydro-power project had been swept away, as well as villagers roaming near the river looking for firewood or grazing their cattle, Rana said. "We have no idea how many people are missing," he said. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was closely monitoring the situation. "India stands with Uttarakhand and the nation prays for everyone's safety there," he said on Twitter after speaking with the state chief minister. India's air force was being readied to help with rescue operations, the federal government said, while Home Minister Amit Shah said disaster-response teams were being airlifted in to help with relief and rescue. "All the concerned officers are working on a war footing," Shah said on Twitter, referring to Uttarakhand by its nickname, the Hindi term for "land of the gods" - due to the numerous Hindu temples and pilgrimage centres located across the state. The neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous, also put its riverside areas on high alert. Footage shared by locals showed the water washing away parts of the dam as well as whatever else was in its path. Videos on social media, which Reuters could not immediately verify, showed water surging through a small dam site, washing away construction equipment. "The flow of the Alaknanda River beyond Nandprayag (stretch) has become normal," Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said on Twitter. "The water level of the river is now 1 meter above normal but the flow is decreasing." File photo: Indian defence personnel assist a stranded civilian to safety after flooding in northern Uttarakhand state in 2013. Photo: AFP Uttarakhand in the Himalayas is prone to flash floods and landslides. In June 2013, record rainfall caused devastating floods that claimed close to 6000 lives. That disaster was dubbed the "Himalayan tsunami" by the media due to the torrents of water unleashed in the mountainous area, which sent mud and rocks crashing down, burying homes, sweeping away buildings, roads and bridges. - Reuters
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Thousands gather for second day of protests in Myanmar – witnesses

Thousands of people have marched for a second day in Myanmar's biggest city to protest against the military junta's coup and detention of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week. Protesters hold up the three finger salute and placards during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon. Photo: AFP Protesters in Yangon carried red balloons, the colour representing Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party (NLD), and chanted, "We don't want military dictatorship! We want democracy!" They marched under bright sunshine in the middle of the road waving NLD flags making the three-figure salute that has become a symbol of protest against the coup. Drivers honked their horns and passengers held up photos of Suu Kyi. The scenes broadcast on Facebook were some of the few that have come out of the country since the junta shut down the internet and restricted phone lines on Saturday. "We cannot accept the coup," said a 22-year-old who came with 10 friends, asking not to be named for fear of retribution. "This is for our future. We have to come out." Photo: AFP A woman in her early thirties who brought her family said they had not joined protests a day earlier but refused to be afraid. "We have to join the people, we want democracy," she said. By mid-morning about 100 people took to the streets on motorbikes in the coastal town of Mawlamyine in the southeast and students and doctors were gathering in the city of Mandalay in central Myanmar. Another crowd of hundreds spent the night outside a police station in the town of Payathonzu in Karen state in the southeast and continued to stand outside in the morning, singing pro-democracy songs. Tens of thousands protested across the country on Saturday in an upswelling of anger towards the military that arrested Suu Kyi and her cabinet in the early hours of last Monday and formed a new military government. With the internet cut off and official information scarce, rumours swirled about the fate of Suu Kyi and her cabinet. A story that she had been released, which drew huge crowds onto the streets to celebrate overnight on Saturday, was quickly quashed by her lawyer. More than 160 people have been arrested since the military seized power in the early hours of Monday, said Thomas Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar. "The generals are now attempting to paralyse the citizen movement of resistance - and keep the outside world in the dark - by cutting virtually all internet access," Andrews said in a statement today. "We must all stand with the people of Myanmar in their hour of danger and need. They deserve nothing less." -Reuters
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Firefighters in Western Australia get upper hand on suspicious bushfires

Firefighters in Western Australia have got control of six fires in the state's southwest that authorities said today were most likely deliberately lit, while rain helped to contain a week-long blaze that destroyed 86 homes in the hills of Perth. A firefighter walks past a statue of a kangaroo in the yard of a razed house after bushfires in Gidgegannup, some 40km north-east of Perth on Thursday. Photo: AFP The state's Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) said all of the suspicious blazes, now under investigation, started around the same time last night and were close to each other. A heavy downpour over the weekend helped to contain those blazes and allowed firefighters to bring further under control a devastating fire that has burnt through 11,000 hectares of land. Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes last week in Perth, complicating a five-day lockdown imposed on Monday on the state capital after Western Australia detected its first coronavirus infection in 10 months. Hundreds of firefighters have been battling the blazes since Monday. Photo: DFES Western Australia / Incident Photographer Evan Collis The weekend rain is the first in a month in some areas that have been burning, media reported, allowing people to seek permits to return to their homes and see the extent of the damage. The rain, which has caused heavy flooding in parts of the state, is expected to continue today, the Bureau of Meteorology said. While bushfires are common in Australia's summer, last week's fires brought memories of the blazes that razed through the east, south, and west last year, scorching more than 12.6 million hectares - nearly the size of Greece. More than 3000 homes were lost, and 33 people died. Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan said the past week of fires, extreme weather, and the coronavirus lockdown, was a "dramatic" one. "One we will remember," McGowan said. "The heartening thing is that the people have overwhelmingly done the right thing." There were no new local coronavirus cases reported today in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, where there had been infections in past weeks. - Reuters
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Cuba opens up its economy to private businesses

Cuba has announced it will allow private businesses to operate in most industries, in what is a major reform to its state-controlled economy. A street scene in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Unsplash / Alexander Kunze Labour Minister Marta Elena Feito said the list of authorised industries had expanded from 127 to more than 2000. Only a minority of industries would be reserved for the state, she said. The communist country's economy has been hit hard by the pandemic and US sanctions introduced by the Trump administration. Last year its economy shrank by 11 percent - its worst decline in almost three decades - and Cubans have been facing shortages of basic goods. Feito said just 124 industries would be exempt from private involvement. She did not mention which ones, but the AFP suggest it could be related to industries considered strategic to the state such as media, health and defence. "That private work continues to develop, is the objective of this reform," Feito said, stressing that this "will help free the productive forces" of the private sector. Apart from hundreds of thousands of small farms, Cuba's non-state sector is composed mainly of small private businesses run by artisans, taxi drivers and tradesmen. Almost 40 percent of private businesses operate in the island's tourist industry, which has been hard hit by the pandemic and sanctions. Some 60 years of hostility between the US and Cuba were eased in 2015 when then US President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro agreed to normalise relations, allowing US citizens to visit the island and empowering local businesses. But Obama's efforts were rolled back by his successor, President Donald Trump, with the support of hawkish Cuban-Americans who saw Obama's historic opening as an appeasement of Castro's communist regime. New US President Joe Biden - who was Barack Obama's vice-president - has previously signalled that he wants to improve US-Cuban relations but observers say it is not clear how high it might be on his priority list. - BBC
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Drug companies should share vaccine-making capacity – WHO

The World Health Organisation director-general is calling on pharmaceutical companies to share manufacturing facilities to help ramp up the production of Covid-19 vaccines. The number of vaccinations worldwide has overtaken the number of reported coronavirus infections, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says. Photo: AFP Speaking at an online news briefing from Geneva, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said almost 130 countries, with a combined population of 2.5 billion people, were yet to administer a single dose of vaccine. Dr Tedros repeated his plea for rich nations to share doses with poorer countries once they had vaccinated health workers and older people. "But we also need a massive scale-up in production," he said. "Last week, Sanofi announced it would make its manufacturing infrastructure available to support production of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. "We call on other companies to follow this example." French drug maker Sanofi said it would will fill and pack millions of doses of Pfizer's vaccine from July, aiming to help supply more than 100 million doses this year from its German plant to meet massive demand. Dr Tedros applauded manufacturers who had pledged to sell their vaccines at cost. But he called on companies to do more. "Having received substantial public funding, we encourage all manufacturers to share their data and technology to ensure global, equitable access to vaccines and we call on companies to share their dossiers with WHO faster and more fully than they have been doing so we can review them for emergency use listing," he said. Dr Tedros said the number of vaccinations worldwide had overtaken the number of reported coronavirus infections. But he called for a more equitable distribution of those immunisations. "In one sense, that is good news and a remarkable achievement in such a short timeframe," he said of the global vaccination rate. "But, more than three-quarters of those vaccinations are in just 10 countries that account for almost 60 percent of global GDP. "Almost 130 countries with 2.5 billion people are yet to administer a single dose. "Some countries have already vaccinated large proportions of their population who are at lower risk of severe disease or death." Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: "Almost 130 countries with 2.5 billion people are yet to administer a single dose." Photo: AFP Tribute to NHS fundraiser Sir Tom Dr Tedros also paid tribute to Captain Sir Tom Moore, the British war veteran who raised more than £30m ($NZ57.2m) for the UK's National Health Service. He died in Bedford Hospital last week after suffering pneumonia and Covid-19. "Captain Sir Tom was a reminder of the value we should put on older people and everything they bring to our world," Dr Tedros said. Captain Sir Tom Moore, the British war veteran who raised more than £30 million for the NHS. Photo: AFP "However, there is a disturbing narrative in some countries that it is OK if older people die. It is not OK. No-one is dispensable. "Every life is precious, regardless of age, gender, income, legal status, ethnicity or anything else. "And that is why it is so important that older people everywhere are prioritised for vaccination." - Reuters
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