Anguish as Sri Lanka forces Muslims to cremate COVID-19 victims

Rights group and activists accuse gov’t of forcing cremation of Muslim COVID-19 victims in disregard to WHO guidelines.

The forced cremation of two COVID-19 infected Muslims in Sri Lanka has sent shock waves among the minority community, which accused the authorities of violating Islamic burial rites.

Bishrul Hafi Mohammed Joonus, a 73year old  man from the capital Colombo who died of COVID-19, was the second Muslim to have been cremated in the Indian Ocean island nation, which has registered 151 cases so far.

Fayaz said they could not perform congregational funeral prayers, called the Janazah, for his father due to fear of infections.

“My father was taken in a vehicle under the supervision of the police force and was cremated. We did some prayers outside the morgue, but it was not a Janazah that us Muslim typically do,” Fayaz told Al Jazeera.

“The government needs to make arrangements for us Muslims to be able to bury our loved ones in accordance with our Islamic burial rites.”

“If there is an option of burial, our government should accommodate. Cremation is not the only option, we want to bury our loved ones as per the Islamic way,” he told Al Jazeera.

Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health on Tuesday issued COVID-19 guidelines saying the standard procedure of disposing bodies should be cremation. It reversed an earlier guideline that allowed traditional Muslim burial.

It also said the body should not be washed and placed in a sealed bag and a coffin, as against the Islamic practice of washing the body.

Amnesty calls on authorities to stop forced cremation

Muslim leaders and activists have pointed out that the World Health Organization (WHO) allows both burial or cremation for people dying due to the pandemic.

Prominent lawyer Ali Sabry said in a Facebook post that he was disappointed with authorities’ decision to cremate bodies of Muslims, as it was in disregard to the WHO guidelines, which say that a body can be either buried or cremated.

 Out of the four people who died due to COVID-19, two were Muslims. The cremation of Muslims has caused anguish in the community.

“The Muslim community sees this as a racist agenda of extremist Buddhist forces that seem to hold the government to ransom,” Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told Al Jazeera.

“The guidelines issued by the WHO is practised by Britain, most of the European countries, Singapore, Hong Kong and all the Muslim nations [except for Sri Lanka],” he told Al Jazeera.

Amnesty International has also called on authorities to “respect the right of religious minorities to carry out the final rites” according to their own traditions.

“At this difficult time, the authorities should be bringing communities together and not deepening divisions between them,” Biraj Patnaik, South Asia director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

“Grieving relatives of people who have died because of COVID-19 should be able to bid farewell to their loved ones in the way that they wish, especially where this is permissible under international guidelines.”

Muslims account for 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population. But their relationship with the majority Sinhala Buddhists deteriorated in the years after the end of civil war in 2009 during which hardline Buddhist groups were blamed for several attacks against Muslims’ businesses and places of worship.

Following the deadly attacks in April 2019 that killed more than 250 people, Muslims have faced increased hostility from the Sinhala majority.

A little-known Muslim organisation was blamed for the island nation’s worst attack since the civil war fought between the government forces and the Tamil separatist fighters.

“This is just to hurt the feelings of the minority,” Azath Salley, leader of the National Unity Alliance political party and the former governor of Western province, told Al Jazeera.

‘Anti-Islamic sentiments’

The method of the disposal of the body has become a big talking point in the country, with a section of the media accused of running “anti-Muslim hysteria” and pointing fingers at Muslims for the spread of the virus.

Nalaka Gunawadenne, a media analyst said amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it is very disturbing and disheartening to see anti-Islamic sentiments and anti-Muslim hate speech “raise their ugly head again in Sri Lanka”.

“This is national and global emergency shared by all humans, and not a time highlighting our cultural divisions. The coronavirus does not care about our ethnic or religious differences. We need to fear the virus – not each other – and unite in containing and battling the disease.” he told Al Jazeera.

Now #SriLanka’s Hon. Politicians are trying to protect their baby rather than trying to protect the country or nations from #COVIDー19.

This is very clear, this is only the option to sustain their career if they protect #racism baby.

Shame! pic.twitter.com/3N3aG6u3qt

Government officials from the health services department did not respond to repeated calls from Al Jazeera for comment.

Meanwhile, Fayaz, who is in a makeshift quarantine centers in Punani in the eastern province, said he did not inform his mother of his father’s death and cremation.

“She has heart disease and we don’t want to risk it. She won’t be able to bear it.”

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US coronavirus deaths near 6,000, cases top 240,000: Live updates

UN General Assembly approves resolution recognising ‘unprecedented effects’ of virus as cases surpass one million.

The number of coronavirus infections continue to rise worldwide, with more than 1,013,000 people diagnosed, as the death toll surpassed 53,000, including almost 6,000 in the United States, according to the data from Johns Hopkins University early on Friday.

The coronavirus pandemic death toll in Spain passed 10,000 on Thursday, as the country reported its highest single-day number of deaths since the outbreak began with the total rising by more than 1,000 to 10,348 among 112,065 infections.

More:

  • Coronavirus: Which countries have confirmed cases?

  • Coronavirus: Why are deaths rising so quickly in Spain?

  • Why Turkey is facing a steep curve of new coronavirus cases

In response, the UN General Assembly has unanimously approved a resolution recognising “the unprecedented effects” of the coronavirus pandemic and calling for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat” the deady disease.

More than 210,000 people have recovered from the disease, including 9,000 in the US.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to rapidly expand domestic manufacturing of N95 protective masks, as health officials debate new guidelines amid concerns that the disease is being spread by infected people who are showing no symptoms.

Here are the latest updates:

Friday, April 3

03:17 GMT – South Korea coronavirus cases hit 10,000

South Korea has reported 86 new cases of the coronavirus, bringing its caseload above 10,000, the Associated Press reported.

South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday said about half of the new cases came from the densely populous Seoul metropolitan area, where infections linked to international arrivals have been rising.

Another 22 infections were detected at airports where workers have been isolating and testing passengers arriving with fever or respiratory symptoms.

03:10 GMT – Singapore reports fifth person has died from coronavirus

Singapore reported another coronavirus-related death on Friday, raising the city-state’s total fatalities from the disease to five.

The latest death was of an 86-year-old female Singapore citizen, the health ministry said in a statement.

The country has reported 1,049 coronavirus cases in total.

03:02 GMT – US state of Washington extends stay-at-home order until May 4 

Washington Gov Jay Inslee has extended orders to keep non-essential businesses closed and most of the state’s more than seven million residents home through May 4, saying that social distancing measures must remain in place an additional month in order to minimize the spread of coronavirus.

In recent days, Inslee had been signaling that his initial stay-at-home orders from March 23, which were set to expire next week, would be extended.

02:43 GMT – Scientists, doctor launch anti-coronavirus body

A group of scientists, physicians, funders, and policy makers from over 70 institutions from over 30 countries have launched an international coalition to respond to COVID-19 in resource-poor settings, The Lancet magazine reported.

The COVID-19 Clinical Research Coalition aims to accelerate desperately needed COVID-19 research in those areas where the virus could wreak havoc on already-fragile health systems and cause the greatest health impact on vulnerable populations, the report said.

The members of the coalition argue that international research collaboration and coordination is needed urgently to support African, Latin American, Eastern European, and certain Asian countries to respond effectively to the health crisis.

02:30 GMT – US Navy relieves aircraft carrier commander over coronavirus action

The US Navy has relieved the commander of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote a scathing letter that leaked to the public asking for stronger measures to control a coronavirus outbreak onboard his warship.

The removal of Captain Brett Crozier from command of the 5,000-person vessel, which was first reported by Reuters, was announced by acting US Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who said the commander exercised poor judgment.

The dismissal, two days after the commander’s letter leaked, was a dramatic example of how the coronavirus is challenging US institutions, even those accustomed to dangerous and complex missions like the US military.

02:18 GMT – How to talk to your children about coronavirus

With many of the world’s people confined to their homes amid efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, families are finding themselves spending more time than ever together.

For many, this is an unexpected opportunity to connect with spouses, children and siblings. But one question has come bubbling up: How should adult caregivers be talking about coronavirus to the children in their lives?

Here are some helpful tips. 

01:22 GMT – China reports 3,322 coronavirus deaths

China’s health commission reported on Friday four new coronavirus cases bringing the total to 3,322 as of the end of Thursday.

China also reported 60 new asymptomatic cases of the virus.

01:22 GMT – Iraq has confirmed thousands more COVID-19 cases than reported, medics say

Iraq has thousands of confirmed COVID-19 cases, many times more than the 772 it is has publicly reported, according to three doctors closely involved in the testing process, a health ministry official and a senior political official.

Three doctors, who work in pharmaceutical teams helping test suspected COVID-19 cases in Baghdad, each said that confirmed cases of the disease, based on discussions among fellow medics who see daily results, were between about 3,000 and 9,000 although they each gave different estimates.

The sources all spoke to Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity. Iraqi authorities have instructed medical staff not to speak to the media.

Iraq’s health ministry, the only official outlet for information on the coronavirus, dismissed the sources’ reading of the spread of the disease.

“It’s incorrect information,” said Saif al-Badr, the health ministry spokesman, in a text message sent to Reuters without elaborating.

The ministry said in its latest daily statement on Thursday that the total recorded confirmed cases for Iraq were 772, with 54 deaths.

00:22 GMT – UN calls for unity against ‘unprecedented’ coronavirus threat 

The UN General Assembly has unanimously approved a resolution recognising “the unprecedented effects” of the coronavirus pandemic and calling for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat” the deady disease.

General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande sent a letter to all UN member nations Thursday night informing them that there were no objections to the resolution entitled “Global Solidarity to fight the coronavirus disease” sponsored by Ghana, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. He said the resolution was approved and is in effect.

The resolution also recognises the disease, also known as COVID-19, has resulted in “severe disruption to societies and economies, as well as to global travel and commerce, and the devastating impact on the livelihood of people” and that “the poorest and most vulnerable are the hardest hit.”

00:06 GMT – WHO urges Middle Eastern countries to act fast

Governments in the Middle East need to act fast to limit the spread of the coronavirus after cases rose to nearly 60,000, almost double their level a week earlier, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.

“New cases have been reported in some of the most vulnerable countries with fragile health systems,” said Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the WHO’s director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, which includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Djibouti, as well as Middle Eastern states.

“Even in countries with stronger heath systems, we have seen a worrying spike in the numbers of cases and deaths reported,” he said in a statement.

“I cannot stress enough the urgency of the situation,” said Mandhari. “The increasing numbers of cases show that transmission is rapidly occurring at local and community levels.”

“We still have a window of opportunity, but this window is slowly closing day by day,” he added.

23:20 GMT Thursday – Trump to Iran: If they want help, we will give them help 

President Donald Trump has said if Iran requests his administration for help in dealing with the coronavirus emergency that he would be willing to do it.

“They have a very big case of virus. A very, very big case. One of the worst on earth if you believe what you’re reading and I happen to believe what I see and what I know. If they want help, we will give them help.”

Earlier, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, former Vice President Joseph Biden said he supports the lifting of sanctions against Iran as the country deals with the deadly disease.

I’m Ted Regencia in Kuala Lumpur with Al Jazeera’s continuing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Read all the updates from yesterday (April 2) here. 

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Grim milestone as global confirmed COVID-19 cases top one million

The coronarivus disease has killed over 51,000 globally, with the largest number of deaths in Italy, Spain and the US.

The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world has exceeded one million, with the pandemic rampaging most quickly in the United States and the death toll continuing to rise in Italy and Spain.

As of Thursday, at least 1,002,159 confirmed cases of the rapidly spreading virus that emerged in China late last year have been recorded worldwide, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University in the US.

More:

  • Coronavirus: Which countries have confirmed cases?

  • Why Turkey is facing a steep curve of new coronavirus cases

  • US DNC postpones 2020 convention due to coronavirus pandemic

More than 51,000 people have died, and almost 209,000 have recovered. The largest number of deaths have been reported in Italy, followed by Spain and the US.

The first 100,000 cases of COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new virus, were reported in around 55 days, and the first 500,000 in 76 days. Cases doubled to one million within the past eight days.

Total cases reported by Thursday grew 10 percent from a day earlier, the first time the rate has hit double digits since the virus took hold outside China.

Dubbed SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most patients. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

The global fatality rate is now more than five percent of all reported cases, with countries including the United Kingdom, the US and Spain reporting a spike in fatalities over recent days.

Around 22 percent of total cases have been reported by the US, while Italy and Spain have each reported 11 percent of global cases.

China has reported eight percent of total cases globally as the epicentre of the pandemic moved to Europe and the US.

Europe together accounts for more than half of cases and more than 70 percent of deaths linked to the virus, as countries in southern Europe with higher older-age demographics have been hit particularly hard.

People living in informal settlements and refugee camps around the world are especially vulnerable to the pandemic.

In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera last week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the UN is pleading for $2bn in international humanitarian aid to tackle the coronavirus pandemic in poorer countries.

Guterres said the COVID-19 disease was threatening the whole of humanity and “the only war necessary today is the war against the coronavirus”.

On March 11, the World Health Organization had declared the outbreak of the new coronavirus a pandemic and called on countries to “take urgent and aggressive action”.


Inside Story

Who is leading the global fight against coronavirus?

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Release of Kashmiri prisoners urged amid virus outbreak

Human rights groups say detentions without charge or trial violate both Indian and international law, and with many courts now closed, the public health emergency should not be used to bypass accountability.

As India observes a nationwide lockdown, one area has already been under heavy restrictions.

There has been a curfew and communications blackout in Indian-administered Kashmir since the government revoked the region’s autonomy last year.

Thousands of people have been arrested and held without charge or trial, and human rights groups say they must be released amid the current coronavirus pandemic.

Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam reports from New Delhi, India.

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Attacked & underpaid: Medics in Philippines battle stigma, virus

Philippine medical workers face derisory pay, outright hostility in a health system undermined by decades of neglect.

Manila, Philippines – Joaquin Sapul, Jr started getting the frantic calls a few hours after the health department announced the first coronavirus case in Iloilo City in the central Philippines on March 21.

In response, The Medical City-Iloilo, the hospital where Sapul works and where the unnamed patient was confined, issued a statement to assure the public that stringent measures were in place to ensure the safety of the patient and their staff.

More:

  • ‘Shoot them dead’: Duterte warns against violating coronavirus lockdown

  • Philippines ‘ill-prepared’ as it grapples with coronavirus threat

  • Coronavirus lockdown strikes fear among Manila’s poor

“At least six nurses were messaging and calling me, crying. Their landlords were evicting them. Some were being prevented from leaving their homes by their village captains,” said Sapul, a nurse and chief patient services officer at the hospital.

It was evening by the time Sapul had finished arranging temporary sleeping arrangements for the displaced workers. He was preparing to go home when he read a message from his own landlord, asking him to look for another place to live.

Sapul worked it out with his landlord after a lengthy explanation about rigid infection-control protocols and his own safety practices, but “it still hurt,” he said.

“We healthcare workers have always enjoyed the trust of our community. I underestimated how hysteria could make them turn on us so quickly,” said Sapul.

In the days that followed, hospital staff, including cleaners were told to vacate their homes, denied public transport or refused service in nearby eateries. One street stall hung up a sign saying that they would not serve hospital workers.

As of April 1, the Philippines had 2,311 cases of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, the second-highest number in Southeast Asia. There have been 96 deaths, 17 of whom were doctors. On Tuesday, the health department reported 538 new cases, the highest in a single day.

Amid the rising number of coronavirus cases and mounting fears of infection, healthcare workers are caught in the middle, facing harassment and discrimination.

‘Violence cannot be tolerated’

Last Friday, two men on a motorcycle threw chlorine on a nurse as he made his way home through Cebu, in the central Philippines.

The next day, a healthcare worker in Sultan Kudarat in the island of Mindanao reported being attacked by a group of five men who threw bleach on his face as he was crossing the street on his way to the hospital where he worked.

“These acts of violence cannot be tolerated,” the health department said, condemning the incidents in a statement.

National police chief Archie Gamboa issued a directive to the police to protect health workers from attacks.

According to the World Health Organization, healthcare workers may become targets of violence during disaster and conflict situations. As many as 38 percent of healthcare workers are likely to experience violence at one point in their professional life, with nurses and those involved in direct patient care most at risk.

“Healthcare workers are exhausted and frustrated by the lack of support from the government in providing them even basic protective gear. If we do not put a stop to this harassment, nurses may resign,” said Reigner Antiquera, president of Alliance of Young Nurse Leaders and Advocates.

Photos of nurses and hospital staff resorting to using rubbish bags and motorcycle helmets as protective gear went viral on social media, prompting an outpouring of donations of cash and protective gear from citizens and private corporations.

Long-standing neglect

On March 17, President Rodrigo Duterte implemented a one-month period of enhanced community quarantine on the main island of Luzon to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Public transport was suspended, commercial establishments closed and checkpoints manned by police and military set up along city borders to ensure compliance.

Other provinces have since instituted their own version of the community quarantine, effectively putting the whole of the Philippines – a nation of about 104 million people – on lockdown.

The coronavirus is stretching an already burdened and crumbling healthcare system and has exposed the under-staffing and dire working conditions in the health sector, particularly for nurses.

A study on the country’s health system shows the Philippines has about 187,540 healthcare workers, almost half of them nurses. Nurse-to-patient ratios are at a low of 12.6 nurses per 10,000 people. In rural areas, the number goes down to 4.2 nurses.

The average salary for a nurse in a government hospital is about $250 to $350 per month. In private hospitals, it ranges from $200 to $250 per month. In October last year, the Supreme Court set a minimum monthly salary for nurses in public hospitals of $600 per month but the decision has still to be implemented.

“I can tell you that no nurse is making that amount,” said Robert Mendoza president of the union group Alliance of Health Workers.

Valued more abroad

The health department made an urgent call for healthcare volunteers to assist in the coronavirus response, offering 500 Philippine pesos ($10) a day for a one-month commitment.

The health department said it would review its compensation package after the plea triggered a social media backlash as netizens and health workers alike expressed widespread indignation.

Despite the criticism, almost 700 healthcare workers had signed up as volunteers as of Sunday, the department said.

While undervalued at home, Filipino nurses are in demand in other countries looking for qualified people to staff hospitals and care facilities for the elderly.

Government data shows that an average of 19,000 nurses a year left the Philippines to work abroad between 2012 to 2016.

The Philippine Labour Department’s website acknowledges that the overseas pay scale “is way above local rates” and cites the average salary in the countries where most of the nurses choose to go. In the US, nurses can make an average of $3,800 per month.

‘The nurses are not ours’

The recent announcement of at least 75 nurses going to Germany on a “special recruitment flight” to assist in the country’s coronavirus response was met with mixed feelings – of anger that they were leaving and a sad acknowledgement that the conditions in the Philippines made their departure inevitable.

But Silvestre Bello, the labour secretary, said the deployment was now on hold until further notice. “Our nurses are needed more at home.”

That may be so but until their working conditions are improved, they will continue to go abroad, critics say.

On social media, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr put it bluntly.

“We do not SEND our nurses abroad. Our nurses are not ours. We especially we f*****g public servants do not deserve to call them ours. We never helped them. They have to flee our F*****G country for lands that value them.”

“You cannot blame nurses for wanting to leave a country that does not value our profession,” said Alvin Dakis, a nursing practitioner and consultant.

“Most nurses come from low- to middle-income families. Their families influence them to study nursing as a stepping stone to go abroad. It’s an investment in a future breadwinner,” Dakis explained.

Union president Mendoza said given a choice most nurses would want to stay, especially during a crisis like the coronavirus.

“We know our country needs us. All we are asking for us is a living wage. We need to give our nurses a reason to stay.”

Unsung heroes

A nurse at a government hospital in Manila was saddened when she heard the news about the harassment of healthcare workers. In her 21 years of being a nurse, she said she had never seen anything like that until the coronavirus crisis happened.

During the early onset of the pandemic, she had already noticed passengers looking at her from head to toe and then moving away from her when she boarded the bus for her two-hour journey home.

The years of long hours and low pay were a wound that she had long nursed in restrained silence, but the virus outbreak and the government’s handling of the crisis added to her pain. 

She has a long list of grievances – from the lack of protective gear to the reluctance of the health ministry to have healthcare workers tested despite legislators apparently being able to use their influence to get tested quickly, and now the harassment.

“We are at the front lines, taking care of patients and it is us who they want to hurt and shame? What if we decided to mount a mass boycott, what would they do without us?” the nurse said, asking that she not be named.

This week, the health ministry announced that it had revised its policy and would now test medical workers showing symptoms of the disease.

Addressing the nation on Monday, Duterte called health workers heroes who were “lucky to die for their country”.

The nurse found the statement insensitive and offensive.

“Oh, so now, we’re heroes because we might die. We were heroes long before COVID19.”

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Saudi tells Muslims to wait on Hajj plans amid coronavirus crisis

Minister asks Muslims to defer preparations for the annual pilgrimage scheduled in late July due to the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia has asked Muslims to wait until there is more clarity about the coronavirus pandemic before planning to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage, the Minister for Hajj and Umrah said on state TV on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia suspended the year-round Umrah pilgrimage over fears of the new coronavirus spreading to Islam’s holiest cities, an unprecedented move that raised uncertainty over the annual Hajj.

More:

  • Saudi Arabia bans prayers at mosques over coronavirus fears

  • Saudi king offers to pay for coronavirus patients’ treatment

  • Coronavirus: Which countries have confirmed cases?

Some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world usually flock to Mecca and Medina cities for the week-long ritual scheduled to begin in late July. The pilgrimage is also a significant source of income for the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is fully ready to serve pilgrims and Umrah seekers,” Minister Mohammed Saleh Benten told the state-run Al-Ekhbariya television.

“But under the current circumstances, as we are talking about the global pandemic… the kingdom is keen to protect the health of Muslims and citizens and so we have asked our brother Muslims in all countries to wait before doing [Hajj] contracts until the situation is clear.”

Besides suspending Umrah pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia has also halted all international passenger flights indefinitely and last week blocked entry and exit to several cities, including Mecca and Medina.

Pilgrimage is big business for Saudi Arabia and the backbone of plans to expand visitor numbers under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious economic reform agenda.

Cancelling the Hajj would be unprecedented in modern times, but curbing attendance from high-risk areas has happened before, including in recent years during the Ebola outbreak.

To date, the kingdom has reported just over 1,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and 10 deaths. Globally, more than 825,000 people have been infected with over 40,000 deaths recorded.

Previous epidemics

Disease outbreaks have regularly been a concern surrounding the Hajj, required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life, especially as pilgrims come from all over the world.

The earliest recorded outbreak came in 632 as pilgrims fought off malaria. A cholera outbreak in 1821 killed an estimated 20,000 pilgrims. Another cholera outbreak in 1865 killed 15,000 pilgrims and then spread worldwide.

More recently, Saudi Arabia faced danger from a related coronavirus that caused Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). A faltering response allowed the virus to kill several hundred people and spread across the region.

The kingdom increased its public health measures in 2012 and 2013, though no outbreak occurred.


NewsFeed

Coronavirus changes how Muslims worship

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As domestic abuse rises in lockdown, France to fund hotel rooms

After the restrictions came into force, cases of violence against women have increased, including two murders.

France has said it would pay for hotel rooms for victims of domestic violence and open pop-up counselling centres after figures showed the number of abuse cases had soared during the first week of a lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Gender Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa said about 20 centres would open in shops around the country so women could drop in for help while getting groceries.

More:

  • Australia urged to take action amid rising violence against women
  • ‘I felt I was going to die’: Battling domestic violence in Iraq
  • Thousands march in France to condemn domestic violence

The government on Monday also announced an extra one million euros ($1.1m) in funding for anti-domestic abuse organisations to help them respond to increased demand for services.

The initiatives were launched after the government said late last week that reports of domestic abuse to police had jumped 36 percent in Paris and 32 percent elsewhere in France after the restrictions came into force. The cases included two murders.

France began a nationwide lockdown on March 17 which will remain until at least April 15. No one is allowed to leave their home except to buy food or medication, visit a doctor, exercise, or walk a pet.

Activists have said the quarantine measures will lead to a surge in domestic violence and make it harder for victims to seek help.

Schiappa, who previously warned that the lockdown would create a “breeding ground for violence”, said France would pay for up to 20,000 hotel nights so victims can escape abusive partners.

The pop-up centres will initially open across Paris and in Lille in northern France.

“My biggest concern is to multiply the points of contact with women. As it’s difficult for women to get out, we want to make sure that support systems can go to women,” Schiappa told French newspaper Le Parisien.

The first pop-up centres will open in malls owned by commercial real estate company Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW).

“Hypermarkets are among the few stores still open today. We thought it would be good if victims of domestic violence, or people who know a victim, could meet associations near these places,” URW spokesman Pierre Hausswalt told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

France introduced a separate initiative last week to encourage women to report domestic abuse in pharmacies.

The move follows a similar one in Spain where women can go to their pharmacy and request a “Mask 19” – a code word that will alert the pharmacist to contact the authorities.

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Amid coronavirus fears, Gaza couples downsize, delay weddings

With wedding halls closed, many couples in Gaza Strip push back marriage dates or hold smaller ceremonies at home.

Gaza City, Gaza – When the Hamas authorities reported the first two cases of coronavirus in the besieged Gaza Strip earlier this month, it was accompanied by an announcement that a slew of businesses would be shuttered indefinitely, including restaurants, cafes and wedding halls.

The measures were introduced in an attempt to slow the potential spread of the highly contagious virus, which has overwhelmed health systems across the world. The authorities have since reported a further seven infections, bringing the total number of cases in Gaza to nine.

More:

  • ‘Catastrophe’: Fears over outbreak of coronavirus in Gaza

  • Coronavirus: Doctor warns of ‘incoming disaster’ in Gaza

  • Why ‘physical distancing’ is better than ‘social distancing’

Experts say that an outbreak could be catastrophic for Gaza, where two million Palestinians live in a densely populated coastal strip, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade for more than 12 years and suffers from shortages of medical supplies, as well as basic goods and electricity.

But the timing of the announcement posed an immediate dilemma for Nabil al-Hajeen, coming just two days before he was due to be married to Fatma.

Downsize or delay?

“It was a shock for me and my bride,” Nabil told Al Jazeera. “I had spent five months planning for my wedding, and it was difficult to either cancel or delay it”.

With the wedding halls closed, the pair considered postponing. However, they eventually decided to get married on the planned date in Nabil’s family home in Gaza City, although it meant drastically reducing the number of guests at the ceremony from some 400 to around 25 female family members of the bride and groom.

“We didn’t know when this ban would end, so we decided to have the party at home,” Fatma said.

In recent years, weddings in Gaza have typically seen dozens or hundreds of relatives, neighbours and friends of the bride and groom attend the ceremonies at the wedding halls, which are decked out in colourful, elaborate decorations and bright lights.

But for Nabil and Fatma’s home wedding, Nabil’s sisters prepared the traditional Palestinian Somaqia dish for the party and decorated the lounge with plastic flowers and balloons, while they also set up disco lights to recreate the atmosphere of the typical wedding hall.

The wedding Kosha, in which the bride and groom sit during the ceremony, stood in the middle of the lounge and was also adorned with balloons.

“It looks like the marriage parties during the Intifada times of the 1980s and 1990s, when grooms were trying to get married in small parties”, Nabil’s sister, Huda said.

Amid fears of infection or potentially spreading the virus, some relatives decided not to attend, while those who did took some precautionary measures.

“Although it was only a small number of guests, we were scared, so there were no kisses and hugs to congratulate us as normal”, said Huda.

Weddings in Gaza are typically paid for by the groom and the costs can be prohibitive: lunch for the guests, renting the wedding hall, transportation and a cake all need to be paid for.

In a territory where the unemployment rate reached 47 percent last year, according to the World Bank, while youth unemployment is estimated to be even higher, the price of a typical wedding is not affordable for many young men.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 54 percent of the population in Gaza lives in poverty, while 36 percent are in extreme poverty, as derived by a formula based on consumption levels.

Fatma said that while she was upset when she realised she would not be able to have a large ceremony at a wedding hall, she said she was also relieved that married life would not begin with a mountain of debt.

“I cried a lot because I couldn’t do my party in the wedding hall, but I’m now very happy for the very cheerful party that we had, which has also reduced the cost on my husband so we will live with less debt”.

Sterilising studios

The closure of the wedding halls in Gaza has also not prevented newlyweds from arriving at Asma Awni Nassar’s photography studio in western Gaza city, where brides and grooms have kept appointments and continued to arrive in order to have their wedding portraits taken.

“I have received more grooms and brides for photo sessions in my studio to document their special day. They didn’t cancel the wedding party and most of them celebrated with family members in their homes”, said studio manager Asma Awni Nassar.

Even before the first cases were reported in Gaza, some grooms had decided to bring forward the date of their weddings amid fears of a potential outbreak in the territory, but after the wedding halls were closed, a number of couples decided to hold the ceremony at home.

Asma has prohibited her film crew from visiting family homes to record videos of the wedding parties, as requested by grooms, limiting work to photo sessions in the studio only, where her team wear masks, gloves and sterilise the equipment and the location.

She noted that she had seen a roughly 50 percent increase in the number of couples coming to her studio daily since the wedding halls were closed.

A police spokesman told Al Jazeera that they had received hundreds of calls from grooms and wedding hall owners to check under what circumstances a wedding could be held.

“We do periodic tours of the halls and restaurants to ensure implementation of the decision, and we also send patrols to homes to prevent large gatherings and emphasize the need for a small number in these parties,” Colonel Ayman al-Batniji, told Al Jazeera.

The recent limits on the festivities meant that Mohamed Abu Ali decided to hold his wedding ceremony in the family home in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, but the restrictions left him feeling slightly on edge.

“The government banned the male party even, which is supposed to be held a day before the wedding,” he told Al Jazeera. “Also the house was very small for the wedding party, but there was no other choice”, he said.

“My friends celebrated with me in the street before going to the bride’s house to bring her to the party in our home, but neighbours and relatives were afraid to join”, he added.

“We were afraid that the police will come to our house to ban wedding in home, even”, he said.

‘Better to postpone’

While weddings have continued apace in private homes, some families in Gaza have encouraged couples to wait and hold a traditional ceremony when the wedding halls are reopened.

After a year-and-a-half of preparation, Malak Nasser and her future groom Ismael, were set to get married on March 27 at one of the most storied wedding halls in Gaza City. 

Earlier this month, fearing that weddings halls may soon be closed in Gaza, Malak tried to push forward the date of the wedding but the hall, and many others, were fully booked.

Running out of options, Malak and Ismael sought to convince their families to hold a small wedding party at home, but their families were not supportive of the idea.

Malak’s mother, Sanaa, 55, insisted that the wedding be delayed.

 “I agreed to an earlier ceremony, but there were no available halls,” she told Al Jazeera. “I refused to have a small party at home because Malak is the first bride and my first joy of my four children, and if we are not sharing our happiness with relatives and friends then this can’t be called a wedding”.

“We have been preparing for this special family event for a year. We have designed special dresses and clothes for this celebration and spent a lot of money to celebrate, so it’s better to delay and to celebrate the big day after the end of coronavirus emergency situation,” she added.

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Senegal: 10-minute coronavirus test may be on its way – for $1

Until a vaccine is ready, widespread testing is one of the key strategies employed to ‘flatten the curve’ of pandemic.

Dakar, Senegal – Researchers this week began validation trials on a COVID-19 diagnostic test that can be done at home and produce results in as little as 10 minutes – all for $1.

The plan is to dually manufacture the tests in Senegal and the United Kingdom and if the validation testing meets regulatory standards, they could be distributed across Africa as early as June.

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“Our focus is to provide tests to the African continent,” Amadou Sall, director of the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, told Al Jazeera.

Sall and his team of researchers in the Senegalese capital, which have previously worked on vaccines for yellow fever and dengue, developed the prototype for the diagnostic test in partnership with Mologic, a British biotech company founded by the inventor of the Clearblue pregnancy test.

Once ready, the tests will be produced in the UK and at a new Dakar-based facility managed by DiaTropix, a subsidiary of the Pasteur Institute that focuses on infectious disease testing.

According to Sall, the Dakar site will have an initial capacity to produce up to four million tests annually. The developers are also in early-stage talks for local manufacturing sites to be set up in other parts of the continent.

“When COVID-19 hit, we knew from the beginning that Africa would be disproportionally affected,” Joe Fitchett, the medical director of Mologic told Al Jazeera. “With a test like this, you can detect [the virus] very quickly on any part of the continent and then avoid transmission.”

To detect as many people as possible, Fitchett says the test will be sold at cost-price – which is approximately $1 – thanks to grant support from the UK government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The point is to keep it to the bottom,” Fitchett said, adding they would work with suppliers to keep the price as low as possible.

Game-changer?

COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, has no vaccine or known treatment regiment. 

Until a vaccine is ready, widespread testing is seen as one of the most important strategies used to “flatten the curve” – slowing the spread of the contagion in an attempt to prevent already stretched healthcare systems from being overrun.

Earlier this month, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged countries to build up their testing capacity to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, calling them to “test, test, test”.

“The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate,” he told reporters in Geneva. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.”

With tests at advanced, centralised laboratories still costly and taking hours to complete, scores of companies worldwide are working to develop rapid, easy-to-use kits and then distribute them widely – but questions remain over their accuracy.

Price and availability, however, are not the only barriers to widespread use. By developing a test that can be done at home without any need for electricity, the researchers in Senegal say it can be of particular use in rural communities where power is limited and laboratories are near inaccessible.

Their test can be done in two different ways – using saliva or blood. Those with an active infection would use a saliva swab to detect the new coronavirus, while those with a previously undetected case would use an at-home finger prick test to check for coronavirus antibodies.

There are currently more than 2,800 confirmed cases in 45 of the continent’s 54 countries. While that is still significantly lower than the current epicentre in Europe, some analysts fear Africa is on course to follow a similar trajectory.

Such a scenario would spell disaster in a continent that accounts for 1 percent of global health expenditure but carries 23 percent of the disease burden. Weaker health systems, poor sanitation and water shortages are just some of the additional challenges that would make it harder to fight the virus.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has significantly ramped up its prevention strategy in recent weeks, training labs in 43 countries, a swift increase from only two countries that were able to test for the disease in February. The Africa CDC has also been providing 1,000 test kits to any country with cases. Billionaire Jack Ma donated an additional 1.1 million test kits. But that still is only a drop in the bucket compared with what will be needed.

“In times like these, it’s difficult for African governments to purchase tests which are also cheaper and cost effective,” Prashant Yadav, a global supply chain analyst at the Center for Global Health, told Al Jazeera.

That is why he says the continent having a test of its own could be a game-changer. “You’re giving people on the continent access to a new test which very other few groups have had access to,” Yadav said.

Independent assessment critical

Prototypes for the diagnostic test are now being assessed by two laboratories in the UK; the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and St. Georges University London. Additional tests have been sent for independent assessment at labs around the world, including Senegal, Spain, China, Malaysia and Brazil.

The development of the prototype comes less than three weeks after Mologic was awarded one million British pounds ($1.2m) from the UK government as part of a 46 million British pounds ($56m) fund for international coronavirus prevention and research. That is rapid speed for a diagnostic test, which typically takes years to develop.

Fitchett credited Mologic’s partnership with the Pasteur Institute in Dakar – which has previously worked on vaccines for yellow fever and dengue – for speeding up the process.

At the same time, he emphasied the importance of following all proper validation procedures.

“Independent assessment is so critical, which is why we’re working with top labs on every continent,” Fitchett said. “It’s not in our interest to send something out that’s no good.”

Authorities have been cracking down on a rise in fake testing kits being distributed, often sold at a high markup, as people around the world search desperately to get tested amidst shortages. 

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China in coronavirus propaganda push as US ties worsen

State media lauds China as global leader in fight against disease in bid to defuse criticism it allowed virus to spread.

Chengdu, China – On March 18, China marked a milestone in its “people’s war” against the new coronavirus. For the first time in three months, there were no new local infections in the central province of Hubei, where more than 60 million people remain confined to their homes as part of a nationwide effort to control the deadly outbreak.

The respiratory illness caused by the new pathogen, first detected in late December in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, has spread rapidly across the world, infecting more than 465,000 people and killing more than 21,000 as of March 26. 

Europe has become the new epicentre of the disease, also known as COVID-19, with the death toll in Italy and Spain higher than China and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday that the United States might be next.

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But in China, the outbreak appears to be under control, with less than 5,000 patients still undergoing treatment and new cases confirmed only among people returning from overseas.

Authorities in Beijing, who were widely criticised for initially covering up the outbreak, are now hailing their success, highlighting the unparalleled measures that helped quell the outbreak within the country and positioning China as a global leading power in the fight against the coronavirus – all while engaging in an acrimonious war of words with the US.

Prior to the slowing of local transmissions in China, the country’s highly controlled state media was almost exclusively pushing one narrative: the supremacy of the so-called “system with Chinese characteristics” in fighting the outbreak.

News anchors and online reporters praised the central leadership for utilising measures unthinkable in other countries in their bid to contain the virus, including a nationwide quarantine, the use of mass surveillance to track infections bringing the world’s second-largest economy to a near-halt.

“With utmost determination to curb the outbreak growth, China has bought enough time for the world to prepare itself for this pandemic,” Geng Shuang, the spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters on March 19, suggesting that China’s draconian measures had slowed down the transmission of the disease worldwide.

‘Global leader against coronavirus’

As the domestic pressure to contain the outbreak eased, state media shifted their focus to featuring China’s recent effort to deploy medics and resources to areas most hard-hit by the virus, particularly Italy and Iran, labelling itself as a global leader in the battle against the virus.

China has sent planeloads of medical equipment, including the much sought-after masks, ventilators, and other personal protective equipment to the worst-hit countries in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

CCTV, the official state broadcaster, continuously plays videos of Chinese medics arriving in Bergamo in northern Italy and Iran’s capital, Tehran.

CGTN, the international wing of CCTV, and Global Times, a state-owned English language tabloid, are two of the many state media outlets praising China’s “generosity” and “leadership” during the pandemic.

Positive feedback from global leaders, such as Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, and officials from Venezuela and the Philippines – mostly comments applauding China’s support and leadership  – have also been prominently featured in the state media coverage.

Meanwhile, the social media accounts of government-backed media institutions are at the front line of the propaganda push, including on Twitter and Facebook, which are both banned in China.

‘Shifting domestic anger’

By doing so, Beijing is trying to shift domestic and international attention away from the pent-up anger in the country towards the central government for an initial cover-up of the outbreak that many say paved the way for the rapid spread of the virus.

“By pushing for this narrative, China is avoiding the blame and successfully dodging culpability for its role in spreading the coronavirus,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

“In suppressing information about the virus and allowing it to spread unchecked in the crucial early days and weeks, the regime imperilled the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks.”

Some analysts say what triggered the propaganda machine in China is the deterioration in relations between Beijing and Washington, which are also locked in a bitter trade dispute.

Last week, tensions escalated after China expelled more than a dozen American journalists working for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post newspapers, in a tactic seen as retaliation for the US designating China’s state media as diplomatic missions.

‘Blame game’

Now officials in the two countries are blaming each other for the current pandemic.

Since early March, Chinese officials and state media have been pushing the idea that the new coronavirus could have originated somewhere else – notably the US.

Lijian Zhao, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, has been particularly vocal in questioning the US’s role in the viral outbreak.

On March 12, Zhao posted a tweet saying: “It might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan”. And despite widespread criticism over the unsubstantiated claim, Zhao continues to blame Washington.

Articles with titles along the lines of The virus didn’t come from China: the US brought the virus to China as a bioweapon are widely shared across China’s tightly-controlled internet.

Some of these pieces filled with conspiracy theories say the US army brought the virus to China during the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October last year. State media is also calling for an “inquiry” into the US’s role in the emergence of this outbreak, publishing articles that question Washington based on an unfounded assumption that the US was behind the spread of the virus.

Aggressive foreign policy

The WHO and leading medical experts say the virus jumped from an animal host to humans, stressing that the suggestion that the pathogen did not have a natural origin are “dangerous” to the effort to contain the pandemic.

But Chinese academics are also supporting the narrative of US involvement.

Chen Xuyan, a scientist based in Beijing, appeared on CCTV on March 18 and suggested that the fast speed of research on COVID-19 vaccines in the US could be attributed to the possibility that Washington had already obtained the virus long before, by extension implying the US might have sent the virus to China.

“The Xi government is following a very aggressive foreign policy now, engaging in what Mao Zedong called a ‘tongue war’ – the propaganda war,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury who specialises in Chinese politics.

The resentment in China has been exacerbated by US President Donald Trump’s decision to use terms like “foreign virus” and more frequently, “Chinese virus”, to refer to the new pathogen.

Images posted online show that during a recent news conference, Trump crossed out the word “corona” and wrote “CHINESE” in front of the word “virus” in the script of his speech. 

The Chinese foreign ministry has called the moves “irresponsible” and “racist”.

Instead of sweeping Trump’s comments under the rug, which is usually what the state media does for comments that go against the Communist Party line, the government is using Trump’s remarks as a tactic to incite public anger towards the US leader and as an extension, the US as a whole.

“With the US facing its own credibility issues in recent years, China’s false narrative threatens to spread as quickly as the coronavirus,” wrote Matthew Karnitschnig, the chief Europe correspondent of Politico.

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