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AFP
January 26, 2021

Borders tighten around the world

World

AFP
January 26, 2021

WASHINGTON: Border restrictions were being tightened around the world on Monday in the face of an unrelenting coronavirus threat, after a weekend in which anger at social distancing rules bubbled over into fiery clashes in the Netherlands.

The United States was set to join France, Israel and Sweden in pulling up the drawbridge to certain arrivals, with special concern about new strains of the pathogen that originated in Britain and South Africa.

"It’s up to us to show that we are civic-minded," Spaniard Claudio Barraza told AFP upon arrival at Paris’s main international airport, after new rules on tests for EU arrivals came into force.

The stipulations came as Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador became the latest public figure to test positive for the disease, and New Zealand reported its first community case for more than two months.

In Washington, President Joe Biden will on Monday reimpose a ban on most non-US citizens who have been in Britain, Brazil, Ireland and much of Europe, as well as adding South Africa to the list, a senior White House official said.

Biden last week tightened mask-wearing rules and ordered quarantine for people flying into the country, which on Sunday topped 25 million cases.

Since it emerged in late 2019, Covid-19 has killed more than 2.1 million people, with almost 99 million cases registered, according to an AFP tally from official figures. On Sunday, France started demanding a negative PCR test for arrivals by sea and air from European Union neighbors.

Sweden said it would prohibit entry from neighbouring Norway for three weeks, after cases of the more infectious British strain were detected in Oslo. And in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country was "closing the skies hermetically, except for rare exceptions" to both arrivals and departures for a week.

But government action to curtail the virus’ spread still faces stiff opposition from some citizens. Protests against a coronavirus curfew in the Netherlands degenerated into clashes with police and looting in cities across the country on Sunday, a day after a Covid-19 testing centre was set on fire in the northern village of Urk.

Police used water cannon and dogs in Amsterdam, public television NOS reported, after hundreds gathered to protest the 9 pm-4:30 am curfew, set to last until February 10. At least 30 people were arrested in Eindhoven, where mayor John Jorritsma told reporters that if the country continued "down this path, then I think we are heading for civil war".

A reminder of the vigilance required to keep infections down came from New Zealand, where officials confirmed the first case of Covid-19 in the community for more than two months -- in a 56-year-old woman who recently returned from Europe.

And in Thailand, the country’s largest seafood market, forced to shut after a coronavirus outbreak late last year, got a deep clean on Monday as authorities mulled when to reopen it. The December outbreak at the Samut Sakhon Shrimp Centre -- about 40 minutes southwest of Bangkok -- sparked a second wave of almost 10,000 infections across Thailand, and workers who lost their livelihoods said the closure had been tough.

"I have to rely on food donations, whether it’s vegetables, rice, instant noodles," Myaw Nha, a 40-year-old migrant worker from Myanmar, told AFP. Scientists say the only way out of the pandemic is large-scale vaccinations, but the roll-out has stuttered in many places.

Egypt began its programme, with a doctor and a nurse getting the Chinese-made Sinopharm jab. Health Minister Hala Zayed said Cairo had inked deals for vaccine shipments from British, Chinese and Russian firms, for a total of around 100 million doses -- enough for about half of Egypt’s population.

Australia’s medical regulator formally approved the Pfizer vaccine, with the first doses expected to be administered in late February, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday. On the long-term economic impacts of the pandemic, anti-poverty group Oxfam said the emergency was aggravating inequality.

"The 1,000 richest people on the planet recouped their Covid-19 losses within just nine months, but it could take more than a decade for the world’s poorest to recover," the group said.

Meanwhile, the UK government faced growing pressure on Monday to detail a strategy to reopen schools in England, following a backlash from lawmakers about reports they could remain closed for months.

A dozen MPs from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservatives have warned publicly that pupils risk becoming the pandemic’s "forgotten victims" and demand schools fully reopen sooner.

The group -- which includes former Cabinet minister Esther McVey and Graham Brady, head of an influential committee of Conservative lawmakers -- backed a parents’ pressure group campaign on the issue.

"We need to get our children learning again - with clarity from @educationgovuk and an education routemap out of the coronavirus," Conservative MP Rob Halfon, chairman of parliament’s watchdog education committee, said on Twitter.

"The engine of government should be directed towards opening our schools. We face an epidemic of educational poverty and mental health otherwise." Johnson closed schools to all but the children of key workers this month as Covid-19 infections surged across the country, largely due to the emergence of a more contagious virus variant in recent months.

The government is also being urged to beef up its borders policy amid fears other new virus strains could be imported. Ministers have for weeks been mulling whether to require all incoming travellers to isolate in hotels, and a decision is expected within days.

Earlier this month, the UK scrapped its "travel corridors" from countries with lower caseloads following the emergence of new variants, and now asks arrivals to show negative Covid-19 tests and then self-isolate.

But following calls for even stricter curbs, senior ministers are on Tuesday due to discuss requiring arriving travellers to pay to quarantine at a designated hotel to ensure they are following the self-isolation rules. It comes as border rules were being tightened around the world.

The United States on Monday was set to reimpose a ban on most non-US citizens who have been in Britain, Brazil, Ireland and much of Europe from visiting, as well as adding South Africa to the list.

In a related development, French efforts to develop a Covid-19 vaccine suffered a fresh blow on Monday, when the renowned Pasteur Institute in Paris abandoned its best hope for an effective jab following disappointing trial results.

The Paris-based research facility, named after 19th-century pioneer Louis Pasteur, had teamed up with US pharmaceutical giant Merck in May last year to develop a jab based on an existing measles vaccine.

Pasteur and Merck jointly announced that they were stopping further development together "following an analysis of the intermediate results obtained from phase I trials, which began in August 2020."