• Shanghai residents fume as authorities fumble lockdown - Asia Times

    Shanghai residents fume as authorities fumble lockdown
    Viral videos show quarantined residents fighting for scarce supplies while criticism mounts over children separated from parents
    Shanghai’s massive Covid-19 lockdown is stirring social unrest, prompting the government to vow to improve food supplies and essential services as criticism mounts over the harsh and in spots bumbling implementation of its “zero Covid” policy. A viral video of the chaotic situation in a Nanhui district quarantine center showed people fighting for food, water and necessities amid a lack of support staff in the facility. Other videos have shown residents being kicked and beaten by healthcare workers as they are taken away from their homes to be put into quarantine. PCR tests of the city’s 26 million residents found 30,431 people were infected with Covid-19 as of Tuesday, with 98% of them asymptomatic. The local government said most of the new infections were found in quarantine centers or isolated areas. Pudong, a financial district and hub for expats on the eastern side of Shanghai, has been locked down since March 28 after thousands of Covid cases, mostly asymptomatic, were recorded per day.
    The lockdown was set to end last Friday but was extended by the government as the number of infections in the city kept rising.
    The western side of Shanghai also extended its lockdown period from Tuesday. The municipal government has not yet set a timetable for a return to post-lockdown normalcy. It said it hoped to find all those infected by using a citywide testing scheme, isolating them and thus cutting off all virus transmission chains as soon as possible.On Sunday, the financial hub reported 311 new cases and 16,766 asymptomatic infections, compared with 268 new cases and 13,086 asymptomatic infections on Saturday.
    On Monday, the Shanghai government insisted that parents would only be allowed to stay with their infected children if they also tested positive. The government was heavily criticized by the public for failing to consider the needs of infected children.
    Liu Min, the deputy director and inspector of the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Commerce, held a media briefing on Wednesday and dismissed a rumor that parcel and food deliveries would soon be suspended in Shanghai.Liu said 11,000 food couriers in the city were still delivering food for online platforms and they were required to undergo a PCR and rapid ATK test on a daily basis. (...) Prior to this, some netizens complained that food and necessities were piled up at the front gates of many locked down areas, but there was no staff delivering them and people were not allowed to leave their homes.A similar situation was seen in a new quarantine center in Nanhui district. People who were sent to the center could not receive any food and necessities, so they marched to the supply area and grabbed whatever they could get.In a widely-circulated video, some people were seen taking a pile of bedsheets, while others grabbed lunch boxes. A woman complained in a video that she could only get a box of bottled water.
    (...) While many Shanghai residents are clearly losing their patience with the extended lockdown, the China Youth Daily, an official newspaper of the Communist Youth League of China, on Wednesday published a propaganda article titled “Shanghai under epidemic: challenges and warmth coexist.”
    The article admitted that logistics within lockdown areas have had some problems, but many of these challenges had already been overcome as many volunteers offered help, it added. Meanwhile, a netizen said the way the Shanghai government had categorized 98% of Covid patients as asymptotic was misleading. He said infected people might not have pneumonia, but their condition could still be serious. He said many people had the wrong impression that the Omicron variant was only like a flu. He said based on Hong Kong’s death rate, Omicron could kill tens of thousands of people in Shanghai within weeks if not arrested.


  • Cardinal Richelieu explains Vladimir Putin
    by Spengler April 2, 2022 - Asia Times

    “Ladybird, ladybird fly away home,

    Your house is on fire and your children are gone.”

    The ghost of Cardinal Richelieu was singing the old children’s rhyme to the tune of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” in his Maurice Chevalier accent. The scratchy sound of an old 78-rpm record buzzed through my earbuds as Richelieu’s avatar danced a few steps of soft-shoe to accompany the song.

    We stood, or rather hovered, in a Metaverse reconstruction of the Cardinal’s palace on the Place de Vosges. It was creepier than the ossuary of the Carthusians many levels below the sewers of Paris where I had first conjured Richelieu’s ghost.

    Still in beta testing, the Metaverse already was infested with ghosts. The Oculus headset that I obtained from a software engineer who wore the habit of the Capuchin monks projected Richelieu’s specter in cheerful 3-D.

    “You are aware, Spengler, that the ditty comes from the Thirty Years’ War in Germany,” said the Cardinal’s ghost: “’Maikäfer flieg! Der Vater ist im Krieg. Die Mutter ist in Pommerland, und Pommerland ist abgebrannt.’ Or in your barbarous language: ‘Ladybird, fly! Father’s gone to war. Mother is in Pomerania, and Pomerania is burned to the ground.’

    “Eminence,” I stammered, “I know the rhyme, but what does that have to do with Ukraine?”

    “That, Spengler, should be obvious to a scribbler who writes so confidently of the extinction of civilizations. Dilettantes like the Americans think of eliminating a regime. Real connoisseurs of power arrange to eliminate entire provinces. I understand Putin; in a way I envy him. When Charles De Gaulle flew to Moscow to meet Stalin in 1944, he wondered what he might have achieved had he commanded a country like Russia rather than the mere nation of France.”

    Richelieu gloated: “With half the population ruled by the Austro-Spanish Habsburgs, allied to Catholic Germany, France ruined its enemies during the Thirty Years’ War. Imagine what I could have done with Russia! The Swedes whom I bribed ravaged Pomerania and left it without people. Children still sing of it. Yet three generations later Peter the Great broke the pride of Sweden, in 1709, at Poltava in Ukraine.”

    “But Eminence,” I protested, “Russia has done poorly in its war on Ukraine. It is bogged down with high casualties and missed its chance for a quick victory, and it has succeeded only in uniting the whole of the West against it.”

    “I expected better from you, Spengler, than to repeat the nonsense one reads in the newspapers,” Richelieu spat back. A glowing blob of ectoplasm stuck to my Oculus visor. “A quick victory, indeed? And what makes you think that Putin ever wanted a quick victory?”

    That stumped me. “Pardon my effrontery, Eminence, but if Putin didn’t want a quick victory, what did he want?”

    “Time,” said Richelieu, “is the ultimate weapon. I understood this, and Putin has learned his lesson well. Clausewitz was in general correct when he said that war was the continuation of policy by other means, but there are occasions when war itself is the policy. Here is what Aldous Huxley wrote in his book The Grey Eminence, a profile of my chief of intelligence, Father Joseph de Tremblay. Huxley is quite accurate, as well he should be, for he heard the story first-hand from me, in the ossuary of the Carthusians below the sewers of Paris: (...)

  • Omicron creeps towards Beijing ahead of Olympic Games - Asia Times

    Omicron creeps towards Beijing ahead of Olympic Games
    Highly contagious variant discovered in nearby Tianjin, raising new doubts about the viability of China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy
    China is scrambling to contain a new viral wave as Tianjin, a port city near the capital Beijing, was hit over the weekend by the highly infectious Omicron variant less than one month before the Winter Olympics commence on February 4.Tianjin reported two Omicron cases on Saturday morning involving two women who worked at a children care center and school. By Sunday, the city with a population of 14 million situated just 30 minutes from Beijing by train had reported 21 total cases.Meanwhile, in nearby Henan province, a total of 60 cases were identified on Sunday, of which at least two in Anyang City were caused by Omicron. Health authorities said the Omicron cases in Henan and Tianjin had the same origin.China reported a total of 97 local infections on Sunday, including 15 in Shaanxi province and one in Shenzhen. In Hong Kong, dozens of local Omicron cases have been reported over the past two weeks as some flight attendants carried the virus to the city.Based on epidemiological investigations and gene sequencing results, the source of the Omicron infections in Henan has been identified as a college student who returned to the Tangyin County area of Anyang City from Tianjin’s Jinnan District on December 28.
    But the arrival of Omicron on the mainland is raising hard new questions about the future viability of Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy, particularly as the nation opens its doors to thousands of foreign athletes for the upcoming Winter Olympics to be held from February 4-20.
    On Monday, a commentary published on the website of the China Communist Party (CPC) Central Inspection Discipline Commission said virus outbreaks in different Chinese locales had recently made the country’s epidemic situation more complicated.Local governments should continue to contain the virus and try to stop virus spread within a time frame equivalent to one incubation period, which is about two weeks, the article said.Since Saturday, Tianjin’s local government has stopped residents from leaving the city unless they could prove their journeys were essential and they could provide a negative Covid test in the last 48 hours. On Sunday, the government said the entire population in Tianjin would undergo Covid-19 tests.Tianjin’s leaders, meanwhile, vowed to serve as a moat to protect the Chinese capital from the viral spread, according to a municipal meeting led by the city’s Communist Party Secretary cited in news reports.
    At the same time, the Center for Disease Prevention and Control in Beijing said the capital city was facing domestic and external epidemic risks as people would travel more frequently later this month due to next month’s Chinese New Year, which significantly will coincide with the Winter Olympics.The Center said people must remain vigilant against Covid-19 and avoid unnecessary travel between Beijing and Tianjin.
    The situation in Xi’an city has shown the policy can be porous. The local government there locked down the city from December 23 after daily infections exceeded 100 for several consecutive days. The city has so far recorded more than 2,000 cases in a gathering epidemic wave, which reports say was caused by the Delta, not Omicron, variant.Last week, the city’s epidemic situation improved as the number of cases fell below 100 per day. But the restrictions came at a cost as local residents complained about food shortages and the lack of essential medical services.Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese pulmonologist, said lockdown measures in Xi’an had shown positive results despite the criticism, as the number of daily cases in the city was declining. He said he was confident that people could return to their home towns before the Chinese New Year as interprovincial travel would still be allowed later this month.Zhong added that, theoretically, China had achieved “herd immunity” as 86% of the population in China was vaccinated.However, he did not comment on the low efficacy rates of the locally-made Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines used in China compared to those applied in the West, as well as the fact that the majority of vaccinated Chinese have not received third booster shots.
    Zhang Wenhong, an infectious disease expert, said Western countries have maintained relatively low death rates during the Omicron wave because their vaccination rates had reached 70-80%. But it’s not clear that will also be the case in China amid reports Sinovac is particularly ineffective against Omicron.


  • Bali to get international hospital, foreign doctors - Asia Times

    Bali to get international hospital, foreign doctors
    New facility to provide top care for Indonesians who get treatment in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and the US
    Perturbed at Indonesians spending nearly US$7 billion a year on medical treatment abroad, the government is building an international hospital on a newly-closed golf course in Bali that will allow foreign doctors to actively practice in Indonesia for the first time. “If this comes to fruition, we expect that no more of our people will travel overseas to get health treatment,” President Joko Widodo told a December 28 ground-breaking ceremony for a project that is being undertaken in partnership with America’s famed Mayo Clinic. According to official statistics, more than two million wealthy Indonesians seek healthcare treatment in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and the United States in preference to local hospitals, many of which are not as bad as they are painted.Only last month, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono flew to Minnesota for treatment of early-stage prostate cancer at the Mayo Clinic’s Rochester headquarters after consultation with his own team of Indonesian doctors. But while Singapore’s much-vaunted health system, in particular, plays an important role in providing second-opinion diagnosis and specialist care unavailable at home, many Indonesians travel there for easily-treatable minor ailments as well.
    That is until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The case for an international hospital became more compelling when Singapore closed its doors to overseas visitors, shutting down its billion-dollar medical tourism industry and ruining the island’s reputation as a reliable safe haven. The new facility is being built on the 41-hectare Bali Beach Golf Course, a 50-year-old, nine-hole layout at the northern end of Sanur, the sleepy outpost favored by foreign pensioners and mostly elderly tourists on Bali’s east coast. Refurbished in 2005 on land owned by the State Enterprise Ministry, it is the second Bali golf course to close in four years. The stunning 18-hole Nirwana course has fallen into disrepair since billionaire Hary Tanoesoedibyo unsuccessfully tried to convert it into a six-star resort using the Donald Trump brand name. The new Bali International Hospital is scheduled to open in 2023 in what Widodo has described as a special economic zone, providing a convenient alternative for an estimated 600,000 Indonesians who now seek treatment abroad. Well aware of the shortcomings exposed during the pandemic, the president says the government will also intensify its efforts to attract investment in pharmaceutical plants to make drugs more readily available at a cheaper cost to its 270 million-strong population. State Enterprise Minister Erick Thohir, a key member of Widodo’s cabinet, says Indonesia hopes to reduce pharmaceutical raw material imports from 95% to 75% over the next four years, initially using locally-grown herbs and petrochemical derivatives.
    India’s pharmaceutical industry, by comparison, supplies 50% of the global demand for vaccines, 40% of the generic demand for the US and 25% of all medicines for the United Kingdom. The worldwide market was valued at about $1.1 trillion last year. The government has provided few details on the cost of the Bali venture, but the involvement of the Mayo Clinic has already stirred controversy because foreign doctors will likely become an integral part of the medical staff. When he first announced plans for the hospital last year, Maritime Affairs and Investment Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan said Widodo had already approved a special visa for “first-class doctors who can practice and transfer technology.” The Indonesian Doctors’ Association strongly opposes opening up the local medical profession to foreign practitioners, but it may relent if the government confines any relaxation of the rule to oncologists and other specialists.
    The designation of a special economic zone may also mean that the Lippo Group’s Siloam chain and other privately-owned hospitals will be excluded from bringing in foreign doctors – apart from those now hired for purely administrative duties. The new facility will have 300 wards and space for 30 intensive care beds, in addition to a nursing school and also an academic research center to fill a requirement for more specialized care. A Mayo Clinic spokesperson has clarified that the organization will not be investing in the hospital, only in advising on its development, planning and design and also in honing administrative efficiencies and effectiveness when it begins operations.


  • Border reopening delayed as HK hit by Omicron - Asia Times

    Border reopening delayed as HK hit by Omicron
    Hong Kong’s long-awaited resumption of quarantine-free travel, or the so-called “border reopening,” with the mainland is no closer as the special administrative region has been hit by the Omicron variant.(...) The Hong Kong government has imposed some of the world’s toughest quarantine and social-distancing rules since early last year in an effort to convince Beijing to allow an early “border reopening.” Initially, the aim was to allow about 1,000 people per day to travel across the Hong Kong-mainland border without quarantine. Since July 2020, Guangdong has allowed quarantine-free travel at its border with Macau.Originally, the Hong Kong-mainland border should have been “reopened” in late December, but it was delayed due to virus outbreaks at a Hong Kong restaurant.
    On December 27, a Cathay Pacific aircrew worker, who was exempted from Hong Kong’s 21-day quarantine requirements, visited the Moon Palace restaurant at the Festival Walk mall with his father after returning from the United States. He later tested positive for the Omicron strain.The man’s father, together with a construction worker who had been sitting about 10 meters away, were later found to be infected. As of Monday, a total of six people have been found to be infected in this outbreak. The Centre for Health Protection said about 340 people had been sent to the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre, where they will stay for at least 21 days. Up to 22 staff from the Moon Palace restaurant said in a post on social media that it was unfair that they and their families had to be isolated for three weeks, while Cathay Pacific did not require its aircrew staff to stay at home after arrival.
    On Saturday, Cathay Pacific said it was deeply disappointed by the fact that two of its five aircrew workers, who had recently been infected with the Omicron variant, violated the company’s isolation guidelines. It said the duo had been sacked. Michael Tien, a Roundtable lawmaker, said both Cathay Pacific and the government should be blamed for the Omicron outbreak at the Moon Palace restaurant as it was risky for newly-arrived aircrew staff to be able to walk freely on the streets. Tien said it was unlikely that the Shenzhen government would give the green light to the proposed “border reopening” with Hong Kong in the short term as it had warned about the potential risk of having incoming aircrew staff exempted from quarantine.


  • Omicron knocking on China’s ’zero Covid’ door - Asia Times

    Omicron knocking on China’s ‘zero Covid’ door
    HONG KONG – A trickle of Omicron cases is penetrating Hong Kong’s “zero Covid” defenses, worrying residents of a next viral wave and imperiling highly anticipated plans to reopen the border with the mainland later this month. As of Saturday, the city had identified 14 cases of the highly contagious variant.At the same time, China reported 125 new Covid-19 cases for Friday, of which 89 were local, according to the National Health Commission. Reports noted that marked the biggest daily tally for local infections since November 30 when the country had 91 domestic cases. It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the cases recorded on Friday, if any, were Omicron. The outbreak forced more than a dozen factories in China’s eastern manufacturing hub of Zhejiang province to close, according to reports.
    The cracks in China’s “zero Covid” come as the new highly contagious variant first discovered in South Africa surges in the West, with particularly rapid upticks in cases seen in the United Kingdom and the United States. New York state broke a record in new daily cases on Friday with 21,027 new infections reported.Australia’s populous New South Wales state reported a record 2,482 Covid-19 cases on Saturday, a day after easing international arrival rules for vaccinated travelers, indicating Omicron is likely taking hold Down Under. Hong Kong threatens to be an Omicron gateway into mainland China if the border is reopened. He was exempted from a 21-day quarantine after arriving in the city due to the nature of his job. During a three-day enhanced medical surveillance period, he stayed at home at Cheung Hing Building, 44-48 Pitt Street, Yau Ma Tei. But on Wednesday, he went to a mobile testing station in his neighborhood for a Covid-19 test and some places to buy food.When he arrived at the testing station, he developed symptoms on the same day with a cycle threshold (ct) value of about 25 to 29 and was immediately sent to quarantine. The pilot, who had been inoculated with two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on March 22 and April 15 in Hong Kong, carried the N501Y mutant strain but was negative for the L452R and E484K strains.As the Department of Health suspected that the man could be carrying the Omicron strain, it issued a mandatory Covid-test order to six places, including a Wellcome supermarket at 40 Waterloo Road, a Starbucks coffee shop at 56 Dundas Street, a city superstore at the Gateway Arcade of Harbor City, a Circle K store at 50-52 Pitt Street, a Mannings shop at 494-496 Nathan Road and another Wellcome supermarket at 1 Kwong Wa Street. Prior to this, a mandatory test order has been issued to people who live in the Cheung Hing Building where the infected pilot resides. As of Friday, none of the 160 people in the building has tested positive. Cathay Pacific said the operating aircraft that the pilot flew had been sent for deep cleaning. It said all of its operating flight crew was fully vaccinated.On Friday, two more Omicron cases were identified among cargo crew members of the same flight, which arrived in Hong Kong from Kenya, India and Uganda via the United Arab Emirates on flight ACP502. on Wednesday.The duo included a 41-year-old and a 27-year-old man who had received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Moderna vaccine, respectively, in Kenya. Earlier this week, the Hong Kong government declared that travelers returning from the United States and United Kingdom would have to spend a week of quarantine in spartan isolation camps and then serve another 14 days in a hotel room they pay for themselves.


  • HK-China border reopening hangs on Omicron’s spread - Asia Times

    HK-China border reopening hangs on Omicron’s spread
    Analysts predict HK retail prices and rents will surge when borders are opened but Omicron fears are casting doubts on the plan
    by Jeff Pao December 6, 2021
    HONG KONG – Quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and Macau and mainland China is expected to be implemented around Christmas, an opening that promises to boost Hong Kong’s retail and property sectors and revive cross-border business.On Friday, the Hong Kong government will allow people to download a health code that is compatible with those of Macau and the mainland so they can cross the border with a full location record.It is still discussing with the Guangdong provincial government about a “circuit breaker,” hoping that quarantine-free travel will be suspended only if two clusters of local infections are reported.
    Last month, health officials and experts expected the so-called border reopening would start in early December. However, Beijing changed its mind as it did not want to cause any disruption to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections on December 19 and activities related to the 22nd anniversary of the Macau Special Administrative Region on December 20.
    Property experts said if quarantine-free travel is not affected by the emergence of the Omicron strain of Covid-19, then prices and rents of Hong Kong’s retail shops could rebound in the short-term by as much as 30% and 60%.Manufacturers have said they would expand their retail businesses after the Hong Kong-mainland border was fully reopened, hopefully after the Chinese New Year in February.Since virus outbreaks in Wuhan were made public in late January 2020, people traveling across the border of Hong Kong and the mainland have been required to follow strict quarantine measures.People must be isolated for 14 days when they enter the mainland, although Hong Kong residents and mainlanders can enter Hong Kong from the mainland without quarantine via the Return2HK and Come2HK schemes. Last week, the Hong Kong government put four South African countries and 12 other countries on its high-risk list due to the growing number of Omicron cases around the world.On December 1, it announced that a 38-year-old man who arrived in Hong Kong from Qatar on November 24 was stuck in the restricted transit area at Hong Kong International Airport for four days due to a visa-related issue and tested positive with Omicron in a pre-departure test on November 28.
    David Hui, a professor of respiratory medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a government advisor on the pandemic, said on Sunday the border reopening schedule would not be affected by the four imported Omicron cases reported in Hong Kong.Hui said as it took four months to fully reopen the Macau-mainland border, Hong Kong should only expect a full border-reopening after February.
    The South China Morning Post reported on November 18 that a trial scheme for people to travel from Hong Kong to the mainland without quarantine would be launched in the first week of December.However, Beijing later decided to postpone the launch to late December to avoid causing any virus outbreaks that would disrupt the LegCo elections on December 19, reported on December 3, citing officials familiar with the situation.A small-scale border-reopening scheme with a daily quota of 1,000 people would kick off before Christmas, Hong Kong media reported on Monday. The quota would then increase to 5,000 by next February.
    Although the Guangdong government has said it would prefer to suspend the scheme whenever a local case is identified, the Hong Kong government suggested that the scheme be suspended only if two clusters of patients were identified.Last Friday, the Hong Kong government said the “Hong Kong Health Code” system would be open for registration from 9am on December 10. It said people could register an account and familiarize themselves with its functions earlier, with a view to facilitating a smoother operation when quarantine-free travel with the mainland and Macau officially resumes.
    Applicants for the health code are required to register personal information such as name, identity document number and date of issue, contact telephone number and residential address and upload Hong Kong residential address proof. The information would be shared with the mainland only if the code’s user tested positive, said the government.


  • Phuket Sandbox shines the way for Thai tourism revival - Asia Times

    Phuket Sandbox shines the way for Thai tourism revival
    Quarantine island experiment set to be replicated as kingdom takes a daring punt on reopening its decimated tourism industry
    by Peter Janssen October 27, 2021
    PHUKET – The Phuket Sandbox – Thailand’s pilot run for reopening the country’s crucial tourism sector that accounted for about 20% of gross domestic product (GDP) before Covid-19 – has so far been disappointing in terms of numbers but is being hailed as a success in other respects.
    The Phuket Sandbox – a pun on Fintech terminology for a safe haven for experimenting with new technologies – was launched on July 1 with a target of attracting at least 100,000 foreign tourists in its first three months.
    Actual arrivals were an underwhelming 42,000, generating about 3 billion baht (US$90.8 million) in tourist spending. That’s obviously a far cry from the 14.5 million foreign and domestic tourists who visited the island resort in all of 2019, generating 442 billion baht ($13.4 billion) in revenue.
    Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha recently announced that Bangkok and other leading tourist destinations such as Pattaya and Chiang Mai will reopen to fully vaccinated foreign tourists from 46 designated “low-risk” countries, lifting the kingdom’s previous onerous 7-14 day quarantine requirements.Prayut originally vowed to reopen the country by mid-October but was forced to delay until November 1 in the face of still alarming new infection rates, which are still hovering around 10,000 per day in a country of 69 million, a tardy vaccination rollout and questions about the efficacy of some of the vaccines used, especially the China-made Sinovac.Those issues will all persist after the reopening and could lead to fresh outbreaks and dire consequences for the government. For Bangkok, Phuket has proven an important test run. Local Phuket government authorities have been meeting with the Bangkok-based National Security Council three times a week to hash out problems they have confronted in implementing the Sandbox and find solutions, said Piyapong.
    “We try to pass on the feedback from the tourists to the government officials,” Piyapong said. Tourists have uniformly complained about the complexities involved with gaining entry to the Sandbox, particularly the difficulties of complying with myriad requirements to secure a Certificate of Entry (COE), the document that was previously required.As of November 1, the COE requirement will be canceled and replaced with a digital Thailand Pass, which drops certain demands such as pre-payment for two or three Covid-19 swab tests, while lowering the minimum Covid medical insurance requirement from US$100,000 to US$50,000.But an initial Covid test will still be required at the airport, and an installation of a government mobile phone application known as Rao Chana that helps keep track of newcomers. These procedures have meant tourists arriving at Phuket usually spend two hours at the airport, which would become a lot longer if arrivals were in the thousands.The Sandbox concept was originally a proposal from Phuket’s private sector represented by the Phuket Tourism Association, Phuket Hotels Association, Phuket Travel Agents Association in collaboration with the local Phuket government and with support from Bangkok’s powers-that-be.“It is a model that we proposed ourselves, as opposed to coming from the government,” said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourism Association.But while the Sandbox concept was a private sector initiative, many of the conditions came at the behest of Bangkok-based authorities, specifically the “doctor-ocracy” that has been determining much of Thailand’s government policy since the Covid-19 pandemic first struck in early 2020.Some of the initial requirements were eased as the Sandbox progressed. For instance, on October 1 the requirement that tourists spend 14 days quarantined on the island was reduced to seven. On October 15, the island was re-opened to fully vaccinated domestic visitors and bars were allowed to serve booze and stay open till 10 pm.To the government’s credit, it has learned something from the Sandbox.“We learned that the Sandbox would have attracted more people with fewer complications,” Bhummikitti said. “We have made suggestions to the government and the government has taken our advice, and it will benefit the whole country.” One lesson the pandemic has taught governments in general is that the virus is not predictable. Singapore, which recently reopened its borders to vaccinated tourists from ten select countries, is now experiencing a resurgence in Covid cases that is likely to overshadow any benefits from a trickle of arrivals.Thailand continues to record about 10,000 new Covid cases daily, with the total caseload since the virus was first detected in March 2020 now reaching 1,859,157 with 1,740,316 recoveries and 18,799 deaths. A recently detected “Delta plus” variant has raised new concerns and fresh questions about the wisdom of reopening to the world when so few Thais have been inoculated.The government has been relatively slow in rolling out vaccinations, with only 38% of the population fully vaccinated and 55% receiving one dose as of late October. Nearby Malaysia is 75% fully vaccinated Singapore has reached 82%.Phuket has benefitted from the Sandbox in terms of being prioritized in the national vaccine rollout.“Phuket has the highest prevalence of vaccinations in Thailand, with 82% of the population (547,584) having received the first dose, and 71% two doses and 46% a booster too,” Kobsak Kookiatkul, Phuket’s health chief, told a recent seminar. “This makes foreigners feel confident.”Unfortunately for the Sandbox, the Delta variant started to spread on the island in June and July, coinciding with the Sandbox’s opening on July 1. The news no doubt discouraged some tourists from booking trips to the resort island. Since April, Phuket has recorded 14,443 cases and 101 deaths, but the incidence has been on a downward trend since October, as is the situation nationwide.More importantly, there have been no reported cases of foreign tourists spreading the virus to the local population, according to Kobsak. Of the 53,120 foreign tourists who arrived between July 1 and October 21, some 171 tested positive for Covid-19. When a tourist tests positive, they end up spending their vacation in a local hospital for 10-14 days.But given the ongoing resurgence of the pandemic in various countries such as Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and even highly vaccinated Singapore, Phuket’s tourism industry is only cautiously optimistic about the near future. That would mean about 1 million tourists, both foreign and domestic, still well short of the 4 million arrivals in the fourth quarter of 2019.Phuket’s tourism prospects will arguably improve with the reopening of other destinations in Thailand such as Bangkok, and Phuket’s neighboring provinces Krabi, Phang Nga and Samui, which provide tourists with more travel options in the kingdom.In recent weeks, Malaysia has announced plans to open Langkawi resort island to vaccinated foreign tourists in mid-November (the island was opened to domestic tourists last month), Indonesia has opened up Bali to vaccinated tourists from 19 countries (but they must spend the first five days quarantined in a hotel) and Vietnam has indicated it will open the island of Phu Quoc, off the southern coast, in late November.“I believe the Phuket Sandbox was a wake-up call for governments in our region to also launch similar projects in their own backyards,” said Luzi Matzig, chairman of Asian Trails, a travel agency specializing in the European market.But no one is expecting a dramatic recovery this year or even next. “It will take many months to restart tourist arrivals in the different destinations and if we can achieve 50% of the pre-Covid numbers during 2022 this will already be a positive result,” Matzig said.The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) expects tourism revenues to reach about 50% of pre-Covid levels in 2022, with at least 13 million foreign tourists and 122 million domestic tourists spending 620 billion baht ($19 billion) and 680 billion baht ($20.5 billion), respectively, according to a recent Bualuang Securities report.


  • Afghan chess pieces moving fast and furious
    Iran leader Raisi claims Shiite mosque bombings in Afghan cities backed by US while China establishes a military base in next door Tajikistan
    by Pepe Escobar October 28, 2021- Asia Times

    Afghanistan was the missing link in the complex chessboard of Eurasia integration. Now time is running out. After four long decades of war, getting the nation up and running as soon as possible is a pressing matter for all its neighbors.

    The three key nodes of Eurasia integration are very much aware of the high stakes. Hence an all-out diplomacy drive from Russia, China and Iran to get the ball rolling.

    A confab, officially named Second Meeting of Foreign Ministers – Afghanistan’s Neighbor Countries, was held on October 27 in Tehran uniting heavyweights China and Russia; Iran and Pakistan; and three Central Asian ‘stans: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

    Call it a sort of extended replay of the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit – where they were all discussing Afghanistan in detail. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian pointed to what everyone is aiming at. Peace, he tweeted, depends on an “inclusive government and respect for the will of the Afghan people.”

    The joint statement once again revisited all the main themes: the necessity of a “broad-based political structure, with the participation of all ethno-political groups” in Afghanistan; the need for “non-interference in its internal affairs”; and an emphasis on “national sovereignty, political independence, unity and territorial integrity.”

    And last but not least, the definitive red line, which is also an SCO red line: No support in any way, shape or form for any jihadi outfit.

    The foreign ministers also re-emphasized what was already imprinted in the wide-ranging summit in Moscow: “Countries primarily responsible for the difficulties in Afghanistan should earnestly deliver on their commitment and provide Afghanistan with urgently needed economic, livelihood and humanitarian assistance to help realize a stable transition.”

    The European Union has promised 1 billion euros in humanitarian assistance. So far, that’s just a promise. Washington has not sent any signs it might consider alleviating Kabul’s dire economic plight.

    Nor has the Biden administration indicated it plans to release nearly US$9.5 billion in Afghan gold, investments and foreign currency reserves parked in the US that it froze after the Taliban’s takeover – despite rising pressure from humanitarian groups and others who say the punitive measure may cause the collapse of the Afghan economy.

    Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, after meeting with the foreign ministers of Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, went no holds barred. He had already alleged, on the record, that the US was facilitating the expansion of ISIS-K in Afghanistan – a fast-flip irony, if true, considering the terror group was responsible for killing 13 US military service members and scores of others in a late August bomb blast at Kabul’s international airport.

    Then the Iranian leader doubled down, claiming that the recent sequence of terror bombings during Friday prayers in Shiite mosques in large Afghan cities has also been supported by the US.

    Raisi is voicing, at a very high level, an analysis that intel services of several SCO member-nations have been actively exchanging: There’s only one major geopolitical player who benefits, divide-and-rule-style, from the chaos generated by ISIS-K.

    The Russians, Iranians and Chinese are all paying close attention to all matters Afghanistan. Before his current European tour, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dropped by Doha on Monday for the first top-level China-Afghanistan meeting since the Saigon moment on August 15.

    That also marked the return to the political stage of Mullah Baradar, the acting Afghan deputy prime minister, who seems anyway to be restricted to Doha political office business.

    Wang once again made it very clear that it’s crucial to engage with the Taliban “in a rational and pragmatic manner” and emphasized, at the same time, that the Taliban should “demonstrate openness and tolerance.”

    Beijing’s top priority is to start dealing with a functional government in Kabul as soon as possible. The integration of Afghanistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and also to the now fast-developing Iran-to-China corridor is a matter of urgency.

    But all that pales in comparison with the challenges facing a still far-from-inclusive government: the looming economic crisis, the already de facto humanitarian nightmare, and the ISIS-K terror threat.

    Only two days after Wang’s meeting in Doha, and nearly simultaneously with the meeting in Tehran, Tajikistan approved the setup of a Chinese military base in its territory. So here we go again.

    Expect a fierce campaign exposing “human rights abuses” by Dushanbe to pop up anytime soon.

    #Afghanistan #Russie #Iran #Chine #Tajikistan #Uzbekistan #Turkmenistan

  • Singapore to expand its quarantine-free travel - Asia Times

    Singapore to expand its quarantine-free travel
    Fully vaccinated travelers will have to test negative for the virus before they depart and when they arrive. Singapore on Tuesday began quarantine-free entry for fully vaccinated passengers from eight countries, part of a plan to ease restrictions as the business hub gears up to live with the coronavirus.
    The latest easing expanded a program that started with vaccinated air travel lanes with Germany and Brunei last month and is now open to passengers from the United States, Canada, Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. Singapore Airlines said flights from Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles and New York were scheduled to arrive Tuesday under the program.“We have seen very strong demand for our Vaccinated Travel Lane flights,” the national airline said.“This is across all cabin classes, as well as various travel segments including leisure, families and business travel.”
    Passengers arriving as part of this scheme – which will include South Korea from November 15 – will not have to quarantine if they have been fully vaccinated and test negative for the virus before they depart and when they arrive.To enable families to travel, Singapore has allowed entry to unvaccinated children aged 12 years and under if they are accompanied by someone flying under the scheme. Raj Samuel, a restaurant manager in the almost deserted tourist district, said he was “optimistic” about the potential for more business.The city-state initially fought the Covid-19 pandemic by shutting borders, imposing lockdowns of varying intensity and aggressive contact tracing. But with more than 80% of the population fully vaccinated, authorities are keen to revive the economy.“Singapore cannot stay locked down and closed off indefinitely,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said earlier this month when he announced a raft of measures under the “Living with Covid-19” strategy. The city-state is home to the regional offices of thousands of multi-national corporations, which rely on Singapore’s status as a business and aviation hub for their operations. Vaccinated travel is a “very significant step forward in re-establishing Singapore’s role as one of the Asia-Pacific’s leading international hubs for finance, regional headquartering and commercial aviation,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit.He added that the travel lanes – notably with the UK, the US, France and Germany – were particularly important as many international firms run large operations from the city’s financial center.
    The scheme may also provide a shot in the arm for the pandemic-hammered airline and tourism industries, analysts said. Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for about 5% of Singapore’s GDP, said Song Seng Wun, a regional economist with CIMB Private Banking.
    Statistics from the Singapore tourism board showed international visitor arrivals plunging to less than 2.8 million last year from a record 19.1 million in 2019.


  • Singapore’s vaunted health tourism under pressure - Asia Times

    Singapore’s vaunted health tourism under pressure
    Many in need of critical care have been locked out of the city-state as it tries to deal with a Covid surge
    JAKARTA – Let’s call him Jack. He is a retired engineer who lives with his wife in a rural town in Indonesia, where the big waves roll in from the Indian Ocean. He is kept alive by a US$36,000 coronary resynchronization unit (CSU) that can only be replaced in Singapore.If he can get there, that is.
    Three times now, the Singapore Health Ministry has deferred permission for him to travel to the city-state, despite a letter from his Singapore heart specialist attesting to the urgency of his case as the battery in the device winds down.Warned by his Indonesian and Singaporean doctors that Covid-19 could easily kill him, the 69-year-old Australian has already been double-jabbed with the AstraZeneca vaccine.Jack is one of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian citizens and foreign residents who spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to get specialized – and expensive – medical treatment in Singapore that is often unavailable at home.But come a health crisis and the door has closed, with officials claiming that the island’s much-touted health system is stretched to the limit by a surprisingly sharp surge in coronavirus cases.The latest message from the Singapore Health Ministry is that waivers for overseas patients with serious health issues have been suspended until further notice – just when Singapore is allowing the first foreign tourists to enter.
    In a half-hour speech to the nation on October 9, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not mention foreign patients, saying Singapore would continue opening up to ensure it remained connected to the global supply chain.But in underlining the decision to drop Singapore’s zero-Covid policy and depend on its 85% vaccination record, he said the Delta-driven spike in infections could last for three to six months before it reaches the “new normal.”It is anyone’s guess how many Indonesians are in the same emergency situation as Jack. Go to a Singapore hospital or doctor’s surgery during normal times and Indonesian is spoken everywhere.“We can’t interfere because it’s at a higher level,” says one Singaporean general practitioner, who adds that his daily patients can often now be counted on one hand. “The only thing to do is to appeal through your foreign ministry.”
    Health officials cite hospitals overflowing with Covid patients as the reason for the continuing deferments. The Singapore Medical Council did not respond to a request to explain why no exception is being made for urgent foreign cases.Coronary resynchronization technology is a clinically proven treatment option for patients with heart failure, sending small electrical impulses to both lower chambers of the heart to help them beat in a synchronized pattern.Because the battery is hermetically sealed inside the CTU when it comes out of the factory, Jack’s entire device must be replaced every four years. That comes in at a cool $36,000 to $50,000.He needs only an overnight stay in hospital after an hour-long procedure to change out the device, which is now running in the “imminent replacement zone” – and has been for the past two months.After that, he will have to stay in Singapore for another eight days to allow for any necessary recalibration and to give more time for the three-inch chest incision to heal.
    Left unchanged, the device goes critical, sending out vibrations every hour until it eventually dies. That would leave Jack without any protection against a heart attack – the reason why CRU was installed in the first place.
    Singapore authorities stipulate that Indonesians who get dispensation for medical reasons must have already received two vaccinations, undergone a PCR test and can produce a chest X-ray showing they don’t have pneumonia.All this will be repeated on their arrival in Singapore, where they must go into two-week quarantine. In Jack’s case he will have to stay for another week after the procedure, and then enter eight-day quarantine on his return to Jakarta.It will be an expensive exercise for an aging retiree, who has to pay for everything himself because the insurance premium for a man with his medical issues is beyond him.“It is what it is,” he says, pointing to the $295,000 he has forked out since 2007 on Singaporean medical care. “If I get angry my blood pressure goes up. It will happen when it happens.” Paradoxically, Jack may be more at risk of getting the virus in Singapore than in Indonesia, where the official number of daily infections is now down to 1,300 from a peak level of more than 50,000 in mid-July.
    Despite its impressive vaccination record, cases have risen from as few as 56 in mid-August to the current level of 3,500 a day. More than 1,500 patients are in hospital, 300 require oxygen and 40 are in intensive care.
    Earlier indications were that even vaccinated Covid patients and those with minor symptoms were being admitted to a hospital, but new screening facilities now allow doctors to determine who needs hospitalization and who doesn’t.In mid-September, the government announced that home recovery has now been designated the default care management protocol for “more fully-vaccinated individuals.”
    Singapore has so far recorded 117,000 cases and 142 deaths, but with the shift away from the zero-Covid policy, the 16-month ban on short-term foreign visitors is finally starting to lift.The government has now opened up four “green lanes” for fully vaccinated travelers from Hong Kong, Macao, Brunei, Germany and, more recently, South Korea, none of whom have to spend time in quarantine.Singapore medical tourism has taken a huge hit since the onset of the pandemic. According to one estimate, Indonesians spend about $600 million a year on treatment in Singapore, Thailand and Australia.Much of that is in Singapore, which normally receives about 500,000 overseas patients a year, half of them coming from Indonesia alone, according to the Medical Tourism Association.Cardiac urgeries at Singapore hospitals, including heart bypasses and valve replacements, range up to S$130,000 (US$95,800); cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiology and immunotherapy, can cost S$234,000 (US$172,600).Market research indicates it may become increasingly difficult for Singapore to maintain its title as the region’s top medical tourism destination when Thailand and Malaysia are offering better value for money.
    While Jack is a special case, perhaps the pandemic will also persuade the Indonesian elite to have more faith in their own doctors, instead of rushing off to Singapore for treatment of maladies that can easily and effectively be handled at home.


  • Vietnam’s commercial hub reopens after lockdown - Asia Times

    Vietnam’s commercial hub reopens after lockdown
    Roads were busy for the first time in three months after most businesses were given the go-ahead to reopen. Ho Chi Minh City on Friday lifted a stay-at-home order that had kept its nine million residents indoors for three months and devastated business in Vietnam’s economic hub.To curb a fast-spreading wave of Covid-19 – which struck the southern metropolis particularly hard – residents have been unable to leave home, even for food, and almost all travel in and out of the area was suspended. Almost half of Vietnam’s total 790,000 virus cases were reported in the city, along with three-quarters of the country’s deaths.But after a gradual fall in cases, soldiers began dismantling road barriers on Friday and removing hundreds of checkpoints that had separated city districts.Roads were busy for the first time in months after most businesses were given the go-ahead to reopen and vaccinated people permitted to move freely within the city. Although authorities have kept a ban on travel to other provinces, thousands of families traveling by motorbike gathered at a checkpoint on the way out of the city, hoping to return to their hometowns.Vietnam was once hailed as a model for virus containment, but the country struggled to stop the spread of a fourth wave of infection that began in April in northern industrial parks and quickly traveled south.More than a third of Vietnam’s 100 million people were under stay-at-home orders this summer, bringing the country’s important manufacturing industry to its knees and breaking supply chains. Its economy suffered its heaviest contraction on record in the third quarter, officials said Wednesday.Factories in industrial parks and goods transportation services are among businesses allowed to open, authorities have said.Less than 10% of Vietnamese are fully vaccinated, but Ho Chi Minh City had been allocated the biggest number of jabs with almost all the city’s adults inoculated.


  • Australia set to ease 18-month-old border closure - Asia Times

    Australia set to ease 18-month-old border closure
    PM said vaccinated Australians could return home and travel overseas when 80% vaccination targets are met. Australia will start to reopen its borders next month, the country’s prime minister said Friday, 18 months after citizens were banned from traveling overseas without permission.
    Scott Morrison said vaccinated Australians would be able to return home and travel overseas “within weeks” as 80% of vaccination targets are met.
    On March 20 last year Australia introduced some of the world’s toughest border restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic. For the last 560 days, countless international flights have been grounded, overseas travel has slowed to a trickle and Australians have been banned from returning home.More than 100,000 requests to enter or leave the country were denied in the first five months of this year alone, according to Department of Home Affairs data.Families have been split across continents, with nationals stranded overseas while foreign residents were stuck in the country unable to see friends or relatives.“The time has come to give Australians their life back. We’re getting ready for that, and Australia will be ready for takeoff, very soon,” Morrison said.Morrison also announced that vaccinated residents would be able to home quarantine for seven days on their return, dodging the current mandatory and costly 14-day hotel quarantine.


  • Bali wants rich not poor tourists after the plague - Asia Times

    Bali wants rich not poor tourists after the plague
    Minister says Bali no longer wants ’low quality’ backpackers when the ’clean’ island resort reopens to international travelers
    JAKARTA – Hanging out in cheap hotels and spending their limited funds at the lower end of society where it was needed the most, backpackers played a pioneering role in the growth of Southeast Asia’s until recently money-spinning tourism industry.They were disheveled, they smoked marijuana and, to officialdom at least, they were not the ideal well-heeled foreign tourist who flew in on business class, stayed in five-star hotels and spent freely on package tours, precious stones and over-priced souvenirs.At one point in the distant past this writer was one of those backpackers, so it was with a certain sense of nostalgic indignation that I felt compelled to query Indonesian Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan when he suggested recently that the resort island of Bali could do without the breed.
    Immigration officials were quoted as saying that when Bali finally reopens to international travelers they would be screening out those of “low quality.” As Panjaitan put it: “We will filter arriving tourists. We don’t want backpackers coming to a clean Bali. We want quality visitors.”He and other officials have since done a gentle row-back, but as head of the team charged with the emergency response to the latest Covid-19 outbreak, Panjaitan had the impression it was mainly loose-living backpackers who ignored health protocols.“We just don’t want them to come for a while,” he told Asia Times, frustrated that some parts of Bali were still at level three on a Covid-19 outbreak scale despite the tourist island enjoying one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. “They’re not disciplined and they don’t wear masks.” In fact, blaming the problem solely on backpackers is doing them an injustice. From casual observation, the lack of discipline extends to many of the 109,000 foreigners living through the pandemic in surroundings that many would regard as idyllic.As it was, Panjaitan’s spokesman hurried to explain there had been a misunderstanding about the minister’s off-the-cuff remark. “What was meant,” he said, “were visitors who disobey regulations or protocols on health, law and immigration.”
    Scores of tourists have already been deported for this reason, including a disproportionate number of seemingly well-off Russians who, according to local officials, are proving to be more troublesome than the usually troublesome Australians.
    Leaping to the defense of the humble traveler, an editorial in the Bali Discovery newsletter pointed to extensive World Trade Organization (WTO) research showing the global youth tourist market is now worth an estimated US$400 billion a year. Before the pandemic turned everything upside down, it was the fastest-growing travel segment, representing 23% of the one billion international holiday trips taken annually around the world. “Because of the youth market’s affinity for the internet and social network marketing, they provide an incomparable and valuable instantaneous boom to any destination they visit,” Bali Discovery noted. In an earlier day, it was all word of mouth.In Indonesia, the editorial said, budget travelers will lead the way in helping the government attain its tourism goals, especially in the so-called “10 new Balis” – a reference to the neighboring Nusa Tenggara island chain which includes Lombok, Flores and Timor.
    Bali became what it is today thanks to an early influx of seat-of-the-pants Australian surfers and its position on the overland trail for Europe-bound backpackers traveling from Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory to East Timor and then onwards across the archipelago to Jakarta.Thailand’s first beach resort of Pattaya, southeast of Bangkok, grew up around rabble-rousing American servicemen on rest and recreation from Vietnam. But other destinations like Phuket and Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand all began life as backpacker havens.Budget travelers today are not nearly as impoverished as in the 1970s when most of those on the road were simply footloose hitch-hikers, enjoying being the first post-World War II generation to have the opportunity to get out and about.Living in stifling 30-degree heat with 30 other itinerant travelers in a dormitory on the top of a zero-star Bangkok hotel, replete with truckle beds, communal showers and missing fans and mosquito nets, didn’t seem all that bad. It was, after all, only a buck a day.Financed to some degree by family money, many of today’s young backpackers are students on their gap year – the period between high school graduation and university enrollment when they supposedly try to discover themselves.Others are millennials, often with well-paying jobs, looking for something different on their travels and often well off the beaten track. Even some of Indonesia’s own backpackers – and there are many of them – can be found in this category. Indeed, the World Youth Student and Education Confederation finds the average member of the youth market spends US$1,000 a week, stays at their chosen destination for extended periods and spends 60% of their budget in the local community.For now, the road is a lonely place. Overseas visitors to Indonesia, confined to carefully screened businessmen and digital nomads, must submit proof of vaccination, a negative PCR test result, take a test on arrival and spend eight days in quarantine in a designated hotel no real backpacker can afford.But with a substantial drop in Covid cases over the past few weeks, a reproductive rate below 1 and more than 90% of Balinese having received their first Covid-19 vaccination shot, the government has said the island may re-open to foreign tourists as early as next month.
    It can’t come soon enough, but it will take some yet before Australia – still the main source of Bali’s tourist trade – opens up sufficiently to allow its citizens including backpackers freedom of travel to countries where the coronavirus remains a threat.


  • Nurses bear brunt of Philippines Covid shambles - Asia Times

    Nurses bear brunt of Philippines Covid shambles
    Understaffed, underpaid and overworked to the point of exhaustion, staff battle on to care for virus victims. Exhausted nurses in the Philippines are struggling to care for patients as colleagues contract Covid-19 or quit a profession that was dangerously understaffed even before the pandemic.
    The country is enduring a record rise in infections, fuelled by the Delta variant, with the health department reporting a nursing shortfall of more than 100,000 – forcing those left to work long hours for little pay on often precarious short-term contracts.“They are tired and burned out,” nursing director Lourdes Banaga, at a private hospital south of Manila, said.
    “At the start of the pandemic we had almost 200 nurses. By September that will reduce to 63.”Official figures show 75,000 nurses are working in public and private Philippine hospitals but roughly 109,000 more are needed.
    The pandemic has exacerbated a lack of nurses, said Maristela Abenojar, president of Filipino Nurses United – a situation she describes as “ironic” in one of the world’s biggest exporters of healthcare workers. Chronic understaffing is down to inadequate salaries, she said.An entry-level nurse in a public hospital can earn 33,575 pesos ($670) per month, official data show.But Abenojar said most were on short-term contracts, earning 22,000 pesos with no benefits such as hazard pay. Those in the private sector were making as little as 8,000 pesos.And many have had enough. About 40 percent of private hospital nurses have resigned since the start of the pandemic, according to the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines.
    More than 5,000 nurses have been given the green light to go abroad this year after a Covid-19 ban was replaced with a cap to ensure enough nurses were available in the Philippines.
    It hasn’t worked.“We can’t get additional nurses, we can’t compel them to apply,” said Jose Rene de Grano of the private hospitals association.
    ‘We feel exhausted’In recent weeks, health workers have protested over unpaid benefits, including a coronavirus special risk allowance. Abenojar said many were still waiting.President Rodrigo Duterte has asked for patience while the government tries to come up with the money.“We don’t feel cared for,” said Melbert Reyes of the Philippine Nurses Association.
    Many hospitals boosted their bed capacity after a virus surge earlier this year threatened to overwhelm them.Official data show coronavirus ward and ICU bed occupancy rates at more than 70 percent nationwide as daily cases often exceed 20,000, fuelled by the hyper-contagious Delta variant.A public hospital in Binan city, near Manila, turned a car park into a ward. “Many of our nurses are sick and in quarantine,” medical director Melbril Alonte said.
    “We feel exhausted… but we always keep in mind that we have to help our people because… no one else will.”But due to the nursing shortfall, some facilities such as the Lipa Medix Medical Center have had to slash their bed capacity and extend nurses’ shifts.Nurse Trixia Bautista said she works up to 15 hours per shift looking after mostly severe Covid-19 patients at a public referral hospital in the capital.At times, she has cared for as many as 30 patients on her own after nurses on her ward quit or got sick.
    But there are plenty of qualified nurses in the Philippines, said Abenojar of Filipino Nurses United.She estimated 200,000 to 250,000 were not working in the sector.Many healthcare workers enter the profession to try to secure better-paid jobs abroad, but the shortage is not due to overseas migration.
    “It’s because nurses have left the profession,” said Yasmin Ortiga, assistant professor of sociology at Singapore Management University, pointing to the dearth of stable jobs and dismal wages. A proliferation of nursing programs led to an oversupply, with many unable to get a permanent position in a local hospital – necessary to work abroad – and subsequently a drop in enrolments. Ortiga said: “People realised that if I am unable to leave the country it’s really not worth being a nurse at home.”


  • Time to lure back tourists, Thailand decides - Asia Times

    Time to lure back tourists, Thailand decides
    Vaccinated foreign travelers will be able to visit Bangkok and four other provinces without hotel quarantine. Thailand plans to reopen Bangkok to fully vaccinated visitors in October, officials said Friday, as the kingdom seeks to salvage a tourism industry hammered by the pandemic. Before Covid, tourism made up a fifth of Thailand’s national income but severe travel curbs imposed to fight the virus saw the usual flood of foreign visitors dwindle to almost nothing, contributing to the economy’s worst performance in over 20 years. The kingdom is pressing ahead with plans to reopen despite a deadly third wave of infections, driven by the Delta variant.
    The Tourism Authority of Thailand said that from October 1, fully jabbed foreign travellers will be able to visit Bangkok and four other provinces without undergoing two weeks’ hotel quarantine. Instead, the five areas – also including Chiang Mai, Chon Buri, Phetchaburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan provinces – are expected to follow a “sandbox” model of the type piloted since July in the holiday island of Phuket. Under the sandbox scheme, tourists have to stay within a certain area for seven days after arrival and take Covid tests.Later in October, 21 more destinations will be added to the list including Chiang Rai, Sukhothai and popular seaside getaway Rayong.
    But Thailand’s third and deadliest Covid wave has not yet fully subsided, and the tourism agency warned the plans could change.Thailand got through 2020 relatively unscathed by Covid, recording low numbers of infections, but since April the Delta variant has taken hold and cases have soared to more than 1.3 million, with almost 14,000 deaths. More than 29,000 fully vaccinated international visitors hit the beach at Phuket under its sandbox scheme, generating nearly $50 million in revenue according to government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana.Three more Thai islands also reopened – Samui, Tao and Phangan – with slightly more onerous restrictions.One cloud hanging over Thailand’s tourism revival plans is the travel advice of other countries discouraging would-be tourists from visiting.Britain and the United States have warned against travel to Thailand because of rising case numbers and low vaccination rates.
    About 16 percent of the Thai population have received two coronavirus vaccine doses, the government’s Covid taskforce said. Thailand plans to reopen Bangkok to fully vaccinated visitors in October, officials said Friday, as the kingdom seeks to salvage a tourism industry hammered by the pandemic.Before Covid, tourism made up a fifth of Thailand’s national income but severe travel curbs imposed to fight the virus saw the usual flood of foreign visitors dwindle to almost nothing, contributing to the economy’s worst performance in over 20 years.The kingdom is pressing ahead with plans to reopen despite a deadly third wave of infections, driven by the Delta variant.
    The Tourism Authority of Thailand said that from October 1, fully jabbed foreign travellers will be able to visit Bangkok and four other provinces without undergoing two weeks’ hotel quarantine.Instead, the five areas – also including Chiang Mai, Chon Buri, Phetchaburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan provinces – are expected to follow a “sandbox” model of the type piloted since July in the holiday island of Phuket. Under the sandbox scheme, tourists have to stay within a certain area for seven days after arrival and take Covid tests.Later in October, 21 more destinations will be added to the list including Chiang Rai, Sukhothai and popular seaside getaway Rayong.
    But Thailand’s third and deadliest Covid wave has not yet fully subsided, and the tourism agency warned the plans could change.


  • ’Phuket sandbox’ a faint ray of hope for Thai tourism - Asia Times

    BANGKOK – The Phuket sandbox was successfully opened to fully vaccinated foreign tourists on July 1 but it remains to be seen if the experiment will flop due to surging numbers of Covid-19 cases and other life-threatening hazards.Under the sandbox rules (and there are many), fully vaccinated foreign tourists are allowed to visit Phuket Island, Thailand’s prime Andaman Sea beach resort, without being forced to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days, as is still the case in Bangkok and elsewhere in the kingdom.But visitors are also required to undergo three Covid tests during the first seven days of their stay and must remain on the island for the first 14 days, after which they are allowed to leave for some select destinations. Prior to the scheme’s launch, nearly 70% of the island’s population of about 500,000 were vaccinated, including almost 100% of the staff working at 420 certified hotels and restaurants designated as Sandbox participants.
    The scheme, the brainchild of various Phuket-based tourism and business associations with the backing of the Phuket governor and local authorities, was designed to prevent foreign visitors from spreading Covid to the local population and to make foreign tourists feel safe from the viral pandemic, which has now become a threat to even vaccinated people via the more contagious Delta variant. Most of the island’s new Covid cases have been found among Thais traveling to Phuket from other provinces, many of them being forced to flee Bangkok where the pandemic has forced new lockdowns and exacerbated unemployment. As of August 4, at least 46 incoming tourists had tested positive for Covid-19 out of 16,060 arrivals since July 1.
    On August 3, Phuket Governor Narong Woonciew sealed off the entire island to Thai travelers from other provinces, even if they were returning to their homes. All domestic flights to the island were also canceled, forcing some Phuket sandbox tourists to take buses to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport to catch their flights home.Phuket, which pre-Covid was the second wealthiest province in Thailand after Bangkok in terms of per capita income, is almost entirely dependent on tourism. In 2019, some 14 million tourists including 9 million foreigners visited Phuket, earning the island some 450 billion baht (US$13.5 billion) in revenue. Last year, the island province’s tourism revenue fell to 108 billion baht, generated from tourists who arrived during the first quarter of 2021 before the Covid pandemic prompted a ban on foreign tourist arrivals nationwide. During the first half of 2021, the take was only 5.2 billion baht, according to the Thai Ministry of Sports and Tourism.In pre-Covid Thailand, tourism generated about 18% of gross domestic product (GDP). With the third wave of Covid, which started in April leading to a spike in cases and deaths and forcing new lockdowns, the Bank of Thailand last week trimmed its forecast for gross domestic product (GDP) growth this year to 0.7%, down from the previous projection of 1.8%. Chinese tourists, who accounted for 28% of the 40 million-plus tourist arrivals in pre-Covid 2019, face international travel bans at home, which will likely exclude their numbers from the Phuket sandbox.


  • HK border reopening hopes fade with new outbreaks - Asia Times

    HK border reopening hopes fade with new outbreaks
    Hong Kong is pushing to reopen its border with Macau and the mainland but new virus outbreaks could scupper the plans. Hong Kong’s retail and tourism sectors have become pessimistic about the resumption of quarantine-free travel across the territory’s borders with Macau and the mainland by October after new outbreaks were reported in the region.
    The Macau government said Tuesday it received notification from Zhuhai authorities that samples they collected from two Macau residents had tested positive. The couple’s son and daughter were then identified as infected.
    Macau’s health authorities said the four were infected with the more infectious Delta variant. They said it was likely that the daughter, who joined a dancing trip with 30 people to fly from Zhuhai to Xi’an in Shaanxi province between July 19 and 24, was the first infected person in the cluster. Her brother and parents later showed symptoms of the illness.
    It was said that the plane taken by the daughter on July 19 had arrived from Nanjing to Zhuhai earlier on the same day. Two passengers flying from Nanjing to Zhuhai on that plane previously tested positive.Due to the outbreaks, the Macau government declared a state of “immediate prevention” from 3:30pm on Tuesday and ordered Covid tests for the gaming city of 680,000 people. People must provide a negative Covid test result done within 12 hours if they want to leave the city. The latest outbreak also sparked panic buying in supermarkets as Macau has not seen a local case for more than 400 days.Macau Chief Executive Ho Iat-seng said it was not necessary to shut down casinos for the moment as it was likely that the infected daughter contracted the virus on the July 19 flight. Ho said the girl sat on the same seat where two patients from Nanjing had occupied.
    The Hong Kong government also announced that from August 4, anyone who had been in Macau over the past 14 days could not return to the city under the Return2hk scheme, which allows Hong Kong residents quarantine-free entry upon returning to the territory if they test negative for the virus.A 13-year-old Hong Kong girl and her family are being sent to a quarantine camp as she stayed in the same room with the Macau girl during the dancing trip last month.
    Separately, a 43-year-old construction worker, who lived in Sham Shui Po in Kowloon, tested positive preliminarily on Tuesday. However, his sample tested negative for the coronavirus on Wednesday but positive for the Covid-19 antibodies, showing that he might have recovered from a previous infection.Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s Communicable Disease Branch, said Wednesday the man was probably a “re-positive” case, but authorities had not been able to find out the exact time of his infection yet.“The man has been undergoing regular testing, his regular testing started from May – although he had one or two tests at the end of March – so one of the possibilities is that he had an infection quite early on, maybe before May or March,” Chuang said.If the man has been infected recently through an unknown source, his case would have broken a 56-day streak of zero new untraceable local infections in Hong Kong.
    Since the second quarter of last year, Macau and the mainland have adopted a “zero infections” strategy by implementing tough anti-epidemic measures. As the two places successfully controlled their epidemic situations, they have resumed quarantine-free travel since last September.
    Last year, the Hong Kong government tried to maintain local infections at low level and avoided launching severe measures such as citywide tests and large-scale lockdowns. However, such strategy failed to prevent the city from being hit by the fourth epidemic wave between last November and January this year.Since then, the government has locked down infected areas, tightened quarantine measures and banned flights coming from high-risk countries to stay in line with Beijing’s “zero infections” strategy.
    Yiu Si-wing, a lawmaker representing the tourism sector, said his sector had previously expected that Hong Kong could reopen its border with Macau and the mainland by October but such hope seemed to have vanished due to the recent outbreaks in the latter two places. Yiu said the previously scheduled travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore had burst twice and would probably be unable to resume in the coming few months.
    He said among the 1,600 travel agencies in Hong Kong, only 100 to 200 were organising “cruise-to-nowhere” trips while 400 were running local tours. He said a majority of travel agencies were having no income while some of them might go bankrupt if the border between Hong Kong and the mainland could not reopen this year.Yip Kin-ming, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a director of the China Economic and Social Council, said the chance that the Hong Kong-mainland border could reopen in short term had become slim after the Delta variant was spread from Nanjing to a dozen of Chinese provinces in late July.
    However, Yip said the two places should continue to push forward the discussion about whether vaccinated people could be allowed to travel across the border with shorter quarantine periods. Health authorities in China on Wednesday reported 71 domestic cases, the highest since January. The country is fighting against the Delta variant by launching citywide tests and locking down millions.Infectious disease expert Leung Chi-chiu said it was right for Hong Kong to quickly remove Macau from the “Return2hk” scheme, so that from now on people who return from Macau would need to undergo home quarantine. Leung said if the situation became worse, returnees from Macau should be quarantined in hotels instead.
    “The Macau case does illustrate the fragility of a bubble with the mainland,” Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist from the University of Hong Kong, told RTHK. “I know that’s what we are going for. If we can maintain zero Covid for a period of time, if we can get the vaccine coverage up to a higher level, then we have the opportunity to establish a bubble with the mainland with free travel in both directions.” On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government launched several new measures to help boost the city’s vaccination rate. It said Hong Kong would have 70% of its population vaccinated with their first dose by the end of September.


  • Covid case cuts short Singapore ’cruise to nowhere’ - Asia Times

    Covid case cuts short Singapore ‘cruise to nowhere’
    The ship’s 1,646 passengers and 1,249 crew have been asked to remain in their cabins as the vessel is disinfected. An ocean liner on a “cruise to nowhere” was forced to make an earlier-than-scheduled return to Singapore Wednesday after a coronavirus case was detected on board, authorities said.The Dream Cruises ship’s 1,646 passengers and 1,249 crew members have been asked to remain in their cabins as the vessel is disinfected and contact tracing completed, the Singapore Tourism Board’s director for cruises said. “The passenger was identified as a close contact of a confirmed case on land, and was immediately isolated as part of onboard health protocols,” said Annie Chang.The 40-year-old passenger, who had tested negative before boarding, was taken to hospital for further tests and the health ministry later confirmed the passenger had the virus.
    Chang said that as part of onboard health protocols, the passenger’s three traveling companions were identified and isolated. All have tested negative for the virus.The cruises – starting and ending in Singapore, with no stops – were launched last year as part of the travel industry’s attempt to bounce back from a pandemic-induced crunch.They have proved popular among those seeking an escape from the tiny city-state, which has only had a mild outbreak but largely kept its borders closed.The ship, owned and operated by Malaysian conglomerate Genting Group, left Singapore on Sunday evening for the four-day cruise and returned to port several hours earlier than scheduled.Genting’s Dream Cruises said it canceled a voyage scheduled to depart later Wednesday, and that there had been no virus infections on any of its previous cruises.A Royal Caribbean “cruise to nowhere” was also cut short in December after an elderly man tested positive. However, that case proved to be a false alarm, with subsequent results coming back negative. The cruise industry worldwide is struggling to get back on its feet after voyages were halted at the start of the pandemic and several vessels were hit by outbreaks.


  • Expats make waves surfing out the pandemic on Bali - Asia Times

    Expats make waves surfing out the pandemic on Bali
    Over 100,000 foreigners mostly on visitor visas are living on the resort island despite being closed to tourism for over a year
    JAKARTA – Travelling around sun-drenched southern Bali in these otherwise dark pandemic days, there are so many scantily-clad foreign motorcyclists careening in and out of traffic it is difficult to believe the holiday island has been closed to foreign tourism for the past 16 months.In fact, according to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, more than 109,800 foreigners from 133 countries are still living in Bali, including 2,246 permanent residents, 29,070 holding temporary stay permits and a whopping 78,485 on visitor visas.Russia leads the nationality list, followed by the United States, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Ukraine the Netherlands and Canada — far different from a normal tourism year when Australia and China contribute to a significant majority of Bali’s six million annual foreign tourists.Some of Bali’s attraction lies in the fact that the island hasn’t been hit as hard by the pandemic as neighboring Java. Even though new infections have risen over the past month from 100 to as much as 500 a day, the number of daily deaths remains in single figures, according to official data.That may be partly because the island has the highest rate of Covid-19 vaccinations in Indonesia – a deliberate government strategy aimed at trying to include Bali in international travel bubbles. About 70% of a targeted three million people have already received at least one jab.
    The latest surge, however, has prompted the local government to close beaches and restaurants, and do its best to reduce mobility, measures that have produced only mixed results on an island where the motorcycle is king.Daily religious ceremonies are ongoing, though supposedly confined to 50 people, and persuading tourists to wear masks and maintain other health protocols is proving difficult to enforce, with the 12,000 stay-behind Australians losing their bad behavior reputation to the Russians.More than 111,000 Russians visited Bali in 2019 looking for relief from their harsh winter. While it is not clear how many remain, police are finding they are the most troublesome to control on a range of levels.Over half of the 157 foreigners who ran afoul of the law last year held Russian citizenship, according to police data. Among the 59 to be deported were two yoga instructors, who had held a mass yoga session in the hill resort town of Ubud.That trend has continued this year. Authorities took a dim view of a young Russian so-called “influencer” after he posted a video on his website showing him jumping off a pier on a motorcycle, a bikini-clad girl clinging on behind him.Another Russian influencer, Leia Se, was deported in May after posting video footage of herself wearing a painted surgical mask to dupe store guards after she and a friend were earlier refused entry because Se was unmasked.
    Among others to be given their marching orders last year were two American women who tweeted about Bali being a cheap LGBTQ-friendly destination. Their crime, according to immigration officials, was “spreading information that could unsettle the public.”Most of those who have been deported were accused of disrupting public order, overstaying their visas and misusing stay permits, including providing false information on their visa applications. Once the center of an industry that in 2019 earned the island US$8 billion in foreign exchange, Kuta is now largely deserted, losing its title to Seminyak and Canggu as the most popular hang-outs for young foreigners along the west coast tourist strip.
    When tourism returns, that’s where the action will be. But plans to re-open the island at the end of this month have died with the worst eruption in new Covid-19 infections since March last year, when the government first shut the door on the island.Thousands of foreigners were stranded last year, but while many trickled back to their home countries on infrequent international flights, others elected to stay, facilitated by sympathetic authorities who no doubt saw it as a small way to help keep the economy ticking over. Those that are left are a mixed batch. Apart from a small minority of long-term residents and refugee families from Covid-hit Jakarta, they may be living off trust funds and wealthy parents, struggling to make ends meet as small-scale business people or fall into the category of “digital nomads”, a whole new class of tourist involved in everything from bitcoin trading to art therapy and online hypnotism.Bali is already a world-leading destination for digital nomads, second only to Barcelona in one survey. Regional competition comes from places like Phuket and Chiang Mai in Thailand, and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, where one of the prerequisites is always a fast internet. A beach helps, too.Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno, a former vice-presidential candidate who moved his office to Bali to oversee the island’s revival, wants to eventually attract more of the nomads with a new long-term visa that would allow foreign tourists to stay for up to five years.
    (...)The minister has already invited people from across Indonesia to work and study in Bali. Among those who have already moved there are several Jakarta-based foreign businessmen, lured by the prospect of their children being able to attend international schools, rather than learn remotely as they have done for a year now.