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Isolation not enough to save Amazon indigenous village from COVID-19

TRES UNIDOS, BRAZIL (Reuters) – Tres Unidos, an indigenous village in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, locked out all visitors, hoping that isolation would keep it safe. And yet the new coronavirus still came.

It arrived, most likely up the Rio Negro, the giant snaking river that connects Tres Unidos with the Amazon’s largest city, Manaus – five hours away by boat.

The rivers, the lifeblood of these remote communities, are now also bringing disease. The dots of confirmed coronavirus deaths on a map published by Brazil’s government follow the rivers in these remote parts.

Waldemir da Silva, the village chief better known here as Tuxuau Kambeba, said the virus came quietly, as if carried on the wind.

“The virus is treacherous,” he said, wearing a white face mask and a wooden headdress.

“We started getting ill and thought it was a bad cold, but people got worse. Thank God the children did not get it,” the 61-year-old told Reuters.

The drama of the 35 families of the Kambeba tribe is repeated in indigenous communities across the Amazon, as the epidemic moves upriver from Manaus, one of the hardest hit cities in Brazil, where hospital have run out of intensive care units and cemeteries are using collective graves to bury the dead.

FEAR OF INFECTION

With the virus comes fear. For the inability to know who has the virus. For the poor quality healthcare. For the future of indigenous people.

A non-profit conservationist group, Fundacao Amazonia Sustentavel, based in Manaus, is trying to help.

It has donated test kits and the state government delivered 80 on Thursday to the Kambeba village.

Three people resulted positive when they were tested by the community’s nurse technician, Neurilene Kambeba, adding to 13 previous confirmed cases in the village of 106 people.

“We feared the whole village was infected because many people had symptoms and we had no way of knowing,” she said.

“We are fighting for that virus to disappear and no one dies, because Manaus is very far away and we might not get there in time to save a critical patient.”

The Kambeba, who originated in the upper reaches of the Amazon in the forests of Peru, are known for their mastery of archery. Two men from the village have won medals competing in Brazil’s national team.

The community is treating the sick with hot drinks of traditional herbs prescribed by the elder indigenous woman to cure ills, such as garlic and lemon for coughs, or mangarataia, the word for ginger in their language.

Virgilio Viana, head of the Fundacao Amazonia Sustentavel, said the villages nearest to Manaus were most vulnerable to infection by the coronavirus.

Brazil is far behind other countries in testing for the virus and the situation is even more challenging in the Amazon, he said. The government has said it had difficulties buying tests abroad but has now stepped up testing as it plans to open up the economy, despite surging deaths from COVID-19.

“The rapid tests are very important to be able to diagnose COVID-19 cases so that medical protocols of social distancing can then be followed to avoid contagion,” Viana said.

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City of Vancouver extends property tax deadline, ends free parking

Vancouver city council has voted to push back the deadline for property taxes this year and reinstate metered parking across most of the city.

The 2020 payment deadline for both residential and commercial property taxes has been moved from July 3 to Sept. 30.

Council says statements will be mailed out in June and can be paid at any time between then and the end of September.

Earlier this month, Stewart said he’s seen city-led research that suggests up to 25 per cent of the city’s property owners may not be able to pay their property taxes in full or at all this year.

If those deferrals were come to pass, the city could lose up to $500 million from its operating budget.

Council also voted Tuesday night to resume parking meter enforcement after councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung said residents and business owners have complained some drivers park all day in key spots.

Enforcement was suspended last month as part of the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city says its response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to “significant revenue shortfalls and additional costs,” creating a 2020 budget deficit of $60 to $190 million.

— With files from Sean Boynton The Canadian Press

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Hundreds of Nepalese stuck at India border amid COVID-19 lockdown

Workers returning from India stranded at border points as India-Nepal border closed to prevent spread of coronavirus.

Darchula, Nepal – Ramesh Sista decided he would rather drown than die of hunger in India. The 29-year-old Nepali man managed to swim across the Mahakali river, which acts as a natural border between the two countries.

“You can take me anywhere from here. Hundreds like me are stranded on the other side, sleeping like animals on the ground. This country needs to save them,” Bista said on Tuesday, as he was dragged away by the Nepali police in Darchula.

Thousands of Nepalis in India started walking home after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a complete lockdown on March 24.

An estimated two million Nepalis live and work in India, many as low wage labourers.

On March 22, the Himalayan nation closed its open borders with India, where both people and goods flow freely, to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

It also banned all international flights from March 22, two days before the lockdown was imposed in its southern neighbour.

This has meant that thousands of Nepalese, who want to return home, are stuck at border points across the country’s 1,700km (1,056-mile) border with India.

On the far western corner of Nepal is Darchula, a district of more than 130,000 people with more than half the population living in desperate poverty.

For many Nepalis in Darchula and the surrounding districts, their livelihoods are across the border.

But now, the foot-bridge over the roaring Mahakali river that links the two countries has been sealed, stranding about 800 Nepali workers in Dharchula – an Indian border town in Uttarakhand, a state of 10 million people.

Nepal has just had a handful of COVID-19 cases; five confirmed by the end of March. All the cases so far were “imported” and the government says the lockdown would be important to avoid local transmission of the virus. 

But experts say the low level of infections is due to fewer than 1,000 tests that have been conducted in the nation of about 30 million people.

Nepal’s government built a limited number of border quarantine facilities but when the numbers started increasing, they could not cope.

Thirty-five-year-old Subash BK walked for three days and two nights to reach the Darchula border. He worked as a porter in local markets and had been in Uttarakhand for just more than a month. 

“If we can go back home, we’ll somehow manage to survive. But now, we’ve been told that we’re quarantined here. I don’t know for how long,” he told Al Jazeera.

Human Rights Watch in a statement released on Tuesday said Nepal had abandoned its workers in the fight against COVID-19, as it denied the right to return of its citizens. A large number of Nepalese also work in Malaysia and the Gulf countries.

“Nepal’s government faces huge challenges to keep its people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but its response should not be denying citizens the right to come home,” HRW said.

“The Nepali government should act immediately so that its citizens can come home.” 

The Nepali authorities said the problem of migrants at border points has now been solved. 

“The migrant Nepalis should have stayed put but because they did not understand the idea of lockdown, they started coming home,” Yadunath Paudel, the chief district officer for Darchula, told Al Jazeera.

“But we’ve managed to coordinate with the Indian authorities for food and shelter in five places. We request the people to stay calm,” Paudel said.

But Nepalese workers are not the only group that has fled Indian cities in the wake of the strict lockdown announced by New Delhi. Hundreds of thousands of Indian migrant workers have left cities as economic activity came to a standstill.

About 900km (559 miles) south of Darchula, approximately 1,000 Indian citizens are stuck in the Nepalese border town of Birgunj. They have not been allowed to enter India.

Nepalese journalists say the Indian police fired warning shots at them when they tried to cross over – a charge Indian police denied. All of them have now been quarantined on Nepal’s side of the border, in a local college.

Some Nepalese have sneaked into their villages through fields and rivers without notifying authorities due to the stigma of quarantine.

Al Jazeera met a man who lives near Birgunj, hiding at home. Aditya, whose name has been changed for privacy, had gone to India for work, selling scraps in a nearby town.

He walked 50km (31 miles) back home, through rivers and fields. “I’m scared. If people know I crossed the border illegally, they will mark a big cross on my house. And they will send me to live alone,” he said.

Some local government authorities have started putting a red cross on homes of migrants who have recently returned. Aditya is concerned that his entire village will stigmatise him and his family as disease carriers.

He is more concerned about the “lone quarantine cell”, which he believes is like jail.

People Al Jazeera spoke to in Dharchula on the Indian side said they do not want the Indian government looking after them.

“We migrate because we have to. Our crop is not enough even for a month. To buy food, we have to work in India,” said Mahata from Dharchula via phone.

“If the Nepali government cannot give us work, they can at least let us come home. If we get the disease, we will sell our house and pay for our treatment. We don’t need the government to pay for it.”

But Mahata agrees that quarantine is a must as well. “I also have a wife and children at house. I don’t want to give them a disease. I will quarantine. But please let us come back to Nepal.”

Authorities in Nepal say the borders shall remain sealed, at least for another week.

Additional reporting by Kanchan Jha and Narendra Karki

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Russia to block 'fake news' criticism of coronavirus measures

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office said it would start blocking from Friday access to “fake news” social media posts criticising quarantine measures taken by the city of Moscow to curb the new coronavirus.

Moscow officials have unveiled a tracking app and also plan to roll out a QR-code system to show codes to police monitoring compliance with the lockdown in Russia, where there have been 94 deaths and nearly 12,000 cases.

The prosecutor’s office said that one video in which a man accused authorities of trying to set up a “digital concentration camp” falsely stated that a coup d’etat was underway.

Another post falsely described a system of special passes allowing holders to move around the city freely, it said.

“The prosecutor general’s office continues to take measures to restrict access to information resources where fake news about the situation with the new coronavirus are published,” it said, adding that communications watchdog Roskomnadzor had been asked to remove the video.

Russia last year passed legislation with tough new fines for people spreading misinformation or insulting the state, bringing criticism from some of increased censorship by President Vladimir Putin’s government.

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Macron's popularity jumps as French approve of coronavirus response

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity rating jumped to a more than two-year high, according to an opinion poll published on Friday, showing his handling of the coronavirus crisis was being given a big vote of confidence.

Some 51% of the French “have confidence” in Macron, according to a Harris Interactive opinion poll for LCI television, a 13-point increase compared to the previous month and the highest since January 2018.

“Rarely has such a change been observed,” head of political polling Jean-Daniel Levy said in a note attached to the poll. “The last time a head of state benefited from such a marked increase was during the January 2015 attacks.”

The poll was taken after Macron earlier this week ordered stringent restrictions on people’s movement to slow the spread of the coronavirus, in a televised address watched by a record 35 million people, over half France’s population.

France had already shut down restaurants and bars, closed schools and put ski resorts off limits, but Macron said measures unprecedented in peacetime were needed as the number of infected people doubled every three days and deaths spiraled higher.

It is the first time in two years that Macron’s popularity has crossed the 50% mark in this poll, after falling as low as 31% in December 2018, in the midst of the yellow-vest rebellion sparked by unpopular pro-business reforms and his governing style.

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Israel deploys cyber-monitoring against coronavirus, tells people not to leave home

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli government began deploying cellphone-monitoring technology against the coronavirus on Tuesday, and issued directives urging people not to leave home.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved emergency regulations that will enable the Shin Bet internal security service to tap into cellular data to retrace the movements of people infected by the virus.

The data, customarily used for anti-terrorism, will be used by the Health Ministry to locate and alert those who have been in their vicinity, the government said.

Such cyber monitoring would normally require parliamentary ratification and judicial oversight. Netanyahu, who announced the measure on Monday, circumvented the process by invoking the emergency orders.

In a separate move, the Health Ministry published new directives telling people to largely remain at home.

The directives added beaches and parks to a list of places, including schools, shopping malls, restaurants and theaters, that have been closed to the public. No more than 10 people are supposed to gather together.

But it said Israelis could still go to work – many businesses are operating with reduced staff to try to halt the virus’s spread – shop for food and medicine, exercise outdoors and walk their dogs.

“Even when leaving the house for these purposes, contact between people should be limited and they should stay two meters apart,” the ministry said.

It was not immediately clear if police would be enforcing the tightened restrictions.

The use of anti-terrorism technology to track infected people and anyone with whom they have come in contact drew criticism from civil rights groups when Netanyahu first proposed it over the weekend.

Israeli authorities said the cyber monitoring, in effect for the next two weeks, was aimed only at halting the spread of coronavirus and would ultimately be deleted.

But The Association for Civil Right in Israel called the move “a dangerous precedent and a slippery slope”.

Gabi Ashkenazi, a senior member of the centrist Blue and White Party, also criticized the use of emergency orders.

“It’s inappropriate to approve such a measure in this manner, without public and parliamentary supervision,” he wrote on Twitter.

His party leader, former general Benny Gantz, could be the next prime minister after he was tapped by Israel’s president on Monday to try to form a new government following a March 2 election, the third within a year

However Justice Minister Amir Ohana dismissed the criticism.

“The concerns of those disturbed by cyber monitoring are outweighed by the threat we are facing,” he said on Israel Radio.

There are 324 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel. In the Palestinian territories, 41 have been confirmed in the occupied West Bank, with none in the Gaza Strip.

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Canada's hardest hit province limits virus testing as demand grows for swabs

OTTAWA/TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s most populous province of Ontario, which has reported more than 100 new coronavirus cases, on Saturday said it would limit testing for the respiratory illness until it can guarantee a more steady supply of swabs.

“There is in an increased global demand for viral nasopharyngeal swabs due to COVID-19,” Public Health Ontario said on its Web site. “In an effort to ensure swabs are available where most needed, the Public Health Laboratory is limiting the volume of swabs supplied.”

On Friday, Canada ramped up its fight against the coronavirus outbreak, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging Canadians against all foreign travel during a news conference held outside his home, where he is in quarantine after his wife, Sophie, tested positive for the disease.

Canada also said those who return from abroad should isolate themselves for two weeks. The foreign ministry urged Canadians to return home on commercial flights “while they remain available”.

Travis Kann, spokesman for Ontario’s minister of health, said the province is prioritizing tests for people who do not have any history of travel since everyone who has been outside the country is expected to self-isolate upon return.

“We expect to expand the testing once we’re confident in stable supply, and so we’re working, obviously, with our manufacturing and supply chain partners,” he said. “It’s our hope that we procure them as quickly as possible.”

Ontario has seen about half of the more than 220 cases recorded nationally. With a case on Prince Edward Island confirmed on Saturday, eight of Canada’s 10 provinces have reported cases. Canada has had one death.

British Columbia’s chief medical officer Bonnie Henry also said on Saturday testing would be more limited, also because of the new self-isolation guidelines for international travelers.

“We don’t need to test everyone who’s been outside of the country even if they’re mildly ill,” Henry said in an televised news conference. She said there was no supply problem, but the limits would make sure “those who need those tests get it”.

Both Ontario and British Columbia, after widespread reports of stockpiling, told people that they did not need to horde food because there are no supply problems.

U.S. President Donald Trump said he had a “nice conversation” with Trudeau on Saturday and “to coordinate closely together on COVID-19”.

“Great to hear that his wonderful wife Sophie is doing very well,” he added.

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Kuwait asks Muslims to pray at home to halt coronavirus spread

DUBAI (Reuters) – Kuwait’s religious authorities asked Muslims to pray at home on Friday as Gulf Arab states stepped up measures to fight the spread of the new coronavirus.

Bahrain ordered the release of hundreds of prisoners on Thursday, in one of the biggest pardons since the 2011 uprising against the monarchy, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) which linked the decision to efforts to contain the virus.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a decree granting pardon for 901 prisoners. A further 585 prisoners will spend the remainder of their sentences in rehabilitation and training programs, the state-run Bahrain news agency reported.

Dozens more cases of coronavirus have been registered in the Gulf Arab states over the past 24 hours. Saudi Arabia reported 17 additional cases taking its total to 62.

More than 700 infections have been reported to Friday in the six-nation Arab Cooperation Council. No deaths have been announced so far. Authorities say most of those infected had traveled to Iran, the regional epicenter of the outbreak, or been in contact with returnees.

Iran reported 429 deaths and a total of 10,075 cases on Thursday.

Qatar has 262 cases, Bahrain 195 and the United Arab Emirates 85.

In the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, Etihad Airways announced the suspension of flights to and from Rome and Milan on Friday, from March 14. The death toll in Italy passed 1,000, in Europe’s deadliest outbreak.

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Boeing shares plummet as travel restrictions hit airlines

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Shares in Boeing Co (BA.N) dropped more than 16% on Thursday on concerns that sweeping U.S. travel restrictions on Europe, meant to curb the spreading coronavirus, will hurt the planemaker’s airline customers.

The 30-day travel restrictions, announced by U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday, are expected to deepen financial misery for airlines, which are likely to defer or cancel jet deliveries, Boeing’s main source of cash.

“Airlines are in cash preservation mode,” Cowen analyst Helane Becker said.

Boeing itself is fighting to preserve cash as the coronavirus outbreak compounds fallout from a year-old grounding of its 737 MAX.

J.P.Morgan cut its long-term “overweight” rating on the planemaker’s shares. The stock has lost more than half of its value from a year ago, when a global 737 MAX grounding sparked by a second fatal crash hit investor sentiment.

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Cyprus' largest hospital suspends admissions after heart surgeon diagnosed with coronavirus

ATHENS (Reuters) – Cyprus’ largest medical facility suspended admissions on Tuesday after a heart surgeon tested positive for coronavirus.

The 64-year-old surgeon, who headed up the cardiology ward at Nicosia General hospital, was one of the first two coronavirus cases diagnosed in Cyprus on Monday. He had recently returned from Britain.

By early Tuesday authorities were tracing about 150 people he had come into contact with, including patients and other medical personnel.

The hospital halted all admissions, outpatient clinics, surgeries and visits for 48 hours and said it would gradually discharge or move patients from the heart surgery ward, where the doctor worked.

“What happened to us was probably the worst scenario,” Constantinos Ioannou, health minister of the divided island’s internationally-recognized government, told Sigma TV.

Cyprus was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek Cypriot coup. The Turkish Cypriot north recorded its first case on Tuesday, a German tourist.

She had been taken to a hospital in Nicosia for treatment while the group she traveled with from Germany was quarantined at their hotel, Turkey’s state owned Anadolu said, citing a local news agency.

Northern Cypriot health minister Ali Pilli said the hotel was in Famagusta on the eastern coast and that the 30-member group had arrived from Balingen in Germany on Sunday evening.

On Feb. 29, authorities in the internationally-recognized south shut four checkpoints connecting the two sides of the island in what it said was a precaution to combat any potential spread.

The move, the first time the checkpoints had been closed since they were set up in 2003 to allow movement between the two sides, triggered dismay among peace activists and people who use them on a daily basis.

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