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Manila extends olive branch to Beijing

DHAKA: There is a long queue of people waiting outside Asma Akhter Liza’s house in a quaint corner of the Lalmatia residential area of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The doors of her house will soon open, and Liza, along with a team of 16 volunteers, will begin dishing out free food to the poor and…

DHAKA: There is a long queue of people waiting outside Asma Akhter Liza’s house in a quaint corner of the Lalmatia residential area of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

The doors of her house will soon open, and Liza, along with a team of 16 volunteers, will begin dishing out free food to the poor and needy in her neighborhood exactly an hour before sunset when Muslims break their dawn-to-dusk fast with an iftar or an evening meal.

The scene has played on repeat since the first day of Ramadan this year when Liza, 36, continued the “Mehman Khana” — or guest house initiative — which she launched during the pandemic and ensuing lockdown last year.

The aim was to provide hot meals to orphaned children, rickshaw pullers, street vendors and other marginalized sections of society severely impacted by the health crisis.

“On average, we feed around 1,600 people every day,” Liza told Arab News.

“We also send nearly 400 food packs to different houses in the area. These were all solvent families, but due to the pandemic, they lost their jobs and source of income and felt too embarrassed to queue up for food,” she added.

Each food pack contains dates, lentils, diced cucumbers, puffed rice, a jalebi (deep-fried dessert) and lemonade. 

On Fridays, the menu includes a beef curry with boiled rice and vegetables.

It costs Liza 50 cents to make each pack, with nearly $500 set aside for the initiative every day.

“I do it with my funds and also through the support offered by some friends and relatives. Sometimes, people from the community help me with basic food items too,” she said, adding that a few businesses had offered to sponsor the initiative. But Liza had other plans: “I don’t want to make it a corporate program with big banners, so I declined their offer.” 

Liza, who has been working with underprivileged children at various orphanages for several years, launched her program to feed two dozen street children in Lalmatia.

After losing three of her newborn children “due to health complications,” Liza said she wanted to help other children in need.

“I could see my children in the faces of these helpless street children, which prompted me to initiate this service,” she said.

What began with free meals for 24 street kids soon expanded to 800 people after “so many started approaching me for food.”

However, soon she hit a roadblock due to a severe shortage of funds even as the number of people in need of aid increased every day.

“I couldn’t continue the services for many days, so I cut it down from a daily program to once a week, on Fridays,” she said.

This year, starting from the first week of April, when the government reinforced the coronavirus lockdown, Liza said she decided to reach out to more distressed people during Ramadan.

Supporting her in the initiative are five women and 11 men who help with the food preps and packing from 11 a.m. every day.

“I found out about this initiative through Facebook last year and wanted to join it as a volunteer,” Aeyasha Ferdousi, 39, a primary school teacher from Kustia, 170 km from Dhaka, told Arab News.

“Initially, I would allocate only a few hours of my time. But this year, with schools closed due to the lockdown… I joined Liza full time,” she added.

Ferdousi says Liza’s initiative has had a domino effect, with plans in place to replicate the idea in Kustia.

“I was so moved by the program, and I want to replicate it in my hometown. With experience gained after working with Liza, I think I can manage it without any hassles,” Ferdousi added.

Another volunteer, 19-year-old Syed Sabet Banani, an engineering student from Chottogram, 245 km from Dhaka, is also extending his support for the program.

“During this pandemic, I had nothing to do except sit idle at home. So, I decided to dedicate my time to people most in need of it,” Banani told Arab News.

Some of Mehman Khana’s beneficiaries said the initiative has been a “godsend for all.”

“This iftar saves me at least 50 cents every day. The money I save helps me provide for my family in our village,” Mohammad Ator Ali, 59, a rickshaw puller from Mirpur, told Arab News.

Another rickshaw puller, Yasin Miah, said the food aid program had been a “great help” to many like him who were otherwise worried about sourcing money for a daily meal.

“I don’t get enough passengers in these lockdown days, and my income also decreased. At least now I don’t need to spend any money for iftar,” Miah told Arab News.

Liza said she has vowed to keep the guest house open for as long as the pandemic continues.

“I am really grateful to my husband and in-laws for supporting me in my initiative. I find peace in this and will continue doing it until life gets back to normal,” she said.

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Virus rule extension endangers Euro 2020 final at Wembley

TOKYO: Japanese medical experts said on Friday that banning spectators at the Olympics was the least risky option for holding the Games, even as they appeared resigned to the possibility of fans in venues during the COVID-19 pandemic.The government and Tokyo 2020 organizers have for months held off deciding whether domestic spectators will be allowed…

TOKYO: Japanese medical experts said on Friday that banning spectators at the Olympics was the least risky option for holding the Games, even as they appeared resigned to the possibility of fans in venues during the COVID-19 pandemic.The government and Tokyo 2020 organizers have for months held off deciding whether domestic spectators will be allowed — overseas fans are already banned — underscoring their desire to salvage the event amid deep public opposition.Japan has avoided the kind of explosive coronavirus outbreaks that crippled many other countries. But the vaccine roll-out has been slow and the medical system pushed to the brink in parts of the country. The government’s drive to hold the Games has been criticized by hospitals and doctors’ unions.“There is a risk the movement of people and opportunities to interact during the Olympics will spread infections and strain the medical system,” the experts, led by top health adviser Shigeru Omi, said in a report issued on Friday.They said that holding the Games without spectators was the “least risky” option and the desirable one.Yet Omi’s experts have already floated the possibility that venues could hold up to 10,000 fans in areas where “quasi-emergency” measures, such as shorter restaurant hours, have been lifted. That has heightened the perception the Games may well be held with spectators.The final decision is expected at a meeting set for Monday between organizers, including Tokyo 2020 and the International Olympic Committee, and representatives from the national and Tokyo governments.The president of Tokyo 2020, Seiko Hashimoto, said that while she accepted the Olympics would be safer without spectators, organizers were still looking for ways to have fans safely in venues, like other events.“Given that other sports events are being held with spectators, I think it’s also Tokyo 2020’s job to continue to look for ways to understand and lessen the risk of infections at the Olympics until we’ve exhausted all the possibilities,” she told a news conference following the release of Omi’s report.The Games were delayed last year as the pandemic raged. Cancellation would be costly for organizers, the Tokyo government, sponsors and insurers.Some 41 percent of people want the Games canceled, according to a Jiji news poll released on Friday. If the Games go ahead, 64 percent of the public want them without spectators, the poll found.Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government decided on Thursday to end emergency coronavirus curbs in nine prefectures including Tokyo while keeping some “quasi-emergency” restrictions.Tokyo is scheduled to be under such restrictions until July 11. The current state of emergency, the third since April last year, expires on June 20.The lifting of previous emergencies has been followed by increased infections and strains on hospitals.Organizers should be prepared to act swiftly to ban spectators or declare another state of emergency if needed, the experts said. If spectators are allowed, rules should be strict, such as limiting fans to local residents, the experts said.Omi, a former World Health Organization official, has become increasingly outspoken about the risks from the event. He told parliament this month it was “not normal” to hold the Games during a pandemic.Other Japanese health experts and medical organization have been much more vocal, calling for the Games to be canceled outright.One of the signatories of Omi’s recommendations, Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, said he believed canceling the Games would be best, but the decision was for the government and organizers.“If the epidemic situation worsened, no spectators and canceling the Games in the middle (of the event) should be debated,” he told Reuters.The country has recorded more than 776,000 cases and over 14,200 deaths, while just 15 percent of its population has had at least one COVID-19 vaccination.

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UN proposal seeks arms embargo and democracy in Myanmar

DHAKA: Bangladeshi authorities have conditionally cleared the country’s first coronavirus vaccine for clinical trials, which the producer expects to complete in the next few months.The vaccine, Bangavax, is a new generation mRNA vaccine that, like the Pfizer and Moderna ones, teaches our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response inside our…

DHAKA: Bangladeshi authorities have conditionally cleared the country’s first coronavirus vaccine for clinical trials, which the producer expects to complete in the next few months.The vaccine, Bangavax, is a new generation mRNA vaccine that, like the Pfizer and Moderna ones, teaches our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. Developed by Dhaka-based Globe Biotech Ltd. (GBL), the vaccine was approved for production by the country’s drug regulator in late December.On Wednesday, the Bangladesh Medical Research Council (BMRC) approved clinical trials of Bangavax under the condition that “before starting any human trial, the vaccine producing company needs to conduct an animal trial on monkeys or chimpanzees,” BMRC director Prof. Dr Ruhul Amin said.GBL has been waiting for the trial approval since January.“It’s a lengthy process,” Amin said. “However, we are doing our best to facilitate the trials of Bangavax.”Dr. Mohammed Mohiuddin, head of quality at GBL, said that while the company is now waiting for the BMRC’s written recommendations, it is preparing to start the trials.“It will take us eight to nine months to complete the whole process,” he said. “Since we are using pure mRNA technology in Bangavax and no virus is used in this process, we are supposedly not required to make an animal trial.” He said that GBL was in touch with organizations abroad as there is no institution conducting animal trials in Bangladesh.“To run an animal trial, some foreign companies are asking for a G2G — government to government contract. We hope the government should extend help to us in this case,” Dr. Mohiuddin said.As Bangavax is estimated to cost $10-$15, several dollars cheaper than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it may help Bangladesh with its immunization drive, in which only 2.6 percent of the country’s 166 million people has been vaccinated so far, mainly due to a shortage of COVID-19 jabs.

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Dr. Mohammed Mushtuq Husain, an adviser at the state-run Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), said if Bangavax trials prove successful they would position Bangladesh ‘ahead in the vaccine race amid this global crisis period.’

GBL says it has the capacity to produce 10 million doses a month, and its lab tests on mice suggest that one dose would suffice.“We are expecting that it will be a single dose vaccine as we found about 100 percent efficacy rate during lab trial on mice,” Dr. Mohiuddin said.Dr. Mohammad Mushtuq Husain, an adviser at the state-run Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), said if Bangavax trials prove successful they would position Bangladesh “ahead in the vaccine race amid this global crisis period.”“They (GBL) should be provided with necessary administrative and financial support as and when required. But the highest level of precaution is a must at every stage of the trials,” he said.“If we become successful in this endeavor, Bangladesh may consider exporting vaccine to other developing countries after meeting local demand.”

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Kuwait to allow vaccinated foreigners entry from August

LONDON: Iran-backed militias in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) employ assassinations, kidnappings and other forms of violence in order to protect the income they derive from widespread and deep-rooted corruption in Iraq, a panel of experts said on Thursday.At an online event hosted by British think tank Chatham House and attended by Arab News, Mohammad…

LONDON: Iran-backed militias in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) employ assassinations, kidnappings and other forms of violence in order to protect the income they derive from widespread and deep-rooted corruption in Iraq, a panel of experts said on Thursday.At an online event hosted by British think tank Chatham House and attended by Arab News, Mohammad Al-Hakim, senior advisor on economic reform to Iraq’s prime minister, said the country’s corruption crisis extends back to the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule, but is now systemic, politically sanctioned and backed by the threat of violence by Iran-backed groups.“There’s a deep problem with the structure of the Iraqi state. This is very much a legacy that needs to be addressed,” Al-Hakim said. “The Iraqi state system has been deteriorating over 50 years.”Iraq ranks in the bottom 20 countries in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.Government employees from the bottom to the top of Iraqi governance are engaging in systematic corruption, said Al-Hakim.At the highest levels of the Iraqi state, civil servants have developed relationships with politicians that they use to line their own pockets and make money for their political allies.Maya Gebeily, Middle East correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said one of the underpinnings of this system is the PMF, which operates as a “cartel,” using violence to suppress any opposition or attempt to upturn the status quo.“It’s important to think about this corruption as a cartel. There are players in the cartel who agree with each other on how to divvy up the spoils that are coming in either from tariffs, from a specific project, or into the ministry,” she added.“That’s why there are no ‘turf wars’ … because everyone is benefitting from this system. As soon as the bodies start showing up, that means an economic loss.”But that has not deterred the militias from violence, Gebeily said. They just do not use it against each other.“What they’re doing is using violence against anybody who’s trying to root out corruption. Researchers, activists and others who’ve been extremely vocal about corruption have been kidnapped, murdered or otherwise harassed,” she said.Law-abiding officials have been physically threatened, beaten up or had their families attacked when they refused to be complicit in corruption.“Armed groups use violence as an enforcement mechanism to make sure their economic interests are secured,” said Gebeily.“Let’s say you want to import cigarettes. Cigarettes are extremely lucrative to import, so you need an extremely powerful group — and the one I discovered was importing them was Kata’ib Hezbollah — to be involved in that import.”Iraq’s most powerful armed militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah has directly attacked US forces in the country.It is also widely believed to be behind a string of assassinations and kidnappings, including that of Hisham Al-Hashimi, a journalist who described the Iran-backed group as “the strongest and most dangerous group in the so-called Islamic resistance.”Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, said: “If we’re talking about power and where it lies in the Iraqi state, you only need look at the attempt by the prime minister to arrest Qasem Muslih, the leader of a brigade in the PMF, and why the prime minister was unable to keep someone who he accused of having a role in assassinations in jail.”Mansour added: “Actually, these aren’t just militias. They have more connectivity to Iraq’s Parliament, to Iraq’s judiciary, than the prime minister does. They’re effectively connected to power in a more central way than the traditional and formal heads of state.”This reveals the true and farcical nature of power in Iraq, Mansour said. “Those sitting on top of the system struggle with access to the state that they’re meant to be head of,” he added.“Those apparently sitting outside the state actually have more connectivity to the essence, the power, the core of the state.”

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