Canadians appear eager to take off for sun destinations despite ongoing COVID-19 challenges

Michel Dubois has packed his bags, even though his planned trip to Cuba is still more than two months away.

That’s because the retired TV cameraman and editor from Saint-Jérome, Que., is eager for a break from the monotony of pandemic life.

“After a year and a half of sitting in front of my TV and computer, it’s time to move on,” said Dubois, 70, who plans to do some scuba diving and enjoy the sun.

Trips like the one Dubois has booked are giving airlines and tour operators something to look forward to as well — seemingly better business prospects after months of severely hampered operations due to pandemic-related border closures and travel restrictions.

Some key travel players are reporting increased demand for bookings to sun destinations, despite the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic that has yet to end inside or outside Canada’s borders.

Better days ahead?

The onset of the pandemic prompted governments — including Canada’s — to urge people to stay home to stem the spread of the coronavirus and its variants.

It’s a stance Ottawa still holds, even though the government recently loosened restrictions for incoming travellers who are vaccinated.

Tourists relax on a beach in Cancun, Mexico, last month. (Marco Ugarte/The Associated Press)

“We continue to advise against non-essential travel outside of Canada,” Global Affairs Canada said in an email on Friday, noting that this applies to all countries around the globe.

The department also pointed to practical concerns for those who choose to go abroad.

“Additional travel restrictions can be imposed suddenly. Airlines can suspend or reduce flights without notice. Travel plans may be severely disrupted, making it difficult to return home.”

WATCH | Incoming travellers and Canada’s 4th COVID-19 wave:

Canada walks fine line as border reopens during fourth wave

As Canada prepares to allow non-essential travel from nearly anywhere in the world, the country walks a fine line between needing to reopen and fears over the fourth wave of COVID-19. 2:00

Indeed, COVID-19 travel restrictions vary from country to country, with vaccine passports gaining traction with some governments. Prior to the current federal election campaign, Ottawa had announced plans to develop such documentation for international travel.

Then and now

Ambarish Chandra, an associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto, says that while the government actively discouraged travel last winter, that didn’t deter all people from going abroad — such as snowbirds who went to Florida.

With the progress on vaccination that has been made, Chandra said he believes Ottawa’s stance on leisure travel may have to shift.

“I don’t think it would be reasonable for the government to go a second winter season saying: ‘Don’t travel,'” Chandra said in an interview.

A mask-wearing pilot at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in March 2020, the same month the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Many border closures and travel restrictions were soon put into effect in countries around the world. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Jörg Fritz, an associate professor in the microbiology and immunology department at Montreal’s McGill University, says that as travel picks up, Canada will have to keep a close eye on what strains of the virus are circulating here and around the globe.

“We simply need to face that this virus will not go away that quickly,” he said.

“The danger that new variants arise that might escape vaccine-induced immunity is still there and will be there for quite a while.”

It’s also key for Canada to continue increasing its vaccination rate and to ensure that children are protected as soon as that is possible, Fritz said.

A desire to get away

Air Canada says the upcoming fall and winter looks promising for travel to sun destinations.

“When looking to the sun market, we are very optimistic about our recovery,” airline spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News in a recent email, adding that “we are currently observing demand growth that is above 2019 levels.”

Sunwing Travel Group says it’s seeing ‘encouraging demand’ for sun-destination bookings compared with last fall. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, Sunwing Travel Group reports seeing “encouraging demand” compared with last fall, which spokesperson Melanie Anne Filipp says shows Canadians are growing more confident about travelling again.

“The rise in vaccinations across the country and easing border measures have without a doubt contributed to Canadians’ increasing interest in travel to sun destinations,” said Filipp, who noted that business remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Montreal-based Air Transat is currently flying passengers to a mix of domestic and international locations. Some of its sun destinations include Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Mexico.

“We confirm that demand is doing well, and we clearly feel that the urge to travel is back,” Air Transat spokesperson Debbie Cabana said via email.

“However, because of the uncertainty that still exists when traveling abroad, bookings are being made more last minute than before the pandemic.”

Being able to back out

A last-minute travel buy was not the story for Dubois, the retired TV cameraman, who booked his own trip back in January.

But he also bought a ticket that will allow him to cancel his plans up to 24 hours before departure, with a full refund.

Tourists take a break at a restaurant in Havana, Cuba, in August 2019. Seven months later, the global pandemic was declared, bringing an end to most leisure travel throughout the world. (Fernando Medina/Reuters)

On prior trips, he hadn’t tended to pencil in the possibility of needing to cancel — but that was before COVID-19.

“Before now, no,” said Dubois, who worked for both CBC and Radio-Canada during his career. “Now, definitely.”

The University of Toronto’s Chandra says the more flexible arrangements being offered by airlines reflects the fact that some customers won’t be willing to book expensive tickets if there’s a chance they will lose their money.

Rolling out the welcome mat

Dubois is heading to Cuba at the end of November, and by that time, travel restrictions will have been eased.

The Cuban Tourism Ministry recently announced that as of Nov. 15, Canadians with proof of vaccination won’t have to take a test before heading to the country. They’ll also be able to travel across the island.

Vacationers take to the water at a Club Med resort in the Dominican Republic before the pandemic. With the progress on vaccination that has been made, one expert says he believes Ottawa’s restrictive stance on leisure travel may have to shift. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Sunwing’s Filipp said that “numerous sun destinations are already open for travel,” and like Cuba, other destinations are expected to ease restrictions of their own as vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 cases decline.

Chandra says he’s doubtful that differing rules between sun destinations will have much of an effect on travel patterns.

That’s because a lot of sun seekers — and snowbirds in particular — are likely to “stick to their choices” when it comes to their desired winter getaways. “They’re not going to go other places,” he said.

They’re also unlikely to go to other regions because they head south to take advantage of the better weather, he said.

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India asks UK to review the ongoing travel ban

India asks UK to review the ongoing travel ban

Indian foreign secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla said that the UK Foreign Office has now been briefed regarding the covid situation in India. India is hoping that the UK will be encouraged to review the travel ban from India. Shringla said that many Indian cities are almost free of COVID at this point. The Foreign Minister arrived in the UK for a two-day visit.

India is currently on the red list of the UK, therefore, travel is banned from India to the country. The Foreign Secretary during his visit mentioned that here in India, cities such as Delhi, and Mumbai, and practically COVID-free, and that the country is taking all measures to avoid a third wave.

Delhi reported 66 new covid cases in the last 24 hours, while Mumbai reported 413 new cases during the same period. The country is going through a decline in the number of infections after the horrific second wave, but citizens are ought to take special care as restrictions begin to relax.

The Foreign Secretary briefed UK officials on the COVID situation in the country while pointing out that France had cleared visitors from India, and that too, without quarantine for fully vaccinated passengers. The US too has upgraded India in terms of travel, from no travel to consider travel in its advisory.

Currently, because India is in the red list, which basically bans Indans from travelling to the UK, while returning travellers are required to quarantine for a period of ten days. With a decrease in the number of infections in India, travel to the UK could soon be possible.

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Michigan State football QB battle ongoing, but will be decided in camp


INDIANAPOLIS — With all of the changes to Michigan State’s roster during the offseason, the biggest question of the spring will still be unanswered when preseason camp begins: Who will be the Spartans’ starting quarterback when they travel to Northwestern on Sept. 3 to open the season?

“I feel good about the competition that we have,” coach Mel Tucker said Friday during the Big Ten media days. “It’s open, it’s an open competition. We have capable quarterbacks that all have different skill sets. But it’s going to be competitive.”

Tucker did not tip his hand as to whether sophomore Payton Thorne or Temple graduate transfer Anthony Russo might have the edge to replace 2020 starter Rocky Lombardi, who transferred to Northern Illinois. He likely won’t know until MSU opens preseason camp Aug. 5.

“It’s really close. Really close,” junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor said. “Neck and neck.”

Thorne started in place of an injured Lombardi in MSU’s last game of 2020, going 22-for-39 with three touchdowns and one interception in a 39-24 loss at Penn State. Overall, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Naperville, Illinois, native played in four games, completing 48 of 85 passes for 582 yards with three TDs and three interceptions. He also ran 25 times for 47 yards and a TD.

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Russo, who started 26 games over the past three seasons at Temple, played just three games in 2020 before a shoulder injury and COVID-19 halted his season. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Doylestown, Pennsylvania, native was 92-for-135 with nine touchdowns and six interceptions in those games. Russo left Temple ranked in the school’s top four in passing yards (6, 292), completions (536), attempts (899) and touchdowns (44).

Thorne appeared to have a slight edge during the Spartans’ final spring practice in April, and Tucker said part of that was due to Russo having transferred in January while Thorne was finishing his second season.

“He was still learning the offense, but not this summer,” Nailor said of Russo. “I think he’s got as good a grasp of the offense as well as Payton.”

Junior safety Xavier Henderson agreed with Nailor that the battle is close, saying each brings different physical tools but possess strong leadership capabilities.

“It’s still right there. This is honest — in my opinion, I don’t know (who will start), Henderson said. “They both bring different things. Payton’s maybe a little bit more mobile, but they both can throw the ball well. Russo can throw a fade very well. Payton understands our defense well and knows the weaknesses, so he’s picking us apart in (seven-on-seven). … They both look good, they’re both our leaders in their own way. And I think the competition only makes our team better.”

Tucker said the plan is to figure out who will start the Northwestern game during camp, rather than waiting until game week. And he also expects it to be a fierce battle between the two.

“I’ll say this, your quarterback needs to be your No. 1 competitor on your team,” he said. “And both of those guys are elite competitors.”

Vaccination update

Tucker said “about 90%” of the Spartans have received COVID-19 vaccinations so far, with players set to report Aug. 4.

“We’re encouraging our players to get vaccinated,” he said. “And it’s all about education and individual conversations and being authentic and being real. It’s about trust.”

Tucker said players who are vaccinated will only be tested for COVID-19 if they are exhibiting symptoms, while those who are unvaccinated will have their saliva tested six times a week.

Senior defensive end Drew Beesley said getting vaccinated or not was a conversation point among the players this summer.

“Everyone has a choice in this matter,” he said. “If they choose to get, that’s fine; if not, then that’s fine, too. As long as you show up and do your job and do your part, it doesn’t really matter to me.”

Tucker said his staff have made it their goal to get as many players vaccinated as they can, and he admitted it is partly to try and keep them on the field.

“Your best ability is availability,” he said. “Our players understand how important that is, and we have a very competitive roster. The timing of a positive test could have, depending on the timing, it determines the magnitude and the effect on the team. So that’s all things that we take into account. So our goal is to get as many of our players vaccinated as we can.”

Contact Chris Solari: Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

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State Dept. Updates Travel Advisories Due To Ongoing Pandemic – Coronavirus (COVID-19)

United States:

State Dept. Updates Travel Advisories Due To Ongoing Pandemic

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The Department of State expanded its travel advisories to warn
U.S. citizens not to travel to many areas due to ongoing
“unprecedented risks” posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The
Department is warning travelers against going to
“approximately 80% of countries worldwide.”


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The Ongoing COVID-19 Crisis In India: Updates

A deserted view of Railway Link road during the weekend lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus disease, on May 2 in Amritsar, in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab.
Photo: Hindustan Times via Getty Images

India continues to face the world’s most devastating wave of the coronavirus pandemic, an onslaught of infections and deaths that has overwhelmed the nation’s health-care system and prompted lockdowns across the country. Each day now brings a world record in new cases per day, with the nation reporting more than 400,000 on Saturday, and more than 390,000 on Sunday — the 11th straight day more than 300,000 cases have been confirmed. Though international aid continues to arrive, including from the U.S., well over 3,000 people continue to die every day. 3,700 new deaths were reported on Sunday. Both the number of deaths and infections are via the government’s official count — which is definitely much lower than the actual numbers of sick and dying, according to experts. Below is an ongoing look at the unprecedented crisis, including new developments and the likely consequences.

A team of scientists which advises India’s government said Friday that according to their model, the wave of COVID cases may peak sometime in the coming days. A group of researchers at CLSA in Hong Kong, however, have predicted that the current wave won’t peak until June, while the State Bank of India suggested it would be around the third week of May in a report which came out a week ago.

Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla told the Financial Times on Sunday that the country’s severe vaccine shortage will persist through July, and deflected blame over the shortage to India’s government. Poonawalla, who left India for the U.K. with his family two weeks ago, previously said he had left the country in part due to threats he received from government officials, but downplayed the safety concerns to the FT.

Writing for STAT News, longtime Times of India health journalist Kalpana Jain explains that while the current breakdown of India’s health system is the most tragic she has ever seen — the neglect that helped cause it has been an ongoing tragedy for decades:

India’s health care system was envisaged soon after its independence in 1947 as a three-tier system that could cover the entire country. It was to have a primary care system at the village level, a secondary care system to cover smaller urban centers, and tertiary care for specialized treatment. Over the years, though, the emphasis moved to for-profit tertiary care hospitals, mainly in big cities, with state-of-the-art that provided care mainly to the urban rich. Profits from these hospitals, which go into paying the high salaries of doctors and top executives, took precedence over attempts to regulate them or stop malpractice, such as overcharging patients or unnecessary surgeries.

Successive governments before Modi’s supported this unplanned growth, paying little heed to the health infrastructure that was underfunded, poorly staffed, and falling apart. Sushma Swaraj, a senior politician in the Bharatiya Janata party — today’s ruling party — who I interviewed in 1999 on the party’s absence of focus on health care in its parliamentary election manifesto, told me, “Health is a thing for the rich. We in India have to focus on getting bread to the poor.” …

The fact is that the poor in India have struggled to get health care for decades. Most health expenditures in India are paid for out of pocket and paying for health care is among the leading things that push people below the poverty line. A 2017 study by the Public Health Foundation of India found that health expenses were responsible for driving 55 million Indians into poverty between 2011 and 2012. As many as 90% of the poor have no health insurance.

The Hindu’s former health editor, Vidya Krishnan, described India’s health system inequality as a symptom of “moral malnutrition” in an Atlantic piece last week:

Our doctors are among the best trained on the planet, and as is well known by now, our country is a pharmacy for the world, thanks to an industry built around making cost-effective medicines and vaccines. What is evident, however, is that we suffer from moral malnutrition—none of us more so than the rich, the upper class, the upper caste of India. And nowhere is this more evident than in the health-care sector.

India’s economic liberalization in the ’90s brought with it a rapid expansion of the private health-care industry, a shift that ultimately created a system of medical apartheid: World-class private hospitals catered to wealthy Indians and medical tourists from abroad; state-run facilities were for the poor. Those with money were able to purchase the best available care (or, in the case of the absolute richest, flee to safety in private jets), while elsewhere the country’s health-care infrastructure was held together with duct tape. The Indians who bought their way to a healthier life did not, or chose not to, see the widening gulf. Today, they are clutching their pearls as their loved ones fail to get ambulances, doctors, medicine, and oxygen. …

[T]here is no shortcut to public health, no opting out from it. Now the rich sit alongside the poor, facing a reckoning that had only ever plagued the vulnerable in India.

According to the Indian Express, some of the country’s top pandemic officials have been “pushing hard” for another lockdown over the last few weeks. Those who spoke with the Express cited the rampant community spread across the country, growing anger within the overwhelmed medical community, and the unfolding disaster in rural areas as reasons the lockdown was needed.

India’s Supreme Court called for more lockdowns on Sunday, as well, as did the president of the Confederation of Indian Industry.

In an interview with the Indian Express on Friday, top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci also said that India should strongly consider instituting a temporary national lockdown:

There is the immediate, the intermediate, and the long range. I think the most important thing in the immediate is to get oxygen, get supplies, get medication, get PPE, those kinds of things but also, one of the immediate things to do is to essentially call a shutdown of the country. … Literally, lock down so that you wind up having less spread. No one likes to lock down the country. Well, that’s a problem when you do it for six months. But if you do it just for a few weeks, you could have a significant impact on the dynamics of the outbreak.

It’s not clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is even considering another national lockdown, however, particularly after the poorly planned first one, starting in March of last year, caused so much chaos. In the meantime, the central government has left lockdown decisions up to state and municipal governments, and at least 11 states and union territories have instituted lockdowns across much of the country amid the current wave.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020 as the first wave of the pandemic swept the globe. Though there were only several hundred confirmed cases of COVID-19 in India at the time, he shut down public transportation and told the nation of nearly 1.4 billion people that they needed to remain in their homes for the next three weeks — and only gave them four hours notice before one of the world’s strictest lockdowns began.

Tens of millions of migrant workers were left stranded in urban areas, suddenly without work, income, or food. Many workers tried to walk or bike hundreds of miles home to their villages, and at least hundreds died in the attempt, either from accidents or exhaustion. (The full death toll remains unknown.)

As the humanitarian crisis worsened, the government set up more than 4,600 emergency trains to transport workers back to their villages — but most passengers were not screened for the coronavirus before they boarded and other precautions like social distancing went unfollowed and unenforced. As a result, COVID spread on the trains — and wherever passengers got off. It led to some of the the nation’s worst initial outbreaks of infection and death, often in rural communities where health systems were already inadequate. As the New York Times explained late last year, “the special trains operated by the government to ease suffering — and to counteract a disastrous lack of lockdown planning — instead played a significant role in spreading the coronavirus into almost every corner of the country.”

By all appearances, India’s central government, including its COVID task force, simply didn’t consider what the lockdown would mean for the country’s massive migrant workforce. And then they mismanaged the consequences so poorly that the lockdown both stopped and facilitated the spread of COVID-19 across India.

Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of Serum of Institute of India, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, including the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine in India, moved to the U.K. with his family just before the country restricted travel from India a week ago. In an interview with the Times of London, Poonawalla said the decision was in part due to the harassment he was receiving:

The calls come from some of the most powerful men in India. They come from the chief ministers of Indian states, heads of business conglomerates and others demanding instant supplies of Covishield, as the AstraZeneca vaccine is known in India. “ ‘Threats’ is an understatement,” Poonawalla says. “The level of expectation and aggression is really unprecedented. It’s overwhelming. Everyone feels they should get the vaccine. They can’t understand why anyone else should get it before them.”

The calls begin cordially, but when Poonawalla explains that he cannot possibly meet the callers’ demands “the conversations go in a very different direction”, he says. “They are saying if you don’t give us the vaccine it’s not going to be good … It’s not foul language. It’s the tone. It’s the implication of what they might do if I don’t comply. It’s taking control. It’s coming over and basically surrounding the place and not letting us do anything unless we give in to their demands.”

“Everything falls on my shoulders but I can’t do it alone,” he continued. “I don’t want to be in a situation where you are just trying to do your job, and just because you can’t supply the needs of X, Y or Z you really don’t want to guess what they are going to do.”

The World Health Organization recently citied a “perfect storm” combination of three factors for the horrifying surge of new COVID cases in India: low vaccination rates, mass gatherings, and more contagious COVID variants. Put even more simply, India — and in particular Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the country’s central government, which is controlled by Modi’s BJP party — tried to get back to normal prematurely, and the country is now paying an enormous price for turning its back on the coronavirus.

It all started, according to Indian health care journalist Vikas Dandekar, when India’s impressive-looking quick turnaround from the first wave “raised false hopes that the virus had run out of steam in India and the country would be spared a second wave”:

Virologists, modeling experts, and prominent epidemiologists appeared on TV shows to suggest that herd immunity may have kicked in, with testing in some cities showing the existence of anti-Covid antibodies in up to half of communities. Some professed that Indians have stronger-than-average immune systems, or they may be spared from COVID-19 by cross protection from other infectious diseases. A few invoked evolutionary biology and said the virus will not kill all its hosts and endanger its own existence.

Then India’s hyper-nationalism took over. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and senior leaders from his Bharatiya Janata Party, who thrive on overwhelming popularity, took no time to claim victory in the fight against the virus. Election rallies attracted soaring crowds. As Modi and Amit Shah, the two top leaders, brazenly took off their masks during their incessant campaigns, those in the crowds followed and dropped theirs.

Further fueling new cases was Kumbh Mela, a gargantuan confluence of Hindu pilgrims who gathered for a holy dip in the Ganges River. As many as 2.5 million people took part, with scant attention to COVID-19 safety protocols. By the time an avalanche of criticism cut short the festival, the virus had infected thousands of pilgrims, who took it home to their neighborhoods and villages.

Efforts to crank up a badly hobbled economy also added to the spread. Business and manufacturing activities began reopening in May 2020 as ministers projected a V-shaped economic recovery while scientific messaging to keep wearing masks and follow social distancing took a beating. Masks, which had become part of public life in India for most part of 2020, gradually disappeared from faces.

Meanwhile, the country has had a sluggish vaccine rollout — with only 2 percent of the population now fully vaccinated — leaving India extremely vulnerable to community transmission, particularly with more transmissible coronavirus variants like B.1.1.7 spreading.

Photo: Our World in Data

In mid-February, the country was reporting less than 10,000 COVID cases and 100 deaths a day. An exponential explosion has followed. India reported more than 400,000 new COVID-19 infections in a 24-hour period on Saturday, setting another new world record in daily cases.

Photo: Our World in Data

The number of people who have been killed by COVID-19 in India is now over 211,000. At least 30 percent of those deaths have come in the last two months, and the country is now recording over 3,300 new deaths every day. India now accounts for more than a third of the world’s current cases, and nearly 40 percent of new cases reportedly globally of the last few months.

And all of those numbers and calculations are based on the government’s official data, which experts agree is a severe undercount.

Thus far, India’s mass-vaccination efforts have not gone well — which is one of the primary reasons it was left vulnerable for the current wave of cases. Two vaccines are currently available in the country, AstraZeneca’s and one developed by India’s own Bharat Biotech. Both are two-dose vaccines, and manufactured in India. Nearly 11 percent of the country’s almost 1.4 billion residents have gotten at least one dose of a COVID vaccine — which offers some protection against infection — but just over 2 percent of the population has received a second dose. The country opened up eligibility for the vaccine to all adults on May 1, but that may simply worsen another problem:

There isn’t enough vaccine supply
That’s despite India being the world’s largest supplier of vaccines, as the Atlantic’s Yasmeen Serhan recently explained:

India’s role as a major pharmaceutical producer has been spotlighted during the pandemic; it has provided 20 percent of the world’s generic drugs as well as more than 60 percent of the world’s vaccines, despite having inoculated just 1 percent of its own population against COVID-19.* The country has the capacity to manufacture 70 million doses a month, but even with all of those doses directed toward its domestic needs, they’re not enough to meet the overwhelming demand. At present, India is administering some 3 million doses a day. To protect its population of 1.4 billion, [University of Michigan biostatician and epidemiologist Bhramar] Mukherjee said that rate would need to increase threefold.

Multiple states in India reportedly ran out of vaccine ahead of the weekend, forcing the temporary closure of many vaccination sites.

The U.S. and other foreign governments have begun — too late, according to may critics — trying to help bolster India’s vaccine supply and vaccine-production efforts, but it’s not clear how quickly that will result in actual vaccinations.

The shortage isn’t the only problem
On top of everything else, the Indian Express reported earlier this week that India’s efforts to actually get shots in arms has been plagued with issues at the state and local level:

As India tries to accelerate its massive vaccination programme in the middle of a devastating second Covid-19 wave, ground reports from states indicate a complex set of problems ranging from shortage of doses to glitches on the registration portal to panic and fear of the vaccines running out. If the initial weeks of vaccination saw a general reluctance among the public, the severity of the pandemic’s second wave has forced them to flock to vaccination centres, flouting the very rules meant to keep them safe. And to top it off, the [government] will open vaccination to everyone above the age of 18 from May 1, even as [hundreds of thousands] of people in the 45-60 and above 60 high-priority age groups still await the jab.

As one example, a combination of limited vaccine supply and mass-scheduling error prompted chaos at one of the main vaccination centers in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram last Monday, per the Express:

[A]t the Jimmy George Indoor Stadium[,] COVID-19 protocols were blatantly violated as hundreds of people, many of them above 60 years of age with comorbidities, flocked to the centre from 7 am to get a shot. The bizarre reason for the crowd was that a majority of them had been provided the same time-slot online. With no access to drinking water or seating, at least three persons fainted in the queue and had to be admitted to hospitals.

On Wednesday, after registration for people aged 18-44 to schedule vaccinations was opened up, the central government web portal and a major app used for booking appointments both briefly crashed under the demand.

Another issue: almost half of the population of India doesn’t have internet access.

India’s government played politics with its vaccines — and lost
At the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman recently argued that vaccine nationalism appears to have blown up in India and Modi’s face: the government failed to place timely orders with Indian vaccine manufacturers; it dragged its feet on authorizing foreign vaccines while promoting one designed in India; and vaccine diplomacy concerns, both as a point of national pride and competition with rival power China, led the government to export vaccines it clearly should have been keeping more of that supply and distributing it to its own citizens instead.

There has also been backlash over the central government allowing India’s pharmaceutical companies to charge state governments and private hospitals for vaccines administered to people under the age of 45, and set their own prices, which led to a partial walk-back from one of the companies on Monday.

A COVID-19 patient rests inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a coronavirus ward in New Delhi on Friday, April 30.
Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images

As is the case in every major new COVID outbreak around the world, there has been a lot of attention on how coronavirus variants might be fueling the skyrocketing number of cases in India — and in particular, the B.1.617 variant which originated in the country. The other variant being detected in genetic surveillance of India cases is the better known B.1.1.7 variant which originated in the U.K., is believed to be more transmissible, and has been taking hold in the U.S. and many other countries. Both are spreading in India, albeit not universally, according to available data — and the variants are likely making it easier for the coronavirus to spread there. How much, and why, is not yet fully clear.

B.1.617 has been referred to as a “double mutant,” since the variant (or rather, one of the three versions of the variant which have been detected) has two worrying mutations which could be making it more dangerous. One mutation likely makes B.1.617 more transmissible, similar to B.1.1.7. The other is the same mutation found in the B.1.351 South Africa variant which scientists believe has a minor impact on vaccine efficacy.

First of all, every variant could be called a multiple mutant, since numerous mutations are normal. So the “double mutant” description for B.1.617, which sounds sort of scary, is a bit of a misnomer. Second, and more importantly, there just isn’t enough evidence to support the conclusion that B.1.617 is fueling the outbreak in India, or, as some have been worrying, better able to break through the protection provided the COVID vaccines which have been administered in the country, or better able to reinfect people who have antibodies from a previous coronavirus infection. Thus far, the available data on so-called “breakthrough infections” in India — real-world COVID cases among fully vaccinated people — indicates that only a fraction of a percent (.02 to .04 percent) of fully vaccinated people there have caught COVID.

Unfortunately, for a variety of not-great reasons, there isn’t enough genomic sequencing currently being done of cases in India to get a more complete picture of how prevalent the variants have become, as the New York Times emphasized on Tuesday:

So far the evidence is inconclusive, and researchers caution that other factors could explain the viciousness of the outbreak[.] … Still, the presence of the variant could complicate the taming of India’s Covid-19 disaster. “The current wave of Covid has a different clinical behavior,” said Dr. Sujay Shad, a senior cardiac surgeon at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, where two of the doctors needed supplemental oxygen to recover. “It’s affecting young adults. It’s affecting families. It’s a new thing altogether. Two-month-old babies are getting infected.” …

“While it’s almost certainly true B.1.617 is playing a role, it’s unclear how much it’s contributing directly to the surge and how that compares to other circulating variants, especially B.1.1.7,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

The U.S. will begin restricting travel from India next week in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the White House announced Friday. The restrictions, which will go into place Tuesday, May 4, will ban entry to the U.S. for people who have been in India over the previous 14 days, CNN reports — though not everyone:

The policy will not apply to American citizens, lawful permanent residents or other people with exemptions. As with all international travelers, individuals who fit that criteria traveling from India must still test negative prior to leaving the country, quarantine if they have not been vaccinated and test negative again upon reentering the US from India. The restrictions also do not apply to humanitarian workers.

That policy is similar to the restrictions currently in place for travelers who have been in the E.U. and Brazil. Numerous other countries have already restricted travel from India, including the U.K. and Canada.

The city’s municipal government announced the closure of 94 vaccination centers on Friday, citing the lack of vaccine supply, and said the closures would only last through Sunday. Only 26.7 million people — about 2 percent of India’s population of nearly 1.4 billion — have been fully vaccinated as of the end of the week — though 152 million doses have been administered nationwide. Residents of New Delhi have also been asked not to show up for vaccinations on Saturday due to the lack of supply there. Reuters reports that several states in India have run out of vaccine doses.

This post has been updated.

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Mexico sees increase in American tourists despite ongoing pandemic

Despite a CDC warning to avoid all travel to Mexico, vacation hotspots like Quintana Roo and Cancun are seeing a surge of American tourists. This February and March, available flight seats are up almost 10 percent compared to 2020. Wendy Gillette reports.

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