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Czechs, Slovaks report surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitals stretched

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November 10, 2021

By Robert Muller

PRAGUE (Reuters) -The Czech Republic and Slovakia reported fresh surges in coronavirus infections on Wednesday and again had to start limiting non-urgent hospital care to cater for admissions of COVID-19 patients.

Slovakia, a country of 5.5 million, reported a record high 7,055 new cases for Tuesday, and the Czech Republic, twice the size, reported 14,539 cases, not far from an all-time peak seen in January.

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Both countries have been tightening restrictions but they have been far more lax than in previous waves thanks to partial shielding from vaccination and infections affecting younger people.

But hospitals, especially in northern Slovakia, have reported strained capacity and many in both countries said were putting off non-urgent procedures.

In Germany, cases also surged to all-time records this week.

The outgoing Czech government of Prime Minster Andrej Babis has rejected imposing lockdowns, saying vaccinations were the way to tame the resurgent pandemic.

The cabinet will meet on Friday to consider further measures, he said.

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A leading Czech epidemiologist said management of the pandemic was being caught up in politics amid a transition of power following the Oct 8-9 election.

“It will take weeks to establish a new government, while the health ministry seems to have no clear vision,” Petr Smejkal, head epidemiologist at the prestige Prague IKEM hospital and a member of the government’s team studying health risks, said in an interview on Czech Radio.

“It is kind of deja vu of what we saw last year,” he said, referring to a 2020 autumn surge amid a lack of government action that put the country among the worst-affected nations in Europe.

In Slovakia, hospitalisations stood at 2,478, and 79.8% of those patients were not fully vaccinated, Health Ministry data showed.

A hospital in Zilina, in northern Slovakia, had to transfer 16 COVID patients between Saturday and Monday, as it was trying to clear space for new admissions, its spokeswoman told Slovak daily paper Hospodarske Noviny.

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“What we cleared filled back in very fast. Of course, we will provide care for every patient in acute condition, but this is not sustainable in the long term,” Lenka Zatekova told the paper.

Czech hospitalisations rose to 3,295, including 462 people in intensive care, still just above one third of peaks in March. Daily death rates have approached or crossed 50 in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia in recent days.

A hospital in the eastern Czech city of Znojmo near the Slovak border said it was temporarily halting planned procedures except cancer treatment and acute cases, as it had 40 COVID-19 patients, more than double its infectious ward capacity of 15 beds.

With 58.7% of the total population vaccinated, the Czech Republic ranks below the EU average of 64.6%, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Slovakia’s vaccination rate is even lower, at 44.8%.

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The Czech Health Ministry started a new vaccination campaign this week, using photographs of COVID-19 victims accompanied by slogans like: “He did not find the time to get vaccinated.”

(Reporting by Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

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Pope says willing to go to Moscow to meet Orthodox Patriarch

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December 6, 2021

By Philip Pullella

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) – Pope Francis said on Monday he was willing to go to Moscow for to meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill “brother to brother” in what would be the first trip by a pope to Russia.

The pair’s meeting in Cuba in 2016 was the first by a pope and a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church since the great schism that split Christianity into Eastern and Western branches in 1054.

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Both sides have declared a willingness to work towards unity but they are still far apart theologically and over what role the pope would play in an eventually reunited Church.

“We are brothers and we talk straight to each other. We do not dance the minuet,” Francis told reporters aboard his plane returning from a trip to Cyprus and Greece.

“We have to move forward, walking and working towards unity.”

He said he was willing to go Moscow and that a top Russian Orthodox official was expected in Rome next week to decide the time and location of the meeting.

Francis said working out the protocols would be less important than meeting “brother to brother” with Kirill.

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The Pope normally travels to countries with a joint invitation from its religious authorities as well as one from the government, meaning that Francis would most likely need an invitation from President Vladimir Putin to visit Russia.

The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest in Christian Orthodoxy, with about 100 million members, is closely aligned with the Kremlin.

Francis said the meeting with Kirill was “on the not too distant horizon”.

He said Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, who is responsible for the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations, would be coming to the Vatican to meet him to discuss where and when the next meeting can take place.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alison Williams)

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Yemen Houthis bury their dead as Marib fighting rages

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December 6, 2021

By Adel Al-Khader

SANAA (Reuters) – Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis held military funerals on Monday for 25 fighters killed in battles with a Saudi-led coalition, as fighting shows no sign of abating despite intense international diplomacy to end the seven-year-old conflict.

The funerals took place as fighting has raged in the gas-rich Marib region, while warplanes from the coalition have intensified their bombing of Sanaa, Marib and other areas.

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The Houthis have also stepped up cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia using armed drones and missiles.

An honour guard carried the coffins – draped with flags, flowers and photographs of the dead – with military music through the capital Sanaa. Relatives gathered to mourn their loved ones.

“We are in these days inspired by these martyrs’ pride and dignity and say to them: ‘congratulations! You have preceded us to a paradise as wide as the heavens and earth’,” said Ali Muhyaddin, a relative of one of the dead.

The war in Yemen has killed tens of thousands and caused what the United Nations describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

U.N.-led efforts to agree a ceasefire have stalled in the conflict, which is seen largely as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system and foreign invasion.

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Houthi media showed fighters exchanging heavy artillery fire with coalition forces in Marib on Sunday as warplanes flew overhead. All the 25 fighters buried in Sanaa were killed in Marib, Houthi officials said.

The Houthis have launched a year-long offensive to take Marib, which hosts Yemen’s biggest gas fields. The city is the last stronghold of the internationally recognised government.

Marib is home to 3 million people, including nearly 1 million who fled other parts of Yemen after the Houthis ousted the government from the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene.

The number of displaced people in camps in the province has risen nearly 10-fold since September, with more than 45,000 people fleeing their homes as Houthi forces press the offensive, the U.N. migration agency IOM said last month.

(Writing by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Putin and Modi discuss trade, humanitarian situation in Afghanistan

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December 6, 2021

By Alasdair Pal and Neha Arora

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Russian President Vladimir Putin in New Delhi on Monday, with trade and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan both on the agenda.

Afghanistan’s takeover by the Taliban earlier this year has led to a humanitarian crisis in the country, which New Delhi and Moscow have both previously said risks destabilising the region.

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“The fight against terrorism is also a fight against drug trafficking and organised crime,” Putin said in introductory remarks broadcast by Indian media. “In that regard, we are concerned about developments of the situation in Afghanistan.”

The visit by Putin and several top Russian officials comes amid increasingly strained relations between Russia and the United States, also a key Indian ally.

Earlier on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a deal to supply India with S-400 air defence missile systems was being implemented despite what he said were U.S. efforts to undermine the accord.

India and Russia are expected to cement several trade and defence pacts at the summit.

“The relation between India and Russia is truly a unique and reliable model,” Modi said.

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(Reporting by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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