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Russia counts cost of missteps, vaccine refusals as COVID tide keeps rising

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November 1, 2021

By Polina Nikolskaya and Maxim Shemetov

ORYOL, Russia (Reuters) – Ambulance attendant Roman Stebakov has come face-to-face with COVID-19 many times – but he’d rather take his chances with the disease than get himself injected with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

“I won’t get vaccinated until, I don’t know, they break me and vaccinate me by force. I don’t see the point in it, there are no guarantees it’s safe,” says the paramedic from Oryol, 300 km (185 miles) south of Moscow.

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Outside one of the city’s hospitals, a young woman, Alina, is clutching a bunch of papers certifying her grandmother’s death. The old woman was unvaccinated and died of COVID-19 three weeks after being admitted.

But despite her loss, Alina, 26, says she won’t take the vaccine because she has heard too many scare stories.

“There’s not enough data, not enough checks.”

Their attitudes help explain why the first nation in the world to approve a COVID-19 vaccine – and then export it to more than 70 countries – is struggling to inoculate its own population and has racked up record 24-hour death tolls on 21 days in the past month.

In conversations with Reuters, doctors and officials reeled off a host of factors that have fed the spread of the disease and forced Russia to revert to its tightest restrictions since the early months of the pandemic.

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Besides vaccine hesitancy, they cited mixed messaging from the authorities, inconsistent policies, unreliable statistics and attempts to shift responsibility away from Moscow and on to the leaders of Russia’s republics and regions.

The health ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment for this story.

WAITING IN AMBULANCES

At Oryol’s Botkin Hospital, chief physician Alexander Lyalyukhin traced the origin of the latest and most virulent COVID wave to three weeks after the start of the school year in September. At that point some Russian regions sent students home for remote learning. Oryol, like most others, kept schools open.

The hospital is short of anaesthesists and infectious disease specialists. Most COVID patients need oxygen support and the supply is tight.

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“Perhaps because the virus is more aggressive. We sometimes have fewer patients than there were in winter, but they consume more oxygen, by about a third,” Lyalyukhin said.

Ambulance paramedic Dmitry Seregin said patients commonly wait for several hours in ambulances.

“The healthcare system cannot withstand such an influx. This wave is more than twice as strong in terms of the number of cases and the severity of the disease,” he said.

Vladimir Nikolayev, deputy head of the regional health department, told Reuters there were still available beds and patients who needed oxygen were getting it.

“Unfortunately, if we’d carried out active vaccination we might not be in this situation,” he said.

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What Oryol is experiencing is typical of the country as a whole. The latest official figures on Monday showed the region ranked 40th out of Russia’s 85 territories for new cases, with 326 in the previous 24 hours, and five new deaths.

As of last week, nearly 38% of people in Oryol had been injected with their first dose, compared with 39.4% nationally.

In Seregin’s view, the low rates are down to official miscommunication about the vaccine. At first authorities said the injection would be good for two years, then they told people it would need renewing after six months, he said.

“Statements appear with different information from the very same people, and these make people distrustful of the state.”

A source who previously worked in the COVID operations centre of one of Russia’s regions said the country had locked down early at the start of the pandemic but then blundered by declaring victory too soon and going ahead with a national referendum in June 2020 on constitutional changes to allow President Vladimir Putin to run for potentially two more terms in office.

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“We kind of drew a line on the coronavirus, vaccinations, masks and all the rest of it. And now we have what we have – an insane mountain of corpses,” the source said.

UNRELIABLE DATA

Official figures on the pandemic’s toll vary widely.

As of Monday, cumulative deaths stood at 239,693, according to the national coronavirus task force. The state statistics office puts the figure nearly twice as high, at around 462,000 between April 2020 and September 2021, while Reuters calculated that the number of excess deaths in Russia in the same period was more than 632,000 in comparison with the average mortality rate in 2015-2019.

Some experts say under-reporting of deaths has made people complacent.

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“People think what’s the point of me running away from it if it’s no more scary than the flu,” said Elena Shuraeva, head of the Oryol doctor’s trade union.

Her husband Aleksei Timoshenko, a doctor at the COVID hospital, said the picture he sees at work was 6-7 times worse than implied by official figures. “And now people are afraid, they really see that many are getting sick and many are dying,” he said.

All this leaves a dilemma for Putin, who has repeatedly urged people to get vaccinated but said last month that even some of his own friends had delayed doing so.

A source close to the Kremlin said there was evidence that the latest restrictions – which include a nationwide workplace shutdown this week and increasing requirements for people to prove their vaccine status to get access to certain venues – was prompting an increase in take-up. Oryol’s governor Andrei Klychkov said people were being vaccinated three times faster than before.

The source close to the Kremlin said compulsory vaccination was out of the question because it would rebound on the government. “It will be seen as an attack on freedom. And that, you know, could be like a powder keg.”

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(Additional reporting by Anton Zverev, Angelina Kazakova and Gleb Stolyarov, writing by Mark Trevelyan, editing by Angus MacSwan)

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Taiwan, Europe must defend democracy together, president says

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November 29, 2021

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan and Europe must work together to defend against authoritarianism and disinformation, President Tsai Ing-wen told visiting lawmakers from the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Monday.

Lithuania has faced sustained pressure from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, since allowing the opening of a de facto Taiwanese embassy in its capital.

Beijing has ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taipei to accept Chinese sovereignty claims and to limit its international participation, though Tsai says Taiwan will not bow to threats and will defend its freedom and democracy.

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Tsai told the lawmakers at the Presidential Office that Taiwan and the Baltic nations – once part of the Soviet Union – share similar experiences of breaking free from authoritarian rule and of fighting for freedom.

“The democracy we enjoy today was hard earned. This is something we all understand most profoundly,” she said.

“Now the world faces challenges posed by the expansion of authoritarianism and threat of disinformation. Taiwan is more than willing to share its experience at combating disinformation with its European friends. We must safeguard our shared values to ensure our free and democratic way of life.”

Matas Maldeikis, leader of the Lithuanian parliament’s Taiwan Friendship Group, told Tsai in response their group was in Taipei to express their solidarity with the island.

“Lithuanian government policy towards Taiwan has wide support in our society. Preserving freedom and the rules-based international order is in the vital interests for both Taiwan and Lithuania,” he said.

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There is much opportunity for economic and cultural cooperation, added Maldeikis, whose trip has been condemned by China.

No European Union member state has official ties with Taiwan.

The United States has strongly backed its NATO ally Lithuania in its spat with China.

Lithuania faces problems too with pressure from Russia and Belarus, with migrants on its border with Belarus.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; editing by Richard Pullin)

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Australia’s reopening plans in doubt after Omicron cases

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November 29, 2021

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will review its plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from Dec. 1, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, after the country reported its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Two people who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa tested positive on Sunday for the newly identified variant as officials ordered 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from nine African countries.

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Morrison said “it is a bit too early” to reinstate two-week mandatory hotel quarantine for foreign travellers, urging people to remain calm as data had not yet fully determined the severity, transmissibility and vaccine resistance of the Omicron strain.

“So we just take this one step at a time, get the best information, make calm, sensible decisions,” Morrison told Nine News.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants. But experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

Morrison said the national security committee will meet later on Monday to assess the border reopening relaxations due from Wednesday. A meeting of leaders of all states and territories will be held by Tuesday, he said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he had asked the country’s immunisation advisory group to review the time frame for COVID-19 booster shots. About 87% of Australia’s population above 16 years of age have been fully vaccinated, above the rates seen in the United States, Britain and many countries in Western Europe.

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Health officials in New South Wales said three people who arrived on Sunday from southern Africa had tested positive for COVID-19 and that genomic sequencing was underway to check if they were infected with the Omicron strain.

The new variant has emerged as Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, had begun to allow vaccinated citizens entry from overseas without quarantine from Nov. 1, having shut their borders for more than 18 months.

Both cities have tightened their travel rules with all international travellers ordered to quarantine for 72 hours. Other states have not opened their borders to foreign travellers yet due to varying vaccination rates.

Australia has so far recorded about 209,000 coronavirus cases and 1,997 deaths since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by David Gregorio and Stephen Coates)

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Earthquake hits remote northern Peru, 75 homes destroyed, no deaths reported

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on

November 29, 2021

By Marco Aquino

(Reuters) – A 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook the remote Amazon region of northern Peru on Sunday and was felt as far as Lima in the center of the country, destroying 75 homes but with no deaths reported.

The seismological center of the Geophysical Institute of Peru (IGP) said the earthquake had a depth of 131 kilometers (81 miles) and that the epicenter was 98 kilometers from the town of Santa Maria de Nieva in the province of Condorcanqui.

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The quake was felt throughout central and northern Peru. Some residents left their homes as a precaution, according to local radio and television reports.

No damage was reported to the 1,100-kilometer oil pipeline of state-owned Petroperu that crosses the Peruvian Amazon region to the Pacific coast in the north.

The National Institute of Civil Defense (Indeci) said in a statement that 220 homes were affected, 81 uninhabitable and 75 destroyed. Seven places of religious worship and two shopping centers were among damaged facilities, Indeci said, adding that four residents were injured.

President Pedro Castillo said through Twitter that he ordered the immediate deployment of support personnel and took a trip in a military plane to the area.

“We will support those affected and address material damage,” he said.

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Walter Culqui, mayor of the town of Jalca Grande in Chachapoyas province, said several houses had been damaged, leaving three non-serious injuries. Part of the church tower in the area collapsed, he said.

Through social networks, electricity cuts were reported in several locations in jungle areas. Local TV images showed stretches of roads blocked by huge rocks and dirt that had been knocked loose.

The U.S. warning system said there was no tsunami warning after the earthquake.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima and Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru, writing by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Catherine Evans and Mark Porter)

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