Anti-vaccination protests and all other demonstrations outside hospitals will be banned in a move to make Alberta health-care facilities safer for staff, patients and families, Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday.
But no new restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were announced, despite recent calls from medical professionals to enact “fire-breaker” measures to protect the struggling health-care system.
Kenney told a news conference the province is still monitoring the impact of public health measures that went into effect on Sept. 20. He said unvaccinated Albertans who are currently filling up hospitals beds would be unlikely to comply with any new measures.
“It is a paradox and there’s no easy solution to it,” he said.
Instead, the regulations of the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act have been amended to ensure that health-care facilities are subject to the same legal protection as railways, highways and pipelines, carrying punishments for trespassing, interfering with operations and construction or causing damage.
WATCH | Kenney says unvaccinated unlikely to comply with new measures:
The measure is in response to protests two weeks ago across the country by anti-vaccination groups, Kenney said.
“Recently, Albertans watched anti-vaccine protesters stand in front of our hospitals, hurling mistruths and misinformation about our health-care system, our doctors and our nurses,” he said.
“People were rightly shocked to see this totally inappropriate behaviour from a vocal minority.”
Kenney and Justice Minister Kaycee Madu reiterated that the intention was not to interfere with any individual’s constitutional right to lawful protest.
“Albertans must have the ability to access health care when they need it and health-care professionals must have the ability to do their work free from interference,” Madu said.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said 1,246 new cases of COVID-19 were identified among 11,100 tests conducted in the previous 24 hours. The positivity rate was 11.5 per cent.
As of Tuesday, there are 1,100 patients in hospital, including 263 in intensive care.
Another 18 deaths were reported, bringing the total in the province to 2,663 since the start of the pandemic.
Hinshaw noted that over the past 120 days, people who aren’t fully vaccinated represented 80 per cent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 91 per cent of those in the ICU.
“These numbers speak for themselves: vaccines are critically important,” she said.
The health-care system is at a breaking point as Alberta Health Services scrambles to create more intensive care capacity in hospitals across the province.
Kenney said there are 370 ICU beds across the province, currently at 86 per cent capacity. He noted that if not for surge beds, the province would be at 184 per cent capacity.
“The only reason that we have any beds available is because AHS has added 197 surge spaces — more than double the number that we maintain as normal baseline of ICU beds in Alberta outside of this COVID time,” he said.
The province is set to launch a new advertising campaign aimed at providing education about COVID-19 vaccines and debunking common myths, Kenney said.
That will include a direct informational pamphlet as well as radio, digital and billboard advertisements, he said.
Specific advertising is being aimed at demographics with a slower uptake, including rural regions and Albertans in their 20s and 30s.
Kenney said pharmacies and AHS will reach out to Albertans who have received a first dose but have not yet received a second.
Newfoundland and Labrador may help
Kenney told reporters he has been talking to Andrew Furey, premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, about getting assistance from the province but indicated last week that Alberta had not reached the upper limit for its health-care system.
The offer from Newfoundland and Labrador is not off the table, Kenney said.
“We’ve gone back and forth and those discussions are carrying on today,” he said.
“If Newfoundland feels that they can free up some medical personnel to supplement our own front-line workers, we would be delighted to receive that support.”
He said Furey is interested in sending health-care workers to Fort McMurray, Alta., known colloquially as the Atlantic province’s second-largest city.
“There may be news on that in the days to come,” Kenney said.
U.N. plane aborts landing as air strike hits Ethiopia’s Tigray
An Ethiopian government air strike on the capital of the northern Tigray region on Friday forced a U.N. aid flight to abort a landing there, the United Nations said.
In neighboring Amhara region, people were fleeing intensified fighting.
Humanitarian sources and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the area, said a university in the regional capital Mekelle was hit by the air strike.
Government spokesman Legesse Tulu said a former military base occupied by TPLF fighters was targeted, and he denied the university was hit.
Reuters was not able to independently confirm either account. TPLF-controlled Tigrai TV reported that 11 civilians were wounded in the air strike. It was at least the fourth day this week that Mekelle had been attacked.
The United Nations suspended all flights to Mekelle after a U.N. plane with 11 passengers had to abort landing on Friday.
The flight from Addis Ababa had been cleared by federal authorities but was told by the Mekelle airport control tower to abort the landing, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said
“This is the first time that we had a flight turn around, at least to my knowledge, in the recent past in Ethiopia because of air strikes on the ground,” senior U.N. aid official Gemma Connell, who heads U.N. humanitarian operations in southern and eastern Africa, told reporters in New York on Friday.
The passengers were aid workers traveling to a region where some 7 million people, including 5 million in Tigray, need humanitarian help, she said.
The flight safely returned to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Dujarric said.
‘THE WHOLE CITY IS PANICKING’
The two sides have been fighting for almost a year in a conflict that has killed thousands of people and displaced more than two million amid a power struggle between the TPLF and the central government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa.
The TPLF dominated the Horn of Africa country’s ruling party for decades before Abiy, who is not a Tigrayan, took office in 2018.
The government has stepped up air strikes on the Tigray capital as fighting has escalated in Amhara, a neighbouring region where the TPLF has seized territory that the government and allied armed Amhara armed groups are trying to recover.
Residents in Dessie, a city in Amhara, told Reuters people were fleeing, a day after a TPLF spokesperson said its forces were within artillery range of the town.
“The whole city is panicking,” a resident said, adding that people who could were leaving. He said he could hear the sound of heavy gunfire on Thursday night and into the morning, and that the bus fare to Addis Ababa, about 385 km (240 miles) to the south, had increased more than six-fold.
There are now more than 500,000 displaced people in the Amhara region, the National Disaster Risk Management Commission told Reuters.
Seid Assefa, a local official working at a coordination centre for displaced people in Dessie, said 250 people had fled there this week from fighting in the Girana area to the north.
“We now have a total of 900 (displaced people) here and we finished our food stocks three days ago.”
Leul Mesfin, medical director of Dessie Hospital, told Reuters two girls and an adult had died this week at his facility of wounds from artillery fire in the town of Wuchale, which both the government and the TPLF have described as the scene of heavy fighting over the past week.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroomAdditional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick and Ayenat Mersie in Nairobi, additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by John Stonestreet, Peter Graff, Alex Richardson, William Maclean)
Nigerian state to shut camps for people displaced by insurgency
Nigeria‘s Borno state, the epicentre of an ongoing Islamist insurgency, will shut all camps that are holding thousands of internally displaced persons by the end of the year, its governor said on Friday, citing improved security in the state.
The conflict between the insurgents and Nigerian’s armed forces has also spread to Chad and Cameroon and has left about 300,000 dead and millions dependent on aid, according to the United Nations.
Borno, which shares a border with Niger, Cameroon and Chad has for more than a decade been the foremost outpost of an insurgency led by Islamist group Boko Haram and later its offshoot Islamic State for West Africa Province (ISWAP).
Speaking after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, Borno governor Babgana Zulum said security had improved in the state so much that those living in camps in the state capital Maiduguri could return home.
“So far so good, Borno State government has started well and arrangements have been concluded to ensure the closure of all internally displaced persons camps that are inside Maiduguri metropolis on or before 31st December, 2021,” Zulum said.
But humanitarian groups say most families are unwilling to return to their ancestral lands especially in the northern parts of Borno, which they deem unsafe.
Buhari has in the past months claimed his government was gaining ground on the insurgents. Last week the country’s top general said ISWAP leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi was dead, without giving details.
Zulum said Borno state authorities would continue to repatriate Nigerian refugees from a camp in Cameroon.
Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau died in May and Nigeria says hundreds of fighters loyal to the Islamist group have been surrendering to the government since then.
(Reporting by Maiduguri newsroom, Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by David Gregorio)
Exclusive-U.S. hopes to soon relocate Afghan pilots who fled to Tajikistan, official says
The United States hopes to soon relocate around 150 U.S.-trained Afghan Air Force pilots and other personnel detained in Tajikistan for more than two months after they flew there at the end of the Afghan war, a U.S. official said.
The State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to offer a timeline for the transfer but said the United States wanted to move all of those held at the same time. The details of the U.S. plan have not been previously reported.
Reuters exclusively reported first-person accounts from 143 U.S.-trained Afghan personnel being held at a sanatorium in a mountainous, rural area outside of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, waiting for a U.S. flight out to a third country and eventual U.S. resettlement.
Speaking on smuggled cell phones kept hidden from guards, they say they have had their phones and identity documents confiscated.
There are also 13 Afghan personnel in Dushanbe, enjoying much more relaxed conditions, who told Reuters they are also awaiting a U.S. transfer. They flew into the country separately.
The Afghan personnel in Tajikistan represent the last major group of U.S.-trained pilots still believed to be in limbo after dozens of advanced military aircraft were flown across the Afghan border to Tajikistan and to Uzbekistan in August during the final moments of the war with the Taliban.
In September, a U.S.-brokered deal allowed a larger group of Afghan pilots and other military personnel to be flown out of Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates.
Two detained Afghan pilots in Tajikistan said their hopes were lifted in recent days after visits by officials from the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe.
Although they said they had not yet been given a date for their departure, the pilots said U.S. officials obtained the biometric data needed to complete the process of identifying the Afghans. That was the last step before departure for the Afghan pilots in Uzbekistan.
PREGNANT AFGHAN PILOT
U.S. lawmakers and military veterans who have advocated for the pilots have expressed deep frustration over the time it has taken for President Joe Biden’s administration to evacuate Afghan personnel.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was pressed on the matter in Congress last month, expressing concern at a hearing for the pilots and other personnel.
Reuters had previously reported U.S. difficulties gaining Tajik access to all of the Afghans, which include an Afghan Air Force pilot who is eight months pregnant.
In an interview with Reuters, the 29-year-old pilot had voiced her concerns to Reuters about the risks to her and her child at the remote sanatorium. She was subsequently moved to a maternity hospital.
“We are like prisoners here. Not even like refugees, not even like immigrants. We have no legal documents or way to buy something for ourselves,” she said.
The pregnant pilot would be included in the relocation from Tajikistan, the U.S. State Department official said.
Even before the Taliban’s takeover, the U.S.-trained, English-speaking pilots had become prime targets of the Taliban because of the damage they inflicted during the war. The Taliban tracked down the pilots and assassinated them off-base.
Afghanistan’s new rulers have said they will invite former military personnel to join the revamped security forces and that they will come to no harm.
Afghan pilots who spoke with Reuters say they believe they will be killed if they return to Afghanistan.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Grant McCool)
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