Australia’s drastic COVID-19 strategies of preventing its citizens leaving the country and returning from India are being challenged in court
CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s drastic COVID-19 strategies of preventing its citizens leaving the country and returning from India were challenged in court Thursday.
A challenge to the ban by Gary Newman, one of 9,000 Australians prevented from returning home from India, will be heard by a Federal Court judge on Monday, Chief Justice James Allsop said.
The ban was made by order of Health Minister Greg Hunt under the Biosecurity Act which carries penalties for breaches of up to five years in prison and fines of up to 66,000 Australian dollars ($51,000).
A libertarian group LibertyWorks took its case to the full bench of the Federal Court on Thursday against a separate order under the Biosecurity Act that has prevented most Australians from leaving the country without compelling reasons since March last year.
The government hopes to maintain Australia’s relatively low levels of community transmission of the virus by preventing its citizens from becoming infected overseas and bringing variants home. Travel to and from New Zealand has recently been exempted.
LibertyWorks argues that Hunt does not have the power to legally enforce the ban, which has prevented thousands of Australians from attending weddings and funerals, caring for dying relatives and meeting newborn babies.
With almost one third of Australians born overseas and most barred from leaving the country for more than a year, a win by LibertyWorks is likely to lead to a surge in citizens wishing to travel internationally. The three judges hearing the case will likely announce their verdicts at a later date.
The challenge to the Indian travel ban will be heard by Justice Michael Thawley five days before flights could potentially resume.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the pause was working in reducing infection rates among returned travelers within Australian quarantine facilities.
“The early evidence indicates that that temporary pause to May 15 is on track and that we are very hopeful and confident that on the other side of May 15 we’ll be able to start restoring those repatriation flights,” Morrison said.
A decision would be made before May 15, but Morrison could not say how long before that date that a decision would be announced. Around 20,000 Australians had been repatriated from India before the travel ban.
Newman’s lawyer Christopher Ward told a preliminary hearing on Thursday that the legal team wanted a verdict before May 15.
Newman’s lawyers argue that it is important that the minister’s power was reviewed by the court even if the travel ban was not extended.
The court cases were heard in Sydney where new pandemic restrictions were imposed on Wednesday due to two recent cases of community infections.
Masks have become compulsory in the greater Sydney area in all public indoor venues and on public transport from late Thursday and visitors to homes in Australia’s largest city have been capped at 20.
The measures follow a Sydney man on Wednesday becoming New South Wales state’s first case of COVID-19 community transmission in a month. The man’s wife on Thursday was confirmed as also being infected.
Authorities have yet to determine how the couple became infected with the same variant as a traveler from the United States had been diagnosed while in Sydney hotel quarantine.
The New York Times
Perhaps the most striking difference between the middle class of 50 years ago and the middle class today is a loss of confidence — the confidence that you were doing better than your parents and that your children would do better than you. President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar suite of economic proposals is aiming to both reinforce and rebuild an American middle class that feels it has been standing on shifting ground. And it comes with an explicit message that the private sector alone cannot deliver on that dream and that the government has a central part to play. “When you look at periods of shared growth,” said Brian Deese, director of Biden’s National Economic Council, “what you see is that public investment has played an absolutely critical role, not to the exclusion of private investment and innovation, but in laying the foundation.” Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times If the Biden administration gets its way, the reconstructed middle class would be built on a sturdier and much broader plank of government support rather than the vagaries of the market. Some proposals are meant to support parents who work: federal paid family and medical leave, more affordable child care, free prekindergarten classes. Others would use public investment to create jobs, in areas like clean energy, transportation and high-speed broadband. And a higher minimum wage would aim to buoy those in low-paid work, while free community college would improve skills. That presidents pitch their agendas to the middle class is not surprising given that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans consider themselves members. The definition, of course, has always been a nebulous stew of cash, credentials and culture, relying on lifestyles and aspirations as much as on assets. But what cuts across an avalanche of studies, surveys and statistics over the past half-century is that life in the middle class, once considered a guarantee of security and comfort, now often comes with a nagging sense of vulnerability. Before the pandemic, unemployment was low and stocks soared. But for decades, workers have increasingly had to contend with low pay, sluggish wage growth and more erratic schedules as well as a lack of sick days, parental leave and any kind of long-term security. At the same time, the cost of essentials like housing, health care and education have been gulping up a much larger portion of their incomes. The trend can be found in rich countries all over the world. “Every generation since the baby boom has seen the middle-income group shrink and its economic influence weaken,” a 2019 report from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation concluded. In the United States, the proportion of adults in the middle bands of the income spectrum — which the Pew Research Center defines as roughly between $50,000 and $150,000 — declined to 51% in 2019 from 61% 50 years ago. Their share of the nation’s income shrank even more over the same period, to 42% from 62%. Their outlook dimmed, too. During the 1990s, Pew found rising optimism that the next generation would be better off financially than the current one, reaching a high of 55% in 1999. That figure dropped to 42% in 2019. The economy has produced enormous wealth over the past few decades, but much of it was channeled to a tiny cadre at the top. Two wage earners were needed to generate the kind of income that used to come in a single paycheck. “Upper-income households pulled away,” said Richard Fry, a senior economist at Pew. Corrosive inequality was just the beginning of what appeared to be a litany of glaring market failures, like the inability to head off ruinous climate change or meet the enormous demand for affordable housing and health care. Companies often channeled profits to buy back stock instead of using them to invest or raise wages. The evidence was growing, liberal economists argued, that the reigning hands-off economic approach — low taxes on the wealthy; minimal government — was not producing the broad-based economic gains that sustained and grew the middle class. “The unregulated economy is not working for most Americans,” said Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics. “The government has an important role,” he emphasized, in regulating the private sector’s excesses, redistributing income and making substantial public investments. Skeptics have warned of government overreach and the risk that deficit spending could ignite inflation, but Biden and his team of economic advisers have nonetheless embraced the approach. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and middle out,” Biden said in his speech to a joint session of Congress last week, a reference to the idea that prosperity does not trickle down from the wealthy but flows out of a well-educated and well-paid middle class. He underscored the point by singling out workers as the dynamo powering the middle class. “Wall Street didn’t build this country,” he said. “The middle class built the country. And unions built the middle class.” Of course, the economy that lifted millions of postwar families into the middle class differed sharply from the current one. Manufacturing, construction and mining jobs, previously viewed as the backbone of the labor force, dwindled — as did the labor unions that aggressively fought for better wages and benefits. Now only 1 out of every 10 workers is a union member, while roughly 80% of jobs in the United States are in the service sector. And it is these types of jobs — in health care, education, child care, disabled and senior care — that are expected to continue expanding at the quickest pace. Most of them, though, fall short of paying middle-income wages. That does not necessarily reflect their value in an open market. Salaries for teachers, hospital workers, lab technicians, child care providers and nursing home attendants are determined largely by the government, which collects tax dollars to pay their salaries and sets reimbursements rates for Medicare and other programs. They are also jobs that are filled by significant numbers of women, African Americans, Latinos and Asians. “When we think about what is the right wage,” Stiglitz asked, “should we take advantage of discrimination against women and people of color, which is what we’ve done, or can we use this as the basis of building a middle class?” Biden’s spending plans — a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package called the American Jobs Plan and a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that concentrates on social spending — aim to take account of just how much the workforce and the economy have transformed over the past half-century and where they may be headed in the next. The president’s economic team took inspiration from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the public programs that followed it. After World War II, for instance, the government helped millions of veterans get college educations and buy homes by offering tuition assistance and subsidized mortgages. It created a mammoth highway system to undergird commercial activity and funneled billions of dollars into research and development that was used later to develop smartphone technology, search engines, the human genome project, magnetic resonance imaging, hybrid corn and supercomputers. Biden, too, wants to fix roads and bridges, upgrade electric grids and invest in research. But his administration has also concluded that a 21st-century economy requires much more, from expanded access to high-speed broadband, which more than one-third of rural inhabitants lack, to parental leave and higher wages for child care workers. “We’ve now had 50 years of the revolution of women entering the labor force,” and the most basic necessities that make it possible for parents to fully participate in the workforce are still missing, said Betsey Stevenson, a professor at the University of Michigan and a former member of the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Advisers. She paused a few moments to take it in: “It’s absolutely stunning.” Right before the pandemic, more women than men could be found in paying jobs. Ensuring equal opportunity, Stevenson noted, includes “the opportunity to get high-quality early-childhood education, the opportunity to have a parent stay home with you when you’re sick, the opportunity for a parent to bond with you when born.” When it comes to offering this type of support, she added, “the United States is an outlier compared to almost every industrialized country.” The administration also has an eye on how federal education, housing and business programs of earlier eras largely excluded women, African Americans, Asians and others. In the Biden plan are aid for colleges that primarily serve nonwhite students, free community college for all, universal prekindergarten and monthly child payments. “This is not a 1930s model anymore,” said Julian Zelizer, a political science professor at Princeton University. And it is all to be paid for by higher taxes on corporations and the top 1%. Passage in a sharply polarized Congress is anything but assured. The multitrillion-dollar price tag and the prospect of an activist government have ensured the opposition of Republicans in a Senate where Democrats have the slimmest possible majority. But public polling from last year showed widening support for the government to take a larger role. “What is so remarkable about this moment is this notion that public investment can transform America, that these are things government can do,” said Felicia Wong, president of the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute. “This is fundamentally restructuring how the economy works.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company
Brussels — The EU’s executive branch proposed Monday to ease
“The Commission proposes to allow entry to the EU for nonessential reasons not only for all persons coming from countries with a good epidemiological situation, but also all people who have received the last recommended dose of an EU-authorized vaccine,” the EU’s executive arm said.
EU officials believe the vaccination campaigns will soon be “a game changer” in the fight against the deadly virus, especially within the bloc and the border-free Schengen zone. Its proposal will be discussed with member states’ ambassadors this week and the Commission hopes it could enter into force by June.
Under the EU’s executive arm’s proposal, EU countries should allow travelers from third countries into the EU if they have been vaccinated with serums approved for use in the region. Member states could also individually decide to accept travelers immunized with vaccines listed by WHO for emergency use.
The Commission also proposed to raise the threshold related to the number of new COVID-19 cases used to determine the list of countries from which all travel should be permitted.
“Non-essential travel regardless of individual vaccination status is currently permitted from seven countries with a good epidemiological situation,” the Commission said, proposing to increase the threshold of 14-day cumulative COVID-19 case notification rate per 100,000 inhabitants from 25 to 100.
“This remains considerably below the current EU average, which is over 420,” the Commission said.
It was unclear which countries would actually make the cut but an EU official who was not authorized to be quoted because the proposal has yet to be adopted said Israel would definitely be on the list.
“The UK, question mark, the U.S., for the time being, not quite,” he said. “But we see how quickly the situation in the U.S. evolves, notably for the rate of vaccination.”
In case the epidemiological situation deteriorates, the Commission proposed to introduce an “emergency brake” mechanism aimed at stopping dangerous virus variants from entering the bloc. “This will allow member states to act quickly and temporarily limit to a strict minimum all travel from affected countries for the time needed to put in place appropriate sanitary measures,” it said.
EU officials and member states are also in discussions to introduce COVID-19 certificates aimed at facilitating travel across the region this summer. The EU’s executive arm has proposed that the so-called digital green certificates should be delivered to EU residents who can prove they have been vaccinated, and also to those who tested negative for the virus or have proof they recovered from it.
“Until the Digital Green Certificate is operational, member states should be able to accept certificates from non-EU countries,” the Commission said, adding that children who are excluded from vaccination should be able to travel with their vaccinated parents if they provide a negative PCR test.
Appearing on CBS News Face the Nation, Gottlieb, who currently sits on the board of Pfizer, said he was not sure what the Biden administration was “hoping to accomplish” in terms of preventing the introduction of COVID-19 into the United States after it announced plans to ban travel from India beginning Tuesday.
“These travel restrictions could serve a purpose, but we need to be clear about what that purpose is right now,” said Gottlieb. “We still have restrictions in place against travel from China and the U.K. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. So I’m not really sure what the overall strategy is around these continued travel restrictions that we have in place.”
India has reported a record surge with 800,000 new cases over two days bringing its overall virus totals to 19,557,457 cases and 215,542 deaths compared with 32,409,214 cases and 576,959 deaths in the United States, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.
Gottlieb, however, said it is not the case that variants are appearing in one part of the world and traveling to other countries, but rather the virus is undergoing “convergent evolution” with the same variants emerging in various parts of the world spontaneously.”
“There’s probably a finite number of ways that this virus is going to try to mutate to evade our immunity and it’s testing us everywhere in the world,” he said. “So the same mutations that are arising in other parts of the world are arising here as well. They just haven’t gotten a foothold here, in part because we’ve been vaccinating our public.”
The United States has administered a total of 243,463,471 vaccine doses with 44% of the total population receiving at least one dose, including 55.8% of people age 18 and older, and 31.2% of the total population fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
California leads the nation in COVID-19 cases and deaths with a total of 3,642,480 infections and 60,748 fatalities after reporting 2,254 cases and 123 deaths on Sunday. The state reopened its Disneyland and California Adventure theme parks to residents on Friday.
To date, California has administered 30,412,414 COVID-19 vaccine doses and 12,806,167 people — 40.2% of its population — are fully vaccinated.
Texas reported 919 new cases Sunday for the nation’s second-highest total at 2,473,679, while its death toll rose by 25 to 49,303. A total of 18,487,360 vaccine doses have been distributed in Texas with 8,000,995 people, or 49.64% of the state’s population, fully vaccinated.
Florida ranks third in the nation with 2,242,778 total cases after adding 3,841 infections Sunday, while also reporting 29 resident deaths to bring its toll to 35,268. The state has administered 14,665,875 vaccine doses and 6,328,296 people are fully vaccinated.
New York reported 2,849 new cases and 33 deaths on Sunday, bringing its case total to 2,039,068 — the fourth highest in the nation — while also ranking second in deaths with 52,309 since the start of the pandemic.
“Every single day, New York State is moving forward in the footrace between the infection rate and the vaccination rate. More New Yorkers are getting vaccinated and hospitalizations are declining which is good news. but we need New Yorkers to stay vigilant to make sure we don’t lose any of the progress we’ve made,” he said.
New York has administered 15,643,329 vaccine doses and 6,955,111 people, or 34.9% of the population, have been fully vaccinated.
Illinois reported 1,860 new COVID-19 cases, ranking fifth in the nation with a total of 1,339,728 infections, and added 27 deaths to bring its death toll to 22,019. The state has administered 9,393,137 vaccine doses and 4,110,924 people, or 32.27%, of the population has been fully vaccinated.
A deadly hospital fire in western India early Saturday added to the country’s misery as it battles new global records in a staggering second wave of coronavirus cases that has left millions infected and put more stress on India’s already overtaxed health care system.
The blaze ripped through a Covid-19 ward in the city of Bharuch, killing at least 18 people — 16 of them patients, two of them health care workers — officials told local news outlets. Efforts were underway to determine the fire’s cause, and fire department officials said a short circuit might have led to the blaze.
The episode came as the United States announced that it would begin restricting travel from India next week as a surge of cases and deaths overwhelms the South Asian country, which continued its catastrophic run of record coronavirus transmissions on Saturday with more than 400,000 new reported cases and 3,500 deaths. No other country has surpassed 400,000 reported cases in a single day.
The second wave has crammed hospitals and left people dying as they wait to see doctors. Relatives of the sick are sharing pleas on social media for oxygen, medicine and other scarce supplies. There have been more than 19 million confirmed cases in India and more than 211,000 deaths, according to a New York Times database. Experts say the true numbers are probably much higher.
The country’s health system — fragile and underfunded even in normal times — is showing signs of strain. The fire in Bharuch, in Gujarat State, came after several recent accidents in Indian hospitals that have claimed the lives of Covid-19 patients.
A separate fire this week killed four people at a hospital in Surat, another city in Gujarat. At least 22 Covid-19 patients died at a hospital a few days earlier in the neighboring state of Maharashtra when a leak cut off their oxygen supply. And two days later, a fire at another hospital in Maharashtra left at least 13 Covid-19 patients dead.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered condolences to the families of the victims in Bharuch, and Gujarat’s chief minister, Vijay Rupani, said the state government would give about $5,300 in aid to each victim’s family. Critics of Mr. Modi, who campaigned in large state election rallies and allowed a Hindu festival with millions of worshipers to take place even as infections rose, say his overconfidence and missteps contributed to the devastating second wave, tarnishing the prime minister’s aura of political invulnerability.
The United States joined nations including Australia, Britain and Canada in curtailing travel from India. The U.S. restrictions, which are expected to take effect on Tuesday, will not apply to citizens or permanent residents of the United States, their spouses or minor children or siblings, or to the parents of citizens or permanent residents who are under 21.
Those exempt from the ban must still comply with earlier requirements for international travelers, including a negative test result for the virus before traveling and again upon entering the United States from India. They must also quarantine if they are not vaccinated.
Starting on Monday, Australia will bar all travelers, including its own citizens, from entering if they have been in India during the previous two weeks, with violators subject to prison terms and heavy fines. Officials acknowledged that the measure was “very drastic” but said it was necessary to keep Australians safe.
The United States and other governments have pledged their support to India as it grapples with the world’s gravest coronavirus crisis since the pandemic began. The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Friday that military cargo planes had begun the first deliveries of emergency supplies promised by the Biden administration.
On Saturday, India expanded vaccinations to all people over age 18, but many states said that they would not be able to meet the demand because of a lack of doses. Less than 2 percent of India’s 940 million adults have been fully vaccinated, according to a Times database.
India’s second Covid-19 wave has left much of the populace literally gasping for air. More daily infections — almost 390,000 — are now being logged there than in any other country since the start of the pandemic. Yet the true numbers likely dwarf these official figures as many cases and deaths are going uncounted. The spike led the U.S. to announce it would restrict travel from India starting on Tuesday.
The Indian double mutant is shrouded in mystery. And though it’s premature to say anything with certitude about B1617, the devastation on offer in India’s second wave is a troubling sign.
To handle the overwhelming number of cases, makeshift funeral pyres are being built in parking lots as crematories are overflowing with bodies. Hospitals have been overrun by infections, with sick patients being turned away and lifesaving medicines and oxygen supplies woefully low. As journalist Rana Ayyub wrote in Time, “If the apocalypse had an image, it would be the hospitals of India.”
This horror show is a stunning development for a country that registeredless than 10,000 cases in mid-February and declared victory against the contagion. But the combination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hubris, lax restrictions, the emergence of an insidious new variant and a misguided vaccine policy of national self-reliance have conspired to plunge India into its current Covid abyss.
Though the culpability of Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime in this public health carnage must be recognized, the greater concern still is how India’s galactic infection burden may further the spread and development of vaccine-resistant Covid-19 variants inside the country and out.
A jarring example of how quickly foreign variants can become domestic problems is on offer right now in the form of B.1.1.7., a coronavirus strain that arose in the U.K. and has become dominant in the U.S. just months since it was first identified. Even in India, B.1.1.7. has caused an uptick in cases, most notably in the state of Punjab.
As the world starts to answer India’s distress call and begins to help its suffering masses breathe again via shipments of medical supplies and vaccines, this situation is a reminder of how our collective fates are bound to one another. An uncontrolled Covid-19 wave anywhere is a threat to human life everywhere. Though the U.K. variant is currently ascendant in the U.S., from initial impressions, the Indian strain — B.220.127.116.11. — may be more problematic for an American population that remains suboptimally vaccinated.
While other known variants carry one mutation in the all-important spike protein that enables SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, to infect unsuspecting cells, the Indian variant carries two of these. Multiple mutations such as these threaten to create a virus that is not only more contagious and potentially deadlier, but one that can also evade a vaccinated body’s immune system. While existing vaccines promise efficacy against better studied variants, such as those from the U.K. and South Africa, the Indian double mutant is shrouded in mystery. And though it’s premature to say anything with certitude about B.18.104.22.168., the devastation on offer in India’s second wave is a troubling sign.
While a second Covid wave was long overdue in India, the current scale was never envisaged. Cases had been dropping since last September, and the country had several inherent advantages that seemed like it could curb any coming viral onslaught: youthful demographics, natural immunity from prior exposure to other coronavirus strains and high prevalence of Covid-19 antibodies— suggesting past infection — in the population.
The government pounced on these trends and declared an early victory. India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, stated that the country was “in the endgame” of the pandemic on March 7. In February, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hailed its premier “for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against Covid.”
As the government eased restrictions in the wake of these bold declarations, superspreader events like weddings, religious gatherings and election rallies soon followed. In March, cricket matches were played in front of packed, maskless stadiums in the city of Raipur. On April 17, Modi was “elated” by the turnout at one of many campaign rallies that were being held in the critical state of West Bengal. And recently, BJP leaders encouraged millions of Hindu pilgrims to flout Covid-19 protocols for God and congregate at a monthlong religious festival.
At the same time, India’s vaccine supply has fallen far short of demand. Despite anointing itself the “pharmacy of the world” for its prodigious vaccine production, only 1.9 percent of the nation’s citizens are fully inoculated, in part due to Modi’s initial desire to export vaccines as part of a diplomacy effort to “save humanity with two ‘Made in India’ coronavirus vaccines.” The country’s national pride in its two domestically manufactured vaccines (Covishield and Covaxin) also contributed to it spurning foreign vaccines early on. These shortages have been compounded by the United States’ export ban on vaccine supplies.
All of this is superimposed on a first wave that saw the Indian government scapegoat Muslims for Covid-19 outbreaks and unilaterally institute a snap “lockdown and scatter” policy that left tens of millions of migrants jobless while shuttling coronavirus to all parts of India. Now the Indian government has been accused of censoring social media criticism of its Covid-19 policies.
“It’s part of the authoritarian playbook. It’s another egregious instance of the BJP regime systematically showing callousness and hubris,” Prerna Singh, a professor at Brown University, told me. “The key thing will be for this present crisis to be recognized as not just a natural disaster but also for the political culpability of the regime.”
The uncontrolled virus transmission that has resulted from these manifold failures has created the potential for India to serve as a variant factory. As the virus hurries to replicate its genome, it can make “mistakes” that produce a more virulent and potent form of the virus. The more unvaccinated bodies it can replicate in, the greater the potential for these errant mutations to occur. In India’s large, dense and vulnerable population, the virus has been able to infect the cells of millions.
Though scientists are still working to understand the full implications of this Indian variant’s mutations, anecdotal evidence from doctors on the ground suggests something more pernicious than the first wave: Reinfections are being seen in people who had Covid-19; younger adults and children are getting seriously ill; and entire families are being infected.
The uncontrolled virus transmission that has resulted from these manifold failures has created the potential for India to serve as a variant factory.
“The risk that you will have with these large outbreaks in big regions with dense populations and strong virus transmission is that you will allow the virus to develop into strains that are completely vaccine-resistant,” Zulfiqar Bhutta, the founding director of the Institute for Global Health & Development at Aga Khan University in Pakistan, told me. “If you have to start from scratch with a new vaccine, can you imagine what a logistics nightmare that is?”
In a globalized world, the consequences of India’s unchecked infections won’t stop at the country’s borders. Already, the shockwaves are being felt in more than 20 other countries.
While Donald Trump’s pandemic failures toppled his presidency, Modi will not face the electorate again until 2024 — though the sheer scale of India’s suffering coupled with international accountability may not insulate him. And whatever Modi’s political fate, his missteps have already helped unleash a variant whose consequences may well be felt globally.
As summer nears and restrictions lift, local travel planners see travel interest rise WJHL-TV News Channel 11