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Indians allowed to choose COVID-19 vaccination sites as government seeks faster roll-out

India|: New Delhi: India said on Friday it will let people choose their coronavirus vaccination centres when the campaign expands next week, effectively letting beneficiaries pick either a home-grown shot or the AstraZeneca one, unlike now. The country will halt vaccinations this weekend to upgrade software used to coordinate its campaign, as it prepares to widen coverage beyond the 11.5 million health and front-line workers immunised since Jan. 16. But the inoculation campaign has progressed slower than expected due to a reluctance of health and front-line workers to take the home-grown COVAXIN shot that was approved without late-stage efficacy data. Only 11% of vaccinated people have opted for the product developed by Bharat Biotech and the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research. With the world’s highest tally of infections after the United States, India wants to vaccinate 300 million of its 1.35 billion people by August. The decision to give people a choice of vaccines could now speed up the roll-out, officials believe. “The fundamental shift in this phase is that citizens in the identified age groups, as also those healthcare workers and frontline who have been missed out or left out of the present phase of vaccination, can select vaccination centres of their choice,” the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said in a statement. Vaccination cover expanded From Monday, India will start covering people aged 60 and those over 45 with medical conditions. They can register through the government’s Co-Win 2.0 portal or walk into vaccination centres; states will also actively mobilise people. Bharat Biotech has said efficacy data from a late-stage trial on nearly 26,000 volunteers who took COVAXIN shot will be out soon. The company, along with India’s drug regulator, says COVAXIN is safe and effective, based on early and intermediate studies. More vaccines are likely to be approved for use in the world’s second most populous country in coming months, including Russia’s Sputnik-V and Cadila Healthcare’s ZyCov-D. Apart from vaccine hesitancy, initial glitches in Co-Win had also slowed India’s immunisation drive, forcing many states offline. The software forms part of a government contact-tracing app “Aarogya Setu”, or Health Bridge, downloaded so far by nearly 170 million people. India’s infections rose 16,577 in the past 24 hours to stand at 11.06 million, health ministry data show, while the death toll rose 120 to reach 156,825.

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Bihar health official flees with 4,000 COVID-19 test kits

India|: Patna: A health official has fled with 4,000 Antigen test kits to be used for COVID-19 testing from a government hospital in Bihar. The cost of the kits in his possession is estimated at Rs2.16 million. Officials said the lab technician Sharad Kumar received 4,000 kits from the storeroom of the health department in Jamui town to deposit them with a local referral hospital located in Chakai block in the same district. The kits were procured over two days on January 22 and February 4 but soon after receiving them, the man mysteriously went missing. The health department failed to locate him despite all efforts. “We have registered a case against the missing technician and also begun the process to dismiss him from the service,” local civil surgeon Dr Vinay Kumar Sharma told the media on Friday. No contact Another health official Ramesh Prasad said the technician posted with the referral hospital had been missing for the past five day without any information. “We tried to contact him so many times but are unable to get near him. His mobile is also switched off,” Prasad added. Jamui, an eastern Bihar district, has come under fire for the second time in a fortnight. Earlier this month, the state government fired seven health officials after they were found guilty in the COVID-19 testing fraud and the matter figured prominently in the Parliament. The government acted swiftly after the local media uncovered the large-scale fraud in the testing of COVID-19 cases across the state, highlighting how fake names were entered in the health department registers to fudge testing data. While four doctors, including a district civil surgeon, were placed under suspension, three health officials were dismissed from service for entering fake information in the hospital registers.

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India: Poll dates for Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam and Puducherry announced

India|: New Delhi: As many as 824 assembly constituencies will go to the polls in four states - Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam - and the Union Territory of Puducherry, Chief Election Commissioner of India Sunil Arora announced on Friday. Elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry will be held in a single phase on April 6. The Assam assembly elections will be held in 3 phases - on March 27, April 1 and April 6. The polls in West Bengal will be held in eight phases - on March 27, April 1, 6, 10, 17, 22, 26 and 29. Counting of all votes will be held on May 2. "Nearly 186 million electors will vote at 270,000 polling stations for 824 seats in four assembly elections," Sunil Arora said addressing media persons here today. He also said the Bihar Assembly polls last year in November amid the COVID-19 pandemic was a watershed moment and proved to be a litmus test for the Election Commission of India (ECI). Addressing mediapersons Arora said: "In the thick of the pandemic, ECI started test trials with elections of 18 seats to Rajya Sabha. After that, came the challenge of the Bihar elections, it was indeed a watershed moment for ECI. It proved to be a litmus test. Voting turnout was 57.34 per cent exceeding the 2015 Assembly polls and 2019 Lok Sabha polls in the state." He applauded the frontline workers, healthcare workers and ECI officials for performing election duty during the COVID-19 times last year. All poll officials will be vaccinated against COVID-19 before elections," Arora said "Our tributes to the COVID warriors, doctors, paramedics, nurses, researchers, scientists and all our officials on election duty who are located on the frontline," said Arora. Guidelines He also announced guidelines for the upcoming elections. These include restricting door-to-door campaigning to five people including the candidate, Polling officials to be vaccinated and separate norms for suspected COVID-19 patients. The terms of the legislative assemblies of five states - West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry - will come to an end either in May or in June.

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Pakistan aims to exit FATF grey list by June

Pakistan|: Islamabad: Pakistani officials say that the country is committed to compliance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) standards after the watchdog announced to keep Pakistan on its grey list for another four months. Pakistan has completed almost 90 per cent of its current FATF action plan with 24 out of 27 items rated as ‘largely addressed’ and remaining 3 items ‘partially addressed’, said Minister for Industries Hammad Azhar. Pakistan’s high-level political commitment since 2018 that led to significant progress has also been acknowledged by the global illicit financing watchdog, he stated. Speaking at a press conference in Islamabad on Friday, Hammad Azhar said that Pakistan is perhaps subjected to the most challenging and comprehensive action plan by FATF. “We are also subject to dual evaluation processes of FATF with differing timelines”. However, “Pakistan remains committed to complying with both FATF evaluation processes” and the remaining three points on the FATF’s action plan would be accomplished soon, he declared. Action plan He also commended the hard work by multiple federal and provincial departments to comply with the FATF requirements “despite a very tough action plan, tight timelines, and the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Hammad Azhar, who is the chairman of the FATF Coordination Committee, said Pakistan’s target now is to complete the 27-point action plan to improve its economic indicators and send a clear message to the world that Pakistan’s financial systems secure. Responding to speculations about downgrading to black list, the minister said that “blacklisting was not an option because the country has achieved significant progress” by choking money laundering and terror financing. The Paris-based organization that monitors terrorism funding said on February 25 that Pakistan will continue to be on its watch list until June for three out of 27 unmet action plan despite the country’s progress. Pakistan has been strongly urged to complete its full action plan targets on anti-money laundering and combating financing terror (AML/CFT) before June 2021. The FATF has asked Pakistan to continue to work on implementing these three remaining items: 1. Demonstrating that terrorism financing (TF) investigations and prosecutions target persons and entities acting on behalf or at the directive of the designated persons or entities. 2. Demonstrating that TF prosecutions result in effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions. 3. Demonstrating effective implementation of targeted financial sanctions against all 1,267 and 1,373 designated terrorists, and those acting for them or on their behalf. Significant progress The FATF President Dr Marcus Pleyer appreciated that the country had made significant progress. “Pakistan has made progress across all action plan items and has now largely addressed 24 of the 27 action items” since June 2018 with a high-level political commitment to work with the FATF and APG to strengthen its AML/CFT regime and to address its strategic counter-terrorist financing-related deficiencies. Being in the FATF list means the country will face enhanced monitoring procedures. While there are no direct economic consequences but the listing impacts the country’s ability to attract foreign investment as well as the country’s imports, exports, remittances and access to international lenders. FATF kept North Korea and Iran as the only two countries on its black list but added four new places to the grey list including Morocco, Burkina Faso, Senegal and the Cayman Islands.

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Jharkhand residents urged to ditch cars for bicycles in bid to reduce pollution

India|: Patna: The government in Jharkhand state, alarmed at the rising pollution level posing serious health hazards, has planned a 'No cars on Saturday' initiative where citizens will only be allowed to ride bicycles on the busy city streets during weekends. The government said the eco-friendly move will not only protect the environment but also promote healthier lifestyle among residents. Scheduled to be launched on March 13, the idea will be implemented in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state. The total population of Ranchi is 1.46 million. A decision to this effect was taken at a meeting of officials held under the chairmanship of Ranchi Municipal Corporation (RMC) commissioner Mukesh Kumar on Thursday. Air pollution “We appeal to everyone to use cycle at least once in a week which will not only keep them healthy but will also significantly contribute to the environment,” Kumar said. He said the move would also help decongest roads and make the surrounding free from air and sound pollution. He urged all the officials as well as the citizens to strictly avoid using vehicles running on fuel and use only cycles on the city streets for nature’s sake as well as their own health. Further, he announced to make the city roads “cycle-friendly” and arrange for sufficient number of cycle stands in the city to help the cyclists park their cycles. The commissioner declared that from now on every builder constructing private/commercial building would have to arrange for “cycle stands” there the way they leave space for car parking. The builders will have to make this commitment in writing right when submitting the maps for the proposed building to the municipal corporation lest their projects won’t be approved, he said. The official also announced that the either side of roads leading to Dhurwa dam, a popular tourist spot in Jharkhand, would be developed as “No vehicle zone”. He also declared to remove all ditches from the city roads and create new designs on the city roads to promote cycling. The authorities decided to go for the idea alarmed at the sudden increase in number of cars. According to an official report, the total number of registered cars has gone up to 206,766 in the past 20 years in Ranchi, with an average 20,000 cars being purchased every year. Last year, a total of 18,627 cars were registered with the transport depart despite the COVID-19 outbreak. In 2019, the number of registered cars stood at 20,611 whereas their number was recorded at 23,762 in 2018. Physically fit “This is indeed a praiseworthy move by the government. This will increase our physical activities and make us physically fit,” a local resident Rajiv Kumar Gupta said. Another resident Kanishk Poddar said the move would indeed prove wonderful as the city streets would remain free from honking and obnoxious fumes at least for a day. According to a Greenpeace report released on February 18 this year, over 120,000 people have died in India in 2020 as a result of air pollution and related problems with the maximum of 54,000 deaths reported from Delhi. “Despite recording relatively better air quality this year due to strict lockdown, air pollution continues to be a serious public health issue which also drastically impacts our economy,” says Avinash Chanchal, Climate Campaigner, Greenpeace India.