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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.

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I left Britain to escape toxic press, says Prince Harry

Europe|: London: Britain’s Prince Harry has said he stepped back from his royal duties because the “toxic” British press had been destroying his mental health, adding he had not walked away from public service. Last week, Buckingham Palace announced that Queen Elizabeth’s grandson and his American wife Meghan had made a final split with the royal family, and would not be returning as working members and would lose their patronages. Harry, 36, and Meghan, 39, sent shockwaves through the monarchy in January 2020 when they announced their intention to step back from royal duties and embark on a new life across the Atlantic. “It was never walking away. It was stepping back rather than stepping down, there was a really difficult environment as I think a lot of people saw,” Harry said in an interview with James Corden, host of the “Late Late Show” in the United States. British tabloids “We all know what the British press could be like, and it was destroying my mental health, I was like this is toxic. So I did what any husband and what any father would do is like, I need to get my family out of here.” Before they moved to California, the couple had complained about the British tabloids’ treatment of Meghan, whose father is white and mother is African-American, some of which they said amounted to bullying or racism. Earlier this month, Meghan successfully sued one tabloid for breaching her privacy by printing extracts of a letter she wrote to her father while last month Harry won a libel case against the same paper over a story which said he had turned his back on the military. Critics of the couple, who announced this month they were expecting their second child, have said they are keen for publicity but only on their own terms. An in-depth interview they have given to U.S. chat show host Oprah Winfrey is due to be aired on March 7. There was also disapproval of Harry and Meghan’s response to last week’s split when they said they were committed to a life of service. Some commentators contrasted their life with the duty shown by the 94-year-old queen during her 69-year reign. “And as far as I’m concerned whatever decisions are made on that side, I will never walk away,” said Harry, who commentators have said was unhappy with losing his treasured royal patronages, particularly those connected to the military in which he served for 10 years. Public service “But my life is public service so wherever I am in the world it’s going to be the same thing.” During his interview, carried out on a tour of Los Angeles, Harry told Corden that Netflix’s hit series “The Crown”, a fictional account of the life of the queen and her family, was “loosely based on the truth”. “It gives you a rough idea about what that lifestyle, what the pressures of putting duty and service above family and everything else, what can come from that,” he said. “I’m way more comfortable with the Crown than I am seeing the stories written about my family or my wife, or myself, because ... that is obviously fiction, take it how you will, but this is being reported on as facts because you’re supposedly news.” Harry also revealed his one-year-old son Archie’s first word was “crocodile” and said the queen had sent him a waffle maker as a Christmas present.

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Russian diplomats arrive from North Korea on rail trolley due to COVID-19 curbs

Europe|Asia|: Seoul: Eight Russian diplomats and family members - the youngest of them a three-year-old girl - have arrived home from North Korea on a hand-pushed rail trolley due to Pyongyang’s coronavirus restrictions. Video posted on Russia’s foreign ministry’s verified Telegram account showed the trolley, laden with suitcases and women, being pushed across a border railway bridge by Third Secretary Vladislav Sorokin, the only man in the group. They waved and cheered as they approached their homeland, the culmination of an expedition that began with a 32-hour train trip from Pyongyang, followed by a two-hour bus ride to the border. “It took a long and difficult journey to get home,” the ministry said in the post late Thursday, speaking of the final stretch. “To do this, you need to make a trolley in advance, put it on the rails, place things on it, seat the children - and go,” it said. “Finally, the most important part of the route - walking on foot to the Russian side.” Sorokin was “the main ‘engine’ of the non-self-propelled railcar”, it said, and had to push it for more than a kilometre. Once on Russian territory, they were met by foreign ministry colleagues and were taken by bus to Vladivostok airport. “Don’t leave your own behind”, the ministry added as a hashtag. North Korea imposed a strict border shutdown in January last year to try to protect itself from the coronavirus that first emerged in neighbouring China and has gone on to sweep the world. The shutdown has cancelled all flights in or out of the nuclear-armed, sanctions-hit country, and cross-border trains. ‘Rigorous and demanding work’ With staff and supplies unable to enter, the restrictions have severely hampered the activities of diplomats and aid workers, and several Western embassies have pulled out their entire staff. But Russia has close relations with the North and maintains a significant diplomatic presence. On Friday, the Kremlin said the journey out of North Korea demonstrated that diplomatic service is no walk in the park. “It seems very pleasant and elegant but in reality this is very complex, rigorous and demanding work,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, himself a trained diplomat, told reporters. “Things like this can happen too,” he added. Stalin’s Soviet Union played a key role in the North’s foundation after it and the US decided to split the peninsula into two zones either side of the 38th parallel following the World War II surrender of Korea’s colonial overlord Japan. Moscow still has a grand embassy in a prime spot in central Pyongyang, close to the North Korean leadership compound. In South Korea, people online reacted gleefully to reports of how the diplomats departed. “I am glad I was not born in North Korea,” one posted on South Korea’s biggest internet portal Naver. Another joked: “Please return your cart to where you found it.”

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UK Supreme Court rejects Daesh bride’s legal bid to return

Europe|: London: Britain’s highest court on Friday rejected a bid by a woman who was stripped of her UK citizenship for joining the Daesh (Islamic State) group to return to challenge the decision. Five judges at the Supreme Court gave a unanimous decision in the case of Shamima Begum, whose legal battles have come to be seen as a test of how countries treat nationals who joined the militants. “Ms Begum’s appeal against the leave to enter decision is dismissed,” the head of the Supreme Court, judge Robert Reed, said in a written judgment. The judges said the right to a fair hearing did not override other considerations such as the safety of the public. “The appropriate response to the problem in the present case is for the deprivation appeal to be stayed until Ms Begum is in a position to play an effective part in it without the safety of the public being compromised,” they added. “That is not a perfect solution, as it is not known how long it may be before that is possible. But there is no perfect solution to a dilemma of the present kind.” Now 21, Begum left her home in east London at the age of 15 to travel to Syria with two school friends, and married a Daesh fighter. In 2019 she told The Times newspaper that she did not regret travelling to Syria and had not been “fazed” by seeing a severed head dumped in a bin. Britain revoked her citizenship in 2019 on national security grounds amid an outcry led by right-wing newspapers. Polarising case Begum is being held in a camp in poor conditions, while her husband is reportedly in jail in Syria, and her three children have died. She appealed to be allowed back into the UK so that she can legally challenge her loss of citizenship. She argued that the decision was unlawful as it has made her stateless and exposed her to the risk of death or inhuman and degrading treatment. Begum is of Bangladeshi heritage but the country’s foreign minister has said he will not consider granting her citizenship. The Court of Appeal ruled in July last year that Begum needed to come back to mount a fair and effective appeal. But the interior ministry in turn appealed against this decision, insisting she remained “aligned” with the proscribed terrorist organisation. A government lawyer told the Supreme Court in November her return would create “an increased risk of terrorism”. Her legal team argued that this did not override the need for a fair hearing. Rights groups have argued human rights principles are at stake and Begum should answer for any crimes in her home country. The tabloid newspaper The Sun has called her a “vile fanatic” who has “no place on our soil”. Begum claims she married a Dutch convert soon after arriving in Daesh-held territory. She was discovered, nine months pregnant, in a Syrian refugee camp in February 2019. Her newborn baby died soon after she gave birth. Her two other children also died in infancy under Daesh rule.