COVID-19: The UK government approves emergency vaccine rollout, sparking hope and questions
On 2 December, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) granted emergency-use authorization to the COVID-19 vaccine jointly developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, seven months after clinical trials. The UK became the first country to grant vaccine approval to Pfizer and BioNTech with an expected roll out from early next week. Marching ahead of the US and Germany, where both companies are based, the approval prompted international criticisms from both the EU and the US. Peter Liese, a member of the European Parliament’s public health committee, called the UK’s approval ‘hasty’; and the head of the US National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, called the process a “kind of ran around the corner of the marathon and joined it in the last mile.” The UK defended its regulators and moved to order 40 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech jabs which can vaccinate 20 million people. Additionally, 100 million doses have been ordered for the shot developed by AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford.
What is the background?
First, rising COVID-19 cases and strain on the UK’s health service. The UK remains the only country in Europe to have crossed the 50,000 of COVID deaths with more than 1.6 million confirmed cases. Its National Health Services (NHS) has been burdened with overcrowded beds, tiring doctors and nurses. The emergency approval marks a moment of triumph for the administration, which has been criticized for mishandling the crisis and straining the NHS.
Second, the domestic divisions over COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine rollout. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson resisted a parliamentary rebellion from the Conservative party over new restrictions to combat the virus. The Tory parliamentarians voted against the new tiered system due to replace the current month-long national lockdown. Johnson’s reputation within the party had plunged a record low over handling of the pandemic, the BREXIT trade talks and also the weakening economy. In this context, the fast-tracked authorization becomes one triumph to coalesce internal Tory divisions and wavering public opinion.
Third, quick approval by the UK and EU’s vaccine scepticism. The UK has been laying the groundwork for authorization for some time with organized test runs, logistics of delivering a shot and storage at an ultralow temperature. The MHRA’s independent regulatory mechanism aided in pacing the approval process as it remained in constant connection with Pfizer and BioNTech from October unlike the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Even though the education secretary credited BREXIT for the expedited approval, the UK has been able to work around the European law by making the authorization for emergency cases, an area that is vaguely defined in the EU regulation of human medicines. The UK remains one of the few European countries with large public support for vaccines. This is unlike France and Germany, where anti-lockdown protests and vaccine sceptics have made it hard for administrations to roll out changes quickly.
What does it mean?
Quick approval by the UK has shown the world what is needed: a bureaucracy that will work for a health emergency. Challenges remain for the UK to ease access for the low-income group. However, the vaccine authorization is an important moment for the UK because it shows that the country can work without delays and defeats that have distinctively marked its political history since the beginning of the BREXIT. The authorization of the vaccine being within the ambit of EU law is not an argument in favour of BREXIT, but an indication of what the UK wants to do in future.
Escalating tensions between Australia and China: A tweet raises diplomatic heat
On 30 November, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman tweeted with a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a blood-stained knife to the throat of an Afghan child captioned “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace”. He also posted, “Shocked by the murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts & call for holding them accountable”.
On the same day, Scott Morrison, Australian Prime Minister, condemned the image and demanded an apology for the “repugnant tweet”. He said: “It is utterly outrageous and cannot be justified on any basis. The Chinese government should be utterly ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes.”
On 1 December, New Zealand became the first country to voice its criticism over China’s tweet. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said, “It was an unfactual post, and of course it concerns us. We have raised it directly, the way New Zealand does when we have such concerns.” Later the same day the Chinese Spokesperson said, “rather demanding an apology for the post, Australia should be “ashamed”, as some of its soldiers on official duty in Afghanistan committed such cruelties”.
What is the background?
First, the report on excesses committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan. In November, Australia had released a report on the alleged unlawful killings in Afghanistan. As per the report, 39 unarmed Afghan prisoners and civilians were killed by Australian special forces during the period 2009-13. Australia’s Chief of Defence Forces has apologized to the people of Afghanistan. On 30 November, Morrison said that Australia had established a “transparent and honest” process for investigation against accused soldiers and that this “is what a free, democratic, liberal country does”.
Second, the worsening bilateral relations between China and Australia with a series of political, social, and economic disengagement/dispute. Politically, in 2017, Australia banned China’s foreign political donation in Canberra political process. Australia also became the first country to ban Chinese tech giant Huawei from its 5G network and called for an independent inquiry over the origin of COVID-19. Beijing has shown its rage over Australian response over Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. Economically, in the last six months, Beijing has imposed tariffs on Australian beef, barley, and wine. The relationship between the two has come to the lowest point. On the other hand, Australia blocked 10 Chinese investment deals across infrastructure, agriculture, and animal husbandry. Socially, in June, Australia’s intelligence and police authority raided four Chinese journalists over their alleged influence campaigns. On similar lines, in September, China had questioned two Australian journalists in a national security probe, prompting them to leave the country.
Third, the US-China divide. China is unhappy with Australia’s growing relationship with the US and its recent participation in the Malabar exercise that brought together navies of Quad members. Beijing has called the alliance, as an attempt by the US to recreate an “Asian version of NATO”.
What does it mean?
Australia’s export to China constitutes 35 per cent of its total export, whereas imports from Australia account for 4 per cent of China’s total imports. This dispute would hurt Australia more than it would hurt China. However, with the rising tensions, as exemplified by the dispute over a tweet, Australia might not reverse its policy against China.
An Afghan agreement in Doha: A breakthrough reported between the government and the Taliban
On 2 December, the New York Times reported an agreement between the negotiators of the Afghan government and the Taliban over “the principles and procedures that will guide the ongoing peace negotiations between them.” According to a tweet by Nader Nadery, on Wednesday, “the plenary meeting was held between two Intra-Afghan negotiation teams. In this meeting, a joint working committee was tasked to prepare the draft topics for the agenda..” and “the procedure including its preamble of the negotiation has been finalized and from now on, the negotiation will begin on the agenda.” Nadery is a part of the negotiation team by the Afghan government; he also tweeted on the same day: “The current negotiations of both negotiation teams show that there is willingness among Afghans to reach a sustainable peace and both sides are committed to continue their sincere efforts to reach a sustainable peace in Afghanistan.”
On 5 December, Nadery tweeted again. He said: “The Committee discussed the issue related to the agenda of the negotiation. The working committee will meet again tomorrow.”
Earlier, according to Sediq Seddiqqi, the spokesperson of the Afghan President tweeted on the same issue in which the latter welcomed the “finalization of the negotiation procedures in Doha.”
What is the background?
First, the protracted negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Ever since an agreement was reached between the United States and the Taliban in February this year, there was an expectation that the intra-Afghan dialogue would follow up immediately. However, that did not happen. The Afghan government was not a party to the February 2020 agreement between the US and the Taliban. There were numerous differences between the two government and the Taliban from major issues such as the ceasefire as a precondition of intra-Afghan dialogue, to even the nomenclature of how both sides want to be called. Multiple meetings have taken place between the two negotiation teams.
Second, the continuation of violence. After the February agreement, it was expected that the level of violence would decline. Afghanistan is yet to witness the same. According to a New York Times casualty report, there were more than 444 people killed in November 2020 (including 244 pro-government forces and 200 civilians) and 580 killed in October 2020 (including 369 pro-government forces and 212 civilians). The negotiations in Doha is taking place with heavy violence in the background in Afghanistan.
Third, the American pressure on the Afghan government. Ever since the February agreement with the Taliban, one of the primary American objectives is to pressurize the Afghan government to engage with the Taliban to ensure there is an intra-Afghan dialogue place, as it withdraws its troops further. President Trump has made another statement recently on further withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan. By January, there would be less than 2500 American troops, if one has to go by Trump’s plan to reduce by half of what they have now.
What does it mean?
An agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban is important at this juncture. Not only because of Trump’s decision to reduce the troops level further but also because of declining international support to Afghanistan. The Afghan donor conference in Geneva last month could manage only USD 12 billion for the next four years when compared to USD 16 billion and USD 15 billion during Tokyo (2012) and Brussels (2016) conferences respectively.
The troubling aspect is the continuing violence. As mentioned above, more than 1000 people have been killed during the last two months (October-November 2020). This is unacceptable. Dialogue and violence cannot continue side by side. Unfortunately, there is more pressure on the Afghan government to accept this, as the Taliban continues to engage in Doha politically, and perpetrate violence in Afghanistan.
Also in the news…
by Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma
East Asia and Southeast Asia This Week
Hong Kong: Young trio jailed
On 2 December, a Hong Kong court sentenced pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong for 13 months in prison while fellow dissidents Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow were jailed for 10 and seven months respectively. The trio had pleaded guilty to the charges of inciting, organizing and participating in a rally near the Hong Kong Police Headquarter in 2019. The ruling was criticized by the US and the UK. Dominic Raab, UK’s Foreign Secretary, urged “the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to bring an end to their campaign to stifle opposition.”
Myanmar: Military announces election review, UEC pushes back
On 1 December, the Union Election Commission (UEC) of Myanmar asked its sub-commissioners not to share electoral documents without permission. This came a day after the military said that it would review the 8 November general elections amid calls for a probe by the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The military had also called the UEC to instruct its officers to share copies of election documents for review.
Thailand: PM Prayut not guilty, rules Constitutional Court
On 2 December, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled unanimously that Prime Minister Prayut was not guilty of occupying the army residence. Prayut, former chief of Thailand’s military, had seized power after the 2014 coup. However, he continues to stay in his army residence after assuming the post of prime minister. The Pheu Thai, Thailand’s largest opposition party, complained to the court regarding it in March this year. An adverse ruling would have made his continuation at the post of prime minister untenable.
Singapore: Lab-grown meat gets world’s first regulatory approval
On 2 December, Eat Just, a US start-up, said that the company has got regulatory approval for its lab-grown meat. This approval by the Singapore Food Agency (FSA) makes the country first in the world to allow the sale of cultured meat. On the same day, FSA also released the safety guidelines for food inventions. Cultured meat is an alternative to animal and plant-based meat and is made from stem cells in a laboratory setting.
New Zealand: Climate emergency declared
On 2 December, New Zealand’s parliament passed a motion declaring a state of ‘Climate Emergency’, joining 32 other countries which have declared it already. The government also committed to achieving carbon neutrality in the public sector by 2025. Addressing the legislators, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden called Climate Change “one of the greatest challenges of our time” and said that the country needed to “act with urgency”.
New Zealand: Visiting Pakistani cricket team barred from training
On 4 December, New Zealand’s Ministry of Health said that the exemption provided to visiting sports teams to train after completing 14-days isolation has been denied to the Pakistani cricket team which is staying in a Christchurch hotel. This comes after 8 cricketers tested positive for COVID-19 in the 53-member Pakistani squad and breach of isolation rules by team members. New Zealand’s Director General of Health said that there continue to be “concerns about the risk of cross-infection within the squad.”
Australia: Bushfires due to the heatwave
On 3 December, seventeen aircraft dumped water on the Fraser island that continues to burn due to the bushfires. Fires are raging for more than six weeks now and have engulfed an area of 187,800 acres. Fire bans have been imposed in the northern slopes and the north-western districts. Bushfires though common in Australian, the intensity and occurrences have increased due to Climate Change. 2019-20 witnessed a devastating bushfire season which burned 30 million acres of land and killed more than a billion animals.
China: Defence Minister’s visit to Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan
On 29 November, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe visited Nepal for a one day trip. He met Nepali Army Chief PC Thapa and discussed military cooperation between the nations. He also made a courtesy call to the President and Prime Minister of Nepal to discuss bilateral relations. On 1 December, he visited Pakistan for three days. He held talks with the PM and President of Pakistan on regional security issues. Both the nations signed an MoU on defence cooperation. However, his visit to Bangladesh was cancelled at the last moment as Bangladeshi ministers got infected with COVID-19.
Japan: Space capsule returns, with samples from an asteroid
On 5 December, a capsule released by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft, that was sent to collect asteroid samples, landed in a remote area of Southern Australia. Scientists believe that the samples, especially the ones taken from under the asteroid surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors.
South Asia This Week
Bangladesh: Rohingya refugees relocated
On 4 December, the first batch of Rohingya refugees was taken from the Cox Bazaar’s refugee camp to the newly developed facility at Bhasan Char by the Bangladesh Navy. The relocation will be completed in a week. Food, hospitals, schools, and COVID-19 testing centres are some of the facilities that are in place for the refugees. On 5 December, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement said that even though the relocation was voluntary, it was necessary due to congestion and security concerns at the overcrowded refugee camps.
India: Farmers protests against the agriculture laws
On 5 December, the fifth round of talks between the Indian government and the farmers ended. Farmers are protesting against the three new agriculture laws: the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act. Farmers have rejected the government’s offer to reform laws and demanded repealing of all three laws. On 1 December, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau extended support to the Indian farmers, following which, India summoned Canadian High Commissioner as a mark of protest.
India: Bilateral meeting with Oman
On 2 December, the Foreign Minister of Oman Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamood Albusaidi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar held a virtual meeting. Both nations discussed prospects for strategic and defence cooperation, economic cooperation, and enhancing people-to-people ties. India also thanked Oman for its efforts to maintain extensive cooperation during the pandemic.
India: Vice-President hosts the Council of the Heads of the Government meeting of the SCO
On 30 November, the nineteenth meeting of the heads of the government of the SCO member nations was held virtually. They decided to implement the Sustainable Development Goals until 2030 and to strengthen cooperation in trade, production, energy, industrial, transport, investment, financial, agricultural, healthcare and other areas of mutual interest. The meeting was hosted by India this year and was addressed by Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu; he highlighted the historical, cultural and civilizational linkages between the SCO member states.
Pakistan: UN General Assembly adopts resolution on interfaith harmony
On 3 December, UNGA adopted a resolution on “promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue”, Pakistan’s Foreign Office said in a statement. It added that “This resolution is part of Pakistan’s global efforts to promote interfaith harmony, tolerance, respect for each other’s religions and values, and peaceful co-existence” The resolution was co-sponsored by the Philippines
Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week
Saudi Arabia and Qatar: Jared Kushner’s visit
On 30 November, Jared Kushner, senior adviser to United States President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia. On 2 December, he visited Qatar. The visit to both the nations was aimed at advancing Israeli interests in the region – ending the blockade of Qatar by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members and ending Iran’s influence in the region. The Trump administration is also working to resolve the conflict between both nations as a part of its Middle East strategy.
Yemen: Joint statement on famine
On 3 December, the World Food Programme, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a joint statement on the “worsening levels of hunger” in Yemen. The Yemenis are prone to face the ’emergency phase’ of food insecurity during the first half of 2021, said the UN statement. Yemen has also witnessed a decrease in the humanitarian aid by donor countries, which can worsen the situation.
Israel: Netanyahu’s coalition partners join opposition to bring down the government
On 2 December, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition partner Benny Gantz joined the opposition to vote against a bill that can dissolve the government for the fourth time in two years. The government swore in when Gantz, his main rival, agreed to form a coalition. Disagreement over the budget has caused political mistrust between the two coalition partners. If the budget is not passed by the parliament till 23 December, the parliament will automatically dissolve.
Jordan-Israel: Meeting over Palestine
On 3 December, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi held a meeting with his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi to restart the negotiations between Palestine and Israel. The meeting took place at King Hussein Bridge in Allenby. Safadi reiterated that the negotiations were necessary to achieve peace and stability in the longer run. Both leaders also discussed bilateral economic relations.
Israel: Release of funds to Palestinians
On 2 December, Israel released USD 1 billion to the Palestinian Authority as tax money. The fund was released after the resumption of coordination between them. The money was supposed to be paid by Israel every month. The Palestinian economy has been hit hard due to the pandemic due to which the Palestinian Authority was unable to pay the salaries of the employees. After the release of funds, Palestine’s PM Mohammed Shtayyeh said that the salaries will now be paid to the employees.
Ethiopia: UN asks the Ethiopian government to allow humanitarian aid in Tigray
On 2 December, the UN reached an agreement with the Ethiopian government “to allow unimpeded, sustained and secure access” for humanitarian supplies to reach the needy in the Tigray region. Until now no humanitarian aid has reached into the conflict zone. The UN ensured that the aid would reach on ‘globally agreed principles’ of impartiality, independence and neutrality. Earlier this week, the UN refugee agency appealed to the Ethiopian government for assistance to the Eritrean refugees in Tigray camps.
Somalia: Kenyan envoy expelled on electoral intervention
On 30 November, Somalia expelled Kenya’s ambassador after accusing Kenya of interfering in the electoral process of Jubbaland- an autonomous region of Somalia. It accused Kenya of infringing its territorial integrity, political independence, sovereignty and unity. Somalia also said that Kenya is building pressure on Jubbaland’s President Ahmed Mohamed Islam in order to pursue political and economic interests.
Mali: British troops to join UN Peacekeeping Mission
On 3 December, about 300 British troops arrived in Mali to join the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission to fight against the jihadist insurgencies and violence. They joined other UN multinational troops under Operation Newcombe who are fighting to achieve peace and stability in the Sahel region. Operation Newcombe is the British military’s assistance to France’s Operation Barkhane. The UK has already deployed three Chinooks helicopters and about 100 troops as logistic support to France.
Europe and the Americas This Week
Moldova: President calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops
On 30 November, the Kremlin rejected President Maia Sandu’s call for withdrawing Russian troops from Moldova, calling such a move as destabilizing. “We are an independent country that does not want foreign troops to stay on its territory,” Sandu said in an interview. She added that The Operational Group of Russian Forces in Trans-Dniester’ (OGRF) should be replaced in the Moldovan territory by monitors under the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Hungary: Viktor Orban says the country will stick with a veto on EU budget
On 4 December, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that the country would continue to place a veto on the EU budget and rejected any attempt of linking the budget with the ‘rule of law’ requirement. Hungary and Poland have been blocking the passing of the USD 2.1 trillion EU budget for more than a month now. On the same day, the EU’s Economy Commissioner said that the bloc would “not surrender to a veto.”
France: Crackdown on Mosques
On 3 December, France’s Interior Minister said that the government had identified 76 mosques as “suspected” of “separatism” out of the 2600 Muslim places of worship in the country. These mosques would be closed down if found to be spreading separatism. He also said that 66 radicalized undocumented migrants had been expelled from the country, while many others are being detained. These moves are part of the French government’s push for combating “Islamist separatism” after a string of recent terror attacks.
The UK and Europe: BREXIT talks to resume
On 5 December, the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over a phone call. He agreed to restart the negotiations for a trade and security deal. The leaders also agreed to speak again on Monday. Their phone call came after the UK’s, and EU’s chief negotiators had said on 4 December that negotiations would be paused due to “significant divergences” on key issues. In three weeks, the UK will leave the EU’s single market and customs union.
The US: Trump pressurizes Georgia governor to overturn election results
On 5 December, the US President Donald Trump called Brian Kemp, the Governor of the State of Georgia, pressurizing him to persuade the state’s legislature to overturn President-elect Biden’s victory. He also asked Kemp to call for an audit of the signatures in the absentee ballots. Kemp, who is a Republican governor, refused to comply with the demands. Trump tweeted the same day that “If we win Georgia, everything else falls in place!”.
The US: In a first rally post-election, in Georgia, Trump still talks about a stolen election
On 5 December, in a rally in Georgia, the first since the Presidential election in November 2020, Trump has refused to accept the election results once again. He has asked the people of Georgia to come forward, as Republicans have to defend the two seats they hold in the Senate from Georgia. If the Republicans lose the two seats in Georgia, they would also lose the majority in the Senate. The runoff election in Georgia for the Senate seats is scheduled on 5 January.
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