Thousands protest coronavirus restrictions in Czech capital

PRAGUE | Thousands rallied in the Czech capital of Prague on Sunday to protest the government’s restrictive measures to tackle a record surge of coronavirus infections.

The protesters included members and supporters of a number of fringe political parties and groups that failed to win any parliamentary seats in October’s election. It was their third protest in the last two weeks. The participants didn’t wear face coverings or follow social distancing rules and drank beer despite a ban on drinking alcohol in public.

At Prague’s Letna Park, the protesters chanted “Freedom!” and “We’ve had enough!” while displaying banners that discouraged getting vaccinated such as ones reading”My body my choice.”

Police didn’t intervene.

The country has been setting repeated records in new daily infections, hitting a record high of almost 28,000 cases on Thursday. The infection rate was at 1,191 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days. Overall, the nation of 10.7 million has registered over 2.1 million cases with 32,837 COVID-related deaths. It has lower vaccination rates than many other EU nations.

The Czech government declared a 30-day state of emergency and imposed additional coronavirus restrictions Friday in its effort to tackle the surge. Among them, all Christmas markets across the country were banned and bars, restaurants, nightclubs, discotheques and casinos have to close at 10 p.m.

The number of people at cultural and sports events in the Czech Republic is now limited to 1,000 who are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 while all other public gatherings can be attended by only up to 100 visitors, down from 1,000.

Israel tightens travel restrictions over new COVID variant

JERUSALEM | Israel on Sunday approved barring entry to foreign nationals and the use of controversial technology for contact tracing as part of its efforts to clamp down on a new coronavirus variant.

The Health Ministry said the country’s coronavirus Cabinet had authorized a raft of measures, including red-listing travel to 50 African countries, banning entry by foreigners and mandating quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.

It also approved use of the Shin Bet internal security agency’s controversial phone monitoring technology to perform contact tracing of individuals confirmed with the new omicron variant of coronavirus in Israel.

Israeli rights groups had decried the use of the technology, which can track where a person has been and whom he has met with, as a violation of privacy rights. The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that its use be limited.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has led the opposition to the technology, said Sunday that “resuming the program via emergency regulation is a blatant disregard for the rule of law,” and pointed to the court’s ruling that “the tracking had not proven effective in preventing the spread of the virus.”

But the Cabinet went ahead and gave formal approval to the measure, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett signed an emergency regulation putting it into effect.

”It should be emphasized that the use is restricted only to verified cases of the new strain. There will be no widespread and sweeping use for all verified cases as was done in previous waves of morbidity,” Bennett’s office said.

It said the emergency regulation would remain in effect until Thursday, and that if there is a widespread outbreak of the new variant, use of the monitoring technology will be halted.

Earlier Sunday, Bennett said that tightening Israel’s borders will help keep the country open internally.

”Restrictions on the country’s borders is not an easy step, but it’s a temporary and necessary step,” he said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Dr. Ran Balicer, head of the government’s advisory panel on COVID-19, told Israel’s Kan public radio that the new measures were necessary for the “fog of war” surrounding the new variant, saying it was “better to act early and strictly” to prevent its spread.

On Saturday, Israel said it detected the new strain in a traveler who had returned from Malawi and was investigating seven other suspected cases. The seven people included three vaccinated individuals and all were placed in isolation.

The new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread.

Israel, a country of 9.3. million people, has reported at least 8,184 deaths from coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. Most of its population — over 6.3 million people — has received at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and more than 4 million Israelis have received a booster. It has more than 7,000 active cases, 120 of them hospitalized in serious condition, according to Health Ministry statistics.

Dutch impose new tighter lockdown amid spiking infections

AMSTERDAM | The Netherlands moved into a tougher lockdown Sunday that was announced amid spiking infections even before the country recorded its first confirmed cases of the new, more highly transmissible omicron virus variant.

Bars, restaurants, nonessential stores, cinemas and theaters were among the public places forced to shut from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m. under the new lockdown.

Wilko Klippens, who runs the Biessels cafe on the Grote Markt square in the city of Nijmegen, said the latest lockdown will further eat into his savings.

”We’re going to keep all the staff. You know, they’re going to pay their rent, pay their education. So yeah, it’s on us,” he said. “So the money we saved for retirement is the money we pay the staff with and the rent.”

The restrictions took effect hours after Health Minister Hugo de Jonge announced that at least 13 travelers who arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on Friday tested positive for the new variant. He urged other travelers who arrived last week from southern Africa to get tested as well.

”We have appealed to everyone ... who has been in southern Africa in the past week to report to the local health authority ... to make a separate test appointment,” he said.

The Netherlands has seen a string of record daily infections in recent weeks and an earlier partial lockdown appears to have had little effect. Dutch hospitals have warned that intensive care units could become overwhelmed by the end of the week. The Dutch government has mandated that all nonessential surgeries, such as hip replacements, be postponed to free up ICU beds for COVID-19 patients.

De Jonge said he could not rule out imposing more restrictions leading up to Christmas.

Wilma van Kampen said she would adhere to the lockdown and hoped that the situation does not deteriorate.

”I’m a nurse. I know how sick people get. I see a lot of people suffering from COVID,” she said.

Earlier Sunday, a heavy police presence massed in the eastern city of Nijmegen ahead of a banned protest against coronavirus measures. Police said they arrested or turned away multiple people during checks on roads leading into the city.

Just over a week ago, a coronavirus protest in the port city of Rotterdam degenerated into violence that prompted police to open fire on rioters who threw rocks and fireworks at officers, vandalized police cars and set fires in the city’s streets.

In Nijmegen on Sunday, Monique van Aken said she doesn’t expect this lockdown to be the last.

”I think it’s going to be happening all the time. It’s going to mutate, and we have to be prepared for that,” she said. “After this variant, new variants will come.”

Swiss vote to approve COVID restrictions as infections rise

BERLIN | Swiss voters on Sunday gave clear backing to legislation that introduced a system with special COVID-19 certificates under which only people who have been vaccinated, recovered or tested negative can attend public events and gatherings.

Final results showed 62% of voters supporting the legislation, which is already in force. The referendum offered a rare bellwether of public opinion on the issue of government policy to fight the spread of coronavirus in Europe, which is currently the global epicenter of the pandemic.

The vote on the country’s “COVID-19 law,” which also has unlocked billions of Swiss francs (dollars) in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic, came as Switzerland — like many other nations in Europe — faces a steep rise in coronavirus cases.

The Swiss federal government, unlike others, hasn’t responded with new restrictions. Analysts said it didn’t want to stir up more opposition to its anti-COVID-19 policies before they faced Sunday’s test at the ballot box — but that if Swiss voters gave a thumbs-up, the government may well ratchet up its anti-COVID efforts.

Health Minister Alain Berset said, with the result, authorities “still have the necessary instruments to manage the crisis, and we can, if necessary, adjust the instruments to developments.”

Of the country’s 26 cantons (states), only two — Schwyz and Appenzell Innerrhoden, both conservative rural regions in eastern Switzerland — voted against the legislation.

”A decision has been made and we must come together now to get through this winter as well as possible,” Berset said. “This is an appeal for unity but also for respect for decisions that have been taken.”

Turnout on Sunday was 65.7%, unusually high for a country that holds referendums several times a year.

On Tuesday, Swiss health authorities warned of a rising “fifth wave” on infections in the rich Alpine country, where vaccination rates are roughly in line with those in hard-hit neighbors Austria and Germany at about two-thirds of the population. Infection rates have soared in recent weeks.

The seven-day average case count in Switzerland shot up to more than 5,200 per day from mid-October to mid-November, a more than five-fold increase. Austria, meanwhile, has imposed a national lockdown to fight the rising infections.

Morocco halts all incoming flights because of virus variant

RABAT, Morocco | Morocco is suspending all incoming air travel from around the world starting Monday for two weeks because of the rapid spread of the new omicron variant, the Foreign Ministry announced Sunday.

The ministry tweeted that the decision was taken to “preserve the achievements realized by Morocco in the fight against the pandemic, and to protect the health of citizens.” It noted the spread of omicron in Africa and Europe.

Morocco kept its borders closed for months in 2020 because of the pandemic, fearing that its health system wouldn’t be able to manage the surges of patients seen in nearby Europe.

The kingdom in North Africa has had among Africa’s highest rates of confirmed infections but also is at the forefront of the continent’s vaccination effort, with 66% of its population having received at least one dose.

The flight suspension was among the most dramatic of many restrictions being imposed by nations around the world as they scramble to slow the omicron variant’s spread. Much remains to be learned about the new variant, but researchers are concerned that it may be more resistant to the protection provided by vaccines.

—From AP reports

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