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Hearses queue at Beijing crematorium, even as China reports no new COVID deaths

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  • Queue of hearses seen outside Beijing crematorium.
  • China reports no new deaths; some criticise its accounting.
  • Beijing faces surge in severe COVID in next 2 weeks: expert.

BEIJING: Dozens of hearses queued outside a Beijing crematorium on Wednesday, even as China reported no new COVID-19 deaths in its growing outbreak, sparking criticism of its virus accounting as the capital braces for a surge of severe cases.

Following widespread protests, the country of 1.4 billion people this month began dismantling its “zero-COVID” regime of lockdowns and testing that had largely kept the virus away for three years — at great economic and psychological costs.

The abrupt change of policy has caught the country’s fragile health system unprepared, with hospitals scrambling for beds and blood, pharmacies for drugs, and authorities racing to build special clinics. Experts now predict China could face more than a million COVID deaths next year.

At a crematorium in Beijing’s Tongzhou district on Wednesday, a Reuters witness saw a queue of around 40 hearses waiting to enter, while the parking lot was full.

Inside, family and friends, many wearing white clothing and headbands as is tradition, were gathered around roughly 20 coffins awaiting cremation. Staff wore hazmat suits. Smoke rose from five of the 15 furnaces.

There was a heavy police presence outside the crematorium.

Reuters could not verify whether the deaths were caused by COVID.

Narrow definition

People wearing face masks commute in a subway station during morning rush hour, following the coronavirus disease ( COVID-19) outbreak, in Beijing, China January 20, 2021.— Reuters
People wearing face masks commute in a subway station during morning rush hour, following the coronavirus disease ( COVID-19) outbreak, in Beijing, China January 20, 2021.— Reuters 

China uses a narrow definition of COVID deaths, reporting no new fatalities for Tuesday and even crossing one off its overall tally since the pandemic began, now amounting to 5,241 — a fraction of what much less populous countries faced.

The National Health Commission said on Tuesday only people whose death is caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus are classified as COVID deaths.

Benjamin Mazer, an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University, said that classification would miss “a lot of cases,” especially as people who are vaccinated, including with the Chinese shots, are less likely to die of pneumonia.

Blood clots, heart problems and sepsis — an extreme body response to infection – have caused countless deaths among COVID patients around the world.

“It doesn’t make sense to apply this sort of March 2020 mindset where it’s only COVID pneumonia that can kill you, when we know that in the post-vaccine era, there’s all sorts of medical complications,” Mazer said.

Looming surge

The death toll might rise sharply in the near future, with state-run Global Times citing a leading Chinese respiratory expert predicting a spike in severe cases in Beijing over the coming weeks.

People line up at a makeshift fever clinic set up inside a stadium, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Beijing, China December 19, 2022.— Reuters
People line up at a makeshift fever clinic set up inside a stadium, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Beijing, China December 19, 2022.— Reuters

“We must act quickly and prepare fever clinics, emergency and severe treatment resources,” Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert from Peking University First Hospital, told the newspaper.

Severe cases rose by 53 across China on Tuesday, versus an increase of 23 the previous day. China does not provide absolute figures of severe cases.

Wang expects the COVID wave to peak in late January, with life likely to return to normal by end-February or early March.

The NHC also played down concerns raised by the United States and some epidemiologists over the potential for the virus to mutate, saying the possibility of new strains that are more pathogenic is low.

Paul Tambyah, President of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, supported that view.

“I do not think that this is a threat to the world,” he said. “The chances are that the virus will behave like every other human virus and adapt to the environment in which it circulates by becoming more transmissible and less virulent.”

Several leading scientists and World Health Organisation advisors told Reuters a potentially devastating wave to come in China means it may be too early to declare the end of the global COVID pandemic emergency phase.

Economic impact

The United States on Tuesday indicated it stands ready to assist China with its outbreak, warning an uncontrolled spread in the world’s second-largest economy may hurt global growth.

A major near-term concern for economists is the impact a surge in infections might have on factory output and logistics as workers and truck drivers fall ill.

The World Bank on Tuesday cut its China growth outlook for this year and next, citing the abrupt loosening of COVID measures among other factors.

Some local governments continue to relax rules.

Staff at the Communist Party and government institutions or enterprises in the southwestern city of Chongqing who have mild COVID symptoms can go to work if they wear a mask, state-run China Daily reported.

Other Chinese media reported similar moves in several cities.

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Pakistan

China “agrees” to transfer $2 billion in debt to Pakistan.

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ISLAMABAD China has “agreed” to roll over a $2 billion loan to Pakistan, according to sources cited by ARY News, which is a big milestone.

Sources inside the ministry of finance claim that the $2 billion loan will be rolled over under the current terms prior to its maturity date.

Less than 2 percent interest will be charged on the $2 billion in Chinese debt that is being deposited, according to sources.

According to reports, the $2 billion debt’s maturity period will conclude on March 23, 2024, and an additional $2 billion will be rolled over for a year.

It is important to note that as of the end of November in FY2023–24, Pakistan’s overall debt load was at an astounding Rs 63,399 trillion.

Over Rs12.430 trillion more was borrowed by the nation during the PDM and caretaker government’s mandate.

With domestic loans totaling Rs40.956 trillion and foreign loans totaling Rs22.434 trillion, Pakistan’s total debt load increased to Rs63.390 trillion.

China postponed paying Pakistan’s $2 billion debt for two years, starting in July 2023. Regarding the delay in debt recovery, Pakistan received an official letter from China Eximbank.

Pakistan will return the debt in accordance with the terms of the deal with China and was also spared from paying extra interest on the loan. According to further sources, all 31 loan agreements were extended over the original date of July 21, 2023, to June 30, 2025.

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American surgeons successfully perform world’s first eye transplant

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New York surgeons claim to have conducted the world’s first whole-eye transplant on a man, marking a significant turning point in the history of the medical field, though it’s unclear if the patient will recover vision.

Aaron James, who survived a high-voltage electrical accident, underwent a 21-hour surgery to replace half of his face, marking a significant breakthrough, according to experts, in the quest to restore sight to millions of people.

James, a high-voltage utility line worker from Arkansas lost most of his face in 2021 after he accidentally touched a 7,200-volt live wire.

He underwent a rare partial face and eye transplant, on 27 May this year involving over 140 healthcare professionals.

The intricate procedure was carried out by surgeons at New York University (NYU) Langone Health, who said on Thursday that James, 46, was making a full recovery from the dual transplant and that the donated eye appeared exceptionally healthy. His right eye still works.

“The mere fact that we’ve accomplished the first successful whole-eye transplant with a face is a tremendous feat many have long thought was not possible,” said Dr Eduardo Rodriguez, one of the leading surgeons on the team.

“We’ve made one major step forward and have paved the way for the next chapter to restore vision.”

Doctors say James’ surgery offers scientists an unprecedented window into how the human eye tries to heal, BBC reported.

“We’re not claiming that we are going to restore sight,” Dr Rodriguez told ABC News. “But there’s no doubt in my mind we are one step closer.”

While there is no certainty James will regain vision in his new eye, doctors do not rule out the possibility either.

Aaron James of Hot Springs, Arkansas, poses with Dr. Eduardo D Rodriguez after he underwent surgery for the world’s first whole-eye transplant as part of a partial face transplant at NYU Langone in an undated photograph. — Reuters
Aaron James of Hot Springs, Arkansas, poses with Dr. Eduardo D Rodriguez after he underwent surgery for the world’s first whole-eye transplant as part of a partial face transplant at NYU Langone in an undated photograph. — Reuters

“If I can see out of it, that’s great,” James said in an interview. “But if it’ll kick-start the next path in the medical field, then I’m all for it.”

James, a military veteran, will continue to be monitored by doctors but has seen “exceptional” progress with his eye transplant, according to Bruce E Gelb, MD, a transplant surgeon at NYU.

The donated face and eye came from a male donor in his 30s, and stem cells were injected into the optic nerve for repair.

James is only the 19th person in the US to undergo a face transplant.

He has called the eye transplant “life-changing” and says he is “grateful beyond words” to the donor and their family for making the surgery possible.

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Gaza, the Middle East, and the Munich Calculus

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History will likely record that Hamas provoked the Gaza war with one eye on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and one on Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS).

This is not a war that Hamas could ever win on the battlefield. The horrifying daily death toll is witness to that. No, this is a war that has in its crosshairs the nascent agreement between Israel and the Gulf states – the so-called Abraham Accords.

Many years ago, I spoke with a Palestinian who helped plan the “Black September” kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. “Before Munich, we were a forgotten people; afterwards, everyone knew our plight,” he told me with a mixture of sadness and pride. Two years after Munich, PLO leader Yasser Arafat was invited to address the UN general assembly.

Munich was the template for what experts came to call “terrorism theater.” Violence for the TV cameras. And it worked; the Palestinians finally had a seat at the table.

But in the half century since, between 10,000 and 20,000 Palestinians had been killed by Israel. The independent Palestinian state promised in the 1993 Oslo Accords never materialised. And most recently, MBS and his allies were making peace with Israel and sidelining the Palestinians.

From the perspective of Hamas, it was time to force the Palestinian cause back to center stage. Call it the Munich Calculus: Violence gets the world’s attention. The slaughter of 1,400 Israelis and inevitable massive military response by Israel – which has now claimed more Palestinian lives than decades of conflict combined – is “terrorism theater” on an unprecedented global stage.

“The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” President Biden’s national security adviser said one week before the current crisis broke out. US battlegroups are now steaming to the region, American jets have struck Iranian proxies in Syria, and thousands of anti-American protestors have taken to the streets around the world.

People walk past in a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Aarhus, Denmark, on October 31, 2023. — AFP
People walk past in a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Aarhus, Denmark, on October 31, 2023. — AFP

The White House plan to “pivot” to Asia and away from the Middle East is in shambles, a slow-moving American rapprochement with Iran is effectively dead, and there is a very real prospect of a new era of anti-American terrorism. The normalisation of relations between Iran and the Saudi bloc of Gulf states after years of proxy war in Yemen and elsewhere is also under threat.

Meanwhile, Arab leaders are walking a fine line; condemning Israel’s assault on Gaza while issuing what historically have proven to be empty expressions of support for the Palestinians.

However, a cynical read of the situation — and after four decades of reporting on the Middle East, I bring a large measure of cynicism to the table — is that MBS and his allies may actually be satisfied to quietly sit back and watch as Hamas is erased from the landscape of the Middle East.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Gulf Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2021. — Reuters
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Gulf Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2021. — Reuters

That would open the way for the Saudi crown prince to step forward as the savior of the Palestinians, offering to supplant the Abraham Accords with something like a return to the Arab Peace Initiative, proposed in 2002 by the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz, which included the creation of a Palestinian state.

Look at the language used last week by the finance minister of Bahrain, a country rarely out of step with Saudi policy: “It’s extremely important for the future of this region that we continue to build bridges,” he told an investment summit in Riyadh as Gaza was being pummeled by Israeli bombs. Though the Bahraini minister never specifically mentioned Hamas, it is noteworthy that he said those in the Middle East who are “looking to destroy” are “not part of the writing of that future.”

The challenge for Arab leaders is to maintain the balance between placating angry publics and playing the long game of regional “normalisation.” Polls earlier this year found a significant decline in support for Hamas across the Arab world. Arab governments are likely to try to leverage that through media and other proxies, such as the comments by Saudi elder statesman Prince Turki al-Faisal, who recently told an American audience that Hamas’s slaughter of Israeli civilians violated Islamic law. In the Gaza conflict, he said, there are no heroes, only victims.

Still, public opinion has never been the prime driver of the policy decisions of Arab governments. Limited protests and online comment are tolerated as safety valves, but dissent will continue to be carefully managed, as demonstrated by Egypt’s decision this week to shutter Mada Masr, the last major independent media outlet in that country.

Make no mistake, Arab and Muslim anger at perceived American complicity in the slaughter in Gaza has the potential to inspire a new generation of jihadis, sending the world back down a broader spiral of violence. However, protests outside US embassies in places like Islamabad and Jakarta have no impact on the Middle East policy equation.

The real factors that could enhance or upset the Gulf balancing act:

  • Israeli public opinion. Prior to the conflict, Israelis were split on the creation of a Palestinian state. Will the Gaza war create greater recognition among Israelis of a need to resolve the Palestinian question or will it harden opposition?
  • US public opinion. US support for Israel is the greatest factor in the Middle East equation. In recent years, Americans have become more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Polls carried out in the first days after the Hamas slaughter of Israelis showed strong support for Israel. But there have also been widespread demonstrations, including by thousands of American Jews, demanding a ceasefire. The longer the bombing continues, the higher the Palestinian death toll, the greater the likelihood the Palestinians will gain in the battle for hearts and minds. The war is already emerging as an issue in the 2024 US presidential election.

And then there is Iran. Tehran will be instrumental in avoiding a larger regional conflict, if it deems that in its best interests. Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies wouldn’t dare act without Tehran’s blessing. MBS was on the phone with Iran’s president within days of crisis erupting, and backchannel communications between Washington, Jerusalem, and Tehran are underway via Riyadh, Doha, and other Arab capitals as officials work to avoid an expansion of the war.

But even if cooler heads in the corridors of power prevail, that doesn’t rule out the danger that isolated extremists of one type or another might act without state sanction and set off a cascade of violence that no one can control.


Lawrence Pintak is the author of America & Islam and five other books at the intersection of Islam, media, and US policy. He was the founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. He posts @Lpintak on Instagram and X.

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