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Russian police arrest over 2,000 in crackdown on pro-Navalny rallies

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Russian police detained more than 2,100 people attending peaceful rallies in support of jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny on Saturday, in a violent response to nationwide protests set to be the country’s largest in years.

Mr Navalny, president Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was jailed this week upon returning from Germany where he had been recovering from an assassination attempt he says was ordered by the Kremlin. He then called on his supporters to hold rallies demanding his release.

Tens of thousands of Russians responded by braving sub-zero temperatures, an often violent police response, and official warnings of a harsh crackdown to flood the streets in 107 cities across the country.

In Moscow — where police said 4,000 people came to protest but Reuters estimated there were 10 times as many — crowds stretched for kilometres in all directions from central Pushkin Square, clogging up sidewalks and blocking traffic as they spilled into the street.

As baton-wielding riot police in body armour and balaclavas moved in to arrest them, some protesters fended them off with snowballs or fought back to free detainees from custody. In Saint Petersburg, protesters breached a police barricade and marched through the city.

Supporters of Alexei Navalny attend a rally in Saint Petersburg © REUTERS

State media said that about 40 riot police in Moscow sustained minor injuries. The driver of a black car with government license plates and VIP beacon was hospitalised after protesters smashed his car and gouged out his eye, according to state newswire RIA Novosti.

Police had arrested 2,131 people by 4pm GMT, including 795 in Moscow and 309 in St Petersburg, according to independent watchdog OVD-Info.

Among them were Mr Navalny’s wife Yulia and top aide Lyubov Sobol, who were detained as soon as they arrived at the square. Ms Navalnaya was released a few hours later.

Russian officials opened several criminal investigations into the rallies, while authorities in Moscow said that 19 people with coronavirus had attended, making the rallies a health hazard.

The Kremlin’s children’s ombudsman, who had accused Mr Navalny of using his youthful following online as “human shields,” said that 15 underage protesters were arrested.

Schools and universities had warned students and the parents of children as young as 10 not to attend the protests.

The head of the Moscow office of consultancy firm McKinsey, which counts several government agencies and state companies as its clients, sent an email to staff banning them from protesting or expressing online support for the rallies.

McKinsey later told the Financial Times: “McKinsey supports its employees’ rights to participate legally and in a personal capacity in civic and political activities across the countries we operate. The recognition of these rights is unqualified.”

Several protesters said they had never attended a rally before but were galvanised by the Kremlin’s treatment of Mr Navalny, who faces up to 13 and a half years in prison on charges he says are retaliation for exposing Russia’s alleged role in his poisoning.

“I’m sick of all this stuff. I’m 19, Putin has been in power my entire life, and I don’t see any hope for the country,” said Anastasia, a student at a Moscow state university. “There’s poverty and state terrorism. And what they did to Navalny is outrageous and illegal.”

Police detain a protester in Saint Petersburg © AP

In Moscow, crowds chanted “Putin is a thief!” and “Free Navalny!” while passing cars sounded their horns in support and blared Changes, a Soviet-era rock anthem popular with protesters in Belarus.

Before the protest started, squads of police officers ran into the crowd and grabbed people, seemingly at random, prompting shouts of “Disgrace!” from onlookers.

Footage from Russia’s Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, where thousands had congregated, showed riot police chasing protesters down the street.

In Yakutsk, a city 8,000km east of Moscow, police arrested 30 people among the few hundred who braved temperatures of -50C to protest.

“I want Russia to be free. I support Navalny. I want a future for my children,” said Svetlana, 60, a retiree, attending the Moscow rally. “I’ve really had it. Everything is falling apart. There’s no healthcare and no pensions. I want things to change.”

Mr Navalny’s team hopes that the scale of the protests, especially in eastern and Siberian cities where anti-Kremlin activities are uncommon, will put pressure on Mr Putin’s administration to release him.

Mr Navalny was jailed on a charge of breaking the terms of a suspended sentence from 2014, which could see him imprisoned for three-and-a-half years. He also faces a fraud charge that carries a 10-year maximum sentence.

The Kremlin, which denies any role in the August nerve agent attack on Mr Navalny that almost killed him, has said the rallies are illegal. Police pre-emptively arrested many of Mr Navalny’s closest aides this week to prevent them from attending and warned social media companies they would be prosecuted for not deleting posts advertising the protests.

Moscow has said it will ignore calls of condemnation from western countries and their demands for Mr Navalny’s release, describing it as a domestic issue.



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Narendra Modi’s popularity slips as Covid crisis hammers India

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Narendra Modi’s popularity has fallen during India’s deepening Covid crisis, according to an opinion poll, as the country reports more than 400,000 daily infections in a brutal second wave.

The prime minister’s approval rating fell to 65 per cent on May 4, down from 74 per cent at the end of March, according to Morning Consult, the US data company — the lowest level since the agency began tracking Modi’s rating in August 2019.

The Indian leader’s disapproval rating also rose to its highest level since the tracker was launched, climbing to 29 per cent from 20 per cent.

Modi’s approval rating remained high compared with other global leaders, but the country’s health and humanitarian crisis has taken a toll.

The prime minister has a strongman reputation but has been accused of indifference in the face of the Covid-19 disaster as he campaigned in state elections even as the outbreak worsened.

“One of the things that Modi has really been good at is perception management. He’s always been very good at messaging,” said Ronojoy Sen, senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore. “This is the first time I would say that his messaging has been awry.”

India’s death toll from the second wave has reached about 4,000 people per day © AP

Modi’s government has sought to deflect blame for the calamity on to state governments and the public for failing to follow pandemic protocols.

As deaths have risen, Harsh Vardhan, the health minister, has also cited official data to boast that India’s fatality ratio was lower than those of richer countries.

However, in a stinging letter to Modi on Friday, Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, sharply criticised the government for a “lack of a clear and coherent Covid and vaccination strategy as well as hubris in declaring premature victory”.

The letter called for more decisive action to control the spread of the virus, as well as greater scientific tracking of the virus and its mutations.

“Allowing the uncontrollable spread of this virus in our country will be devastating not only for our people but also for the rest of the world,” Gandhi wrote, adding that India was a fertile ground for the virus to mutate into “a more contagious and a more dangerous form”.

India reported a record 414,188 infections and 3,915 deaths on Thursday. There have been more than 234,083 confirmed deaths from the disease in the country.

However, most experts believed the figures severely undercounted the magnitude of the crisis because of a lack of testing, especially in small towns and rural areas.

“Right now, data is very corrupted,” Gautam Menon, a professor of biology at Ashoka University, told a recent seminar. “It’s good in some states and it’s very bad in other states.”

Many epidemiologists believe India’s latest outbreak is set to peak in the coming weeks and caseloads will gradually fall, partly helped by lockdowns implemented by some state governments.

The country’s vaccination campaign is losing momentum, however, because of an acute shortage of jabs. The Modi government has been accused of failing to adequately plan its inoculation campaign.

India administered 1.6m vaccines on Thursday and the seven-day moving average of daily vaccinations has fallen to 1.4m, down from a peak of 3.6m in mid-April.

Many Indians were incensed to see Modi boasting of the huge sizes of crowds gathered for his recent election rallies in West Bengal state as the country struggled to access life-saving drugs, hospital beds, oxygen and vaccines.

The prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata party lost its bid to seize power from the Trinamool Congress party in Sunday’s election despite Modi’s efforts.



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Africa celebrates suspension of Covid vaccine patents

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African health officials were on Thursday celebrating what one called a “bold and wonderful” breakthrough after the Biden administration threw its weight behind a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines.

African Union officials hope that at least three countries — South Africa, Senegal and Rwanda — will develop the capacity to produce vaccines for the continent, including the mRNA-type vaccines that emerged as an innovative technology against Covid-19.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, welcomed the US administration’s backing of an IP waiver, a position that is supported by dozens of developing countries led by South Africa and India.

It would, he said, “definitely be a great influence to facilitate the mRNA manufacturing agenda”, adding that there are “very focused discussions” about producing vaccines on the continent.

South Africa has some of the continent’s most advanced vaccine knowhow, including Aspen, a Durban-based company that plans to “finish and fill” — though not make from scratch — 300m doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine this year. The Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal, also has vaccine-producing experience, making small quantities of yellow fever jabs each year.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, welcomed the Biden administration’s backing of an IP waiver © Zacharias Abubeker/FT

In addition, Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, suggested Kigali could become a vaccine hub. “It is important for Africa to forge public-private partnerships for vaccine manufacturing on our continent,” he said last month, adding that Africa needed to accelerate a continental approach to medicines regulation. “Vaccine equity cannot be guaranteed by goodwill alone,” he said, adding that it was time for African countries to stop “being sorry for ourselves” and act.

Africa is extremely dependent on India for its vaccine production, a weakness that has been exposed by a temporary Indian government ban on the export of Covid-19 jabs. Less than 1 per cent of Africans have received a single dose of Covid-19 vaccine and new supplies have all but dried up.

Officials warned there was still a long way to go before African manufacturers could start production. “The fact that the US has indicated it is willing to waive IP rights does not mean that it is actually going to happen,” said Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, who anticipated pushback from pharmaceutical companies and perhaps other countries in the EU and elsewhere.

The first step, said Rebecca Enonchong, a Cameroonian technology entrepreneur and board member of the World Health Organisation Foundation, was to “ensure the patent issue was not an issue”. But even then, she said, it would take time to build up the physical and skills capacity necessary to make mRNA vaccines. There is also a global shortage of vaccine inputs, including nucleotides, enzymes and lipids as well as of vials, caps and syringes. “I think it is unlikely that we will be able to ramp up for this pandemic,” Enonchong said.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chair of Biocon, a Bangalore-based biotech company, said she did not see IP as the biggest obstacle. “Today, everybody is talking about patents, patents and patents. Even if they don’t enforce patents, how many people can produce Moderna vaccines at scale?” she said, referring to one of the mRNA vaccines.

Building manufacturing capacity in the developing world was “the next big issue”, said Fatima Hassan, founder of the Health Justice Initiative, a South African campaigner for access to vaccines. There had been at least 50 applications already to a WHO hub for transferring mRNA technology, she said, which “indicates that there is definitely interest around the world”.

Two decades ago, South Africa led the battle, along with Brazil, against pharmaceutical companies’ defence of patents on HIV medicines. Legal victories finally forced companies to slash prices of antiretroviral drugs for developing countries, but not before millions of people had died of the disease. South African diplomats pressing for the temporary suspension of patents on Covid-19 vaccines said that “passing this waiver makes ethical, epidemiological, and economic sense”.

Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in New Delhi



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A harrowing brush with Covid as India is ravaged

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As a foreign correspondent, my job is to tell India’s stories, not be part of them. But when I started feeling feverish while writing an article about Covid-19 vaccine policy last month, I had a gut feeling that the Sars-Cov-2 virus had found me.

I hoped it was exhaustion that I’d sleep off but the next day, still feverish, I was urged to take a Covid test. A leading diagnostic lab chain, which earlier had run an efficient home-testing service, had stopped answering its phones and responding to online requests. But a doctor friend persuaded one of the lab’s phlebotomists to collect my sample. Two days later, the results confirmed I was part of the ferocious coronavirus wave battering India and pushing its healthcare system to breaking point.

Over the following days, my physical symptoms remained mild. But it was still harrowing to be sick from a notoriously unpredictable virus knowing that drugs, hospital beds and oxygen were scarce. I suffered constant anxiety knowing I’d struggle to get medical help if I took a turn for the worse.

I quickly discovered that I’d been so focused on avoiding infection that I had no clue what to do once sick. A friend connected me to a Kolkata-based infectious disease specialist, who felt I was at low risk for severe illness. I’d had the first dose of a Covid vaccine 10 days before my fever started. But the doctor urged me to treat the illness aggressively from the start, given the chaos at hospitals.

He prescribed the antiviral drug, favipiravir, now undergoing clinical trials in the UK as a potential Covid-19 therapy but already approved in India for emergency use. Many of his patients had taken it, he said, and none suffered severely, including people in their 90s.

Normally, I’m reluctant to medicate. I knew favipiravir’s effectiveness as a coronavirus treatment wasn’t yet scientifically validated. But with hospitals turning away ailing patients, the logic of taking an experimental drug made sense. The challenge, I discovered, was to get hold of it.

I called five pharmacies, but all had run out of stock. A friend called six more to no avail. I panicked — the doctor wanted me to start the drug fast and Delhi was hours from the start of a weekend curfew. Then a friend, who’d heard I was Covid-19 positive, called.

“I’m looking for this drug,” I told her. “Any idea where I can get it?” She said she’d check. It turned out that people with foresight had prepared small emergency drug stashes. Her friend had such a stash and was willing to share it.

I was elated to get the pills to start treatment that night. But it wasn’t enough for the prescribed course. Days later I spent hours calling pharmacies in an unsuccessful hunt for more, before finally begging an industry friend to help.

My difficulties pale in comparison with the desperation, anger and grief beyond my sickroom. My Twitter feed was filled with pleas for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, the antiviral remdesivir, plasma or a place in an intensive care unit. Top hospitals begged on Twitter for refills of dwindling oxygen supplies. Friends and many professional contacts were fighting for their lives. Doctor friends were weeping with impotent rage.

There was much grim news of death. A former Indian ambassador died after hours waiting in a hospital parking lot for admission; inpatients whose oxygen ran out; a top politician’s 34-year-old son, young journalists. Crematoriums struggled with an unprecedented flow of bodies.

I decided I had to tune out of the unfolding crisis, to ensure my physical recovery and to protect my mental health. I stopped checking Twitter. Newspapers piled up, unread.

Once I felt better and tuned back, I saw Narendra Modi’s government had cynically expanded eligibility for vaccination to all over the age of 18, despite an acute shortage of jabs.

And with thousands dying daily, often for want of medical help, the health minister was callously citing dubious official data to claim India’s Covid fatality rate was lower than richer countries — hardly consolation to grief-stricken families.

Today, I’ve recovered from my encounter with the virus. It will take far longer to get over the trauma of watching this calamity engulf the place I call home.

amy.kazmin@ft.com



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