Egypt gears up for 'Golden Parade' of pharaohs

News Network
April 3, 2021

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Cairo, Apr 3: The mummified remains of 22 Egyptian pharaohs, including the most powerful ancient queen, are to be paraded through the streets of Cairo Saturday, in a procession to a new resting place.

Under the watchful eyes of security forces, the mummies will be moved seven kilometres (four miles) across the capital from the iconic Egyptian Museum, where most have resided undisturbed for over a century, to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation.

Dubbed the Pharaohs' Golden Parade, the 18 kings and four queens will travel in order, oldest first, each aboard a separate float decorated in ancient Egyptian style.

The interior ministry said both pedestrians and vehicles would be barred from Tahrir Square, site of the current museum, and other sections of the parade route, ahead of the 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) start.

"The whole world will be watching," said Egyptian archaeologist and former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass, who will commentate as the event unfolds live on state television.

"This is an important 40 minutes in the life of the city of Cairo."

Seqenenre Tao II, "the Brave", who reigned over southern Egypt some 1,600 years before Christ, will be on the first chariot, while Ramses IX, who reigned in the 12th century BC, will be at the rear.

Ramses II and Queen Hatshepsut, the most powerful female pharaoh, will also make the journey.

Emblazoned with the name of their allotted sovereign, the gold-coloured carriages will be fitted with shock absorbers for the trip, to ensure none of the precious cargos are accidentally disturbed.

Discovered near Luxor from 1881 onwards, most of the mummies have lain in the Egyptian Museum since the early 1900s.

Fascinating new details of the pharaohs' lives are still emerging.

A recent high-tech study of Seqenenre Tao II, involving CT scans and 3D images of his hands and long-studied skull fractures, indicated that he was likely killed in a post-battle execution ceremony.

For their procession through Cairo's streets, the mummies will be in special containers filled with nitrogen, under conditions similar to their regular display cases.

The mummies will be showcased individually at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, in an environment redolent of underground tombs.

They will be signposted by a brief biography and, in some cases, copies of CT scans.

Upon arrival, they will occupy "slightly upgraded cases," said Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

"The temperature and humidity control will be even better than it was in the old museum," added Ikram, a mummification specialist.

The mummies' re-housing "marks the end of much work to improve their conservation and exhibition," said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

"This raises emotions that go much further than the mere relocation of a collection -- we will see the history of Egyptian civilisation unfold before our eyes," she added.

The National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation was completed in 2010, and Hawass said he had planned to open it in 2012. But the process was delayed by the Arab Spring revolution of 2011 and subsequent turmoil.

The new museum opened its doors to limited exhibits from 2017 and will open fully on Sunday, before the mummies go on display to the general public from April 18.

In the coming months, the country is due to inaugurate another new showcase, the Grand Egyptian Museum, near the Giza pyramids.

It too will house pharaonic collections, including the celebrated treasure of Tutankhamun.

Discovered in 1922, the tomb of the young ruler, who took the throne briefly in the 14th century BC, contained treasures including gold and ivory.

A so-called "curse of the pharaoh" emerged in the wake of Tutankhamun's unearthing in 1922-23.

A key funder of the dig, Lord Carnarvon, died of blood poisoning months after the tomb was opened, while an early visitor likewise died abruptly in 1923.

With the planned parade coming only days after several disasters struck Egypt, some have inevitably speculated on social media about a new curse provoked by the latest move.

Recent days have seen a deadly rail collision and a building collapse in Cairo, while global headlines were dominated by the struggle to refloat the giant container ship MV Ever Given which blocked the Suez Canal for almost a week.

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Agencies
April 27,2021

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Apr 27: The World Health Organization chief voiced alarm on Monday at India's record-breaking wave of Covid-19 cases and deaths, saying the organisation was rushing to help address the crisis.

"The situation in India is beyond heartbreaking," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.

He spoke as India battles a catastrophic coronavirus wave that has overwhelmed hospitals, with crematoriums working at full capacity.

A surge in recent days has seen patients' families taking to social media to beg for oxygen supplies and locations of available hospital beds, and has forced the capital New Delhi to extend a week-long lockdown.

"WHO is doing everything we can, providing critical equipment and supplies," Tedros said.

He said the UN health agency was among other things sending "thousands of oxygen concentrators, prefabricated mobile field hospitals and laboratory supplies".

The WHO also said it had transferred more than 2,600 of its experts from various programmes, including polio and tuberculosis, to work with Indian health authorities to help respond to the pandemic.

The country of 1.3 billion has become the latest hotspot of a pandemic that has killed more than three million people worldwide, even as richer countries take steps towards normality with accelerating vaccination programmes.

The US and Britain rushed ventilators and vaccine materials to help India weather the crisis, while a range of other countries also pledged support.

Global surge

Since the virus that causes Covid-19 first surfaced in China in late 2019, the disease has killed more than 3.1 million people out of at least 147 million infected, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.

Tedros on Monday lamented that global new case numbers have been rising for the past nine weeks straight.

"To put it in perspective," he said, "there were almost as many cases globally last week as in the first five months of the pandemic."

The United States remains the worst-affected country, with some 572,200 deaths and over 32 million infections, followed by Brazil and Mexico.

But India, in fourth place, has in recent days been driving the global caseload.

The country, which has recorded over 195,000 deaths, registered 2,812 new deaths and 352,991 new infections on Monday alone -- its highest tolls since the start of the pandemic.

"The exponential growth that we've seen in case numbers is really, truly astonishing," Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19, told reporters.

She warned that India was not unique, pointing out that a number of countries had seen "similar trajectories of increases in transmission".

"This can happen in a number of countries ... if we let our guard down," she said. "We're in a fragile situation."

Covax hit

Meanwhile, the Indian crisis has taken a toll on the Covax programme aimed at providing equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, with a particular focus on 92 poorer nations.

Prior to the surge, India was exporting tens of millions of AstraZeneca shots made domestically by the Serum Institute through Covax, which is co-run by the WHO, the Gavi vaccine alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

But once cases started surging, New Delhi froze exports -- including to Covax -- to prioritise India.

This has left Covax short 90 million doses that had been intended for 60 low-income countries in March and April, the WHO and Gavi said.

"Those have not been made available given the crisis in India. Now they're being used domestically," Gavi chief Seth Berkley told the briefing.

Covax, he said, was "looking at other options" while waiting for the supplies to resume.

Among other things, the Covax partners have appealed to countries that have excess vaccine doses to share them with the programme.

Berkley said that it was "early days" on those discussions, but so far France, New Zealand and Spain had vowed to share some of their doses.

To date, some 40.8 million Covid-19 vaccine doses have been distributed to 118 countries and territories through Covax.

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News Network
April 28,2021

Bengaluru, Apr 28: Hours after the 14-day lockdown came into effect in Karnataka to contain Covid-19, Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa on Wednesday appealed to the people to abide by the norms to break the chain of infections.

"The 2 weeks strict rules to break the chain of Covid virus have begun. My appeal to everyone: follow the guidelines, cooperate with the govt, stay indoors, and step out only if it's an emergency. Together, we all can defeat the Covid-19 pandemic," Yediyurappa tweeted.

Roads in urban areas wore a deserted look while the bustling markets fell silent as the lockdown came into force on Tuesday night. The government has allowed sale of essential goods and continuity of essential services.

It has allowed the sale of essential products such as vegetables, grocery, milk supply, medical stores, and hospitals to operate. These measures have been taken after the daily Covid-19 cases in the state climbed to more than 30,000. The state has now over three lakh active cases of which two lakh are in Bengaluru alone.

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Agencies
May 1,2021

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New Delhi, May 1: A forum of scientific advisers set up by the government warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus taking hold in the country, five scientists who are part of the forum told Reuters.

Despite the warning, four of the scientists said the government did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. Millions of largely unmasked people attended religious festivals and political rallies that were held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leaders of the ruling BJP and opposition politicians.

Tens of thousands of farmers, meanwhile, continued to camp on the edge of New Delhi protesting the Centre’s agricultural policy changes.

The world’s second-most populous country is now struggling to contain a second wave of infections much more severe than its first last year, which some scientists say is being accelerated by the new variant and another variant first detected in Britain. India reported 386,452 new cases on Friday, a global record.

The warning about the new variant in early March was issued by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium or INSACOG. It was conveyed to a top official who reports directly to the prime minister, according to one of the scientists, the director of a research centre in northern India who spoke on condition of anonymity. Reuters could not determine whether the INSACOG findings were passed on to PM Modi himself.

Prime Minister's Office did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

INSACOG was set up as a forum of scientific advisers by the government in late December specifically to detect genomic variants of the coronavirus that might threaten public health. INSACOG brings together 10 national laboratories capable of studying virus variants.

INSACOG researchers first detected B.1.617, which is now known as the Indian variant of the virus, as early as February, Ajay Parida, director of the state-run Institute of Life Sciences and a member of INSACOG, told Reuters.

INSACOG shared its findings with the health ministry’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) before March 10, warning that infections could quickly increase in parts of the country, the director of the northern India research centre told Reuters. The findings were then passed on to the Indian health ministry, this person said. The health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Around that date, INSACOG began to prepare a draft media statement for the health ministry. A version of that draft, seen by Reuters, set out the forum’s findings: the new Indian variant had two significant mutations to the portion of the virus that attaches to human cells, and it had been traced in 15% to 20% of samples from Maharashtra, India's worst-affected state.

The draft statement said that the mutations, called E484Q and L452R, were of “high concern.” It said, “there is data of E484Q mutant viruses escaping highly neutralising antibodies in cultures, and there is data that L452R mutation was responsible for both increased transmissibility and immune escape."

In other words, essentially, this meant that mutated versions of the virus could more easily enter a human cell and counter a person’s immune response to it.

The ministry made the findings public about two weeks later, on March 24, when it issued a statement to the media that did not include the words "high concern." The statement said only that more problematic variants required the following measures already underway - increased testing and quarantine. Testing has since nearly doubled to 1.9 million tests a day.

Asked why the government did not respond more forcefully to the findings, for example by restricting large gatherings, Shahid Jameel, chair of the scientific advisory group of INSACOG, said he was concerned that authorities were not paying enough attention to the evidence as they set policy.

"Policy has to be based on evidence and not the other way around," he told Reuters. “I am worried that science was not taken into account to drive policy. But I know where my jurisdiction stops. As scientists we provide the evidence, policymaking is the job of the government.”

The northern India research centre director told Reuters the draft media release was sent to the most senior bureaucrat in the country, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, who reports directly to the prime minister. Reuters was unable to learn whether Modi or his office were informed of the findings. Gauba did not respond to a request for comment.

The government took no steps to prevent gatherings that might hasten the spread of the new variant, as new infections quadrupled by April 1 from a month earlier.

Modi, some of his top lieutenants, and dozens of other politicians, including opposition figures, held rallies across the country for local elections throughout March and into April.

The government also allowed the weeks-long Kumbh Mela religious festival, attended by millions of Hindus, to proceed from mid-March. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of farmers were allowed to remain camped on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi to protest against new agriculture laws.

To be sure, some scientists say the surge was much larger than expected and the setback cannot be pinned on political leadership alone. "There is no point blaming the government," Saumitra Das, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, which is part of INSACOG, told Reuters.

STRICT MEASURES NOT TAKEN

INSACOG reports to the National Centre for Disease Control in New Delhi. NCDC director Sujeet Kumar Singh recently told a private online gathering that strict lockdown measures had been needed in early April, according to a recording of the meeting reviewed by Reuters.

"The exact time, as per our thinking, was 15 days before," Singh said in the April 19 meeting, referring to the need for stricter lockdown measures.

Singh did not say during the meeting whether he warned the government directly of the need for action at that time. Singh declined to comment to Reuters.

Singh told the April 19 gathering that more recently, he had relayed the urgency of the matter to government officials.

"It was highlighted very, very clearly that unless drastic measures are taken now, it will be too late to prevent the mortality which we are going to see," said Singh, referring to a meeting which took place on April 18. He did not identify which government officials were in the meeting or describe their seniority.

Singh said some government officials in the meeting worried that mid-sized towns could see law and order problems as essential medical supplies like oxygen ran out, a scenario that has already begun to play out in parts of India.

The need for urgent action was also expressed the week before by the National Task Force for Covid-19, a group of 21 experts and government officials set up last April to provide scientific and technical guidance to the health ministry on the pandemic. It is chaired by V.K. Paul, Modi’s top coronavirus adviser.

The group had a discussion on April 15 and “unanimously agreed that the situation is serious and that we should not hesitate in imposing lockdowns,” said one scientist who took part.

Paul was present at the discussion, according to the scientist. Reuters could not determine if Paul relayed the group’s conclusion to Modi. Paul did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

Two days after Singh’s April 18 warning to government officials, PM Modi addressed the nation on April 20, arguing against lockdowns. He said a lockdown should be the last resort in fighting the virus. India’s two-month-long national lockdown a year ago put millions out of work and devastated the economy.

“We have to save the country from lockdowns. I would also request the states to use lockdowns as the last option,” Modi said. “We have to try our best to avoid lockdowns and focus on micro-containment zones,” he said, referring to small, localised lockdowns imposed by authorities to control outbreaks.

State governments have wide latitude in setting health policy for their regions, and some have acted independently to try to control the spread of the virus.

Maharashtra, the country’s second-most populous state, which includes Mumbai, imposed tough restrictions such as office and store closures early in April as hospitals ran out of beds, oxygen and medicines. It imposed a full lockdown on April 14.

‘TICKING TIME BOMB’

The Indian variant has now reached at least 17 countries including Britain, Switzerland and Iran, leading several governments to close their borders to people travelling from India.

The World Health Organization has not declared the India mutant a "variant of concern," as it has done for variants first detected in Britain, Brazil, and South Africa. But the WHO said on April 27 that its early modelling, based on genome sequencing, suggested that B.1.617 had a higher growth rate than other variants circulating in India.

The UK variant, called B.1.1.7, was also detected in India by January, including in the northern state of Punjab, a major epicentre for the farmers’ protests, Anurag Agrawal, a senior INSACOG scientist, told Reuters.

The NCDC and some INSACOG laboratories determined that a massive spike in cases in Punjab was caused by the UK variant, according to a statement issued by Punjab’s state government on March 23.

Punjab imposed a lockdown from March 23. But thousands of farmers from the state remained at protest camps on the outskirts of Delhi, many moving back and forth between the two places before the restrictions began.

"It was a ticking time bomb," said Agrawal, who is director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, which has studied some samples from Punjab. "It was a matter of an explosion, and public gatherings is a huge problem in a time of pandemic. And B.1.1.7 is a really bad variant in terms of spreading potential."

By April 7, more than two weeks after Punjab's announcement on the UK variant, cases of coronavirus began rising sharply in Delhi. Within days, hospital beds, critical care facilities, and medical oxygen began running out in the city. At some hospitals, patients died gasping for air before they could be treated. The city's crematoriums overflowed with dead bodies.

Delhi is now suffering one of the worst infection rates in the country, with more than three out of every 10 tests positive for the virus.

India overall has reported more than 300,000 infections a day for the past nine days, the worst streak anywhere in the world since the pandemic began. Deaths have surged, too, with the total exceeding 200,000 this week.

Agrawal and two other senior government scientists told Reuters that federal health authorities and local Delhi officials should have been better prepared after seeing what the variants had done in Maharashtra and Punjab. Reuters could not determine what specific warnings were issued to whom about preparing for a huge surge.

“We are in a very grave situation,” said Shanta Dutta, a medical research scientist at the state-run National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. “People listen to politicians more than scientists.”

Rakesh Mishra, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, which is part of INSACOG, said the country’s scientific community was dejected.

"We could have done better, our science could have been given more significance,” he told Reuters. "What we observed in whatever little way, that should have been used better." 

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