World Health Organization: COVID end ‘in sight’.

The number of deaths globally at lowest point since March 2020.

GENEVA >> The head of the World Health Organization said Wednesday that the number of coronavirus deaths worldwide last week was the lowest reported in the pandemic since March 2020, marking what could be a turning point in the yearslong global outbreak.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

At a press briefing in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world has never been in a better position to stop COVID-19.

“We are not there yet, but the end is in sight,” he said, comparing the effort to that made by a marathon runner nearing the finish line. “Now is the worst time to stop running,” he said. “Now is the time to run harder and make sure we cross the line and reap all the rewards of our hard work.”COVID-19 » Page 11

Still, the WHO warned that relaxed COVID-19 testing and surveillance in many countries means that many cases are going unnoticed. The agency issued a set of policy briefs for governments to strengthen their efforts against the coronavirus ahead of the expected winter surge of COVID-19, warning that new variants could yet undo the progress made to date.

“If we don’t take this opportunity now, we run the risk of more variants, more deaths, more disruption, and more uncertainty,” Tedros said.

The WHO reported that the omicron subvariant BA.5 continues to dominate globally and comprised nearly 90% of virus samples shared with the world’s biggest public database. In recent weeks, regulatory authorities in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere have cleared tweaked vaccines that target both the original coronavirus and later variants includingBA.5.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said the organization expected future waves of the disease, but was hopeful those would not cause many deaths.

China lockdowns

Meanwhile in China, residents of a city in the country’s far western Xinjiang region have said they are experiencing hunger, forced quarantines and dwindling supplies of medicine and daily necessities after more than 40 days in a lockdown prompted by COVID-19.

Hundreds of posts from Ghulja riveted users of Chinese social media last week, with residents sharing videos of empty refrigerators, feverish children and people shouting from their windows.

The dire conditions and food shortages are reminiscent of a harsh lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year, when thousands of residents posted complaints online that they were delivered rotting vegetables or denied critical medical care.

But unlike in Shanghai, a glittering, cosmopolitan metropolis of 20 million people and home to many foreigners, the harsh lockdowns in smaller cities such as Ghulja have received less attention until recently.

As more infectious variants of the coronavirus creep into China, flareups have become increasingly common. Under China’s “zero-COVID” strategy, tens of millions or people are experiencing rolling lockdowns, paralyzing the economy and making travel uncertain.

The lockdown in Ghulja is also evoking fears of police brutality among the Uyghurs, the Turkic ethnic group native to Xinjiang. For years, the region has been the target of a sweeping security crackdown, ensnaring huge numbers of Uyghurs and other largely Muslim minorities in a vast network of camps and prisons. An earlier lockdown in Xinjiang was particularly tough, with forced medication, arrests and residents being hosed down with disinfectant.

Yasinuf, a Uyghur studying at a university in Europe, said his mother-in-law sent fearful voice messages this past weekend saying she was being forced into centralized quarantine because of a mild cough. The officers coming for her reminded her of the time her husband was taken to a camp for over two years, she said.

“It’s judgment day,” she sighed in an audio recording reviewed by The Associated Press. “We don’t know what’s going to happen this time. All we can do now is to trust our creator.”

Food has been in short supply. Yasinuf said his parents told him they were running low on food, despite having stocked up before the lockdown. With no deliveries, and barred from using their backyard ovens for fear of spreading the virus, his parents have been surviving on uncooked dough made of flour, water and salt. Yasinuf declined to give his surname for fear of retribution against his relatives.

Last week, the local governor apologized at a news conference for “shortcomings and deficiencies” in the government’s response to the coronavirus, including “blind spots and missed spots,” and promised improvements.

But even as authorities acknowledged the complaints, censors worked to silence them.  Posts were wiped from social media. Some videos were deleted and reposted dozens of times as netizens battled censors online.

Multiple people in the region told AP the posts online reflected the dire nature of the lockdown, but declined to detail their own situations, saying they feared retribution.

On Monday, local police announced the arrests of six people for “spreading rumors” about the lockdown, including posts about a dead child and an alleged suicide, which they said “incited opposition” and “disrupted social order.”

Leaked directives from government offices show that workers are being ordered to avoid negative information and spread “positive energy” instead. One directed state media to film “smiling seniors” and “children having fun” in neighborhoods emerging from the lockdown.

The government has ordered mass testing and district lockdowns in cities across China in recent weeks, from Sanya on tropical Hainan island to southwest Chengdu, to the northern port city of Dalian.

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