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North India sizzles as temperature touches 50C

KONFRONTASI-India is wilting under a heatwave, with the temperature in places reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and the capital enduring its hottest May day in nearly 20 years.

The hot spell is projected to scorch northern India for several more days, the Meteorological Department said on Tuesday, "with severe heatwave conditions in isolated pockets".

As global temperatures rise, heatwaves are a regular menace in the country, particularly in May and June. Last year, dozens of people died.

Rouhani urges cooperation as newly elected Parliament convenes

KONFRONTASI-Iran has held the opening session of its new Parliament under strict health protocols, more than three months after an election in February was swept by conservative candidates.

During the first session of the 290-member body on Wednesday, the new MPs were sitting at a secure distance, with some wearing face masks in line with physical distancing rules imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus in one of the Middle Eastern countries hit hardest by the pandemic.

Hong Kong’s leader reaffirms new law would not harm rights, freedoms

KONFRONTASI - Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has reiterated that the new national security law proposed by Beijing would not affect rights and freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, amid a wave of protests over the bill.

Lam said during a regular news conference on Tuesday that the bill would not have to raise concern.

Trump to withdraw US from Open Skies treaty, citing Russian violation

KONFRONTASI - US President Donald Trump plans to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty allowing unarmed surveillance flights over member countries, the Trump administration’s latest move to pull the US out of a global treaty.

Senior US officials said Trump plans to inform Moscow on Friday that Washington will pull out of the pact, which will formally take place in six months.

US weekly jobless claims remain high as backlogs, layoffs linger

KONFRONTASI - Millions more Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week as backlogs continue to be cleared and disruptions from the novel coronavirus unleash a second wave of layoffs, pointing to another month of staggering job losses in May.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 2.438 million for the week ended May 16, the US Labor Department said on Thursday.

Algeria hands tough jail terms to three opposition activists

KONFRONTASI-Courts in Algeria have handed tough jail sentences to three opposition activists whose Facebook posts they deemed potentially damaging to the national interest, according to human rights groups.

Soheib Debaghi received a one-year sentence on Wednesday on charges of encouraging an illegal gathering, insulting an official body and publishing potentially damaging material, the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD) said on its Facebook page.

Uganda arrests Stella Nyanzi at protest over coronavirus response

KONFRONTASI-Ugandan police have arrested a prominent activist for allegedly inciting violence as she led a group of protesters against what they called "slow distribution" of food and other relief goods to vulnerable people affected by coronavirus-related restrictions, according to local media.

Stella Nyanzi, a vocal critic of President Yoweri Museveni, together with a small group of activists, was arrested on Monday as she was marching towards the office of Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda in the capital, Kampala.

The curious case of South Asia's 'low' coronavirus deaths

KONFRONTASI-Scientists and public health experts are continuing to conduct research into why some South Asian countries - despite their ramshackle health infrastructure and dense populations - have witnessed lower coronavirus mortality rates compared with many Western countries.

By early May, the world's richest countries accounted for more than 90 percent of all reported deaths from COVID-19, according to a paper published in The Lancet medical journal. Adding China, Brazil and Iran to that list takes the number up to 96 percent.

By contrast, many densely populated developing countries in South Asia and parts of Africa have fared far better when it comes to the mortality rate from COVID-19, data from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) shows.

In Europe, the observed case fatality ratio (CFR, or the percentage of deaths among confirmed coronavirus patients) has been high, with France reporting a rate of 15.2 percent, the United Kingdom 14.4 percent, Italy 14 percent and Spain 11.9 percent, according to JHU data. In the United States, the CFR is 6 percent, the data shows.

By contrast, in South Asian countries, those rates have been far lower. India has a CFR of 3.3 percent, Pakistan 2.2 percent, Bangladesh 1.5 percent and Sri Lanka 1 percent.

"The rest of the world - historically far more used to being depicted as the reservoir of pestilence and disease that wealthy countries sought to protect themselves from, and the recipient of generous amounts of advice and modest amounts of aid from rich governments and foundations - looks on warily as COVID-19 moves into these regions," write Richard Cash and Vikram Patel, public health experts at Harvard University, in The Lancet.

Doctors and scientists say there are a number of possible explanations for the discrepancy in how COVID-19 is affecting populations in different parts of the world, whether due to varying demographics, different levels of exposure to similar viruses or even incomplete data on mortality in some countries resulting in faulty conclusions.

In Pakistan, home to 220 million people and rickety health infrastructure that offers just six hospital beds per 10,000 people, the first case of the coronavirus was reported on February 26, a returning traveller from neighbouring Iran.

Since then, the virus has spread rapidly, with at least 42,125 cases reported countrywide as of May 18, making Pakistan the 20th in the world in terms of the total number of cases. It has reported 903 deaths, making it 26th worldwide on that list, with a CFR one-third that of the US, and up to 13 percent lower than some European countries.

Is the data accurate?

The first question researchers have asked when examining the data is whether the number of deaths being reported in Pakistan and other countries is, in fact, accurate.

In neighbouring India, for example, some have questioned whether deaths are being accurately documented, with as many as 78 percent of deaths not being medically certified under normal circumstances.

In Pakistan, too, this is a possibility - although medical experts working with the government in its fight against the pandemic suggest the error rate would be far lower.

"There is such a stigma around the whole business of COVID, that people do not want to bring their patients to the hospitals," said Dr Seemin Jamali, head of the largest government hospital in Karachi, the country's most populated city.

The bodies of those confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19 at the time of death are dealt with through strict measures at government hospitals, with officials in full protective kits bathing the body as part of traditional Islamic burial.

"The district [officials] come to receive the dead body, and we pack it in a body bag. There needs to be a better mechanism for transporting the dead, because this is something that people don't want to [happen]," says Jamali.

"Bathing [the dead body] is a very important ritual for Muslims in Pakistan, so it is not possible that you to completely sideline people and say you will bury [their family members] yourselves."

Nevertheless, Jamali and other experts agreed that this appeared to result in only a modest decrease in the reporting of deaths - whether COVID-19-related or not.

Dr Faisal Sultan, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's focal person on the coronavirus crisis, says the government has put systems in place to ensure that all deaths are being accounted for, including direct coordination with provincial health authorities and community outreach using Pakistan's extensive network for polio vaccination.

"The health system is so sensitised right now to COVID that in the present situation, the possibility of [large numbers of] underreported deaths is unlikely," he told Al Jazeera.

Dr Faisal Mahmood, head of infectious diseases at Karachi's Aga Khan University Hospital, the largest research hospital in the country, concurred, saying results from a preliminary survey at the city's graveyards had not suggested a rise in deaths as opposed to the previous year.

Al Jazeera also interviewed doctors and officials at major government hospitals in Karachi, the eastern city of Lahore, the capital Islamabad and the southwestern city of Quetta - where a number of coronavirus cases have been reported. None noted any marked increase in patients who were dead on arrival, whether from the coronavirus or other causes.

However, Dr Mahmood cautioned: "It may be that our death rate is not low, but that our epidemic is slow or that we are earlier in our epidemic, and that eventually, we will have the same death rate."

Hong Kong's veteran pro-democracy activists defiant as they hear charges in court

KONFRONTASI-Some of the 15 pro-democracy activists arrested in police raids in Hong Kong showed defiance on Monday as they appeared in court to hear charges of participating in illegal anti-government demonstrations last year.

Veteran politicians, a publishing tycoon and senior lawyers were among those arrested last month in the biggest crackdown on the movement’s key figures since the protests began. The move drew criticism from rights activists and Western politicians.

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