Australia Launches App To Trace COVID-19 Contacts

Facebook To Pull VPN App From App Store Over Data Concern
File photo: NARINDER NANU / AFP.

 

Australia has launched a smartphone app to trace people who come in contact with coronavirus patients despite privacy concerns that authorities insisted Sunday were unwarranted.

The COVID Safe app uses a phone’s Bluetooth wireless signal to store information about people’s interactions, and can be accessed by health officials if a person contracts coronavirus.

Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said the app would speed up a “laborious process” for health authorities tracking down users who have been within 1.5 metres of someone who has the virus.

“What this will do is give a list of the mobile phone numbers of those people who have been in contact within that distance for 15 minutes or more,” he said.

“That could lead to someone being contacted a day or two earlier than they otherwise may have been.”

Australia has recorded just over 6,700 cases of COVID-19 and 83 deaths from the virus.

The rise in infections has slowed considerably in recent weeks, with just 16 new cases recorded across the country Sunday.

READ ALSO: China Seizes Over 89 Million Poor Quality Face Masks

Health officials say widespread take-up of the app would help them to ease tough restrictions on movement and gatherings. Just under half of Australia’s population would need to download the program for it to be an effective tool.

The app is free and sign-up is voluntary, despite initial suggestions it could be made mandatory.

In an effort to alleviate privacy concerns, users can provide a fake name and police cannot access the data to investigate crimes, while all information is automatically deleted after 21 days.

“What we have done is strip back the function so it has one job and one job alone and that is that if you are positive, to be able to make that available only to the state public health authorities, with nobody else having access,” health minister Greg Hunt said.

Singapore pioneered the use of coronavirus tracing apps, and work on implementing digital contact tracing is underway in France, Germany, Britain and elsewhere.

In the United States, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden cited contact tracing as part of a plan “to safely reopen America” along with expanded testing and other steps.

AFP

Australia Announces Nearly $100m To Fight Coronavirus-Triggered Domestic Violence

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (C) attends a videoconference with G20 leaders to discuss the COVID-19 coronavirus, at the Parliament House in Canberra on March 26, 2020. Gary Ramage / POOL / AFP

 

 

Australia on Sunday announced a nearly US$100 million boost in funding to tackle domestic violence after support services reported a spike in coronavirus-related family abuse.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there had been a 75 percent surge in Google searches for help during the ongoing nationwide shutdown of non-essential services to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Women’s Safety, a domestic violence charity in Australia’s most populous New South Wales state, has reported that more than 40 percent of workers had seen an increase in client numbers, with over a third of cases directly linked to the virus outbreak.

READ ALSO: Nigeria’s Coronavirus Cases Rise To 97 As NCDC Confirms Eight More Infections

In neighbouring Victoria, women’s support service Wayss said police requests for assistance with cases had almost doubled in the past week, as they dealt with a form of abuse “not experienced before”.

“Just having the people in the house, rather than having the pressure release of going to work, or being able to travel freely outside of the house are contributing factors,” Wayss CEO Liz Thomas told public broadcaster ABC.

“We’ve also seen half a dozen examples in the past week where perpetrators have actually used COVID-19 as a form of abuse — telling their partner that they have the virus, therefore they can’t leave the house.”

Perpetrators have also invited “people into the house where the woman is self-isolating, saying that the visitor has COVID-19 and is going to infect them”, Thomas said.

Prime Minister Morrison said the Aus$150 million boost — part of an additional Aus$1.1 billion in health-related spending announced Sunday — would be spent on telephone support services for both domestic violence victims and abusers.

“We need to put more resources into supporting people who will be vulnerable and maybe vulnerable,” he told reporters in Canberra.

The government is also increasing funding for online mental health services, telephone medical consultations and emergency food relief in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has left many people largely confined to their homes.

Australia has recorded almost 4,000 cases of COVID-19, with the death toll rising to 16 on Sunday.

AFP

Australia Announces Nearly $40bn In Virus Relief

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R) speaks as he stands with the Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during a press conference at Australia's Parliament House in Canberra on March 22, 2020. DAVID GRAY / AFP
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R) speaks as he stands with the Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during a press conference at Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra on March 22, 2020. DAVID GRAY / AFP

 

Australia on Sunday announced a $38 billion spending plan to limit the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic, as citizens were told to cancel domestic travel plans to slow the virus spread.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the latest Aus$66 billion announced Sunday brought government and central bank measures to support the economy to Aus$189 billion — or nearly 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

“These extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and we face a global challenge like we have never faced before,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“Today’s announcement will provide hope and support for millions of Australians at a time when they need it most.”

READ ALSO: Colombia Announces First Coronavirus Death

Small businesses and non-profits will receive cash subsidies of up to Aus$100,000, unemployment payments will be temporarily doubled and pensioners will receive Aus$750 cash.

Workers whose income has fallen by at least 20 percent due to the coronavirus outbreak will be able to access their retirement funds early, with those facing hardship allowed to withdraw up to Aus$20,000 over two years.

Frydenberg said the economic shock was now expected to be “deeper, wider and longer” than was believed just 10 days ago and additional measures would be required.

The country appears poised to slip into recession as a result of the coronavirus outbreak after a record 29-year run of economic growth.

Australia has recorded more than 1,300 cases and seven deaths from COVID-19.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government was also “moving immediately” to recommend against non-essential travel, warning further measures were imminent to deal with localised outbreaks.

He said work-related trips, the transport of essential supplies and travel on compassionate grounds could continue but people should cancel any other travel plans ahead of the upcoming Easter school holidays.

“More stronger measures will be coming and they will be coming in more localised areas to deal with outbreaks,” Morrison said.

“What that means is, what may be necessary in a part of Sydney may not be necessary at all in… other parts of the country.”

Australia has already sealed off its borders, putting in place an unprecedented ban on entry for non-residents in the hope of stemming the rise of COVID-19 infections.

Four Australian regions — the island state of Tasmania, South Australia state, Western Australia state and the Northern Territory — have also implemented a 14-day self-isolation period for all visitors.

Announcing the state’s border closure Sunday, Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan said he was considering using Rottnest Island — a popular tourist destination and former Aboriginal prison site — as a quarantine zone for people who refuse to self-isolate or are unable to do so.

New South Wales and Victoria states on Sunday announced a shutdown of non-essential services, with supermarkets, pharmacies and petrol stations among those businesses that are exempt.

Morrison said political leaders would meet Sunday evening to consider stricter isolation rules.

Australian Couples Cancel Weddings As Coronavirus Spread

(PICTURE USED TO DEPICT THE STORY) Justice of the Peace, Miles M. Keegan performs a wedding ceremony outside of Maricopa County Clerk of Superior Court on March 20, 2020 in Surprise, Arizona. AFP

 

A cluster of 35 coronavirus cases linked to a marriage ceremony near Sydney and new government measures have hit Australia’s multi-billion-dollar wedding industry and forced many tearful couples to cancel the big day.

Restrictions on gatherings of more than 100 people were announced this week in a bid to stem the spread of the virus.

Among the new rules was the stipulation that indoor events should allow at least four square metres (43 square feet) per person, while the government has advised people to stay at least one metre away from one another.

The outbreak and new rules have thrown the wedding industry — worth around Aus$4 billion (US$2.3 billion) a year in Australia — into limbo.

“You’re not just dealing with having to cancel an event… that people have been literally dreaming and thinking non-stop about,” Sydney-based wedding planner Lara Beesley told AFP on Saturday.

“It’s very heartbreaking to see and there’s been lots of teary phone calls.”

From florists to photographers, those working in the industry were already feeling the impact as weddings were put off indefinitely, she added.

A total of 35 cases of the virus have now been traced back to the wedding south of Sydney earlier this month, health authorities said.

Groom Scott Maggs told the Sydney Morning Herald the discovery of a cluster linked to his wedding had come as a shock.

“There was no hysteria or bans on March 6, it just wasn’t on the radar,” he said.

Couples are being urged to consider postponing or hosting smaller events, Elise James from wedding planning agency Easy Weddings said. “We’re encouraging couples to do that where safe,” she said.

Australia’s confirmed cases climbed to more than 900 on Saturday, with seven deaths in the country since the outbreak began.

AFP

Australians Fight Over Toilet Roll As Covid-19 Fever Heightens

People leave a Costco warehouse with rolls of toilet paper amongst their groceries in Melbourne on March 5, 2020. William WEST / AFP
People leave a Costco warehouse with rolls of toilet paper amongst their groceries in Melbourne on March 5, 2020. William WEST / AFP

 

A fight over toilet roll ended with a man being tasered, Australian police said Thursday, as coronavirus concerns drive panic buying. 

Police were called to a store in the New South Wales town of Tamworth, about four hours drive north of Sydney, after the man allegedly lashed out and attacked another customer and a worker.

Over 50 people have been confirmed to have the virus in Australia so far with the latest cases including an eight-month-old baby in Adelaide.

Coronavirus fears have triggered runs on several products, including hand sanitisers and face masks, with images of shoppers stacking trolleys with toilet rolls spreading on social media.

A fiery truck crash in Brisbane on Wednesday night further fuelled concerns after it was revealed it to be carrying loo roll.

But supermarkets and manufacturers urged calm, reassuring customers that deliveries were increasing to compensate for the demand.

Two major supermarket chains have also limited purchases on toilet paper to help quell the stockpiling.

Darwin’s daily paper, the NT News, made light of the loo roll hysteria, printing several blank pages for their readers to use if worst comes to the worst.

“We’ve printed an eight-page special lift-out inside, complete with handy cut lines, for you to use in an emergency,” the paper’s front page read.

 

AFP

78-Year-Old Is Australia’s First Coronavirus Fatality

Australia on the map.

 

A 78-year-old man evacuated from the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise liner in Japan died at a Perth hospital Sunday, becoming Australia’s first fatality from the disease, officials said.

His 79-year-old wife was also infected with the disease during the cruise and remains in a Perth hospital, a spokeswoman for the Western Australian state health department told AFP.

The couple were among about 160 Australians evacuated from the Diamond Princess last month and they tested positive for the coronavirus during their flight home.

READ ALSO: South Korea Wages ‘All-Out Responses’ To Virus With 376 New Cases

They were immediately transferred to isolation units in the Perth hospital on February 21 while the rest of the evacuees were quarantined in a former miners’ camp near the northern city of Darwin.

Andrew Robertson, Western Australia’s chief medical officer, said the couple initially seemed to have only a mild version of the illness, but that the man’s condition subsequently deteriorated.

He insisted both had been isolated early and that their cases posed “no risk to the general community or (medical) staff”.

Earlier Sunday, health authorities in New South Wales state confirmed a 26th case of coronavirus in Australia after a man in his 40s who had travelled from Iran was diagnosed with the disease.

He was the second Australian infected in Iran. All other cases of the disease in Australia other than the Perth couple involved people who had come from China’s Hubei province, where the virus was first reported.

AFP

Australia Launches National Inquiry Into Bushfires

FILE PHOTO: A firefighter conducts back-burning measures to secure residential areas from encroaching bushfires in the Central Coast, some 90-110 kilometres north of Sydney on December 10, 2019. PHOTO: Saeed KHAN / AFP

 

Australia set up a national inquiry Thursday into its month-long bushfire crisis that affected three in four Australians and prompted widespread criticism of the government for its sluggish response to the blazes.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the vast scale of the fires — which killed more than 30 people and destroyed thousands of homes — required a new response from the bushfire-prone nation.

The Royal Commission inquiry will be tasked with finding ways to improve Australia’s preparedness, resilience and response to natural disasters, but has been criticised as an effort to put off tackling the problem.

Australia has seen dozens of inquests into the causes of bushfires and steps that could be taken to mitigate them, with mixed results.

Many measures from the dozens of inquests going back to the 1930s have still not been implemented.

The opposition Labor party accused Morrison of trying to “shift attention to the things that he thinks are politically convenient to talk about” rather than “actually fixing climate change and getting emissions under control.”

Morrison said panel would be asked to consider establishing new powers for the federal government to declare a national state of emergency, which he argued would allow a faster response to fires.

The conservative leader, who was criticised for his sluggish reaction to the months-long crisis, has defended his actions by pointing to regulations requiring states to formally request federal assistance.

He claimed to have operated in a “constitutional grey zone” by deploying thousands of troops and reservists to assist in the bushfire recovery.

“We did that without clear rules,” Morrison said.

The most recent crisis has sparked calls for Australia’s conservative government to take immediate action on climate change, with street protests urging Morrison to reduce the country’s reliance on coal.

The prime minister belatedly acknowledged the link between the bushfire disaster and a warming planet, but also made clear his government plans to focus on climate adaption and building resilience ahead of measures to cut emissions.

The inquiry will be led by former Air Force chief Mark Binskin, along with retired Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett and environmental lawyer professor Andrew Macintosh.

Morrison said they would be required to report their findings by August 31, “so recommendations can be acted upon before our next bushfire season”.

The most recent bushfire season began in early September, with the first deaths recorded a month later.

AFP

Malaysia Suspected MH370 Downed In Murder-Suicide – Former Australian PM

(FILES) This file photo taken on March 7, 2015 shows Indian sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik creating a sculpture of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on Puri beach in eastern Odisha state.
J .K. Jagdev / AFP

 

Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has claimed “very top” level Malaysian officials believed vanished Flight MH370 was deliberately downed by the captain in a mass murder-suicide.

The Malaysia Airlines jet vanished on March 8, 2014 carrying 239 people — mostly from China — en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

No sign of the plane was found in a 120,000-square kilometre (46,000-square mile) Indian Ocean search zone and the Australian-led search, the largest in aviation history, was suspended in January 2017.

A US exploration firm launched a private hunt in 2018 but it ended after several months of scouring the seabed without success.

The disappearance of the plane has long been the subject of a host of theories — ranging from the credible to outlandish — including that veteran pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah had gone rogue.

In an excerpt from a Sky News documentary airing Wednesday, Abbott claims he was told within a week of it vanishing that Malaysia believed the captain had intentionally downed the jet.

READ ALSO: Elated Passengers Leave Cambodia Cruise Ship After Virus All-Clear

“My very clear understanding from the very top levels of the Malaysian government is that from very, very early on here, they thought it was murder-suicide by the pilot,” he said.

“I’m not going to say who said what to whom but let me reiterate, I want to be absolutely crystal clear, it was understood at the highest levels that this was almost certainly murder-suicide by the pilot — mass murder-suicide by the pilot.”

Zaharie’s family and friends have long strongly rejected such claims as baseless.

Malaysia’s former premier Najib Razak, who was in power during the tragedy, said suspicions over the disappearance weren’t made public and there was no proof that the pilot was responsible.

“It would have been deemed unfair and legally irresponsible since the black boxes and cockpit voice recorders had not been found,” he told online portal Free Malaysia Today.

“There was no conclusive proof whether the pilot was solely or jointly responsible.”

Najib said the scenario involving the pilot was “never ruled out” during the search for the plane.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, the former head of Malaysia’s civil aviation regulator, criticised Abbott’s remarks and said there was not sufficient proof to support the idea.

“It is only a theory,” Azharuddin, who led the regulator when Flight MH370 disappeared, told AFP.

“You do this speculation and it will hurt the next of kin. The family of the pilot will also feel very bad because you are making an accusation without any proof.”

In 2016, Malaysian officials revealed the pilot had plotted a path over the Indian Ocean on a home flight simulator but stressed this did not prove he deliberately crashed the plane.

A final report into the tragedy released in 2018 pointed to failings by air traffic control and said the course of the plane was changed manually.

But they failed to come up with any firm conclusions, leaving relatives angry and disappointed.

Six passengers were Australian, including four from Queensland state, where Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk this week suggested authorities may pursue an inquest into their deaths.

Mid-Air Plane Collision Kills Four In Australia

Scene of the crash. Credit: 9News.

 

Four people were killed in a mid-air collision between two light planes in Australia on Wednesday, scattering debris across a rural area north of Melbourne.

Police said the two twin-engined aircraft were each carrying a pilot and a passenger when they crashed around 4,000 feet (1,200) above the town of Mangalore.

Images from the crash scene on the ground showed twisted metal and chunks of fuselage scattered in a field and among trees.

Police said both planes were flying legally in the area but investigations were ongoing.

“We’re not sure why both aircraft were exactly on the same trajectory or why they were in that area but unfortunately they have collided mid-air,” Police Inspector Peter Koger said.

One aircraft had just taken off from the nearby airfield but the other plane’s origin was still unclear, he added.

Landmark Case Says Aboriginal Australians Cannot Be Deported

Australia on the map.

 

Aboriginal Australians are exempt from immigration law, the country’s top court ruled Tuesday, in a historic decision that found indigenous people born overseas cannot be deported.

Australia had been trying to deport two men — Papua New Guinea citizen Daniel Love and New Zealand citizen Brendan Thoms — under laws that allow a convicted criminal’s visa to be cancelled on character grounds.

Both men identify as Aboriginal Australians, each has one indigenous parent, and they have lived in the country since they were small children.

Love, who served time for assault, and Thoms, who had been jailed for domestic violence, have been battling in the courts to stay in Australia, arguing that they may be “non-citizens” but they are also not “aliens”.

The High Court ruled in a decision that split the judges 4-3 that Aboriginal Australians “are not within the reach” of constitutional provisions relating to foreign citizens.

Indigenous people have inhabited the vast continent for more than 60,000 years, while the modern nation’s constitution only came into force in 1901.

Thoms — who was already recognised as a traditional land owner — was accepted by the court as Aboriginal.

But the judges could not agree on whether Love was under a three-part test that considers biological descent, self-identification and community recognition.

Lawyer Claire Gibbs, who represented the men, hailed the decision as “significant for Aboriginal Australians”.

“This case isn’t about citizenship, it’s about who belongs here, who is an Australian national and who is a part of the Australian community,” she told reporters in Canberra.

“The High Court has found Aboriginal Australians are protected from deportation. They can no longer be removed from the country that they know and the country that they have a very close connection with.”

The case marked the first time an Australian court has considered whether the government has the power to deport indigenous people.

But it also touched on the contentious question of how Aboriginality is defined in the law.

Gibbs said she was “confident” that they would eventually be able to prove Love’s status as he was “accepted by his community as Aboriginal” and had “biological proof” that he was a descendant of the First Australians.

Lawyers will now pursue compensation claims on behalf of both men, who Gibbs said had suffered “severe embarrassment” and been “subject to ridicule” as a result of being Aboriginal men held in immigration detention.

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge described it as a “significant judgement” that has “implications for our migration programs”.

“On the face of it, it has created a new category of persons; neither an Australian citizen under the Australian Citizenship Act nor a non-citizen,” he said in a statement.

The government was reviewing the decision and its implications, Tudge said.

Thoms was freed from immigration detention following the ruling, while Love had been released back in September 2018.

AFP

Cyclone Damien Batters Northwestern Australia

Australia on the map.

 

Tropical cyclone Damien lashed northwestern Australia’s resource-rich Pilbara region Saturday, downing trees and forcing locals to heed a code red emergency warning and hunker down indoors.

The category three storm brought winds of 195 kilometres per hour (121 miles per hour), sending debris into the air, knocking over trees and — in a few instances — ripping roofs off sheds and other outbuildings.

The Bureau of Meteorology said Damien had brought “very destructive winds”, “very heavy rainfall” and could yet spark dangerous storm surges.

Power was reportedly knocked out around the towns of Dampier and Karratha, but there were no immediate reports of serious damage to homes or businesses.

The sparsely populated area — home to several of Australia’s largest iron ore producers — experiences cyclones regularly.

Many locals stocked up on essentials and locked down their homes as the storm approached.

Mines and ports cleared out non-essential staff.

But Damien did not strengthen to a category four storm on the five-point scale as had been feared.

AFP

Four Children Killed By Drunken Driver In Australia

Flowers and images of those involved in the accident are pictured at a makeshift memorial at the site of an accident which killed four children the day before,
Farooq KHAN / AFP

 

A drunk driver slammed his pickup truck into a group of children in Sydney, killing two sisters, their brother and a cousin and seriously injuring three others, police alleged on Sunday.

The 29-year-old driver was charged with manslaughter and high-range drink driving following the incident late Saturday in the Oatlands suburb of western Sydney.

The children were on a footpath when the four-wheel-drive jumped the curb and rammed into them, police alleged.

Three girls aged 8 to 12 and a 13-year-old boy died at the scene and two other girls and a boy were injured and taken to hospital, where they were in a stable condition Sunday, police said.

READ ALSO: Philippines Records First Coronavirus Death Outside China

The dead included two sisters and their brother, three of the six children of Daniel and Leila Abdallah.

“Yesterday I lost three of my children. I had a cousin, Bridget, she lost her daughter as well,” Daniel Abdallah told reporters Sunday morning.

“I’m numb, probably that’s how I feel at the moment,” he said.

“All I just want to say is, please, drivers be careful. These kids were just walking innocently, enjoying each other’s’ company and this morning I woke up, I have lost three kids.”

A makeshift memorial was later put up where the accident occurred, with people coming to place flowers, teddy bears and candles as well as pay their respects.

The driver, whose name has not been released, was due in court Sunday facing 20 charges.

AFP