World

Mayor pledges to continue to fight for Afghan women from exile. An isolated Fijian island records two cases of Covid-19. China says it has suppressed latest Delta outbreak.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Ethiopia working on local rival to social media giants

A sign featuring a picture of the prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, adorns a wall near the entrance to Bonga University.
Credit: Eduardo Soteras / AFP

Great power rivalry

Afghanistan: In 2018, on her first day as mayor in the Afghan town of Maidan Shar, Zarifa Ghafari was confronted by a group of men who attacked her office with rocks and sticks. She finally started in the role nine months later, embarking on projects such as developing women-only marketplaces and additional playgrounds. She survived three assassination attempts yet stayed on as the country’s youngest mayor, even after the murder of her father last year. But Ghafari, who is 29 years old, has now fled the nation, escaping with her family shortly before the Taliban came to her home to search for her.

After arriving in Germany, Ghafari told reporters this week she would fight – from exile – for women’s rights in Afghanistan and wanted to “show to the world the real face of Taliban”.

“I am just here to raise the voice of those 99 per cent of people in Afghanistan who are not able to come out of their houses … those women who are not able to speak out,” she said.

Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, many women across the country have remained indoors as they wait to see whether the regime will reinstate its oppressive rules that restricted women from schools and jobs. On Tuesday, the Taliban urged all working women to stay at home until their security could be guaranteed.

“It’s a very temporary procedure,” said a Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid.

“We are worried our forces who are new and have not been yet trained very well may mistreat women … For now, we are asking them to stay home until the situation gets normal.”

The Taliban takeover has already had a devastating effect on the country’s ailing economy, which was heavily dependent on foreign aid. Banks are closed, inflation is rising, the currency is in freefall, salaries of government workers have not been paid, and foreign money transfers – which are crucial for many Afghans, who receive support from family abroad – have been suspended.

As large numbers of Afghans continued to try to flee the country, the Taliban this week blocked the road to the airport in Kabul, saying only foreigners would be allowed to leave. As of Tuesday, more than 70,000 people had been evacuated from the airport in the previous 10 days, marking one of the biggest airlifts in history.

Despite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other world leaders urging Washington to keep troops in the capital to allow further evacuations, United States President Joe Biden said he was determined to complete the withdrawal by August 31.

“The sooner we can finish the better,” he said. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”

The Taliban has agreed to allow the evacuation but warned there would be “consequences” if US forces remained in the country beyond Tuesday. The departure of America’s last-remaining soldiers will end its longest war, which began with US and British air strikes on October 7, 2001.

The neighbourhood

Fiji: The small volcanic island of Malolo in Fiji has two villages and some beachside hotels that have been largely empty during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the island’s isolation, two cases of Covid-19 were recorded there this week in the tiny settlement of Cubi as the virus continued to reach far-flung islands across Fiji. Last week, authorities reported that a 63-year-old woman from a small village in Kadavu, a southern island, was infected with Covid-19 and died before she could reach the local hospital. On Monday, a further 85 cases were recorded on Kadavu.

Fiji has been experiencing one of the world’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks. Since the outbreak began in April, 44,420 cases have been recorded – about 5 per cent of the nation’s 940,000 residents – and 453 people have died.

Fijian authorities have restricted internal travel and imposed curfews in some areas, and chiefs have demanded that commercial ships be barred from travelling to outer islands. But the prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, has been reluctant to impose lockdowns due to the economic and social costs.

This week Fiji’s health secretary, Dr James Fong, said the two people infected on Malolo had unlawfully travelled from Viti Levu, the most populous island.

“The remoteness of the maritime islands and their limited resources mean that any outbreak with severe cases will be very challenging to manage,” he said.

Democracy in retreat

Ethiopia: On the eve of a general election in Ethiopia in June, Facebook removed 176 fake accounts, pages and groups that had been created – apparently by the state cybersecurity agency – to promote the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. The accounts, which appeared on Facebook and Instagram, had an estimated 766,000 followers. Four days after they were removed, Abiy’s ruling party won the election in a landslide.

On Monday, the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) confirmed it has begun developing its own social media platform to rival Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Zoom. The agency said it was not planning to block the international services. But the head of INSA, Shumete Gizaw, told Reuters: “The rationale behind developing technology with local capacity is clear … Why do you think China is using WeChat?”

The move comes as Abiy’s government is locked in a military conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopian politics for decades until Abiy became prime minister in 2018. The TPLF controls much of the Tigray region in the country’s north.

Since the conflict began late last year, thousands of people have been killed and about two million have been displaced.

The war has sparked a furious online battle in which both sides have used social media platforms to spread messages and propaganda. The government has repeatedly blocked access to sites such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

This week Shumete said Facebook had been deleting accounts that were “disseminating the true reality about Ethiopia”.

Spotlight: China defeats Delta

When a Covid-19 outbreak emerged in the Chinese city of Nanjing on July 20, authorities insisted they would try to suppress it, even though it involved the highly contagious
Delta strain.

The outbreak quickly spread to other provinces, leading to mass lockdowns, transport closures and travel bans. In Wuhan, where the virus was first reported in 2019, all 11 million residents were tested. In Nanjing, which has about nine million residents, millions of people underwent four rounds of testing.

On Monday, China announced it had recorded no local cases for the first time since the outbreak began. About 1200 cases were recorded during the outbreak.

China has persisted with its zero-tolerance approach, even as other countries have begun abandoning their elimination strategies. Some Chinese health experts have questioned whether the approach can be maintained against the Delta strain.

China’s suppression strategy includes a massive vaccine rollout. About 70 per cent of its 1.4 billion residents are fully vaccinated. Studies indicate China’s two main vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, are less effective than other vaccines such as Pfizer, AstraZeneca (Vaxzevria) and Moderna, but are still at least 80 per cent effective at preventing hospitalisation.

China’s health minister, Ma Xiaowei, has strongly endorsed elimination as a way to ensure economic stability. He has indicated that more sweeping measures may be considered for future outbreaks. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "Ethiopia developing local rival to social media giants".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.