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Stuck abroad and unable to return to Azerbaijan — a blessing or a curse?

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The coronavirus pandemic has left many Azerbaijanis stranded outside the country. Some of them were working abroad, some of them were studying. Not everyone had time to return, because the borders were closed too quickly.

After the first stage of strict quarantine, Azerbaijan started talking about opening borders, but the epidemiological situation has gotten so bad that the country had to shut back down.

How are those away from home surviving the pandemic and how do they feel about returning?

Kamil. Quarantine in Russia

Kamil lives in Baku, but went to Russia to study. He graduated from the history department at the University of Astrakhan and recently defended his thesis. He did not return to Azerbaijan because of the preparation he had to do before graduating, because he had to defend his thesis, and because he was going to apply to get his master’s degree in Moscow.

“At first we were given two hours a day to go grocery shopping. Before we could leave the dorms, our names, surnames, room numbers, times we were leaving and time of return were recorded in a special notebook. Then our time outside was reduced to an hour. No one had any particular desire to go out into the crowd, we understand that the situation is unsafe. And then they stopped allowing us to go the store.”

When the pandemic began, local students left the dorms to go home, as the university switched from full-time in-person education to distance learning. Mainly foreigners remained behind – students from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and several people from Azerbaijan.

As of the end of July 2020, Russia ranks fourth in the world in terms of the number of COVID-19 infections. Quarantine here was tough from the start. In Astrakhan, people without a special pass were only allowed to go to the store and the pharmacy, and violators were fined.

At the end of June, the quarantine was eased slightly, but, according to Kamil, student dormitories continued to live according to the rules of isolation: students only had the right to go out when accompanied by volunteer “activists,” and only when absolutely necessary.

“Those who had their own group of friends are doing well, they stick together. I don’t have them, so I spend the whole day just waiting for the next day to start. I had two roommates, one went back to Azerbaijan, the other, a citizen of Yemen, stayed here. As far as I know, the Yemeni government sends its students a stipend, and it’s not too small, by our standards – $600. And my parents are sending me money.

Basically, I tried to watch movies and write my thesis. It was a hard way to live, but I had no other choice.

In quarantine, I bought myself a harmonica. I was bored and wanted to play some musical instrument. The harmonica seemed like it would be easy to learn, and I also love the blues. It’s a pity, I ended up damaging it a little.”

Kamil finished his thesis, successfully defended it, and is going to enter his master’s program. He is still living in the same dormitory.

“Of course, I’m afraid to go by train from Astrakhan to Moscow. It would even be safer to travel on a horse-drawn cart. I am afraid of infecting my grandfather who lives there and who will want to meet up with me.”

Although Kamil misses Baku, the situation there does not seem much safer to him than in Russia.

“Sometimes I miss the Baku heat and warm humid wind. In Astrakhan, wind is a rare phenomenon.

I am horrified by the methods Azerbaijan is using to fight the pandemic and by the irresponsibility of my compatriots. It is clear that people got sick of the senseless restrictions and that everyone is trying to weasel their way out of them as best they can, but when it comes to those who don’t believe in the virus at all, and believe it’s all just a “game played by those in power”, it is very upsetting.

Even here, in our dorm, there are conspiracy theorists. I no longer have the strength to explain and enlighten them, it’s like talking to a brick wall.”

How to return to Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is now under a strict quarantine regime: people are allowed to leave home for two hours a day after receiving SMS permission. The borders are officially closed until August 31, both air and land, but there are several “special flights” to Istanbul, Berlin and London. They are carried out by the Azerbaijan national airline, Azal Airline (there is also a company, Belavia, running flights from Baku-Minsk-Baku).

That is, Azerbaijanis “stuck” abroad can return, but will only be allowed on Azal flights, for example, if they are able to present recent corona test results that came back negative. Then they write down the address of where they will self-isolate for two weeks – that is, they will not be given SMS permission to leave the house for two hours a day.

Azerbaijan is not admitting those who are infected back into the country.

During the first stage of the quarantine regime back in the spring, citizens who returned home were quarantined in hospitals and hotels, and tested here.

Nargiz. Quarantine in France

Nargiz is a first-year student at the University of Paris Nanterre in the Department of Organizational Psychology.

“I didn’t return home because I was afraid that I would need to return to France later on business, but wouldn’t be able to because of the closed borders. I still need to do an internship here and apply for a visa extension, so I’m here for now.”

Quarantine in France began on March 17 and lasted until May 11. Only pharmacies, markets and banks remained open. At the end of July, France managed to contain the increase in the daily number of infections and stabilize the total number of patients with COVID-19 at about 70,000 people.

“We could leave the house by writing an “attestation de déplacement ”, where we indicated the reason for leaving the house (from several options: going to the market for essential groceries, for family matters, or physical activity within a radius of 1 km from the house), as well as the time we left and our address.

Every day at 8 o’clock in the evening people looked out of their windows or went out onto their balconies and applauded the medical workers.

Nargiz is glad that she is not alone. She lives with her friends. She even managed to celebrate her birthday “by the rules”.

“At midnight, as is tradition, my family called me to say, ‘happy birthday’, and in the evening we dressed up, set the table, turned on the music. The girls got me cake, champagne, and sweets from Normandy. I taught them Azerbaijani and Russian toasts. Despite the fact that there was a quarantine regime, it was fun, because I had friends nearby.

Many in quarantine began to exercise, like jogging, including my housemates. We studied and worked remotely. I completed the rest of the semester online, and passed my exams as well.

And on May 11, the quarantine began to be gradually lifted.

I really hope that the situation in Azerbaijan will not reach the scale that, for example, we had in France. On social media, I constantly see pictures of people getting together and going out for walks, despite the quarantine.

I am worried about my family and loved ones in Azerbaijan, but I think I was lucky not to be there.

On the other hand, I still hope that I will be able to come to Baku for a couple of weeks in August, even if I have to be isolated, because I want to see my family.”

How is Operation Return going?

In order to bring back all the citizens of Azerbaijan who remained abroad, a special internet portal, “Eved gedirəm” (“I’m going home”), was created, where you can register and wait for help, but it is only for those who stayed in Russia, where there are no regular flights and where people are gradually flown home on charter flights.

The site reports that it has helped 500 people return home, another 500 people are waiting for their turn.

Charter flights brought tens of thousands of people from different countries back in April, during the “first quarantine”.

However, in those countries where there were not so many Azerbaijani citizens as in Turkey or Russia, many had to travel on their own, without anyone’s help. This often involved re-purchasing expensive tickets and dealing with the risk of sudden flight cancellations. Still, the overwhelming majority of people decided to return to their homeland and not wait out the epidemic abroad.

The post Stuck abroad and unable to return to Azerbaijan — a blessing or a curse? appeared first on English Jamnews.

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Leaders of Turkey and Greece discuss COVID fallout in rare call

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ATHENS/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by phone on Friday, Athens and Ankara said – rare such contact for two neighbours at odds over a range of issues.Mitsotakis and Erdogan addressed ways of handling the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, the reopening of borders and the re-establishment of tourist flows, a statement from Mitsotakis’s office said.“Mr Mitsotakis and Mr Erdogan agreed to keep the bilateral channels of communication open,” it said, a line re-iterated in the statement from the Turkish presidency.Erdogan’s office also said the two discussed tourism, security, as well as cooperation on economic issues and the fight against COVID-19.A Greek source with knowledge of the matter said: “The two leaders didn’t discuss high policy matters, but they did agree that tension is relatively high and that channels of communication must be restored.“There cannot be a de-escalation of tensions if the two sides don’t talk.”Though NATO partners and neighbours, Greece and Turkey have testy relations and differences on issues as diverse as airspace rights, maritime boundaries and ethnically-divided Cyprus.Reporting by Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou in Athens, and Can Sezer in Istanbul; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Spicerfor-phone-onlyfor-tablet-portrait-upfor-tablet-landscape-upfor-desktop-upfor-wide-desktop-up
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Airlines push for coronavirus tests before international flights

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Travel restrictions have crushed a global airline industry that says preflight tests would be better than quarantines.

Global airlines are calling for airport coronavirus tests for all departing international passengers to replace the quarantines they blame for exacerbating the travel slump.

Rapid and affordable antigen tests that look for pieces of the coronavirus in swab samples from people’s noses and throats – and that can be administered by non-medical staff – are expected to become available in the “coming weeks” and should be rolled out under globally agreed standards, the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said during an online media briefing.

“We don’t see any alternative solution that would be less challenging or more effective,” IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac said.

Airlines hammered by the coronavirus pandemic are pressing governments to embrace alternatives to blanket travel restrictions that are still hampering a traffic recovery – and that are now tightening again in Europe amid resurgent case numbers.

With rapid antigen tests becoming available for as little as $7 each, de Juniac said, airlines will push for their use to be endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations agency that oversees global aviation rules.

IATA believes production could be quickly increased to millions per day and the tests phased in between late October and the end of the year, “helping to save a part of the winter season”, de Juniac told Reuters television.

A global agreement is needed to ensure predeparture test results are uniformly accepted by the destination country, he said, adding, “It will also boost passenger confidence that everybody on the aircraft has been tested.”

Evolving position

The airlines’ position has evolved alongside testing technology. IATA argued a month ago for new rules to recognise laboratory-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests – which also look for virus fragments – conducted 48 hours before departure.

Last-minute airport screening is more effective because it “seals off the system” against forged certificates or infections contracted just before travel, de Juniac said on Tuesday.

Antigen tests are faster but less sensitive and therefore slightly more likely to miss positive cases than the PCR alternatives, although the accuracy gap has narrowed.

Among companies marketing the new tests, German diagnostics specialist Qiagen said earlier this month that it planned to launch a COVID-19 antigen test that provided results in 15 minutes and could be deployed in airports or stadiums.

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Seaweed tides over Bali islanders after tourism slump

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Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia – In the early 1980s, seaweed farming was the main industry on the Penida Archipelago, three sun-kissed islands off Bali’s southeast coast.

But just as aquaculture was about to take off, the striking square seaweed patches that checker-boarded the islands’ bays and inlets faded away.

“When I first came here in 2010, you could see the patches everywhere and smell seaweed drying on the side of every road,” said Valery Senyk, assistant manager at Batu Karang Resort, the archipelago’s first luxury hotel. “By 2016, the only farms that remained were in the channel dividing Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan islands. By 2019, there were none left at all.”

The end of seaweed farming was a symptom of Indonesia’s tourism boom, which saw visitor numbers rocket from seven million in 2010 to 16 million in 2019, according to Statistics Indonesia. Since Batu Karang opened in 2005, land values on the islands have increased up to 20 percent each year. Thousands of Chinese day-trippers and hundreds of Australian surfers visited every day, providing jobs that offered regular wages and far easier working conditions than aquaculture.

But with the global tourism industry paralysed by the coronavirus pandemic and 13 million tourism workers now unemployed in Indonesia, seaweed farming in the Penida Archipelago is back in vogue. “When COVID-19 hit, the locals reverted immediately back to it,” Senyk said.

Seaweed farming was a huge industry in the 1980s in the Penida Archipelago but when tourism took off the industry went into decline [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Shrinking returns

Before the pandemic, Kasumba, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, was Batu Karang’s purchasing officer. Now she is one of an estimated one thousand islanders who spend their days knee-deep in seawater and busy planting, harvesting and hauling baskets of seaweed.

“My grandmother was a seaweed farmer, but I never did it before because I studied accounting in university,” Kasumba said. “It’s really hard work but I am lucky to do it. There are no other jobs here now. Without it, I might not have money to eat.”

Kasumba says she likes working outdoors and the communal aspect of the job, but she notes the returns are poor. “Between five of us we earn only $200 to $300 a month,” she said.

Her neighbour Kadek also says he earns much less farming seaweed than in his previous job as a reservation clerk at the Tamarind Resort Nusa Lembongan. “Before I made $200 a month and partied with my friends on weekends,” he said. “Now I have to work seven days a week just to earn $50 a month. I haven’t had a Bintang [beer] since March.”

Ari, a shopkeeper who used to earn $5 in profit for every T-shirt sold to tourists, now earns only $33 a month tending to a small plot of seaweed. And her return keeps on shrinking. “Last month, they paid us 13,000 rupiahs (88 cents) for one kilogramme of dried seaweed. This month they are paying only 10,000 rupiahs (68 cents),” she said of the middlemen who resell the commodity to factories in China and Vietnam where it is refined into carrageenan, an additive used in the food industry for its thickening and stabilising properties.

Farmers sell the seaweed to middlemen and get little return for their hours labouring in the sun. Many are waiting to return to their old jobs in tourism [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

When Ari asked why the price was going down, the middlemen attributed it “too much competition” between farmers in Penida and “exporting problems” associated with lockdowns.

Inconsistent supply

Djusdil Akrim, the owner of Bosowa, a carrageenan factory in South Sulawesi Province, Indonesia’s seaweed farming hub, says diminishing returns for farmers on Penida are not a symptom of oversupply or lockdowns.

“Seaweed exports from Indonesia are growing more than 10 percent a year,” he said. The estimate is corroborated by data released by the Indonesian Marine Affairs and Fisheries Ministry that shows exports of fishery products increased seven percent in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period last year, with seaweed identified as one of the top four commodities.

The problem in Penida, Akrim says, is that the industry is unregulated. “The government is never thinking about industrial cultivation, so what we are left [with] are small farmers trying to survive,” he said. “In the Philippines, seaweed farmers have formed unions and have bargaining power with Chinese buyers. In South Korea, they’ve turned seaweed farms into tourist attractions where people pay to see how the product is cultivated. But even here in Sulawesi where there are 200,000 seaweed farmers, there is no collaboration between business and government.”

Akrim says formalisation of the industry in Penida will not be possible until there is consistent supply. “In Sulawesi, seaweed farming is different. Tourism never increased so fast like in Bali, so we never had conflict between farming and tourism where lots of the areas for farming were taken over for tourism,” he explained.

Farmers in Penida confirmed mass tourism had made it impossible to grow seaweed in the channel dividing Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan islands. “About five years ago, everyone gave up on seaweed because it wouldn’t grow well anymore,” Kasumba said.“I think it’s because all the diving boats affected the environment.”

Seaweed farmers often bring their family along [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Another farmer who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity blamed the row of now-empty bars and restaurants lining the channel for releasing sewerage straight into the water.

Seaweed cups

In 2017, when Bali’s Mount Agung volcano experienced a series of small but significant series of eruptions and tourism dropped by two-thirds, many islanders on the Penida Archipelago returned to seaweed farming.

“They started thinking if they depend only on tourism, their income will not be stable,” said Muhammad Zia ul Haq, seaweed sector coordinator at Rikolto, an NGO supporting small farmers in Bali.

“So we talked to them about combining the two activities,” he explained. Women learned how to make food and drinks out of seaweed to sell to tourists while the local government provided them with seedlings and the rope to make the netting the seaweed grows on.

“But when tourism returned and the government assistant ended, the farms were not maintained and farming stopped,” Haq said.

To help prevent the same thing from happening again, Rikolto has now joined forces with Evoware, a Jakarta-based startup that makes food wrappings from seaweed.

“I wanted to make a product that raises awareness of plastic rubbish but in a different way, and seaweed seemed perfect,” said cofounder David Christian. “Indonesia is one of the largest seaweed producers in the world. Seventy percent of our country is ocean and we can plant it everywhere. It also absorbs carbon and releases oxygen into the atmosphere, so it’s very eco-friendly.”

Evoware’s flagship product, Ello Jello, is a disposable and edible cup made from seaweed that comes in four different flavours and can be used for cold drinks. But uptake has been limited. The company can only produce 500 units daily and is yet to crack the code for heat-resistant disposable coffee cups – 16 billion of which are used each year, according to the Earth Day network. “More research and development is needed to make them heat resistant and for mass production,” Christian says.

Adds Rikolto’s Zia ul Haq: “We need good government policy and support from big manufacturing so the price of seaweed-based plastic will decrease.”

History repeating

Djusdil Akrim offers a more immediate solution for the seaweed farmers of Penida.

“So far they only export raw seaweed to China,” he said. “But if they had a carrageenan factory in Bali, they could cut out the middlemen and add value to their products. The government would also benefit. When we export seaweed to China, they don’t pay any tax. But if it was processed in Indonesia, the government would earn export tariffs.”

But Akrim is not holding his breath and expects seaweed farming to die off again in Penida the moment tourism returns.

Planted in the white sand, the seaweed creates a mosaic pattern in the water [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Certainly, the islanders have no plans to continue farming any longer than they have to.

“I am hoping to go back to my old job as soon as I can,” said Kasumba.

Her neighbour Kadek shares her views: “I think everyone will go back to tourism because it is more profitable,” he said. “Only the old people will keep on working here because they have no other skills.”

– With reporting by Lala Samsura

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