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Florida battles double duel as COVID deaths spike and hurricane approaches

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(Last Updated On: August 1, 2020)

As the US state of Florida continued to battle record numbers of Coronavirus deaths on Friday, a state of emergency was imposed in all counties along its east coast as Hurricane Isaias barreled towards them. 

According to the National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Isaias will drench Florida’s Atlantic coast this weekend after passing over the Bahamas. The center warned of dangerous storm surge, flooding and high winds.

NPR reported that governor Ron DeSantis signed an order Friday declaring “a state of emergency in every coastal county of Florida’s east coast, from Miami-Dade to Nassau counties.”

The storm could begin affecting South Florida “as early as late tonight into tomorrow morning, with the potential to increase in strength to Category 2 [hurricane],” DeSantis said at a news conference shortly before noon Friday.

Safety concerns about the storm prompted the Florida Division of Emergency Management to initially shut down all state-supported COVID-19 testing sites.

But that has since changed and on Friday DeSantis said only testing sites on the state’s eastern coast will be closed.

This comes as Florida and California, two of the most populous US states, reported record increases in COVID-19 deaths on Friday, according to a Reuters tally. 

Florida reported 257 deaths and California 208 fatalities.

Reuters reported that for Florida this is the fourth day in a row with a record rise in deaths and for California the second this week. 

Overall in the United States, deaths have increased by over 25,000 in July to 153,000 total lives lost since the pandemic started.

California became the first US state to have over half a million cases on Friday. Florida is in second place with over 470,000 infections.

California’s death toll rose to over 9,200, the third-highest in the country behind New York and New Jersey. Florida ranks eighth with nearly 7,000 deaths.

California and Florida are among 19 states that saw cases more than double in July.

Florida had over 311,000 new cases in July, more than triple the 96,000 new cases it reported in June. The state also recorded over 3,400 deaths in July compared with about 1,000 the prior month.

Florida reported record one-day increases in cases three times during the month, with the highest on July 12, at 15,300 new cases in a single day.

California had over 260,000 new cases in July with a record one-day increase of 12,120 on July 22.

Nationally, deaths are rising at their fastest rate since early June and one person in the United States died about every minute from COVID-19 on Wednesday, the day with the largest increase in deaths so far this week.

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Iran’s absence in Doha was due to tensions with US: Abdullah

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(Last Updated On: October 1, 2020)

Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah says Iran did not attend the opening ceremony of the historic peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban in Doha last month due to tensions with the United States. 

“Iran was invited…Sometimes their relations with the United States which [are] under a lot of tension at the moment, those things affect their decisions [of] participating in a conference or not,” Abdullah said in an interview with Voice of America this week. 

He said however that despite their absence from the event, Iran supported the peace process. 

Abdullah also said Tehran had “legitimate concerns” and “legitimate interests” in Afghanistan adding that Iran’s contacts with various Taliban groups could be used to advance peace efforts. 

This comes after US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, told a Washington-based research group, the United States Institute of Peace, last week that  US-Iran relations were getting in the way of Iran cooperating with Afghanistan’s peace process.

“Iran would like to keep us entangled in a conflict without winning or losing but paying a high price until there is an agreement between the US and Iran,” he said.

Iran refuted the claims but deputy foreign minister for political affairs, Abbas Araghchi, said at the time Iran questioned the US’ intentions in Afghanistan.

“We believe that the US should not be trusted and that the US presence in the region is dangerous and will cause a lot of discord in the region,” said Araghchi.

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ADB approves $110 million grant to boost power supply to Afghanistan

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(Last Updated On: October 1, 2020)

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Wednesday approved a $110 million grant to boost power supply and strengthen Afghanistan’s energy sector by improving its sustainability and promoting cross-border trade in energy. 

“The project will help address Afghanistan’s chronic power shortage by immediately doubling the volume of power imports and ensuring long-term cost-competitive electricity supply,” read a statement issued by ADB. 

Once complete, the project will provide improved access to customers and facilitate 500,000 new connections to households, commercial entities, and industrial customers.

“Demand for electricity is growing rapidly in Afghanistan and is essential for the country’s economic growth,” said ADB Energy Specialist Nana Gurgenidze. 

“The project will help provide reliable and affordable electricity to households and businesses by strengthening the grid and increasing power import capacity by 900 megawatts, with year-round firm energy imports of 3,000 gigawatt-hours.”

Afghanistan relies on energy imports from neighboring countries to meet its domestic demand and despite significant progress since 2002, only about 34 percent of the population has access to grid-connected electricity.

According to the ADB, the project will finance the construction of 201km of a 500-kilovolt overhead transmission line from the Surkhan substation in Uzbekistan to the Khwaja-Alwan substation in Afghanistan – a key interconnection node to receive power from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. 

It will also fund the expansion of a line bay, including associated equipment, at the Khwaja-Alwan substation and the project will allow Uzbek power into the Afghan grid under a 10-year power purchase and sales agreement signed in August 2020 by the Afghanistan and Uzbekistan governments.

In addition, staff, including female engineers at the national power utility Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), will be trained to manage cross-border power transfer and parallel operations, including emergency operation systems with CAPS, read the statement.

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Audit finds US Embassy paid $8 million for meals it didn’t need

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(Last Updated On: October 1, 2020)

An audit by the US State Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG) found $8.4 million was spent on meals that were not needed at the US Embassy in Kabul last year. 

In a report released on Tuesday, the IG stated  “the number of meals estimated in the task order for option year 4 (2019) was higher than it should have been, resulting in the Department paying almost $8.4 million for meals it did not need and that were not provided.”

Poor oversight by US company DynCorp International, which has the contract to provide meals, security and other services to the US Embassy in Kabul, cost the State Department millions more than necessary, the report stated. 

The IG also stated that because of poor record keeping the US can’t recover the $8.4 million paid for the meals and also can’t be sure DynCorp followed the terms of its contract. 

The State Department has paid DynCorp about $353 million since 2015 to provide food, security, and medical and other services and as per contract stipulations, DynCorp was to provide three meals a day, seven days a week, at a rate of about $21 each to cafeterias at the US Embassy and other consular facilities, the audit said.

DynCorp receives a fixed amount to provide about 2.9 million meals each year but the actual number of meals needed has dropped over the past few years as Embassy staff levels steadily decreased. 

However, a contracting officer last year based meals on 2016 personnel figures, the IG said.

“The Department did not consider the declining number of personnel living and working at the embassy compound and outlying US Government facilities,” the report said.

In November, the State Department finally reduced the number of meals required, bringing down food costs by 29 percent. Had the change been made earlier, the Department could have saved $8.4 million in 2019, the report said.

The audit also found the State Department’s contracting officers and representatives could not tell auditors how food quality standards were monitored, and said they lost their monthly oversight checklists during a computer upgrade.

DynCorp also could not provide 27 percent of the required documents checking sanitation, quality control and proof that goods had been received.

It also failed to develop a plan to reduce costs over time, as it had said it would when it secured the contract, the audit said.

 

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