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Be My Eyes app makes daily life easier for people with visual impairments

Be My Eyes app makes daily life easier for people with visual impairments

The video chat app allows a sighted volunteer to help out with reading thermostats, matching outfits or troubleshooting technology. 

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Jessica Yarmosky

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A woman uses the Be My Eyes video chat app to get assistance with various apps on her laptop. 

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Sanne Hegelund Byrgesen/Be My Eyes 

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If you’re blind or a person with low vision, even the most mundane task — things most of us take for granted — can present a major everyday challenge.

An app called Be My Eyes is trying to solve that issue: It allows users with visual impairments to video chat with a sighted volunteer who can help them with a variety of daily tasks like reading thermostats, matching outfits or troubleshooting technology. 

The idea emerged back in 2012, when furniture maker Hans Jorgen Wiberg, who is visually impaired, presented the concept at a startup conference in Aarhus, Denmark. At the time, he worked with people with visual impairments, advising them on how to cook. 

“I very often heard people say, ‘oh, if I just had a pair of eyes, once or twice a day, I could do a whole lot more on my own.'”

Hans Jorgen Wiberg, founder, Be My Eyes

“I very often heard people say, ‘Oh, if I just had a pair of eyes, once or twice a day, I could do a whole lot more on my own,’” Wiburg told an audience the following year at a TEDx event in Copenhagen. 

Since the app launched in 2015, it has taken off. There are now around a quarter-million blind and visually impaired users, and more than 4 million volunteers around the world looking to “be their eyes.” 

It works a bit like a ride-share app — users are matched with volunteers who share the same language and convenient time zone. Video calls can be anywhere from 30 seconds to much longer. 

“People meet each other and they connect on a human level. … I joke sometimes that it’s the first truly social network because it’s two people helping each other.”

Will Butler, vice president for community, Be My Eyes

“People meet each other and they connect on a human level,” said Be My Eyes’ vice president for community, Will Butler. “I joke sometimes that it’s the first truly social network because it’s two people helping each other.” 

A woman uses Be My Eyes video chat app to connect with a sighted volunteer. 

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Sanne Hegelund Byrgesen/Be My Eyes

Even though many users need assistance with smaller tasks, some people use the app to navigate through more significant life events. 

“[Our volunteers] have helped visually impaired people with everything from simply reading an expiration date to spot-checking a wedding dress before somebody walks down the aisle,” Butler said. “They’ve helped blind people return lost dogs, or find a parent’s grave in a cemetery independently.” 

The idea has expanded beyond the app — Be My Eyes is now partnering with companies like Google and Microsoft to provide accessible customer service solutions and human resources software for people with visual impairments. And, the company is also focusing on how to address the challenges that users call in about. 

“Pretty much every Be My Eyes call represents something that isn’t designed accessibly,” Butler said. 

Pandemic, privacy rules add to worries over 2020 census accuracy

Pandemic, privacy rules add to worries over 2020 census accuracy

An accurate census requires good data in and good data out. With the 2020 census, the US has unprecedented challenges with both, from the ill-timed pandemic and from new rules designed to keep data anonymous.

By
Qian Cai

The pandemic made it harder to collect census responses, contributing to worries over accuracy.

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Kena Benakur/AFP via Getty Images

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For the Census Bureau, the timing of national shutdowns due to the pandemic could not have been much worse.

Stay-at-home orders in March coincided with the period when millions of Americans received their census questionnaires in the mail. But large numbers of Americans moved from where they normally live to somewhere else — in with relatives with spare rooms, back home from college or even released from prisons. These highly unusual circumstances are likely to result in failures to count, double-counting or counting in the wrong place portions of the population.

Disruption from the pandemic adds to existing worries around the accuracy of this year’s census data, including the introduction of a technique to protect residents’ privacy and a potentially low response rate stemming from distrust in the government.

I am a demographer working with local governments, businesses and nonprofits, and this combination of factors makes me deeply concerned about how accurate census data will be when it’s released in 2021.

Communities rely on accurate data for a range of essential services, whether it’s determining the needs for hospital beds and vaccine doses, social programs for seniors or the unemployed, or evaluating wide-ranging health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic.

Good data in

People who work with statistics know that there needs to be “good data in” in order to get “good data out.” In the context of the census, good data in means “counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place.” The decennial census gathers data from every household in the nation to accomplish this enormous undertaking.

People are supposed to report where they were living on April 1. Yet, many left their usual residences to move in with parents, adult children, other relatives or friends; some fled to second homes; nearly 20 million college students vacated dorms or apartments; tens of thousands of inmates were granted early release; and nursing homes experienced high death rates from COVID-19, leading to no responses from deceased people who should have been counted on April 1.

The pandemic led the US Census Bureau to extend the deadline for gathering data from July to October. Prolonging the census-taking period may generate confusion about where and how people should be counted. This may introduce an increased number of recollection errors, diminishing data accuracy.

Further, Census Bureau field operations suspended in late March, and only recently resumed a gradual reengagement. In August, census takers will begin to knock on the doors of about one-third of the households nationwide that have not answered the census. But it may be harder to get complete and accurate information this year if people are reluctant to speak with census takers in person over health and safety concerns around the pandemic.

Finally, the Trump administration’s positions on immigration may further depress participation or distort results. Nearly 14% of the US population is foreign-born, and more than 80% of the foreign-born are racial/ethnic minorities from Latin America, Asia and Africa, according to my calculations from the Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey data. The administration’s proposed citizenship question was eventually scrapped from the 2020 census, but in its place, Trump signed an executive order to collect information about citizenship status through other means. Fear remains, not only among immigrants and their families but also among naturalized as well as US-born citizens with immigrant parents. This, in addition to the announcement of a plan to close US borders in late April because of the pandemic, sent unsettling signals and may further diminish census participation.

In short, both pandemic and policy-related forces threaten the goal of getting good data in.

Good data out

“Good data out” means that the data collected by the census is carefully processed and truthfully reported. Census results are the benchmark for federal, state and local data and the gold standard for what we can know about the country’s residents.

The Census Bureau is obligated to prioritize both data accuracy and individual privacy protection. In order to achieve near-absolute privacy protection, the bureau is implementing a new data processing measure called “differential privacy,” which distorts community data including age, gender, race/ethnicity, relationship, family type, homeownership, household size and vacancy rate. By reporting numbers that are distorted, the technique is designed to make it harder to identify specific individuals, particularly by combining census data with other sources of information.

National and state totals will be reported accurately, which is critical for congressional apportionment. But the process of shuffling data to protect privacy at county, city and town levels as well as among different age or racial groups means the data will be incoherent or even erroneous.

Bad data will have bad consequences. For example, next year when health officials use the fresh census data to determine COVID-19 death rates among the African American population, they need to divide the total number of deaths of African Americans from COVID-19 in a given jurisdiction by the total African American population there. Because of differential privacy, the denominator with the local African American population from the census will not be accurate, and as a result, there could be wildly inconsistent or even implausible results.

Census Bureau officials have said that injecting “noise” into the data is needed to ensure privacy and that the technique gives data scientists a good understanding of the level of uncertainty in the data. But other researchers have shown differential privacy to be ill-suited, harmful, untested and unproven.

Similar to an athletic team’s record bearing an asterisk marking a sullied season, the 2020 census will bear the unfortunate impact of the pandemic. Much is beyond the Census Bureau’s control, but this decennial census will also carry a second asterisk, due to Census Bureau decisions to trade data accuracy for privacy.

Qian Cai is Research Director of the Demographics Research Group, University of Virginia. This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to unlocking ideas from academia, under a Creative Commons license.

UAE-Israel normalization: A ‘real breakthrough’ for Arab Gulf state, former ambassador says

UAE-Israel normalization: A 'real breakthrough' for Arab Gulf state, former ambassador says

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Ariel Oseran

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The World staff

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Tel Aviv City Hall is lit up with the flags of the United Arab Emirates and Israel as the countries announced they would soon be establishing full diplomatic ties, Aug. 13, 2020. 

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Oded Balilty/AP

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Choirs in the age of coronavirus: A new study looks at the risks of singing

Choirs in the age of coronavirus: A new study looks at the risks of singing

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The World staff

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Stephen Snyder

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Members of the local choir “Ton in Ton” (Note by Note) sing during the weekly rehearsal under restrictions due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a soccer pitch in Hanau near Frankfurt, Germany, July 27, 2020. 

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You may recall reports of a cluster of cases of the coronavirus that was traced to a choir rehearsal back in the spring. More than 50 members of the Skagit Valley Chorale, in Mount Vernon, Washington, were infected in what the CDC called a “superspreader event.”

Two people died. 

Related: Why coronavirus tests differ around the world 

It was the first account — but not the last — linking community transmission of the coronavirus with singing

On July 9, the World Health Organization confirmed “evidence that COVID-19 might be spread by tiny particles of moisture that can hang in the air in enclosed or unventilated spaces,” after 200 scientists warned that airborne transmission may be underestimated, according to the BBC

While most experts agree that singing in a group is risky, no studies have attempted to measure that risk scientifically — until now. 

Jonathan Reid is a professor of chemistry who is leading a research team at Bristol University in the UK, looking into virus transmission and singing. He spoke to The World’s Marco Werman about why it’s important to know how many particles a person sprays while singing compared to regular talking — and what that might mean for the future of choirs in the age of the coronavirus. 

Related: Artists flock to the only ‘festival’ still on during COVID-19

Marco Werman: First of all, many of us may not imagine singing to be a lethal activity. So, how serious is this — the transmission of the virus through singing? 

Jonathan Reid: It’s very difficult to answer that question at the moment. The studies just have not been done and that’s really where our study comes in. So far, studies have focused on, for example, on speaking and looking at how the number of particles — these very small aerosol particles that you generate — how they increase as you speak louder. But we just don’t know the answer to that for singing. And we certainly don’t know how many particles you generate when you sing compared to when you speak. And that’s really what we’re trying to assess in this study. 

Related: This Spanish trio makes socially conscious music under lockdown 

What have you been measuring? And how have you been doing it? 

We’ve had to do these measurements in an orthopedic operating theater, which has very, very clean air so we can be certain that every particle we measure actually comes from the performer, whether they’re singing or speaking. 

The singing is done through a funnel. Why is that? 

The funnel is our sampling device. It is the way we sample the aerosol from someone singing into the very sensitive instruments that we have to count the number of particles that they’re generating when they sing. 

Why pick the song “Happy Birthday” for this test? 

We’ve picked that song just because it can be recited by singers and by instrumentalists and for performance for singers. It has a range of consonants and vowels, which are particularly helpful. So, we asked them to sing “Happy Birthday” to “Susan.” And so, they sing that repeatedly. We look at how the aerosol they generate varies as they sing at different volumes. And, you know, it provides a very good comparison across our large cohort of participants. 

How big is this study and how do you select your subjects? 

We have participants from across a broad range of genres, from opera through to soul, gospel, jazz, pop, musical theater. And in terms of instruments, woodwind and brass, we studied 12 instruments from flute, piccolo, bassoon, fruit, trumpet, trombone and tuba. 

In the case of the chorale in Washington state, with 61 people there, more than 50 got sick — apparently, a lot of people attending were aware of what they had to do to stay safe. How does singing compare with other activities in which people congregate, even when those people are conscious of best health practices?

I think it’s very hard retrospectively to definitively identify the mode of transmission. I mean, I think the study that you’re describing actually does make a very strong case for airborne transmission, partly because of the large number of people that are infected and just the implausibility of people actually coming into contact with that number of participants within the timeframe of the rehearsal. So when we’re concerned with airborne transmission, physical distancing doesn’t really help. It’s really about how well-ventilated a room is, because, as I say, these aerosol particles can remain airborne for many minutes or hours. And so really, they travel distances more than the 1 to 2 meters that we’re all accustomed to in physical distancing. 

Have you ever sung in a choir? 

I sing a great deal. I usually sing a great deal. And I also play the trumpet. So, I very much am keen to really get to the results of the study as soon as we can as well because, like many amateur performers, I am missing that opportunity to participate in music.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lebanon’s military gets sweeping powers after Beirut blast

Lebanon's military gets sweeping powers after Beirut blast

People walk past debris from destroyed buildings near the site of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 12, 2020.

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Hassan Ammar/AP

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Oregon protesters confront ICE officials; India registered its highest increase in coronavirus cases; ISIS has taken a port in Mozambique

Oregon protesters confront ICE officials; India registered its highest increase in coronavirus cases; ISIS has taken a port in Mozambique

By
The World staff

A close-up of a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s uniform.

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Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File Photo

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Top of The World — our morning news round up written by editors at The World. Subscribe here.

Scores of protesters rallied on Wednesday to block Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials from detaining two men in Bend, Oregon, who were taken to unmarked, white buses. Activists surrounded the buses for 12 hours.

Protestors in bend block buses from taking at atleast two men, immigration attorneys confirmed ice raid. Bend police just announced they are criminally trespassing pic.twitter.com/F0KoLH4O20

— Emily Cureton (@emilycureton) August 12, 2020

Late into the night, it appeared that federal agents from US Border Patrol had emptied the buses and the crowd was forcibly dispersed.

Bend Mayor Sally Russell said on Twitter that the arrests were not an immigration sweep and that she had been informed that there were warrants out for the men’s arrests. She asked people to leave the area.

For the Department of Homeland Security, acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli criticized the demonstrators and defended the intervention that included tear gas and nonlethal munitions. Cuccinelli said in a statement that “ICE will take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of its officers and detainees.”

Portland-based nonprofit Innovation Law Lab has asked a federal court to keep ICE from taking the men out of central Oregon, the ACLU announced.

What The World is following

On Thursday, India registered its highest increase in COVID-19 cases yet, with nearly 67,000 new cases and 942 deaths in the previous 24 hours. The country’s total infections approached 2.4 million, with more than 47,000 fatalities. India ranks behind only the US and Brazil in number of cases, and is also trailing behind Mexico in the number of deaths from the novel coronavirus.

And, militants tied to ISIS have taken a key port in Mozambique after several days of clashes. Government troops in the northern town of Mocimboa da Praia left by boat after Islamist fighters stepped up attacks in an area near valuable natural gas extraction sites.

From The WorldA Texas couple wrote a bilingual book to encourage children to wear masks

Martha Samaniego Calderón reads “Behind My Mask,” or “Detrás De Mi Cubreboca,” to her children Natalia and Nicolas, at their home. 

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Keren Carrión/The World

Martha Samaniego Calderón and her husband, Dan Heiman, decided to self-publish a Spanish-English children’s book called, “Behind My Mask,” or “Detrás de Mi Cubrebocas,” to encourage children to wear masks and help them process difficult emotions about COVID-19.

Brazilian housing movements fight surging evictions amid coronavirus

Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) attend a rally against the eviction of the “Povo sem Medo” or “People without Fear” occupants in São Paulo, Brazil, Oct. 31, 2017.

Credit:

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters 

Despite the pandemic — and rising unemployment — the number of forced evictions in Brazil has roughly doubled in recent months. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, more than 1,700 families have been thrown out of their homes just in the state of São Paulo, according to the Observatory of Forced Removals at the ABC Federal University. That number rises each week, with thousands more at risk of being forcibly removed.

Activists are fighting back. Late last month, a coalition of more than 50 Brazilian social groups launched a campaign to end the evictions. They’re demanding judicial and legislative action.

Bright spot

Music fans in the UK got to see live music — in person. Around 2,500 people went to see singer-songwriter Sam Fender perform on Tuesday night in Newcastle, in what promoters called the “first socially distanced music venue.”

The UK’s first socially distanced gig happened in Newcastle last night.

500 separate raised metal platforms, each accommodating up to five people from the same family/household. Hand sanitizer station and mini fridge included. Singing allowed too! pic.twitter.com/49pp1EnVFj

— Ian Dempsey (@IanDempsey) August 12, 2020In case you missed itListen: Ongoing protests in Belarus after controversial election

Protesters gather on a street against election results in Minsk, Russia, Aug. 12, 2020.

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AP

People in the Belarusian capital Minsk and across the country are protesting the election of Alexander Lukashenko. Protesters say the election was rigged and leaders across the EU and the US are raising some of the same concerns. And, Kamala Harris’ father is an immigrant from Jamaica. Jamaicans have been following her career closely and many are now rejoicing her appearance on US presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s ticket. Also, if the US can’t build better airports or trains than China, or even manage the coronavirus, how exactly is it supposed to compete with China’s economic power?

Don’t forget to subscribe to The World’s Latest Edition podcast using your favorite podcast player: RadioPublicApple PodcastsStitcherSoundcloudRSS.

Brazilian housing movements fight surging evictions amid coronavirus

Brazilian housing movements fight surging evictions amid coronavirus

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, more than 1,700 families have been thrown out of their homes just in the state of São Paulo, according to the Observatory of Forced Removals at the ABC University. 

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Michael Fox

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Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) attend a rally against the eviction of the “Povo sem Medo” or “People without Fear” occupants in São Paulo, Brazil, Oct. 31, 2017.

Credit:

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters 

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Housing activists marched up the empty highway arm-in-arm last month, heading to the São Paulo state governor’s palace to demand an end to the forced evictions that have risen sharply across Brazil during the pandemic. 

Military police in riot gear fired shots of rubber bullets and blocked the road ahead. Within minutes, the police pushed everyone back with tear gas, leaving many sprawled on the ground, gasping for breath.

“We are marching to denounce the evictions that Governor João Doria has been pushing,” said Jussara Basso, the São Paulo coordinator of the movement, in a video from the march. “While he appears in the press telling people to stay home, not one housing policy has been created and not one home has been built.”

A @jubasso_juntas explica porque os sem-teto estão agora em marcha para o Palácio dos Bandeirantes. pic.twitter.com/SEpnRYFqYy

— Guilherme Boulos (@GuilhermeBoulos) July 30, 2020

Related: Why is Brazil’s Bolsonaro peddling hydroxychloroquine despite the science?

“It’s a very sad moment in our history,” she told The World.

Despite the pandemic — and rising unemployment — the number of forced evictions in Brazil has roughly doubled in recent months. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, more than 1,700 families have been thrown out of their homes just in the state of São Paulo, according to the Observatory of Forced Removals at the ABC Federal University. That number rises each week, with thousands more at risk of being forcibly removed.

Activists are fighting back. Late last month, a coalition of more than 50 Brazilian social groups launched a campaign to end the evictions. They’re demanding judicial and legislative action.

“To be evicted at this moment is a question of life or death. To have a home is a question of life or death. It’s not just the federal government, the mayors and local governments should be protecting people.”

Dito Barbosa, housing and human rights lawyer

“To be evicted at this moment is a question of life or death,” said Dito Barbosa, a housing and human rights lawyer and one of the lead organizers. “To have a home is a question of life or death. It’s not just the federal government, the mayors and local governments should be protecting people.”

Related: Indigenous mothers in Brazil mourning children’s deaths seek closure

The United Nations has also weighed in, twice calling on Brazilian authorities to suspend forced removals during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Forced evictions should not be happening at all,” Balakrishnan Rajagopal, the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, told The World. “They are a grave violation of international human rights law and a serious affront to human dignity and development. I am also concerned about the impact of the evictions on the spread of the virus, which is already very widespread.”

Rajagopal said many countries were unfortunately continuing evictions, despite the pandemic, but Brazil was “one of the most serious in the world in terms of intensity.”

Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a huge income concentration in the top 1% of the population. Even before the pandemic, poverty was on the rise for several years. There is a national housing deficit of 7.8 million homes. That means that millions of families cannot afford basic rent, and they’re forced to live in precarious housing — in favelas or slums — often without sanitation or even running water. And their numbers are increasing during the pandemic.

Brazil’s economy is expected to tank by more than 9% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment is at 13% and climbing. According to a May poll, 80% of Brazilians said they had been financially impacted by the crisis.

There is movement on legislation in the National Congress to suspend evictions during the pandemic.

“This bill can move pretty fast, it just depends on political will,” said Natália Bonavides, a member of Congress from the Workers Party, who is sponsoring the bill. “The challenge is that we don’t have consensus on this issue because a large number of congressional members represent the financial elites. That’s why external pressure is going to be so important.”

“Only with a lot of popular pressure are we going to be able to approve this project,” she said.

But even if it passes, it will likely still face a veto from President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly downplayed the virus and insisted on the need to reopen the economy. In June, he vetoed the section of another bill that would have suspended evictions of families unable to pay rent during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the numbers in the COVID-19 crisis continue to go up — the country hit 3 million infections and 100,000 deaths last weekend. The number of evictions is also rising with no clear path ahead.

“The problem is going to get worse with the pandemic. What is being asked is the bare minimum. Proceeding with evictions during the pandemic is a violation of the right to life.”

Ana Paula Pimentel Walker, University of Michigan Urban Planning, professor

“The problem is going to get worse with the pandemic. What is being asked is the bare minimum,” said Brazilian-born University of Michigan Urban Planning professor Ana Paula Pimentel Walker. “Proceeding with evictions during the pandemic is a violation of the right to life.”

Related: Paulinho Paiakan is remembered as a hero to Indigenous Brazilians

Erika Cavalcante da Silva, 36, lives with her husband and four kids in a 9-by-12 wooden shack they built themselves over the last year. It’s in a community called Faith in God, on the outskirts of the city of Riberao Preto in São Paulo.

In mid-April, she watched as backhoes tore down 20 of her neighbors’ homes. Authorities ordered the demolition. She said that with the interference of heavy rain and the help of local organizers, they were able to stop it. Since then, the neighborhood has grown, but the police are constantly threatening to return.

In the meantime, because of the COVID-19 crisis, Silva says she lost most of her housekeeping work. Her husband, who has lung problems, had to quit his job driving for Uber. The monthly government support they’ve been receiving amid the pandemic runs out this month. She says she doesn’t know what they’ll do.

“I am scared,” Silva said. “I’m scared to death that my daughter, who’s pregnant, will catch coronavirus. City officials think that only criminals live in the favela, but we are families here.”

Housing advocates blame a confluence of recent events for the spike in evictions — including the push to tamp down on new favelas and urban and rural “housing occupations,” or squatter settlements like Silva’s, which have grown during the financial crisis. With rising unemployment, many working-class families who are unable to pay their rent have ended up on the streets, moved in with relatives or joined new favelas and growing occupations on the city’s outskirts of the city.

Related: Black Lives Matter protests renew parallel debates in Brazil, Colombia

Other factors driving up evictions may have to do with private real estate interests, and the government’s inclination to act on evictions during the pandemic — when housing activists are less vocal, activists say.

“Some authorities are taking advantage of the situation. The São Paulo mayor’s office is requesting legal measures to fast-track the removal of 400 families in Campos de Eliseos, in the middle of the pandemic. This also happened in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The government [is] requesting that an eviction be carried out with urgency.”

Talita Anzei Gonsales, Observatory of Forced Removals

“Some authorities are taking advantage of the situation,” said researcher Talita Anzei Gonsales, at the Observatory of Forced Removals. “The São Paulo mayor’s office is requesting legal measures to fast-track the removal of 400 families in Campos de Eliseos, in the middle of the pandemic. This also happened in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The government [is] requesting that an eviction be carried out with urgency.”

These evictions are often violent. During a forced removal in Piracicaba, São Paulo, on May 7, police fired rubber bullets toward a cluster of makeshift homes, a YouTube video shows. Reporter Maria Teresa Cruz, with the Brazilian outlet Ponte Jornalismo, described the scene that day in a video from a nearby roof. She had to stop as clouds of tear gas wafted over the area and into nearby neighborhoods.

Reintegração de posse em Piracicaba (SP) https://t.co/p6QmZQ2yOm

— Ponte Jornalismo (@pontejornalismo) May 7, 2020

“There was no aggression from the residents being removed. I can say that because I witnessed it first hand. The reaction of the police was disproportionate,” Cruz told The World. “They fired a lot of tear gas grenades and many rubber bullets even into the favela alongside the occupation … People who were home were suffocated by the gas that came in through the windows of their shacks. This forced them outside and into the line of fire.”

This sort of thing is happening daily around the country.

“They hit a boy who was only 2 years old,” said a man wearing a green mask in an Aug. 6 video of an eviction of families in Jabaquara, in the city of São Paulo.

“They shot a tear gas grenade at us over there. Fired rubber bullets. We are just here to demand our rights.”

Amid crackdown in China, Uighur diaspora artists promote their culture

Amid crackdown in China, Uighur diaspora artists promote their culture

The US has stepped up efforts to hold China accountable for treatment of ethnic minority Uighurs in the western Xinjiang region, but new evidence shows continued persecution, with celebrities even being targeted.

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Rupa Shenoy

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The World staff

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In this file photo, Uighur protesters, wearing bandages over mock wounds, hold placards and wave a French flag as they take part in a demonstration condemning violence in China’s Xinjiang province, at the Trocadero near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, July 8, 2009.

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Merdan Ghappar was a fashion model for the giant Chinese online shopping website Taobao. But the video that suddenly made him famous is not a commercial — it’s a rare, grim glimpse into one of the detention centers in Xinjiang, in northwest China.

Merdan Ghappar shared the selfie video and sent some text messages in March, a few weeks after he was arrested, said Enwer Ardan, speaking on behalf of Merdan Ghappar’s uncle, Abdulhakim Ghappar. There’s been nothing seen or heard from him since.

The video was released last week after the BBC consulted experts who said it was likely genuine. In it, Merdan Ghappar is seen handcuffed to a bed in a closet-sized room. There are bars over the window and a voice over a loudspeaker says there has never been a Uighur independence movement.

“It is a firsthand document that confirms China is torturing and killing Uighur people inside the camp.”

Enwer Ardan, speaking on behalf of Merdan Ghappar’s uncle, Abdulhakim Ghappar

“It is a firsthand document that confirms China is torturing and killing Uighur people inside the camp,” said Ardan, who believes Ghappar was targeted by the Chinese government, like other Uighur celebrities who’ve recently gone missing. “Tremendous intellectuals and artists and popular singers were arrested. And I think Merdan is part of this.”

‘Gravity of the situation’

As Uighur artists inside China have disappeared, people outside China have stepped up efforts to preserve Uighur culture. 

“There’s a different kind of urgency people are feeling,” said Elise Marie Anderson, an ethnomusicologist in Washington, DC, who lived in Xinjiang and works with the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “There are people who’ve been doing these sorts of preservation efforts for a very long time. There are just more of us now because people realize the gravity of the situation.”

Uighur-language schools are popping up in many countries. People are creating online cultural archives for songs and poems. There are Uighur YouTube channels and Instagram accounts. But Anderson said many of these efforts are struggling because they can’t find enough funding. 

“So many people think stuff like this is frivolous,” she said, highlighting the lack of financial resources. “This is not frivolous.” 

Uighur artists outside China have suddenly found themselves as the last keepers of a culture facing extinction. But Mukaddas Mijit, a Uighur dancer, singer and filmmaker now living in Paris, struggles with how to pass on her culture. 

“There’s a lot of stress around Uighur culture, [with people] saying, ‘All that will disappear, so we have to keep it in its original shape,’” said Mijit, adding that she doesn’t believe in simply aiming to be “authentic.”

“A culture that doesn’t move anymore, or a culture [that’s] just repeating itself, it’s already the beginning of the end,” she said.

Related: Sterilization abuse of Uighurs in China meets international legal criteria for genocide, experts say

On top of cultural oppression, many Uighurs resent long being stereotyped by Chinese people as entertainers and artists. They’re often featured in splashy TV shows. 

“If you talk about Uighurs in, for example, Beijing, there’s basically two reactions. One is, ‘Oh, they’re thieves’ or “They’re terrorists” or ‘They’re dangerous people.’ Or, “They are beautiful girls with beautiful clothes.” And ‘They can dance.’”

Mukaddas Mijit, a Uighur dancer, singer and filmmaker

“If you talk about Uighurs in, for example, Beijing, there’s basically two reactions,” she said. “One is, ‘Oh, they’re thieves’ or “They’re terrorists” or ‘They’re dangerous people.’ Or, “They are beautiful girls with beautiful clothes.” And ‘They can dance.’”

So, Uighur artists didn’t expect the crackdown to focus on them, Mijit said, even though they grew up with the same anxiety and oppression as other Uighurs. 

“We never realized that it could go this far,” she said. 

‘They’re coming for everyone’

Mijit was last in Xinjiang in July 2009, when hundreds of Uighurs participated in protests that turned violent. She watched trucks full of Chinese troops roll in and turn her home into a militarized zone.

“They forced us to get used to [militarization],” Mijit said. 

The Chinese government began moving millions of Uighurs in Xinjiang into detention camps. Mijit said it wasn’t until about three years ago that Uighur writers, poets and professors also began to disappear. Even Ablajan Ayup, a pop singer known as “the Uyghur Justin Bieber,” went missing. 

“I never thought that they will disappear because they always tried to behave well. I mean, they never did anything against Chinese authority,” Mijit said. “So, when they started to disappear, it was really alarming. I think then people really realized that, actually, they’re coming for everyone.”

Model Merdan Ghappar did nothing to provoke Chinese authorities, said Enwer Ardan, his uncle Abdulhakim Ghappar’s representative. He spoke perfect Chinese, had a Chinese name, and lots of ethnic Han Chinese friends. 

“He has never been political, nor religious,” Ardan said. “He’s just a young man.”

Related: New data on China’s detention of Uighurs: ‘They could charge you with anything’

But Abdulhakim Ghappar lives in the Netherlands, and Ardan said Abdulhakim Ghappar’s outspokenness about the treatment of Uighurs drew the Chinese government’s attention to his nephew.

The government has yet to comment on Merdan Ghappar’s detention. Ardan says the international community should not accept what is currently happening to Uighurs in Xinjiang. 

“We have to stand up,” Ardan said, warning that Uighurs — and their culture — could disappear. “We have to speak.”

A Texas couple wrote a bilingual book to encourage children to wear masks

A Texas couple wrote a bilingual book to encourage children to wear masks

Martha Samaniego Calderón and her husband, Dan Heiman, decided to self-publish a Spanish-English children’s book called, "Behind My Mask," or "Detrás de Mi Cubrebocas," to encourage children to wear masks and help them process difficult emotions about COVID-19.

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Alejandra Martinez

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Martha Samaniego Calderón reads “Behind My Mask,” or “Detrás De Mi Cubreboca,” to her children Natalia and Nicolas, at their home. 

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Keren Carrión/The World

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Getting ready to hit the piñata at Latinx birthday parties is arguably the most special moment of the celebration. Kids get in line and sing the popular Mexican piñata song that goes, “dale, dale, dale, no pierdas el tino,” which roughly translates to “hit the piñata and don’t miss.”

But for 7-year-old Natalia Heiman Samaniego, this moment causes her a little bit of anxiety. She doesn’t like having to cover her eyes with a blindfold to hit the piñata. 

“You can’t put anything to cover her eyes,” said her mother Martha Samaniego Calderón. “She has always been scared of that. So all of a sudden, having to see that people had to wear masks was something very scary for her.”

Related: Mexico City architect reads stories to children in empty public square

At the beginning of the pandemic, Calderón, a graduate student in the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas (UNT), and her husband Dan Heiman, assistant professor of bilingual education at UNT, were having a hard time convincing their daughter Natalia, and son Nicolás, 11, to wear masks.

“Me se sentía muy como no quiero usar una máscara y toda la gente tenía máscara y yo estaba como que yo no,” Natalia said in Spanish. She said she didn’t want to wear a mask.

Calderón said during the pandemic, her daughter’s fear is amplified. Every time the family grabs their masks to leave the house, Natalia hesitates.

Martha Samaniego Calderón and Dan Heiman pose for a portrait with their children Natalia and Nicolas, at their home.

Credit:

Keren Carrión/The World

Confronting COVID-19 fears in Spanish-speaking families

To explore those emotions, Calderón began talking to her kids about their feelings and COVID-19. Natalia would tell her mother how sad she felt about people having the coronavirus and how much she missed her friends and soccer team.

“Books have always been part of our lives. So we decided to create a children’s picture book,” Calderón said.

Related: ‘Portraits for NHS Heroes’ honors UK’s frontline health workers

Calderón knew she wasn’t the only parent having conversations about COVID-19 with her kids. So, she and her husband decided to self-publish a bilingual children’s book called, “Behind My Mask” or “Detrás de Mi Cubrebocas.”

“What’s really interesting is that in the DFW [Dallas-Fortworth] metroplex, we have the growth of dual-language programs where Spanish isn’t used as a transition. It’s actually used as a way to foment bilingualism and biliteracy and biculturalism in students,” Heiman said.

He said having the book available in both languages is very important, especially in the North Texas community. Dallas Independent School District has the largest number of dual-language campuses in Texas.

Latinos make up more than 40% of the population in Dallas County. According to the Texas Tribune, Tarrant County continues to see the fastest growth of Hispanic residents in the state. Since the start of the pandemic, KERA has reported a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases among North Texas Latinos. For all these reasons, the couple felt it was necessary to continue spreading the message: Masks save lives.

“I think it’s really important as educators and as parents that we really address what kids are feeling in terms of their emotions and their identities.”

Dan Heiman, assistant professor of bilingual education, University of North Texas

“I think it’s really important as educators and as parents that we really address what kids are feeling in terms of their emotions and their identities,” Heiman said.

The book tackles the importance of wearing a mask by following a young Latina who explores her emotions during the pandemic. There are a total of five masks and each represents an emotion and a social issue.

“Naming emotion is so important. It’s so important because you bring to light these emotions like fear, anxiety,” Calderón said.

A way to embrace masks and challenging topics 

The book starts by introducing a blue mask dedicated to essential workers. It features a monarch butterfly representing migration, a symbol often associated with immigrants or immigration. Then there’s a rainbow flag for the LGBTQ community. One mask bears the message “hate is a virus,” representing the xenophobia the Asian community has experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Calderón points out that masks can make it harder for people — especially people who have experienced racism — to determine if a space is safe.

“For Latinos, and minorities and any marginalized communities, the impact of wearing a mask, it goes to a level that not many people can understand,” Calderón said. “With the current political times we’re living in, for me, it’s very important to read people’s emotions and faces and gestures.”

Calderón, an immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico, has experienced racism in North Texas, like when speaking Spanish to her kids at grocery stores. She uses the book to talk about this with her kids.

“It is important for us, the Spanish community, to start reaching out to our young ones and start telling them to wear a mask.”

Alexandra Tique, bilingual licensed clinical social worker, North Texas Area Community Health Centers

“It is important for us, the Spanish community, to start reaching out to our young ones and start telling them to wear a mask. What I tell parents is to buy a mask that has Pokémon, whatever the kid likes,” said Alexandra Tique, a bilingual licensed clinical social worker with North Texas Area Community Health Centers. She works closely with children and teens.

Tique said many parents are struggling with these conversations, but they can play an important role in helping children make sense of these feelings and COVID-19.

“Parents should set an example. They should wear them and not talk bad about wearing one, because masks save lives,” she said.

The couple wants their book to give kids a voice to talk about the challenges of living through a pandemic and current political events.

“The political aspect of the book has taken on even more urgency,” Heiman said. “We had no idea that our book would be published four days before the George Floyd incident and the mass protests against anti-Blackness.”

The book does not have a Black Lives Matter mask, but there’s a section at the end where kids can draw their own.

“We can’t control what happens outside. We can’t control the COVID-19 virus. But we do have control about certain things,” Calderón said.

She said the book has helped her family tremendously.

And Natalia? COVID-19 still makes her sad; and she misses her friends and her soccer team. But she isn’t afraid anymore.

“Mamá, me estaba diciendo que tenemos que usar una máscara. Y por que el libro que hicieron me inspiro a que use una máscara,” Natalia said in Spanish. She says her parents’ book has inspired her to wear a mask.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Art + Seek. Read the original story here

Backlash over anti-racist billboard challenges Houston’s Vietnamese American community

Backlash over anti-racist billboard challenges Houston’s Vietnamese American community

In southwest Houston, a Vietnamese American businessman received death threats and a boycott when he put up a bilingual Black Lives Matter billboard.

By
Elizabeth Trovall

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Nguyen Le stands in front of the Black Lives Matter sign he erected in southwest Houston.

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Courtesy of Nguyen Le 

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Like millions of other people, Nguyen Le watched the eight-minute, 46-second cellphone video in which George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.

The 50-year-old businessman said he had to do something.

“I couldn’t remain silent anymore, because to me remaining silent would just be complicit to all this.” 

Nguyen Le, southwest Houston, Texas

“I couldn’t remain silent anymore, because to me remaining silent would just be complicit to all this,” said Le, who runs a well-known insurance firm in southwest Houston.

After Floyd’s death, Le saw an ad from the 1970s with Black Civil Rights leaders calling on the government to help Vietnamese refugees, like himself.

“That was the beginning of ’78,” Le said. “And then I realized, ‘holy crap’ — later that year I was an 8-year-old boy languishing in a refugee camp.”

It inspired him to show his solidarity with the Black community. In late June, Le put up a bright yellow billboard in Houston’s Viet Town that read “Black Lives Matter” in English and Vietnamese.

“We added the Vietnamese translation just because I’m Vietnamese, I was born in Vietnam,” he said. “Everything we do now is bilingual.” Some 91,000 Vietnamese immigrants live in the Houston area.

Related: K-pop and Chinese hip-hop artists grapple with their responses to BLM

Le said he was expecting some pushback — but the death threats caught him off guard.

Vietnamese vlogger on YouTube used violent verbal attacks against Nguyen Le for his billboard. The video now has more than 36,000 views.

His Facebook page filled up with hate speech. Some critics called him a communist, and he said his insurance business lost 12 clients. The Vietnamese media criticized Le. He responded with a press statement.

“I was never told that I am worthless by those with different skin colors. I know that my life would have been a lot harder to build if I did.”

Nguyen Le, southwest Houston, Texas

“I was never told that I am worthless by those with different skin colors. I know that my life would have been a lot harder to build if I did,” he wrote in the statement.

 

This is my official statement regarding the Black Lives Matter billboard that I had paid for to support the movement to end racism & injustice: I am Lê Hoàng Nguyên. I am a proud American of Vietnamese descent. Having experienced racism first hand over the years and especially having seen the recent social injustices in America, I used my personal funds to put up a billboard that shares the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. I did not receive any outside funds. The opinion expressed is 100% my own. It is not a political message. It does not support any particular organization. It supports the simple idea of the Black Lives Matter movement to stop racism and injustice for all. It does not mean other lives do not matter. I believe every life matters. But, if we do not stand up for the lives of those most marginalized, how can we say that all lives matter? I have heard many of the complaints about the message: Some mentioned rioting and looting, which I do not condone. The peaceful protestors far outnumber the troublemakers. Some pointed to crime committed by African Americans against Vietnamese Americans. I empathize with the victims but not all African Americans are criminals. Others reminded that Vietnamese Americans are also victims of discrimination. I understand and agree. I grew up being called names. I was in jobs where I was limited by the color of my skin. That is why I support stopping racism and injustice – period! Finally, some of you argued that this is the land of opportunity and all you have to do is to work hard. It is true, America is a great country and I am forever grateful to this land. I came here at 9 years old without my parents and worked hard to build an amazing life. And, I am very fortunate to have a beautiful family. However, I did not grow up with people who ran when they saw me. I did not have to fear for my life anytime I saw the police. I was never told I am worthless by those with different skin colors. I know that my life would have been a lot harder to build if I did. Who am I to judge the enduring challenges that others face? When I put up the billboard, I had three goals: 1. To show my public support for stopping all racism and injustice 2. To inspire future generations of leaders 3. To speak up & to start the hard conversations about racism and injustice Having proudly accomplished these goals, I’ve decided to put up a new billboard that honors our First Responders. The new billboard will be installed in the near future. In closing, I would like to share one of my favorite quotes: “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler While you might not agree with this statement from Alfred, it does not mean we can’t respect one another. Respectfully, Lê Hoàng Nguyên

Posted by Farmers Insurance Le Hoang Nguyen on Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Shortly after the backlash, people organized to support Le. They rallied in front of the billboard. They defended him on social media. An online fundraiser for Le’s business has been shared more than 3,000 times.

“I’m really encouraged by how many people have donated,” said Ngoc Anh Nguyen, a doctor in Houston who created the GoFundMe page.

Related: BLM gives hope to Wales family seeking justice for Black teen’s death

“At first it was only Vietnamese Americans, or Vietnamese people donating,” Nguyen said. “Then it went to people in other countries, people in other states, and then non-Vietnamese people who literally have no bone in this fight.”

She said the billboard controversy has sparked difficult conversations in their community, particularly among young people and their parents, who are more likely to be conservative.

Evolving conversations on race

Bao Huong Hoang, 35, is one of the many Vietnamese Americans in Houston who support Nguyen Le and Black Lives Matter. She’s an administrative director of protocol research at MD Anderson Cancer Center and generally steers clear of controversial topics, like race, with her parents.

But, she said, earlier this week, she sat down for dinner with her parents and her mom mentioned the billboard out of the blue.

“She said ‘you know about that billboard, I’ve been hearing in the Vietnamese radio they’ve been talking about it’ and she said, ‘initially it made me very uncomfortable,’” said Hoang.

Her mom told her about the media reports showing people of all different races supporting the Black Lives Matter billboard.

Yesterday, a small group of us, including Rep. @HubertVo149 and CM @TiffanyForAlief ruined a perfectly nice ANTI-#BlackLivesMatter event.

They tried to tell us they cancelled it when we showed up.

But we stayed to represent SW Houston and to stand against the racists & bigots. pic.twitter.com/8iZWGQQCci

— Gene Wu (@GeneforTexas) July 12, 2020

Related: Statue of Black protester replaces toppled UK slave trader

“She said she saw all these different faces, masked faces, but faces out at the protest. She said she’s had a change of heart. She said she thinks it’s now a good thing,” Hoang said.

Hoang said she’s pleasantly surprised to see her mother change her mindset.

Jacqueline Dan’s mother was less supportive when she found out her daughter was a supporter of the billboard. Dan’s mother, who lives in Houston, questioned her daughter when she saw her name on the GoFundMe page.

“She said, ‘the Vietnamese community… does not like this billboard,’” Dan said.

Her mom argued that Vietnamese stores are targeted by Black people. But Dan, who works as an immigration attorney at the public defender’s office in Orange County, California, rebutted. 

“I represent the people who [are accused of] break[ing] into Vietnamese stores and homes — and they speak Vietnamese,” Dan said.

These divisions are not uncommon in Asian American families, especially among the first and second generations, according to Janelle Wong, who studies Asian American public opinion at the University of Maryland.

“Those who are older or first-generation tend to be more conservative when it comes to racial justice issues than our younger people.” 

Janelle Wong, University of Maryland

“Those who are older or first-generation tend to be more conservative when it comes to racial justice issues than our younger people,” Wong said.

In the last 5 1/2 years, she’s seen a small but vocal minority emerge that aggressively opposes racial justice.

But nearly 75% of Asian American voters she polled in 2016 said the US government should do more to enforce equal rights for Black people in the country. And, she said, there are many older Asian Americans who have paved the way for the younger generation.

“The community as a whole is — among adults — 73% foreign-born, and we actually see that group is still more progressive than white Americans as a whole in terms of their ideas about race,” said Wong.

Nguyen Le said even though his 70-year-old mother was upset about the billboard — especially the attacks it spurred toward her son — he saw her opinion of its message “Black Lives Matter” evolve.

“I explained to her [that I had to do something] when I watched a grown man call out for his mama after his last breath,” Le said. “She finally understood that.”

Le said his mom’s own fear for her son’s safety made her realize why he could no longer remain silent on anti-Black racism.

Editor’s note: This article is republished from Houston Public Radio through a partnership sharing agreement. Read the original article

Slowing deforestation could save humanity from the next pandemic

Slowing deforestation could save humanity from the next pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to cost several trillion US dollars. But a new study suggests that spending just a tiny fraction of that to curb deforestation and the wildlife trade could prevent another costly pandemic.

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Adam Wernick

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An aerial view of cleared land is seen during an operation to combat illegal mining and logging conducted by agents of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or IBAMA, supported by military police, in the municipality of Novo Progresso, Pará state, North Region, Brazil, Nov. 11, 2016. 

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Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

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COVID-19 has thus far cost the world over 700,000 lives and vast sums of money in lost gross domestic products and government rescue plans. A new study published in the journal Science suggests we might avoid the next pandemic and save trillions of dollars by spending just a fraction of that amount to curb deforestation and the wildlife trade.

Many human diseases originate in animals — HIV, malaria, Lyme disease and, of course, COVID-19. Scientists call them zoonotic diseases. The novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 was initially believed to have started in the wet markets of Wuhan, China, from a bat or a pangolin on sale there.

“We see the appearance of new diseases like COVID[-19] overwhelmingly coming from wild animals and to a lesser extent, domesticated animals,” explains Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a co-author of the study. “That reflects increasing contact between people and wildlife, in particular, and of course, the reality that we live in a highly connected world with many densely populated cities.”

These two things together amplify the chances that a disease will spread to many other people, once an animal transmits it to a human.

“The reality is that we swim in a common germ pool with all other animals. … So we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that…these diseases, particularly viruses, tend to pop out into people.”

Zoonotic diseases are actually more the exception than the rule, Bernstein notes. The reality, he says, “is that we swim in a common germ pool with all other animals. … So we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that when we’re changing life on Earth at such a rapid rate today, that we’re sort of stirring the pot of the common germ pool, so to speak, and that these diseases, particularly viruses, tend to pop out into people.”

RelatedCOVID-19 threatens global progress in fight against other communicable diseases 

Bernstein says the recent paper came about because “a group of folks were bewildered by how much was being spent to deal with one emerging zoonotic virus. And the question was, how much would we have to spend to do what we know we need to do to prevent these viruses from spilling over into people?”

“The question was, how much would we have to spend to do what we know we need to do to prevent these viruses from spilling over into people?”

Many of these emerging diseases come from deforestation, he notes — not necessarily from cutting down trees, per se, but from all the activities associated with it: building roads, establishing settlements in forests, gathering or poaching wildlife. “So we looked at how much it would cost to reduce deforestation in places that are particularly high risk,” Bernstein says.

COVID-19 is believed to have started in one of China’s wet markets, likely through consumption of a bat or pangolin.

Credit:

Whiz-Ka/Flickr

Emerging infections also come from wildlife trade, he continues. “The part of the wildlife trade that we were most concerned with is actually not at the buyer end; it’s at the procurer end, [the] people who are going out into wilderness and harvesting animals for pets, for medicines, for furs, for all kinds of stuff. And those contexts are the high-risk ones…So, we focus on what it would take to really address the risks.”

The third area that the researchers tackle is surveillance. Ultimately, Bernstein says, it’s impractical to end the wildlife trade and deforestation, as much as people would like to do so. The solution, then, is to have much better surveillance of the wildlife and the people who are at high risk for spillover. “So we try and think through which organizations [could do this] and what the budget would be to do it,” he explains.

There are small-scale programs in various parts of the world already trying to find ways to limit human-wildlife interaction or to track it better. The new paper calls for a scaling up of these efforts, and “we talk in this paper about how important it is to really do good science around the efficacy of these interventions as they scale up,” Bernstein says.

Dramatically reducing deforestation and the wildlife trade would have other valuable benefits, such as saving crucial carbon sinks like the tropical forests and protecting global biodiversity. These benefits are “a critical part of our argument,” Bernstein notes.

“I think many people would rightly be a bit skeptical of how effective the interventions we propose are going to be,” he acknowledges. “I think we are pretty clear that while we know preventing deforestation, addressing the wildlife trade and really doing better surveillance carry the potential to reduce risks of spillover, we can’t say with great certainty what the return on investment is, because we haven’t really done it at scale. And so we need to really understand that.”

“But at the same time,” he continues, “we have a bunch of reasons to be doing these things anyway. Preventing deforestation is the clearest example. We not only have the carbon value, there’s huge water value. Tropical forests are hugely important to local water resources. There’s Indigenous rights. But there are other things that protecting forests does: It prevents fires. And so you see the compounding value that occurs when you protect forests. And now we add another dimension, which is prevention of disease spread.”

Related: Decades of science denial related to climate change has led to denial of the coronavirus pandemic

What’s more, taking these actions would cost a fraction of what the nations of the world are currently spending to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, he points out. The COVID-19 pandemic has so far cost roughly $6 trillion in lost GDP and governments have spent huge sums of money to try and prop up their economies. And when you put a dollar value on all the lives that have been lost, the cost rises by several trillion dollars more, Bernstein notes.

Bernstein and his colleagues estimate that substantially increasing the budget for addressing the wildlife trade, putting in measures to reduce deforestation by half and improving surveillance would cost between $20 to $30 billion.

“Even if you spent that $20 to $30 billion every year for a decade, you’d still only be on the order of 1% to 2% of the costs of this one pandemic,” Bernstein says. “And it’s very easy to forget that there’s nothing written that this can’t happen again. And there’s also nothing written that this is the worst pathogen that might spill over into people.”

“So, it becomes clear that salvation comes cheaply,” he concludes.

This article is based on an interview by Bobby Bascomb that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

Harris veep pick welcomed by diasporas; Scottish passenger train derails; New Zealand reimposes lockdown measures

Harris veep pick welcomed by diasporas; Scottish passenger train derails; New Zealand reimposes lockdown measures

By
The World staff

United States Senator for California Kamala Harris attends the “Families Belong Together: Freedom for Immigrants” March in Los Angeles, June 30, 2018.

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Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

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Top of The World — our morning news round up written by editors at The World. Subscribe here.

Joe Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate for the 2020 presidential contest is drawing attention from a wide range of groups. Picking Harris, the 55-year-old daughter of a Jamaican American economist and an Indian American cancer researcher, has generated global excitement about the strength of diaspora populations and renewed optimism for the potential of an immigrant-friendly US.

In southern India, Harris received plaudits for being a proud representative of her mother’s native land and the first person of South Asian descent to be tapped as a vice presidential candidate. Though born in Oakland, California, and educated partially in Montreal, Québec, Harris says she connected profoundly with her Indian relatives during summer trips to Tamil Nadu.

The honorary consul general of Jamaica in Philadelphia, Christopher Chaplin, told the NANN Caribbean news outlet that he views Harris as a “shining example of what is possible in America.”

“The notion that if you get educated and if you work hard, that you will do well still holds true,” added Chaplin. “In these challenging times, with the twin specters of COVID-19 and racial injustice facing us, it is important to fight for justice and still believe. I salute her selection.”

Biden’s historic selection has also notably resonated with Black women, a key voting demographic that has often struggled to assert political might in the US.

What The World is following

A passenger train derailed during storms on Wednesday in the Aberdeenshire area of Scotland, causing serious injuries. Several dozen emergency vehicles rushed to the scene, in addition to air ambulance support. Video clips posted on social media depicted smoke coming from the train. Torrential downpours and thunderstorms resulted in major flooding and disruptions for travelers.

In New Zealand, government officials are looking into the possibility that freight could be the source of the first COVID-19 infections in over three months. The diagnosis of four cases in one Auckland family led Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to reimpose a strict lockdown in the country’s biggest city and renewed social distancing measures across the island nation.

From The WorldMauritius rushes to stave off oil spill

This photo provided by the French Defense Ministry shows oil leaking from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that recently ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius has declared a “state of environmental emergency” after the Japanese-owned ship that ran aground offshore days ago began spilling tons of fuel.

Credit:

Gwendoline Defente/EMAE via AP

The island of Mauritius boasts beautiful beaches, coral reefs, lagoons and clear waters. Now, oily black sludge mars the country’s southeastern coastline. It began on Thursday when oil started leaking from the Japanese-owned MV Wakashio ship, which ran aground on a southern coral reef on July 25.

“It is the biggest natural disaster to my knowledge that we are having in Mauritius,” said Jacqueline Sauzier, a microbiologist who heads the Mauritius Marine Conservation Society.

As Election Day nears, it’s not just about winning the ‘Latino vote.’ It’s about making a real connection.

People attend a bilingual health care town hall sponsored by local organizations that work in Latino voter outreach, disability advocacy and community health at the Ability360 Center in Phoenix, July 5, 2017. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake were invited but declined to attend. 

Credit:

Caitlin O’Hara/Reuters 

To be Latino during an election season can feel like landing on a movie set of a suspenseful, high-stakes drama. It’s a story of contradictions. You are a star of the show — Latinos are projected to become the largest, nonwhite racial or ethnic electorate in 2020 — but it is usually set to a predictable, one-note soundtrack: “immigration, immigration, immigration.” An audience of pundits dissects the “Latino vote,” while advocates recite well-rehearsed lines: “Latinos are not a monolith. Ignoring the Latino vote will cost candidates at the polls.”

Bright spot

Italians were ahead of their time with social distancing. Wine merchants in Tuscany built “wine windows” to protect people during the Black Death and the Italian Plague. And now amidst the coronavirus pandemic wine windows are making a comeback.

Would you like a wine window in your neighborhood? https://t.co/8fUrMcWcvh

— Lonely Planet (@lonelyplanet) August 7, 2020In case you missed itListen: Russia approves coronavirus vaccine before completing testing

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a cabinet meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. Putin says that a coronavirus vaccine developed in the country has been registered for use and one of his daughters has already been inoculated.

Credit:

Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russia has granted regulatory approval to a vaccine for the coronavirus without thoroughly testing it. And, two days after Belarusians went to the polls in a highly contested election, the main opposition candidate was forced to flee to Lithuania and protesters have taken to the streets. Also, an estimated 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in this year’s elections. But many may not feel like they belong in this political process.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The World’s Latest Edition podcast using your favorite podcast player: RadioPublicApple PodcastsStitcherSoundcloudRSS.

Belarus says police fired live rounds at protesters as EU weighs sanctions

Belarus says police fired live rounds at protesters as EU weighs sanctions

People talk to Belarusian law enforcement officers near the site where a protester died during a rally following the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, August 11, 2020.

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Belarus’ interior ministry said on Wednesday that police had fired live rounds at protesters in the city of Brest and arrested more than 1,000 people nationwide, intensifying a crackdown that has prompted the European Union to weigh new sanctions on Minsk.

Security forces have clashed with protesters for three consecutive nights after strongman President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide re-election victory in a vote on Sunday that his opponents say was rigged.

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets again on Wednesday. Women dressed in white formed a human chain outside a covered food market in the capital Minsk, while a crowd also gathered outside a prison where protesters were being kept.

Women take part in a demonstration against police violence during the recent rallies of opposition supporters following the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, August 12, 2020.

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Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

Lukashenko has sought better ties with the West amid strained relations with traditional ally Russia. Brussels lifted sanctions, imposed over Lukashenko’s human rights record, in 2016 but will consider new measures this week.

A former Soviet collective farm manager, the 65-year-old Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century but faces anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a sluggish economy and human rights.

“I have to come today to support those who go out at night,” said Elena, a protester speaking outside the covered market. “It’s not only my vote that was stolen from me, but 20 years of my life. The authorities must go.”

Clashes

The Belarusian interior ministry said 51 protesters and 14 police officers had been injured in clashes on Tuesday night.

In Brest, a city in southwestern Belarus on the Polish border, police fired live rounds after some protesters it said were armed with metal bars ignored warning shots fired in the air, the ministry said. One person was injured.

Lukashenko has accused the protesters of being in cahoots with foreign backers from Russia and elsewhere.

Belarusian state media this week broadcast footage of a van in Minsk with Russian number plates saying it was packed with ammunition and tents.

Tracked down by Reuters, Valdemar Grubov, the van’s owner, said he was a film producer and that the vehicle contained only his own personal effects.

He said he had been unable to retrieve the van due to COVID-19 restrictions and was not involved in any foreign plot.

Lukashenko’s rival in Sunday’s vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, has fled to neighboring Lithuania to join her children there. She urged her compatriots not to oppose the police and to avoid putting their lives in danger.

By Andrei Makhovsky/Reuters

Mauritius rushes to stave off oil spill

Mauritius rushes to stave off oil spill

“It is the biggest natural disaster to my knowledge that we are having in Mauritius,” said Jacqueline Sauzier, a microbiologist who heads Mauritius Marine Conservation Society. The oil spill poses a threat to nearby ecology and wildlife on wetlands and smaller islands.

By
Halima Gikandi

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This photo provided by the French Defense Ministry shows oil leaking from the MV Wakashio, a bulk carrier ship that recently ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius has declared a “state of environmental emergency” after the Japanese-owned ship that ran aground offshore days ago began spilling tons of fuel.

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The island of Mauritius boasts beautiful beaches, coral reefs, lagoons and clear waters. Now, oily black sludge mars the country’s southeast coastline.

It began on Thursday when oil began leaking from the Japanese-owned MW Wakashio ship, which ran aground on a southern coral reef on July 25.

Related: Mysterious oil spill fouls Brazil’s coastline

“It is the biggest natural disaster to my knowledge that we are having in Mauritius,” said Jacqueline Sauzier, a microbiologist who heads Mauritius Marine Conservation Society.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth tweeted a startling image of the leak: 

Le naufrage du #Wakashio représente un danger pour l’île Maurice. Notre pays n’a pas les compétences et l’expertise pour le renflouage des navires échoués, c’est ainsi que j’ai sollicité l’aide de la #France à @EmmanuelMacron. pic.twitter.com/30m2pQzEy4

— Pravind Jugnauth (@PKJugnauth) August 7, 2020

Reportedly 1,000 tons of oil has leaked into the water so far, endangering nearby protected mangroves and lagoons — home to rich and diverse species.

“The spill has gone into two directions. … Into the lagoon of the east coast and down to the coastal zones.”

Jacqueline Sauzier, microbiologist, Mauritius Marine Conservation Society

“The spill has gone into two directions,” said Sauzier. “Into the lagoon of the east coast and down to the coastal zones.”

But the spill has mobilized Mauritians across the island, and volunteers and organizations have been racing to contain the spill from spreading further.

Related: Court blocks oil drilling in Peruvian Amazon

Local textile companies have worked alongside the sugar cane industry to create long fabric booms filled with dry sugar cane waste and plastic bottles. They essentially work as a floating sponge to soak up the spilled oil.

The #oilspill is devastating but I want to honour the community mobilisation at the Mahebourg waterfront today (to make containment booms) and every other Mauritian mobilising resources behind the scenes. Hats off et Merci. #Mauritius #Wakashio pic.twitter.com/4nJfrVn1Zm

— Fabiola Monty (@LFabiolaMonty) August 7, 2020

“There is a big movement also since last Friday of Mauritians cutting their hair. So the hair is also a very large absorbent of oil,” said Sauzier, who says she and her daughter both cut their hair as well.

The hair then goes into nylon leggings, becoming small booms that can be reused.

Related: Leak of sulfuric acid Mexico’s Sea of Cortez arouses anger

As of Tuesday, the oil spill seems to have been contained — but the ship risks splitting in two, warned Prime Minister Jugnauth on Monday. Containment is only the beginning.

“We’ve got 48 to 72 hours. And if there’s no cleaning up done correctly, the mangroves may die,” warned Sauzier. 

Some marine life has already died from the oil spill, according to Reuters.

The oil spill also poses a threat to nearby ecology and wildlife on wetlands and smaller islands, says Kevin Ruhomaun, who directs the National Parks and Conservation Services in Mauritius.

“The fumes and the smell of hydrocarbon was quite bad a few days ago. … And also being fuel and oil, there was a risk of fire.”

Kevin Ruhomaun, director, National Parks and Conservation Services, Mauritius

“The fumes and the smell of hydrocarbon was quite bad a few days ago,” said Ruhomaun. So bad people were getting headaches.  “And also being fuel and oil, there was a risk of fire,” he continued.

As a precaution, his team, in partnership with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, has been removing some rare animals and plants from nearby Ile Aux Aigrettes, which lies in the vicinity of the oil spill.

That includes the Mauritius olive white-eye, a rare bird species inhabiting Ile Aux Aigrettes. 

Olive White-Eye bird of Mauritius. 

Credit:

Eliane Küpfer/Wikimedia 

“As a safety precaution about 20% of the population had been removed,” and brought to an aviary, said Ruhomaun. He says two species of rare reptile lizards could be next depending on what the spill looks like tomorrow.

The quick work by nongovernmental organizations, volunteers and smaller agencies has in some ways overshadowed the government, which has been criticized for its slow response to the oil spill.

“Once the boat was on the reefs they should have prepared for the worst-case scenario from day one,” argues Sauzier, noting that this was the fourth time a ship has come onto the country’s reefs in recent years.

“Why are these big boats getting so close to Mauritius?” asked Sauzier.

The Japanese company that owns the ship has apologized for the spill, and Japan has reportedly sent a team to assist in the relief efforts.

But the impact on the environment, as well as the local fisheries and tourism industry, could last for years to come.

Biden selects California Sen. Kamala Harris as running mate

Biden selects California Sen. Kamala Harris as running mate

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris listens to questions after the Democratic primary debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art in Miami, June 27, 2019.

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Joe Biden named Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate on Tuesday, embracing a former rival from the Democratic primary and making history by selecting the first Black woman to compete on a major party’s presidential ticket in his bid to defeat President Donald Trump.

Harris, a 55-year-old first-term senator, is also one of the party’s most prominent figures and quickly became a top contender for the No. 2 spot after her own White House campaign ended.

Harris joins Biden in the 2020 race at a moment of unprecedented national crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 150,000 people in the US, far more than the toll experienced in other countries. Business closures and disruptions resulting from the pandemic have caused an economic collapse. Unrest, meanwhile, has emerged across the country as Americans protest racism and police brutality.

Trump’s uneven handling of the crises has given Biden an opening, and he enters the fall campaign in strong position against the president. In adding Harris to the ticket, he can point to her relatively centrist record on issues such as health care and her background in law enforcement in the nation’s largest state.

Harris’ record as California attorney general and district attorney in San Francisco was heavily scrutinized during the Democratic primary and turned off some liberals and younger Black voters who saw her as out of step on issues of systemic racism in the legal system and police brutality. She tried to strike a balance on these issues, declaring herself a “progressive prosecutor” who backs law enforcement reforms.

Biden, who spent eight years as President Barack Obama’s vice president, has spent months weighing who would fill that same role in his White House. He pledged in March to select a woman as his vice president, easing frustration among Democrats that the presidential race would center on two white men in their 70s.

Biden’s search was expansive, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading progressive, Florida Rep. Val Demings, whose impeachment prosecution of Trump won plaudits, California Rep. Karen Bass, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose passionate response to unrest in her city garnered national attention.

A woman has never served as president or vice president in the United States. Two women have been nominated as running mates on major party tickets: Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican Sarah Palin in 2008. Their party lost in the general election.

The vice presidential pick carries increased significance this year. If elected, Biden would be 78 when he’s inaugurated in January, the oldest man to ever assume the presidency. He’s spoken of himself as a transitional figure and hasn’t fully committed to seeking a second term in 2024. If he declines to do so, his running mate would likely become a front-runner for the nomination that year.

Born in Oakland to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, Harris won her first election in 2003 when she became San Francisco’s district attorney. In the role, she created a reentry program for low-level drug offenders and cracked down on student truancy.

She was elected California’s attorney general in 2010, the first woman and Black person to hold the job, and focused on issues including the foreclosure crisis. She declined to defend the state’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage and was later overturned by the US Supreme Court.

As her national profile grew, Harris built a reputation around her work as a prosecutor. After being elected to the Senate in 2016, she quickly gained attention for her assertive questioning of Trump administration officials during congressional hearings. In one memorable moment last year, Harris tripped up Attorney General William Barr when she repeatedly pressed him on whether Trump or other White House officials pressured him to investigate certain people.

Harris launched her presidential campaign in early 2019 with the slogan “Kamala Harris For the People,” a reference to her courtroom work. She was one of the highest-profile contenders in a crowded Democratic primary and attracted 20,000 people to her first campaign rally in Oakland.

But the early promise of her campaign eventually faded. Her law enforcement background prompted skepticism from some progressives, and she struggled to land on a consistent message that resonated with voters. Facing fundraising problems, Harris abruptly withdrew from the race in December 2019, two months before the first votes of the primary were cast.

One of Harris’ standout moments of her presidential campaign came at the expense of Biden. During a debate, Harris said Biden made “very hurtful” comments about his past work with segregationist senators and slammed his opposition to busing as schools began to integrate in the 1970s.

“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” she said. “And that little girl was me.”

Shaken by the attack, Biden called her comments “a mischaracterization of my position.”

The exchange resurfaced recently one of Biden’s closest friends and a co-chair of his vice presidential vetting committee, former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, still harbors concerns about the debate and that Harris hadn’t expressed regret. The comments attributed to Dodd and first reported by Politico drew condemnation, especially from influential Democratic women who said Harris was being held to a standard that wouldn’t apply to a man running for president.

Some Biden confidants said Harris’ campaign attack did irritate the former vice president, who had a friendly relationship with her. Harris was also close with Biden’s late son, Beau, who served as Delaware attorney general while she held the same post in California.

But Biden and Harris have since returned to a warm relationship.

“Joe has empathy, he has a proven track record of leadership and more than ever before we need a president of the United States who understands who the people are, sees them where they are, and has a genuine desire to help and knows how to fight to get us where we need to be,” Harris said at an event for Biden earlier this summer.

At the same event, she bluntly attacked Trump, labeling him a “drug pusher” for his promotion of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the coronavirus, which has not been proved to be an effective treatment and may even be more harmful. After Trump tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to protests about the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in police custody, Harris said his remarks “yet again show what racism looks like.”

Harris has taken a tougher stand on policing since Floyd’s killing. She co-sponsored legislation in June that would ban police from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants, set a national use-of-force standard and create a national police misconduct registry, among other things. It would also reform the qualified immunity system that shields officers from liability.

The list included practices Harris did not vocally fight to reform while leading California’s Department of Justice. Although she required DOJ officers to wear body cameras, she did not support legislation mandating it statewide. And while she now wants independent investigations of police shootings, she didn’t support a 2015 California bill that would have required her office to take on such cases.

“We made progress, but clearly we are not at the place yet as a country where we need to be and California is no exception,” she told The Associated Press recently. But the national focus on racial injustice now shows “there’s no reason that we have to continue to wait.”

By Alexandra Jaffe, Kathleen Ronayne and Will Weissert/AP

As Election Day nears, it’s not just about winning the ‘Latino vote.’ It’s about making a real connection.

As Election Day nears, it's not just about winning the 'Latino vote.' It's about making a real connection.

A sense of belonging — meaning, how society perceives you — along with feeling respected and valued — can be powerful forces to mobilize or discourage voting.

By
Michelle Garcia

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People attend a bilingual health care town hall sponsored by local organizations that work in Latino voter outreach, disability advocacy and community health at the Ability360 Center in Phoenix, July 5, 2017. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake were invited but declined to attend. 

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Caitlin O’Hara/Reuters 

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Russian vaccine risks increasing severity, acquisition of COVID-19, says expert

Russian vaccine risks increasing severity, acquisition of COVID-19, says expert

The World Host Marco Werman spoke with Gary Kobinger, who directs the Infectious Disease Research Center at the University of Laval in Quebec City and has worked on a coronavirus vaccine.

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The World staff

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Joyce Hackel

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In this handout photo taken on Aug. 6, 2020, an employee works with a coronavirus vaccine at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia.

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Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/Russian Direct Investment Fund/AP

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Russia is now the first country in the world to grant approval for a vaccine against COVID-19.

There is a big catch, though. Russia’s vaccine has not passed the crucial Phase 3 testing stage. That’s when thousands of volunteers are inoculated.

Related: Moderna, NIH coronavirus vaccine study underway

So, many scientists wonder whether this one is safe and effective. Still, President Vladimir Putin is calling the vaccine “Sputnik V” — a reference to Russia’s surprise launch of the world’s first satellite in 1957.

Related: UK coronavirus vaccine prompts immune response in early test

For more on the controversy behind this vaccine, The World Host Marco Werman spoke with Gary Kobinger. He directs the Infectious Disease Research Center at the University of Laval in Quebec City and has worked on a coronavirus vaccine there.

Marco Werman: Russia has this agreement to produce 500 million doses of this new vaccine and says it has requests for a billion doses from 20 countries. Is this good news?

Gary Kobinger: It would be good news if we would have a bit more data on their safety and efficacy of that vaccine. And it depends how they roll it out. But if they roll it out at the population level with hundreds of thousands of people vaccinated per week, which they could do, I would not want to be the person signing off on this and being responsible for this, honestly. Because I think it may all go well and I wish them the best, trust me. But I would be very nervous about seeing severe side effects, seeing increasing severity of disease and acquisition, increased acquisition. I would not be comfortable. And it’s it’s a huge risk.

So, Russia’s skipping this Phase 3 — large-scale safety trials. Those take months. Why is skipping that phase — even in the midst of a global emergency — such a serious omission in the scientific process?

It’s a tough decision. I could see this being a bit more debated then, and more likely to happen if we would have a pathogen that would have a case fatality rate — so killing 50% of the people, for example — which is not the case right now. It’s still not Ebola. It’s still not a very highly pathogenic virus.

Even some Russian scientists have warned of the dangers of the Sputnik V, suggesting even that the wrong vaccine could increase the severity of COVID-19. Do you also have those concerns?

It definitely is a possibility. And when you get the population level, it means also that you will vaccinate people that have all sorts of genetic background, potentially, whose morbidity factors that are unknown, maybe of a medical condition that are still unknown. And these can interact with [any] vaccine in a way that it could make acquisition and severity of the disease more aggressive and it could increase the side effect. This is why Phase 3 [trials] are so important. Everything before, Phase 1 and Phase 2, you select the people. You look to make sure they don’t have co-morbidity factors. So this is why doing this right now with a pathogen like SARS-CoV-2 is a high risk. And when you are developing a vaccine and you’re putting vaccine out, you have a responsibility to the rest of the world because again, if you have a vaccine that brings severe side effect, if you have a vaccine that increases acquisition, increases disease severity, you undermine everybody else that may have a better candidate as well. You know, people are afraid of [a] vaccine, almost naturally. And it will be, I think, a shockwave not only to the COVID vaccination but to every vaccine-preventable disease, which is, you know, millions of people a year that are saved because of vaccination.

Hong Kong newspaper raided, tycoon detained under new law

Hong Kong newspaper raided, tycoon detained under new law

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, center, who founded local newspaper Apple Daily, is arrested by police officers at his home in Hong Kong, Aug. 10, 2020.

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AP

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Hong Kong authorities arrested media tycoon Jimmy Lai on Monday in a move seen as broadening their enforcement of a new national security law.

The authories also searched the headquarters of Lai’s Next Digital group and carted away boxes of what they said was evidence.

Additionally, in the evening, police arrested prominent pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow Ting at her home, according to a tweet by fellow activist Nathan Law, who is currently in Britain. A post on Chow’s official Facebook page said police had arrived at her home and that her lawyers were rushing to the scene.

Two days after Chinese and Hong Kong officials shrugged off sanctions imposed on them by the US, the moves showed China’s determination to enforce the new law and curb dissent in the semi-autonomous city after months of massive pro-democracy demonstrations last year.

Lai’s arrest and the search of his Next Digital group marked the first time the law was used against news media, stoking fears that authorities are suppressing press freedom. Next Digital operates Apple Daily, a feisty pro-democracy tabloid that often condemns China’s Communist Party-led government.

Apple Daily’s popularity stems from its celebrity news and flamboyant stories, but it is also known for investigative reporting and breaking news coverage. It has frequently urged readers to take part in pro-democracy protests.

On July 1 it condemned the new national security law on its front page, calling it “the final nail in the coffin” for the “one country, two systems” framework under which the former British colony has been able to enjoy civil liberties not seen in mainland China after it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

The arrests of Lai and Chow came as Beijing announced sanctions on 11 Americans, including six members of Congress, in an escalating battle between the two nations over technology, security, trade and human rights. And in Chinese-claimed Taiwan, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became the highest-ranking American official to visit since 1979, further straining US-China relations.

Hong Kong police arrested Lai on Monday morning, an aide to the businessman said, in the highest-profile detention under the new law since it took effect on June 30. Lai, 71, is an outspoken pro-democracy figure who regularly criticizes China’s authoritarian rule and Hong Kong’s government.

Mark Simon, a Next Digital executive and Lai’s aide, said Lai was charged with collusion with foreign powers. He said police searched the homes of Lai and his son and detained several other members of the media company.

Hong Kong police said they arrested at least nine people between the ages of 23 and 72 on suspicion of violating the new security law, with offenses including collusion with a foreign country and conspiracy to defraud. They did not release the names of those arrested or provide further details of the charges.

Following Lai’s arrest, about 200 police raided Next Digital’s headquarters, cordoning off the area, searching desks and at times getting into heated exchanges with staff. What police were looking for in the building wasn’t clear, although they later said they took away 25 boxes of evidence for processing.

Lai, who was arrested at his mansion in Kowloon in the morning, was also brought to the headquarters of Next Digital, where he remained for about two and a half hours before police took him away in a car.

“We are completely shocked by what’s happening now, with the arrest and followed by the ongoing raid inside the headquarters of Next Digital,” said Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

“With the passage of the national security law and the really tough powers given to the police in their operations, we have seen now what we call ‘white terror’ become a reality, which will affect media organizations and journalists’ reporting.”

Police unblocked Next Digital’s headquarters at mid-afternoon, with senior superintendent of police Steve Li saying that staff were free to resume their work.

Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer in Hong Kong Baptist University’s journalism department, said authorities are using the national security law to make an example of media outlets like Apple Daily and this may harm press freedom in Hong Kong.

“They’re used as an example to terrify others … of what can happen if you don’t obey or if you go too far,” Lui said. “I think other media may make a judgment to censor themselves.”

The share price of Next Digital soared over 200% in the afternoon, following posts on a popular online forum encouraging investors to support the company by buying its stock.

The reason for the charge against Lai wasn’t clear.

In May, shortly after Beijing announced its intention to pass the national security law for Hong Kong, Lai condemned the legislation in a series of tweets. The state-owned newspaper Global Times called the tweets “evidence of subversion.”

Lai also wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in May stating that China was repressing Hong Kong with the legislation.

“I have always thought I might one day be sent to jail for my publications or for my calls for democracy in Hong Kong,” Lai wrote. “But for a few tweets, and because they are said to threaten the national security of mighty China? That’s a new one, even for me.”

Lai was earlier arrested in February and April for allegedly participating in unauthorized protests last year. He also faces charges of joining an unauthorized vigil on June 4 marking the anniversary of Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Last year, Lai met US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the White House to discuss a controversial bill — since withdrawn — that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial.

But Hong Kong officials have said the security law, which took effect June 30, would not be applied retroactively. The law is widely seen as a means to curb dissent after anti-government protests rocked the semi-autonomous city for months last year.

The legislation outlaws secessionist, subversive and terrorist acts, as well as collusion with foreign forces in the city’s internal affairs. The maximum punishment for serious offenders is life imprisonment.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council condemned the arrests in a statement, saying they were a tool for the Chinese Communist Party’s “political cleansing and hegemonic expansion.” It said the law is being abused to suppress freedom of speech, press freedom and the civil rights of Hong Kong people.

Last month, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said pro-democracy activist Nathan Law and five others were wanted under the law, although all six had fled overseas. Law relocated to Britain in July to continue international advocacy work for Hong Kong.

By Zen Soo/AP

Thailand set to legalize LGBTQ unions, a rare step in Asia

Thailand set to legalize LGBTQ unions, a rare step in Asia

It will be the first Southeast Asian nation to do so — just as Thailand was the first major nation in the world to let women vote.

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Patrick Winn

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Thai police officers stand among demonstrators during a protest demanding the resignation of Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, in Bangkok, July 25, 2020.

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LGBTQ marriages are now accepted across Europe, North America and many parts of South America. But this revolution has yet to sweep into Asia.

Thailand is set to shake up this status quo, advancing a law that will allow “civil partnership” between LGBTQ couples. It will be the first Southeast Asian nation to do so — just as Thailand was the first major nation in the world to let women vote.

Related: In Thailand, posting a selfie with a beer is a potential crime

So, time to pop the champagne, right? Not so fast.

“It’s better than nothing,” said Pauline Ngarmpring, a former candidate for Thailand’s prime minister seat.

Better than nothing?

“Yeah, we have to think like that to be happy,” she said. “You get something, you should be happy with it.”

Pauline Ngarmpring, Thailand’s first transgender candidate for prime minister, hands a name card to a vendor as she campaigns in the market in Khlong Toey, Bangkok, Feb. 27, 2019.

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Rina Chandran/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Pauline is one of the most high-profile transgender political voices in Thailand. She and several LGBTQ groups have muted enthusiasm for the coming law, which is still waiting to be finalized in the parliament.

They are pleased that it offers most of the same rights as marriage: the power to adopt, share finances, visit sick spouses in the hospital and pass along wealth via inheritance.

Related: Thailand’s beauty craze: ‘Milking’ snails to make facial creams

But if the government really wants to make history, Pauline says, it shouldn’t be so timid. Offer full-on marriage to LGBTQ couples, she says, instead of creating a new category — “civil partnership” — that may forever lock their partnerships into second-class status.

“It’s not quite equality. Conceptually, it’s still not treating us the same as other people.”

Pauline Ngarmpring, former candidate for Thailand’s prime minister seat

“It’s not quite equality,” she said. “Conceptually, it’s still not treating us the same as other people.”

Thailand has a fairly strong reputation as a haven for LGBTQ acceptance. Gay tourists often perceive it as a sort of “paradise,” Pauline says, but many fail to understand that Thais are still seeking full equality.

Gay and transgender celebrities are celebrated, sure, but everyday LGBTQ folks still struggle to ascend in traditional fields, such as banking or bureaucracy.

“When I came out to society, people said, ‘It’s OK as long as you are a good person,’” Pauline said.

Related: Coronavirus fears spread in Thailand, a Chinese tourism magnet

There are always extra expectations, she says — like being exceptionally pretty or funny or nice — that aren’t heaved upon the shoulders of cisgender people. In the same vein, she says, this pending law will cause many LGBTQ Thais to wonder: Why aren’t we good enough for full-on marriage?

When it comes to LGBTQ rights, Thailand is already a brighter spot in the region. In Indonesia, the leading psychiatric board lists homosexuality as a mental disorder. In the wealthy city-state of Singapore — despite all its modernity — gay sex is still criminalized. Brunei technically allows stoning as a punishment for same-sex couplings.

And then there is Thailand, where employers are forbidden from discriminating against LGBTQ employees — and Pauline was perfectly free to run for the premier’s seat last year. She didn’t win but four other transgender politicians did gain seats in the parliament.

The new push to legalize LGBTQ unions wasn’t the result of intense activist pressure. It was actually put out by a cabinet that is fairly right-wing: loyal to the army, devout monarchists, and generally conservative.

“Conservative people are sometimes not conservative in everything.” 

Pauline Ngarmpring, former candidate for Thailand’s prime minister seat

“Conservative people are sometimes not conservative in everything,” Pauline said.

Related: They were CIA-backed Chinese rebels. Now you’re invited to their once-secret hideaway.

Unlike the United States, Thailand’s right-wingers have never prioritized fighting LGBTQ rights. Nor is there a culture war in which transgender issues are scrutinized to fire up their base.

Pauline thinks the conservative bloc approved the civil union law out of pure political expediency, hoping it would win votes in future elections. Simple as that.

There is a slim chance the law won’t pass — it still needs to be ratified in the parliament — but LGBTQ groups don’t expect much resistance moving forward. Before it passes, there is still time, they say, to take a bolder path and offer equal marriage rights to all.

Who is responsible for migrant youth in France? 

Who is responsible for migrant youth in France? 

A group of five nongovernmental organizations are pressuring the French government to build a special housing facility exclusively for migrant youth as they await legal decisions on their status in the country.

By
Rebecca Rosman

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Gandega Bakary, 16, who is originally from Mali, has been living on the street in France, even amid the coronavirus lockdown.

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Rebecca Rosman/The World 

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For the first time in nearly a year, Gandega Bakary has a roof over his head.

Paris police placed him and some 100 other boys in temporary housing at a nearby gymnasium earlier this month after dismantling the camp where they were living just steps away from the Place de la République.

But the 16-year-old still worries constantly about his future. When he talks to his mom, he lies and says he’s living with a family.

Related: France still behind on anti-racist, anti-colonial progress

“Every time I call her, she asks how I’m doing and I say I’m fine. But I can’t tell her the truth.”

Gandega Bakary, migrant youth in France

“Every time I call her, she asks how I’m doing and I say I’m fine,” Bakary said. “But I can’t tell her the truth.”

The truth is that he has spent months living on the streets — even during the March lockdown due to the coronavirus.

Although the gymnasium is a start for the boys, the government is still far from finding a permanent solution for housing migrant youth. A group of five nongovernmental organizations are pressuring the government to build a special housing facility exclusively for minors as they await legal decisions on their status in the country.

In early July, the NGOs set up the camp for the unaccompanied minors. The groups’ goal was to pressure the French government to provide permanent housing for the boys, most of whom are undocumented migrants from West Africa. They all claim to be under the age of 18.

Related: In France, Black Lives Matter echoes in the case of Adama Traoré

According to Doctors Without Borders, one of the NGOs involved in the campaign, there are an estimated 20,000 unaccompanied minors living on the streets in France.

In early July, five nongovernmental organizations worked together to set up a camp for 100 migrant boys. They are pressuring the French government to establish permanent housing for the unaccompanied youth.

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Rebecca Rosman/The World 

“They float around invisibly. It’s why we decided to put them in the tents — to be visible.”

Corinne Torre, head of the Paris chapter of Doctors Without Borders

“They float around invisibly,” said Corinne Torre, the head of the Paris chapter of DWB. “It’s why we decided to put them in the tents — to be visible.”

Bakary, who is originally from Mali, says what he really wants is to be allowed to go to school. But until the state agrees that he’s under the age of 18, he’ll have to keep living in this sort of limbo.

He has to prove he’s a minor — which means the state has responsibility for schooling, housing and other types of aid — but the French government often has difficulty verifying documents from abroad.

And there’s another wrinkle: If the youth turn 18 during their waiting time, they are then treated as adults, making it far easier for them to be deported.

“Clearly, [France,] the ‘country of the human rights,’ [is] not respecting this [reputation],” Torre said.

Related: For many French towns, recruiting a mayor is a ‘desperate’ situation

All the boys placed in the gymnasium have had their initial requests to be treated as minors rejected by the state.

Torre says many of these judgments are based entirely on a 30-minute interview. So, the boys are appealing their cases.

“They are waiting for a judgment to confirm if they are minors or not, so during that time they should be protected, which is not the case,” Torre said.

Instead, the government has put the responsibility for the migrant youth — including housing, feeding and schooling — on the NGOs, who say don’t have the means to provide the necessary care.

Catherine Delanoë-Daoud is a lawyer specializing in children’s rights. She believes the majority of the appeals will be successful.

“In the end, more than half of the children who have gone through this process in front of the judge for children will be recognized as underage.” 

Catherine Delanoë-Daoud, children’s rights lawyer

“In the end, more than half of the children who have gone through this process in front of the judge for children will be recognized as underage,” Delanoe-Daoud said. Last year, 57% of appeals were overturned.

But in the interim, by international law, France has an obligation to protect the migrants. Just like the presumption of innocence, she says, they have a right to be presumed as children.

The temporary camp for 100 migrants in Paris was set up by five nongovernmental organizations who are trying to help the boys find permanent housing. Here, breakfast was being served to the boys.

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Rebecca Rosman/The World 

“That is where, for the time being, France does not comply with its obligations and international standards and the international conventions it has signed,” Delanoë-Daoud said, referring mainly to the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been signed by 140 countries.

Related: Educators in France advocate for better Holocaust curriculum

The French government didn’t respond to requests for an interview for this story.

At a recent demonstration in front of the Palais Royal near the Louvre in Paris, several hundred activists gathered to call for a solution for the 100 migrant youth.

Bakary came with friends. They danced in the heat, held up signs and sang along to a favorite protest song by a famous Côte d’Ivoire singer.

But he still worries about what to say to his mom.

The next time she calls, he plans to tell her he’s safe. This time, he hopes it will be the truth.

How Trump is weakening the National Environmental Policy Act

How Trump is weakening the National Environmental Policy Act

A bedrock conservation law, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, is the latest environmental regulation rolled back by the Trump administration.

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Adam Wernick

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People protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline across from San Francisco City Hall. The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) was one of the laws protesters invoked to stop the pipeline’s construction.

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In another attempt to undo decades of environmental regulations, the Trump administration recently released a revised regulatory interpretation of NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, that will weaken it significantly.

For the past 50 years, NEPA has underpinned virtually all federal environmental law in the United States. It requires that the federal government study the potential consequences of major infrastructure projects such as pipelines, dams and highways.

The government must evaluate how these projects might impact the environment, human health, cultural resources and endangered species, among other things, and to consider less harmful alternatives.

The Trump administration’s new interpretation of NEPA narrows the types of impacts studied, sets a higher bar for public comments and exempts some projects from review entirely.

The Trump administration’s new interpretation of NEPA narrows the types of impacts studied, sets a higher bar for public comments, and exempts some projects from review entirely. It also essentially removes the requirement for analysis of cumulative or indirect impacts on the environment, such as climate change.

RelatedTrump’s wall will harm wildlife along the US southern border, say environmental experts

The administration claims the weaker rule will slash costs, reduce delays and eliminate red tape for major infrastructure projects.

“We hear the red tape argument all the time,” says Vermont Law School professor Pat Parenteau. “The truth is, some of the studies that have been done suggest the real reason for delays is agencies trying to cut corners and not actually follow the law, or applicants for permits not actually doing the good work they need to do to evaluate the impacts and come up with alternatives.”

“You can’t blame the law when people try to cheat and…find loopholes,” Parenteau adds. “I can point to a number of court decisions where the judges have said to the agency, ’All you needed to do was simply follow the law.’”

NEPA made it national policy “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony.”

NEPA was passed in 1969 and is sometimes called “the Magna Carta of environmental law,” Parenteau says, because it’s so sweeping in scope. The law made it national policy “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations,” according to an EPA website.

“It has a lot of focus the long-term effects of the actions that we’re taking now,” Parenteau says. “Effects on future generations were called out specifically in the law: historic sites, archaeological sites, Indian religious sites, aesthetics, scenic beauty, the quality of life in inner cities and neighborhoods, green spaces.”

RelatedTrump’s plan for the EPA is death by ‘a thousand cuts’

For this reason, Parenteau says the Trump administration’s attempt to eliminate the cumulative effects requirement will run into legal problems, especially as it relates to climate change.

“We now have a large number of judicial decisions saying climate change must be taken into account,” he says. “And many of those decisions have overturned attempts by the Trump administration not to consider climate change in oil and gas leasing, coal leasing, gas pipelines and so forth. The courts have uniformly said, ‘Of course you have to take climate change into account when you’re writing your environmental impact statement.’”

The final rule says it’s up to the individual agencies to decide whether to do so or not, “which means we’re going to have more litigation over that very question,” Parenteau says.

RelatedAppeals court blocks Trump’s attempt to roll back methane rules

NEPA has also empowered local communities “to participate in decisions affecting their health and their community well-being,” Parenteau says. It was one of the primary tools used by groups that opposed the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, he notes.

On a larger scale, NEPA played a role in getting some of the nation’s “mission-oriented” agencies, like the Forest Service, “to stop thinking that all that forests are a basket of wood for wood products, timber, and so forth, and look at them as ecosystems,” Parenteau adds. “So NEPA is a legal tool, it’s a policy tool, and it’s a community action tool.”

Parenteau believes this last-minute push to get new environmental rules approved, published and in effect is “clearly tailored to the election cycle.”

“Whether or not these rules will survive, of course, is a big question,” he says. “I think [this] rule has a lot of legal vulnerabilities. So it could be that the courts will step in, as they have so many times, to block what the Trump administration’s rollbacks are seeking to do. And then of course, after the election, depending on how that goes, we could see other political responses to the rule as well.”

This article is based on an interview by Bobby Bascomb that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

‘Our house is your house’: Locals open their homes after Beirut blast

‘Our house is your house’: Locals open their homes after Beirut blast

The massive blast that rocked Beirut in Lebanon on Tuesday left at least 300,000 people without homes. But shortly after the blast, residents started a campaign to offer their homes to those in need.

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Shirin Jaafari

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A woman stands inside a damaged restaurant a day after an explosion hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Residents of Beirut, — stunned, sleepless and stoic — emerged Wednesday from the aftermath of a catastrophic explosion searching for missing relatives, bandaging their wounds and retrieving what’s left of their homes. 

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A day after the massive explosion in Beirut Tuesday, residents were surveying the damage to their homes.

One video shared online showed 78-year-old Beirut resident May Melki playing the piano in what appears to be her destroyed living room. Her entire home is damaged: furniture in disarray, shattered glass everywhere, curtains ripped apart.

Images and videos out of Beirut show that buildings closest to the port, the center of the explosion, were completely leveled. Many buildings further away from the blast that remained standing were damaged and simply not safe to live in.

The governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, said up to 300,000 people lost their homes. He said the government is working to find them shelter.

Related: Mourning and anger amid devastation after Beirut explosion

But in the meantime, a grassroots campaign has taken shape. People in Lebanon are offering up their homes to strangers in need.

my house is open, we have an extra room for anyone who needs a place to stay!

— n🐰 (@auntie_noga) August 4, 2020

Some are using the hashtag #بيوتنا_مفتوحة, which means “our homes are open.” 

One group that used to map all the recent protests in Lebanon switched its work to focus on all the available shelters.

If anyone needs or can offer shelter, please post it below. We are building a map with all shelters.https://t.co/nR5i6vaBDr#ourhomesareopen #بيوتنا_مفتوحة

— thawramap (@thawramap) August 4, 2020

“I decided to take a personal initiative and offer my second house in the mountains far away from Beirut for people who got affected by this explosion [on Tuesday].”

Ihab Kraidly, Beirut resident

“I decided to take a personal initiative and offer my second house in the mountains far away from Beirut for people who got affected by this explosion [on Tuesday],” 29-year-old Ihab Kraidly told The World over a WhatsApp call.

Kraidly said his house in the countryside had been sitting empty for the past four months and so after the blast, he decided to offer it to those in need. A couple responded to his message online, he said.

“They told me that the damage [to their home] was horrible and it was not a place to stay even for one night.”

Related: Lebanon protests called out corruption. Now it’s about survival. 

Kraidly added that the idea of opening up one’s home to strangers in need is nothing new in Lebanon. In fact, his family stayed with others back in 2006, during the war with Israel, because Beirut wasn’t safe, he said.

“They invited us over and when we decided to leave because the war nearly ended. They said, ‘Stay for another two or three weeks.’ People here are unified, you know?”

“My offer was for all the people who are old, poor, they are welcome to the hotel on a full board basis. … You need to support people without thinking of money.” 

Wajih Chbat, owner, The Chbat Hotel

For Wajih Chbat, owner of The Chbat Hotel, providing shelter was a no-brainer. Chbat offered up six rooms in his hotel, which is located about an hour and a half outside Beirut.

“My offer was for all the people who are old, poor, they are welcome to the hotel on a full board basis,” he said, meaning that they got a place to stay and free food.

“You need to support people without thinking of money,” he said.

Soon after Chbat sent out his message, people started showing up in taxis. Some of them were injured, he said, and they came directly from the hospital.

Chbat’s business has been struggling ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit, he explained. He used to get a lot of tourists, but all that dried up. As the news of the Beirut blast spread across the globe, he said, he received phone calls from donors in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Australia who wanted to send money.

“But I did not accept [the donations] because I still have money to spend. Let them send it to people who don’t have money. When I need money, I’ll see what I will do,” Chbat said.

Related: Lebanon probes blast amid rising anger, calls for change

Christina Malkoun, a 24-year-old engineering student, said she sent out messages about two rooms that she has available 15 minutes outside the city. She heard from two women, one who has two small children and another who has no relatives in Lebanon. They ended up staying in other places closer to where they were, Malkoun said, but she is keeping the post up on social media in case there are others who need it.

“I’m trying to help with whatever I can. That’s all I can offer for now,” she said.

Since the blast, it seems everyone is trying to step up and help out any way they can, said Cynthia Saab, an interior consultant for a furniture and fabrics company in Lebanon called Skaff. Her company is offering to donate free fabric to cover up the windows that were broken in the blast.

“We are hearing from many people who really need help. … The glass in Beirut is all shattered and for people to contact a glass company, this is going to take a while, especially with this overload.”

Cynthia Saab, interior consutant, Skaff fabrics, Beirut

“We are hearing from many people who really need help,” she said. “The glass in Beirut is all shattered, and for people to contact a glass company, this is going to take a while, especially with this overload.”

Saab went through the inventory to see how much fabric they have available and told The World that the company will send out a team to measure the windows sizes and to install the fabrics.

Rebuilding Beirut will be long and painful, Malkoun said. At the moment, people are taking matters into their own hands, she added.

For example, volunteers are helping with search and rescue of victims from under the rubble. They are collecting food and clothes donations to distribute in Beirut.

“The contributions [volunteers are] making right now are much better than the contributions any political leader has made throughout the last decade. … It’s really heartwarming to see the people come together right now.”

Christina Malkoun, engineering student, Beirut

“The contributions they’re making right now are much better than the contributions any political leader has made throughout the last decade,” Malkoun said. “It’s really heartwarming to see the people come together right now.”

COVID-19’s cost to working mothers

COVID-19’s cost to working mothers

How can women juggle working and parenting during a pandemic?

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Teresa Lawlor

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Four-year-old twin siblings, Emma, front, and Etienne enjoy cookies baked by their mother, Patricia Gambis, as they relax in her shop in their home in Maplewood, New Jersey.

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In early July, Deb Perelman, the food blogger behind Smitten Kitchen and a mom of two kids, penned an op-ed for The New York Times with a provocative title about life during COVID-19: “You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.” Perelman described the struggle of caring for children while still trying to keep up with her work, a problem ultimately “solved” when her husband was furloughed and then laid off from his job. But research shows that in the majority of American households, women have shouldered more child care during the pandemic. And for working mothers, that has meant some hard choices.

According to research from Syracuse University, more than 80% of adults in the country who were not working because they were caring for children — who would be in school or daycare if not for COVID-19 — were women. A paper published in the academic journal Gender, Work & Organization found that mothers of young children reduced their working hours four to five times more than fathers, widening the gender gap in hours from 20% to 50%. 

Just a few months ago, women in the workforce had reached a historic milestone: excluding farm labor and self-employment, the number of women on payrolls in the United States exceeded the number of men. But now, that progress has been put on hold and is in jeopardy, according to Betsey Stevenson, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan. 

“There is a rot that’s at the core of women’s employment right now, and that’s child care and elder care, and how women are going to maintain their place in the labor force when we’re really having a crisis of care in the country,” Stevenson said.

Related: Israel’s hurried school reopenings serve as a cautionary tale

COVID-19 has upended the “patchwork” system of care in the US — from formal programs such as schools, day cares, and summer camps, to informal solutions such as relying on relatives and friends to help out. The virus’ prevalence and way of spreading largely renders those resources unsafe.

Parents and caregivers are now taking care of and entertaining their kids 24/7 — on top of working or searching for a job. These conflicting demands require all parents to make difficult choices, but it is mothers who are most frequently making career sacrifices for their children.

‘Untenable’ arrangements

Although younger men today are much more likely to profess their belief in gender equality, they are not significantly more likely to divide most household tasks equitably, from child care to grocery shopping.

Some might argue that social distancing and isolation would act as an equalizer for couples; if both parents are now home all the time, perhaps the partner who generally does less housework would start to absorb the burdens of running a household and finally do their share. 

However, according to Stevenson, who served as the chief economist at the US Department of Labor under former President Barack Obama, that is not always how it works out. Women often find it untenable to put off child care or housework.

If the guy is driving toward the cliff of not feeding the children, and the woman is driving toward the cliff of not feeding the children, she pulls off first and she feeds the children … and the problem is that if he knows that she’s going to pull off first, then he wins the game of chicken.

Betsey Stevenson, University of Michigan professor

“If the guy is driving toward the cliff of not feeding the children, and the woman is driving toward the cliff of not feeding the children, she pulls off first and she feeds the children,” she explains. “And the problem is that if he knows that she’s going to pull off first, then he wins the game of chicken.” 

Instead, the oversized demands on women lead to an impossible juggling act, which often forces them to cut back on their careers. The fact that women already tended to choose more flexible jobs before the pandemic facilitates this adjustment. And cutting back during the pandemic or leaving the workforce altogether can have negative consequences for gender equality in the future.

‘Child care is just essential’

This spring, employment rates for women fell to around where they were in the 1980s. Although they have been rising as the economy reopens, Stevenson doesn’t expect an immediate rebound and warns that the impact of this setback will be far-reaching.

Taking time off from work now puts future promotions and jobs in jeopardy. “[Fewer hours] will then reduce [women’s] earnings as a share of the household income, which will make them a less important labor market player in their household,” Stevenson explains. 

According to Stevenson, one of the main drivers for greater household equality in the past has been increasingly comparable incomes between men and women. If men make much more money, it makes more sense to prioritize their jobs over their spouses’ when it comes to figuring out child care and housework.

Related: Why do so few women work (for pay) in Jordan?

However, Stevenson suggests that the spotlight placed on childcare by the pandemic has the potential to lead to lasting change. “We’ve revealed that child care is just essential for just a giant share of the workforce, and to just ignore it and keep pretending it’s just a personal problem is a mistake in thinking about the macro economy.” 

This summer marks 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote in the US. There’s still a long way to go to achieve equality though, and Stevenson urges Americans to use this opportunity to reimagine the post-COVID-19 balance between work and care.

“What does a world look like where we make space for people to do the caregiving they need to do and move seamlessly back into their career?” Stevenson asked. “If you don’t lean in the whole time, you don’t make it to the top. But leaning in is really, really hard if you want to take time to really engage with your children. And that’s true for men and for women, and so we just need a very different conversation about, what does life look like when you make space for both?”

Teresa Lawlor is an intern at Innovation Hub. You can follow her on Twitter: @tmlawlor

Lebanon probes blast amid rising anger, calls for change

Lebanon probes blast amid rising anger, calls for change

Lebanese army soldiers stand guard in front of destroyed ships at the scene where an explosion hit on Tuesday the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 6, 2020. Lebanese army bulldozers plowed through wreckage to reopen roads around Beirut’s demolished port on Thursday as the government pledged to investigate the devastating explosion and placed port officials under house arrest.

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French President Emmanuel Macron, visiting Beirut following a massive explosion in the city’s port on Thursday, warned that without serious reforms the country would “continue to sink.” Macron’s comments come as Lebanese officials sought to shift blame for the presence of explosives at the city’s port,

The blast Tuesday, which appeared to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate at the city’s port, rippled across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, injuring more than 5,000 and causing widespread destruction.

It also may have accelerated the country’s coronavirus outbreak, as thousands flooded into hospitals in the wake of the blast. Tens of thousands have been forced to move in with relatives and friends after their homes were damaged, further raising the risks of exposure.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Thursday amid widespread pledges of international aid. But Lebanon, which was already mired in a severe economic crisis, faces a daunting challenge in rebuilding. It’s unclear how much support the international community will offer the notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional government.

Macron, who viewed the devastated port and was to meet with senior Lebanese officials, said the visit is “an opportunity to have a frank and challenging dialogue with the Lebanese political powers and institutions.”

He said France will work to coordinate aid but warned that “if reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to sink.”

Later, as he toured one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, an angry crowd vented its fury at Lebanon’s political leaders, chanting “Revolution” and “The people want to bring down the regime,” slogans used during mass protests last year.

Macron said he was not there to endorse the “regime” and vowed that French aid would not fall into the “hands of corruption.”

Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath on Wednesday, adding that nearly 300,000 people are homeless.

The head of Lebanon’s customs department meanwhile confirmed in an interview with LBC TV late Wednesday that officials had sent five or six letters over the years to the judiciary asking that the ammonium nitrate be removed because of the dangers it posed.

But Badri Daher said all he could do was alert authorities to the presence of dangerous materials, saying even that was “extra work” for him and his predecessor. He said the port authority was responsible for the material, while his job was to prevent smuggling and collect duties.

The judiciary and the port authority could not immediately be reached for comment. The government said Wednesday that an investigation was underway and that port officials have been placed under house arrest.

The investigation into the explosion is focused on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the port facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

The cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship years earlier. Based on the timeline and the size of the cargo, that ship could be the MV Rhosus. The ship was initially seized in Beirut in 2013 when it entered the port due to technical problems, according to lawyers involved in the case. It came from the nation of Georgia, and had been bound for Mozambique.

The stockpile is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby in what appeared to be a warehouse holding fireworks. Daher, the customs official, said he did not know if there were fireworks near the site.

Another theory is that the fire began when welders were trying to repair a broken gate and a hole in the wall of Hangar 12, where the explosive material was stored. Local news reports say the repair work was ordered by security forces who investigated the facility and were concerned about theft.

Security officials have declined to comment while the investigation is underway. Port officials have rejected the theory in interviews with local media, saying the welders completed their work long before the fire broke out.

Anger is mounting against the various political factions, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group, that have ruled the country since the 1975-1990 civil war. The country’s long-serving politicians are widely seen as being hopelessly corrupt and incapable of providing even basic services like electricity and trash collection.

The tiny Mediterranean country was already on the brink of collapse, with soaring unemployment and a financial crisis that has wiped out people’s life savings. Hospitals were already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, and one was so badly damaged by the blast it had to treat patients in a nearby field.

Dr. Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the public hospital leading the coronavirus fight, said he expects an increase in cases in the next 10 to 15 days linked to crowding at hospitals and blood donation centers after the blast.

Authorities had largely contained the outbreak by imposing a sweeping lockdown in March and April, but case numbers have risen in recent weeks. A renewed lockdown was to go in effect this week but those plans were canceled after the explosion. The country has reported more than 5,400 coronavirus cases and 68 deaths since February.

“There is no doubt that our immunity in the country is less than before the explosion and this will affect us medium- to long-term,” Abiad said. “We desperately need aid, not only us but all hospitals in Lebanon.”

The explosion was the most powerful blast ever seen in the city, which has survived decades of war and conflict. Several city blocks were left littered with rubble, broken glass and damaged vehicles.

Authorities have cordoned off the port itself, where the blast left a crater 200 meters (yards) across and shredded a large grain silo, emptying its contents into the rubble. Estimates suggested about 85% of the import-reliant country’s grain was stored there.

By Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb/AP

Mourning and anger amid devastation after Beirut explosion; One-third of Afghanistan may have had COVID-19; 75-years since Hiroshima bombing

Mourning and anger amid devastation after Beirut explosion; One-third of Afghanistan may have had COVID-19; 75-years since Hiroshima bombing

By
The World staff

A damage is seen after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.

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Top of The World — our morning news round up written by editors at The World. Subscribe here.

Still reeling from the massive explosion that flattened Beirut’s port on Tuesday, many Lebanese are turning toward anger and frustration over corrupt Lebanese officials for the presence of a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate at the center of the blast. French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut today and warned that without serious reforms the country would “continue to sink.”

The blast, which killed at least 137 people and injured more than 5,000, appears to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited the warehouse at the city’s port, according to Lebanese President Michel Aoun. The devastation in Beirut — with buildings across the city damaged and more than 250,000 people displaced from their homes, forced to move in with relatives and friends — is compounded by the ongoing pandemic and an economic crisis.

What The World is following

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said test results for a man who is possibly North Korea’s first case of the coronavirus are “inconclusive,” even as the country moved to isolate 3,635 of his apparent contacts. Pyongyang declared a state of emergency on July 26.

In Afghanistan, the country’s health minister said an antibody survey revealed almost one-third of the nation may have been infected with the coronavirus. The research was conducted by WHO and Johns Hopkins University. While the testing showed Kabul and other urban areas were worst affected, it is believed a significant percentage of cases have been asymptomatic.

And, with Hiroshima marking the 75th anniversary of the 1945 nuclear blast on Thursday, the survivors were a diminished presence due to the threat of the coronavirus and their old age. Hibakusha, the name for the survivors of those atomic tragedies, have been a force for peace and strong advocates for a nuclear-free world. The two bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed at least 200,000 people.

From The WorldJohn Bolton: Trump doesn’t understand ‘the gravity of responsibility’

Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as US President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2018.

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Kevin Lamarque/File Photo/Reuters

The former White House national security adviser tells The World’s host Marco Werman that the president is not “very well-informed,” which means he “doesn’t really see the bigger-picture implications” of foreign policy decisions he makes on his gut feelings rather than intelligence.

NHL players kneel to protest police brutality

Andre Burakovsky #95 of the Colorado Avalanche battles with Matt Dumba #24 of the Minnesota Wild during the third period of the exhibition game prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on July 29, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta.

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Andy Devlin/NHLI via USA Today Sports

After a four-month delay, National Hockey League players are back on the ice, bringing social justice movements with them.

“For those unaffected by systematic racism, or unaware, I’m sure that some of you believe that this topic has garnered too much attention during the last couple months,” Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba said through the loudspeakers at Rogers Place arena Aug. 1 in Edmonton, Canada. But, he added, “Black Lives Matter. Breona Taylor’s life matters. Hockey is a great game, but it could be a whole lot greater, and it starts with all of us.”

Bright spot

A trade deal between Canada and the European Union may collapse over cheese … specifically the grillable, briny (and “rubber delicacy,”) halloumi from Cyprus. Government officials from the Mediterranean island recently voted against the EU trade deal with Canada over a lack of protections for halloumi raising many questions over the potential of a single EU government sinking a deal for the entire block.

I am, admittedly, biased but Cyprus halloumi is *chef’s kiss*. https://t.co/vhRKLJsang

— Christina Frangou (@cfrangou) August 5, 2020In case you missed itListen: Lebanon declares a state of emergency after explosion

A view of the site of an explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.

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Bilal Hussein/AP

After Tuesday’s explosion in Beirut, Lebanon’s government has declared a two-week state of emergency. Emergency crews are still on the scene after nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate produced the blast that killed more than 100 people with several thousand more wounded. And, what would President Trump’s foreign policy look like in a second term? Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton offers his thoughts. Plus, high-resolution images of poop stains via satellites show that there are nearly 20% more emperor penguin colonies than previously thought on the icy continent of Antarctica.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The World’s Latest Edition podcast using your favorite podcast player: RadioPublicApple PodcastsStitcherSoundcloudRSS.

NHL players kneel to protest police brutality

NHL players kneel to protest police brutality

After a four-month delay, National Hockey League players are back on the ice, bringing social justice movements with them.

By
Rupa Shenoy

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Andre Burakovsky #95 of the Colorado Avalanche battles with Matt Dumba #24 of the Minnesota Wild during the third period of the exhibition game prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on July 29, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta.

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Andy Devlin/NHLI via USA Today Sports

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Matt Dumba wasn’t scheduled to play Aug. 1 in the first game of the National Hockey League’s restarted season. That day, the Minnesota Wild defenseman, clad in everyday clothes and shoes, stepped up to the center circle of players on the ice for a different reason.

“For those unaffected by systematic racism, or unaware, I’m sure that some of you believe that this topic has garnered too much attention during the last couple months,” the Filipino Canadian said through the loudspeakers at Rogers Place arena in Edmonton, Canada. But, he added, “Black Lives Matter. Breona Taylor’s life matters. Hockey is a great game, but it could be a whole lot greater, and it starts with all of us.”

Related: K-pop and Chinese hip-hop artists grapple with their responses to BLM 

Other players hit the ice with their hockey sticks in support. Then, as the American national anthem began, Dumba knelt, becoming the first player in the NHL to do so — four years after Colin Kapernick started kneeling in the National Football League to protest racial injustice. When Canada’s anthem started, Dumba stood. Later, speaking to reporters, he said he wished he’d thought to keep kneeling.

“There is a lot of light that needs to be shed on what is happening in Canada and the oppression First Nations people have felt for hundreds of years. Just —  in the moment — it happened like that.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild

“There is a lot of light that needs to be shed on what is happening in Canada and the oppression First Nations people have felt for hundreds of years,” Dumba said. “Just — in the moment — it happened like that.”

Since then, several other players have followed his lead. Some fans and observers hope that activism will help put pressure on the NHL to take concrete steps to address its internal racial issues.

The NHL is overwhelmingly white and has long been criticized for its lack of diversity. Earlier this summer, Dumba launched the Hockey Diversity Alliance with other players of color, including Canadian Wayne Simmonds, who said they were taking action because many hockey fans are in denial about racism.

Related: As Cuba battles coronavirus, activists see an opening to protest police brutality

“Every time I say something, people — they fail to believe,” Simmonds said in a video released by the alliance.

Another Black player, Evander Kane, said in the video that he’d been discriminated against in hockey since childhood.

“You have to be 10 times better than that white kid just to get the same opportunity he gets,” he said.

That was in June. In July, Eric Trump got involved. He tweeted his thanks to the NHL players in an exhibition game for “#standing” during the anthem.

“When the racists think that your sport is kind of the patriotic sport to be following, then you’re doing something wrong. Eric Trump’s tweet is exactly that kind of acknowledgment.”

Courtney Szto, Queen’s University professor

“When the racists think that your sport is kind of the patriotic sport to be following, then you’re doing something wrong,” said Courtney Szto, a Queen’s University professor who studies racism in hockey, “and Eric Trump’s tweet is exactly that kind of acknowledgment.”

Related: BLM gives hope to Wales family seeking justice for Black teen’s death

Some NHL fans reacted angrily to Eric Trump’s tweet, posting photos of themselves kneeling at home. Dumba said during those few days, the NHL hastily reached out to him about speaking before Saturday’s game.

“I think that they [the NHL] know that they have to react now,” Szto said. “But the reactions have been just kind of skirting issues around anti-Blackness.”

She said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman should have been the one to declare Black Lives Matter, like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did. And Szto said there hasn’t been enough white allyship. When Dumba knelt, he was alone. Everyone else stood.

“It just seemed like a very lonely experience, unfortunately,” Szto said.

But Szto was heartened by the game on Monday, also at Rogers Place. Four players knelt, including two white players.

“I think that was obviously a ripple effect from Matt Dumba’s expression,” Szto said.

Related: Statue of Black protester replaces toppled UK slave trader

And those players kept kneeling for the Canadian anthem.

“It is a very real belief that hockey is a white person’s sport. So, to say that we don’t have issues of racism is a huge mistake.”

Courtney Szto, Queen’s University professor

“It is a very real belief that hockey is a white person’s sport,” Szto said. “So, to say that we don’t have issues of racism is a huge mistake.”

Addressing racism is a long-term process, she said, that needs to play out on both sides of the border. 

John Bolton: Trump doesn’t understand ‘the gravity of responsibility’

John Bolton: Trump doesn’t understand ‘the gravity of responsibility’

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The World staff

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Joyce Hackel

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Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as US President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2018.

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US President Donald Trump made controversial remarks Tuesday about the nature of a major explosion in Beirut. The blast has been blamed on several tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in Beirut’s port.

But Trump indicated the explosion was an attack. 

“I met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was not some kind of manufacturing explosion type of event. This was a — it seems to be according to them, they would know better than I would — but they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday.

This type of convoluted, often erroneous messaging is detailed in a book by Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, released in June titled, “The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir.

The volume, published over objections from the White House, provides an insider account of Trump’s “inconsistent, scattershot decision-making process,” according to the publisher. Bolton was fired by Trump last September amid simmering differences on a wide array of foreign policy challenges.

The World’s host Marco Werman spoke with Bolton about Trump’s response to the Beirut crisis; his order to pull 12,000 troops out of Germany, and the geopolitical consequences of Trump’s decision-making style. 

Related: Nicholas Burns: Bolton allegations on Trump ‘as damaging as any in modern American history’

Marco Werman: Are you surprised when you hear your former boss make that sort of comment that doesn’t later align with what seem to be the facts on the ground?

John Bolton: I don’t think that the gravity of the responsibility really weighs on him that much. I don’t think he fully understands it. So, it’s perfectly natural that he makes comments like the comment about the destruction in Beirut, or saying that maybe Microsoft should pay a fee to the US Treasury if he allows them to proceed with the purchase of TikTok’s US assets, or what he said this morning in an interview that it could be years before the November election is decided and his earlier comment that maybe the election should be delayed. 

These are incredible things for a president to say. And whether they are motivated by his own personal interest or just an inability to discipline his comments, it’s still very disturbing.

Well, let’s come back to that in a moment, how he functions and behaves. I want to get to the troops in Germany and President Trump’s order to pull 12,000 of them. You said the decision showed “a broad lack of strategic understanding.” What do you think the president does not understand about these troops, about what they represent in that part of the globe?

If anything, we should be increasing our deployments in Europe and in different places because of the threat that Russia poses in Eastern and Central Europe and the Baltics. The president himself gave his reasons for moving these troops, over half of whom will come back to the United States. And it was to penalize Germany for our trade deficit with Germany and for Germany not making progress toward the NATO target of spending 2% of its GDP on defense.

Do you see that as a legitimate move, to pull troops to punish Germany?

Of course, it’s not legitimate, but it’s the way Donald Trump operates. He’s not able to in many, many cases to distinguish his own personal interests and feelings from the national interest. He sees them essentially as the same thing. So for him, it’s legitimate to do. And apparently his advisers were not successful in talking him out of that.

So, if Trump wants to reduce troop numbers, US troop numbers in Germany, where else is he thinking about doing that? In South Korea? There are more than 23,000 troops there.

Well, I think if he wins a second term and is free of the political constraint of having to be elected again or depending on Republican majorities in Congress, really it’s hard to predict what he would do. He has said in recent days that the number of troops in Afghanistan is going to go below even the 8,600 that he announced when he announced the so-called peace deal with the Taliban. I think his number was between 4,000-5,000. And that’s on the way to zero. I think that’s a huge mistake that causes real risk for the United States if Afghanistan returns to its pre-9/11 status under the Taliban as a host for terrorist groups who could strike us or our friends around the world.

This is not anything like a well-thought-out strategy, and it’s not necessarily going to happen all at because he doesn’t think systematically. But it’s indicative of what may happen if he succeeds in winning a second term.

So, just how the White House functions with Trump: Does he see others around him as being the ones responsible for grasping the geopolitical implications of big decisions and just giving him bullet points on his options? Or is it that he can’t grasp them? You wrote that Trump once asked if Finland was part of Russia.

Well, I don’t think he’s very well-informed. And I think that means almost automatically he doesn’t really see the bigger implications. But even more disturbing than that, he’s not especially interested in learning. What you expect from a president is that he will become familiar with the issues and the background in areas that were not part of his own personal experience so that his decisions can be as fully informed as possible. And Trump just shows no interest in that.

It’s, I think, demonstrated by his disdain, almost, for intelligence briefings and his feelings that his gut really is the place where the decisions are made. He sizes people up. He sees decisions in personal terms, doesn’t need extensive briefings, and he gets things quickly and he makes his decision. And, you know, further study really isn’t necessary.

He gets things quickly. Does he always get them right?

Well, no, of course not. And I think it’s dangerous to think that, let’s say, in connection with the nuclear talks now underway with Russia to decide what to do as the New START treaty comes to an expiration point next year, if he’s still in office, what his thoughts are on what the appropriate strategic weapons capability for the United States ought to be because he doesn’t study that either.

Do you view his response to the pandemic as a national security concern?

I do. I think he’s failed. I think he in the early days did not want to hear anything critical of China, even though NSC staffers and the Centers for Disease Control staffers in early January were sounding the alarm because he didn’t want to concede that the pandemic, as it turned out to be, could have a dramatically negative impact on the US economy and therefore his ticket to reelection. I think we’ve all suffered the consequences as a result. And you know, his attitude toward China, his rhetoric, at least now, is very harsh. The administration has taken some tough steps, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins a second term. After the election, he’ll be right back on the phone with Xi Jinping talking about the trade deal.

And now the current national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, has tested positive for COVID-19. Does it surprise you that the virus has traveled that close to the Oval Office?

It doesn’t because I think they weren’t taking adequate protections. We have to hope it doesn’t spread further. You don’t want the top decision-makers of the country incapacitated.

Finally, you’ve said on several occasions that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. What do you mean by unfit? And where does that concern take you?

Well, I don’t think he fully understands the office or what it entails. He doesn’t consider the consequences of his decisions. He doesn’t proceed on the basis of philosophy or grand strategy or even consistent policy. And I think in the national security space, that’s very, very dangerous. I think the country can recover from the damage that Trump has done in his first term, actually fairly quickly. But I’m more worried about the corrosive effects of two Trump terms.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Megaprojects and austerity measures are transforming southern Mexico

Megaprojects and austerity measures are transforming southern Mexico

The country's economy is in a downward spiral as the coronavirus continues to spread.

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Shannon Young

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Oaxaca’s landmark Santo Domingo church and the former convent that houses the state’s largest museum have been cordoned off as part of pandemic mitigation measures.

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Mexico is one of the hardest-hit countries by the coronavirus pandemic. It has the world’s third-highest death toll, and its curve has yet to bend. 

As the coronavirus continues to spread, the economy is in a downward spiral. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has not offered economic stimulus checks to citizens but has rebranded controversial infrastructure projects as jobs programs. Among them is the Trans-Isthmus Corridor. 

The sweeping, multibillion-dollar project — criticized by many local Indigenous communities in its path — calls for the expansion of two ports on Mexico’s southern Pacific and Gulf coasts and connecting them with a railway to carry shipping containers. A highway is also slated to run parallel to the tracks. There’s also a plan to connect refineries on both coasts via a pipeline. Finally, the president intends to lure manufacturers to the area by creating 10, tax-favored industrial parks.

“Budget is not an issue. The resources are there. It’s just a question of getting the job done, despite the pandemic.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador

“Budget is not an issue,” López Obrador said in a recent speech at Oaxaca’s Salina Cruz port, which he visited to supervise progress on its expansion. “The resources are there. It’s just a question of getting the job done, despite the pandemic.”

The port expansion is one of several ongoing projects that make up the Trans-Isthmus Corridor. The plan locally referred to as “the megaproject,” could totally reshape Oaxaca’s Isthmus region, a historic trading corridor, Indigenous heartland and home to one of the country’s most important biodiversity hot spots. As with the port project, the planned railway seeks to expand upon existing tracks. López Obrador cut the ribbon on the rail component in June, despite local pandemic restrictions on work and movement. 

Related: As the coronavirus drags on, Mexico’s food prices soar

But the megaproject is underway as several government agencies have been hit by a presidential decree issued in April that has slashed their budgets by 75%. The cuts, framed as an emergency measure to respond to the pandemic, have gutted environmental, cultural, science and arts programs and government bodies for women and Indigenous peoples.

Left off off the chopping block are numerous big-ticket projects, including a new Mexico City airport, a massive oil refinery and a tourist train circuit in the Yucatán Peninsula. Critics point out that many of the contracts for the projects are going to foreign firms or companies linked to Mexico’s politically connected billionaires.

López Obrador compares the Trans-Isthmus Corridor to a Panama Canal across dry land. He is not the first president to float the idea for a corridor. A canal-style project has been proposed on and off since an 1859 treaty between the US and Mexico, which was never ratified but would have given the US authority over the strategic strip of land. 

More recently, the project was dubbed “Plan Puebla Panama” but encountered fierce resistance from local communities and left-leaning opposition politicians. Ironically, Mexico’s center-left government is the political force closest to achieving the megaproject. 

“This megaproject has a history,” said Bettina Cruz of the Oaxacan Assembly in Defense of Land and Territory, an Indigenous-led organization that opposes the Trans-Isthmus Corridor.

Oaxaca’s artisans take part in a protest outside the National Palace to demand the federal government help for the loss of jobs and decrease in their labor services, after the Mexican government declared a health emergency and issued stricter regulations to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Mexico City, April 20, 2020.

Credit:

Henry Romero/Reuters

Cruz’s group says the project will pillage resources, displace Indigenous populations and reduce residents to a source of cheap labor while corporations profit. 

But organizing protests against it is tough during a pandemic. Mexico is approaching 50,000 government-acknowledged deaths from COVID-19. Oaxaca’s Isthmus region is under particularly strict lockdown measures due to the coronavirus, though construction on the corridor has been deemed essential work.

Related: US-Mexico border wall threatens sacred Native lands

In addition, some view the megaproject as bringing economic stability to the region — which is hard to argue against at a time when the pandemic has battered Mexico’s economy. The latest push for it might succeed, especially because López Obrador has public support and an overwhelming majority in Congress.

This worries Cruz, who sees the Trans-Isthmus Corridor as connected to a larger network of megaprojects, including a hydroelectric dam project in Morelos, a new refinery in Tabasco and a tourist train circuit through Mayan lands in the Yucatán Peninsula. 

The projects are an “attempt to reorder territory in the southern region [of Mexico] for the benefit of — and control by — global and US financial interests.”

Bettina Cruz, Oaxacan Assembly in Defense of Land and Territory

Viewed as a whole, the projects are an “attempt to reorder territory in the southern region [of Mexico] for the benefit of — and control by — global and US financial interests,” Cruz said. 

López Obrador defends the project as a way to create thousands of jobs and close the economic gap between Mexico’s industrialized north and its cash-poor, agricultural south. He’s also in a hurry to get it done. 

“We can’t commit the heinous mistake of leaving works incomplete,” he said during his visit to Salina Cruz. He wants the city’s port dredged and expanded within three years, before the end of his term in office. 

“There shall be no pretexts of any kind — be they inclement weather or protests — that could lead to delays in the completion of these works,” he said.

Meanwhile, other government agencies face an uncertain future over deep budget cuts. 

Among them is the National Institute for Anthropology and History, or INAH, as it’s known by its Spanish acronym. It’s the guardian of Mexico’s ancient artifacts and cultural history — and it oversees Mexico’s world-famous pyramids and archaeological zones. 

“It’s catastrophic,” Gilberto López y Rivas, a longtime anthropologist and researcher with the antiquities agency, said of the cuts.

“The INAH isn’t just archaeology. We number around 900 researchers; archaeologists, cultural and social anthropologists, ethnologists, linguists, biologists, architects, restoration workers, forensic specialists … It’s a very wide range of research.” 

Some fear weakening the INAH could lead to looting at ancient sites and fuel antiquities trafficking. 

López Obrador’s administration rode to power in a historic landslide in 2018 on a wave of leftist, rhetorical rejection of the status quo. So, the cuts came as a shock to many. 

“This has been the big surprise,” López y Rivas said. “Two years later, unfortunately — for the country and for those who believed 30 million votes would change the direction past administrations were heading — what we have is a continuation in the very essence of what these past administrations represented.”

He says the administration’s dual discourse — the president often slams neoliberalism and conservatives in speeches while advancing free-market policies — helps to explain the devastating cuts to national programs that safeguard ecosystems, protect Indigenous rights, and keep the country’s history and culture alive.

“It requires not having a memory,” he said of the mental shift needed to accept the administration’s vision for the region. “It’s an induced amnesia that goes against history, culture, identity and the idea of collectivism.”

Negligence blamed for huge Beirut chemical blast

Negligence blamed for huge Beirut chemical blast

Lebanese soldiers search for survivors after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.

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Hassan Ammar/AP

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Investigators began searching through the wreckage at Beirut’s port Wednesday for clues about the cause of the massive explosion that ripped across the Lebanese capital, and the government ordered port officials put under house arrest amid speculation that negligence was to blame.

The investigation is focusing on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

International aid flights began to arrive as Lebanon’s leaders struggled to deal with the shocking aftermath of Tuesday’s blast. The country was already crippled by an economic crisis and now the public faults chronic mismanagement and corruption among the ruling elite for the disaster.

The explosion at the port killed at least 135 people and wounded about 5,000, said Health Minister Hamad Hassan.

RelatedLebanese confront devastation after massive Beirut explosion

Hospitals were overwhelmed — one that was damaged in the blast had to evacuate all its patients to a nearby field for treatment.

Buildings were damaged for miles around the city, and Beirut’s governor said Wednesday that hundreds of thousands might not be able to return to their homes for two or three months.

It was the worst single explosion to strike Lebanon in a history filled with destruction during a 1975-1990 civil war, conflicts with Israel and periodic terror attacks.

Warned of ‘dangers’

A senior US Defense Department official and member of the US intelligence community said there were no indications the massive explosion that erupted on Tuesday evening in Lebanon’s capital was the result of an intentional attack by either a nation-state or proxy forces.

Both individuals spoke to The Associated Press under condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss intelligence briefings publicly. Both officials told the AP that at the moment, the explosion seems to have been caused by improper storage of explosives.

Fueling speculation that sheer negligence was responsible for the accident, an official letter circulating online showed the head of the customs department had warned repeatedly over the years that the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar in the port was a danger, and asked judicial officials for a ruling on a way to remove it.

Ammonium nitrate is a component of fertilizer that is potentially explosive. The 2,750-ton cache had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship in 2013, and on Tuesday it is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby.

The 2017 letter from the customs chief to a judge could not be immediately confirmed, but state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to start an immediate investigation into all letters related to the materials stored at the port as well as lists of people in charge of maintenance, storage and protection of the hangar.

In the letter, the customs chief warns of the “dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of [port] employees” and asked the judge for guidance on what to do with it. He said five similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The letter proposes the material be exported or sold to a Lebanese explosives company. It is not known if there was ever a response.

President Michael Aoun vowed before a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday that the investigation would be transparent and that those responsible will be punished. “There are no words to describe the catastrophe that hit Beirut last night,” he said.

After the meeting, the Cabinet ordered an unspecified number of Beirut port officials put under house arrest pending the investigation and declared a two-week state of emergency, effectively giving the military full powers during this time.

The government said that public schools and some hotels will be opened for the homeless and promised unspecified compensation for the victims.

With the Port of Beirut destroyed, the government said imports and exports will be secured through other ports in the country, mostly in Tripoli up north and Tyre down south.

‘Destroy them and their families’

There were signs that public anger went beyond port officials to the country’s long-entrenched ruling class. Political factions have divvied up control of Lebanon’s public institutions, including the port, using them to benefit their supporters, with little actual development. That has translated into crumbling infrastructure, power outages and poor services.

“May the Virgin Mary destroy them and their families,” Joseph Qiyameh, a 79-year-old grocery store owner, said of the political leadership. The blast damaged his store and injured his arm. His wife — who was at home next door — is hospitalized with injuries. Qiyameh doesn’t have the money to fix his business, with his savings locked up in banks by capital controls imposed during the crisis.

A small protest broke out after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri made a public appearance Wednesday, with people chanting slogans against politicians. Fistfights broke out between Hariri’s supporters and protesters. Hariri resigned in October amid nationwide protests.

Residents of Beirut confronted a scene of utter devastation Wednesday. Smoke still rose from the port. The blast knocked out a crater some 200 yards across that filled with seawater. The landscape looked like the sea had taken a bite out of the port, swallowing buildings with it. Much of downtown was littered with damaged vehicles and debris.

Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse, amid a severe economic crisis. Many have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. Food security is a worry, since Lebanon imports nearly all its vital goods and its main port is devastated. The government is strapped for cash.

Drone footage shot Wednesday by AP showed how the blast had torn open grain silo buildings, dumping the contents into the detritus generated by the blast. Estimates suggest some 85% of the country’s grain was stored at the now-wrecked facilities.

Economy and Trade Minister Raoul Nehme said all the wheat stored there was contaminated and unusable. But he insisted Lebanon had enough wheat for its immediate needs and would import more, according to the state news agency.

In the Netherlands, a UN-backed tribunal postponed delivery of judgments in the trial of four members of the militant group Hezbollah charged with involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The verdicts were moved from Friday to Aug. 18 out of respect for the victims of the blast, the court said.

Emergency aid was starting to filter in. Two planeloads of French rescue workers and aid was headed to Beirut, and French President Emmanuel Macron planned to arrive Thursday to offer support. Lebanon is a former French protectorate and the countries retain close political and economic ties.

The EU planned to send firefighters with vehicles, sniffer dogs and equipment designed to find people trapped in urban areas.

Several jets from Greece, Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere carrying medical equipment and supplies arrived at Beirut’s international airport. Turkey was sending search and rescue teams, humanitarian aid, medical equipment and a field hospital, its foreign ministry said. 

By Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam/AP

In Turkey, a conservative push to remove domestic violence protections is met with an uproar

In Turkey, a conservative push to remove domestic violence protections is met with an uproar

Leaders of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were expected to announce a decision on the matter after a meeting on Aug. 5, but Turkish newspapers reported Tuesday that the gathering has been postponed indefinitely. Turkish women, however, say they will continue to protest. 

By
Durrie Bouscaren

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Women march in support of the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women, in Istanbul, Sunday, July 19, 2020. 

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In Turkey, a push to retreat from an international agreement to prevent violence against women was met with an uproar, as women from broad swaths of Turkish society held protests across the country. 

Leaders of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were expected to announce a decision on the matter after a meeting on Aug. 5, but Turkish newspapers reported Tuesday that the gathering has been postponed indefinitely. 

Related: Turkey passes ‘draconian’ social media legislation

Turkish women, however, say they will continue to protest. 

“Men use violence because they see women beneath them, as inferior to them. …We see these problematic discourses, every day in the media.”

Elif Ege, Mor Cati, Mor Cati, private women’s shelter, Istanbul

“Men use violence because they see women beneath them, as inferior to them,” said Elif Ege of Mor Cati, a private shelter foundation for victims of domestic violence. “We see these problematic discourses every day in the media.

Nearly all countries in Europe have signed on to the Istanbul Convention, a set of international standards to prevent violence against women. The treaty is based on the principle that domestic violence, rape and other forms of gender-based violence are committed against women precisely because of their gender. 

But conservatives in Turkey’s government have said that they would push for a withdrawal, claiming that the treaty threatens family values and that Turkish citizens also want this change.  

“When our people have such an expectation [to withdraw], we cannot stay indifferent to this. …As we have duly signed it, then it would be possible to duly withdraw from it.”

Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of  APK, Turkey’s ruling party

“When our people have such an expectation [to withdraw], we cannot stay indifferent to this,” said Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy chairman of Turkey’s ruling AKP, during an appearance on national TV on July 2. “As we have duly signed it, then it would be possible to duly withdraw from it.”

Related: Expulsions, pushbacks and extraditions: Turkey’s war on dissent extends to Europe

Kurtulmus claimed that the LGBTQ community has “taken refuge” behind the document’s concepts of gender equality in a country where same-sex marriage is illegal, and protections against discrimination are not clearly defined. Kurtulmus further claimed that a withdrawal from the treaty would not increase domestic violence. 

These sentiments are echoed in Poland, where, in July, lawmakers also indicated the country would leave the treaty, citing its requirements to teach children about gender and its “ideological nature.” 

Kurtulmus’ position has some support among those most powerful in Turkey’s government. 

Earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that the way to stop violence against women is to strengthen the institution of the family.

“If there is violence in the family, what kind of family is it?” exclaimed an incredulous Melek Önder, spokesperson of the Istanbul-based We Will Stop Femicide Platform. “I think only a small group of men — conservative men — are demanding this.” 

Önder’s organization counts murders and suspicious deaths of women across the country. So far this year, it has tallied more than 200 deaths. 

In mid-July, 27-year-old university student Pinar Gultekin was killed by her ex-boyfriend, who confessed to killing her after she refused to get back together with him. The suspect has been detained and charged with “killing with monstrous feeling.”  

Related: Turkey’s president formally makes Haghia Sophia a mosque

Protesters argue that Turkey has clearly not resolved its issues with violence against women. 

In the 10 days after Gultekin’s murder, 11 additional deaths occurred, according to Önder. She believes the killers were emboldened by national discourse in which leaders casually discuss the removal of protections for women.

“When we’re discussing these rights, men get the courage to kill women. … We see when they’re attacking women’s rights, [there are] increasing femicide numbers.”

Melek Onder, spokesperson, We Will Stop Femicide Platform, Istanbul

“When we’re discussing these rights, men get the courage to kill women,” Onder said. “We see when they’re attacking women’s rights, [there are] increasing femicide numbers.” 

Turkey Thought Platform, an ultraconservative group, pushed hard for Turkey to leave the treaty but announced it would abandon the issue entirely, stating they were “worn out” by the fight. 

But, in an era of Turkish politics where religious conservatives and nationalists hold significant influence, Muslim women’s groups may be the bridge. 

KADEM, an organization where Erdoğan’s youngest daughter serves as vice chair, released a 16-point statement that responded to various claims made by treaty opponents, including their dismissive attitude toward marital rape, a concept acknowledged in the treaty as a form of violence. 

Related: As more journalists stand trial in Turkey, the truth becomes more elusive

“[Marital rape] is not normal in a healthy relationship. Bullying is in opposition to human dignity and Islamic value judgments,” reads the statement attributed to KADEM’s board of directors. 

The document, however, stops short of making a clear policy recommendation. 

Hatice Kubra Samiloglu, a member of Havle Women’s Organization, which calls itself Turkey’s first feminist Muslim women’s group, agrees that Turkey should stay in the treaty. A lot of the opposition, she says, comes from not actually understanding what the document entails, even among religious conservatives. 

“When you ask people, they are not against equality. They say yeah, that’s the beauty of the Quran!”   

Besides, she says, religious rules need to keep up with the modern world and national law. Forms of child marriage that appear in religious texts, for example, does not make it acceptable.  

“Even though it was true historically, [it] doesn’t matter — it can’t be happening right now. And me saying this doesn’t taint my religion,” Samiloglu said. “In fact, I think it supports my religion.”