World Leaders Return to UN With Focus on Pandemic, Climate

World leaders are returning to the United Nations in New York this week with a focus on boosting efforts to fight both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, which last year forced them to send video statements for the annual gathering.

As the coronavirus still rages amid an inequitable vaccine rollout, about a third of the 193 U.N. states are planning to again send videos, but presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers for the remainder are due to travel to the United States.

The United States tried to dissuade leaders from coming to New York in a bid to stop the U.N. General Assembly from becoming a “super-spreader event,” although President Joe Biden will address the assembly in person, his first U.N. visit since taking office. A so-called U.N. honor system means that anyone entering the assembly hall effectively declares they are vaccinated, but they do not have to show proof.

This system will be broken when the first country speaks — Brazil. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is a vaccine skeptic, who last week declared that he does not need the shot because he is already immune after being infected with COVID-19.

Should he change his mind, New York City has set up a van outside the United Nations for the week to supply free testing and free shots of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told Reuters that the discussions around how many traveling diplomats might have been immunized illustrated “how dramatic the inequality is today in relation to vaccination.” He is pushing for a global plan to vaccinate 70% of the world by the first half of next year.

Out of 5.7 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines administered around the world, only 2% have been in Africa.

Biden will host a virtual meeting from Washington with leaders and chief executives on Wednesday that aims to boost the distribution of vaccines globally.

Demonstrating U.S. COVID-19 concerns about the U.N. gathering, Biden will be in New York only for about 24 hours, meeting with Guterres on Monday and making his first U.N. address on Tuesday, directly after Bolsonaro.

His U.N. envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said Biden would “speak to our top priorities: ending the COVID-19 pandemic; combating climate change … and defending human rights, democracy, and the international rules-based order.”

Due to the pandemic, U.N. delegations are restricted to much smaller numbers and most events on the sidelines will be virtual or a hybrid of virtual and in-person. Among other topics that ministers are expected to discuss during the week are Afghanistan and Iran.

But before the annual speeches begin, Guterres and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will start the week with a summit on Monday to try and save a U.N. summit — that kicks off in Glasgow, Scotland, on Oct. 31 — from failure.

As scientists warn that global warming is dangerously close to spiraling out of control, the U.N. COP26 conference aims to wring much more ambitious climate action and the money to go with it from participants around the globe.

“It’s time to read the alarm bell,” Guterres told Reuters last week. “We are on the verge of the abyss.” 

 

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US Business Demand High, Worker Availability Low

Millions of Americans who were thrown out of work in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic are now encountering a hot jobs market with businesses eager, even desperate, to hire them.

But amid continued spread of the delta COVID-19 variant, workers are trickling, not rushing, back into the labor market, despite the expiration of augmented federal unemployment benefits and offers of higher wages in some sectors.

Consumers eager to spend money would normally be a boon to the service industry in Charlotte, North Carolina. But businesses here, as in many parts of the United States, can’t find enough workers to accommodate the demand.

Help wanted signs are ubiquitous in storefronts across the city, where, since May 2020, the local unemployment rate has fallen from nearly 14% to less than 5%.

“Oh, there’s business here,” Brixx Wood Fired Pizza general manager Lethr’ Rotherttold VOA. “The restaurant stays busy and we’re making loads of money, but I don’t have the staff to keep up.”

It’s a similar situation at The Giddy Goat Coffee Roasters, an independent outfit with a unique business model of roasting coffee beans in-store and right in front of customers. The coffee shop was launched during the pandemic and has struggled to keep up with demand.

“When we think we’re good [for workers], the volume increases, and we suddenly need more help,” said manager Enzo Pazos. “Two people go to school, that’s two less staff on hand, so it’s kind of like it’s never enough.”

“You’re seeing variations of this same theme of a worker shortage across the country,” economist Matthew Metzgar of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte told VOA.

Metzgar notes that a federal economic stimulus program provided some workers with higher temporary incomes than they had received at their old jobs before the pandemic.

“What’s happening is of course with that higher unemployment compensation, people are less willing to work and people are less willing to accept lower wages,” Metzgar said.

Others who remain unemployed say they are reluctant to take jobs that would put them in close contact with the public at a time when the United States is averaging more than 1,500 COVID-19 deaths a day.

“Most people that have stayed on unemployment have done it for safety reasons, it seems,” job seeker Alex Jordan Ku said. “I have some friends on unemployment, and their safety was their main concern. They haven’t been looking for jobs They kind of just went back home to live with their parents so they can be without jobs for a while until things feel safe to them.”

Yet another problem keeping many people out of the workforce has been a shortage of affordable child care – a problem that was exacerbated by COVID-related school closures and remote learning that have forced many parents to remain at home with their children.

That problem may be easing as schools are reopening across the country this fall, but the parents of younger children are still finding it hard to secure placements in child care facilities, which are themselves impacted by difficulty in hiring enough qualified staff.

In a move partly aimed at getting more people back to work, the Biden administration is promoting enhanced child care subsidies as part of a proposed $3.5 trillion plan to fund infrastructure and social safety net programs.

 

This month’s expiration of supplemental unemployment benefits should force at least some workers back into the labor pool as their bank accounts run dry. But Metzgar says many potential workers are less than eager to return to jobs that pay less than what they received in benefits.

“From the worker’s point of view, there is resistance to coming back to lower-wage positions, and in some situations, there may not be much to entice them back in,” he said.

Adequate compensation

At a recent jobs fair in the neighboring state of Virginia, securing adequate compensation was on the minds of many prospective applicants, several of whom stressed factors beyond an hourly wage.

“What I’m looking for is something where there’s long-term stability, and benefits are important,” Lisette Bez told VOA at the Leesburg, Virginia, event. Even though she has run out of unemployment benefits, Bez indicated she is holding out for a job that includes things like generous health insurance benefits.

“The cost of insurance these days continues to go up. And I think for a lot of people that’s a huge concern,” she said. “So it’s not just enough to have a job that will pay you a certain amount. You have to have those other things.”

While employers have no control over the pandemic, they do have leeway in what they offer to entice workers, say labor advocates.

“In all candor, raising wages is the only thing that’s going to be bringing people back to work,” Charlotte labor organizer William Voltz told VOA.

Voltz, president of Unite Here’s Local 23, a union for airport employees, said workers need an hourly wage in the $17-$22 range to get by, far higher than the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

“Unfortunately, to live in Charlotte you really have to make a livable wage to be able to afford housing and life’s necessities,” he said.

Message heard

Amid fierce competition for labor, a growing number of U.S. employers big and small are sweetening wage and benefits packages offered to job seekers. E-commerce giant Amazon.com, Inc. recently boosted its average starting wage to $18 an hour, up from a $15 minimum wage the company set before the pandemic.

In Charlotte, Giddy Goat founder Carson Clough said he expects a certain amount of negotiation in determining compensation for new employees.

“If workers do have requests regarding pay and benefits, I am all ears,” Clough told VOA. “My business partner and I started off with the mindset [in] which we’re going to try and meet high-end wage requests, even prior to the pandemic. I’d be very open to hearing different demands, such as ‘How can I go do this’ or ‘How can this be a part of the package’ or something like that.”

Flexibility and creativity will be key to hiring and retaining workers going forward, according to Metzgar.

“Companies may consider thinking about bringing on workers that could contribute in multiple ways, doing something that brings value to the business. This would be a win-win, it would allow the worker to be invested, while the worker receives a higher wage in return,” the economist said.

“The point is to reimagine some of these positions so that the workers have the opportunity to produce more value, so managers set up workers to flourish to produce value for the company, which again comes with higher wages for the worker,” he added.

 

 

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Space Tourists Splash Down in Atlantic, End 3-Day Trip

Four space tourists ended their trailblazing trip to orbit Saturday with a splashdown in the Atlantic off the Florida coast.

Their SpaceX capsule parachuted into the ocean just before sunset, not far from where their chartered flight began three days earlier. 

The all-amateur crew was the first to circle the world without a professional astronaut. 

The billionaire who paid undisclosed millions for the trip and his three guests wanted to show that ordinary people could blast into orbit by themselves, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk took them on as the company’s first rocket-riding tourists. 

SpaceX’s fully automated Dragon capsule reached an unusually high altitude of 585 kilometers (363 miles) after Wednesday night’s liftoff. Surpassing the International Space Station by 160 kilometers (100 miles), the passengers savored views of Earth through a big bubble-shaped window added to the top of the capsule. 

Rare return to Atlantic

The four streaked back through the atmosphere early Saturday evening, the first space travelers to end their flight in the Atlantic since Apollo 9 in 1969. SpaceX’s two previous crew splashdowns — carrying astronauts for NASA — were in the Gulf of Mexico.

This time, NASA was little more than an encouraging bystander, its only tie being the Kennedy Space Center launch pad once used for the Apollo moonshots and shuttle crews, but now leased by SpaceX. 

The trip’s sponsor, Jared Isaacman, 38, an entrepreneur and accomplished pilot, aimed to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Donating $100 million himself, he held a lottery for one of the four seats. He also held a competition for clients of his Allentown, Pennsylvania, payment-processing business, Shift4 Payments. 

Joining him on the flight were Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a St. Jude physician assistant who was treated at the Memphis, Tennessee, hospital nearly two decades ago for bone cancer, and contest winners Chris Sembroski, 42, a data engineer in Everett, Washington, and Sian Proctor, 51, a community college educator, scientist and artist from Tempe, Arizona. 

Strangers until March, they spent six months training and preparing for potential emergencies during the flight, dubbed Inspiration4. Most everything appeared to go well, leaving them time to chat with St. Jude patients, conduct medical tests on themselves, ring the closing bell for the New York Stock Exchange, and do some drawing and ukulele playing.

Arceneaux, the youngest American in space and the first with a prosthesis, assured her patients, “I was a little girl going through cancer treatment just like a lot of you, and if I can do this, you can do this.” 

They also took calls from Tom Cruise, interested in his own SpaceX flight to the space station for filming, and the rock band U2’s Bono. 

Atypical menu

Even their space menu wasn’t typical: cold pizza and sandwiches, but also pasta Bolognese and Mediterranean lamb. 

Nearly 600 people have reached space — a scorecard that began 60 years ago and is expected to soon skyrocket as space tourism heats up. 

Benji Reed, a SpaceX director, anticipates as many as six private flights a year, sandwiched between astronaut launches for NASA. Four SpaceX flights are already booked carry paying customers to the space station, accompanied by former NASA astronauts. The first is targeted for early next year with three businessmen paying $55 million apiece. Russia also plans to take up an actor and film director for filming next month and a Japanese tycoon in December. 

Customers interested in quick space trips are turning to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The two rode their own rockets to the fringes of space in July to spur ticket sales; their flights lasted 10 to 15 minutes.

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Media: ‘Quad’ Countries to Agree on Secure Microchip Supply Chains

Leaders of the United States, Japan, India and Australia will agree to take steps to build secure semiconductor supply chains when they meet in Washington next week, the Nikkei business daily said Saturday, citing a draft of the joint statement.

 

U.S. President Joe Biden will host a first in-person summit of leaders of the “Quad” countries, which have sought to boost co-operation to push back against China’s growing assertiveness. The draft says that in order to create robust supply chains, the four countries will ascertain their semiconductor supply capacities and identify vulnerability, the Nikkei said, without unveiling how it had obtained the document.

 

The statement also says the use of advanced technologies should be based on the rule of respecting human rights, the newspaper said on its web site.

 

The draft does not name China, but the move is aimed at preventing China’s way of utilizing technologies for maintaining an authoritarian regime from spreading to the rest of the world, the Nikkei said.

 

The United States and China are at odds over issues across the board, including trade and technology, while Biden said in April his country and Japan, a U.S. ally, will invest together in areas such as 5G and semiconductor supply chains.

 

No officials were immediately available for comment at the Japanese foreign ministry.

 

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Malawi Trial Shows New Typhoid Vaccine Effective in Children

Malawi plans a nationwide rollout of the newest typhoid vaccine after a two-year study, the first in Africa, found it safe and effective in children as young as 9 months. Previously available vaccines were found not effective in children younger than 2 years and even then only provided short-term protection.  

Typhoid is an increasing public health threat in Malawi and across sub-Saharan Africa with an estimated 1.2 million cases and 19,000 deaths each year.

 

Typhoid is a treatable bacterial infection that has become a serious threat in many low- and middle-income countries.

 

In Malawi, the study on the efficacy of the Typhoid Conjugate Vaccine or TCV involved about 28,000 children aged between 9 months and 15 years from three townships in the commercial capital, Blantyre.

 

The University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, the Blantyre Malaria Project, and the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust conducted the study.

 

Professor Melita Gordon, principal investigator for the study at the Malawi-Liverpool Wellcome Trust, says the results, released this week, show an efficacy rate of more than 80% in protecting children against the disease.

   

“The previous vaccines were only 50% effective, and they were never even tested very well in the very youngest children. They were never even usable in the youngest children. So, the fact that this new conjugate vaccine works in pre-school children, right down to 9 months is a really big deal and important to be able to tackle typhoid across the board in all the children who suffer with it,” she said.

 

Gordon also said the vaccine efficacy data provides hope that sub-Saharan Africa can be rid of the multidrug-resistant strain of typhoid that arrived from Asia about a decade ago.

 

“In Malawi, the incidents are something [around] four or five hundred cases per 100,000 per year. Now anything over 200 is considered high incidence, so we are a very high-incidence country. There have been studies in Burkina Faso, in Ghana, in Kenya; we know that many other African countries have an equivalent burden of the disease,” Gordon said.

   

Dr. Queen Dube, chief of health services in Malawi’s Health Ministry, says rollout should begin soon.

 

“The exciting news is that we had applied to GAVI that supports us on the vaccination front to add this to the list of vaccines we are administering in the country and GAVI approved our application. And we are looking at introducing this typhoid vaccine and rolling it out next year,” Dube said.

 

However, some fear the new typhoid vaccine would face hesitancy and resistance from people, as has been the case with COVID-19 vaccines, and which led to the incineration of about 20,000 expired doses in Malawi in May.

 

But Dube said this won’t happen with typhoid vaccine because COVID-19 was a new disease.   

   

“We have had typhoid for decades and decades, so people know what typhoid is. Nobody will wake up in the morning saying, oh no, typhoid was manufactured in a laboratory. And so, chances that you will end up with misinformation are on the lower side compared with a new disease which swept across the globe, killing so many people brought a lot of fear and a allowed a lot of false theories,” she said.

   

Still, Dube said Malawi’s government plans to launch a massive sensitization campaign to teach people about the new typhoid vaccine to a reemergence of the myths and misinformation that engulfed the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

 

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WHO: Rich Countries’ Chokehold on COVID Vaccines Prolongs Pandemic in Africa

The World Health Organization is warning that COVID-19 vaccine export bans and hoarding by wealthy countries will prolong the pandemic in Africa, preventing recovery from the disease in the rest of the world.

 

While more than 60% of the U.S., European Union, and British populations have been vaccinated, only 2% of COVID vaccine shots have been given in Africa.

 

The COVAX facility has slashed its planned COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to Africa by 25% this year.  WHO Africa regional director Matshidiso Moeti says the 470 million doses now expected to arrive by the end of December are enough to vaccinate just 17% of Africans on the continent.   

    

“Export bans and vaccine hoarding still have a chokehold on the lifeline of vaccine supplies to Africa.… Even if all planned shipments via COVAX and the African Union arrive, Africa still needs almost 500 million more doses to reach the yearend goal.  At this rate, the continent may only reach the 40% target by the end of March next year,” Moeti said.   

    

The WHO reports more than 8 million cases of COVID-19 in Africa, including more than 200,000 deaths.  Forty-four African countries have reported the alpha variant and 32 countries have reported the more virulent and contagious delta variant.

 

Moeti warns of further waves of infection and loss of life in this pandemic.  Given the short supply of vaccines, she urges strict adherence to preventive measures, such as mask wearing and social distancing.

 

She reiterates WHO’s call for a halt to booster shots in wealthy nations, except for those with compromised immune systems and at risk of severe illness and death.

“I have said many times that it is in everyone’s interest to make sure the most at-risk groups in every country are protected.  As it stands, the huge gaps in vaccine equity are not closing anywhere near fast enough. The quickest way to end this pandemic, is for countries with reserves to release their doses so that other countries can buy them,” she said.

    

Moeti said African countries with low vaccination rates are breeding grounds for vaccine-resistant variants.  She warned this could end up sending the world back to square 1, with the pandemic continuing to ravage communities worldwide if vaccine inequity is allowed to persist.

 

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FDA Panel Rejects Proposal for Widespread COVID Booster Shots

A U.S. government advisory panel rejected a plan for the widespread use of COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, dealing a setback to the Biden administration, which had championed the extra shots for nearly all Americans.

By a vote of 16-2, a U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) vaccine advisory panel rejected the widespread use of the boosters, citing a lack of data on their safety as well as a lack of evidence concerning their value.

The independent panel did endorse extra vaccine doses for people who are 65 and older or at high risk of severe illness.

Drugmaker Pfizer had requested full approval for boosters for people 16 and older, a proposal backed by the Biden administration.

The White House announced last month that Americans who received either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines could get a booster shot eight months after their second dose.

And earlier on Friday, the White House said it was ready to roll out the booster shots if health officials approved them.

Pfizer submitted data to the FDA this week that it says shows that the efficacy of its vaccine diminishes by about 6% every two months following the second dose, making a booster at the six-month mark safe and effective at strengthening protection against the virus that causes COVID-19.

Research has shown that although immunity levels decrease over time in those vaccinated, the Pfizer vaccine still provides strong protection against severe illness and death, even in delta variant cases.

The FDA panel’s recommendation is nonbinding; the FDA is not required to follow the panel’s recommendations, but it generally does.

Next week, an independent advisory panel for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will weigh in on who should get a booster and when.

Elsewhere, France suspended 3,000 health care workers who had not been inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine by a government-mandated Sept. 15 deadline.

Tens of thousands of the country’s 2.7 million health workers were unvaccinated in July, when President Emmanuel Macron announced the Sept. 15 deadline to receive at least one shot of a vaccine.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said most suspended employees worked in support services, while few doctors and nurses were among the suspended.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said Friday that France has reported more than 7 million cases and more than 116,000 deaths from COVID-19.

In India, a record 22.6 million vaccination shots were given Friday as some areas organized special inoculation drives for the birthday of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who turned 71.

 

“Every Indian would be proud of today’s record vaccination numbers,” Modi said on Twitter.

India has provided at least one vaccine dose to more than 62% of its adult population and has fully vaccinated about 21% of adults, according to the Health Ministry.

In Switzerland, officials announced that all travelers entering the country who have neither been vaccinated nor have recovered from the disease will need proof of a negative test.

British officials relaxed restrictions on travel into England, which included ending the requirement that fully vaccinated passengers from low-risk countries take COVID-19 tests on arrival.

In the U.S. state of Idaho, hospitals have begun rationing care “because the massive increase of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization in all areas of the state has exhausted existing resources,” the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) said in a statement Thursday.

“The situation is dire — we don’t have enough resources to adequately treat the patients in our hospitals, whether you are there for COVID-19 or a heart attack or because of a car accident,” DHW Director Dave Jeppesen said in a statement.

The best way to end the rationing “is for more people to get vaccinated,” Jeppesen said. “It dramatically reduces your chances of having to go to the hospital if you do get sick from COVID-19.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

 

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Space Tourists Call Actor Tom Cruise While Orbiting Earth

While orbiting Earth, four space tourists called U.S. actor Tom Cruise to talk about life aboard the spacecraft.

Representatives for SpaceX’s first privately chartered flight said the crew members spoke Friday with Cruise, who is hoping to take part in a movie made in space.

The Twitter account for the flight mission said, “Maverick, you can be our wingman anytime,” referencing the call sign for Cruise’s character in the movie Top Gun.

No further details were released about the conversation.

Last year, NASA said it was in talks with Cruise about filming a movie at the International Space Station.

In the first space flight without any trained astronauts, the space tourists are orbiting Earth at an altitude of 585 kilometers.

The crew is led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, 38, and includes two contest winners and a hospital worker.

Crew members spoke with mission control Friday in a 10-minute live webcast.

Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, showed off her ability to do flips in zero gravity.

Arceneaux, a childhood cancer survivor, had spoken earlier with child cancer patients at St. Jude.

Chris Sembroski a 42-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, played his ukulele while Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old community college teacher, showed a picture she drew of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

The flight, named Inspiration4, took off Wednesday and is due to splash down Saturday in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

SpaceX was founded by billionaire Elon Musk, who tweeted Thursday, “Missions like Inspiration4 help advance spaceflight to enable ultimately anyone to go to orbit & beyond.” 

 

 

 

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‘Devious Licks’ Videos of Damage, Thefts Bedevil US Schools 

Kids across the U.S. are posting TikTok videos of themselves vandalizing school bathrooms and stealing soap dispensers and even turf from football fields, bedeviling school administrators seeking to contain the viral internet trend. 

The “devious licks” challenge that swept social media this week is plaguing principals and school district administrators who already must navigate a bitter debate over requiring masks to keep COVID-19 in check. Some schools have had to more closely monitor or even shut down bathrooms, where much of the damage is occurring. 

No section of the nation appears to have been untouched. In northeastern Kansas, Lawrence High School had to close several bathrooms after students pried soap dispensers off the walls. Then, students tried to steal the “closed” signs, so staff is guarding the bathrooms, even the closed ones, said 17-year-old student Cuyler Dunn, relaying Friday what he called “total destruction.” 

“Some of them were to the point where they were borderline unusable,” said Dunn, who is also the co-editor-in-chief of Lawrence High’s student newspaper. “Locks on stalls had been taken off.”

Ice Bucket Challenge

While social media did spawn the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for research into the condition known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it also led to a rash of poisonings several years ago when teenagers swallowed pods of laundry detergent for the “Tide Pods challenge.” The latest trend follows close upon a viral challenge to walk on stacks of milk crates.

Some school officials are reluctant to say much about “devious licks,” which is slang for theft. In Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools spokesperson Kathleen Miller emailed that officials were aware of several incidents of property damage and that “disciplinary action has and will be taken.” 

Outside of that statement, Miller noted that the school district was saying little to avoid “encouraging copy-cat behavior.” 

A spokesperson said TikTok was removing “devious licks” content and redirecting hashtags and search results to its guidelines to discourage the behavior and that it doesn’t allow content that “promotes or enables criminal activities.”

While some school officials say they don’t know what caused the “devious licks” challenge to go viral, others chalk it up to a desire for peers’ attention or adolescents’ lack of impulse control. Some incidents have involved smashing things, like bathroom mirrors and sinks.

Tradition of senior pranks

Dunn said that his Kansas high school has a tradition of senior pranks that led someone to set chickens loose inside last year. But he said some students are starting to worry about the repercussions of “devious licks,” not only for kids who get caught but also for big events as the school tries to prevent thefts. His newspaper wrote about “devious licks” this week.

He said a detour sign taken from another school after a football game is in Lawrence High’s parking lot and that students even stole a small section of artificial turf off the school’s football field.

“The general vibe around the student body is that this is just another one of those funny things that high schoolers do,” he said. “But it has started to reach a point where it is starting to get in the way of things.” 

Damage displayed on social media

Northeast of Sacramento, California, the Rocklin school district has seen students destroy soap dispensers, damage faucets, plug toilets with whole rolls of toilet paper and tear mirrors and railings off walls, then share videos and photos on social media.

Spokesperson Sundeep Dosanjh said that the damage can close bathrooms for extended periods, an issue potentially made worse by “national supply chain disruptions” that have arisen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Police in the central Florida city of Bartow, located about 50 miles east of Tampa, said they arrested a 15-year-old student who vandalized a new building’s bathroom by tearing off soap dispensers and leaving one in a sink. 

“He said he did it because of this TikTok challenge and he wanted to be cool,” police Chief Bryan Dorman said. 

In the Cherry Creek school district serving an affluent Denver neighborhood and nearby trendy suburbs, the district sent parents of middle and high school students a letter warning that kids who are caught face being suspended, could be forced to make restitution and might have their cases forwarded to police.

Warnings sent to parents

Districts in Miami and Scottsdale, Arizona, sent similar warnings to parents.

Cherry Creek spokesperson Abbe Smith said its schools had seen “a handful” of incidents of damage to or theft of soap dispensers, toilet paper dispensers and fire extinguishers. 

In southern Alabama, Robertsdale High School’s principal said a student there is facing criminal charges after he was caught on surveillance cameras swiping a fire extinguisher. He also was suspended from school. 

Punishments aren’t effective

In Wichita, Kansas, the district has found that punishments like suspensions aren’t effective in stopping such behavior, and community service is the more likely response, said Terri Moses, its director of safety services. The district’s middle schools have lost soap dispensers, paper towels and toilet paper. 

And, she said, the district warns students that what they post now could hurt their chances of getting jobs in their early 20s. 

“What they’re putting out on social media is giong to be with them for a long time,” Moses said. “We’re trying very hard to relay that.” 

 

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Leaders to Gather at UN Against COVID-19 Backdrop

New York next week will see one of its first large gatherings since the coronavirus pandemic, when more than a hundred world leaders are expected to return to the United Nations for their annual meetings. VOA U.N. correspondent Margaret Besheer reports.

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Leaders to Gather at UN Against COVID-19 Backdrop  

Afghanistan, climate action and the COVID-19 pandemic will be front and center next week when large numbers of world leaders return to New York for their first in-person meetings at the United Nations in more than a year.     

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed in-person diplomacy at the United Nations, and last September it was still considered too unsafe to hold the annual gathering that draws nearly 200 presidents and prime ministers and their large delegations in person, so it was all virtual.  

Vaccines have made it safer to hold a scaled-down gathering, although the rampant spread of the delta variant left decisions for many about coming until the last minute. Leaders also have the option to stay home and send a video message, which about 50 of them plan to do. Many of those leaders are from lower income countries where vaccines have been in short supply, highlighting the imbalance in vaccine access.    

“What we need is a global vaccination plan, and we need those that have power in the world to put their power at the service of vaccine equity,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters recently.   

The World Health Organization has set a global target of vaccinating at least 40% of the population of every country against COVID-19 by the end of this year, and 70% of the world’s population by the middle of next year.   

More than 5.7 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally, about 260 million of them through COVAX, a multilateral effort for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. But lower-income countries are still lagging far behind wealthy ones, particularly in Africa, where only 2% of the world’s vaccine doses have been administered.   

U.S. President Joe Biden is convening a virtual summit on Wednesday that will urge commitments from both the public and private sectors to work to end the pandemic by next year.   

“We are building a coalition of governments, businesses, international institutions and civil society to expand vaccine production, accelerate access to vaccines and life-saving treatment, and strengthen health systems around the globe,”  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters on Friday.  

Climate emergency  

Guterres has encouraged leaders to build back better from the pandemic, and a large part of that is focused on a greener recovery.     

The world is not on track to meet pledges made in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to slow global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and as low as 1.5 degrees, above pre-industrial levels.   

“We really are out of time,” Guterres said Thursday in a video message marking a grim U.N. climate report. “We must act now to prevent further irreversible damage.”  

In November, nations will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, to try to remove some of the obstacles to achieving the Paris goals.   

“It has to be a turning point where action on mitigation, adaptation and finance happen,” a senior U.N. official said of the Glasgow conference, known as COP26. 

On Monday, Guterres will co-host a private summit with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and a small group of leaders to try to advance some of the priorities for Glasgow to be a success.  

“As the [British] prime minister has said, we need urgent progress on cash, cars, coal and trees,” British Ambassador Barbara Woodward said. “That means raising the $100 billion to fund adaptation and resilience for climate-vulnerable countries. It means getting ambitious plans from countries who have not set out how they will cut emissions, particularly phasing out coal, and revitalizing and protecting nature.” 

Geopolitical crises  

There will be no shortage of political and humanitarian problems to discuss.  

Conflict and famine in Ethiopia and a military coup in Myanmar were already in the international spotlight this year. Millions of Yemenis are near starving. The war in Syria has dragged on for more than a decade, and neighboring Lebanon is plunging into an economic abyss.   

Haiti was rocked by an earthquake one month ago just weeks after its president was assassinated. Earlier this month, Guinea’s military staged a coup and jailed the president. And not to be ignored, North Korea has resumed test-firing ballistic missiles. 

But in recent weeks, the situation in Afghanistan has seized international attention as the government collapsed, the Taliban swept into power in Kabul, and the United States military departed the country ending its 20-year military presence. 

Chaos ensued as thousands of terrified Afghans who had worked for the U.S. military and other NATO countries or worked in other sensitive positions, sought to leave the country to avoid Taliban reprisals. The situation has been seen as a foreign policy disaster for the Biden administration, which as Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, inherited a withdrawal deadline but no plan from the former Trump administration.  

Now the United Nations finds itself in a difficult situation, trying to assist nearly 18 million Afghans who are in dire need of assistance after years of conflict, drought and now COVID-19.  

“Afghanistan represents an enormous humanitarian challenge for the United Nations, and it’s going to be U.N. agencies responsible for keeping Afghans alive during a period of hunger and political chaos,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group.  

 

The concern with which wealthy countries view the situation was evident on Monday, when they pledged more than $1.2 billon to provide humanitarian and regional assistance to try to prevent a new refugee crisis.  

Western governments are especially worried that the Taliban will impose repressive restrictions on women and girls, jeopardizing 20 years of hard-won gains.  

“We’re going to hear European leaders in particular talk about the need to protect women’s rights and human rights in Afghanistan,” Gowan said. “There’s not very much the General Assembly can do to force the Taliban to protect those.”  

G-20 foreign ministers will discuss the situation on Wednesday, and it is likely to be a dominant topic in bilateral meetings.  

Diplomats say nations need to coordinate a united approach to how they will deal with the Taliban going forward.   

The foreign ministers of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) are also planning a meeting, and diplomats say Afghanistan will certainly be on the agenda. 

Biden debut

The U.N. secretary-general’s spokesman said Guterres and President Biden will meet in person Monday in New York.   

The U.S. president’s speech always draws a full General Assembly. This year, due to the COVID-19 restrictions in place at the U.N., delegations will be allowed to have only their leader plus three other people seated in the hall.  

Biden will make his debut address to the assembly Tuesday morning as the annual debate gets under way.

“I think Biden will have a message for the leaders, which is that they shouldn’t let China gain too much power in the U.N. system,” said International Crisis Group’s Gowan. “The Biden administration, just like the Trump administration before it, is concerned that the Chinese are gaining influence rapidly in multilateral institutions, and Biden will want to send the message that the U.S. is still the natural leader here.”    

Thomas-Greenfield said the president will deliver his speech in person and then return to Washington where he will continue to participate in U.N. meetings virtually.  

 

“President Biden will speak to our top priorities: ending the COVID-19 pandemic, combatting the climate crisis and defending human rights, democracy and the international rules-based order,” she said Friday. “All three are challenges that stretch across borders. They involve every single country on earth.” 

Secretary of State Blinken will be in New York Monday through Thursday to engage with international officials. Special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, will also be in New York.  

COVID-19 precautions

The Biden administration, New York City officials and the U.N. are eager to keep this gathering healthy. 

Inside the General Assembly hall, everyone is expected to be vaccinated, although an honor system is in place and delegates will not have to show proof. If they want to sit down and eat in a U.N. cafeteria, they will have to show their vaccination status, as that is required in all city restaurants now.  

The U.N. will also have a reduced number of staff in the building, and the hundreds of foreign and visiting journalists who cover the annual meeting have not been granted access this year.  

The city will be providing a mobile COVID-19 testing unit outside U.N. headquarters all week, where delegates can also get vaccinated with the single-dose Johnson and Johnson shot.  

Thomas-Greenfield said she would be having a COVID-19 test Monday morning before meeting other officials.  

“Stopping the spread of COVID is our top priority, both here next week and everywhere going forward,” she said. 

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Study Shows Overwork Can Kill You, Literally 

A new study on work-related causes of deaths finds long working hours to be the biggest occupational risk factor. The joint study by the World Health Organization and International Labor Organization estimates nearly 2 million people a year die from work-related diseases and injuries.

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it is shocking to see so many people literally being killed by their jobs. He said every single work-related death is preventable with the right health and safety measures in place.

“More than 80% of work-related deaths are due to non-communicable diseases, primarily cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which are caused by or made worse by factors in the workplace,” Tedros said. “Long working hours are the single deadliest occupational risk factor accounting for 750,000 deaths each year.”

The study considers 19 occupational risk factors, including exposure to long working hours, exposure to air pollution in the workplace, as well as carcinogens and noise. Most of the deaths — 80% — are due to occupational non-communicable diseases, the remaining 20% are due to on-the-job accidents. 

Frank Pega is WHO Technical Officer, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health. He said those most at risk are males and people aged over 54 years. He said a disproportionately large number of work-related deaths occur in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. 

“Within these regions, we can also say that low- and middle-income countries are more affected than high-income countries, and I think … with disadvantaged workers, specifically informal economy workers,” Pega said. “So, informal economy workers probably work in jobs that have less protection and, therefore, are exposed to more occupational risk factors.”

The report cities North Korea as the country with the largest burden of work-related deaths, averaging 79.5 deaths per 100,000 working age population of 15 years or older.It is followed by Indonesia and Nepal. Tied for fourth with 43.7 deaths per 100,000 workers are Bangladesh and India. 

The study does not include data on the impact of COVID-19 work-related deaths. The authors say this information will be captured in future estimates. 

 

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Biden Urges International Leaders to Pursue Strong Climate Change Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden convened six heads of state and three leaders of multilateral organizations on Friday to make his plea: that stronger climate action is not just urgent — it is good for the global economy.

 

The leaders met six weeks ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, an event that aims to chart future global climate efforts.

 

“I wanted to show that we’re at an inflection point and that there’s a real consensus, a real consensus, that while the climate crisis poses an existential threat, there is a silver lining,” Biden told the leaders of Argentina, Bangladesh, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico and the United Kingdom, who all joined virtually.

 

“The climate crisis also presents real and incredible economic opportunities to create jobs and lift up the standard of living for people around the world.”

 

One of Biden’s first acts in office was to return the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change, after his predecessor withdrew saying it was a “bad deal” for the country.

 

The legally binding international treaty aims to limit the global temperature increase by 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels. For developed nations like the U.S. and China — the two largest emitters — that would require a substantial reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.

 

For the U.S., that would require reducing emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, a move that could require a marked shift from traditional energy sources like coal towards greener sources like solar and wind power.

 

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres echoed Biden’s sense of urgency on Friday.

 

“The world is on a catastrophic pathway to 2.7 degrees of heating,” he said in a statement, citing a report released Friday by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. “This is breaking the promise made six years ago to pursue the 1.5-degree Celsius goal of the Paris Agreement. Failure to meet this goal will be measured in the massive loss of lives and livelihoods.”

The U.N. chief directly pinned responsibility on the developed world, noting that 80% of global emissions are caused by the world’s 20 wealthiest nations. He called on all nations to set more ambitious emissions targets, and for developed countries to deliver on their $100 billion commitment to help developing nations deal with climate change.

 

But notable by their absence at Friday’s meeting was any representative from the world’s largest emitter: China.

 

Nikos Tsafos, an analyst working on energy and geopolitics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says there is a lot of subtext to the U.S.-China relationship when it comes to climate change discussions.

 

“The bilateral relationship is more complex and adversarial than it was during the negotiation of the Paris Agreement in 2015, making it hard to disentangle climate from the numerous disputes between the two countries,” he wrote in an opinion piece. “China has also tried to brand itself as a leader on climate and is less willing to do anything that might be seen as kowtowing to U.S. pressure.”

 

But, he noted, China’s perspective has also changed. They now, too, see opportunity to cash in. For years, he said, Chinese firms have been major players in the wind and solar power industries, and the nation is a bigger market for electric vehicles than the U.S.

 

“There is no longer a need to convince China to lean into the energy transition,” he said.

 

The 197 parties to the Paris Agreement — which include individual countries and supranational groupings — will meet in November, in Glasgow, Scotland.

 

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India to Spend $3.5 Billion to Fast-Track Shift to Clean Fuel Cars

Hoping to meet green energy goals and cut down on Indian cities’ air pollution while boosting its flagging auto industry, the Indian government Wednesday announced a $3.5 billion push for electric and hydrogen-fuel powered vehicles.

The plan, which includes incentives for automakers to invest in clean technology cars, will allow India to “leapfrog” to environmentally cleaner vehicles, the cabinet said in a statement while announcing the effort.

“It will herald a new age in higher technology, more efficient and green automotive manufacturing,” the statement said.

Clean fuel vehicles so far make up a fraction of the country’s vehicles, despite ambitious goals announced four years ago for a 100% transition to electric cars by 2030.

This move could, however, give India a head start in an industry that is emerging globally by providing an impetus to manufacturers, according to auto analysts.

“The government is looking more serious and its focus is clearly on green energy. That is why the support it is extending is not for the entire auto industry, but only for those who invest in technological advancement in the sector,” said Awanish Chandra, an auto analyst at Mumbai-based wealth equities firm SMIFS Limited.

The push toward electric vehicles will also contribute significantly to the country’s goal of cutting down carbon emissions — India is the world’s third-biggest carbon emitter.

At the same time, its cities have some of the world’s dirtiest air — India is home to 22 out of 30 cites in the world with the worst air pollution, according to a Greenpeace analysis.

Environmental experts have long said the country’s huge transport sector is a major contributor to the hazardous air in a country where a grossly inadequate public transport infrastructure has increased reliance on private vehicles — Delhi’s roads, for example, are crammed with more than 12 million vehicles.

Along with its big push toward solar energy, the latest initiative will help, according to Amit Kumar, a former senior director with The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.

“Definitely this is the right direction to go. We have to focus on cutting down vehicle emissions whether with electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles to meet our green energy goals,” he said.

India is on track to achieve its Paris Agreement targets to cut carbon emissions well before the target date of 2030, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said earlier this year.

 

However, auto analyst Chandra said he does not expect the transition to electric vehicles to happen in a big way for several years. 

“Petrol and diesel cars are here to stay for at least 10 years, but the world is moving towards electric vehicles, so we should not be lagging. The support from the government will incentivize companies to make the investment,” he said.

The government says it expects to generate about $5.8 billion in new investment and create 750,000 jobs in a sector that contributes about $100 billion to the country’s gross domestic product.

There have been reports that electric car pioneer Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc. plans to enter India, while domestic manufacturers have also said they plan to make big investments to make the shift to electric cars.

India has emerged as one of the world’s major automobile manufacturing hubs in recent decades but the sector has struggled in recent years as an economy that was faltering even before the pandemic depressed demand.

 

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Navalny App Gone from Google, Apple Stores on Russia Vote Day

Jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting app disappeared from Apple and Google stores Friday as Russians began voting in a three-day parliamentary election marked by a historic crackdown on the opposition.

“Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship,” top Navalny ally Ivan Zhdanov said on Twitter.

The app promoted an initiative that outlines for Navalny supporters which candidate they should back to unseat Kremlin-aligned politicians.

Russia had accused Google and Apple of election interference, demanding this week that they remove the app from their stores. 

Exiled Navalny ally Leonid Volkov said the companies had “caved in to the Kremlin’s blackmail.”

“We have the whole of the Russian state against us and even big tech companies,” Navalny’s team said on Telegram.

In a message from prison, Navalny had urged supporters to download the app, which aims to help Russians to vote out candidates from President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party in the upcoming polls. 

On the eve of the vote his team urged Russian voters to back Communist Party candidates. 

Navalny – who was detained in January – has this year seen his organizations declared “extremist” and banned, while all his top aides have fled.

Russia’s media regulator has since barred dozens of websites linked to Navalny including his main website navalny.com. 

 

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