France, England Widen Availability of COVID-19 Vaccines

To fight a rise in cases caused by the coronavirus variants, France and England moved Monday to increase vaccinations.France is now allowing all adults to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, were vaccinated Monday.”Like Brigitte and I, like 25 million French people have already done, let’s get vaccinated! To protect ourselves, to protect our loved ones,” Macron, who contracted the disease caused by the coronavirus in December, tweeted.As of Monday, France had confirmed more than 5.7 million cases of COVID-19 and 109,690 deaths caused by the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.People paddle board backdropped by Brighton Palace Pier on England’s south coast, May 30, 2021. The bank holiday weekend and relaxation of England’s coronavirus restrictions has enabled many people to visit beaches. In Britain, health officials opened London’s Twickenham rugby station as a mass vaccination site. No appointments were required. The country, which is experiencing a rise in coronavirus cases, is trying to contain a fast-spreading virus variant that was first identified in India and accounts for most of its new cases.The United Kingdom had confirmed 4.5 million COVID-19 cases on Monday, and 128,044 deaths.Beginning June 7, Germany plans to make the coronavirus vaccine available to all people older than 16.As of Monday, Germany had nearly 3.7 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 88,469 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.Variants renamedThe World Health Organization, responding to criticisms that the scientific names of the various coronavirus variants were too complicated or stigmatized certain countries, on Monday assigned the variants letters of the Greek alphabet.The four main variants are generally referred to as the Brazil, India, South Africa and U.K. variants. Critics have told the WHO the scientific names were too complicated. For example, the so-called South African coronavirus variant goes by several names, such as B.1.351, 501Y.V2 and 20H/501Y.V2.The variants’ scientific names will remain the same, the WHO said. The change affects the names given the variants when being discussed with the public. The U.K., South Africa, Brazil and India variants have now been given the letters Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, respectively, according to the order in which they were detected, the WHO said.”No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” WHO COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove tweeted.No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants.Globally, we need robust surveillance for variants, incl epi, molecular and sequencing to be carried out and shared. We need to continue to do all we can to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 A Bolivian woman walks past a stand that provides information about COVID-19, as authorities have started to vaccinate people who make a living crossing the border between Bolivia and Peru, in Desaguadero, Bolivia, May 21, 2021.Peru toll revisedAlso Monday, Peru Health Minister Oscar Ugarte revised the coronavirus death toll for the country, from 69,342 to 180,764.“What is being said is that a significant number of deaths were not classified as caused by COVID-19,” Ugarte said, adding that the criteria for assigning COVID-19 as the cause of death was changed. Previously, only patients who “had a positive diagnostic test” were considered to have died from the coronavirus, he said.The criteria were broadened beyond people who tested positive for the virus to include probable cases with “an epidemiological link to a confirmed case,” according to a panel composed of experts from public and private health entities in Peru and from the World Health Organization, the Agence France-Presse reported.The country’s death toll had been questioned since early last year, and experts warned the death toll was being undercounted.Vietnam ramps up testingBecause of a recent surge in coronavirus cases, all 9 million residents in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city, will be tested for the coronavirus, city officials said.The state newspaper, Vietnam News, said the city has a testing capacity of 100,000 samples a day, according to The Associated Press.The country has been battling a surge in the coronavirus since the end of April, tallying more than 4,000 cases. Since early last year, Vietnam has had only 7,321 confirmed cases of the virus and 47 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. Bullet trains are seen parked at a station in preparation for the upcoming Lunar New Year travel peak in Nanjing, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, Jan. 27, 2021.China restricts travelMeanwhile, China reimposed on Monday travel controls on Guangdong province after the region recorded 20 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the 24-hour period ending at midnight Sunday.Provincial officials said that anyone leaving the province, which has a population of 113.4 million people, must provide the results of a nucleic acid test within the previous 72 hours.As of Monday, China had recorded 102,991 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 4,846 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. 

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Pakistan’s COVID-19 Positivity Rate Dips, But ‘We Aren’t Out of the Woods’, Official Tells VOA

Pakistan reported Monday that the national coronavirus positivity rate had remained well below 5% over the past week, with the country’s top health official attributing the declining trend to “effective” government policies, including restrictions on public movement and effective screening of international travelers.Officials recorded 43 deaths and detected more than 2,100 new cases in the last 24 hours, raising the national tally of deaths to nearly 21,000 and infections to more than 921,000 since the pandemic hit the South Asian nation early last year.The national positivity ratio decreased to just over 4% from more than 11% a couple of weeks ago.Last week, health authorities reported the detection of the first case of a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus which has caused record infections and deaths in neighboring India, threatening Pakistan’s gains against the disease.Pakistan’s top health official Faisal Sultan says government surveys have found that “at least two-thirds” of the Pakistani population is willing to get vaccinated.But Faisal Sultan, an infectious disease physician who is also special assistant to the prime minister on national health services, told VOA that an “effective” screening system for international travelers and other measures to deal with the health crisis have so far enabled the country to keep the situation under control in a country of about 220 million.“I would say we are not out of the woods yet, but it seems at this point that I don’t foresee an India-like situation,” Sultan, who is directing all health-related interventions and measures against the pandemic, told VOA in a detailed interview at his office in Islamabad.He noted that while his team has also detected a few cases of the variants prevalent in South African and Brazil, Pakistan is one of nearly 100 countries where a variant first detected in Britain, known as B117, is currently predominant.“A large part of this wave that they [India] are going through, at least as best as I am aware, it was B117, and it was not necessarily the Indian variant that was doing it,” he said.Vaccination drivePeople queue to receive the first shot of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Karachi, Pakistan, May 8, 2021.The Pakistani government announced Monday that later this week it would begin scheduling vaccinations for citizens 18 years old and above. The free national drive has so far inoculated more than seven million people, with officials reporting the number of daily vaccinations growing to fewer than 400,000.Sultan said more than 70% of about 900,000 health care workers across Pakistan have been vaccinated so far. He added that the government intends to vaccinate 70% of the 100 million eligible population by the end of this year. “We really do think that to reach our targets, we need to go over the 500,000 a day mark, perhaps the 600,000 a day mark. So, I think that we really need to ramp up our vaccinations.”Sultan said government surveys have found that “at least two-thirds” of the Pakistani population is willing to get vaccinated.“So, the vaccine centers will have to go close to their homes. It will have to be easy and accessible. It will have to be so easy that in the United States, even normal retail pharmacies were allowed to do the vaccination,” he said.Sultan said the government really needed “to get at least a quarter of its population” in dense urban areas vaccinated before Pakistan “can even talk about any relaxation” in coronavirus-related restrictions, including asking those inoculated against the disease to remove their masks.Health care systemPrime Minister Imran Khan’s government, which took office in August 2018, has from the outset focused on the country’s underfunded and largely neglected national health care system.A vendor refills oxygen cylinders which will supply private hospitals for COVID-19 patients, in Karachi, Pakistan, April 26, 2021.The focus, Sultan noted, enabled the government to timely position itself to combat the pandemic, despite critical economic challenges facing Pakistan.“We added over 7,000 oxygenated beds into the health care system across Pakistan. The second expansion that was done is even more important — a 66% increase in the medical oxygen capacity was done. Had we not done that, we would have faced a crisis. We came to about 90% capacity in the ongoing third wave,” Sultan explained.Pakistan initially received vaccine donations from close ally China to launch the national vaccination drive in early March before purchasing large quantities of vaccine doses to ensure supplies for the national campaign.“They came out, gifted us the first lot, although we had told them we can pay for it. But they insisted. I think it speaks volumes about the level of trust and cooperation between China and Pakistan,” Sultan said.The Pakistani government is using the Chinese-made Sinovac, Sinopharm and CanSino vaccines. It has also received just over a million doses of AstraZeneca under a United Nations-backed program for poor nations, known as COVAX.Pakistani officials say they are in conversations with several suppliers, and the government will have procured about 20 million additional vaccine doses by end of July.“The only challenge is, in an environment where everybody wants the vaccine, to have a steady supply so that you don’t run out of it. This is a challenge that will stay for the rest of the world,” Sultan said, noting that Pakistan was in talks with several suppliers to secure enough doses to sustain domestic supplies.
 
Beijing has also trained Pakistani staff and established a facility at Islamabad’s National Health Institute, where the one-dose CanSino vaccine is being filled from the concentrate provided by China. Sultan noted that the rare facility has the capacity to roll out about 3 million doses of CanSino a month to help boost the vaccination drive.“It may be a small step for us that we have started filling the vaccine from concentrate. But it is a vital step toward actually manufacturing the vaccine in Pakistan, and I think it may take a few months,” he said. 

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UNICEF Says Malnutrition Spikes for Haiti Kids Amid Pandemic

Severe acute childhood malnutrition is expected to more than double this year in Haiti as the country struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, a spike in violence and dwindling resources, a UNICEF report said Monday.
More than 86,000 children under age 5 could be affected, compared with 41,000 reported last year, said Jean Gough, UNICEF’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“I was saddened to see so many children suffering from malnutrition,” she said after a weeklong visit to Haiti. “Some will not recover unless they receive treatment on time.”
Severe acute malnutrition is considered a life-threatening condition.  
In a slightly less dangerous category, acute malnutrition in kids younger than 5 in Haiti has risen 61%, with some 217,000 children expected to suffer from it this year, compared with 134,000 last year.  
Overall, UNICEF said, about 4.4 million of Haiti’s more than 11 million inhabitants lack sufficient food, including 1.9 million children.
Gough told The Associated Press during a recent visit to a hospital in the southern city of Les Cayes that UNICEF has only a one-month supply left of a special food paste given to children in need and is seeking $3 million by the end of June.  
Officials said the pandemic also has disrupted health services, with childhood immunization rates dropping from 28% to 44%, depending on the vaccine. The decrease has led to a rise in diphtheria cases as health workers brace for an expected measles outbreak this year.
UNICEF noted that unvaccinated children also are more likely to die from malnutrition.
Lamir Samedi, a nurse who works at a community health center in the southern town of Saint-Jean-du-Sud, said the target was to vaccinate 80% of children in the area, but they had yet to reach 50%.
Among the children hospitalized is 11-month-old Denise Joseph, who lay quietly in a crib in Les Cayes after being diagnosed with tuberculosis two weeks ago.
 
“She never eats,” said her grandmother, Marie-Rose Emile, who is caring for the infant since her mother also is ill. Emile is struggling to provide for the baby, saying she has barely harvested any beans, corn or potatoes this year.
Gough, the UNICEF official, said she was discouraged by the dismal numbers of malnutrition and drop in childhood immunizations. She said more outreach services are needed because not enough people are visiting community health centers.
Among those visiting a health center for the first time was 27-year-old Franceline Mileon, who brought her young child after hearing a health official with a bullhorn in her neighborhood announcing that a vaccination program had begun. She sat on a bench, coddling her baby, as she waited for a nurse to weigh her.
Overall, UNICEF said it needs nearly $49 million this year to meet humanitarian needs in Haiti, adding that little of that amount has been pledged. The agency $5.2 million of that amount would go toward nutrition and $4.9 million for health, including childhood immunizations.

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Climate Talks Resume Online as Pressure to Act Grows

For the first time since 2019 and following a flurry of net-zero pledges from the world’s largest emitters, UN climate negotiations resume Monday in a virtual format just six months before the crunch COP26 summit. The talks, nominally hosted by the United Nations climate change program in the German city of Bonn, will all be informal, meaning that no decisions will be taken during the three-week dialogue. But with increasingly dire warnings from scientists that the pace of global warming is already outstripping humanity’s best plan to cut emissions, the pressure for progress to be made on several thorny issues is high.   In 2018, countries agreed to many elements of the Paris agreement “rulebook”, governing how each nation implements its goals. But several issues remain unresolved, including rules about transparency, carbon markets, and a unified timeframe for all countries to ratchet up their emissions cuts.At the last UN climate summit in December 2019, countries also failed to agree upon a universal system of reporting climate finance. Nathan Cogswell, a research associate at the World Resources Institute, said a deal on greater transparency was “a central component of the effective implementation of the Paris agreement”. “The upcoming session will hopefully help parties get closer to that.”   One of the thorniest debates during recent UN climate talks has been Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which deals with the trade of emissions cuts.   A major sticking point remains over rules to avoid double counting emissions reductions within both bi-lateral and international carbon markets. Some wealthy nations without the natural resources — forests, for instance — to mitigate their contribution to climate change have spent huge amounts on projects to preserve those habitats in other countries.    Currently both the buying and selling nations may count the project towards their domestic climate action, opening the door for the same cut to be counted twice.   Cogswell said that a failure to agree on a protection against double counting emissions reductions by the end of the COP26 in Glasgow in November would “weaken the ambition of global efforts” to fight climate change.  ‘Not ideal’COVID-19 forced Britain and the UN to shelve talks originally scheduled for last year until the end of 2021. As the pandemic continues to rage, particularly among developing nations most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, negotiators will need to achieve tangible progress during the three-week Bonn talks. “The absence of a COP left a tremendous amount of work to be done… if we want to deliver at Glasgow,” said Marianne Karlsen, chair of a major technical forum at the UN-led negotiations.   The two-week sessions — expanded this year to three — normally involve thousands of representatives from more than 180 countries, and often rely on behind-closed-doors bargaining between delegates to get deals done.   Karlsen said the virtual configuration of talks was “not ideal at all”.   “We really wanted to be able to have all the interactions of when we meet in person but there was no other option,” she said. Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, chair of the UN’s SBSTA technical working group, said delegates needed to use the virtual negotiations to “prioritize a way to capture progress, so we can capture that progress when we meet in person, and make decisions” in Glasgow. “It’s important that we send a clear message to the world: We are very much engaged in resolving the Paris rulebook and to tackling this climate change conundrum.” 

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From Uzbekistan to Inspecting American Bridges: An Engineer’s Story

About 40% of the more than 617,000 bridges in the U.S. are at least 50 years old, and of that number more than 46,000 are in dangerously poor condition. The job of bridge inspectors is to locate and identify their structural deficiencies. Svitlana Prestynska met with one such inspector and filed this report from Denver, Colorado, narrated by Anna Rice.

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Studies Reveal China’s Dominant Position in High-Tech Minerals

New clean energy technologies like solar power and electric vehicles are expected to remake the global energy industry. Trillions of dollars used to drill and ship oil and gas will instead be spent finding and processing the specialized minerals used to make high-tech gear including advanced electric generators and powerful, compact batteries.Energy analysts say this will challenge the United States, which will likely need to import vastly more minerals like cobalt, lithium and aluminum, at the same time that China has increased its control over the supply of some key resources.People cool off in the beach near the mining pipeline “Puerto Coloso” of the “Escondida” cooper mine in Antofagasta, Chile, Feb. 16, 2017.A VOA examination of U.S. government data shows how China has become the main supplier for some of the most important raw materials that Western countries import, giving Beijing leverage over the materials that go into everything from advanced fighter jets to solar panels.Not only has Beijing bought up some of the world’s biggest mines for these minerals, the country also has invested heavily in the processing facilities that refine the raw materials into industrially-useful products, strengthening Beijing’s position in global supply chains.Beijing has already given the world reason to worry about its reliability as a global supplier. In 2011, it used its position as the top global supplier of rare earth metals to cut exports, driving up prices. China’s critics say Beijing’s dominant position in so-called “critical minerals” gives them similar leverage.Aerial view of evaporation pools of the new state-owned lithium extraction complex, in the southern zone of the Uyuni Salt Flat, Bolivia, on July 10, 2019.35 critical mineralsThe United States has designated A man watches a conveyor belt loaded with chunks of raw cobalt after a first transformation at a plant in Lubumbashi, Congo, on Feb. 16, 2018, before being exported, mainly to China, to be refined.Chinese dominance in U.S. allies’ supply chainsOther Western countries have different lists of minerals considered critical to their economies. Among the lists of Australia, U.K. and Canada, rare earth minerals account for only one of the 24, 41 and 31 critical minerals, respectively.  The European Union classifies light and heavy rare earths as two separate critical elements on its 30 Critical Raw Materials (CRM) list.A study published last year by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, a science and technology service agency, found that the production of a Rafale fighter aircraft requires a total of 16 CRMs, of which only three are rare earth elements. Although each country makes up its own list of “critical minerals” based on its strategic needs, China is a dominant supplier in all of the lists.In the EU’s list, China is the largest source of imports for 10 minerals. Among the 24 critical minerals identified by the Australian government in its Critical Minerals Prospectus 2020 report, China is listed as the largest producer of 11 of them.   In the U.K.’s Risk List, China is the leading producer of 23 minerals.Similar findings were reported by Chinese researchers as well.  A study published by China Geological Survey stated that “after combing through the list of Critical Minerals in the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and other countries, it can be seen that half or more of the country’s main producing countries and main sources of imports are our country.”The 2019 report said that of the 35 key minerals in the U.S., the largest supplier of 13 CMs is China, and China is also the largest producer of 19 CMs.This story originated in VOA’s Mandarin Service. 

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Australians Rush for Vaccines as COVID Lockdown Continues in Victoria

Record numbers of COVID-19 vaccinations have been completed in Australia as a snap seven-day lockdown continues in the nation’s second most-populous state.Seven million people in Victoria are subject to strict stay-at-home orders after a growing cluster of infections was detected in recent days. Australia has managed to mostly contain the coronavirus through lockdowns, the closure of its international borders and strict quarantine measures for returning citizens, but the national vaccination program has been beset by supply issues and hesitancy among many Australians.There are estimated to be 100 active coronavirus cases in Australia, according to the Health Department. About half are in Victoria, which is under a seven-day lockdown. It is the state’s fourth shutdown since the pandemic began.The number of infections in Australia is small compared to other countries, including Japan, Brazil and the United States.However, community transmission of the virus has been rare in recent months and the outbreak in Victoria is significant.There has been complacency in the community and mounting hesitancy about vaccines and possible side effects, which have delayed the national inoculation plan.Health authorities in Victoria, though, have said the lockdown has sent residents flocking to injection centers across the country in record numbers.However, some experts believe that it might be too late to prevent another wave of infections in Australia’s second most populous state.“We have been here before,” said Dr. Michelle Ananda-Rajah, an infectious diseases expert at Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital. “I think, though, that the stakes are higher this time because we have all the factors for what is essentially a perfect storm. We have a largely unvaccinated population; we have winter approaching, and we have an unforgiving variant on the loose at the moment. You know, Victoria is primed at the moment for a third wave, and we need to do everything possible to prevent that from happening.”Melbourne, the Victoria state capital, endured Australia’s longest COVID-19 lockdown last year. Once again, the nation’s second-biggest city finds itself under tight restrictions.Masks are now mandatory. Places of worship and schools are closed. Victorians can only leave home for essential work, shopping, exercise, caregiving or to get a coronavirus vaccine.Businesses are facing heavy losses.A man infected with a highly contagious COVID-19 variant who stayed at a quarantine hotel for returning travelers is thought to be the source of the outbreak.Australia has recorded more than 30,000 coronavirus cases and 910 deaths since the pandemic began, according to government statistics.

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Dangerously Trending: Driverless Tesla Videos on Social Media

It was a boozy joyride captured for TikTok with a soundtrack provided by Justin Bieber and with a Tesla serving as the “Designated Driver” for the night.In the short video, three young men are shown dancing in their seats, beers nearby, as the vehicle moves down the highway near other cars at 105 kph, as shown on the speedometer.Nobody is behind the steering wheel.The video clip, which has been “liked” by nearly 2 million people and shared 105,000 times, is just one of many similar ones on social media reviewed by AFP.Such behavior is illegal and flouts the instructions of the automaker, which says on its website that Tesla’s driver-assistance system is “intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment.”Besides Tesla’s “Autopilot” system, which matches a vehicle’s speed to that of surrounding traffic and assists in steering within a clearly marked lane, Tesla offers what it calls “full self-driving capability.”That program’s capabilities include helping park a car, maneuver a vehicle in and out of a tight parking space and guide a car from a highway on-ramp to an off-ramp.Tesla will alert the driver and ultimately disengage the self-driving system if the driver’s seatbelt is not buckled, or if the hands of the driver are not detected on the steering wheel.Fooling the systemHowever, these protections have proved little match for Tesla motorists determined to misuse their vehicles. The magazine Consumer Reports released a video in which an incredulous tester easily duped a Tesla into driving with no one at the wheel.”Idiots will be idiots, they will find a way to trick the system and that’s not Tesla’s fault, they can put a bunch of other things here people will just defeat it,” a poster calling himself “Dirty Tesla” said in a video on his YouTube page, which has 55,000 subscribers.(“Dirty Tesla” has described himself as the president of a Tesla owner’s club in Michigan but declined to give his name.)But Tesla itself has been less than clear, directing users to follow the rules even as it employs confusing terminology for its driver-assistance programs, and as its leader, Elon Musk, makes sweeping statements about the technology.Musk early this year predicted the company’s vehicles would achieve Level 5 autonomy, or full self-driving, in 2021. Yet in 2015, the billionaire had said that goal would be reached within two years.”Some companies are more careful than others in how they advertise,” said Andrew Kun, an expert in human-computer interactions at the University of New Hampshire.”The problem is overtrust, thinking that the system can do more than it is really able to do,” Kun said. “Of course, that’s the issue with calling it ‘Autopilot’ when it really isn’t.”Deadly accidentsAdding gravity to the matter, a series of fatal crashes have raised suspicions that Tesla’s technology may have been misused.On April 17, two people were killed near Houston after a Tesla smashed into a tree.A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board did not weigh in on whether anyone was behind the wheel. Local police had said nobody was in the driver’s seat.In a fatal crash in May near Los Angeles also under investigation, the driver had posted images on social media of himself driving his Tesla without his hands on the wheel.Despite billions of dollars spent thus far, automakers have yet to produce a vehicle with full autonomy.Tesla’s system has reached Level 2 autonomy under the scale of the Society of Automotive Engineers, still a ways from full autonomy and requiring a person in the driver’s seat who can take control if necessary.California regulators have said they are reviewing whether Tesla’s marketing misleads consumers — specifically, whether it has violated a regulation that “prohibits a company from advertising vehicles for sale or lease as autonomous unless the vehicle meets the statutory and regulatory definition of an autonomous vehicle,” the Department of Motor Vehicles told AFP. 

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Brazilians Stage More Protests Against Bolsonaro

Tens of thousands of people in Brazil staged another day of protest against President Jair Bolsonaro, in particular for his chaotic handling of the pandemic, which has claimed more than 461,000 lives here.In downtown Rio de Janeiro, some 10,000 people wearing masks marched through the streets, with some chanting “Bolsonaro genocide” or “Go away, Bolsovirus.”Similar rallies were held in other major cities, the latest in a wave of anger against Bolsonaro that began months ago. After the United States, Brazil has the world’s second-highest coronavirus death toll.At the outset of the pandemic, the far right Bolsonaro dismissed COVID-19 as “a little flu” and as the death toll has risen steadily he has gone on to infuriate people in other ways, opposing stay-at-home measures and masks, touting ineffective medications, refusing offers of vaccines, and failing to anticipate oxygen shortages that left patients to suffocate.One of the themes of the rally Saturday was how many lives might have been saved if the Bolsonaro government had started Brazil’s vaccination drive earlier. The drive is going slowly and has sputtered frequently for lack of supplies.”We must stop this government. We must say ‘Enough is enough,'” businessman Omar Silveira told AFP at the Rio rally.Of Bolsonaro, he said: “He is a murderer, a psychopath. He has no feelings. He does not feel, as we do. He cannot perceive the disaster that he is causing.”Demonstrators also assailed Bolsonaro for allowing deforestation of the Amazon and land seizures from indigenous people, and said he encourages violence and racism.Rallies were held Saturday in other major cities such as the capital Brasilia, Salvador in the northeast and Belo Horizonte in the southeast.In the northeastern city of Recife, police firing tear gas and rubber bullets dispersed a street rally, said the news website G1.Brasilia saw its largest rally since the start of the pandemic as people marched on Congress, where a senate commission is investigating Bolsonaro’s handling of the health crisis.The past two weekends supporters of Bolsonaro held demonstrations in support of him — and at his request — as his approval rating plummeted to a record low of 24%, according to a poll by Datafolha.  Around 49% of those questioned favor Bolsonaro being removed from office while 46% are opposed, this pollster said.    

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Myanmar COVID-19 Outbreak Hits Health System Shattered After Coup

Breathless, fevered and without the extra oxygen that could help keep them alive, the new coronavirus patients at a hospital near Myanmar’s border with India highlight the threat to a health system near collapse since February’s coup.To help her tend the seven COVID-19 patients at Cikha hospital, day and night, chief nurse Lun Za En has a lab technician and a pharmacist’s assistant.Mostly, they offer kind words and acetaminophen.”We don’t have enough oxygen, enough medical equipment, enough electricity, enough doctors or enough ambulances,” Lun Za En, 45, told Reuters from the town of just more than 10,000. “We are operating with three staff instead of 11.”Myanmar’s anti-COVID campaign foundered along with the rest of the health system after the military seized power on Feb. 1 and overthrew elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government had stepped up testing, quarantine and treatment.Services at public hospitals collapsed after many doctors and nurses joined strikes in a Civil Disobedience Movement at the forefront of the opposition to military rule — and sometimes on the front line of the protests that have been bloodily suppressed.Thirteen medics have been killed, according to World Health Organization data that shows 179 attacks on health workers, facilities and transportation, nearly half of all such attacks recorded worldwide this year, said WHO Myanmar representative Stephan Paul Jost.About 150 health workers have been arrested. Hundreds more doctors and nurses are wanted on incitement charges.Neither a junta spokesman nor the health ministry responded to requests for comment. The junta, which initially made fighting the pandemic one of its priorities, has repeatedly urged medics to return to work. Few have responded.Testing collapsedA worker at one COVID-19 quarantine center in Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon, said all the specialist health workers there had joined the Civil Disobedience Movement.”Then again, we don’t receive new patients any more as COVID test centers don’t have staff to test,” said the worker, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution.In the week before the coup, COVID-19 tests nationally averaged more than 17,000 a day. That had fallen below 1,200 a day in the seven days through Wednesday.Myanmar has reported more than 3,200 COVID-19 deaths from more than 140,000 cases, although the slump in testing has raised doubts over data that shows new cases and deaths have largely plateaued since the coup.Now, a health system in crisis is raising concerns about the likely impact of the variants that are sweeping through India, Thailand and other neighbors.Patients with COVID-19 symptoms started showing up at Cikha hospital in mid-May. It is only 6 kilometers from India, and health workers fear the illness could be the highly infectious B.1.617.2 strain, though they lack the means to test for it.”It’s very concerning that COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccinations are extremely limited in Myanmar as more lives are at risk with new, more dangerous variants spreading,” said Luis Sfeir-Younis, Myanmar COVID-19 operations manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.Surge of casesTwenty-four cases have been identified in Cikha, said Za En, the nurse. Seven were so serious they needed hospitalization.Stay-at-home orders have now been declared in parts of Chin state, where Cikha is located, and neighboring Sagaing region.The WHO said it was trying to reach authorities and other groups in the area who could provide help, while recognizing the difficulties in a health system that was precipitously reversing years of impressive gains.”It is not clear how this will be resolved, unless there is a resolution at the political level addressing the political conflict,” Jost said.Za En said her hospital was doing the best it could with nebulizers — machines that turn liquid to mist — to relieve breathlessness. Some patients have oxygen concentrators, but they only work for the two hours a day that the town gets electricity.Refusing to abandon the sick, Za En said she decided not to join the strikes.”The junta will not take care of our patients,” she said.Across Myanmar, some striking doctors have set up underground clinics to help patients. When Myanmar Red Cross volunteers established three clinics in Yangon neighborhoods, they quickly had dozens of patients.At best, such options can provide basic care.”Eighty percent of the hospitals are public health hospitals,” said Marjan Besuijen, head of mission for the Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) aid group. “As MSF or others we can’t step in, it’s too big.”Although military hospitals have been opened to the public, many people fear them or refuse to go on principle, including for coronavirus vaccinations in a campaign the ousted government had launched days before the coup.”I am very worried that these new infections will spread all over the country,” Za En said. “If the infection spreads to the crowded cities, it could be uncontrollable.”

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Vietnam Finds New Virus Variant

Vietnam has discovered a new coronavirus variant that’s a hybrid of strains first found in India and the U.K., the Vietnamese health minister said Saturday.Nguyen Thanh Long said scientists examined the genetic makeup of the virus that had infected some recent patients and found the new version of the virus. He said lab tests suggested it might spread more easily than other versions of the virus.Viruses often develop small genetic changes as they reproduce, and new variants of the coronavirus have been seen almost since it was first detected in China in late 2019. The World Health Organization has listed four global “variants of concern” – the two first found in the U.K. and India, plus ones identified in South Africa and Brazil.Long said the new variant could be responsible for a recent surge in Vietnam. Infection has spread to 30 of the country’s 63 municipalities and provinces.Vietnam was initially a standout success in battling the virus. In early May, it had recorded just more than 3,100 confirmed cases and 35 deaths since the start of the pandemic.FILE – A health worker injects a doctor with a dose of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Hanoi, Vietnam, March 8, 2021.But in the last few weeks, Vietnam has confirmed more than 3,500 new cases and 12 deaths, increasing the country’s total death toll to 47.Most of the new transmissions were found in Bac Ninh and Bac Giang, two provinces dense with industrial zones where hundreds of thousands of people work for major companies, including Samsung, Canon and Luxshare, a partner in assembling Apple products. Despite strict health regulations, a company in Bac Giang discovered that one-fifth of its 4,800 workers had tested positive for the virus.In Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s largest metropolis and home to 9 million, at least 85 people have tested positive as part of a cluster at a Protestant church, the Health Ministry said. Worshippers sang and chanted while sitting close together without wearing proper masks or taking other precautions.Vietnam has since ordered a nationwide ban on all religious events. In major cities, authorities have banned large gatherings and have closed public parks and nonessential businesses, including in-person restaurants, bars, clubs and spas.Vietnam so far has vaccinated 1 million people with AstraZeneca shots. Last week, it sealed a deal with Pfizer for 30 million doses, which are scheduled to be delivered in the third and fourth quarters of this year. It is also in talks with Moderna that would give it enough shots to fully vaccinate 80% of its 96 million people.

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Medics March to WHO Headquarters in Climate Campaign

Medics concerned about the effects on public health of environmental degradation marched Saturday on the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, demanding health authorities make climate change and biodiversity loss their top priorities.White-clad activists from the group Doctors for Extinction Rebellion marched from Geneva’s Place des Nations to WHO headquarters where they were met by Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, and Maria Neira, director of environment, climate change and health.”The pandemic will end, but there is no vaccine for climate change,” Tedros said as he welcomed the activists outside the building. “We have to act now, in solidarity, to prevent and prepare before it is too late.”
 
Professor Valerie D’Acremont, an infectious disease specialist and co-founder of Doctors For Extinction Rebellion, called on the WHO “to be the driving force and guarantor of public policies that respect the health of all and preserve life.”
 
The activists handed Tedros a letter and a large hourglass, the symbol of Extinction Rebellion which wants to prompt a wider revolt to avert the worst scenarios of devastation outlined by scientists studying climate change.
 
Tedros later retweeted a message from the WHO stating both bodies were “standing in solidarity & urging global action” to end the climate crisis and protect health everywhere. “These are inextricably intertwined.”

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Virus Fails to Deter Hundreds of Climbers on Mount Everest

A year after Mount Everest was closed to climbers as the pandemic swept across the globe, hundreds are making the final push to the summit with only a few more days left in the season, saying they are undeterred by a coronavirus outbreak in base camp.Three expedition teams to Everest canceled their climb this month following reports of people getting sick. But the remaining 41 teams decided to continue with hundreds of climbers and their guides scaling the 8,849-meter top in the season that ends in May, before bad weather sets in.”Even though the coronavirus has reached the Everest base camp, it has not made any huge effect like what is being believed outside of the mountain,” said Mingma Sherpa of Seven Summit Treks, the biggest expedition operator on Everest. “No one has really fallen seriously sick because of COVID or died like the rumors that have been spreading.”With 122 clients from 10 teams on Everest, the company led the biggest group but there were no serious illnesses among them, he said.Nepalese officials have downplayed reports of coronavirus cases on Mount Everest, apparently out of concern of creating chaos and confusion in the base camp. After a gap year of no income from climbers, Nepal has been eager to cash in on this year’s season.”Many people made it to the base camp, and it is possible that the people who went there from here could have been infected,” Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli said. “But that does not mean that it (coronavirus) has reached the entire mountain, maybe a part of the base camp or the area below that.”In April, a Norwegian climber became the first to test positive at the Everest base camp. He was flown by helicopter to Kathmandu, where he was treated and later returned home.FILE – In this Nov. 12, 2015, file photo, Mount Everest is seen from the way to Kalapatthar in Nepal.Prominent guide Lukas Furtenbach of Austria decided to halt his expedition this month and pull out his clients because of an outbreak among team members.After returning from the mountain, Furtenbach estimated more than 100 climbers and support staff have been infected. He said in an interview last week that it was obvious there were many cases at the base camp because he could see people were sick and could hear them coughing in their tents.”I think with all the confirmed cases we know now — confirmed from (rescue) pilots, from insurance, from doctors, from expedition leaders — I have the positive tests so we can prove this,” Furtenbach told The Associated Press.China last week canceled climbing from its side of Everest due to fears the virus could spread from Nepal.The climbing season was accompanied by a devastating surge in coronavirus cases in Nepal, with record numbers of daily infections and deaths. On Friday, Nepal reported 6,951 new confirmed cases and 96 deaths, bringing the nation’s totals since the pandemic began to more than 549,111 infections and 7,047 deaths.Another expedition, by the Telluride, Colorado-based company Mountain Trip, also announced it was pulling out of Everest.”While it’s a difficult decision to make when considering all of the work, years of preparation, sacrifice and resources that have went into the expedition, it’s the only sensible outcome from a risk management standpoint,” a statement by the company said.Six Sherpa guides working for the company have been evacuated to Kathmandu with COVID-19 symptoms, it said.A total of 408 foreign climbers were issued permits to climb Everest this season, aided by several hundred Sherpas and support staff who have been stationed at base camp since April.Since Everest was first conquered on May 29, 1953, thousands of people have scaled the peak and many Nepalese Sherpas have done it multiple times. Veteran Sherpa guide Kami Rita scaled the summit a record 25th time this month. 

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EU Authorizes Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for Young Adolescents

The European Commission has authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use in children as young as 12, widening the pool of those eligible to be inoculated, following similar approvals in the United States and Canada.The commission made the announcement Friday after the European Union’s medical regulator, the European Medicines Agency, recommended Friday the use of the vaccine in children ages 12-15, saying that data show it is safe and effective.”Extending the protection of a safe and effective vaccine in this younger population is an important step forward in the fight against this pandemic,” said Marco Cavaleri, the EMA’s head of health threats and vaccines strategy.It is now up to individual EU states to decide whether and when to offer the vaccine to young adolescents.Germany and Italy have already said they are preparing to extend their vaccination campaign to youths ages 12-15.Also Friday, Britain approved the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson. It is the fourth COVID-19 vaccine approved in the country, after inoculations made by Pfizer and BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Moderna.French President Emmanuel Macron pledged Friday to help provide South Africa and other African countries with vaccine doses. During a visit to Pretoria, Macron said France would donate more than 30 million doses this year to the U.N.-backed COVAX global vaccine initiative.According to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, South Africa has so far vaccinated roughly 700,000 people out of its population of 40 million.In Australia, Melbourne went back under lockdown on Friday, as health authorities said a cluster of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases had increased to 39.Health officials have ordered residents to stay home for seven days to prevent the infection from spreading and allow time to investigate how the virus was transmitted from a man being quarantined at a hotel.The outbreak has been traced to an overseas traveler who was found to be infected with an Indian variant of the coronavirus.The acting premier of Australia’s southern state of Victoria, James Merlino, told reporters in Melbourne that the new outbreak is the result of “a highly infectious strain of the virus, a variant of concern, which is running faster than we have ever recorded.”Stores are closed during a lockdown to stop the spread of the new coronavirus in downtown Ribeirao Preto, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, May 28, 2021.During the lockdown, residents will be allowed to leave their homes only for essential work, school, shopping, caregiving, exercise and medical reasons, including receiving their scheduled coronavirus vaccinations.The new lockdown is the fourth one imposed on Victoria state since the start of the pandemic. The most severe period occurred in mid-2020 and lasted more than three months as Victoria was in the grip of a wave of COVID-19 infections that killed more than 800 people.Merlino had already imposed a new set of restrictions for Australia’s second most populous state, including limiting the size of public gatherings and making mask wearing mandatory in restaurants, hotels and other indoor venues until June 4.In other developments Friday, India reported 186,364 new coronavirus infections during the previous 24 hours, its lowest daily rise since April 14. Deaths rose from the previous day to 3,660.In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said children at summer camp who are not vaccinated do not have to wear masks outside unless they are in crowds or in sustained close contact with others. The new guidance comes as millions of children are set to resume summer camp this summer after the closure of many camps last year due to the virus.Americans are celebrating the start of the Memorial Day weekend by hitting the roads and skies as they seek to cast off more than a year of pandemic restrictions and try to resume a sense of normalcy.U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas urged Americans to be patient this weekend at busy airports.”People will see lines because there’s going to be a tremendous amount of people traveling this weekend,” he told ABC’s Good Morning America on Friday.More than 1.8 million people went through U.S. airports on Thursday, and that number is expected to rise over the weekend.Also in the United States, Facebook said it will no longer remove statements that COVID-19 was created by humans or manufactured “in light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts.”A man in a protective suit stands next to the burning pyre of a person who died of COVID-19, at a crematorium in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, May 28, 2021.Since the beginning of the pandemic outbreak, Facebook has changed its policy several times on what is and is not allowed on the topic. Another claim banned from discussion on the platform is the notion that vaccines are toxic or not effective.The American Civil Liberties Union requested Thursday that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “provide immediate vaccine access to the more than 22,100 people in ICE custody.””Over the course of the pandemic, ICE detention facilities have been some of the worst hotspots for the spread of COVID-19, with positivity rates five times greater than prisons and 20 times greater than the general U.S. population,” said the ACLU’s Eunice Cho.

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On World Menstrual Health Day, Cameroon NGOs Seek Free Kits to Battle Stigma

World Menstrual Health Day on May 28 is being observed in Cameroon with NGOs and girls asking the government to either subsidize sanitary pads or provide them for free, as they already do with condoms. At least 300 school children are gathered at the government school in the southwestern town of Buea on the occasion of this year’s World Menstrual Health Day. Fifteen-year-old Carine Ndzelen tells them in Lamnso, a language spoken in Cameroon, that young girls and women continue to suffer from stigma during their menstrual periods, and it’s considered taboo to even discuss it.She says it is unethical for students and teachers to mock girls who are seen with drops of blood on their skirts. She says menstruation is a normal vaginal bleeding that occurs as part of a woman’s monthly cycle indicating that her growth is normal. She says people should comfort and assist girls who menstruate by donating sanitary kits or clean pieces of cloth that can be used to absorb menstrual discharge.Ndzelen said the education of many young girls is undermined by limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure.Ernestine Oben is founder and coordinator of the NGO Able Women Cameroon that works for the emancipation of women and girls. She says the NGOs invited Ndzelen because of the ordeal she endured while experiencing her first menses in the countryside. “She didn’t even notice that her period had started until blood stains were dripping on her legs, and her mother had to start tearing her dress that she was putting on,” said Oben. “Every now and then she would tear off a piece and give her to use until they got here. Her first experience was in the bush, and her mother had to sacrifice the dress that she was wearing.”Cameroon’s ministry of social affairs reports that many girls do not understand what is happening when they start menstruating. They either go into hiding or start using traditional concoctions proposed by their peers to stop the flow. Mothers often do not discuss menstruation with their daughters.The absence of adequate sanitation facilities in schools and public spaces makes it very difficult for women and girls to manage their periods. Feka Parchibel is coordinator of the NGO Hope for the Vulnerables and Orphans. She says the government should assist young girls with menstrual kits every month. Her NGO distributed menstrual pads to poor children at school.”There are many more women and girls who need sanitary kits than the quantity we actually brought, and it is frustrating,” said Parchibel. “You see women who use rags, papers, who use just anything unhealthy to stop that blood flow at that particular moment. It has made women and girls lose their dignity. Our wish is for the government to subsidize the cost of these sanitary pads, why not make them free. If they [government] can give condoms for free why can’t they give sanitary pads, too, for free at least to young girls.”The government did not say if it will provide the kits free. But Stela Dopgima of Cameroon’s Youth and Family Empowerment Center says there is ongoing education against taboos. She says communities should stop thinking that menstruation is an impurity or a disease. She says communities should stop subjecting women and girls to religious, domestic or sexual prohibitions, which often lead to further isolation or stigmatization. 

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On World Menstrual Health Day, Cameroon NGOs Seek Free Menstrual Kits to Battle Stigma

World Menstrual Health Day on May 28 is being observed in Cameroon with NGOs and girls asking the government to either subsidize sanitary pads or provide them for free, as they already do with condoms. At least 300 school children are gathered at the government school in the southwestern town of Buea on the occasion of this year’s World Menstrual Health Day. Fifteen-year-old Carine Ndzelen tells them in Lamnso, a language spoken in Cameroon, that young girls and women continue to suffer from stigma during their menstrual periods, and it’s considered taboo to even discuss it.She says it is unethical for students and teachers to mock girls who are seen with drops of blood on their skirts. She says menstruation is a normal vaginal bleeding that occurs as part of a woman’s monthly cycle indicating that her growth is normal. She says people should comfort and assist girls who menstruate by donating sanitary kits or clean pieces of cloth that can be used to absorb menstrual discharge.Ndzelen said the education of many young girls is undermined by limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure.Ernestine Oben is founder and coordinator of the NGO Able Women Cameroon that works for the emancipation of women and girls. She says the NGOs invited Ndzelen because of the ordeal she endured while experiencing her first menses in the countryside. “She didn’t even notice that her period had started until blood stains were dripping on her legs, and her mother had to start tearing her dress that she was putting on,” said Oben. “Every now and then she would tear off a piece and give her to use until they got here. Her first experience was in the bush, and her mother had to sacrifice the dress that she was wearing.”Cameroon’s ministry of social affairs reports that many girls do not understand what is happening when they start menstruating. They either go into hiding or start using traditional concoctions proposed by their peers to stop the flow. Mothers often do not discuss menstruation with their daughters.The absence of adequate sanitation facilities in schools and public spaces makes it very difficult for women and girls to manage their periods. Feka Parchibel is coordinator of the NGO Hope for the Vulnerables and Orphans. She says the government should assist young girls with menstrual kits every month. Her NGO distributed menstrual pads to poor children at school.”There are many more women and girls who need sanitary kits than the quantity we actually brought, and it is frustrating,” said Parchibel. “You see women who use rags, papers, who use just anything unhealthy to stop that blood flow at that particular moment. It has made women and girls lose their dignity. Our wish is for the government to subsidize the cost of these sanitary pads, why not make them free. If they [government] can give condoms for free why can’t they give sanitary pads, too, for free at least to young girls.”The government did not say if it will provide the kits free. But Stela Dopgima of Cameroon’s Youth and Family Empowerment Center says there is ongoing education against taboos. She says communities should stop thinking that menstruation is an impurity or a disease. She says communities should stop subjecting women and girls to religious, domestic or sexual prohibitions, which often lead to further isolation or stigmatization. 

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