Month: February 2022

Climate Change Poses Grave Threat to a Healthy Planet

An expert group of 270 climate scientists warns the dire impacts of climate change soon will be irreversible unless governments act decisively to tackle these imminent global threats.

Hoesung Lee, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, does not mince words. He said the stakes of our planet have never been higher.

“Human activities have warmed the planet at a rate not seen in at least the past 2,000 years. We are on course to reaching global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades and temperatures will continue to rise unless the world takes much bolder action,” said Lee.

He said the action governments take today will shape how people will be able to adapt to climate change and how nature will respond to increasing climate risks.

Debra Roberts is co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II, which produced the report. She said the scientific evidence that climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet is unequivocal.

“Climate change combines with unsustainable use of natural resources. Habitat destruction, deforestation, and growing urbanization as well as inequity and marginalization … 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in global hotspots of high vulnerability to climate change,” said Roberts.

These include parts of Africa, as well as South Asia, Central and South America, small islands, and the Arctic. The report warns that people living in these hotspots will likely experience severe food shortages, leading to malnutrition, should global temperatures rise by two degrees Celsius by 2050.

Despite these dire predictions, scientists say the report presents a reality check on what has been done to stem global warming and what remains to be done. They say the report offers solutions on how to adapt to climate change and mitigate their worst effects.

Scientists say some challenges can be addressed by creating a more equitable and sustainable world, by moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and by using indigenous knowledge to protect nature.

These steps, along with adaptation and mitigation projects, can help create change, but poorer countries will need wealthier countries to help finance them.

Twitter to Reduce Visibility of Russian State Media Content 

Twitter announced Monday that it will start labeling and making it harder for users to see tweets about the invasion of Ukraine that contain information from Russian state media outlets like RT and Sputnik.

“For years we’ve provided more context about state-affiliated media while not accepting ad $ or amplifying accounts,” Twitter said in a tweet. “With many looking for credible info due to the conflict in Ukraine, we’re now adding labels on Tweets linking to state media & reducing the content’s visibility.”


Twitter said it had seen over 45,000 tweets a day from people sharing links to Russian state media, much more than coming from state-sponsored accounts.

Twitter began to de-amplify Russian state media accounts in 2020 and had earlier banned Russian state media from advertising.

The announcement Monday will impact individuals sharing links from those entities.

The move is the latest spat between U.S. social media companies and Russia.

Twitter has been slowed down in Russia several times, most recently on Saturday, and last week, Russia said it would limit Russians’ access to some features of Facebook, saying the company was involved in censorship.

Google and Facebook have also banned Russian state media from monetizing their accounts.

Some information in this report comes from Reuters.

Rare Copy of First Novel by African American Woman Donated

A rare version of a book considered the first novel published in the U.S. by a Black woman has returned to her home state of New Hampshire. 

An original first edition of Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of a Free Black” was recently donated to Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, WMUR-TV reports.  

The book was hand-delivered to the organization by a retired librarian in California who found the novel in a family safe, according to the station.  

The organization plans to display the book at its headquarters in Portsmouth after it undergoes some minor restoration.  

JerriAnne Boggis, the organization’s executive director, said the largely autobiographical work, which Wilson wrote while living in Boston in 1859, represents an act of courage. 

The novel tells the story of Frado, a Black girl who is abused and overworked as the indentured servant to a New England family. 

“She sold them door to door, and all during that time when the Fugitive Slave Act was in place,” Boggis told WMUR-TV. “So, she’s knocking at people’s doors and not even sure if she would be captured and taken into slavery.” 

Wilson was born in Milford, New Hampshire in 1825 and a statue in the town’s Bicentennial Park honors her. She died in 1900 in a Massachusetts hospital. 

Glitz Returns on Screen Actors Guild Awards Red Carpet

The 28th Screen Actors Guild Awards will kick off with a “Hamilton” reunion, feature a lifetime achievement award for Helen Mirren and, maybe, supply a preview of the upcoming Academy Awards.

The SAG Awards, taking place at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, California, begin at 8 p.m. EST Sunday and air on both TNT and TBS. (The show will also be available to stream Monday on HBO Max.) After the January Golden Globes were a non-event, the Screen Actors Guild Awards are Hollywood’s first major, televised, in-person award show — complete with a red carpet and teary-eyed speeches — this year.

While the Academy Awards aren’t mandating vaccination for presenters (just attendees), it’s required for the SAG Awards, which are voted on by the Hollywood actors’ guild SAG-AFTRA. One actor in the cast of the Paramount series “Yellowstone,” Forrie J. Smith, has said he wouldn’t attend because he isn’t vaccinated. 

The evening’s first awards, announced before the show began, honored a pair of blockbusters on both the big and small screens. Netflix’s “Squid Game” and the James Bond film “No Time to Die” each won for best stunt ensembles.  

“Hamilton” trio Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs were set to open the ceremony. Kate Winslet is presenting the actors’ lifetime achievement award to Mirren, a five-time SAG Award winner.  

A starry group of nominees  — including Will Smith, Lady Gaga, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman and Ben Affleck — will make sure the SAG Award don’t lack for glamour.  

Five films are nominated for the SAG Awards’ top honor, best ensemble: Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” Sian Heder’s coming-of-age drama “CODA,” Adam McKay’s apocalypse comedy “Don’t Look Up,” Ridley Scott’s high-camp “House of Gucci” and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s family tennis drama “King Richard.”  

The leading Oscar nominee, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” failed to land a best ensemble nominations but three of its actors — Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee — are up for individual awards.  

Winning best ensemble doesn’t automatically make a movie the Oscar favorite, but actors hold the largest sway because they constitute the largest percentage of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Last year, the actors chose Aaron Sorkin’s 1960s courtroom drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” while best picture at the Oscars went to “Nomadland.” The year before, SAG’s pick of “Parasite” presaged the Oscar winner.  

In the television categories, Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” comes in with a leading five nominations, closely trailed by HBO’s “Succession,” Apple’s “The Morning Show” and “Squid Game” — all of which are up for four awards.

With Cinemas Closed, Ghana’s Hand-Painted Movie Posters Find Homes Abroad 

With a flick of his brush, Ghanaian painter Daniel Anum Jasper armed actor Paul Newman with a pair of revolvers. Unfinished paintings of a bell-bottomed John Travolta and nunchuck-spinning Bruce Lee adorned the walls of his crammed Accra studio.

Jasper, a veteran movie poster designer, was finishing up one of the 1969 classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” commissioned by a foreign collector who had reached out over Instagram.

From the late 1970s to the 1990s, Ghana developed a tradition of advertising films with vibrant hand-painted posters. Local cinemas were flourishing in the West African country, and artists competed over who could entice the largest audience with their often gory, imaginative and eye-popping displays.

Jasper was a pioneer of the tradition and has been painting movie posters on repurposed flour sacks for the last 30 years. But the market for his work, which once had people clamoring for theater seats, has changed.

“People are no longer interested in going out to watch a movie when it can be watched from the comfort of their phones,” Jasper said.

“But there is a growing interest in owning these hand-painted posters internationally,” he added. “Now they hang them in private rooms or show them in exhibitions.”

With the rise of the internet, Ghana’s independent cinemas fell into obscurity. But Jasper’s work has gained appeal abroad, including in the United States, where the posters are valued as unique representations of a specific period in African art.

Western action flicks were mainstays of the tradition, as were Bollywood films and Chinese pictures. Many of the posters include paranormal elements and gratuitous violence even if the films had none, and physical features are wildly exaggerated.

Joseph Oduro-Frimpong, a professor in pop culture anthropology at Ghana’s Ashesi University, has several of Jasper’s paintings. He has collected the posters for years and has been known to buy up a closing video store’s entire supply.

He plans to display his posters at the Centre for African Popular Culture opening at the university later this year, and said he hopes people appreciate their historical significance.

“Of course there is an esthetic value to the posters, how crazy it is and all of that, but we use them to have a conversation with students,” he said.

“We tell them not to think about what they’re seeing now… [but] to think of these art forms as symbols of history that can tell their own stories.”

Frankfurt Tells Putin to ‘Stop’ Amid Drama in Bundesliga

After telling Russian President Vladimir Putin to “stop” on Saturday, Eintracht Frankfurt proceeded to frustrate Bayern Munich in their Bundesliga game until substitute Leroy Sané scored late for the league leaders.

Frankfurt prominently displayed the message “STOP IT, PUTIN!” all around its stadium before kickoff, just one of several pointed messages across the league against Russia’s ongoing invasion of its neighbor.

Sané’s 71st-minute goal was enough for a 1-0 win that stretched Bayern’s lead to nine points before second-place Borussia Dortmund visits Augsburg on Sunday.

Bayern controlled the match but found it difficult to break through against a well-organized Frankfurt team that also had good opportunities through Filip Kostic and Evan Ndicka.

Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann sent Sané on in the 67th, four minutes before Joshua Kimmich combined with Jamal Musiala and played a through ball for Sané to finally beat Kevin Trapp in the Frankfurt goal.

Trapp had done well to frustrate Bayern’s top goal-scorer Robert Lewandowski, who captained the team in place of the injured Manuel Neuer and wore a blue and yellow captain’s armband in support of Ukraine.

“We condemn the attack on Ukraine and on the lives and homes of innocent people,” the German soccer league said as it suggested clubs observe a minute’s silence before their games. “War is unacceptable in any form and incompatible with our values of sport.”

In Fürth, visiting Cologne and the home team lined up behind a banner in blue and yellow – the colors of the Ukrainian flag – with “STOP WAR” written in English and another message against war in German.

One fan at Union Berlin’s stadium held a sign showing a dove with the word “peace,” another at Leverkusen’s game painted blood on her face, and it seemed fans in all stadiums held Ukrainian flags or made some personal symbol against the war.

Earlier, second-division Schalke played its first game in 15 years without Russian energy giant Gazprom as main sponsor on the team jerseys. The Gelsenkirchen-based club had a 1-1 draw at Karlsruher SC.

Wolfsburg goalkeeper Koen Casteels produced a brilliant save in injury time to preserve his team’s 2-2 draw at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Gladbach also had a goal ruled out in injury time after VAR picked up on a foul before what would have been Matthias Ginter’s late winner.

The home team got off to a terrible start with Jonas Wind scoring in the sixth minute and Sebastiaan Bornauw making it 2-0 in the 33rd for Wolfsburg.

Marcus Thuram pulled one back before the break and was again involved when Wolfsburg defender Maxence Lacroix was sent off in the 70th for preventing the French forward’s clear goal chance with his hand.

Alassane Plea crossed for Breel Embolo to equalize in the 82nd and Casteels prevented worse for Wolfsburg.

Union Berlin bounced back from three games without a win or a goal since experienced forward Max Kruse left for Wolfsburg – with a 3-1 win at home over Mainz.

But the home fans’ patience was tested by a lengthy VAR check before Genki Haraguchi’s opener was allowed in the seventh minute. Sheraldo Becker scored a brilliant curling effort inside the right post in the 56th, then set up Taiwo Awoniyi to seal it in the 75th after Mainz had Dominik Kohr sent off on the hour-mark with his second yellow card in as many minutes. Delano Burgzorg scored a late consolation for the visitors.

City rival Hertha Berlin lost 3-0 at Freiburg to continue its dismal start to the year.

Bayer Leverkusen defeated Arminia Bielefeld 3-0 to consolidate third place, and last-place Fürth fought back to draw with Cologne 1-1.

YouTube Blocks RT, Other Russian Channels From Earning Ad Dollars

YouTube on Saturday barred Russian state-owned media outlet RT and other Russian channels from receiving money for advertisements that run with their videos, similar to a move by Facebook, after the invasion of Ukraine.

Citing “extraordinary circumstances,” YouTube said in a statement that it was “pausing a number of channels’ ability to monetize on YouTube, including several Russian channels affiliated with recent sanctions.” Ad placement is largely controlled by YouTube.

Videos from the affected channels also will come up less often in recommendations, YouTube spokesperson Farshad Shadloo said. He added that RT and several other channels would no longer be accessible in Ukraine due to “a government request.”

Ukraine Digital Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted earlier on Saturday that he contacted YouTube “to block the propagandist Russian channels such as Russia 24, TASS, RIA Novosti.”

RT did not immediately respond to a request for comment. YouTube did not name the other channels it had restricted.

For years, lawmakers and some users have called on YouTube, which is owned by Alphabet Inc’s Google, to take greater action against channels with ties to the Russian government out of concern that they spread misinformation and should not profit from that.

Russia received an estimated $7 million to $32 million over the two-year period ended December 2018 from ads across 26 YouTube channels it backed, digital researcher Omelas told Reuters at the time.

YouTube previously has said that it does not treat state-funded media channels that comply with its rules any differently than other channels when it comes to sharing ad revenue.

Meta Platforms Inc, owner of Facebook, on Friday barred Russian state media from running ads or generating revenue from ads on its services anywhere in the world.

World’s Oldest Known Stone Structures Discovered in Jordan

Archaeologists in Jordan’s southeast desert have discovered a 9,000-year-old ritualistic complex. It’s the earliest known large human-built structure involving Neolithic hunting communities. Experts say it points to civilization in the Middle East much earlier than originally thought.

Jordan’s antiquities ministry recently announced the discovery of huge human stone structures believed to be the oldest known to date from 9,000 years ago in its southeastern desert plateau area of Jabal Khashabiyeh. 

Jordanian archaeologist Wael Abu Aziza told reporters that “they’re the oldest huge human structures known to date.” He said Neolithic hunters living 9,000 years ago used huge stone enclosures to trap wild animals en masse. Also, one structure, thought to be a shrine, contained objects the experts believe to be related to ancient rituals. 

Commenting on the discovery, archeologist Pearce Paul Creasman of the American Center of Research in Amman said it was likely older than other similar structures, also found in Jordan, known as the Ain Ghazal statues.  

“Absolutely, no question that this is a significant find. The Ain Ghazal statues have been traditionally considered some of the oldest and the most significant of human occupation and so this could possibly be pushing that back, a little bit older,” Creasman said.  

A team of international archaeologists—including those from the United States—say the discoveries show how hunting communities in Neolithic times, predating Iraq’s sophisticated Assyrians by several thousand years and who were far less developed, displayed early signs of civilization. At the site were also found children’s toys made by these hunters who etched human faces in stone between hunting trips in the Arabian Desert.  

“This is absolutely evidence of complex activity from a date doing a level organization that we don’t see all over the place at that time and is kind of a predecessor to what we would generally think of as civilization today,” Creasman.   

Archaeologists said this major find could change perceptions of early human civilization in the Middle East.

Are COVID-19 Restrictions Stunting Children’s Immune Systems?

Some medical experts have expressed concern that COVID-19 preventative measures, like masking and remote schooling, are potentially weakening children’s immune systems by shielding them from the usual childhood illnesses.

“There’s a lot of reasons to believe that kids need to be exposed to things to keep their immunity complex, so that should they encounter something very dangerous, they have aspects of their immunity that might cross over and help protect them against those things,” says Sara Sawyer, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

At birth, vulnerable infants get antibodies from their mother’s breast milk, which helps protect them until they can build their own immunity. It’s no accident that babies start putting things in their mouths as soon as they gain enough dexterity to pick things up.

“They’re doing that because they’re sampling the environment and building their immunity. That’s an evolutionary trait,” Sawyer says. “They’re exposing their body to germs in a certain, level way to build their immunity. So, some people would argue that childhood illnesses, like colds and stomach bugs, build our immunity so that when more dangerous things come along, we’re prepared and we don’t get as sick from those more dangerous things.”

Even before the pandemic, epidemiological evidence suggested that children in more developed countries, where handwashing and the use of sanitizer are more prevalent, might have less-developed immune systems compared to kids in developing nations who are routinely exposed to more bacteria, viruses and allergens. This makes kids in more industrialized countries more vulnerable to developing autoimmune diseases, according to what’s known as the “hygiene hypothesis.”

“The hygiene hypothesis is actually quite controversial because it’s thought that our exposure to microbes isn’t the only factor,” says Cody Warren, a virologist and immunologist who is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder. “A lot of this could also be dictated by genetics, diet, and the environment that we live in. That also shapes our immune system… it’s a real multifactorial thing that we can’t fully account for just by wearing masks. There are other things that go into that equation.”

Warren, the father of three young children, says spending lots of time outdoors is one way to balance the negatives of isolation.

“Just exploring microbes in the environment also is benefiting [and] training our immune system,” Warren says. “Our immune systems get trained through the foods that we eat, which also have microorganisms on them. And so, despite the fact that we’ve kind of been hunkered down a little bit, I do feel that our immune systems will catch up.”

There are other things parents can do, he says, to boost their children’s immune systems during pandemic times.

“One of the most important things you can do is just to stay up to date on vaccines. That’s one of the best ways that we have to train our immune systems,” Warren says. “But also, equally important is making sure our children have a good diet and they regulate stress. It’s been well documented that both of those — having a good diet, a less stressful environment — can have a positive impact on our immune system.”

Once public health officials say masks are no longer necessary, Sawyer thinks pointing out the positives of putting our masks away could reassure hesitant parents who worry about their children getting sick.

“Maybe we should have a public conversation about the possible reasons to take that mask off, if they are in school, and get back to the normal repertoire of relatively safe childhood illnesses,” she says. “The plus side of childhood illnesses is that they can build up that hornet’s nest of immunity that could protect kids against new things that then come along.”

Thousands Could Die From COVID in Hong Kong, Study Shows 

Hong Kong’s fifth wave of coronavirus could see thousands of deaths, a new study said.

Slammed by the city’s fifth wave of COVID-19, Hong Kong is facing its worst health period since the pandemic began two years ago. It has forced the city’s government to implement strict measures, including compulsory tests for all Hong Kong residents.

February has seen thousands of new cases, mostly from the omicron variant. A new daily high of 10,010 infections was recorded Friday.

A study by the University of Hong Kong considered the potential outcomes from the current wave of coronavirus cases. One of the worst scenarios outlined that if the hospitals were to be overburdened, Hong Kong could see 7,000 COVID-19-related deaths by the end of June.

“The infection fatality risk may increase by 50% when the health care system becomes overburdened, in which case the cumulative number of deaths could further increase to 4,231 – 6,993,” the study said.

But it also said deaths could be half that number, about 3,200 by mid-May, if health measures remained.

‘Zero-COVID’ plan

Hong Kong had adopted a “zero-COVID” strategy, aligned with Beijing’s effort to control the pandemic across China. It had some success, with authorities quickly clamping down on rare outbreaks by contact tracing, social restrictions, mass testing and quarantine.

Fan Hung-ling, chairman of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, told the Chinese state’s Global Times that the strategy was “our country’s basic policy” and “won’t change.”

Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the city’s authorities to get the fifth wave under control. Xi is due to visit Hong Kong July 1, marking the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to China from Britain.

Last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam unveiled new measures for the city, including a requirement that residents have proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter various premises.

On Wednesday, Lam also announced compulsory testing for all residents by March, with a goal of boosting the city’s vaccination rate to 90%.

Dr. David Owens, an honorary assistant clinical professor at Hong Kong University, had hoped for a different plan of action.

“I would have preferred we would have shifted all of our energies that would effectively [be focused on] things that would save lives,” Owens told VOA. “That would be mitigation, to roll out vaccinations to the elderly and vulnerable. I have also argued we should move to rapid testing so we can break the transmission chains quickly.”

Need for home isolation

Dr. Karen Grepin, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, responded to the mass strategy campaign.

“It is likely it will happen at a time very close to the peak of the outbreak and thus it will likely identify literally hundreds of thousands of cases, including likely many who are no longer infectious. It is unlikely that we will be able to isolate even a fraction of these cases, so unless it is coupled with a comprehensive home isolation strategy, it will have little impact on transmission,” Grepin told VOA.

According to data from the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, public hospitals are averaging an occupancy rate of 89%.

One health worker at Hong Kong’s United Christian Hospital, who chose to remain anonymous, admitted she was “afraid” of the pending testing program.

“Patients were crying,” she said. “A male patient said he had not eaten for 12 hours. And another patient said he wanted to commit suicide. And I started to cry. I cannot offer any more for them.

“I am so afraid of the universal testing program. We don’t have enough manpower for that. The government is so keen on a zero-COVID strategy. To me, it is a zero-medical staff strategy. The morale is worsened every day in the frontline.”

She described her job’s current conditions as like “working in a market.”

“It was so difficult to pass through the waiting hall,” she said. “We have to shout out to search the patients.”

Patients in beds outdoors

Last week, Hong Kong’s Caritas Hospital saw dozens of patients lying in hospital beds outside in cold weather, waiting to be admitted. But occupancy is was at 102%, the Hospital Authority said.

A nurse working at the hospital, who also chose to remain anonymous, said elderly patients “have nowhere to turn.”

“Patients are not severely sick from my ward, but [have a] lack of self-care ability. The virus is widely breaking out in elderly care homes and homes for disabilities. They cannot do self-isolation, as they are from the same care center. The staff [are] probably infected. Therefore, the patients literally have nowhere to go even if they turn negative,” she told VOA.

Hong Kong residents have also spoken to VOA about pandemic fatigue, venting their frustrations at the government’s new health measures.

And some expatriates are also looking to leave the city altogether. A Facebook group aimed at helping expatriates leave Hong Kong has already gained over 3,000 members, only days after being created.

Singapore for some

British citizen Niall Trimble, a job recruitment director at Ethos BeathChapman, an executive recruitment firm in Hong Kong, has decided to move elsewhere in Asia.

“I would say the reason for leaving is the lack of flexibility compared to other places on the COVID situation,” he told VOA. “As a recruiter across technology and financial services I am already seeing a huge influx of candidates looking to move to Singapore and also clients looking to move operations to Singapore.”

Hong Kong’s economy fell into a two-year recession in 2019 and 2020. But last year the city saw growth of 6.4% as coronavirus cases remained low.

But Hong Kong has now recorded at least 84,000 cases, with 2022 alone seeing more infections than the last two years combined.

Hong Kong’s finance chief unveiled a budget of over $20 billion to cope with the outbreak, which will include an electronic spending voucher for each resident.

Hong Kong authorities are set to loosen the strategy on rapid testing and allow home isolation for positive cases, the South China Morning Post reported Friday.

CDC: Many Healthy Americans Can Take a Break From Masks 

Most Americans live in places where healthy people, including students in schools, can safely take a break from wearing masks under new U.S. guidelines released Friday. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined the new set of measures for communities where COVID-19 is easing its grip, with less of a focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals. 

The new system greatly changes the look of the CDC’s risk map and puts more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals. Those are the people who can stop wearing masks, the agency said. 

The agency is still advising that people, including schoolchildren, wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That’s the situation in about 37% of U.S. counties, where about 28% of Americans reside.  

The new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations and bus stations.  

The CDC guidelines for other indoor spaces aren’t binding, meaning cities and institutions even in areas of low risk may set their own rules. And the agency says people with COVID-19 symptoms or who test positive should wear masks.

Risk is generally lower 

But with protection from immunity rising — both from vaccination and infection — the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower, the CDC said. 

“Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing. “We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease. … Anyone can go to the CDC website, find out the volume of disease in their community and make that decision.” 

Since July, CDC’s transmission-prevention guidance to communities has focused on two measures: the rate of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive test results over the previous week.  

Based on those measures, agency officials advised people to wear masks indoors in counties where the spread of the virus was deemed substantial or high. This week, more than 3,000 of the nation’s more than 3,200 counties — greater than 95% — were listed as having substantial or high transmission.  

That guidance has increasingly been ignored, however, with states, cities, counties and school districts across the U.S. announcing plans to drop mask mandates amid declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. 

With many Americans already taking off their masks, the CDC’s shift won’t make much practical difference for now, said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California-Irvine. But it will help when the next wave of infection — a likelihood in the fall or winter — starts threatening hospital capacity again, he said. 

“There will be more waves of COVID. And so I think it makes sense to give people a break from masking,” Noymer said. “If we have continual masking orders, they might become a total joke by the time we really need them again.” 

Color-coded information

The CDC is also offering a color-coded map — with counties designated as orange, yellow or green — to help guide local officials and residents. In green counties, local officials can drop any indoor masking rules. Yellow means people at high risk for severe disease should be cautious. Orange designates places where the CDC suggests masking should be universal. 

How a county comes to be designated green, yellow or orange will depend on its rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions, the share of staffed hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and the rate of new cases in the community. 

Mask requirements have ended in most of the U.S. in recent weeks. Los Angeles on Friday began allowing people to remove their masks while indoors if they are vaccinated, and indoor mask mandates in Washington state and Oregon will be lifted in March. 

State health officials are generally pleased with the new guidance and “excited with how this is being rolled out,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. 

“This is the way we need to go. I think this is taking us forward with a new direction going on in the pandemic,” Plescia said. “But we’re still focusing on safety. We’re still focusing on preventing death and illness.” 

The CDC said the new system will be useful in predicting future surges and urged communities with wastewater surveillance systems to use that data, too.

US Drugmaker, Distributors Finalize $26B Opioid Settlement

Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and three major distributors finalized nationwide settlements over their role in the opioid addiction crisis Friday, an announcement that clears the way for $26 billion to flow to nearly every state and local government in the U.S.

Taken together, the settlements are the largest to date among the many opioid-related cases that have been playing out across the country. They’re expected to provide a significant boost to efforts aimed at reversing the crisis in places that have been devastated by it, including many parts of rural America.

Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson announced the settlement plan last year, but the deal was contingent on getting participation from a critical mass of state and local governments.

Friday was the deadline for the companies to announce whether they felt enough governments had committed to participate in the settlement and relinquish the right to sue. The four companies notified lawyers for the governments in the case that their thresholds were met, meaning money could start flowing to communities by April.

“We’re never going to have enough money to immediately cure this problem,” said Joe Rice, one of the lead lawyers who represented local governments in the litigation that led to the settlement. “What we’re trying to do is give a lot of small communities a chance to try to change some of their problems.”

While none of the settlement money will go directly to victims of opioid addiction or their survivors, the vast majority of it is required to be used to deal with the epidemic. The need for the funding runs deep.

Kathleen Noonan, CEO of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, said a portion of the settlement money should be used to provide housing to people with addictions who are homeless.

“We have clients who have a hard time staying clean to make it in a shelter,” she said. “We would like to stabilize them so we can help them recover.”

Dan Keashen, a spokesman for Camden County government, said officials are thinking about using settlement money for a public education campaign to warn about the dangers of fentanyl. They also want to send more drug counselors into the streets, put additional social workers in municipal courts and pay for anti-addiction medications in the county jail.

Officials across the country are considering pumping the money into similar priorities.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget calls for using $50 million of the state’s expected $86 million share this year for youth opioid education and to train treatment providers, improve data collection and distribute naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses.

In Florida’s Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, the number of beds in a county-run detoxification facility could be expanded from 50 to 70 or 75, said Danielle Wang French, a lawyer for the county.

“It’s not enough, but it’s a good start,” she said of the settlement.

With fatal overdoses continuing to rage across the U.S., largely because of the spread of fentanyl and other illicitly produced synthetic opioids, public health experts are urging governments to use the money to ensure access to drug treatment for people with addictions. They also emphasize the need to fund programs that are proven to work, collect data on their efforts and launch prevention efforts aimed at young people, all while focusing on racial equity.

“It shouldn’t be: ready, set spend,” said Joshua Sharfstein, a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health who is now a vice dean of public health at Johns Hopkins University. “It should be: think, strategize, spend.”

In a separate deal that also is included in the $26 billion, the four companies reached a $590 million settlement with the nation’s federally recognized Native American tribes. About $2 billion is being set aside for fees and expenses for the lawyers who have spent years working on the case.

New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson has nine years to pay its $5 billion share. The distributors — Conshohocken, Pennsylvania-based AmerisourceBergen; Columbus, Ohio-based Cardinal Health; and Irving, Texas-based McKesson — agreed to pay their combined $21 billion over 18 years. To reach the maximum amounts, states have to get local governments to sign on.

The settlements go beyond money. J&J, which has stopped selling prescription opioids, agrees not to resume. The distributors agree to send data to a clearinghouse intended to help flag when prescription drugs are diverted to the black market.

The companies are not admitting wrongdoing and are continuing to defend themselves against claims that they helped cause the opioid crisis that were brought by entities that are not involved in the settlements.

In a joint statement, the distributors called the implementation of the settlement “a key milestone toward achieving broad resolution of governmental opioid claims and delivering meaningful relief to communities across the United States.”

The requirement that most of the money be used to address the opioid crisis contrasts with a series of public health settlements in the 1990s with tobacco companies. In those cases, states used big chunks of the settlement money to fill budget gaps and fund other priorities.

The amount sent to each state under the opioid settlement depends on a formula that takes into account the severity of the crisis and the population. County and local governments also get shares of the money. A handful of states — Alabama, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Washington and West Virginia — have not joined all or part of the settlement, mostly because they have their own deals or are preparing for trial.

In Camden, Lisa Davey, a recovery specialist for Maryville Addiction treatment Center, was at a needle exchange this week handing out naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses, and asking people if they wanted to start treatment.

Davey said she wants to see detoxification and treatment programs receive more funding to keep people in them for longer. As it is, she said, users can detox and be back out on the streets in search of drugs within days.

“They need more time to work their recovery,” she said.

A man picking up clean needles who asked to be identified only as Anthony P. said he was 46 and had struggled with addiction since he was a teenager. He said he’d like to see an effort to cut off fentanyl and related synthetic opioids that are driving overdose death rates from the drug supply.

“Fentanyl’s got to go,” he said.

Martha Chavis, president and CEO of Camden Area Health Education Center, which runs the needle exchange, said one need is offering services like hers in more places. Now, users from far-flung suburbs travel into Camden to get clean needles and kits to test their drugs for fentanyl.

The settlement with J&J and the three distributors marks a major step toward resolving the vast constellation of lawsuits in the U.S. over liability for an epidemic that has been linked to the deaths of more than 500,000 Americans over the past two decades.

Other companies, including business consultant McKinsey and drugmakers Endo, Mallinckrodt and Teva, have reached national settlements or a series of local ones. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and a group of states are in mediation through U.S. Bankruptcy Court to try to reach a nationwide settlement.

The crisis has deepened during the coronavirus pandemic, with U.S. opioid-related deaths reaching a high of more than 76,000 in the 12 months that ended in April 2021, largely because of the spread of fentanyl and other lab-made drugs. A recent report from a commission by The Lancet medical journal projected that 1.2 million Americans could die of opioid overdose between 2020 and 2029 without policy changes.

John F. Kelly, a professor of psychiatry in addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School, said he wants to see money from the settlements go not just for treatment, recovery and support efforts but also to build systems designed to prevent this sort of epidemic from happening again.

“Some kind of national board or organization could be set up … to prevent this kind of lack of oversight from happening again — where industry is allowed to create a public health hazard,” he said.

FIFA Suspends Zimbabwe, Kenya for Government Interference

The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) has suspended Zimbabwe’s and Kenya’s memberships over government interference in the countries’ football associations.

Zimbabwe authorities say they were acting against corruption, incompetence and sexual abuse. Zimbabwe’s football association denies the allegations, which FIFA says should be investigated without the government’s interference.

FIFA President Giovanni Infantino announced the suspensions at a press conference broadcast February 24 on the football governing body’s website.

“We had to suspend two of our members associations, Kenya and Zimbabwe, both for government interference in the activities of the football associations of these (countries). Associations are suspended from all football activities with immediate effect. They know what needs to be done for them to be readmitted or for the suspension to be lifted,” he said.

FIFA suspended the two countries’ associations after their governments pushed aside the associations’ leaders.

Kenya in November replaced the Football Kenya Federation with a caretaker committee while Zimbabwe’s Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) took control of the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA).

FIFA has maintained that the allegations should be investigated internally rather than by governments taking over.

On Friday, Zimbabwe’s SRC chairperson Gerald Mlotshwa hit back at FIFA.

“It appears FIFA does not recognize the laws of Zimbabwe insofar as they relate to corruption and sexual harassment,” he said. “Its demands for reinstatement constitute an interference with statutory obligations of SRC as well as the judicial processes of the country.”

Officials in Zimbabwe suspended ZIFA in November on allegations of corruption, incompetence and sexual harassment.

Authorities accused ZIFA officials of diverting funds from FIFA and the government for personal use and of seeking sexual favors from female players and employees.

ZIFA’s suspended board deny all the allegations and in December called for a probe of the Sports and Recreation Commission, saying it was conducting a “witch hunt” under the guise of cleansing football.

A ZIFA lawyer declined to comment on FIFA’s suspension, saying they were still digesting the statements by the football governing body and the sports commission.

Zimbabwe sports journalist Hope Chizuzu said ZIFA’s suspended board was urging FIFA to suspend Zimbabwe.

“Now that that request has been granted, it is interesting to see what will become of the same because what this simply means is the suspended executive committee cannot operate,” Chizuzu said.

Zimbabwe sports commission’s Mlotshwa said the football association’s board will remain disbanded, and the SRC will continue to run it, despite FIFA’s suspension.

“We have a well-considered road map in Zimbabwe for the reform of football administration in Zimbabwe,” Mlotshwa said. “In the meantime, domestic football will continue as normal throughout the country with the support of the SRC. ZIFA executive committee and its general secretary will remain suspended. Football in country will be reformed for the benefit of all stakeholders, with or without the assistance of FIFA.”

While suspended, Kenya and Zimbabwe will not receive any funding from FIFA, and their football teams will not be allowed to play in any matches organized by FIFA or the Confederation of African Football.

Drug Overdoses Are Killing More Americans Than Guns, Traffic Accidents

Over 100-thousand people died in the U.S. from drug overdoses in the 12 months between June 2020 to May 2021, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure is more than COVID, and more than twice the number of those killed by guns and traffic accidents. Liliya Anisimova has details on this epidemic of drug use in this report narrated by Anna Rice. VOA footage by David Gogokhia.

Thailand at ‘Crossroads’ as COVID-19 Surges Amid Tourism, Economy Rebound

Thailand’s economy has seen growth in its recovery amid the global pandemic, but rising COVID-19 cases concern health experts.

Heavily reliant on international tourism to boost its economy, Thailand dropped its quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated visitors in November, with thousands of arrivals flocking to the country since.

But along with the renewal of tourism in Thailand, new COVID-19 infections have also begun to accelerate throughout the country.

Dr. Anan Jongkaewwattana, a virologist and researcher at the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Thailand, has said the country is at a “crossroads” over what to do next.

“We are experiencing rising in omicron cases — a very rapid one.  The question should be how long we can expect it to slow down … it can be days or weeks or even months,” he told VOA.

“In my opinion, we are at the crossroads at the moment.  The number of cases are rising but, to many doctors, the majority of them are still considered mild when compared to the delta wave,” he added.

Data show that the omicron variant is highly transmissible, has an incubation period of about five days and causes less severe symptoms than earlier variants.

Thailand saw a new daily record high on Friday, with 24,932 cases.

Last year saw strict curfews and social restrictions enforced throughout the country for months. However, after a speedy vaccination rollout – sometimes reaching one million doses administered per day – measures were eventually relaxed toward the end of the year. 

Officials said on Monday that the economy rebounded in the fourth quarter of 2021, with rising exports and the return of tourists. Year on year, Thailand saw a 1.9% increase in its economy, aided by the late wave of tourism. Nearly 500,000 people have visited since November.

With rapidly rising infection in the country, though, foreign tourists may think twice about entering, according to Stuart McDonald, founder of travel guide

“Should that be concerning for tourists? I would say yes. It is a rapidly changing situation and the Thai administration has a history of chopping and changing rules in an ad hoc, short notice, manner, and not always in a manner clearly informed by concerns for public health,” McDonald told VOA.

Thai authorities have changed entry requirements for tourists several times in recent months, including pausing its Test & Go plan in December following a rise in omicron cases.

The Thai government made further changes Wednesday to the plan, allowing fully vaccinated visitors to skip the quarantine period that is required by unvaccinated air arrivals.

As of March 1, fully vaccinated arrivals are now only required to take one PCR test instead of two when entering the country. Travelers must then wait for their results for up to 24 hours in a health-approved hotel before being allowed to travel elsewhere. Visitors must also take a self-administered rapid antigen test on the fifth day.

Tourism is crucial to the Thai economy. In 2019, tourism accounted for approximately 11% of Thailand’s gross domestic product, and around 20% of Thais  were employed in tourism, according to the Bank of Thailand.

Tourism businesses had previously asked the government to relax entry restrictions.

Authorities have recently ruled out any imminent new restrictions, including lockdown, despite recently raising the country’s COVID-19 alert to Level 4, the second-highest level. Masks are still required in public, while people are encouraged to work from home, cancel nonessential travel and avoid large gatherings.

Thailand now must focus on a plan to live with the virus, according to Pravit Rojanaphruk of Thai news site Khaosad English.

“The government can ill afford to impose another semi-lockdown as it has spent a lot of money over the past two years to remedy and contain COVID-19. It is hesitant because further restrictions would adversely affect the latest Test & Go scheme for arrivals from abroad and further harm the tourism and related industries.

“Increasing vaccination is the way ahead as the government has enough vaccines now for a booster shot. Children will be a particular target group in the weeks ahead but some parents are still reluctant. It’s time to focus on normalising coexistence with COVID-19,” he told VOA.

Last month health officials began vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds. According to Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, this age group includes 5 million children in Thailand.

But Jongkaewwattana raised his concerns still, “I’m quite worried in the increasing number of children who are infected and getting sick.  Those kids are not vaccinated and they are more likely afflicted by the Omicron infection compared to the fully vaccinated adults.”

The head of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University’s Centre of Excellence in Clinical Virology, Dr Yong Poovorawan, warned that Thailand could soon see 100,000 people test positive per day.

Jongkaewwattana believes more can be done to mitigate the risks of infection.

“I believe in the use of technology to help the vaccine to slow down the spread of the virus.  I suggest the government provide test kits to people so that they can monitor their risk. The use of masks in public must be emphasized and the activities that promote virus spreading should be prohibited.”

An increase in the daily death rate could force the government into further action, he said. Thursday and Friday also saw 38 and 41 COVID-19 deaths respectively.

“The death case is now slowly rising and if the number reaches 50 or more the government may start something to bring the number down. If the number of COVID patients in the hospitals nationwide are at a certain limit, they will implement some restrictions. But I don’t see a complete lock down or curfews coming very soon.”

Thailand’s health authorities have administered approximately 122 million doses, including first, second and booster doses. The country has recorded nearly 2.8 million COVID-19 cases with nearly 23,000 deaths since the pandemic began. 

More Than Half of US Abortions Now Done With Pills, Report Says 

More than half of U.S. abortions are now done with pills rather than surgery, an upward trend that spiked during the pandemic with the increase in telemedicine, a report released Thursday said.  

In 2020, pills accounted for 54% of all U.S. abortions, up from roughly 44% in 2019.  

The preliminary numbers come from the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. The group, by contacting providers, collects more comprehensive abortion data than the U.S. government.  

Use of abortion pills has been rising since 2000 when the Food and Drug Administration approved mifepristone, the main drug used in medication abortions.  

The new increase “is not surprising, especially during COVID,” said Dr. Marji Gold, a family physician and abortion provider in New York City. She said patients seeking abortions at her clinic have long chosen the pills over the medical procedure. 

The pandemic prompted a rise in telemedicine and FDA action that allowed abortion pills to be mailed so patients could skip in-person visits to get them. Those changes could have contributed to the increase in use, said Guttmacher researcher Rachel Jones. 

The FDA made the change permanent last December, meaning millions of women can get prescriptions via online consultations and receive the pills through the mail. That move led to stepped-up efforts by abortion opponents to seek additional restrictions on medication abortions through state legislatures. 

How it works

The procedure includes mifepristone, which blocks a hormone needed for pregnancy to continue, followed one or two days later by misoprostol, a drug that causes cramping that empties the womb. The combination is approved for use within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, although some health care providers offer it in the second trimester, a practice called off-label use. 

So far this year, 16 state legislatures have proposed bans or restrictions on medication abortion, according to the Guttmacher report. 

It notes that in 32 states, medication abortions must be prescribed by physicians even though other health care providers including physician assistants can prescribe other medicines. And mailing abortion pills to patients is banned in Arizona, Arkansas and Texas, the report said. 

According to the World Health Organization, about 73 million abortions are performed each year. About 630,000 abortions were reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019, although information from some states is missing. Guttmacher’s last comprehensive abortion report dates to 2017; the data provided Thursday came from an update due out later this year. 

Global numbers on the rates of medication versus surgical abortions are limited. Data from England and Wales show that medication abortions have outpaced surgical abortions for about 10 years.

US Shifting Global Pandemic Strategy as Vaccine Supply Outstrips Demand 

With the global vaccine supply exceeding distribution capacity, the Biden administration is acknowledging a need to adjust its pandemic response strategy to address hurdles faced by lower-income countries to vaccinate their citizens.

“It is clear that supply is outstripping demand and the area of focus really needs to be that ‘shots in arms’ work,” said Hilary Marston, White House senior policy adviser for global COVID, to VOA. “That’s something that we are laser-focused on for 2022.”

Marston said that the administration has helped boost global vaccine supply through donations, expanding global manufacturing capacity and support for COVAX, the international vaccine-sharing mechanism supported by the United Nations and health organizations Gavi and CEPI.

Following supply setbacks in 2021, COVAX’s supply is no longer a limiting factor, a Gavi spokesperson told VOA. He said COVAX now has the flexibility to “focus on supporting the nuances of countries’ strategies, capacity, and demand.”

However, the pivot from boosting vaccine supply to increasing delivery capacity depends on whether the administration can secure funding from Congress, including funds for the U.S. government’s Initiative for Global Vaccine Access, or Global VAX, a program launched in December by USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Global VAX is billed as a whole-of-government effort to turn vaccines in vials into vaccinations in arms around the world. It includes bolstering cold chain supply and logistics, service delivery, vaccine confidence and demand, human resources, data and analytics, local planning, and vaccine safety and effectiveness.

Four-hundred-million dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act has been put aside for this initiative, on top of the $1.3 billion for global vaccine readiness the administration has committed. Activists say this is not nearly enough, but USAID says it’s a good first step.

“The U.S. government will surge support for an initial subset of countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have demonstrated the potential for rapid acceleration of vaccine uptake with intensive financial, technical, and diplomatic support,” a USAID spokesperson told VOA.

Those countries include Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Eswatini, Ghana, Lesotho, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

Critical bottleneck

In January, COVAX had 436 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to allocate to lower-income countries, according to a document published in mid-February. Those countries, however, only asked for 100 million doses to be distributed by the end of May – the first time in 14 allocation rounds that supply has outstripped demand, the document from the COVAX Independent Allocation of Vaccines Group said.

“We’ve seen now 11 billion plus doses of vaccine being manufactured,” said Krishna Udayakumar to VOA. “We’re estimating 14- to 16- plus billion doses of vaccine being available in 2022,” added Udayakumar, who is founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center and leads a team that tracks global vaccine production and distribution.

But rather than fulfilment of vaccination targets, the oversupply highlights a weakness in global distribution capacity, which Udayakumar said is becoming “the critical bottlenecks.”

Only 12% percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, according to country data compiled by Our World in Data. Many countries still face massive hurdles to get those shots in arms, including gaps in cold-chain storage, and lack of funding to support distribution networks.

Global COVID funding

As the administration prepares to pivot its global pandemic response, humanitarian organizations are criticizing it for requesting insufficient funding from Congress.

“After two devastating years of this pandemic, U.S. leaders are dropping the ball on fighting COVID-19. Today we learned the Biden administration briefed Congress on the need for $5 billion in funding from Congress to fight COVID-19,” said Tom Hart, president of the ONE Campaign, in a statement to VOA last week. “What the world needs, though, is a formal request for $17 billion.”

Hart argued the $5 billion funding would be insufficient to provide critical resources needed to deliver vaccines, tests, and life-saving treatments to low-income countries, and achieve the administration’s goal of 70% global vaccination by September – a goal that is already far below pace.

The White House said the number is not final. “I don’t have any specific numbers; we’re still in conversation with the Hill (Congress) at this point about funding and funding needs, both domestically and internationally,” press secretary Jen Psaki told VOA on Wednesday.

In a statement to VOA, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rosa DeLauro, said they are still reviewing the funding request. “I will work with my colleagues to meet these important public health needs at home and around the world,” she said.

Meanwhile, Gavi, a COVAX co-sponsor, said it has only raised $195 million out of the $5.2 billion it asked for this quarter. The Gavi spokesperson told VOA the call to donors only went out in January and typically campaigns such as this require extensive rounds of consultation.

“The reason we launched a campaign to raise US $5.2 billion in additional funding is to ensure countries are able to roll out vaccines rapidly and at scale and have the resources on hand to be able to immediately step in as and when countries’ needs change,” the spokesperson said. “We need resources available now to prevent lower income countries once again finding themselves at the back of the queue. This is the only way we will break this pandemic.”­

TRIPS waiver

Humanitarian organization Oxfam also argues that $5 billion dollars is not enough.

“We need to do much more to vaccinate the world, including investing in local manufacturing and most importantly, sharing the vaccine recipe,” Robbie Silverman, Oxfam’s senior advocacy manager told VOA.

Sharing vaccine recipes essentially means implementing a temporary TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver at the World Trade Organization to allow the generic production of current vaccines, as proposed by South Africa and India in October 2021. The proposal is supported by the Biden administration but rejected by the European Union.

Following a summit between European Union and African Union leaders last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen offered a compromise and said that the EU and AU will work together to deliver a solution within the next few months.

The U.S. is by far the biggest vaccine donor. The administration is sending 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Angola, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Zambia and Uganda this week, bringing the total shipped globally to 470 million doses out of 1.2 billion doses pledged.






Hong Kong Rolls Out COVID Vaccine Passport, Paves Way For Mainland Doctors

Hong Kong rolled out vaccine passports on Thursday requiring people aged 12 and above to have at least one COVID-19 jab, and paved the way for mainland China manpower to help bring a worsening outbreak under control.

Residents will have to show their vaccine record to access venues including supermarkets, shopping malls and restaurants, a major inconvenience in a city where malls link train stations to residences and office buildings.

Separately, city leader Carrie Lam used emergency powers granted under British colonial-era laws to exempt mainland Chinese staff and projects from any licensing or other legal requirements to operate in Hong Kong.

City authorities have asked their mainland Chinese counterparts for help to build additional isolation, treatment and testing facilities, and boost the workforce as Hong Kong’s health system is increasingly overwhelmed.

“Hong Kong’s healthcare system, manpower, anti-epidemic facilities and resources … will soon be insufficient to handle the huge number of newly confirmed cases detected every day,” the government said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong reported a record 8,674 new COVID-19 infections as the global financial hub prepares for compulsory testing of its 7.4 million people – part of its “dynamic zero COVID” strategy similar to mainland China.

Allowing mainland doctors to practice in Hong Kong has been a controversial issue in the global financial hub, which for decades had some of the toughest licensing standards as a way to preserve excellence in its public health system.

The city last year passed a law allowing overseas-trained doctors to practice without taking a local licensing exam, in a move contested by many local doctors.

Hong Kong’s medical front lines have been weakened sharply by the latest outbreak, with some 1,200 medical staff infected as of Wednesday.

Authorities also tightened restrictions from Thursday in a city that already has some of the most stringent rules in the world. Residents will have to wear masks for all outdoor  exercise and will not be allowed to remove them to eat or drink on public transport.

With bars, gyms and other businesses already closed and shopping malls deserted while many residents work from home, the government said on Tuesday schools would break early for summer and resume the new year in August.

Many in the city are growing fatigued with the situation, as most other major cities learn to live with the virus.

As the urgency grows, construction work has started on a facility on Lantau Island to build about 10,000 isolation units, while private hospitals will take in patients from public hospitals.

With the city’s testing, treatment and isolation capacity already stretched to the maximum, University of Hong Kong researchers predicted new infections could peak at 180,000 a day next month.

Ex-Official: Space Station ‘Largely Isolated’ From Tensions

Tensions in eastern Ukraine and heightened Western fears of a Russian invasion should not have a significant impact on the International Space Station or U.S.-Russia cooperation in space, the former head of the National Space Council told The Associated Press.

Four NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and one European astronaut are currently on the space station.

Scott Pace, who served as executive secretary of the space council under President Donald Trump and is now the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the space station “has been largely isolated” from political events.

“It’s possible to imagine a break with Russia that would endanger the space station, but that would be at the level of a dropping diplomatic relations,” said Pace. “That would be something that would be an utterly last resort so I don’t really see that happening unless there is a wider military confrontation.”

The space station, an international partnership of five space agencies from 15 countries, including Canada, several countries in Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States, launched in 1998 and morphed into a complex that’s almost as long as a football field, with eight miles of electrical wiring, an acre of solar panels and three high-tech labs.

It marked two decades of people continuously living and working in orbit in 2020.

The first crew — American Bill Shepherd and Russians Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko — blasted off from Kazakhstan on Oct. 31, 2000. Two days later, they swung open the space station doors, and clasped their hands in unity.

The three astronauts got along fine but tension sometimes bubbled up with the two mission controls, in Houston and outside Moscow.

Shepherd, during a NASA panel discussion with his crewmates, said he got so frustrated with the “conflicting marching orders” that he insisted they come up with a single plan.

Russia kept station crews coming and going after NASA’s Columbia disaster in 2003 and after the space shuttles retired in 2011.

In 2020, SpaceX ended a nine-year launch drought for NASA and became the first private company to launch Americans to the space station.

“It is a way of undertaking common endeavors, but that power is not infinite and terrestrial conflicts on Earth can still get in the way,” said Pace. “Space is ever more critical to our daily life and it’s something everybody should be aware of.”

Earlier this year, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who chaired a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels, said he was keen to discuss ways to prevent dangerous military incidents or accidents involving Russia and the Western allies, reducing space and cyber threats, as well as setting limits on missile deployments and other arms control initiatives.

There have been concerns raised in Congress about the impact that conflict over Ukraine could have on the International Space Station.

Lawmakers have specifically exempted space cooperation from previous sanctions and can be expected to make similar arguments against targeting it as the administration considers its next steps over Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Russia began evacuating its embassy in Kyiv, and Ukraine urged its citizens to leave Russia.

Russian lawmakers authorized President Vladimir Putin to use military force outside his country and President Joe Biden and European leaders responded by slapping sanctions on Russian oligarchs and banks.

Both leaders signaled that an even bigger confrontation could lie ahead.

Putin has yet to unleash the force of the 150,000 troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, while Biden held back on the toughest sanctions that could cause economic turmoil for Russia but said they would go ahead if there is further aggression.

The sanctions underscored the urgency felt by Western nations to blunt the conflict.  

US Offshore Wind Rights Auction Generates Record Bids

The use of wind to generate electricity for the United States was thrust forward Wednesday with the largest-ever offering by the federal government of offshore development rights.

Bidding for the 197,000 hectares of the New York Bight — an area of shallow waters between the coasts of Long Island (in New York state) and the state of New Jersey — attracted record-setting prices, according to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“This auction today is a testament to how attractive the U.S. market is,” said Fred Zalcman, director of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance.

Europe is much further along than North America in developing lease areas for offshore wind farms.

There are two small offshore wind facilities in the United States off the coasts of the states of Rhode Island and Virginia. Two more commercial-scale projects were recently approved for development.

“We’re really just at the beginning of a process here. We hope to apply the lessons learned from Europe and take advantage of the cost savings achieved in Europe,” Zalcman told VOA.

Officials say turbines erected in the set of six leases that went up for bidding Wednesday, the first auction conducted during the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, could eventually provide power for nearly 2 million residences.

Wednesday’s top bids totaled more than $1.5 billion. The largest single lease area offered — totaling nearly 51,000 hectares and located about 50 kilometers off the New Jersey coast — had attracted a record-busting $410 million, with bidding to resume Thursday morning.

The previous auction was held in 2018 during the administration of former President Donald Trump. It was considered a success, with three leases off the coast of the state of Massachusetts bringing in a collective record-breaking $405 million for rights to develop 158,000 hectares south of Martha’s Vineyard, with a potential generating capacity of more than 4.1 gigawatts, enough to supply power to about 1.5 million homes.

Trump, a Republican, repeatedly expressed, at best, skepticism toward wind as a viable renewable source to supply America’s energy needs. He derided “windmills,” saying he had been told the noise from their blades “causes cancer” and “it’s like a graveyard for birds.”

Biden, a Democrat, has veered in a different direction, embracing wind as part of his clean energy ambitions and setting a goal of 30 gigawatts of capacity in the United States by the year 2030.

In his first week in office in 2021, Biden signed an executive order to expand opportunities for the offshore wind industry, predicting, according to the White House, the projects “will create good-paying union jobs” and “spawn new supply chains that stretch into America’s heartland.”

The area included in the ongoing auction, which began with 25 qualified bidders, was cut back by about one-fourth from what was initially proposed last year due to concerns about the potential impact on commercial fishing and military interests.

State and federal officials, according to Zalcman, have been addressing concerns of other ocean users, including recreational and commercial fishers, navigators and the shipping industry, and taking into consideration visual impacts to coastal communities, and concerns of environmental groups about migratory species, such as the North Atlantic right whale.

A group of residents of the New Jersey summer colony of Long Beach last month sued BOEM over the New York Bight leasing plans, contending the massive wind farm would permanently mar their beautiful view from the beach, hurt the area’s tourism economy and harm property values.

Bob Stern, the president of Save Long Beach Island, told VOA on Wednesday that the organization “is not opposed to offshore wind energy but believes that the federal government’s process of selecting ocean areas for turbine placement is flawed.”

Stern explained that the group’s lawsuit challenges the federal government agency’s selection of “wind energy areas” for offshore wind turbines which “should have been preceded and supported by a structured regional environmental impact statement process with full disclosure of impacts and public input.”

The Sierra Club is terming the New York Bight auction a historic major stride forward for clean energy.

“This lease sale is the first to include stipulations setting out responsibilities for project developers to report on their engagement with stakeholders to minimize conflicting uses, negotiation of project labor agreements, and the development of offshore wind-related manufacturing and supply chain services,” said Allison Considine, a senior campaign representative of the national environmental organization.

A preeminent concern is ensuring that these projects are done responsibly, said Zalcman of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance, of which the Sierra Club is a member.

How developers configure the wind farms will be subject to another rigorous round of environmental review before they are able to erect the huge structures.

Inside a Special Black History Month Rite at ‘The Lion King’

During February, a special ritual takes place backstage at The Lion King musical on Broadway.

On show days, the four young actors who play the lion cubs Simba and Nala seek out fellow actor Bonita J. Hamilton in the moments before the curtain goes up at the Minskoff Theatre.

The youngsters have learned their lines and choreography, of course, but during Black History Month, they also tell Hamilton what they’ve learned about a Black historical figure. It might include a birthdate, the figure’s biggest achievements and some facts about their lives.

“February is my favorite month because the children — the cubs — get to teach me about Black history,” said Hamilton, who plays the hyena leader Shenzi onstage and offstage looks after the cubs with warmth and respect. “Every day in the month of February, they bring me a Black history fact.”

Hamilton has led the voluntary ritual for 17 years and the children seem to enjoy the challenge. “Telling Miss Bonita my fact is just really fun to do,” said Sydney Elise Russell, 10, who plays young Nala.

This month, the kids have honored Aretha Franklin, Shirley Chisholm, Whitney Houston, Billie Holiday, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Michael Jordan, George Washington Carver, Angela Davis, Ethel Waters, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Dorothy Height and Mabel Fairbanks, among others.

“They’re learning, I’m learning. Because I say, ‘You’re teaching me something,'” said Hamilton, a graduate of Alabama State University and Brandeis University. “You’ve got to know whose shoulders you’re standing on.”

Last Friday night, Vince Ermita, 12, who plays Simba for four performances a week, sought out Hamilton to recite what he’d lately learned online about music icon Louis Armstrong.

“Louis Armstrong was born on Aug. 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was a jazz trumpeter and vocalist, and one of the most iconic people he performed with was Ella Fitzgerald,” Vince said, without notes.

“His improvisation changed the landscape of jazz, and some of his most famous songs were What a Wonderful World, West End Blues and Hello, Dolly! And he passed away on July 6, 1971.”

Vince had clearly nailed the assignment, and Hamilton beamed. But she had a follow-up question: What was Armstrong’s nickname?

“Satchmo?” he answered.

“All right!” Hamilton exclaimed, giving him a hand slap.

The other young actors also offered their facts. Alayna Martus, 12, picked gymnast Dominique Dawes — nicknamed Awesome Dawesome — and Sydney picked writer and poet Phillis Wheatley Peters, whose most famous poem is On Being Brought from Africa to America.

Hamilton also had a question when Sydney was done: “Do you know the name of Peters’ first published book?” Sydney did not but promised to return with the answer.

“Circle back, good job. Good job, guys. Thank you. I learned something today,” said Hamilton.

The backstage February ceremonies have had a lasting impact on generations of actors who have cycled in and out of the show, under Hamilton’s charismatic leadership. This year, several former child alumni of The Lion King — led by Caleb McLaughlin of the Netflix series Stranger Things — got together to make a video for Hamilton — each submitting their Black History figures for February.

Hamilton, from Montgomery, Alabama, the home of the civil rights movement which her family aided, started the tradition after coming to The Lion King and asking her then-young co-stars about the meaning of February.

“One day, just so casually, I said, ‘It’s Black History Month, guys. Let’s talk about it. What do you know about Black History Month?’ And they said, ‘Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,'” she recalls, shaking her head. “There’s so much more to our history.”

Hamilton mixed it up a bit this year, kicking off the month by picking the names of several Black heroes from South Africa and putting them into a cup for the cubs to pick: Chris Hani, Steve Biko, Mamphela Ramphele and Tsietsi Mashinini, among them. The Lion King is set in South Africa, after all.

“They make me very proud. It’s like a game. It’s not anything that’s homework. Learning can be fun,” she said.

It’s a fitting ritual for a show in which Africa is celebrated and there are six Indigenous languages sung and spoken: Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana and Congolese.

“The Lion King is steeped in ritual tradition, tribal things. Even the fabrics that we wear in the show have tribal markings, the mask, the makeup — all of it is tribal,” said Hamilton.

The ceremony clearly honors a legacy of greatness — updated, naturally, as the inclusion of gymnast Simone Biles can attest — but also teaches the children to respect how they got here.

“They have to know that there was a time when we weren’t allowed to perform on stage or, if we were, we couldn’t walk into the front door of the theater,” said Hamilton.

“It is a privilege to be able to share your gifts on the world’s largest stage. And that’s what I try to instill in them because we weren’t always able to do it.”