Month: December 2022

Cristiano Ronaldo Makes Big-Money Move to Saudi Arabian Club

Cristiano Ronaldo completed a lucrative move to Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr on Friday in a deal that is a landmark moment for Middle Eastern soccer but will see one of Europe’s biggest stars disappear from the sport’s elite stage.

Al Nassr posted a picture on social media of the five-time Ballon d’Or holding up the team’s jersey after Ronaldo signed a deal until June 2025, with the club hailing the move as “history in the making.”

“This is a signing that will not only inspire our club to achieve even greater success but inspire our league, our nation and future generations, boys and girls to be the best version of themselves,” the club wrote.

It also gives the 37-year-old Ronaldo a massive payday in what could be the final contract of his career. Media reports have claimed the Portugal star could be earning up to $200 million a year from the deal, which would make him the highest-paid soccer player in history.

Ronaldo said in a statement that he was “eager to experience a new football league in a different country.”

“I am fortunate that I have won everything I set out to win in European football and feel now that this is the right moment to share my experience in Asia,” the forward added.

While the signing is a massive boost for Middle Eastern soccer, it will also fuel the debate about Saudi Arabia using so-called “sportswashing” to boost the country’s image internationally. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund owns Premier League team Newcastle, and the country is considering a bid to host the 2030 World Cup.

Ronaldo had been a free agent after his contract was terminated by Manchester United following an explosive TV interview in which he criticized manager Erik ten Hag and the club’s owners after having been repeatedly benched and even temporarily suspended by the club.

He is also coming off a disappointing World Cup where he was benched in the knockout rounds and left the field in tears after Portugal lost in the quarterfinals to Morocco.

And after a storied career that saw him win the Champions League with both United and Real Madrid, along with league and cup titles in England, Spain and Italy, he will now seemingly see out the last years of his career far away from the spotlight of top European soccer.

While Saudi Arabia earned its biggest international soccer win ever at the World Cup in Qatar last month when it beat eventual champion Argentina in its first group-stage game, the domestic league has few other stars and is not watched by a major international audience.

Highlights from the Life of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the first pope in 600 years to resign, has died. Below are highlights from his life.

April 16, 1927: Born Joseph Alois Ratzinger in Marktl am Inn, Germany, youngest of three children to Joseph and Maria Ratzinger.

1943-45: Assistant in Germany’s anti-aircraft defense and infantry soldier; imprisoned in 1945 in American POW camp in Neu-Ulm.

June 29, 1951: Ordained along with brother Georg Ratzinger in Freising.

1969-77: Professor at University of Regensburg.

March 25, 1977: Named archbishop of Munich and Freising.

June 27, 1977: Made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.

Nov. 25, 1981: Named prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope John Paul II; takes up post in March 1982.

April 2, 2005: Pope John Paul II dies.

April 8, 2005: As dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger presides over John Paul’s funeral.

April 19, 2005: Elected 265th pope in one of the fastest conclaves in history. Choosing name Benedict XVI, he says he is merely a “simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”

April 24, 2005: Installed as pope with Mass.

Aug. 18-21, 2005: First foreign trip, to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany.

Sept. 24, 2005: Meets with dissident theologian Hans Kung at papal summer residence.

Dec. 25, 2005: First encyclical, God is Love, signed. Released Jan. 25, 2006.

May 28, 2006: During trip to Poland, visits Auschwitz concentration camp.

Sept. 12, 2006: During visit to Germany, delivers speech at University of Regensburg that enrages Muslims; quoting a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman,” particularly “his command to spread by the sword the faith.”

April 16, 2007: First volume of Jesus of Nazareth completed on his 80th birthday. Released April 13.

May 27, 2007: Signs letter to China’s Catholics, urging them to unite under his authority. Published June 30.

July 7, 2007: Removes restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass in major gesture to traditional Catholics.

April 20, 2008: During visit to United States, prays for victims of Sept. 11, 2001 attacks at ground zero.

July 19, 2008: During visit to Australia for World Youth Day, meets with victims of priestly sex abuse and during a Mass apologizes for their suffering.

Jan. 21, 2009: Lifts excommunication of Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson and three other ultra-traditionalist bishops of Society of St. Pius X, igniting outrage. Decree released Jan. 24.

March 10, 2009: Acknowledges Vatican mistakes in Williamson affair, says Vatican must make better use of Internet to prevent future controversies. Letter released March 12.

March 17, 2009: En route to Cameroon, tells reporters aboard papal plane that condoms are not the solution to AIDS and can make problem worse, prompting widespread criticism.

May 11, 2009: During visit to the Holy Land, lays wreath at Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, says Holocaust victims “lost their lives but they will never lose their names.”

June 29, 2009: Third encyclical, Charity in Truth, signed. Released July 7, 2009.

July 17, 2009: Breaks right wrist in late-night fall at summer vacation home.

Oct. 20, 2009: Vatican announces pope is making it easier for Anglicans to convert en masse to Catholicism.

March 19, 2010: Rebukes Irish bishops for “grave errors of judgment” in handling clerical sex abuse but makes no mention of Vatican responsibility in letter to Irish faithful. Released March 20.

May 1, 2010: Orders major overhaul of Legion of Christ after Vatican investigation determines founder was a fraud.

Sept. 16-19, 2010: During first state visit by a pope to Britain, meets with Queen Elizabeth II, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and beatifies Anglican convert John Henry Newman.

Nov. 20, 2010: Revises controversial condom-AIDS comments in book and says male prostitutes who use condoms may be taking a first step toward a more responsible sexuality.

March 2, 2011: Issues sweeping exoneration of Jews for the death of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth-Part II. Book released March 10.

May 1, 2011: Beatifies John Paul II before 1.5 million people.

June 28, 2011: Tweets for the first time, announcing launch of Vatican news information portal.

Oct. 6, 2012: Pope’s former butler is convicted on charges he stole the pontiff’s private letters and leaked them to a journalist.

Feb. 11, 2013: Reveals in Latin that he is stepping down Feb. 28 during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, surprising even his closest collaborators.

Feb. 28, 2013: Departs Vatican City in a helicopter bound for Castel Gandolfo, where he begins his final journey as a “simple pilgrim.”

March 23, 2013: Receives Pope Francis for lunch at Castel Gandolfo; the two men pray side by side and Francis insists “We are brothers.”

April 28, 2014: Joins Francis on altar to canonize St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII, the first time a reigning and retired pope celebrate Mass together.

April 11, 2019: In an essay, blames the clergy sex abuse scandal on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and an absence of God.

January 2020: Contributes to a book reaffirming celibacy for priests at a time when Francis was considering an exception, sparking calls for rules governing future “popes emeritus.”

June 18, 2020: Travels to Germany to visit his ailing brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, who dies two weeks later, on July 1.

July 16, 2021: Has his signature relaxation of restrictions on celebration of old Latin Mass reversed by Pope Francis.

Jan. 21, 2022: Is faulted for his handling of four sex abuse cases while bishop of Munich in the 1970s and 1980s by independent report commissioned by German church.

Feb. 8, 2022: Asks forgiveness for any “grievous faults” in handling of Munich priests, but denies personal or specific wrongdoing.

Dec. 28, 2022: Pope Francis announces Benedict is “very ill,” asks for special prayers and visits him at his home.

Dec. 31, 2022: Benedict dies at 9:34 a.m. at his home in the Vatican Gardens at age 95.

New Year Eve Spurs Hope in China Even as Censors Target Online COVID Content

New Year’s Eve in China prompted an outpouring of reflection online, some of it critical, about the strict zero-COVID policy the country adhered to for almost three years and the impact of its abrupt reversal this month.

The sudden change to live with the virus has prompted a wave of infections across the country, a further drop in economic activity and international concern, with Britain and France the latest countries to impose curbs on travelers from China.

Three years into the pandemic, China this month acted to align with a world that has largely reopened to live with COVID, after unprecedented protests that became a de facto referendum against the zero-COVID policy championed by President Xi Jinping. 

The protests were the strongest show of public defiance in Xi’s decade-old presidency and coincided with grim growth figures for China’s $17 trillion economy.

On Saturday, people in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, expressed hope the new year would bring better fortune.

Several people in Wuhan bemoaned how widely the virus has spread after lifting of all the pandemic curbs, with one, 45-year-old Chen Mei, saying she just hopes that in 2023 her teenage daughter can resume normal classes over the long term.

“When she can’t go to the school and can only have classes online it’s definitely not an effective way of learning,” she said.

“Kids don’t have such good self discipline. And then for us adults sometimes because of the epidemic controls we have been locked up at home. It’s definitely had an impact.”

Thousands of users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo criticized the removal of a viral video made by local outlet Netease News that collated real-life stories from 2022 that had captivated the Chinese public.

Many of the stories included in the video, which by Saturday could not be seen or shared on domestic social media platforms, highlighted the difficulties ordinary Chinese faced as a result of the strict COVID policy.

Weibo and Netease did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

One Weibo hashtag about the video garnered almost 4 million hits before it disappeared from platforms around noon on Saturday. Social media users created new hashtags to keep the comments pouring in.

“What a perverse world, you can only sing the praises of the fake but you cannot show real life,” one user wrote, attaching a screenshot of a blank page that is displayed when searching for the hashtags.

The disappearance of the videos and hashtags, seen by many as an act of censorship, suggests the Chinese government still sees the narrative surrounding its handling of the disease as a politically sensitive issue.

Overwhelmed hospital, funeral homes

The wave of new infections has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes across the country, with lines of hearses outside crematoria fueling public concern.

China, a country of 1.4 billion people, reported one new COVID death for Friday, the same as the day before — numbers which do not match the experience of other countries after they reopened.

U.K.-based health data firm Airfinity said on Thursday around 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from COVID. Cumulative deaths in China since Dec. 1 have likely reached 100,000, with infections totaling 18.6 million, it said.

At the central hospital of Wuhan, where former COVID whistleblower Li Wenliang worked and later died of the virus in early 2020, patient numbers were down Saturday compared with the rush of the past few weeks, a hazmat-suit wearing worker outside the hospital’s fever clinic told Reuters.

“This wave is almost over,” the worker said.

A pharmacist whose store is next to the hospital said most people in the city had now been infected and recovered.

“It is mainly old people who are getting sick with it now,” he said. “They have underlying conditions and can get breathing issues, lung infections or heart problems.”

New year, new challenges

In the first indication of the toll on China’s giant manufacturing sector from the change in COVID policy, data Saturday showed factory activity shrank for the third straight month in December and at the sharpest pace in nearly three years.

Besides the growing economic toll, rising infections after lifting of the restrictions also have prompted international concern, particularly regarding the possibility of a new, stronger variant emerging out of China.

Britain and France became the latest countries to require travelers from China to provide negative COVID-19 tests. The United States, South Korea, India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan have all imposed similar measures.

The World Health Organization on Friday once again urged China’s health officials to regularly share specific and real-time information on the COVID situation in the country, as it continues to assess the latest surge in infections.

China’s narrow criteria for identifying deaths caused by COVID-19 will underestimate the true toll of the pandemic and could make it harder to communicate the best ways for people to protect themselves, health experts have warned.

The Pandemic, Rudeness, Crypto Craziness: We’re Over You, 2022

The rudeness pandemic, the actual pandemic, and all things gray. There’s a lot to leave behind when 2022 ends and uncertainty rules around the world.

The health crisis brought on the dawn of slow living, but it crushed many families forced to hustle for their living. Rudeness went on the rise. Crypto currencies tanked. Pete Davidson’s love thing with Kim Kardashian made headlines.

A list of what we’re over as we hope for better times in 2023:

Incivility be gone

The pandemic released a tsunami of overwrought people, but heightened incivility has stretched well beyond their raucous ranks.

Researcher Christine Porath restricted herself to rudeness, disrespect or insensitive behavior when she recently wrote about the subject in Harvard Business Review. The professor of management at Georgetown University found incidents of incivility way up, in line with a steady climb stretching back nearly 20 years.

Particularly hammered this year, Porath wrote, were frontline workers in health care, retail, transportation, hospitality and education. All were declared heroes when the pandemic struck. It didn’t take long for that to become a beat down.

Noting that incivility can and does escalate to physical aggression and other violence, Axios dubbed it the rudeness pandemic.

Crypto craziness

Will the implosion of FTX, the world’s third-largest cryptocurrency exchange, bring on broader chaos in a digital world that millions of people already distrust?

Time will tell as other and otherwise healthy crypto companies face a liquidity crisis. And there’s the philanthropic implications of the FTX bankruptcy collapse here in the real world, since founder Sam Bankman-Fried donated millions to numerous causes in “effective altruism” fashion.

The FTX bankruptcy filing followed a bruising of crypto companies throughout 2022, due in part to rising interest rates and the broader market downturn that has many investors rethinking their lust for risk. That includes mom-and-pop investors along for the ride.

ASMR, pipe down

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It began, innocently enough, as brain tingles brought on by whispering, tapping, brushing or scraping. Then, bam, it took off on social media like a really loud rocket on a mission to annoy.

Today, we’ve got millions of videos filled with people attempting to calm by speaking in low tones, armed with anything they can get their hands on in conjunction with their expensive, ultra-sensitive mics.

Companies are selling beer and chocolate, paint and home goods using ASMR. All the calming — and commerce — is deafening.

Gray, the color

Gray walls, gray floors, gray furniture. Is gray passé? Here’s hoping.

The color spent much of 2022 as a purportedly neutral “it.” The problem was, we were already feeling gray on the inside.

Of course, gray has been around since color itself, but it took over as an alternative to beige and Tuscan brown. Gray took a tumble midyear, but one doesn’t paint or swap out the couch as quickly as trends fade. We’ve been stuck with gray, thanks to TV home shows and social media loops.

“What would your reaction be if I told you that color is disappearing from the world? A graph suggesting that the color gray has become the dominant shade has been circulating on TikTok, and boy does it have folks in a tizzy,” wrote Loney Abrams in Architectural Digest in October.

By that, she explained, the upset folks she mentioned stand firmly behind the notion that a lack of color “spells tragedy.”

Abrams, a Brooklyn artist and pop culture curator, speaks of the fixer-uppers of Chip and Joanna Gaines and the Calabasas compound of Kim Kardashian. And she cites Tash Bradley, a trained color psychologist who works for the U.K. wallpaper and paint brand Lick.

Bradley, Abrams wrote, points to the hustle-bustle of pre-pandemic life as one villain leading to The Great Gray Washing. Bradley, the interior design director for Lick, sees no psychological benefits to gray.

Pete Davidson’s love life

Not the King of Staten Island himself, per se. Look deeply into your hearts and decide for yourselves whether to love him or Ye him.

We’re talking about the vast quantities of air volume his love life has sucked up on a near-hourly basis, especially in 2022, otherwise known as his Kim Kardashian era (which actually started in late 2021 for the obsessives).

Davidson’s love roster has puzzled for years, stretching back to his MTV “Guy Code” days in 2013 while still a teenager, leading to his Carly Aquilino phase.

There were stops along the way with Cazzie David (Larry Davidson’s daughter), Ariana Grande, Kate Beckinsale (briefly), Kaia Gerber (even more briefly), and others, including his latest: model Emily Ratajkowski.

The “SNL” alum and self-described — in appearance — “crack baby” is a paparazzi, social media, gossip monger magnet. Rather, his love life is.

Movie upchuck madness

The film industry, to state the obvious, has produced decades of genre-spanning grossness, much of it significant and legit to show on camera.

However, there’s one particular cinematic exclamation point we could do without, or at the very least, with significantly less of: The dispensable spew.

Implied vomiting with an urgent rush to a curb, hand to a mouth or turn of a head would sometimes suffice, thanks. Who spread the word in Hollywood that movie watchers actually desire all the nauseating details. The projectile-ness, the color combinations, the chunks.

Well, in some cases, audiences themselves.

That notable dress shop scene in the 2011 smash hit “Bridesmaids” was a gender test of sorts, according to The Daily Beast. Would audiences accept all the spewing and other grand scatology from women in a wedding-themed movie as they do for the bros of producer Judd Apatow’s other comedies?

Apatow and director Paul Feig extensively tested “Bridesmaids” with audiences, and they were fine.

Fast forward to 2022’s notables. There’s the satire “The Triangle of Sadness,” which could hardly do without, but there’s also “Tár,” a far more serious film that wouldn’t make the vomit hall of fame with Lydia Tár’s one fleeting gush. We ask, what’s the point of that? Meaning, the upchuck as aside.

Cate Blanchett’s Tár has far bigger problems, so let’s rein in all the gratuitous spewing.

The ultra hustle

Elon Musk put it thusly in an email to his remaining employees:

“Going forward, to build a breakthrough Twitter 2.0 and succeed in an increasingly competitive world, we will need to be extremely hardcore. This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”

Musk is Musk, but he illustrates a moment: A need to remain in motion, to work harder, climb higher, sweat longer. With the volatile economy, political chaos, extreme weather and wars, it’s no wonder that a blanket of anxiety has kept the ultra-hustle alive.

As if all the slow living and work-life balance talk is meaningless, or more to the point, can’t exist for many.

“We’re hustling to make ends meet, `building our brand,’ ensuring our startup doesn’t tank, or dreaming about the day our side hustle takes off and we can walk into the office and give everyone the bird,” wrote Benjamin Sledge on Medium.

It stands to reason, he said, that “most of us are hustling because we literally have to in order to survive.”

Pioneering US Television Journalist Barbara Walters Dies at 93

Barbara Walters, one of the most visible women on U.S. television as the first female anchor on an evening news broadcast and one of TV’s most prominent interviewers, has died at age 93, her longtime ABC home network said on Friday.

Walters, who created the popular ABC women’s talk show The View in 1997, died Friday at her home in New York, Robert Iger, chief executive of ABC’s corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co., said on Twitter.

In a broadcast career spanning five decades, Walters interviewed an array of world leaders, including Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and every U.S. president and first lady since Richard and Pat Nixon.

She earned 12 Emmy awards, 11 of those while at ABC News, the network said.

Walters began her journalism career on NBC’s The Today Show in the 1960s as a writer and segment producer. She made broadcast history as the first woman co-anchor on a U.S. evening newscast, opposite Harry Reasoner.

Share Data, WHO Urges China at COVID Surge Talks

The World Health Organization met Chinese officials for talks on Friday about the surge in COVID-19 cases, urging them to share real-time data so other countries could respond effectively.

The rise in infections in China has triggered concern around the globe and questions about its data reporting, with low official figures for cases and deaths despite some hospitals and morgues being overwhelmed.

The talks came after WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged Beijing to be more forthcoming on the pandemic situation in the world’s most populous country.

The U.N. health agency said the meeting was “to seek further information on the situation, and to offer WHO’s expertise and further support.”

It said officials from China’s National Health Commission and National Disease Control and Prevention Administration briefed the WHO on China’s evolving strategy and actions on epidemiology, variant monitoring, vaccination, clinical care, communication and research and development.

“WHO again asked for regular sharing of specific and real-time data on the epidemiological situation — including more genetic sequencing data, data on disease impact including hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and deaths,” it said.

It asked for data on vaccinations delivered and vaccination status, especially in vulnerable people and those over age 60.

‘Timely publication of data’

“WHO reiterated the importance of vaccination and boosters to protect against severe disease and death for people at higher risk,” the Geneva-based organization said.

“WHO called on China to strengthen viral sequencing, clinical management and impact assessment, and expressed willingness to provide support on these areas, as well as on risk communications on vaccination to counter hesitancy.”

The U.N. agency said Chinese scientists were invited to engage more closely in WHO-led COVID-19 expert networks and asked them to present detailed data at a virus evolution advisory group meeting Tuesday.

“WHO stressed the importance of monitoring and the timely publication of data to help China and the global community to formulate accurate risk assessments and to inform effective responses,” it said.

China said this month it would end mandatory quarantine for people arriving in the country and that it had abandoned strict measures to contain the virus.

The surge in cases in China comes almost exactly three years after the first infections were recorded in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Since then, more than 650 million confirmed COVID cases and over 6.6 million deaths have been reported, though the U.N. health agency acknowledges this will be a vast undercount.

The search for the origin of the virus remains unresolved, with Tedros insisting all hypotheses remain on the table, including the theory that the virus escaped from Wuhan’s virology laboratories.

Tedros has called on China to share data and conduct the studies requested by the WHO to better understand where the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease sprang from. 

In 2022, AP Photographers Captured Pain of a Changing Planet

In 2022, photographers with The Associated Press captured signs of a planet in distress as climate change reshaped many lives.

That distress was seen in the scarred landscapes in places where the rains failed to come. It was felt in walloping storms, land-engulfing floods, suffocating heat and wildfires no longer confined to a single season. It could be tasted in altered crops or felt as hunger pangs when crops stopped growing. And taken together, millions of people were compelled to pick up and move as many habitats became uninhabitable.

2022 will be a year remembered for destruction brought on by a warming planet and, according to scientists, was a harbinger for even more extreme weather.

Parched earth

In June, two young men sat smoking in front of a boat that had previously been under water. The waterline in parts of Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada had dropped so much that the boat was now standing up in the mud. Such dramatic manifestations were seen in myriad places. 

In Germany, drought combined with a bark beetle infestation left large swaths of Harz forest trees spindly, while in Kenya mothers struggled to keep their children nourished and animals died because of a lack of water. Along the Solimoes River in the Brazilian Amazon, houseboat dwellers found themselves living on mud instead of water, as parts dried up.

In eastern France, normally lush sunflowers looked as if they had been fried, their leaves withered, and seeds blackened. Similar scars on the Earth’s surface were seen in reef-like structures exposed by receding waters in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the cracked bed of Hungary’s Lake Velence and the shrunken Yangtze River in southwestern China.

Storms and floods

While a lack of rain did damage in many places, in others too much precipitation altered landscapes and swallowed lives. Sometimes the same region, in a short amount of time, went from drought to deluge — what scientists refer to as a “whiplash effect.” This happened in parts of Yellowstone National Park last summer.

The country hardest hit by floods was Pakistan, with a third of its land submerged, millions of people displaced and at least 1,700 killed. But many countries were hit hard by storms.

In Cuba, a tropical cyclone in June led to so much flooding that rescuers moved through the streets of Havana in boats. Just a few months later, Hurricane Ian slammed into the island before continuing to Florida, leaving destruction and death in its wake.

Heavy floods were also seen in parts of Nigeria, India, Indonesia and numerous other places, while in one part of Brazil, a common aftereffect of flooding — landslides — killed more than 200 people.

To be sure, there were human attempts to better prepare and deal with flooding. One example: Chinese authorities continued to develop and expand “sponge cities,” which aim to use porous pavement and green spaces to absorb water and reduce the destruction of flooding.

Heat and fire

In recent years, wildfires have become commonplace across the Western U.S. amid a 23-year drought and rising temperatures. Compared to last year, there were slightly fewer wildfires in 2022 in California — the state routinely hardest hit — but many blazes still chewed through land and homes.

America was hardly alone. There were significant fires in Portugal, Greece, Argentina and many other countries. Images like a living room engulfed in flames, an evacuated woman clinging to a police officer and a man using a branch to protect his home were visceral reminders of the fury that fires unleash.

Along with fires, there were periodic bouts of extreme heat. A sweating British soldier, wearing a traditional bearskin hat outside Buckingham Palace, captured a reality for many Brits, as temperatures reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40.3 degrees Celsius), a record for the country.

How people coped with sauna-like conditions depended on the place. In Madrid, a fountain at an urban beach provided relief to parents and children. In Hungary, three people cooled off in a fill-up pool. And in Los Angeles, a woman stuck her head in front of an open fire hydrant.

Imperiled food

In October, Wilbur Kuzuzuk pulled a spotted seal to the edge of the lagoon in Shishmaref, a town in western Alaska that is on the verge of disappearing because of climate change.

The 600 residents of the Inupiat village have stayed put despite increasing risks to their way of life, including their food supply, as warming seas encroach on land and warming temperatures hurt habitats. But residents like Kuzuzuk know Shishmaref’s days are likely numbered: Twice the town has voted to relocate, though nothing has been put in motion.

All around the world there were clear threats to the food supply. In India, floods damaged corn and other crops, leaving farmers no choice but to try to salvage as much as possible. In Kenya and surrounding countries, drought increased hunger and pushed villagers to dig ever deeper in search of groundwater.

Climate migration

Taken together, all these problems pushed millions of people to migrate. Perhaps nowhere was that clearer than in Somalia, where severe drought led to starvation and prompted thousands of people to flee. Many migrants ended up in makeshift camps, like the one in Dollow, emaciated, young children in tow, desperately seeking food and water.

Much of the migration happened within borders. In India’s Ladakh region, a cold mountainous desert that borders China and Pakistan, shrinking grazable land, along with other effects of climate change, continued to force many to migrate from sparsely populated villages to urban settlements.

In Indonesia, a big driver of migration was encroaching seas. In Central Java, homes not outfitted with raised floors were swallowed, pushing those who didn’t have the means to seek other abodes.

In Kenya, a woman named Winnie Keben recounted how she lost her leg to a crocodile attack. She blamed the attack, in part, on the fact that rising water levels around Lake Baringo have brought animals closer to humans. Many scientists attribute that to climate change.

Keben’s home was also washed away, sending her family to another village.

Vivienne Westwood, Britain’s Provocative Dame of Fashion, Dies at 81

As the person who dressed the Sex Pistols, Vivienne Westwood, who died Thursday at 81, was synonymous with 1970s punk rock, a rebelliousness that remained the hallmark of an unapologetically political designer who became one of British fashion’s biggest names.

“Vivienne Westwood died today, peacefully and surrounded by her family, in Clapham, South London. The world needs people like Vivienne to make a change for the better,” her fashion house said on Twitter.

Climate change, pollution and her support for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange were all fodder for protest T-shirts or banners carried by her models on the runway.

She dressed up as then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for a magazine cover in 1989 and drove a white tank near the country home of a later British leader, David Cameron, to protest fracking.

The rebel was inducted into Britain’s establishment in 1992 by Queen Elizabeth, who awarded her the Order of the British Empire medal. But, ever keen to shock, Westwood turned up at Buckingham Palace without underwear — a fact she proved to photographers by a revealing twirl of her skirt.

“The only reason I am in fashion is to destroy the word ‘conformity,'” Westwood said in her 2014 biography. “Nothing is interesting to me unless it’s got that element.”

Instantly recognizable with her orange or white hair, Westwood first made a name for herself in punk fashion in 1970s London, dressing the punk rock band that defined the genre.

Together with the Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, she defied the hippie trends of the time to sell rock ‘n’ roll-inspired clothing.

They moved on to torn outfits adorned with chains as well as latex and fetish pieces that they sold at their shop in London’s King’s Road variously called “Let It Rock,” “Sex” and “Seditionaries,” among other names.

They used prints of swastikas, naked breasts and, perhaps most well-known, an image of the queen with a safety pin through her lips. Favorite items included sleeveless black T-shirts, studded, with zips, safety pins or bleached chicken bones.

“There was no punk before me and Malcolm,” Westwood said in the biography. “And the other thing you should know about punk too: it was a total blast.”

‘Buy less’

Born Vivienne Isabel Swire on April 8, 1941, in the English Midlands town of Glossop, Westwood grew up at a time of rationing during and after World War II.

A recycling mentality pervaded her work, and she repeatedly told fashionistas to “choose well” and “buy less.” From the late 1960s, she lived in a small flat in south London for some 30 years and cycled to work.

When she was a teenager, her parents, a greengrocer and a cotton weaver, moved the family to north London where she studied jewelry-making and silversmithing before retraining as a teacher.

While she taught at a primary school, she met her first husband, Derek Westwood, marrying him in a homemade dress. Their son, Ben, was born in 1963, and the couple divorced in 1966.

Now a single mother, Westwood was selling jewelry on London’s Portobello Road when she met art student McLaren, who would go on to be her partner romantically and professionally. They had a son, Joe Corre, co-founder of lingerie brand Agent Provocateur.

After the Sex Pistols split, the two held their first catwalk show in 1981, presenting a “new romantic” look of African-style patterns, buccaneer trousers and sashes.

Westwood, by then in her 40s, began to slowly forge her own path in fashion, eventually separating from McLaren in the early 1980s.

Often looking to history, her influential designs have included corsets, Harris Tweed suits and taffeta ballgowns.

Her 1985 “Mini-Crini” line introduced her short puffed skirt and a more fitted silhouette. Her sky-high platform shoes garnered worldwide attention in 1993 when model Naomi Campbell stumbled on the catwalk in a pair.

“My clothes have a story. They have an identity. They have character and a purpose,” Westwood said.

“That’s why they become classics. Because they keep on telling a story. They are still telling it.”

The Westwood brand flourished in the 1990s, with fashionistas flocking to her runway shows in Paris, and stores opening around the world selling her lines, accessories and perfumes.

She met her second husband, Andreas Kronthaler, teaching fashion in Vienna. They married in 1993, and he later became her creative partner.

Westwood used her public profile to champion issues including nuclear disarmament and to protest anti-terrorism laws and government spending policies that hit the poor. She held a large “climate revolution” banner at the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony in London, and frequently turned her models into catwalk eco-warriors.

“I’ve always had a political agenda,” Westwood told L’Officiel fashion magazine in 2018.

“I’ve used fashion to challenge the status quo.”

US Considers Airline Wastewater Testing as COVID Surges in China

As COVID-19 infections surge in China, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering sampling wastewater taken from international aircraft to track any emerging new variants, the agency told Reuters.

Such a policy would offer a better solution to tracking the virus and slowing its entry into the United States than new travel restrictions announced this week by the U.S. and other countries, which require mandatory negative COVID tests for travelers from China, three infectious disease experts told Reuters.

Travel restrictions, such as mandatory testing, have so far failed to significantly curb the spread of COVID, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota.

“They seem to be essential from a political standpoint. I think each government feels like they will be accused of not doing enough to protect their citizens if they don’t do these,” he said.

The United States this week also expanded its voluntary genomic sequencing program at airports, adding Seattle and Los Angeles to the program. That brings the total number of airports gathering information from positive tests to seven.

But experts said that may not provide a meaningful sample size.

A better solution would be testing wastewater from airlines, which would offer a clearer picture of how the virus is mutating, given China’s lack of data transparency, said Dr. Eric Topol, a genomics expert and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.

Getting wastewater off planes from China “would be a very good tactic,” Topol said, adding that it’s important that the United States upgrade its surveillance tactics “because of China being so unwilling to share its genomic data.”

China has said criticism of its COVID statistics is groundless and downplayed the risk of new variants, saying it expects mutations to be more infectious but less severe. Still, doubts over official Chinese data have prompted many places, including the United States, Italy and Japan, to impose new testing rules on Chinese visitors as Beijing lifted travel controls.

Airplane wastewater analysis is among several options the CDC is considering to help slow the introduction of new variants into the United States from other countries, CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said in an email.

The agency is grappling with a lack of transparency about COVID in China after the country of 1.4 billion people abruptly lifted strict COVID lockdowns and testing policies, unleashing the virus into an under-vaccinated and previously unexposed population.

“Previous COVID-19 wastewater surveillance has shown to be a valuable tool and airplane wastewater surveillance could potentially be an option,” she wrote.

French researchers reported in July that airplane wastewater tests showed requiring negative COVID tests before international flights does not protect countries from the spread of new variants. They found the omicron variant in wastewater from two commercial airplanes that flew from Ethiopia to France in December 2021 even though passengers had been required to take COVID tests before boarding.

California researchers reported in July that sampling of community wastewater in San Diego detected the presence of the alpha, delta, epsilon and omicron variants up to 14 days before they started showing up on nasal swabs.

Osterholm and others said mandatory testing before travel to the United States is unlikely to keep new variants out of the country.

“Border closures or border testing really makes very little difference. Maybe it slows it down by a few days,” he said, because the virus is likely to spread worldwide, and could infect people in Europe or elsewhere who may then bring it to the United States.

Scientists Study Link Between Winter Storms and Global Warming

The world is getting warmer, winters included. The United States, however, has experienced severe winter storms in recent years, and experts are taking a closer look at the link between these extreme cold events and climate change.

While the link between global warming and heat waves is very direct, the behavior of winter storms is governed by complex atmospheric dynamics that are more difficult to study.

Even so, “there are certain aspects of winter storms … where the climate change linkages are fairly strong and robust,” Michael Mann, a climatologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told AFP.

For example, the warming of bodies of water — lakes or oceans — influences the amount of snowfall.

In the United States, a mechanism called “lake-effect snow” occurs around the Great Lakes region on the Canadian border. The city of Buffalo, which sits on the shores of one of the Great Lakes, was hit hard by a lethal snowstorm over Christmas weekend.

The collision between cold air from the north with the warmer water of these lakes causes convection, which leads to snowfall.

“The warmer those lake temperatures, the more moisture (is) in the air, and the greater potential for lake-effect snows,” Michael Mann wrote in a 2018 paper.

“Not surprisingly, we see a long-term increase in lake effect snowfalls as temperatures have warmed during the last century.”

Polar vortex

There is, however, no consensus on other mechanisms, such as the effect of climate change on the polar vortex and jet stream air currents.

The polar vortex is an air mass above the North Pole, located high in the stratosphere. Humans dwell in the troposphere, and the stratosphere is located just above it.

It is surrounded by a band of rotating air, which acts as a barrier between the cold air in the north and the warmer air in the south. As the polar vortex weakens, this band of air begins to undulate and take on a more oval shape, bringing more cold air southward.

According to a 2021 study, this type of disturbance is occurring more often and is reflected during the following two weeks, lower in the atmosphere, where the jet stream is located.

This air current, which blows from west to east, again following the border between cold and warm air, then meanders in such a way that it allows cold air from the north to intrude at lower latitudes, particularly over the eastern United States.

“Everybody agrees that when the polar vortex becomes perturbed or disrupted, there is an increase in the probability of severe winter weather,” Judah Cohen, lead author of the study and climatologist for Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), told AFP.

And this “stretched” polar vortex is exactly what was observed just before the storm that hit the United States this December, he pointed out.

The same phenomenon was seen in February 2021, when a bitter cold snap hit Texas, causing massive power outages.

‘Active debate’

But the heart of the debate lies elsewhere: What is causing these increased disturbances in the polar vortex?

According to Cohen, they are linked to changes in the Arctic, accelerated by climate change. On the one hand, the rapid melting of sea ice, and on the other, an increase in snow cover in Siberia.

“This is a topic that I have been studying for over 15 years, and I am more confident today in the link than I have ever been in the past,” he told AFP.

This last point, however, remains “an active debate within the scientific community,” Mann said.

“Climate models are not yet capturing all of the underlying physics that may be relevant to how climate change is impacting the behavior of the jet stream.”

Future studies will still be needed in the coming years to unravel the mystery of these complex chain reactions. 

Pele or Maradona? Debate Will Continue Raging Over Who Was Greater

Before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo came along, the enduring debate in soccer about who was the greatest player centered on two men: Pele and Diego Maradona.

It was an argument that played out for years on terraces and in bars, on radio and on television.

Brazil’s Pele, a prolific goal scorer who died aged 82 on Thursday in Sao Paulo, won the World Cup an unprecedented three times as a player in 1958, 1962 and 1970 and put the small town of Santos on the map before conquering the United States with the New York Cosmos.

Maradona, who died at the age of 60 in 2020, guided Argentina to the World Cup in 1986 with perhaps the most influential performance ever at a major tournament and lifted Napoli to unparalleled heights in Italy and Europe.

The argument about whose legacy was greater so divided the football world that when Maradona was voted the player of the 20th century in a FIFA internet poll, there was widespread outrage, with many griping that Pele’s earlier career put him at a disadvantage with younger fans.

FIFA held another poll voted on by its own “football family,” won by Pele, allowing the pair to share the glory.

“Here Pele, the striker whose territory was the penalty box, a player who scored goals for fun and became Minister of Sport, more your quiet type of person,” FIFA wrote at the time.

“There Maradona, possibly the most complete player ever, playmaker and goal-scorer, technically brilliant, unpredictable and impulsive, both on and off the field, a player plagued by a variety of problems for many years.”

The cases made on both sides came with a host of subtexts: the Argentine versus the Brazilian, the man of the people versus the establishment figure, the party animal versus the quiet man, the rebel versus the conformist.

Everyone took a side, and the two protagonists were not shy about making their own feelings known.

Pele thought Maradona was gauche and undignified, and Maradona thought Pele was a sellout.

“As a player he was great. … But he thinks politically,” Maradona said, in one of his kinder criticisms.

Pele called the Argentine, who struggled with addiction, “a bad example” and much more besides.

Still, the two South Americans got on well when they met for the first time in 1979, Maradona flying to Rio to meet Pele.

Pele was happy to counsel the budding star, and Maradona excited to be fulfilling his dream of meeting the Brazilian.

But their relationship soured in 1982 after Pele criticized Maradona when he was sent off for stamping on a Brazilian in a World Cup tie in Spain.

From then on, they spent decades criticizing each other and then making up, with the praise as sincere as the insults.

Pele was magnanimous on hearing of Maradona’s death, saying: “I lost a great friend, and the world lost a legend.”

Messi, who strengthened his own claim to sporting immortality by leading Argentina to their third World Cup victory this month, shared a photo of himself with Pele in a terse tribute to the Brazilian star on Instagram, saying: “Rest in peace Pele.”

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, eclipsed by Messi at the Qatar World Cup, was more expansive, calling the Brazilian “King Pelé” and an inspiration to millions. “He will never be forgotten, and his memory will last forever in all of us football lovers,” he said.

US Lawsuit Claims Pharma Distributor Worsened Opioid Epidemic

The U.S. Justice Department is suing one of the largest U.S. drug distributors for failing to report suspicious orders of prescription opioids, saying the company’s “years of repeated violations” contributed to the deadly U.S. opioid epidemic. 

In a civil lawsuit filed Thursday, the department alleges that AmerisourceBergen and two subsidiaries violated the Controlled Substances Act by failing to report “at least hundreds of thousands” of suspicious orders for prescription painkillers to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The department is seeking potentially billions of dollars in penalties.

“For years, AmerisourceBergen prioritized profits over its legal obligations and over Americans’ well-being,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said during a press call.

Under the Controlled Substances Act, distributors of controlled drugs are required to monitor and report suspicious orders to the drug agency.

The lawsuit alleges that AmerisourceBergen failed to report “numerous orders from pharmacies that AmerisourceBergen knew were likely facilitating diversion of prescription opioids.”

The complaint cites five such pharmacies.

A Florida pharmacy and a West Virginia pharmacy received opioids from AmerisourceBergen that the company allegedly knew “were likely being sold in parking lots for cash,” according to the complaint.

In Colorado, AmerisourceBergen distributed prescription painkillers to a pharmacy it allegedly knew was its largest purchaser of oxycodone 30mg tablets in the state.

AmerisourceBergen identified 11 patients at the pharmacy as potential “drug addicts.” Two of those patients later died of overdoses, according to the lawsuit.

In New Jersey, an online pharmacy that received opioids from AmerisourceBergen has pleaded guilty to illegally selling controlled substances, while the chief pharmacist at another pharmacy has been indicted for drug diversion.

“These incidents were part of the systematic failure by AmerisourceBergen, including dramatically understaffing and underfunding its compliance programs,” Philip Sellinger, U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, said during the press call. “In one year, AmerisourceBergen spent more on taxicabs and office supplies than on the Controlled Substances Act compliance budget.”

In a statement, AmerisourceBergen said the lawsuit represented an attempt to “shift the onus of interpreting and enforcing the law from the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to an industry they are tasked with regulating and policing.”

The five pharmacies were “cherrypicked” by the DOJ out of thousands the company serves, the statement said.

AmerisourceBergen is one of three major U.S. pharmaceutical distributors. The other two are McKesson and Cardinal Health.

In February the companies, along with pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, agreed to pay $26 billion to settle thousands of civil lawsuits brought by state and local governments. Most of the money will go toward treatment and prevention.

The U.S. drug epidemic has killed more than 1 million people since 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Opioids are the main driver of U.S. drug overdose deaths. Of an estimated 108,000 drug overdose deaths reported in the country last year, 81,000 involved opioids such as fentanyl, according to the CDC.  


Brazilian Football Legend Pele Dies at 82

Brazilian football legend Pele, who burst onto the world scene as a goal-scoring teenager and led his national team to an unprecedented three World Cup titles, died Thursday at the age of 82.

He was hospitalized in late November, and doctors said in December he was dealing with cancer that had advanced along with kidney and cardiac problems. In September 2021, he had surgery to remove a tumor from his colon.

Widely considered one of the greatest football players of all time, Pele dazzled on the World Cup stage for Brazil and in club games and international tours with his team Santos before helping generate a surge of excitement around the sport in the United States with a late-career stint with the New York Cosmos.

Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in 1940 in Tres Coracoes, about 250 kilometers northwest of Rio de Janeiro, Pele signed with Santos at the age of 15.

By 16, he was part of Brazil’s national team, and in 1958 he made his World Cup debut at age 17, announcing himself on football’s biggest stage with a goal in his first match. He is the youngest player to ever score in the men’s World Cup and the youngest to ever score three goals in one game, which he accomplished in Brazil’s second match of the tournament.

Two more goals in the tournament’s final match helped Pele lead Brazil to the championship. He won two more World Cups with Brazil, in 1962 and 1970.

His international career included 77 goals in 92 matches, and he was named FIFA’s co-player of the 20th century along with Argentina’s Diego Maradona.

After retiring from Santos and international duty, Pele joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in 1975 and played three seasons there.

In his post-football life, Pele served as Brazil’s sports minister and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization appointed him UNESCO Champion for Sport for what it said was his “outstanding commitment to promote sport and help disadvantaged children.”

In 2020, Pele tweeted that he was proud of his relationship with the U.N., as well as his involvement in campaigns to promote breastfeeding in Brazil and eradicate illiteracy.

“Today, I insist on being involved in good causes, both with NGO’s, Public institutions and my sponsors. This is part of my legacy and I applaud other football legends that have also been following this path, using the beautiful game to make the world better,” he posted.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

COVID Controls Offer Insight Into China’s Surveillance Network

For many outside China, this was the year that the term “surveillance state” became something they understood.

Western media reported in April on what were thought to be government-operated drones whirring through a locked-down Shanghai, China’s most populous city, where authorities reported a record 22,000 new cases of COVID-19 on a single day. In an unverified viral video, one drone trumpeted, “Control your soul’s desire for freedom” as it hovered over a housing compound at night.

Citizens were expected to download a “health code” app for smartphones that dictated their activities. Designed to curtail the spread of the virus, a green QR code meant freedom to move around. A red code barred movement.

In the city of Zhengzhou, authorities in June allegedly issued red codes, usually sent to people deemed by authorities to be at high risk of infection or already infected, to people heading to town to protest a local bank that was freezing their assets.

At the end of November, when unprecedented protests against the “zero-COVID” policy erupted nationwide, Western media reported that authorities began checking the smartphones of people near the demonstrations, looking for VPN software that allowed them access to sites and social platforms like Twitter beyond China’s “Great Firewall.”

By mid-December, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation to restrict the use of the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok. Wildly effective for spreading dancing baby videos and political messaging both real and fake, the lawmakers had security concerns about the data Beijing might be collecting from millions of users as each video played.

According to University of Virginia professor Aynne Kokas, who wrote the book “Trafficking Data: How China is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty,” Beijing’s strict zero-COVID response to the pandemic played a big role in showing the rest of the world what surveillance in China is like, including targeting dissidents.

“China’s handling of its zero-COVID policy and the enhancement of surveillance in China in order to achieve that zero-COVID policy has amplified global popular understanding of the scope and scale of China’s surveillance tech,” she told VOA Mandarin in an interview.

Many ways to watch

Street cameras are the primary mode of surveillance, with more than half of the world’s nearly 1 billion surveillance cameras located in China.

In addition to picking people out of crowds, surveillance cameras “aim to transform ‘unstructured information’ into ‘structured information,’ turning a chaotic visual field into something akin to a text file that can be easily, automatically analyzed, and searched,” according to an October report from Human Rights Watch.

Surveillance also includes the collection of biometric data, like voice samples, DNA, iris scans and gait “to form a multimodal portrait,” according to the HRW report. Forced biometric data collection has been tied to repression in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Chinese companies have supplied AI surveillance technology to 63 countries, 36 of which have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, according to a 2019 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the government has launched a crackdown against Uyghurs, the big data system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, or IJOP, closely tracks behaviors Beijing deems suspicious — such as avoiding neighbors or stopping cell phone use — and flags the individuals for interrogation.

Maintaining control, order

But the real effect of this sweeping surveillance system is social control, according to Maya Wang, associate director in the Asia division at HRW.

“IJOP is promoted as an anti-terrorism system, but if you study it carefully, anti-terrorism is not its real purpose,” said Wang. “The system uses variables such as whether someone goes to the gas station or how often their phone is turned off to measure suspicious behavior. Systems like IJOP are ineffective as anti-terrorism mechanisms.”

Beyond Xinjiang, in other parts of China, the government often promotes surveillance technology as a way to maintain social order, according to Bulelani Jili, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University studying Chinese technology.

“The CCP is always framing surveillance technologies as part of its needs and ambitions for political stability,” he told VOA Mandarin in an interview. “Both the promotion and application of surveillance technology has really been about ensuring political stability.”

But when China began experiencing unprecedented protests around the country late last month from people fed up with Beijing’s strict pandemic protocols, authorities employed that technology to locate protestors who believed they’d taken steps to hide themselves from the ubiquitous monitoring.

HRW China researcher Yaqiu Wang said the backlash against the zero-COVID policy and against the security forces that kept people from protesting outside banks in Henan and Anhui show that people are increasingly questioning Beijing’s positive stance on the use of surveillance technology.

TikTok restrictions

The final month of 2022 has seen a flurry of steps taken by Taiwan and the United States to restrict the use of TikTok due to security concerns posed by the Chinese-owned social media app.

In early December, Taiwan announced that government workers would be restricted from using TikTok on government devices. Then on December 18, Taiwan’s government announced it had opened a probe into TikTok on suspicion of illegally operating a subsidiary on the island.

In the U.S., 19 of its 50 states have at least partially blocked access to TikTok on government devices, with most of those restrictions coming in the past few weeks. The U.S. Senate also passed a bill December 14 that would ban federal employees from using TikTok on government devices.

These moves are signs of growing concern over the surveillance threats that TikTok poses outside China, analysts said, and more broadly, how the Chinese government uses technology to monitor people within China’s borders.

“One could see a situation where a staffer in the House or Senate would be using TikTok for entertainment purposes, but then that app could also monitor their other communications,” UVA’s Kokas said in an interview with VOA Mandarin. “When we’re talking about government phones, or government devices, those risks become even more elevated.”

Kokas said TikTok has the capacity to pose a number of national security threats, including spreading misinformation and disinformation. Gathering consumer data from TikTok also gives China a competitive advantage to build better products for the global marketplace.

At a regular press conference in November, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning rebutted the allegations about TikTok, saying that accusations of “spreading false information and using it as an excuse to suppress relevant Chinese companies has become a common practice in the United States.”

Restricting the use of TikTok on government devices is logical to Kokas, but she cautioned that it is not a panacea.

“This isn’t going to solve Chinese consumer data gathering in the U.S. by any means,” she said. But “a TikTok ban for general users doesn’t make a lot of sense. We need a more expansive data security regime in the U.S.”

US Pays to Clean Up Agent Orange on Vietnam War Anniversary

The United States earlier this month announced a contract worth up to $29 million to clean up dioxin contamination at the Bien Hoa Air Base in southern Vietnam, near Ho Chi Minh City, a consequence of U.S. use of the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The move is the most recent attempt to demonstrate cooperation between the two countries despite a still complicated relationship. 

The nations now work together on trade issues, climate change, and legacies of the war, such as the dioxin spraying or the so-called Christmas bombings, 50 years ago this month, when America dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong. 

“This announcement represents the United States’ commitment to our partnership with Vietnam,” Aler Grubbs, the Hanoi-based Vietnam mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said. “This contract will complete critical preparatory work, paving the way for the treatment phase of the project.” 

Some differences still remain between the United States and Vietnam, ranging from human rights to Bien Hoa itself, where the two have not been able to come to an agreement on a cemetery for former soldiers of South Vietnam, with which the U.S. was allied against communist North Vietnam in the war that ended in 1975 with a North Vietnamese victory.

USAID said it finished a similar project in 2018 to clean up Agent Orange and other chemicals that it sprayed around Da Nang in central Vietnam to defoliate the jungle used by communist forces to hide during the war. It said compared to Da Nang, Bien Hoa would require dealing with four times as much soil that has been contaminated with the chemicals, still linked to birth defects. 

Similarly, samples of tilapia fish collected in Bien Hoa in 2010 continued to show levels of Agent Orange considered to be unhealthy, according to a report from the Vietnamese Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the United Nations Development Program.

“We look forward to applying our specialized expertise to meet the project’s high safety and health requirements and technical specifications, and contribute to the overall success of the project,” said Vu Van Liem, general director of VINA E&C Investment and Construction JSC, the local corporation that has received the contract to excavate the soil and prepare it for treatment over a period of four years.

Both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments are participating in the entire cleanup across the country, which is estimated will require more than 10 years at a cost of approximately $450 million. Washington said it expects to spend $300 million in the end and has allocated more than $163 million so far.

The two nations have come a long way since the war, though they continue to have issues of disagreement. America has applied pressure on the autocratic government of Vietnam on a routine basis to recognize the freedom of speech and to release political prisoners while Hanoi denies it has any. 

In one of the more recent developments, for example, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said December 2 that Vietnam would be put on a “Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom,” along with Algeria, the Central African Republic, and Comoros.

“Countries that effectively safeguard [religion] and other human rights are more peaceful, stable, prosperous and more reliable partners of the United States than those that do not,” he said.

“We will continue to carefully monitor the status of freedom of religion or belief in every country around the world and advocate for those facing religious persecution or discrimination.”

Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not accept being put on the watch list.

“Recently Vietnam has been finalizing the legal system and the policies on religion and belief,” the ministry said in response on December 15.

“These efforts and achievements in ensuring freedom of religion and beliefs have been widely recognized by the international community.”

However, while Washington was pressuring Vietnam on one problem, it was also trying to solve another. The Agent Orange remediation in Bien Hoa was about more than cleaning up a mess decades after war. It was also about looking toward the decades to come, showing closer cooperation, such as potentially on addressing environmental problems in the future.

“This marks the largest contract yet by USAID to a local Vietnamese organization,” Grubbs said, “as we make a concerted effort to build Vietnamese expertise in this nascent area of environmental health and safety.”

Fact Box: COVID Rules For Travelers From China Around the World

Countries are imposing or considering imposing curbs on travelers from China amid a COVID-19 surge there after authorities relaxed “zero-COVID” rules.

They cite a lack of information from China on variants and are concerned about a wave of infections. China has rejected criticism of its COVID data and said it expects future mutations to be potentially more transmissible but less severe.

Below is a list of new regulations for travelers from China.

Countries Imposing Curbs

United States

The U.S. will impose mandatory COVID-19 tests on travelers from China beginning Jan. 5. All air passengers 2 and older will require a negative result from a test no more than two days before departure from China, Hong Kong or Macau. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said Americans should also reconsider travel to China, Hong Kong and Macau.


The country has mandated a COVID-19 negative test report for travelers arriving from China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand, the health minister said. Passengers from those countries will be quarantined if they show symptoms or test positive.


Japan will require a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival for travelers from mainland China. Those who test positive will be required to quarantine for seven days. New border measures for China will go into effect at midnight Friday. The government will also limit requests from airlines to increase flights to China.


Italy has ordered COVID-19 antigen swabs and virus sequencing for all travelers coming from China. Milan’s main airport, Malpensa, had already started testing passengers arriving from Beijing and Shanghai. “The measure is essential to ensure surveillance and detection of possible variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population,” Health Minister Orazio Schillaci said.


Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre said all passengers on direct flights from China, as well as by boat at two offshore islands, will have to take PCR tests upon arrival, starting Sunday.

Countries Monitoring Situation


Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia was continuing to monitor the situation in respect of China “as we continue to monitor the impact of COVID here in Australia as well as around the world.”


The Southeast Asian country is being “very cautious” and could impose measures such as testing requirements on visitors from China, but not an outright ban, Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista said.

Not Considering Curbs


Britain has no plans to bring back COVID-19 testing for those coming into the country, a government spokesperson said Thursday, when asked about a Daily Telegraph report saying it would consider curbs for arrivals from China.

NASA Mulls SpaceX Backup Plan for Crew of Russia’s Leaky Soyuz Ship

NASA is exploring whether SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft can potentially offer an alternative ride home for some crew members of the International Space Station after a Russian capsule sprang a coolant leak while docked to the orbital lab.

NASA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, are investigating the cause of a punctured coolant line on an external radiator of Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, which is supposed to return its crew of two cosmonauts and one U.S. astronaut to Earth early next year.

But the December 14 leak, which emptied the Soyuz of a vital fluid used to regulate crew cabin temperatures, has derailed Russia’s space station routines, with engineers in Moscow examining whether to launch another Soyuz to retrieve the three-man team that flew to ISS aboard the crippled MS-22 craft.

If Russia cannot launch another Soyuz ship, or decides for some reason that doing so would be too risky, NASA is weighing another option.

“We have asked SpaceX a few questions on their capability to return additional crew members on Dragon if necessary, but that is not our prime focus at this time,” NASA spokeswoman Sandra Jones said in a statement to Reuters.

SpaceX did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

It was unclear what NASA specifically asked of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capabilities, such as whether the company can find a way to increase the crew capacity of the Dragon currently docked to the station, or launch an empty capsule for the crew’s rescue.

But the company’s potential involvement in a mission led by Russia underscores the degree of precaution NASA is taking to ensure its astronauts can safely return to Earth, should one of the other contingency plans arranged by Russia fall through.

The leaky Soyuz capsule ferried U.S. astronaut Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dimitri Petelin to the space station in September for a six-month mission. They were scheduled to return to Earth in March 2023.

The station’s four other crew members — two more from NASA, a third Russian cosmonaut and a Japanese astronaut — arrived in October via a NASA-contracted SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which also remains parked at the ISS.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a gumdrop-shaped pod with four astronaut seats, has become the centerpiece to NASA’s human spaceflight efforts in low-Earth orbit. Besides Russia’s Soyuz program, it is the only entity capable of ferrying humans to the space station and back.

Three possible culprits

Finding what caused the leak could factor into decisions about the best way to return the crew members. A meteroid-caused puncture, a strike from a piece of space debris or a hardware failure on the Soyuz capsule itself are three possible causes of the leak that NASA and Roscosmos are investigating.

A hardware malfunction could raise additional questions for Roscosmos about the integrity of other Soyuz vehicles, such as the one it might send for the crew’s rescue, said Mike Suffredini, who led NASA’s ISS program for a decade until 2015.

“I can assure you that’s something they’re looking at, to see what’s back there and whether there’s a concern for it,” he said. “The thing about the Russians is they’re really good at not talking about what they’re doing, but they’re very thorough.”

Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov had previously said engineers would decide by Tuesday how to return the crew to Earth, but the agency said that day it would make the decision in January.

NASA has previously said the capsule’s temperatures remain “within acceptable limits,” with its crew compartment currently being vented with air flow allowed through an open hatch to the ISS.

Sergei Krikalev, Russia’s chief of crewed space programs, told reporters last week that the temperature would rise rapidly if the hatch to the station were closed.

NASA and Roscosmos are primarily focusing on determining the leak’s cause, Jones said, as well as the health of MS-22 which is also meant to serve as the three-man crew’s lifeboat in case an emergency on the station requires evacuation.

A recent meteor shower initially seemed to raise the odds of a micrometeoroid strike as the culprit, but the leak was facing the wrong way for that to be the case, NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano told reporters last week, though a space rock could have come from another direction.

And if a piece of space debris is to blame, it could fuel concerns of an increasingly messy orbital environment and raise questions about whether such vital equipment as the spacecraft’s coolant line should have been protected by debris shielding, as other parts of the MS-22 spacecraft are.

“We are not shielded against everything throughout the space station,” Suffredini said. “We can’t shield against everything.” 


Italy to Screen All China Arrivals for COVID

Italy is making coronavirus tests for visitors from China mandatory following an explosion in cases in China, the health minister said Wednesday.

“I have ordered mandatory COVID-19 antigenic swabs, and related virus sequencing, for all passengers coming from China and transiting through Italy,” minister Orazio Schillaci said.

The measure was “essential to ensure the surveillance and identification of any variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population”, he said.

Coronavirus infections have surged in China as it unwinds hardline controls that had torpedoed the economy and sparked nationwide protests.

The Italian northern region of Lombardy introduced screening from Tuesday, a day before the measure was brought in nationwide.

Lombardy, the first region to impose a lockdown when coronavirus hit Europe in early 2020, is testing arrivals from China at Milan’s Malpensa airport at least until January 30, the foreign ministry said.

Swabs collected at Malpensa in recent days are already being analyzed by the national health ministry, to help identify any new variants.


Americans Weigh Pros and Cons as Musk Alters Twitter

Marie Rodriguez of Bountiful, Utah, began using social media when she enlisted in the U.S. Navy. At first, she saw it as a positive thing.

“It helped me to really keep in touch with people at home while I was deployed and living overseas,” she told VOA.

However, in the two months since Tesla CEO Elon Musk acquired Twitter, Rodriguez and many of its hundreds of millions of users have been forced to reevaluate their feelings about the platform and about social media in general.

“I don’t think he’s been positive at all,” Rodriguez said. “He’s allowing all of these previously banned accounts back on the platform, and I’m seeing more offensive Tweets — more anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ hate speech.”

“Some social media platforms over-patrol,” she added, “but Twitter isn’t patrolling enough. The result is more trolling, more bots and more hate. I’ve definitely been using the platform less because of it.”

Musk is a polarizing figure among Americans. In his own self-created poll on the platform, 57.5% of respondents said he should resign as Twitter chief, compared to 42.5% who said he should stay. (Musk has said he will abide by the poll’s results and resign his post as soon as a replacement is hired.)

Independent surveys, however, have shown Musk’s actions to be less unpopular than his Twitter poll indicated. A Quinnipiac University survey from earlier this month, for example, found that Americans’ opinions are more evenly split, with 37% saying they approved of the way he’s operating Twitter, 37% disapproving and 25% offering no opinion.

“I’m generally critical of billionaires,” said Avi Gupta, a neurobiologist in the nation’s capital, “but I’m so far supportive of what Musk has done for Twitter. As far as free speech is concerned, definitely, but also the platform’s just a lot more exciting to follow.”

A new Twitter

Gupta said he became disenchanted with rival social media platform Instagram when he posted a photo of Ukrainian soldiers who appeared to be wearing patches containing Nazi symbols. The post was promptly removed by administrators.

“To me, in that example, what Instagram is saying is that reporting on Nazism is no different than glorifying it,” Gupta explained. “It’s a form of censorship, but it was happening in pre-Musk Twitter, too. They were too quick to suspend accounts when they challenged mainstream thinking — whether it be about the Ukraine war, U.S. military interventions or COVID.”

“Since Musk,” he added, “I don’t have to censor myself as much, and you’re seeing previously banned accounts from politicians and scientists welcomed back. You have to balance that with stopping dangerous hate speech, of course — which I think they’re doing OK with — but overall, I think it’s been a good thing.”

According to University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication Professor Damian Radcliffe, Musk arrived at Twitter with an entrepreneurial reputation and a desire to grow the platform that appealed to many users.

Others, however, expressed concerns about what Musk’s commitment to freedom of speech and a scaling back of platform moderation might mean, as well as the implications of users now being able to purchase a verified “blue check” account.

“Those worries seem to have been justified,” Radcliffe told VOA. “I personally have seen a lot of people I follow leave the platform. They’re pointing to a less civil discourse, as well as a greater prevalence of misinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories in their feed as the main reasons they’re departing.”

In the two months since he took over, Musk has reinstated several previously banned Twitter accounts — most notably that of former U.S. President Donald Trump, though Trump eschewed the platform after his reinstatement. Musk has also banned (and sometimes reinstated) the accounts of several journalists.

“It’s been wild to watch as he came in talking about free speech,” said Ron Gubitz, executive director of a New Orleans nonprofit organization. “But then, all of a sudden, he’s suspending journalists’ accounts, banning an account tracking his jet, and — albeit temporarily — saying we couldn’t post links to other social media.”

Gubitz is a self-described “Twitter head,” having been on the platform for more than 14 years. He said he’s been disappointed in how it has operated since Musk’s purchase.

“Initially it was annoying because the discourse was all about Musk,” he said to VOA. “What is Musk saying? What is he going to do? It felt middle-school gossipy.”

“But the user interface has also actually gotten worse since he took over,” Gubitz added. “The platform isn’t updating well for me, it’s not adding enough new tweets, there are ads at the top of the screen every time I refresh and the whole thing just feels less secure. I’m cool with change, but this is going in the wrong direction.”

America’s relationship with social media

“I use Twitter less and less every day and I’ve actually removed the app from my phone,” said Kimm Rogers, a musician from San Diego, California. “I used to see tweets from the people I follow, but now my feed shows me [acquitted Wisconsin shooter] Kyle Rittenhouse, Elon Musk and [Texas Republican Senator] Ted Cruz. There’s a lot more hate especially towards black people, LGBTQ and Jewish people. There’s also more porn showing up in my feed as well as lots of disinformation over vaccines and the war in Ukraine.”

“It’s just hard on my psyche to see the lack of common decency and the cruelty often inflicted on others on this site,” Rogers added, “It diminishes my view of humanity.”

Polls show opinions on the direction of Twitter are often connected to political leanings. Quinnipiac’s December poll showed that 63% of Republican respondents said they viewed Musk favorably, while only 9% of Democrats said the same.

Many left-leaning users have threatened to leave the platform entirely. According to information from the Twitter analytics firm Bot Sentinel, approximately 877,000 accounts were deactivated in the week after Musk purchased Twitter. Nearly 500,000 were temporarily suspended. In total, that’s more than double the usual number and has included prominent celebrities who cited a rise in hate speech and the banning of journalists as their reason for leaving.

More recently, some users have organized “Twitter Walk-out Days” in which they log off for a period of time in protest. Others have threatened to move to other social media platforms that better align with their values.

If those users do move on, Nicole Dahmen, professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, says it won’t be the first time users shifted away from a form of technology.

“Leaving Twitter is the latest iteration of unfriending Facebook a decade ago or killing your television in the 1980s,” Dahmen told VOA. “There are valid reasons to consume and participate with these mediums and there are even more valid reasons to leave them. They’ve ultimately trivialized American discourse, and our political, social and emotional health has suffered.”

But it’s not just Twitter that appears to be experiencing a plateauing of popularity around the world. From 2018 to 2022, average daily social media use increased by only five minutes — from 142 minutes to 147 minutes — according to During the previous four years, average social media use increased by a whopping 38 minutes per day.

Sense of community

“Social media can be a great thing in how it creates a sense of community and allows us to find commonalities,” said Ivory Burnett of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Burnett said she prefers Twitter over other platforms because it encourages what she sees as more authentic, “less cosmetic” interactions.

“When used for good, it’s the megaphone for an entire generation,” she told VOA. “But it also results in bullying, misunderstanding and crowd-thinking that makes it easier to spread hate and harm.”

But, like so many who, despite their frustrations with the platform, say they don’t want to start over elsewhere after dedicating so many years to building a following on Twitter, Burnett said she has no intention of leaving.

“Leave? I’ve never considered leaving,” she said and laughed. “I’ll be here until my login stops working.”

US House Bans TikTok on Official Devices

The popular Chinese video app TikTok has been banned from all U.S. House of Representatives-managed devices, according to the House’s administration arm, mimicking a law soon to go into effect banning the app from all U.S. government devices.

The app is considered “high risk due to a number of security issues,” the House’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) said in a message sent on Tuesday to all lawmakers and staff and must be deleted from all devices managed by the House.

The new rule follows a series of moves by U.S. state governments to ban TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd, from government devices. As of last week, 19 states have at least partially blocked the app from state-managed devices over concerns that the Chinese government could use the app to track Americans and censor content.

The $1.66 trillion omnibus spending bill, passed last week to fund the U.S. government through September 30, 2023, includes a provision to ban the app on federally managed devices and will take effect once President Joe Biden signs the legislation into law.

“With the passage of the Omnibus that banned TikTok on executive branch devices, the CAO worked with the Committee on House Administration to implement a similar policy for the House,” a spokesperson for the Chief Administrative Officer told Reuters on Tuesday.

The message to staff said anyone with TikTok on their device would be contacted about removing it, and future downloads of the app were prohibited.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the new rule.

U.S. lawmakers have put forward a proposal to implement a nationwide ban on the app.

Easing of Quarantine Sparks Surge of Interest in China Travel

Chinese and international airlines are reviewing schedules and coping with a flood of inquiries about travel to China following this week’s announcement that strict quarantine requirements for arriving travelers will be dropped early next month.

According to the Chinese state-run media the Beijing News and Cailian Press, data from the Chinese travel website “Ctrip” shows that searches for popular cross-border destinations, including Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and the United States, increased tenfold within a half-hour after Monday’s announcement.

Searches related to outbound and group tours during the Spring Festival have increased sixfold.

According to Bloomberg, Hong Kong residents also rushed to the internet to search for flights to key mainland cities, with Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou being the most searched cities.

The decision to drop quarantine rules for inbound travelers comes after three years of strict international travel control as part of the country’s signature zero-COVID campaign.

The Chinese National Health Commission announced that the new measures will start on January 8.

“Those who come to China should undergo a nucleic acid test 48 hours before their departure, and those with a negative result can come to China without applying for a health code from our embassy or consulate abroad,” according to a document from the NHC. Arrivals into China with negative nucleic acid tests will be able to “enter society.”

The new order also requires all localities to “orderly resume Chinese citizens’ outbound tourism.”

In response, U.S. carrier United Airlines; European airlines company Lufthansa Group, which includes SWISS and Austrian Airlines; and Philippine Airlines announced they are looking into resuming additional flight operations to mainland China.

A staffer at Lexiang travel agency in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens in New York City, told VOA Mandarin that she has seen about a 30% increase of the number of travel inquiries to China. She provided only her family name, Wang, because she doesn’t want to attract attention from the Chinese authorities.

She said dozens of people have contacted her since the announcement to inquire about getting a Chinese visa or booking a flight to China.

A staffer at another Flushing travel agency who doesn’t want to reveal his identity because he doesn’t want to draw attention, told VOA Mandarin that more than a dozen people have reached out to the agency for information about getting a Chinese visa or COVID-related information for traveling in China since Monday’s announcement. He said there were barely any such inquiries in the past three years.

He said that most of the people who reached out to the firm are considering traveling to China to visit sick family members, rather than to celebrate the upcoming Lunar New Year.

He said that since the airlines haven’t started to add more flights, fares are still high and China hasn’t resumed issuing multi-entry visas, so people who want to travel still can’t just pack and go.

Reactions vary

China’s decision has been met with mixed reactions from Chinese netizens on social media.

Some celebrated the end of the quarantine rules, which clears the way for them to travel overseas.

“A long, long nightmare, I finally woke up,” one commented.

“A ridiculous era has finally come to an end,” said another commenter.

However, some commenters doubt whether easing regulations will repair the damage done in the past three years.

“There is no such thing as ‘everything goes back to the way it was.’ The lives of countless people have been completely changed, and they can only bite the bullet and live in this parallel timeline. It’s like they broke a mirror and then glued it back together, it’s not the same mirror as before,” said one comment on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Three years of Chinese government propaganda insisting on zero-COVID and highlighting the dangers of the virus have made many netizens feel uncomfortable with the sudden “opening up.” They worry that the move will worsen the current outbreak.

“A smorgasbord of strains is coming,” wrote one commenter.

Some consider virus a biological weapon

Many nationalists have bought into a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus is a biological weapon developed by the United States to attack China; they fear that opening China will make it easier for the U.S. to attack again.

“It’s time to come to China to poison,” said one comment.

Others seem to look forward to a move that could spread the virus from China to other countries.

“Spread the virus all over the world!! No one gets left behind!” said one comment. “Europe, America, Japan, South Korea and India! Every single one! Don’t even think about running away!”