For months she had been dreaming of it and finally Susheela Moonsamy was able to do it: get together with her relatives and give them a big hug. Throughout the pandemic she had only seen her siblings, nieces and nephews fully “masked up” at socially distanced gatherings. But a few weeks ago, as their home state of California pressed on with its efficient vaccination rollout, they could have a proper reunion.
“It was such an emotional experience, we all hugged each other; and with tears in our eyes, we thanked God for being with us and giving us the opportunity to see each other close up again and actually touch each other,” she says. “We never valued a hug from our family members that much before.”
A couple of weeks later, the high school counsellor set off from her home in Oakland for a family trip to Disneyland on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It felt “strange … but wonderful” after a year spent hunkered down with her elderly parents. But while they were away she and her relatives received news that brought great sorrow: one of Moonsamy’s cousins, the daughter of her father’s sister, had died of Covid-19.
This was not a family member in California, where Moonsamy has lived for 35 years, but in South Africa, the country where she was born and her parents left during apartheid. There, Covid is running rampant in a virulent third wave. Less than 6% of the population has had one dose of the vaccine and less than 1% has had two.
The virus has now claimed the lives of 13 of Moonsamy’s family and friends, and she feels every day may bring more bad news. Amid talk of the pandemic nearing its end in California, where more than half the population is fully vaccinated, she has very mixed feelings.
“It’s definitely exciting,” she says. “But at the same time you think of the ones that have gone, and you feel, if only they were able to get to this point – to celebrate with us. That would be just so great. We need to remember them … and look forward. To celebrate the freedom but at the same time keep the ones who have gone in mind.”
Moonsamy is far from the only person to feel conflicted about the easing of restrictions. Across Europe and North America in the coming months, mass vaccination programmes are expected to bring back some form of normality. In England restrictions are due to be eased on 19 July, baptised “Freedom Day” by the tabloid press. In the US, most states have lifted restrictions already. Across the EU, to varying degrees, countries are preparing to reopen for summer.
But in much of the rest of the world – from Kampala to Cape Town, the Philippines to Peru – the pandemic is not only ongoing but worsening. In low-income countries just 1% of the population on average has been given at least one dose of the vaccine.
Caught in the middle of this growing divide are millions of people with relatives in the developed and the developing worlds, who find themselves struck by the staggering global inequality in their daily family catchups, WhatsApp groups and Skype chats.
These huge differences have long been a facet of the diaspora experience, but the pandemic has magnified them. For many, the two-speed vaccination programmes have come to represent all that one part of the family has and the other has not.
“[I feel] a huge amount of guilt … and a lot of sadness,” says Isabella (not her real name), a law student born in Colombia but who has lived in Canada since she was four.
“You know, why is the world the way it is? Why is it that you have to leave your home country to be safe, to be healthy? Why couldn’t we have just stayed home and had the same experience as Canada’s having?”
Like much of South America, Colombia is in the grip of a third wave of Covid-19, which has claimed about 45,000 lives since mid-March – more than 40% of the total death toll. About 24% of the population has had their first dose of the vaccine; in Canada, the figure is 69%.
Isabella, 23, is fully vaccinated. Getting her first dose last month was an emotional experience. “I felt happy but I also remember just wanting to burst into tears when I was sitting in the little chair, because when I looked around me it was incredible to see how well organised the vaccination programme was, but I also knew that this is not the case in Colombia and it would be at least another year before my cousin my age in Colombia would be sitting in the same chair,” she says. “And who knows what might happen between now and then?”
Farouk Triki, 30, is a Tunisian software engineer living in Paris. He left his parents and siblings behind to move to France with his wife four years ago. He has had his vaccination, but none of his family back home have: the Tunisian rollout has seemed tortuously slow to those living there, with just 5% having received both doses.
“[I’m] concerned and scared,” says Triki, “because I’ve heard that it’s even worse than the British [variant]”, which his family caught in March. His parents, Farouk and Hanen, both teachers in Sfax on the Mediterranean coast, emerged unscathed from the illness, with neither requiring hospital treatment. But Hanen remembers the time with sadness. “Many relatives and friends died of Covid 19,” she says.
For Isabella, who could only watch from afar as Covid tore through first her mother’s side of the family and then, last month, her father’s, the predominant feeling is helplessness. “I think [that] is the biggest thing, a feeling of not being able to do anything,” she says. “We try to help our family financially, sending them money if they need it, but other than that … that’s really all we can do from here.”
Others in a similar situation have attempted to rally the community to send money to help their home countries. Raj Ojha, a mortgage broker from Nepal living in Slough in the south of England, has raised £2,000 through his organisation, the Nepalese British Community UK group. The money will go to two grassroots charities helping those hit hardest in the small Himalayan nation.
“We are here in the UK and we can’t physically go back to Nepal. All we can do is extend our helping hands to the organisations that are working tirelessly in Nepal,” he says.
Ojha, who is in his 40s, is fully vaccinated, whereas when he spoke to his elder sister, who is 62, last month, she told him that she had been refused her first dose.
“That is the difference. She told me she was pushed away from the crowd, told ‘you are not 65 yet, you can’t get the vaccination yet’. And she has got diabetes and other illnesses as well,” he says. Ojha has family in Kathmandu and eastern Nepal, and none of them have been fully vaccinated; less than 3% of the country’s population has had both jabs.
At the start of this year, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that the world stood “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” if it did not get more vaccinations to the developing world. But such efforts have stalled. The Covax scheme, designed to deliver cheap doses and promote vaccine equality, was already facing accusations of aiming too low when its chief supplier, the Serum Institute of India, announced it was diverting its vaccine exports for domestic use. So far, it has distributed only 95m of the almost 2bn vaccines promised this year. Supplies are not the only problem: in many lower- and middle-income countries the logistics of a mass vaccination rollout put a huge strain on fragile healthcare systems.
Moonsamy, Ojha and Isabella agree that there is an ethical imperative for richer countries to help those with fewer resources. However it would not simply be altruism – it just makes sense.
“Now that developed countries are getting on the way to having their populations vaccinated, huge, huge efforts need to be made to get vaccines to developing countries – if not for the goodness of doing that for others then at least to protect the rest of the world from more variants,” says Isabella.
Moonsamy agrees. “This is a world problem that affects all of us. By helping others, we are actually helping ourselves,” she says. Last weekend, Moonsamy held a 4 July gathering for some of her Californian relatives. They laughed, ate and talked. They also prayed for their family in South Africa. “Our hearts ache for them,” she says.
“As much as we enjoy our amazing freedom from being locked down for the past year … we are not really free until we are all free. So we continue to do our part by helping others so that we can one day all celebrate our freedom together.”
The funeral of a Roma man killed while in Czech police custody was held over the weekend. Stanislav Tomáš died after a Czech police officer kneeled on his neck, in scenes reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer in Minneapolis. Tomáš passed away 19 June, while being rushed to the hospital. The police have denied wrongdoing.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) confirmed on Sunday that Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has been appointed to serve on the US House-approved select committee probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building. This move comes days after Pelosi rejected two out of five GOP recommendations from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
“Some Republicans have been saying … that the GOP should play ball on this committee. You could get the three,” a reporter asked in reference to Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) and Troy Nehls (R-TX).
All three lawmakers received Pelosi’s approval for appointment, but they were ultimately held back by McCarthy, who demanded the House Speaker also appoint Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN). Pelosi has asserted that Jordan and Banks would endanger the probe’s “integrity.”
McCarthy brushed the reporter’s suggestion aside, arguing that Cheney and Kinzinger are the only House Republicans who would “play ball” in an effort for the commission to have a bipartisan quorum.
“Who is that, Adam [Kinzinger] and Liz [Cheney]?” he floated. “Arent they kinda, like, Pelosi Republicans?”
“We’ve got very serious business here. We have important work to do,” she asserted to reporters on Monday.
Both Cheney and Kinzinger are slated to meet up with their Democratic colleagues for their first select committee meeting on Tuesday. The group’s first witness is also expected to make an appearance.
Presently, Democrats on the 13-member group include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the select committee, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Pete Aguilar (D-CA), Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Elaine Luria (D-VA). Kinzinger and Cheney are the sole GOP lawmakers assigned to the committee.
McCarthy has maintained that Pelosi is pursuing a “sham process” by rejecting Jordan and Banks from the select committee.
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announces the withdrawal of his nominees to serve on the special committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as two of the Republican nominees, Reps’ Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN), standby during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 21, 2021
“Speaker Pelosi’s rejection of the Republican nominees to serve on the committee and self-appointment of members who share her preconceived narrative will not yield a serious investigation,” McCarthy wrote on Sunday, shortly after Pelosi announced Kinzinger’s appointment. “The Speaker has structured this select committee to satisfy her political objectives. She had months to work with Republicans on a reasonable and fair approach to get answers on the events and security failures surrounding January 6.”
Republicans have also argued that the investigation should focus on why the US Capitol was not properly secured on January 6, despite reports claiming law enforcement had information leading up to the attack.
“The U.S. Capitol and the men and women who protect it suffered a massive leadership failure. We must make sure that never happens again,” the House Minority Leader noted on Sunday, claiming the GOP will carry out its own probe on the deadly riot.
On the wide, flat plain of the Sinjar district of northern Iraq, Naif Khalaf Qassim lets his dog, an eight-year-old Belgian shepherd, range across the dry earth on a 30-metre leash until Branco stops and sits, tail wagging, looking towards his handler with enthusiasm.
Branco has detected something underground and, when the mine-clearing team is brought in to investigate, they find an improvised explosive device (IED), known locally as a VS500.
It is about 30cm (1ft) wide, with a plastic casing and a central pressure pad. The VS500 is not the name Islamic State give the device; no one knows that. All that is certain is that it is one of thousands produced when the terror group held sway over this part of Iraq and commandeered plastics factories in their Mosul base, forcing the workers to make souped-up versions of the Italian-made VS50 landmine.
A VS50 could fit on the palm of your hand, and contains about 100g of explosives. The deminers call this type of mine the VS500 because it is 10 times the size and packed with up to 15kg (33lb) of explosives. The pressure pad is sensitive enough for a child to activate, even through 30cm of packed earth. The explosion can take out an armoured vehicle.
Branco is trained to sniff ahead in a controlled manner and stop if he gets a scent – so he doesn’t tread on the mine. Belgian and German shepherds are used because they are most adept at distinguishing scents.
“I knew Branco would find the IED,” says Naif proudly. “I believe in him and his abilities; I know him and what he can do. He is more of a friend to me than a dog.”
Four years ago, Iraqi forces managed to take the last stronghold that Isis had left in the country, the city and surroundings of Tal Afar. The Iraqi flag was raised on the historic Ottoman citadel at the heart of the city, and the militia was pushed into Syria.
The war might have appeared over by late August 2017, but retreating Isis forces seeded the towns, villages and countryside in that area of Sinjar with IEDs, and the job of clearing them is still far from done.
But it is moving at a much faster pace, thanks to the introduction of the small sniffer dog team, including Branco, and his handler, Naif, 35.
Mine-detection dogs are not new – the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been working across northern Iraq for three decades. In the year from June 2020 to June 2021 the Iraqi dog team has found and destroyed 3,540 landmines and explosive remnants of war, including 670 improvised mines and 148 other improvised devices.
Now MAG has embarked on a specific programme to better detect the explosives used by Isis and other non-state groups.
Dogs are usually trained to sniff out explosives, mainly TNT, but the IED dogs take this a step further. Trained in Bosnia-Herzegovina, their noses are attuned to rubber, metal and batteries as well.
This is key where explosives are often improvised from domestic items such as pots and kettles, with detonators and batteries. Training dogs to focus on a wider range of scents allows for more opportunities to detect anomalies below the surface.
The new four-strong dog team (with two more on their way from Bosnia-Herzegovina) is currently working on 8sq km of land near Tal Afar that was used as a barrier minefield by retreating Isis fighters in 2017. While people armed with mine detectors painstakingly scour a known mined corridor, the dogs range across the areas either side, deemed low or medium risk, to seek out any randomly planted devices.
The programme for the “super-detector” dogs was curtailed until now by Covid and by difficulties negotiating with the administration in Sinjar – divided between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan regional government.
The dogs start work at 5am, so that they can finish before the sun is too high – last week temperatures there hit 49C (120F). The handlers are from the Yazidi community.
Vian Khaider Khalaf, 26, was a student before starting work with the dogs in 2017. She works to support her family in Sinuni, but like everyone on the team, her driving motivation is to clear the mines so that families can return to their farms.
“We always had dogs at home, as my family are farmers and shepherds,” says Khalaf. “I fled with my family in 2014 when Daesh [Isis] came. I still have family in an IDP [internally displaced people] camp in Kurdistan. My family are afraid for me, of course. But they are proud of me and see me working hard and bravely, and that makes me want to take on more challenges.”
Khalaf has worked with her dog, X-Lang, since she started with MAG. He was originally a mine-detector dog, but was selected for the IED upgrade training. She says: “The relationship between me and my dog is not really that of a human and an animal. He is my dear friend. If I could take him home with me at the weekend, or live on the base with him, I would.”
After their shifts out in the fields, handlers and dogs spend the rest of the day together, often around the pool on the base.
The team supervisor is Salam Rasho, a former noncommissioned officer with the Kurdistan military, the peshmerga. He is also a Yazidi and has seen the devastation of his community. “Our aim is to return the people to their land, to get people farming the land again,” he says.
It’s impossible to estimate how much unexploded ordnance there is in Iraq – one of the most mined countries in the world, according to some estimates. There is little information about where mines were laid over the past 40 years, from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, to Saddam Hussein’s assaults on his own people, the Gulf War, and finally Isis. It is thought that in federal Iraq alone there are some 3,000 sq km of mined land yet to be cleared, with 8.5 million people living in close proximity.
The real benefit of the dogs, says Salam, is that they can cover a huge area much quicker than humans – about 1,500 sq metres a day. The success of the Iraq deployment means that MAG is stepping up its IED dog training and even going to the next level – finessing the programme so that dogs can also be used to help clear booby-trapped homes.
Clearing Iraq of unexploded mines is a task that will take many more years, but at least now the land is being freed from the lingering grip of Isis at a faster pace than before thanks to Branco, X-Lang and the other dogs of war.