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Coronavirus: US loosens travel warnings for over 30 countries including Spain | USA

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Passengers lining up at Salt Lake City Airport in the US.
Passengers lining up at Salt Lake City Airport in the US.Rick Bowmer / AP

International mobility is gaining traction, even if it is still light years away from pre-pandemic times. The US State Department has eased its travel warnings for over 30 countries including Spain, where there are improved coronavirus figures and significant progress has been made with vaccination.

The agency said the changes were due to the fact that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed the methodology for its own travel notices, Bloomberg reported.

Following the update, dozens of countries have moved from level 4 (“do not travel”) to level 3 (“reconsider travel”). This means that the situation is not yet ideal for people who are not immunized.

Spain is now letting in immunized tourists from all over the world save for India, Brazil and South Africa

The list of countries includes Spain, France, Germany, Greece, Mexico, Canada, South Korea and Singapore, among others, according to the US State Department website.

A few weeks ago the European Union announced it would allow fully vaccinated visitors from the US into its territory. Brussels is now hoping that Washington will reciprocate with a similar decision regarding European travelers to the US.

Spain for its part is letting in immunized tourists from all over the world (with the exceptions of India, Brazil and South Africa) who have received one of the following vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen, Sinopharm or Sinovac-Coronavac.

European authorities are also working to roll out a EU digital pass that will homogenize national certificates and make it easier for travelers to prove that they have either been vaccinated, recovered from Covid-19 or tested negative for coronavirus.

English version by Susana Urra.

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‘Countdown to catastrophe’: half of Afghans face hunger this winter – UN | Hunger

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More than half of Afghanistan’s population is facing acute hunger as the country has been thrown into one of the world’s largest food crises.

Almost 23 million Afghans will be hungry due to conflict, drought and an economic downturn that is severely affecting livelihoods and people’s access to food as a harsh winter looms, the UN has warned; an increase of nearly 35% compared with last year.

“Afghanistan is now among the world’s worst humanitarian crises – if not the worst – and food security has all but collapsed. This winter, millions of Afghans will be forced to choose between migration and starvation,” the World Food Programme’s executive director David Beasley said, adding that “we are on a countdown to catastrophe”.

The Taliban takeover in August has contributed to the economic upheaval as billions of dollars in foreign aid payments – 40% of the country’s gross domestic product – have ceased and almost $10bn (£7.3bn) of Afghan central bank assets have been frozen.

Half of all Afghans will be facing crisis or emergency levels of acute food insecurity between this November and March next year, the UN report said.

As desperation grows, the number of beggars throughout Afghanistan’s major cities – including children – has risen as urban residents, for the first time, suffer similar rates of food insecurity to rural communities; a shifting pattern of hunger in the country.

Malnutrition ward at Kandahar’s Mirwais Hopsital.
Doctors on the malnutrition ward at Mirwais hospital in Kandahar said the hospital was struggling to cope with a rise in cases. Photograph: Stefanie Glinski/The Guardian

In the southern city of Kandahar, a traditional Taliban heartland, the malnutrition ward at Mirwais hospital was packed with women and children, most of them sharing beds with several others. The ward was stuffy and crammed. Mothers sat with their children while fathers or other male relatives – usually not allowed to enter – waited outside. Although the hospital is the biggest health facility in southern Afghanistan, it is poorly equipped.

“We have more than 70 children here and numbers are increasing,” said paediatrician Zainullah Zermal, adding that although malnutrition cases usually rise with the approach of winter, this year’s cases were alarming and the hospital was struggling to cope.

Many families had travelled significant distances to reach Kandahar, unable to access adequate healthcare nearer home. More than 2,000 clinics across the country have closed due to lack of funds.

Eighteen-month-old Memala shared her bed with another patient at Mirwais hospital, her body thin and frail, her gaze absent.

“We have travelled from Kandahar’s Zhari district,” her mother, who didn’t want to give her name, said; about an hour’s drive away. Zermal explained that, so far, most children had a good chance of survival, but he was worried about the coming weeks.

“We’re now seeing more families arriving from far away. Some of them travel for days to seek medical care as there are no hospitals near them. Winter is coming and that’s when malnutrition usually spikes.”

In Kabul’s Indira Gandhi children’s hospital, the biggest paediatric clinic in the country, doctors said about a dozen children were arriving each day, even though the city’s markets were still stocked with food.

“We don’t have money to afford it,” said Fereshta, a 30-year-old mother. Her six-month-old daughter Zahaba was underweight. Fereshta, who has five children, said that between worrying about money and not having enough to eat, she hadn’t been able to breastfeed her daughter properly.

Beggars on the streets in the capital Kabul.
Beggars are visible on almost every street corner in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Photograph: Stefanie Glinski/The Guardian

Only 5% of households have enough to eat every day, the UN said. Many families who fled fighting before the Taliban takeover can’t afford to go back home, instead remaining in makeshift camps with no source of income. About 3.5 million people remain displaced within the country.

During the Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001, millions of Afghans lived in poverty and on the brink of starvation, and fears are mounting that a similar situation could arise.

The “Islamic Emirate” on Sunday launched a wheat-for-work scheme, saying it would employ 40,000 casual labourers in Kabul who would be paid in wheat instead of cash. During the initiative, set to last for two months, the Taliban pledged to distribute 11,600 tonnes of wheat in the capital.

Cash is largely unavailable, and many government employees are waiting for unpaid salaries.

In Kabul, beggars are visible on almost every street corner. In the city centre, small children chase after shoppers, hoping for a piece of bread.

Setara Amiri, 43, has been begging for the past month. Her husband, who worked as a driver for the previous government, is unemployed. “My children are begging too,” she said, sitting on a busy Kabul pavement. The family used to get by, she said, but not now.

“Each morning I wake up, I worry that we won’t have food at night. I’m begging so my children won’t starve.”

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Timmermans cancels Moscow visit ahead of COP26

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European commissioner Frans Timmermans will not travel to Moscow to discuss climate action ahead of the crucial COP summit in Glasgow next month, The Moscow Times writes. “Due to agenda issues which meant it was not possible to meet all the relevant counterparts on the dates available, and the coronavirus situation, it was decided to postpone Mr Timmermans’ visit to Moscow until a later date,” a Commission spokesperson said.

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‘It still gives me nightmares’: the firefighters on the frontline as the world burns | Wildfires

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Babis Zacharis
Hellenic fire service volunteer, Athens

In Greece, fires take up a lot of resources. There isn’t enough money to recruit the number of [firefighters] needed or to buy the necessary equipment. Volunteers plug the gaps.

To become a volunteer firefighter with the Greek fire service, I had to do 120 hours of training. Volunteers work in urban environments dealing with accidents and rescues, house fires, factory fires, as well as tackling wildfires. We have to work at least three days a month; I have a full-time job as a civil engineer.

A volunteer with the Greek fire service tackles a wildfire in near Athens.
A volunteer with the Greek fire service tackles a wildfire in near Athens. Photograph: Courtesy of Babis Zacharis

For the past five to six years, wildfires have become the norm in Greece. The last one I was involved in was in early August. Many buildings were burned, a lot of forest was lost and all of Athen’s fire services, and some from other regions of Greece, were called in to help. There were bad wildfires in other parts of the country at the same time.

The work was difficult and emotional. When I saw the fire, my first feeling was anger – I saw it as an enemy. I could not accept that it would destroy something I love. As the blaze grew, sometimes we felt helpless. At one point, we ran out of water and electricity, and had to retreat.

It is also dangerous. One of the volunteer firefighters involved in that fire just died. He suffered burns when the vehicle he was in caught fire. Firefighters have a very strong relationship with each other; we are like a family. We see ourselves in each other. It’s extremely emotional.

Volunteers get paid nothing. The state provides those in the Greek fire service with some equipment but not everything that is needed, so I have bought my own. I’m happy to do this, but not everyone can. Unlike employed firefighters, our families get no compensation if we die in the line of duty.

When a volunteer firefighter with the Greek fire service died last year of a heart attack while responding to a fire, there was a small ceremony and a tweet from the fire service. When someone offers themselves to the public and dies in the line of duty, the least they deserve is proper recognition.

Scott Vinen
Tasmania fire service, Australia

Are bushfires getting worse? I can’t answer with any scientific basis but they’re getting more frequent – the bushfire season tends to start earlier and run for longer. We seem to be having longer dry spells. There’s a lot more public scrutiny on us to do a better job.

Firefighters at the scene of a Tasmania wildfire
Firefighters at the scene of a wildfire in Tasmania. Photograph: UFUA Tasmania

During wildfires, there are trees falling down, you’re out in the bush and in danger. In 2016, I was fighting a fire in a remote location. We had to fly in and out by helicopter. They weren’t able to land so I had to jump out with my backpack, tools, food and water. As I got to the ground, lightning struck a tree and lit up the sky like nothing I’ve seen before.

In 2019, I was in charge of groups tackling a fire near the Great Lake. One of my seconds in command was fighting a fire and a gust of wind meant it went over the top of his head, melted the guideposts and damaged some vehicles. They weren’t hurt, but it was quite scary.

Another time, a helicopter got its bucket caught in a tree and went to ground. Flying conditions are always tough because there’s a lot of smoke and fire creates wind. We had to get the operator out because the fire was all around him.

We’ve just set up a remote rescue capability as part of the remote area firefighting operation. We are gearing up for rescuing our own people and those from other services.

Sonya Kosacheva
‘We had to cross a river and then it was a two-hour walk,’ Sonya Kosacheva recalls of one fire. ‘We worked for 10 days.’ Photograph: Greenpeace Russia

Sonya Kosacheva
Greenpeace, Russia

I discovered a love for firefighting in 2010 when a friend asked if I’d be interested in volunteering. The opportunity also opened my eyes to some huge problems we have in Russia.

There are various services dedicated to fighting fires in cities, forested areas and nature reserves. Our country is huge and there isn’t enough money to provide a firefighting service throughout. There are ‘zones of control’, which are remote areas with few people living there, where regional authorities do not have to put out fires [if the cost of doing so exceeds that of the fire damage]. This means wildfires get out of control. We saw this in 2019 when smoke from fires burning in Yakutia, Siberia, covered cities thousands of miles away.

As a woman, it’s very hard to work as a professional firefighter in Russia. Until recently, women could work in city fire service support roles but could not work directly with fire – it was believed the work is too dangerous for women. Two years ago, the professional standard of a forest firefighter was modified to include women, but in practice, nothing has changed.

This year was a record year, in terms of the scale of wildfires, after we had abnormal heatwaves in the Arctic region. Many fires are started by people but the climate crisis enables them to spread.

In June, I was called to a fire in the Denezhkin Kamen nature reserve in the Urals. The fire had started due to lightning. The reserve authority realised that the few rangers they had would not be enough to stop it and asked for help from the state aviation service. Sometimes it can take a few days for them to arrive because there’s a lot of bureaucracy and money involved. This time can be critical in terms of managing the fire.

In the meantime, the reserve called us. I had three hours to gather all the stuff I needed before driving 48 hours from Moscow to the reserve. We rotated drivers so we were constantly on the move. When we got there, the fire had spread over 50 hectares [124 acres]. We set up camp and changed into our firefighting clothes.

First, we had to cross a river and then it was a two-hour walk up to an elevation of 600 metres. The aviation service arrived quickly this time and there were about 50 people working on the fire. As the nearest water source was two hours away, we decided to dig a line around the fire to contain it. We worked for 10 days. In the end, about 100 people were involved in putting out the fire.

firefighters tackle a blaze amid birch trees
Greenpeace firefighters work with volunteers, park rangers and natural resources ministry staff in the Lenskiye Stolby (Lena Pillars) national park, Siberia. Photograph: Julia Petrenko/Greenpeace

As well as the director of the nature reserve, there were two other women involved. Our male colleagues said to us on quite a few occasions: “Girls, you must be tired. This is a man’s job. Stay at the camp.”

We were all tired and had the same bruises. I and the other woman told them: “You’re also tired from wearing heavy equipment. Why don’t you stay at the camp?”

Tjalle Boorsma
Asociación Armonía, Bolivia

The worst experience I had still gives me nightmares. It was in 2016; it was intense; we didn’t have the right equipment and we made mistakes. No one got hurt, but most of us were dehydrated with a severe headache for two days afterwards.

I work for a Bolivian organisation focused on protecting the country’s most threatened birds. It owns an 11,000-hectare nature reserve that is home to the critically endangered blue-throated macaw.

I started working on the reserve in 2015 and since day one, fire has been the biggest threat. That year, a fire started on neighbouring land got out of control and burned the whole reserve. We had no system in place to protect against fire and none of us were trained in how to fight fires.

The land surrounding us is used for grazing cattle. The ranchers set fire to grassland the cows refuse to eat hoping it will burn a small area before the rain comes. Often, rain doesn’t arrive or the wind shifts and the fire gets out of control.

firefighters trying to beat out fires in Bolivia’s grasslands.
Trying to beat out fires, the main threat for breeding blue-throated macaws, in Bolivia’s grasslands. Photograph: Asociación Armonía

Every year there are weather extremes. We’ve had some intense flooding, followed by a longer dry season. There is a fire service managed by the government but very little funding for conservation and habitat protection. Park rangers and firefighters are often trained by, and receive equipment from, non-governmental organisations. It has been left up to me to work towards a management plan for fire and fundraise to protect the reserve from fire.

Now we create firebreaks by ploughing the ground with a tractor so there is no fuel for any fire. This year we have a 4km-long [2.5 miles] firebreak that is 20 metres wide, and on either side of that we burn a 30-metre to 50-metre section so if a fire reaches it, there’s nothing left to burn and it will go out.

We are well-prepared but I worry when we reach the dry season. It’s always a stressful time.

Anna Mattila
Jokilaaksojen rescue services, Finland

I always knew wildfires were going to be a part of the job as we have a lot of forests in Finland. Ten years ago, I’d maybe tackle two to three each year; now it’s between five and 10. My service has to deal with 20 to 30 every year now.

In July, I was involved in fighting the worst one of my career, and the worst our service has seen for 20 years. The fire in Kalajoki, in a remote area of north-west Finland, destroyed more than 300 hectares. There were 100 firefighters working around the clock for almost two weeks. Firefighters were called back from holidays and off-days, including me.

We had to ask for help from other fire departments. All 22 regional rescue services in Finland helped – from Helsinki to Lapland. I think this is the first time this has happened in Finnish history.

firefighters in a forest amid smoke and scorched earth
The fire in Kalajoki this year was one of the worst Finland has experienced in two decades. The video footage above is from the same fire. Photograph: Pertti Piispanen/Handout

The fire was in the middle of nowhere and we had to use all-terrain vehicles and walk to get to the frontline. When I arrived, trees were burning and toppling over. That was the scariest bit. It was dangerous for the firefighters. Luckily, there were no serious injuries. There were about five helicopters dropping water on the flames.

I worked a 16-hour shift. It was almost 30C [86F] and the terrain was difficult. My eyes stung and watered because of the smoke. But for me, it was more stressful mentally. I was in charge of making sure firefighters weren’t going to get hurt and that they got enough rest, had eaten and that new ones would come to take over.

After that shift, I had to go back to my normal duties before I returned to Kalajoki two weeks later. Life goes on, whether there’s a big fire burning somewhere or not.

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