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Lebanon faces ‘depressing’ Christmas as internet crisis stops festive calls | Global development

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In Lebanon’s year of loss and deprivation, simple pleasures have steadily drained away along with its fortunes. But amid a crisis renowned for breaking new ground, few Lebanese had thought their ability to stay in touch was at risk – until a pre-Christmas warning sent shudders through the country.

The telecommunications minister, Johnny Corm, warned this week that a lack of funds and fuel could soon see Lebanon’s already struggling internet grind to a halt, making festive calls and messages even trickier than usual – and a financial and social disintegration like no other even more acute.

As weary Lebanese approached another lacklustre Christmas, the warnings appeared to be bearing out. The internet was barely functioning in Tripoli on Tuesday. By the day after, Beirutis could barely communicate or open websites. Things were forecast to get worse in time for Christmas Day.

Miriam Sarhan, 31, who left Lebanon for Canada in July after losing faith in her homeland, says calling her family on messaging apps had helped settle her in and reassure her family back home. “I was speaking to them by video in November,” she says. “Now we can’t even manage a voice call. What else will my country take from me?”

The crisis affecting the telecom sector mirrors that faced by all arms of government; bills to overseas providers need to be paid in US dollars and the cost of doing so has increased up to twentyfold since the country’s plunging currency lost parity in late 2020. Since then, the value of the lira has been in freefall, while costs of goods and services have skyrocketed.

Through it all, staying in touch had been at least one salvation; as had a hope that somehow, someday, things would get better. But as a cruel winter sets in, after an arduous year, there is little sign of a brighter horizon.

Resilience, once a buzzword used to describe the Lebanese, is now parodied by citizens themselves. “How much more can we be humiliated?” asks Mustafa Alloush, an expatriate living in London. “It seems something that outsiders wish upon us to make themselves feel better about our situation.”

The skyline of central Beirut in near darkness with the only a few letters of the illuminated sign above the offices lit up
Offices of the state power company, Electricité du Liban, in darkness during one of Beirut’s many power cuts this year as fuel shortages shut down power plants. Photograph: D Collins/AFP/Getty

Downtown Beirut, a crossroads of the city’s myriad manifestations, is unusually bleak and empty this year. As winter rains swept in across the still-ruined port nearby, the space where a Christmas tree normally stands was empty and abandoned. In the predominantly Armenian suburb of Bourj Hammoud in the capital’s east, the festive season barely appears to have been marked this year. Christmas decorations are few and far between. So are shoppers.

“It’s a very depressing Christmas,” says Sandy Gumijian, a shop owner. “There’s no lighting, no decoration. And I’m not selling anything except food and bread. It’s much worse than last year. Worse for the kids too.”

A coffee shop owner, George Kouyoumijian, 43, says: “Where is Christmas? Look at the store, there’s nothing. Usually there are decorations all over this street. It should be full of lighting and life. We thought last year was the worst and we were praying for the end of 2020, but this year is worse for sure.”

Kamilla, a gift shop owner, says she could not afford decorations and lighting this year. “You are the first one to come to my shop with a smile,” she says.

A woman pushes a shopping trolley past near-empty shelves at a supermarket
Near-empty shelves at a Beirut supermarket. Prices have soared as the currency plunged. Photograph: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

How Lebanon sank so low continues to trouble many of its citizens, who left the country in droves this year – determined to start again in the Gulf states, Canada, the UK or Europe. While immigration numbers are hard to discern from a broken bureaucracy, removal companies have a backlog of several months for people leaving the country – and the local carrier, Middle East Airlines has done a brisk business on outbound routes. Inbound flights before Christmas have also been busy – but that is not expected to last.

“These are expats coming home for two weeks, their bags full of dollars from new lives abroad,” says an executive with Middle East Airlines, the national airline of Lebanon. “This is the new diaspora, which is added to the old one. We have always been a country of exiles, but never quite like this.”

Indeed, what Lebanon now represents has become a riddle for many of its citizens. From postwar uncertainty to fleeting opportunity, short-term boom – and now emphatic bust, the trajectory has been volatile. Returning to the homeland from lives made abroad had remained an ambition for many.

“It was for me too,” says Saad Chamoun, who arrived from Dubai to visit his family this month. “But something changed in me. I left in July and have been gone for five months. I’m working in reinsurance and am happy. I don’t want to come home, because the country is no longer for me. All my friends are the same.”

With a middle class being fast whittled out, and a diaspora estimated at up to 18 million people having little incentive to return, Lebanon’s brain drain has an etch of permanence to it. “And that’s worrying,” says Khaled Zaidan, a banker. “The educated elite and the young and ambitious were always the country’s strategic depth. How does anyone ever lure them home now?”

As the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, left Beirut on Tuesday after a 48-hour visit, he reiterated grave concerns and the need for reforms, which a broken state and deeply factionalised government seem unable to deliver. More than 18 months after the Beirut explosion – as striking a symbol of state dysfunction seen anywhere in modern times – there has been little progress in bringing to account those culpable for the blast that devastated the city.

Those responsible for the Ponzi scheme that crippled the banking system and the decades of industrial-scale corruption that preceded it also remain well out of reach of the enfeebled courts.

“Christmas is a thing of yesteryear,” says Sarah Yamout, a Beirut resident. “Celebrating a real one has become something of our fantasies too.”

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Protests flare across Poland after death of young mother denied an abortion | Abortion

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Protests are under way across Poland after the death of a 37-year-old woman this week who was refused an abortion, a year since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

On the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday night, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of Agnieszka T, who died earlier that day. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeat stopped and doctors refused to carry out an abortion. In a statement, her family accused the government of having “blood on its hands”. Further protests are planned in Częstochowa, the city in southern Poland where the mother-of-three was from.

“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organiser of the protests, told Polish media. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.” All-Poland Women’s Strike has called on people across the country to picket the offices of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and organise road blockades in the coming days.

Agnieszka was first admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa with abdominal pain on 21 December. She is said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she arrived and was in “a good physical and mental shape”, according to her family, who said her condition then deteriorated.

On 21 December the heartbeat of one of the twins stopped and, according to Agnieszka’s family, the doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation. They waited several days until the second foetus also died. A further two days passed before the pregnancy was terminated on 31 December, according to the family.

A priest was then summoned by hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, the family said.

The family say that the doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy earlier, citing Poland’s abortion legislation. “Her husband begged the doctors to save his wife, even at the cost of the pregnancy,” Agnieszka’s twin sister, Wioletta Paciepnik, said on Tuesday.

After the termination, Agnieszka was moved from the gynaecological ward and her health continued to deteriorate. Her family suspect that she died of sepsis but the cause of death was not identified in a statement released by the hospital.

Shortly after her death, a statement by her family accusing the hospital of neglect was published on Facebook, alongside a distressing video of Agnieszka’s last days.

Agnieszka’s death marks the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that declared abortion due to foetal abnormalities illegal. Abortion can now only be carried out in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life and health are in danger.

Her death comes after that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was refused an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found that “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined. Soon after, an anonymous man from Świdnica in south-west Poland came forward to share that his wife, Ania, died in similar circumstances in June last year.

While “selective abortion” is possible in the case of a twin pregnancy, it is unclear whether aborting an unviable foetus to save its healthy twin is permitted by the new abortion legislation. The Polish court has not referenced the questions raised by this situation, presented by opposition senators last year, in the new legislation.

“We want to honour the memory of my beloved sister and save other women in Poland from a similar fate,” Paciepnik said in a video appeal. The case is now being investigated by the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who also investigated the case of Izabela.

The family are represented by Kamila Ferenc, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, who confirmed that an autopsy of Agnieszka’s body has been ordered by the court.

According to a statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. The hospital did not respond to the Guardian for a request for comment.

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Italy welcoming back EU tourists from February

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Italy will remove all Covid-linked restrictions on international visitors from the EU from 1 February, except the requirement to carry a “Green Pass” – a certificate of vaccination, negative test result, or immunity through having had the virus. Roberto Speranza, the health minister, also gave Italians the go-ahead to travel once again to Cuba, Singapore, Turkey, Thailand (the island of Phuket), Oman, and French Polynesia, Reuters reports.

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Polish state has ‘blood on its hands’ after death of woman refused an abortion | Abortion

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The family of a Polish woman who died on Tuesday after doctors refused to perform an abortion when the foetus’s heart stopped beating have accused the government of having “blood on their hands”.

The woman, identified only as Agnieszka T, was said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she was admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa on 21 December. Her death comes a year after Poland introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

According to a statement released by relatives, the 37-year-old was experiencing pain when she arrived at the hospital but was “fully conscious and in good physical shape”.

The first foetus died in the womb on 23 December, but doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation, and Agnieszka’s family claim “her state quickly deteriorated”. The hospital waited until the heartbeat of the second twin also stopped a week later, and then waited a further two days before terminating the pregnancy on 31 December.

Agnieszka died on 25 January after weeks of deteriorating health. Her family suspect that she died as a result of septic shock, but the hospital did not identify the cause of her death in statement issued on Wednesday.

“This is proof of the fact that the current government has blood on their hands,” the woman’s family said in a statement on Facebook. The family also uploaded distressing footage of Agnieszka in poor health shortly before she died.

After the termination of the pregnancy a priest was summoned by the hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, Agnieszka’s family said.

Her death follows that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was denied an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined.

Agnieszka’s family claim that contact with the hospital was very poor and that the hospital refused to share the results of Agnieszka’s medical tests citing confidentiality guidelines. They say the doctors “insinuated” that Agnieszka’s rapidly deteriorating state could be caused by BSE, commonly known as “mad cow disease”, or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) and suggested she ate raw meat. The hospital did not reference this claim in their statement.

According to the statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. It is not clear whether an autopsy has been ordered.

Agnieszka is survived by her husband and three children.

The Guardian has contacted the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital for comment.

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