The weather was already turning when the distress call went out. A rubber dinghy with 130 people onboard was adrift in the choppy Mediterranean waters.
On the bridge of the Ocean Viking, one of the only remaining NGO rescue boats operational in the Mediterranean, 121 nautical miles west, stood Luisa Albera, staring anxiously at her computer screen and then out at the rising storm and falling light at sea.
When the distress call from Alarm Phone, the volunteer-run Mediterranean rescue hotline, was received late on Wednesday, the Ocean Viking was already engaged in a rescue mission. All day the crew had been combing the horizon for another vessel, a wooden boat with 42 people onboard, but so far their search had been in vain. No sign of life or position had been received since early morning.
A seasoned sailor who had already conducted dozens of rescue missions, Albera knew that time was short. A violent storm was coming, and it would take the Viking hours to reach the dinghy.
She also knew that if the they didn’t turn around, the 130 people onboard would most likely be left to die. At 5.30pm, the Ocean Viking abandoned its search for the other vessel and altered its course: Albera had decided to go after the rubber boat.
“These decisions we are forced to make are life-and-death decisions,” said Albera, the search and rescue coordinator for SOS Méditerranée, the NGO that operates the Ocean Viking. “It is never easy to abandon a search but we had an updated position on the dinghy and there was a chance we could make it. I have to live with these decisions every day. It’s a burden I shouldn’t have to shoulder.”
As night fell, the sea turned hostile. Two hours later, the Ocean Viking was plunging through 5-metre (16ft) waves towards the last known position of the dinghy. Then, the call they were dreading came. An anonymous mayday signal was received, an urgent call for all ships in the area to divert and attempt a rescue of those onboard the rubber craft. It was last located in the Libyan search and rescue (SAR) zone so Albera called the Libyan authorities to request help. They refused to confirm whether they would be assisting, or to give the Viking any updates on the dinghy’s position.
She next called the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), and the European border agency, Frontex. Neither replied.
“It’s very rare for any of the authorities in Libya or Italy to agree to help. Sometimes you can get lucky and you can catch someone who might be persuaded on a human level to provide assistance but it’s still rare,” she said.
As the storm raged and lashed around them and the boat was violently tossed from side to side, below deck the medical team went through inventory checks of supplies and first-aid drills to treat multiple casualties. “We knew we wouldn’t arrive until morning. If there would be any survivors they would have been in the water for hours. They would be freezing, seasick and have hypothermia,” says Tanguy Louppe, a former soldier and firefighter turned sea rescuer and who now heads the search and rescue team on the Ocean Viking.
Yet the mood had changed onboard the Viking. Without immediate assistance, both the deteriorating weather conditions and the darkness would mean that the boat would capsize or be torn apart. The Viking continued to power through the waves, but the storm was making progress painfully slow. Every hour that went by, the chance of finding anyone alive was slipping away.
Louppe gathered the crew together and told them to prepare for a mass casualty plan. “We know we won’t be there until morning. We have to expect the worst,” he told them.
On the bridge, Albera was clinging on to hope. Three merchant boats had also responded to the mayday call. None of them would be able to carry out a rescue, but if they located the rubber dinghy they might be able to give it shelter until the Viking arrived.
At 5am on Thursday, the Viking finally reached the last-known location of the dinghy. With no sign of any help from the Italian or Libyan authorities, the three merchant vessels had coordinated their efforts to mount a search, and once again Albera called Frontex to request aerial support to assist.
For over six hours, the four ships scoured the waves for any sign of life. Then, at 12.24pm, one of the merchant vessels radioed to say that three people had been spotted in the water. Ten minutes later, Frontex announced that it had spotted the remains of a boat.
When Albera and her crew arrived, they found a scene of desolation: an open cemetery in an otherwise breathtakingly pretty, deep blue sea.
The rubber boat hadn’t stood a chance against the fury of the storm. The deck of the boat had disappeared. Only a few grey floating buoys remained. Around them, dozens of lifeless bodies floated in the waves. The Ocean Viking, with a team of trained rescuers and medics onboard, had arrived too late. Among the men, women and children they found in the water, there were no survivors.
This stretch of sea has become a morgue for thousands of people trying to reach Europe on cheap wooden boats or fragile pieces of rubber thatcannot withstand the elements or the political indifference that seals their fate.
Since 2014, 17,664 people have lost their lives crossing the central Mediterranean. This week another 130 were added to the death toll.
The crew of the Viking have been through this before but the scale left them stunned. “We are heartbroken,” Albera said. “We think of the lives that have been lost and of the families who might never have certainty as to what happened to their loved ones.’’
On Friday, as news of the tragedy made headlines around the world, Frontex issued a rare statement to Italian press agency Ansa, confirming that they had issued the mayday signal and defending their response to the tragedy.
“Frontex immediately alerted national rescue centres in Italy, Malta and Libya, as required by international law,” it said.
The agency said in its statement that it had “issued several distress calls on the marine emergency radio channel to alert all vessels in the vicinity due to the critical situation and bad weather” and confirmed that it had sent out aerial support.
For Albera, the Frontex statement is an acknowledgement of the gravity of what happened that night. “This is the first time that Frontex has ever confirmed it sent a mayday because the situation was so grave,” says Albera. “They knew the boat had no chance of making it.”
Alarm Phone, who initially sent out the first alarm signal, claims it was in contact with the dinghy for over 10 hours and repeatedly relayed its GPS position and the dire situation to European and Libyan authorities and the wider public. “People could have been rescued but all authorities knowingly left them to die at sea,” it said. The United Nations migration agency also condemned the inaction. “The lack of an efficient patrolling system is undeniable and unacceptable,” Flavio Di Giacomo, Italy’s spokesman for the UN migration agency, said on Twitter. “Things need to change.”
In 2017, Europe ceded responsibility for overseeing Mediterranean rescue operations to Libya as part of a deal struck between Italy and Libya aimed at reducing migrant flows across the sea.
Since then, Libyan authorities have been accused of ignoring distress calls or intercepting dinghies and returning people to detention centres in Libya, where aid agencies say they suffer torture and abuse.
Since the start of 2018, there have been around 50 legal cases brought against NGO crew members or rescue vessels by the Italian and other European governments, and boats have been blocked in harbours or forced to remain at sea with migrants onboard.
For over 10 hours after they arrived at the wreck, Ocean Viking stayed with the bodies, waiting for instructions from the Libyan authorities. Since the dinghy sank in Libya’s search and rescue area, the responsibility for recovering those who had died fell to the Libyan MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Center). If the Viking crew had tried to pull people from the water, then their entire mission may have been jeopardised. Yet no patrol boat arrived.
The decision to leave was, says Albera, traumatising for everyone onboard the Viking. “It is terrible burden to have to make that choice. We waited all day for instructions [or for a patrol boat to arrive]. There was nothing more we could do for those poor people,” she says.
Since 2016, the Ocean Viking and the Aquarius, the other SOS Méditerranée vessel, have saved 32,711 lives at sea. “We have to continue our mission, as this way there is a chance that we can prevent others from meeting the same fate,” says Albera. “But the decision to leave is something that all of us onboard will have to live with for ever.”
Zimbabwe’s older people: the pandemic’s silent victims | Global development
Lunch is Angelica Chibiku’s favourite time. At 12pm she sits on her neatly made bed waiting for her meal at the Society of the Destitute Aged (Soda) home for older people in Highfield, a township in south-west Harare.
Chibiku welcomes a helper into her room and cracks a few jokes. She loves to interact with those who bring her food and supplies.
Chibiku is paralysed on her left side, and for most of the day she is alone in her room.
“I suffered a stroke years ago, and I was worried about how I was going to survive, then ended up here. My health is worse, especially when it’s very cold,” says Chibiku.
Chibiku is always lonely. Her vulnerability to Covid prevents her from going outside often and her children seldom visit.
“I do not have any grandchildren and my children come to see me sometimes. I am always depressed because I don’t have anyone to see me. I used to do exercises, but now I cannot do that any more. I just spend my day sitting,” says Chibiku.
Chibiku misses talking to her friends.
“My condition depresses me so much that I sometimes lose my mind. I am thankful that I am not on the streets,” she says.
Older people have become silent victims of the pandemic. Zimbabwean communities used to pride themselves on looking after their ageing members, but poverty and high mortality rates among working-age men and women as well as unrelenting economic pressures on families have left older people isolated, poor and lonely. While some have ended up sleeping rough, risking infection and starvation, the lucky ones like Chibiku are cared for in homes such as Soda.
Although it is often called “un-African” to send elderly people to institutions, the pandemic has led to a rise in demand for such facilities, says HelpAge Zimbabwe.
“Being in a pandemic is an emergency situation. Being in a pandemic, you find there are people who suffer and find themselves homeless and without food. Due to family friction, some elderly people find themselves on the streets,” says Priscilla Gavi, HelpAge executive director.
“Some of the older people have been thrown out of their homes by their children, who request that they be taken into an institution,” she adds.
Gavi says a growing proportion of the country’s population of 15 million population are over 65, and fears this number will double over the next decade, increasing demand for care homes.
According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, 80% of elderly people live in abject poverty.
Bothwell Sundire, a development expert based in Masvingo, a city in south-east Zimbabwe, says care homes have experienced a 60% increase in admissions since the first Covid-19 case was reported in March 2020 and the country’s 170 facilities for older people are now saturated.
Domingo Zakani, 86 and Samson Edwin, 81, are watching television and reminiscing in a lounge at the Soda care home. Zakani, who migrated to Zimbabwe in 1958 from Mozambique to work for a tobacco firm, is unmarried and has no children. Finding him homeless and begging for food, a “good Samaritan” brought him to the home five years ago.
“I would like to go back home, but all my relatives are gone; no one knows me any more. I am just waiting for my day of death,” says Zakani.
Zakani, who has several ailments, including a knee problem, spends his day sitting in the courtyard or watching television. His friends at the home also keep him company.
“I just sit all day. I cannot do much. This place is like a prison because I cannot move around any more. My relatives used to come, but not any more, so it is very lonely here,” he says.
Edwin migrated to Zimbabwe several years ago after getting a job, but his employer died, leaving him without work and stranded far from home. Edwin became destitute.
“I have been staying here for a year now. Before that, I stayed at Stoddart Hall in Mbare [a Harare township] because I had lost my job. A stranger took me to this place and I am really grateful for his love. I am glad that I never get sick. When I came from Malawi five years ago, I got a job in a white man’s shop that sells vehicle parts. I then lost my job,” Edwin said.
Edwin misses his children and desperately wants to go back home.
“I have tried to go back home, but I could not get money to travel. All my children are in Malawi. We write letters to each other and it has been long since I saw them,” says Edwin.
But Soda, like the older people it supports, has itself fallen on hard times.
Lack of funding and a lack of government programmes to aimed at supporting older people have affected the running of the facility – which was once visited by Diana, Princess of Wales – and its 16 residents eat only mealie-meal porridge, beans and vegetables.
“We have well-wishers who are gracious enough to help with food and other items and we also mobilise resources. Covid-19 has affected our resource mobilisation. We rely on the industry when they have enough to spare. It is hard to get support when the industry is depressed,” says director Emilia Mukaratirwa.
Mukaratirwa says the pandemic has forced the home to lock its gates, as elderly people are listed as vulnerable.
“It has been a love and hate relationship because they feel robbed of their freedoms. The extension of the lockdown did not help matters. They cannot go out there, but some do understand that we have to protect them. We are lucky that we never had any positive cases,” says Mukaratirwa.
Older people saw their incomes and savings decimated by hyperinflation in 2008, face other pressures. Many are caring for orphaned relatives such as grandchildren. Gavi estimates more than 60% of orphans are cared for by older people.
Anyone 65 and older is entitled to free healthcare, but hospitals are depleted of supplies.
“We are advocating for a universal pension. We are advocating that every elderly person gets something at the end of every month to cater for their daily needs. Universal health insurance. We are saying that as long as we don’t address these issues, the burden on the economy will be bigger,” Gavi says.
She believes older people deserve to live in a loving environment.
“We cannot dump our older persons in institutions, saying they are now a spent force,” says Gavi.
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High numbers of deaths and Covid-vaccine refusals in Russia were linked to the Kremlin’s own anti-vaccine propaganda campaign, the EU foreign service said in a report Thursday. “Kremlin media continue spreading lies on Covid-19 and the vaccines, even as the death tolls in Russia are surging,” it said, noting 250 anti-vaccination stories on Russian outlet Geopolitica.ru alone. Some 1,035 people a day are now dying of Covid in Russia.
Climate change: Floods, fires, smog: AI delivers images of how climate change could affect your city | USA
The full brunt of the devastating effects of climate change is still a long way off. If we don’t experience the impact directly, it’s difficult to fully internalize the extreme seriousness of the climate crisis.
That’s why a team at the Mila-Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, led by Professor Yoshua Bengio, wants to bring it home – right to your doorstep in fact. His team has developed a tool that makes it possible to visualize the effects of floods, wildfires and smog anywhere in the world. Their simulation does this by making use of a generative adversarial network (GAN), a type of machine-learning algorithm. GANs can also produce things such as deepfake images, which are digitally composed of millions of images to create realistic photos of something (or someone) new.
For two years, 30 scientists have worked on the project, which is named after thispersondoesnotexist.com, a website portfolio of deepfake faces. Bengio’s version is called “This Climate Does Not Exist.” All a user has to do is type in an address or select a marker on Google Street View, and then indicate what kind of catastrophe they want to see: flood, wildfire or smog. The algorithm works its magic and returns the image with the requested effect. These images are not intended to be an accurate portrayal of what would happen at each specific location if no action on climate change is taken, but rather are a recreation of the worst possible effects in the scenario of the user’s choice.
The realism is particularly striking in the flooding option, which was the most difficult for Bengio’s team to produce. The algorithm takes the location proposed by the user, automatically places a layer of water on it and then adapts it to the environment of the image itself. The result is hyperrealistic.
“One of the most important challenges has been getting the algorithm to simulate flooding in a wide variety of images,” explains Alex Hernandez-Garcia, one of the project’s lead researchers. “One module of the algorithm is in charge of detecting which parts of the image should be covered with water and another module is in charge of generating the water texture by incorporating the context of the image, for example, the reflection of buildings. Finally, these results are combined to generate the final image.”
To detect which parts to cover with water and which to leave unscathed, Hernandez-Garcia and his colleagues combined several artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning techniques. “We generated a virtual city that allowed us to make a series of images with and without water. We also adjusted an algorithm that was able to make good predictions in that virtual world, detecting the different parts of a scene: the ground, cars, buildings, trees, people and so on,” he explained. “However, the algorithm must be able to make good predictions based on real images [those from Google Street View].” For the latter, they used generative adversarial networks.
The process is completed in a few seconds, and before displaying the image to the user some information is provided about the causes and consequences of the selected weather phenomenon, and its relationship to climate change. For example, if a flood is chosen, it indicates that flash floods kill about 5,000 people a year, that sea levels are expected to rise by two meters by the end of the century and that this major disruption to the planet will forever alter the lives of at least one billion people by the end of 2050. “If we do nothing, soon we will face major climate catastrophes,” says Professor Bengio, the institute’s scientific director. “This website makes the risks of climate change much more real and personal to people,” he argues.
Generative adversarial networks
The quality of AI took a giant leap forward about a decade ago with the emergence and consolidation of machine learning and deep learning. These techniques are based on training a machine so that it is capable of performing complex tasks after reaching certain conclusions on its own. For example, if you want the algorithm to distinguish between blueberry muffins and chihuahuas, the programmer will feed it a series of examples of each category, followed by thousands of images that are not pre-sorted. The machine will establish which is which, and when it gets it wrong and is made aware of the error, will refine its criteria.
Bengio won the 2018 Turing Award, considered the Nobel Prize of computer science, along with Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun, for their contribution to the development of neural networks. This is a further step in machine learning that attempts to mimic the functioning of the human brain: applying several simultaneous layers of processing to increase performance. Neural networks are behind the most complex classification systems, such as voice assistants or advanced prediction models.
Generative adversarial networks (GANs) go even further. They were invented at the Mila-Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute in 2014 and are capable of generating new content that looks faultlessly real to the human eye. GANs are behind the increasingly sophisticated deepfake videos of Tom Cruise or Donald Trump now circulating online, in which politicians or celebrities say or act in whichever way their creator likes. They work thanks to competition between two neural networks: one tries to produce images that are as realistic as possible and the other tries to detect whether they are real or a fabrication. This tension is replicated thousands or millions of times and during this process, the generating network learns to create more and more successful images. When the first network succeeds in fooling the second, we have a winning image. From there, a perfectly rendered image of New York City’s Times Square inundated by flooding is just a click away.
The Quebec lab is now using a new type of GAN they have developed to generate the climate change images seen on their website. “In general, the limited availability of images and the need to adapt the algorithm to a multitude of situations have been the main technical challenges we have faced,” says Hernandez-Garcia.
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