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.
Last month, as cases reached a record high, the first cases of the Delta variant were confirmed among the population, which has had the highest reported Covid-19 deaths per capita in Africa.
“[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.”
Eduardo Zapateiro: Colombian army chief resigns to avoid appearing beside president-elect Petro at inauguration | International
General Eduardo Zapateiro, the commander of the Colombian army, resigned on Tuesday to avoid appearing beside president-elect Gustavo Petro at his inauguration on August 7. “After 40 years in service, I bid farewell to the Colombian people, giving my heartfelt thanks to all my soldiers,” he announced.
Zapateiro, who comes from the hardline wing of the armed forces, has been a vocal opponent of the leftist leader. During the presidential election campaign, the army commander controversially spoke out against Petro on Twitter – a move that was condemned as unconstitutional. Incumbent President Iván Duque, however, defended Zapateiro, arguing that the general was sharing his point of view – not taking a political stand.
Zapateiro announced his retirement just one day after Petro told EL PAÍS that he planned to change the leadership of the armed forces. “This leadership was deeply imbued by the political line of the executive [of Iván Duque] now reaching the end of its term. But this path is unsustainable and turns our security forces into a victim, as they have been led to perpetrate grotesque violations of human rights. What we are proposing will make our security forces democratically stronger,” he said in the interview.
The Colombian general has often raised eyebrows with his behavior. Following the death of Jhon “Popeye” Jairo Velásquez, a henchman for drug lord Pablo Escobar who had killed dozens of people, Zapateiro sent his condolences to his family and said he was saddened by his loss. To this day, no one has explained why the general made these statements.
In Colombia, the government and the military have a complex relationship. The country has fought for decades against guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ongoing armed struggle placed the military in a position of great power. Indeed until the 1990s, the armed forces controlled the Defense Ministry. As in many other countries, the Colombian armed forces are a conservative group that is highly suspicious of leftist ideas. The peace agreement, for example, that ended five decades of conflict with the FARC, divided Colombia’s troops. Zapateiro initially supported the accords, but over time, became an outspoken critic.
What kind of relationship Petro will form with the military remains to be seen. As a politician, he has been very critical of the army’s focus on targeting internal enemies. The Colombian armed forces have been fighting against guerrilla groups and drug gangs for decades. During this conflict, they have often overstepped their bounds and violated human rights.
In the early 2000s, a scandal broke in Colombia when it was revealed that military officers were carrying out summary executions of innocent civilians and listing them as guerrillas killed in combat. These so-called “false positives” took place in different regions of the country between 2002 and 2008 and were used as proof of performance by military units and to collect “kill fees” awarded by the government of former president Álvaro Uribe. A total of 6,402 innocent people are estimated to have been killed in these summary executions. Just a few months ago, several civilians also died in suspicious circumstances during an army operation in Putumayo.
With Petro elected as Colombia’s first leftist president in modern history, it was no longer tenable to have Zapeteiro leading the armed forces. The Colombian newspaper El Espectador published an editorial to that effect, with the headline: “Isn’t it time to retire, General Zapateiro?”
Petro aims to tackle corruption within the army, which he believes is home to extremist factions. “There are currents in the far right that must be eliminated. Some are talking openly about coups and things like that. But look, within the army there are no factions friendly to Petro, there are factions friendly to the Constitution,” Petro told EL PAÍS.
Canada should focus on abortion access not legislation, advocates say | Global development
Abortion advocates are warning that the recent US supreme court ruling overturning Roe v Wade will empower anti-choice groups in Canada to push for restricted access, making a settled matter appear controversial in a country where nearly 80% of people are pro-choice.
A key anti-choice strategy in Canada revolves around enacting abortion legislation – an idea that has been gaining traction amid the fallout of the US court ruling. There is currently no abortion law in Canada, making it the only country in the world where the procedure is totally free of legal restrictions.
“There’s a lot of talk right now about whether or not the Canadian government should pass a proactive law protecting our right to abortion – a pre-emptive strike, if you will. That would be a big mistake,” said Daphne Gilbert, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.
Gilbert and other abortion advocates say that while enshrining abortion rights may sound progressive, the opposite is true: consolidating rules would make it easier for anti-choice legislators to retract abortion rights if ever they found themselves in a majority. Last year, 81 Conservative MPs (and one independent) voted for anti-choice legislation.
And while the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, promised Canadians after Roe that his government would “always stand up for your right to choose”, advocates argue that may not always be true.
That’s why the country should focus on entrenching people’s rights by expanding abortion access, said Gilbert.
Since it became legal in a 1988 supreme court ruling, abortion in Canada has been designated as a medical service like any other, on par with procedures like X-rays and blood tests. But that doesn’t make it easy to get – especially in remote, religious or conservative parts of the country.
In 2014, Sarah (who asked to remain anonymous) sought an abortion on Prince Edward Island (PEI) – a province of 30,000 that, at the time, did not have a single publicly operating abortion provider.
It took Sarah a month to finally secure a provider – five hours away, in another province. The trip incurred travel and lodging costs, but the procedure itself was covered by the healthcare authority.
“The idea that anybody has to travel to take care of something that you should be able to get done close to home – it’s not fine,” said Sarah. Abortion care only arrived on PEI in 2017, after activists sued the provincial government for acting unconstitutionally.
Although there is no federal law, each province’s medical college sets its own guidelines on abortion, including gestational age limits for use of the abortion pill.
Those guidelines are shaped by the skills and training available in each province, said Martha Paynter, an abortion care provider in Nova Scotia and the author of the new book Abortion to Abolition: Reproductive Health and Justice in Canada.
But there is also a political dimension to providing abortion care that prevents some doctors and nurse practitioners from taking it up.
“More people could be doing it than are doing it,” said Paynter. “We as educators – I’m a prof at a nursing school – have the responsibility to teach in every medical and nursing program how to do this care, and hardly [any school] does it.”
Paynter is the creator of the country’s first university abortion course, at Dalhousie University, which is open to students across medical, nursing and other health programs with the purpose of inspiring future health workers to integrate abortion access into primary care.
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists offers an online course to teach professionals how to prescribe and manage medical abortion.
But most students and healthcare professionals are not required to learn about how medication and surgical abortion work – and many choose to abstain because they are afraid to enter the political fray around abortion.
According to Gilbert, that means a lot of primary care providers stay wilfully uninformed.
“A lot of doctors just aren’t political people. They’re scientists, and they don’t see the politics behind some of their care,” she said.
Further complicating access is the fact that many Canadians are unaware that nurse practitioners in the country are permitted to prescribe the abortion pill and refer patients to surgical abortion providers – or that most patients can self-refer directly to an abortion provider.
Addressing these issues is critical to expanding existing access to medication and surgical abortion, said Paynter and Gilbert.
In 2017, Natalie (also a pseudonym) discovered she was pregnant while visiting her parents in a small town in northern Alberta. After one doctor at a local walk-in clinic told her abortion was murder, she demanded an appointment with a different doctor.
That doctor told her that there was no such thing as medical abortion. “He looked me in the face and said, ‘That doesn’t exist,’” she said.
Mifegymiso – otherwise known as the abortion pill – was approved by Health Canada in 2015, but had only recently hit the market when Natalie found herself at the doctor’s office.
“I know it exists. It’s literally the front page of the news,” she told him.
Still, she went away empty-handed. She was only able to get an abortion after returning to her home province of New Brunswick, where only three hospitals and one clinic provide abortion. Natalie went to the clinic, where she paid $800 for a surgical abortion – a cost incurred because the province refuses to pay for abortions performed outside of hospitals.
New Brunswick is currently being sued for its restriction of abortion.
Stories like those of Sarah and Natalie show how abortion remains inaccessible in Canada, despite its federal legal standing.
“Our greatest problems really come in terms of provinces and what they may do to restrict access to abortion in light of what I think is now going to be a really emboldened anti-choice movement,” said Gilbert.
Missing child in Germany: German boy found alive after surviving eight days in sewer | International
German police have found an eight-year-old boy who went missing from his home in Oldenburg, a city of 170,000 people in northwestern Germany. The child, named Joe, was discovered on Saturday in a sewer just 300 meters from his house. He had survived in the sewer for eight days while hundreds of officers and volunteers frantically searched the surface for clues to his whereabouts. “Eight-year-old Joe lives!” police in Oldenburg announced on Twitter.
The boy, who suffers from learning disabilities, disappeared on June 17 from the garden of his house. Police launched a large-scale search with drones, helicopters, sniffer dogs and dozens of officers, who were joined by hundreds of volunteers. As the days passed, a homicide team joined the investigation amid growing fears that Joe – who is only identified by his first name due to Germany’s privacy laws – could have been the victim of a violent crime. A witness claimed to have seen him in the company of an unidentified man and it was feared he may have been kidnapped.
“It was absolute luck,” said Stephan Klatte, the Oldenburg police spokesman, said of Joe’s discovery. A neighbor who was walking in the area raised the alarm when he heard “a whining noise” coming from the ground, just under a drain. When officers lifted the manhole cover, they found the boy, completely naked. He had no serious external injuries, but was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia, for which he was taken to hospital for treatment. According to German media, he is recovering well. “If he hadn’t made a sound, or if no one had heard him, we might never have found him,” Klatte said.
In a statement, the police reported that they believed that Joe likely entered the rainwater drainage system through a sewer on the same day of his disappearance and “lost his bearings after walking several meters.” Police have ruled out any foul play in the incident.
On Sunday, the day after Joe was discovered, police commissioned a specialized company to inspect the sewage system with a robot equipped with a camera. The robot examined the sewer between the boy’s home and the place where he was found. It recorded several items of clothing, including what he was wearing when he disappeared, in a pipe about 60 centimeters in diameter that runs under one of the streets of the neighborhood where he lives with his parents. The robot found, for example, the child’s vest, 70 meters from the point of entry.
Officers found an entrance to a three-foot-wide drainage channel near the farm where he was last seen on the day of his disappearance. Authorities believe the boy entered the channel while playing. After 23 meters, the tunnel leads to another narrower plastic pipe and police think it is likely the eight-year-old continued down this path. Joe was eventually found about 290 meters from where he entered the sewer system.
Police believe that Joe became more and more disoriented until he could no longer find a way out. “A first statement from the child confirms this assumption,” said the statement, which does not provide more details about what he told officers. Investigators say they have not been able to question the boy in detail, as he remains in hospital. Nothing has been found to suggest that the child came to the surface in the eight days in which he was missing. In the statement, police asked that no questions about his state of health be made out of respect for him and his family.
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