US Anti-Vaccine Activists to Rally at Lincoln Memorial

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 Anti-vaccine activists are set to rally Sunday in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial.The anti-vaccine argument has taken hold among various American groups, including politicians, school officials, professional athletes and health care workers. Public health officials say about 20% of U.S. adults are unvaccinated.

COVID vaccine passport protests were held in several European capitals Saturday.

Thousands of people turned out in Stockholm to demonstrate against the vaccine passes needed to go to indoor sites where there are 50 or more people.

Protesters took to the streets of Paris to demonstrate against the new COVID pass set to go into effect Monday that will curtail the activities of the unvaccinated, restricting their ability to travel and go to entertainment sites, including bars, movie theaters and sports events.

Demonstrators in Helsinki protested the vaccination passes that can be required to enter restaurants and other events. The protesters in Finland’s capital also demonstrated against the Finnish government’s move giving local and regional authorities the ability to enact wide-ranging measures to combat the omicron variant, according to The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. state of Virginia, a woman has been charged with a misdemeanor after threatening to bring guns to her children’s school because of a school board’s continued school mask mandate.

Amelia King said Thursday at a school board meeting, “My children will not come to school on Monday with a mask on, all right? . . . That’s not happening, and I will bring every single gun loaded and ready . . .I’ll see you all on Monday.” School officials alerted authorities about King’s comments.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Sunday that it was recorded 349.3 million COVID infections, 5.6 million deaths. The center said nearly 10 billion COVID vaccines have been administered.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press. 



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Comoros Loses Both Goalkeepers as COVID Sweeps Through Squad

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Comoros, the surprise package of the Africa Cup of Nations, is struggling to put a team together for their last-16 game against host nation Cameroon after 12 players and management tested positive for COVID-19, their federation announced Saturday.

The 12 positive tests include both of the Coelacanths’ fit goalkeepers, with the third goalkeeper, Salim Ben Boina already injured. Comoros is due to face Cameroon on Monday.

“The Coelacanths affected by COVID … include coach Amir Abdou, our only two goalkeepers, Moyadh Ousseini and Ali Ahamada,” the federation tweeted two days before a historic match for the Comoros who qualified for the last 16 in their first appearance at the tournament.

In a video posted on the account, general manager El Hadad Hamidi also named five outfield players who have tested positive: midfielders Nakibou Aboubakari, Yacine Bourhane, striker Mohamed M’Changama and defenders Kassim Abdallah and Alexis Souahy.

With no goalkeepers currently available for the game, the Comoros are in serious trouble.

Confederation of African Football rules for the tournament dictate that teams must play games as long as at least 11 players test negative for the coronavirus.

If no goalkeeper is available, an outfield player must stand in.

“We are trying to do everything in our power to find alternative solutions” but “without the coach, without major players and especially without our only two goalkeepers who remained, the situation is quite complicated,” admitted Hamidi.

The Comoros, representing a tiny island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, snatched their qualification to everyone’s surprise by beating Ghana 3-2 and advancing as one of the best third-placed sides. 


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UAE Bans Flying of Recreational Drones After Fatal Attack

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The United Arab Emirates has banned the flying of drones in the country for recreation after Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed a fatal drone attack on an oil facility and major airport in the country.

As of Saturday, drone hobbyists and other operators of light electric sports aircraft face “legal liabilities” if caught flying the objects, the Interior Ministry said, adding it may grant exemptions to businesses seeking to film.

A rare drone and missile strike on the capital of Abu Dhabi blew up several fuel tankers and killed three people last week.

The Houthis, who hold Yemen’s capital and have fought a bloody, yearslong war with a Saudi-led military coalition that includes the UAE, claimed the assault. While the UAE has largely withdrawn troops from the stalemated conflict, the country continues to be a major player and support local militias on the ground.

The UAE said the Houthis targeted the country with bomb-laden drones and cruise and ballistic missiles, adding the country had intercepted some of the projectiles. In response to the strike, the Saudi-led coalition has escalated attacks on the rebel-held parts of Yemen in the last week.

Government regulations in the UAE already restrict flying drones in residential areas as well as near, around and over airports. Drone users typically must obtain a certificate from the civil aviation authorities. 


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New Zealand PM Ardern Cancels Her Wedding Amid New Omicron Limits

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has canceled her wedding as the nation imposes new restrictions to slow the community spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant, she told reporters.

New Zealand will impose mask rules and limit gathering from midnight on Sunday after a cluster of nine cases of the omicron variant showed community transmission from the North to South islands after a wedding.

A family traveled by plane from the North Island capital of Auckland to a wedding in the South Island attended by 100 people. The family and a flight attendant tested positive.

New Zealand would move to a red setting under its COVID-19 protection framework, with more mask wearing, and a cap of 100 customers indoors in hospitality settings and events such as weddings, or 25 people if venues are not using vaccine passes, Ardern said.

“My wedding will not be going ahead,” she told reporters, adding she was sorry for anyone caught up in a similar scenario.

Asked by reporters how she felt about her wedding cancellation, Ardern replied: “Such is life.”

She added, “I am no different to, dare I say it, thousands of other New Zealanders who have had much more devastating impacts felt by the pandemic, the most gutting of which is the inability to be with a loved one sometimes when they are gravely ill. That will far, far outstrip any sadness I experience.” 

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Facebook Removes Kurdish Pages Linked to Misinformation on Belarus Migrant Crisis

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Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has removed two popular Kurdish Facebook pages accused of spreading misinformation that helped convince thousands of Kurds to mass along the border of Belarus and Poland late last year.

The two accounts, one from a Kurdish lawmaker with 143,000 followers and another belonging to a Kurdish journalist with nearly 270,000 followers, were spreading misinformation that falsely claimed Kurds who went to the Belarus-Poland border would be allowed into the European Union.

There was no such immigration plan. Instead, frustrated crowds clashed with border guards and thousands were later deported. 

The false posts were among many seen by Kurds who traveled to the border area and were interviewed by VOA.

“We followed the crowd towards the Polish borders after rumors on Facebook. It resulted in nothing more than adversity for this destitute people,” said Hersh Saeed Ahmad, a Kurdish migrant in Belarus.

But the accounts on Facebook continued to publish widely read posts until earlier this month when VOA contacted Meta asking if the pages were violating the company’s policies. 

“Meta has decided both pages violated our policies for misinformation under Violence & Incitement Community Standards, and both have been taken down,” a spokesperson from the company told VOA in an email.

The episode illustrates how the social media network continues to struggle to police even well-known spreaders of misinformation who are involved in high-profile news events, especially when misinformation is being published in languages other than English.

Spreading misinformation 

The Belarus-EU border crisis began last July and worsened by November, when thousands of migrants from the Middle East, North Africa and Iraqi Kurdistan, attempted to cross into the EU from Belarus.

In mid-November, violence broke out at the Polish border when security forces used tear gas and water cannons to prevent migrants from breaking the border fencing. Polish police at the time reported several injuries in their ranks from migrants throwing stones at them.

At the time, Facebook told news outlets that it was working to shut down information about human trafficking in the region.

But two prominent Kurdish Facebook pages continued to traffic in misinformation about the situation at the border until earlier this month.

Sirwan Baban, a member of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament, and Ranj Pshdary, a Kurdish journalist based in Greece, used their pages on Facebook to tell their followers in early November that the EU and Germany had decided to open their borders to let in migrants stranded on a Belarus-Poland border point.


It was a claim denied by EU officials at the time, but thousands of migrants, mostly Kurds, still stormed the Polish border fence and clashed with police.

VOA interviews with officials in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Kurdish migrants in Belarus confirmed that misinformation on Facebook, including from Baban and Pshdary, helped to lure thousands of people towards the Polish border.

Hersh Saeed Ahmad, a 36-year-old Kurd from Sulaimani province, is among those migrants who, after reading posts on social media, took his wife and 4-year-old child to the Polish border in November.

“Our situation after the storming turned from bad to worse,” he said. “Our admission by Germany was nothing more than lies and rumors on Facebook.”

Another migrant, Bahadin Muhsin Qadir, said they were told the Polish security at the border had announced through loudspeakers that they will be transferred through buses to Germany.

The standoff at the border during extreme weather conditions left more than a dozen people dead, according to human rights activists, who say the total number is likely higher but hard to confirm due to restricted access to the area.

Ari Jalal, the head of Kurdish foundation Lutka for Refugees and Migrants, told VOA that his group registered two deaths among the Kurds at the border. He said about 4,000 migrants have since returned to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with about 1,100 people remaining in Belarus camps.

“In addition to bodily and material damage, the Kurdish migrants are also psychologically broken down completely,” said Jalal, while expressing his frustration at “how gullible Kurdish youth can be manipulated by livestream videos on social media.” 

Facebook’s efforts 

Working with independent experts, Meta says it works to detect and remove harmful false claims that could contribute to the risk of imminent violence or physical harm ­— such as claims in Arabic and Kurdish that either the Polish border is open to migrants or Germany is sending buses for the migrants to the border. 

In November, The New York Times reported that an account belonging to a Kurdish-German influencer widely known online as Karwan Rawanduzy was disabled on Facebook for frequently promoting bogus stories that fueled the crisis.

In early December, Meta released a threat report saying it removed 38 Facebook accounts, five groups and four Instagram accounts linked to the Belarusian KGB that were inflaming the migrant crisis. It also reported taking down 31 Facebook accounts, four groups, two Facebook events and four Instagram accounts that originated in Poland and targeted Belarus and Iraq.

Despite those high-profile takedowns, the social media giant missed other far-reaching pages that were still being used to mislead migrants.

False claim of open border 

In the case of Sirwan Baban, a lawmaker, and Ranj Pshdary, who calls himself a journalist, both with thousands of followers, Facebook for months served as their main medium to encourage migrants to amass at the Polish border.

Pshdary, 32, from Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qaladza town, has gained recognition in Kurdish media for his role in covering the Belarus crisis. On November 13, he went live on Facebook to tell migrants “the great news” that the EU was going to open its doors to let them in. In the video, viewed and shared by thousands, people claiming to be migrants in Belarus or their relatives, joined Pshdary’s call in encouraging the migrants to prepare to cross into Poland “in the next couple of days.”

“The Polish border will be opened to migrant on November 15 and the migrants will be sent to Germany via buses,” Pshdary said.

Three days later, thousands of migrants, mostly Kurds, headed from a Belarus forest to the Polish border, anticipating a crossing into Poland. They clashed with the Polish police, but no migrants crossed over.

Pshdary, in another live Facebook video titled “I confess that we failed,” admitted he had intentionally misled people.

“I don’t want to conceal from you that I was the organizer of the crowd. On Friday, [Nov. 12, 2021], I met with the representatives of the migrants… Seeing that the Belarus police were torturing a lot of young migrants, there was no option but to encourage those people to cut the barbed wire fence so that those young people can be seen as perpetrators and violated against [by the Polish security].”

Pshdary said in his Facebook Live he believed that falsely saying the border was open would have created a spectacle with women, children and older migrants out in the cold, thus embarrassing EU politicians and forcing them to open their doors on a humanitarian basis.

When reached by VOA, Pshdary insisted that his plan was “good intentioned” and aimed at helping the migrants who desperately reached out to him for a way out.

Lawmaker resigns from diaspora committee

Lawmaker Sirwan Baban, who served as a member of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament’s diaspora committee at the time of the crisis, gave similar false hopes to migrants on Facebook and on TV.

On November 8, he appeared in a live interview with the Kurdish media network Rudaw, which was streamed live on Facebook with 755,000 views, claiming he had access to a “proclamation” from the EU: “It says the migrant situation in Belarus has escalated and become tragedy and a global issue. Therefore, the European Union has met tonight, telling Poland, ‘Let Belarus continue its dictatorship. You open your borders and allow the migrants in. Once in Poland, we will distribute them among other European countries.'” 

In an interview with VOA, Baban denied coordinating his false information about border openings with Pshdary, claiming that he had received reliable information that the EU’s refugee committee and some German officials had made a “recommendation” to let in the migrants. However, he declined to share the source of his information with VOA.

“This issue is portrayed this way in Kurdistan only to implicate me,” he added. 

In addition to using his Facebook page, Baban also went live on several Facebook groups and other social media pages to promote the story which — at the time — was also denied by Kurdish Foreign Relations officer Safin Dizayee in an interview with VOA Kurdish Service.

Among videos Baban posted of alleged migrants celebrating and thanking him for his efforts to influence EU officials is a young girl introducing herself as Saya and saying, “Mr. Sirwan Baban, the parliamentarian, thank you very much for such a great news … I will see you in Germany.”

The Kurdistan Regional Parliament’s diaspora committee in an urgent statement on November 11 accused Baban of spreading misinformation “that pushes the youth into harm’s way.”

The head of the committee, Rebwar Babkai, told VOA that Baban has since been forced to resign from the committee due to his role in spreading the misinformation.

“I hope this is a lesson to all of us holding a public position to feel the responsibility of our jobs,” Babkai said, adding it was unclear if his region’s government was going to take further action against Baban.

Limits of Facebook’s enforcement? 

Some social media observers say Facebook’s failure to detect those pages after months of misinformation shows “a gap” that needs to be filled particularly in non-English content.

“I think Facebook needs to do more when it comes to content in local languages,” said Dlshad Othman, a Kurdish cybersecurity expert based in Washington.

Othman said the social media company has improved over the years in moderating content in major Middle Eastern languages such as Arabic, often at the expense of languages for smaller populations like the Kurds. A Facebook representative declined to answer VOA questions about how many Kurdish-literate moderators the company employs. 

Moustafa Ayad is the executive director for Africa, Middle East and Asia at the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a research group that monitors online extremism and disinformation. He told VOA that while Facebook’s technical advances such as the development of artificial intelligence have been helpful in countering disinformation, the company needs to do more.

“I believe all of these issues can be fixed with effective moderation in those languages,” he said. “It is not only just language skills but also an understanding of what is happening in those countries in a geopolitical and social level.” 

Facebook says it works with law enforcement, academics, non-profit organizations and others to detect and remove harmful false claims, ads, posts, pages and groups about people smuggling over international borders, and did so during the crisis in Belarus. It uses technology, human review and “reports from our users and trusted partners to detect and remove such content,” said a Meta spokesperson in an email to VOA.

“We remove this content as soon as we become aware of it regardless of who posts the content,” the spokesperson said.


While their pages were removed, the journalist and lawmaker still have a presence on Facebook.

As of January 19, Pshdary, the journalist, has a personal account with 3,600 followers. 

The lawmaker Baban’s personal account has over 15,000 followers. On a recent post, he invites viewers to like his new page created on January 22.


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Uzbeks Perplexed as US Veterans Link Illnesses to Air Base

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Residents living near Karshi-Khanabad harbor have fond memories of the American soldiers who served at the Uzbek air base widely known as K2 between 2001 and 2005, describing the period as one of their happiest times. But for many of the Americans, lingering affection for the residents is outweighed by persistent debilitating ailments that they attribute to toxic and radioactive waste at the base. 

“The American period was a wonderful time,” said Oysaot Toparova, a resident now in her late 70s who served for many years as a politician in the adjacent village of Khanabad. “U.S. military visiting our schools, meeting the community, we loved it. I think Uzbekistan and the U.S. got the best out of that cooperation.” 

Mark Jackson, board chairman of the Stronghold Freedom Foundation,  which represents retired and active American military personnel, also describes “wonderful memories of Uzbekistan.” He says he interacted with locals daily, went to homes, enjoyed tea and meals, and traveled across the country. He is still fascinated with its history and culture. 

But, he told VOA, his time at K2 has left him with another legacy, one of relentless illness and pain that he blames on environmental hazards left over from the Soviet era in Uzbekistan, a connection he has found frustratingly difficult to substantiate. 

“I cannot provide you with hard facts,” he said in an interview. “The facts I have are my body and the tombstones. We were ignored for 20 years until we made enough noise to force Washington to acknowledge that people went to a place that the government itself admitted in 2001 and 2004 was environmentally degraded and polluted.”

The membership of his organization includes “some profoundly ill people,” Jackson said. 

“Wars are fought with bullets and bombs. This is a very slow-moving bullet, moving through my body. I’ll give myself an injection in the belly every day for the next two years, because I have the bones of an 80-year-old woman, on top of a dying thyroid and a gastrointestinal tract that mimics that of an 80-year-old man.” 

Recently revealed U.S. documents confirm that the Pentagon suspected K2 could have hazardous chemicals left over from its days as a Soviet military facility. Now, Johns Hopkins University is conducting an 18-month long longitudinal epidemiological study among K2 veterans, following on an executive order by former U.S. President Donald Trump. 


‘Nothing of concern’ 

But during a recent visit to Khanabad by VOA, residents said they were perplexed by the American complaints. They noted that thousands of Uzbek air force members and civilian workers still work at the site, and about 10,000 people live nearby. 

“We live next to the base,” said Dostmurod Odayev, a community leader in his 60s who describes K2 as an integral part of life in the region. “Our people work there. We have military residents serving there. I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick because of environmental issues or radiation at K2.” 

Zoyir Mirzayev, who until last month governed the Kashkadarya region, which includes the air base, told VOA that local authorities had not found evidence that would back up Jackson’s complaints. 

“We are aware of these American claims,” he said. “We looked at environmental and health data but found nothing of concern and don’t believe K2 has radiation or deadly chemicals.”

Odayev pointed out that the area around the base is prime farmland, and families were wrapping up the harvest beneath the constant roar of aircraft when VOA visited. While access to the base was not permitted, there was no visible evidence of a toxic environment amid the scent of fresh roses blooming in winter and livestock enjoying the surrounding pastures. 

Ovul Nazarov, 61, said “they seemed to enjoy their time in Uzbekistan, so these claims sound strange to us,” he said.

Quvvat Khidirov, another retired Uzbek officer, with nearly 30 years of service at K2, also does not understand “American complaints.”

“I worked in a really old building at K2 for more than two decades. If the site were toxic with all those chemicals we’ve been hearing about from American colleagues, I should know many sick people here, but I don’t. I’m in good health myself.” 

Misqol Polvonova, 62, calls herself a K2 neighbor. She raised six children across the street from the base. “We used to watch American jets flying low. You know, we spend a lot of time outside. We sleep in the open air all summer. All my children are healthy. I have 15 grandkids.” 

Such accounts do not convince Jackson, who doubts that Uzbeks can speak freely about an issue as sensitive as hazardous waste at a strategic military facility. His group has set up a private Facebook page where Uzbeks are invited to share their experiences and connect with American K2 veterans. 

“Maybe they know somebody who died of a very strange cancer or brain disorder, or maybe they have chronic gastrointestinal issues or some of their other organs are failing, or they have anemia. And these have just become part of life, as they’re part of mine,” he said. 

Jackson argued that without the results of the ongoing longitudinal study as well as testing of air and soil, an objective review of historical records, and permission for scientists to report without interference, Uzbekistan has no credibility.

He said the point is not to bring shame upon Uzbeks. “The shame belongs to the Soviets who destroyed the environment, dumping petroleum products and radiation and asbestos into the soil.”

US government’s response 

Since Jackson’s movement started, some things have changed. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has surveyed military exposures on K2, outlining potential threats including jet fuel, which “may have occurred as a result of a leaking Soviet-era underground jet fuel distribution system,” and volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and dust. 

The VA also mentions depleted uranium, noting that “Soviet missiles were destroyed there, contaminating some areas of surface dirt with low-level, radioactive, depleted uranium.” Asbestos and lead are listed as having been present at K2 structures while Americans were there. 

Stronghold Freedom Foundation highlights that 15,000-16,000 military personnel were deployed to K2, with about 1,300 service members present at any time. The group argues, based on its findings, findings ((( that at least 75% of those deployed only to Uzbekistan have developed serious illnesses. 

Yet veterans complain of “endless paperwork” required to get proper treatment. They want recognition that their illnesses are connected to their service in K2. 

U.S. Representative Mark Green, a K2 veteran and Republican from Tennessee, co-sponsored a bipartisan bill in February 2020 directing the U.S. secretary of defense to recognize K2 veterans’ “severe and deadly service-connected illnesses.” 

That and other legislative efforts in 2021 did not move forward, but the veterans still hope for congressional action. They note that their cause has support from lawmakers as ideologically opposed as Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Senator Marco Rubio. 

Gillibrand and Rubio “could not be farther apart politically yet stood together on K2. They know what’s right,” Jackson said. 

One of the biggest gains for K2 veterans has been a House Oversight committee decision to declassify about 400 pages of information on the base.

“This will never be about money, but if money comes from recognition for the few that deserve it, so be it,” Jackson said. 

“Every single person who knows anything about Capitol Hill told us it was too expensive,” said Jackson, who spoke at hearings and engaged lawmakers. His response: “If you build two less F-35s, we’ll be good.”

Jackson also said his grandfather served as a colonel in the Korean War and his father was a Vietnam veteran. 

“I remember their complaints about how the government treated them. … We’ve been in armed conflict with somebody since before we were a country. But we consistently forget the people who fought those wars.”




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India Reports More Than 300,000 Daily COVID Cases

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India’s health ministry reported 337,704 new COVID-19 cases Saturday. Public health officials have warned that India’s tallies are likely undercounted.

Ireland lifts most of its COVID restrictions Saturday, as the country prepares to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in March, for the first time in two years.

Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin said, “Spring is coming, and I don’t know if I have ever looked forward to” a St. Patrick’s Day celebration “as much as this one.”

A face mask mandate, however, currently remains in effect.

Anti-vaccine activists are set to rally Sunday in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. The anti-vaccine propaganda has taken hold among various American groups, including politicians, school officials, professional athletes and health care workers. Public health officials say about 20% of U.S. adults are unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, former Polish President Lech Walesa has announced that he has contracted COVID-19, even though he has been fully vaccinated.

“After this lesson, I will not part ways with a mask,” he posted on Facebook.

The omicron variant in Japan has resulted in a record-high COVID case count in the capital. On Saturday, Tokyo reported 11,227 new daily infections, the highest daily total in four consecutive days.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Saturday that it has recorded 346.5 million global COVID cases and 5.6 million global COVID deaths. Almost 10 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide.





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Latin America, Asia Latest to Be Hit With Omicron Surge

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In Costa Rica, officials are encouraging those infected with the coronavirus to skip voting in upcoming national elections. On the other side of the world, Beijing is locking down residential communities as the country anxiously awaits the start of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 4.

In Latin America and Asia, where the omicron variant is making its latest appearance, some countries are imposing such restrictions while others are loath to place new limits on populations already exhausted by previous constraints.

Omicron quickly swept through the places it first hit, such as South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, pushing daily cases far higher than at any time during the pandemic.

The Americas reported nearly 7.2 million new COVID infections and more than 15,000 COVID-related deaths over the past week, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said Wednesday. Coronavirus infections across the Americas almost doubled between Jan. 1 and Jan. 8, from 3.4 million cases to 6.1 million, PAHO said.

Infections are accelerating in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, and hospitalizations are rising in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, said PAHO Director Carissa Etienne. The Caribbean islands are experiencing their steepest increase in COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, Etienne noted.

“Although omicron infections appear to be milder, we continue to urge caution because the virus is spreading more actively than ever before,” Etienne said.

Infections are also increasing in Asia, including in the Philippines, which has seen its worst coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks.


Countries in both regions are searching for a mix of restrictions that their exhausted populations will accept and that won’t inflict undue damage on their economies.

“We’re already going on three years of the pandemic and the population is tired,” said Brazil’s president of the Council of State Health Secretariats, Carlos Lula. “There is no space for many restrictions. We’re going to have to face a third wave with precautions like masking, distancing and vaccination.”

Argentina and Mexico also have largely ruled out imposing any national restrictions, instead banking on their vaccination campaigns and the apparently less severe symptoms of the omicron variant.

Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, having just emerged from a week of isolation after his second coronavirus infection in the past year, downplayed the threat. “It is demonstrable that this variant does not have the same seriousness as the earlier, the delta,” López Obrador said this week.

Antonio Pérez, 67, runs a small stand in a Mexico City market selling notebooks, pens and other school supplies. He was forced to shutter his shop for three months early in the pandemic, rocking him financially. But he agreed with the government’s decision then — a time when little was known about the virus’s spread and no one was vaccinated — and with the hands-off approach now, when most of the population is vaccinated and there is less pressure on hospitals.

Immunization, masks and social distancing are the way to go now, he said, speaking through his own N95 mask. “I don’t think you can do anything else.”


Some states in Brazil have reimposed restrictions but stopped short of closing down businesses as they did last year. Peru, however, has revived a nationwide curfew, and Ecuador has banned public and private events or large gatherings of any kind.

In Costa Rica, public health concerns are colliding with constitutional guarantees for the Feb. 6 presidential and congressional elections. Authorities concede they can’t stop people from voting, but Eugenia Zamora, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, recently told news outlets that those who test positive for coronavirus should “abstain” from going out to vote.

Demographer Luis Rosero said that according to his projections, the new wave of infections could peak right around election day. Under current health protocols, those who test positive in Costa Rica are obligated to isolate.

Costa Rica’s daily confirmed infection totals have increased from fewer than 100 in December to more than 5,000 this month. So far, however, the government has imposed few restrictions, such as requiring soccer clubs to play without fans.

Two other Central American countries, Panama and Honduras, have not imposed any restrictions despite seeing their cases more than double during the past week.

Puerto Rico, among the hardest-hit places in the Caribbean amid the region’s current surge, tightened restrictions again this month after the U.S. territory saw its COVID-19 test positivity rate jump from 5% late last year to more than 40% in recent weeks.

Governor Pedro Pierluisi has required that those working in the health, food, education, tourism and entertainment sectors get their booster shots, as well as public school students 12 and older. He also reinstated a ban on alcohol sales from midnight to 5 a.m. and prohibited most businesses from operating during those hours.

In Chile, infections grew 151% in one week, but the only restriction the government has imposed so far is to lower the capacity limit for public spaces. The country has a high vaccination rate, with more than 92% of those 18 and older and 78% of minors having received two doses. The government started offering a fourth dose this month.

Still, in some South American countries, omicron is having a dire effect.

A major hospital in Bolivia’s largest city stopped admitting new patients because of a lack of personnel, and one of Brazil’s most populous states canceled scheduled surgeries for a month. Argentina’s federation of private health care providers estimates about 15% of its workers currently have the virus.


In Asia, South Korea actually eased its restrictions on gatherings slightly this week. But officials have expressed concern about a surge in infections over the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins at the end of the month, when millions of people usually travel across the country to meet relatives.

In China, Beijing has moved classes online and locked down some office buildings. Japan, meanwhile, is maintaining strict border controls as infections surge but otherwise doing little more than shortening business hours for restaurants and bars.

Hong Kong authorities have banned indoor dining after 6 p.m. and ordered certain businesses, such as museums and gyms, to close until at least early February. The city is also culling small animals including hamsters and chinchillas and halting their import and sales after several hamsters in a pet shop tested positive for the coronavirus.

In the Philippines, officials this week started banning commuters who have not been fully vaccinated from riding public transportation in greater Manila, a region of more than 13 million people. The move sparked protests from human rights groups. Daily confirmed infections soared from a few hundred last month to more than 30,000 in recent days.

Roman Catholic Church leaders in the Philippines capital were forced to cancel the Jan. 9 procession of the Black Nazarene, a centuries-old black statue of Jesus, for a second year. Because the event is one of Asia’s biggest religious festivals, drawing millions of mostly barefoot pilgrims, officials feared it could become a superspreader event during the omicron surge.

Warning that the sometimes-weaker omicron variant can still kill, President Rodrigo Duterte implored people to get fully immunized.

“If you’re vaccinated, you have a fighting chance. If not, we’ll be burying, filling our cemeteries,” Duterte said in televised remarks.

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US Suspends 44 Flights by Chinese Carriers After Beijing Action

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The U.S. government said Friday it would suspend 44 China-bound flights from the United States by four Chinese carriers in response to the Chinese government’s decision to suspend some U.S. carrier flights over COVID-19 concerns.

The suspensions will begin Jan. 30 with Xiamen Airlines’ scheduled Los Angeles-to-Xiamen flight and run through March 29, the Transportation Department said.

The decision will cut some flights by Xiamen, Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines.

Since Dec. 31, Chinese authorities have suspended 20 United Airlines, 10 American Airlines and 14 Delta Air Lines flights, after some passengers tested positive for COVID-19.

As recently as Tuesday, the Transportation Department said the Chinese government had announced new U.S. flight cancellations.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Friday the policy for international passenger flights entering China has “been applied equally to Chinese and foreign airlines in a fair, open and transparent way.”

He called the U.S. move “very unreasonable” and added, “We urge the U.S. side to stop disrupting and restricting the normal passenger flights” by Chinese airlines.

Airlines for America, a trade group representing the three U.S. carriers affected by China’s move, along with others, said it supported Washington’s action “to ensure the fair treatment of U.S. airlines in the Chinese market.”

The Transportation Department said France and Germany have taken similar action against China’s COVID-19 actions. It said China’s suspensions of the flights “are adverse to the public interest and warrant proportionate remedial action.” It added that China’s “unilateral actions against the named U.S. carriers are inconsistent” with a bilateral agreement.

China has also suspended numerous U.S. flights by Chinese carriers after passengers later tested positive.

The department said it was prepared to revisit its action if China revised its “policies to bring about the necessary improved situation for U.S. carriers.” It warned that if China cancels more flights, “we reserve the right to take additional action.”

China has all but shut its borders to travelers, cutting total international flights to just 200 a week, or 2% of pre-pandemic levels, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) said in September.

The number of U.S. flights being scrapped has surged since December, as infections caused by the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus soared to record highs in the United States.

Beijing and Washington have sparred over air services since the start of the pandemic. In August, the U.S. Transportation Department limited four flights from Chinese carriers to 40% passenger capacity for four weeks after Beijing imposed identical limits on four United Airlines flights.

Before the recent cancellations, three U.S. airlines and four Chinese carriers were operating about 20 flights a week between the countries, well below the figure of more than 100 per week before the pandemic.

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CDC Says Studies Show Boosters Offer Increased Protection Against Omicron 

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it has evidence COVID-19 vaccines work against the omicron variant. 

Citing three studies, the CDC said the vaccines appear to work particularly well for those who received booster shots. The U.S. studies are the first to examine the effectiveness of the vaccines on the omicron variant. 

One study said it found that vaccines were effective in lowering hospitalizations and urgent care center visits after three doses of Pfizer or Moderna.  

The study said three shots were 90% effective in preventing hospitalizations during both the delta and omicron surges.  

It said protection against urgent care center visits fell from 94% during the delta wave to 82% during the omicron wave. 

Another study focused on deaths and found those who had received boosters had the highest protection against infection from both delta and omicron. 

The third study looked at those who had been vaccinated and then tested positive with COVID-19. It said three shots of Pfizer or Moderna were 67% effective against symptomatic cases of omicron compared with unvaccinated people.  

Two of the studies found the protection offered by the vaccines wanes to varying degrees as time goes on. 

“If you are eligible for a booster and you haven’t gotten it, you are not up to date and you need to get your booster,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing Friday. 

Also during the briefing, Walensky said the average number of omicron cases was down nationally by about 5%, mostly in areas where it began to surge. She said there were about 744,600 cases per day on average in the past seven days.  

She warned that some parts of the country could still see an increase in infections.  

“In some parts of the country we are seeing the number of daily cases caused by the omicron variant beginning to decline,” she said. “The surge in cases started at different times in different regions and [we] may continue to see high case counts in some areas of the country in the days and weeks ahead.”  ​

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

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Biden Pushes Expansion of Domestic Semiconductor Manufacturing

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U.S. President Joe Biden touted a $20 billion investment by American technology company Intel to build a semiconductor factory in Ohio to address a global shortage that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S.-China trade war.

In a speech from the White House on Friday, Biden said the Intel factory, part of the administration’s effort to work with the private sector, would create thousands of jobs. He urged Congress to pass legislation to further expand domestic chip manufacturing, framing it in the context of strategic competition with China.

“Today 75% of the production takes place in East Asia; 90% of the most advanced chips are made in Taiwan,” Biden said. “China is doing everything it can to take over the global market so they can try to outcompete the rest of us.”

Semiconductor chips function as the brains of cars, medical equipment, household appliances and electronic devices.

The $20 billion factory is an initial investment, said Patrick Gelsinger, chief executive officer of Intel, at the White House event.

“This site alone could grow to as much as $100 billion of total investment over the decade,” he said.

The White House pointed to other investments in semiconductor manufacturing in the United States earlier this year by Samsung, Texas Instruments and Micron.

“Congress can accelerate this progress by passing the U.S. Investment and Competition Act, also known as USICA, which the president has long championed and which he called for action on today,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, referring to legislation that aims to strengthen research, development and manufacturing for critical supply chains to address semiconductor shortages.

Driven by Washington’s desire to retain an edge over China’s technological ambitions, USICA was passed with rare bipartisan Senate support in June but still needs to be passed by the House of Representatives. It includes full funding for the CHIPS for America Act, which provides $52 billion to catalyze more private sector investments in the semiconductor industry.

“The Chinese have been really clear. They want an indigenous chip industry. They want to be globally dominant, and that means displacing the U.S. and others,” James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA.

The U.S. share of global semiconductor production has fallen from 37% to 12% over the past 30 years, according to government data.

Pandemic impact

The COVID-19 pandemic and extreme changes in consumer demand during lockdowns have exacerbated fragility in the global semiconductor supply chain.

“Consumer demand increased rapidly for items such as home computers, while supply could not keep up and many Chinese manufacturers were locked down,” Nada Sanders, professor of supply chain management at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, told VOA.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-China tariff war that began under the Trump administration and geopolitical conflicts between the two global rivals have made the environment even less conducive for cooperation, Sanders said.

The Intel factory will not be operational until 2025, but analysts say the initiative will still be effective to secure the supply of chips in the long run.

“You cannot underestimate demand for this stuff. It grows at about 10% a year,” Lewis said.

As the U.S. expands its domestic chip manufacturing capacity, analysts say a key component is working with international partners, including South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, to fill in the supply gap.

Earlier Friday, Biden discussed semiconductor supply chain resilience in his virtual summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“The leaders did discuss the importance of cooperation on supply chain security, including semiconductors, and the president described what we are doing at home and underscored the importance of working together on it,” a National Security Council spokesperson told VOA.

The spokesperson added that the two countries have been working closely in this area bilaterally through the Quad, a security dialogue forum involving the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.

“The new ministerial-level Economic Policy Consultative Committee (the Economic ‘2+2’) established by the leaders today will also cover this important issue,” the spokesperson said.

Taiwan, home to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and the leading producer of advanced chips in the world, is another key partner.

“If China was to take over Taiwan, and use TSMC as a leverage point, that would be hugely disruptive,” Lewis said. “Taiwan and its proximity to China and China’s hostility drives a lot of the concern.”

The global chip shortage has pushed up inflation rates and hamstrung the administration’s economic recovery efforts. It contributed to the sharp increases in the price of new and used automobiles, which account for one-third of the annual price increases in the consumer price index.

Biden’s approval in the polls has been lagging recently, partly driven by inflation. Consumer prices jumped 7% in December compared with a year earlier, the highest inflation rate in 40 years. It has dampened economic recovery in a year that the administration says has shown the biggest job growth in American history.

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White House Says COVID-19 Tests Being Shipped 

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The White House says some of the at-home, free COVID-19 tests it is offering to Americans have begun shipping via the U.S. Postal Service. 

During a Friday press briefing, Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said shipping started Thursday. 

He said demand has been high and added that there had already been millions of orders through the government website that was launched earlier this week. 

He would not provide specific numbers when asked, saying the White House was waiting on data. 

Americans are allowed to order four of the tests per household.

The Biden administration has faced criticism for a lack of tests during the omicron surge. 

During the briefing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said the average number of omicron cases was down nationally by about 5%, mostly in areas where it began to surge. She said there were about 744,600 cases per day on average in the past seven days. 

She warned that some parts of the country could still see an increase in infections. 

“In some parts of the country we are seeing the number of daily cases caused by the omicron variant beginning to decline,” she said. “The surge in cases started at different times in different regions and (we) may continue to see high case counts in some areas of the country in the days and weeks ahead.” 

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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Judge Blocks Vaccine Mandate for US Federal Workers 

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A federal judge on Friday issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting the enforcement of U.S. President Joe Biden’s requirement that federal workers be vaccinated. 

Biden announced the mandate, which required 3.5 million federal workers to be vaccinated or ask for a medical or religious exemption, in September. There was no option to be regularly tested instead. 

When the mandate went into effect in November, the White House said 95% of federal workers had either been vaccinated or applied for medical or religious exemptions. 

Those not conforming to the mandate could lose their jobs. 

Judge Jeffrey Brown of Texas, writing in the injunction, questioned if a president “can, with the stroke of a pen and without the input of Congress, require millions of federal employees to undergo a medical procedure as a condition of their employment.”

He called the mandate a “bridge too far,” citing a recent Supreme Court ruling striking down a mandate on private employers. 

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court struck down the Biden vaccine mandate requiring companies with more than 100 workers to be fully vaccinated. The court allowed a mandate requiring certain healthcare workers to be vaccinated. 

Brown said public health could be adequately protected using masks and social distancing. 

The plaintiff in the suit is a group called Feds for Medical Freedom.

The U.S. Department of Justice said it will appeal the injunction. 

COVID-19 has killed more than 861,000 Americans. 

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 




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Israel Probes Allegations Police Cyber-Spied on Citizens

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Israel on Thursday launched an investigation into allegations police used the controversial Pegasus spyware on the country’s citizens.

In a letter sent to police commander Koby Shabtai, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit asked to receive all wiretapping and computer spying orders from 2020 and 2021 in order to “verify allegations made in the media.”

The Israeli business daily Calcalist reported Thursday that Israeli police used Pegasus software to spy on an Israeli they considered a potential threat and attempt to gather evidence that could be used as leverage in future investigations.

According to the newspaper, which did not cite any sources, the police action represents a “danger to democracy.”

Police commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, reacting to the story, said that “the police have not found any evidence to support this information.”

“The Israeli police are fighting crime with all the legal means at their disposal,” Shabtai added in a statement.

Israeli security forces have wide leeway to conduct surveillance within Israel with judicial approval.

On Wednesday, Israel’s justice ministry pledged a full investigation into allegations that Pegasus spyware was used on Israeli citizens, including people who led protests of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Pegasus, a surveillance product made by the Israeli firm NSO that can turn a mobile phone into a pocket spying device, has remained a source of global controversy following revelations last year it was used to spy on journalists and dissidents worldwide.

Once installed in a mobile phone, Pegasus allows access to the user’s messaging and data, as well as remote activation of the device for sound and image capture.

NSO would neither confirm nor deny it sold technologies to Israeli police, stressing that it does “not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”

“NSO sells its products under license and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror and crime under court orders and the local laws of their countries,” it said in a statement sent to AFP.

Israel’s defense ministry, which must approve all exports of Israeli-made defense industry products, has also opened an investigation into sales of Pegasus overseas. 


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China Exports Its Traditional Medicine to Africa

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Hing Pal Singh is among dozens of patients with daily appointments at the Oriental Chinese Herbal Clinic in Nairobi.

Singh, 85, has been suffering from spinal problems for five years and is now trying herbal remedies.

“There is a slight difference,” Singh said. ” … It’s only a week now. It will take at least another 12 to 15 sessions. Then we see how it goes.”

Traditional Chinese medicine is becoming more popular in Africa, according to a 2020 study by Development Reimagined, a Beijing international consulting firm.

A February 2020 op-ed written by a Beijing think tank researcher and published in the state-run China Daily said such traditional medicine would “boost the Chinese economy, contribute to global health and prove to be a shot in the arm for China’s soft power.”

Potential harm

Conventional medical doctors such as Sultan Mantendechere, though, say patients are overlooking the potential harm that some herbal remedies can cause, especially if used too frequently or at too high a dosage.

“They do work in quite a number of circumstances,” Mantendechere said. “Having said that, our main worry as practitioners, the medical practitioners, is that the use of herbal medicine is not as regulated as we would want it to

Although the safety and effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine is still debated worldwide, herbal practitioners such as Li Chuan continue to gain popularity among those seeking alternative medication.

Li said some of his patients were benefiting from purported COVID-19 remedies, although there is scant scientific evidence that they can help against the disease.

“Many people buy our herbal tea to counter COVID-19,” Li said. “The results are good.” 

Environmentalists fear the growth of traditional Chinese medicine will encourage poachers to go after endangered wildlife such as rhinos and some types of snakes used in making the potions.

Daniel Wanjuki, an environmentalist and the lead expert at Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority, said that “with people saying that the rhino horn may actually be used as an aphrodisiac, this has led to almost the complete eradication of the rhino species in Kenya and in Africa in general.” 

Economical — if effective 

Kenya spends an estimated $2.7 billion each year on health care, according to national statistics.

Kenyan economist Ken Gichinga said herbal medicine could significantly lower African medical expenses if proven effective.

“Africans spend quite a lot of money traveling to countries such as India and the UAE to get treatment” and would benefit if herbal medicine “can provide more natural, cost-effective health care,” he said.

In 2021, Kenya’s national drug regulator, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board, approved the sale of Chinese herbal health products in the country. Practitioners such as Li hope that more nations will give approval to Chinese herbal medicine in the future.

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Austria Set to Make COVID Shots Compulsory After Bill Clears Parliament

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Austria’s lower house of parliament passed a bill Thursday making COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for adults as of Feb. 1, bringing Austria closer to introducing the first such sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandate in the European Union.

Faced with a stubbornly high number of vaccine holdouts and a surge in infections, the government said in November it was planning the mandate. Since then it has raised the age as of which the mandate will apply, to 18 from 14.

The bill must now pass the upper house and be signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen, steps which will be largely formalities.

Roughly 72% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

After a fourth national lockdown ended last month, the extremely contagious omicron variant has pushed infections to record levels, but the government wants to avoid another lockdown.

“Making COVID-19 vaccination compulsory is an emergency exit … out of the constant restrictions on our personal and fundamental rights like the ones we have had to endure in the past two years,” the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, who is also a doctor, told parliament.

Many lawmakers from her party and the liberal Neos backed the bill, joining the government coalition of conservatives and Greens, meaning it cleared its main hurdle easily with 137 votes for to 33 against.

The bill imposes fines of up to $680 on holdouts once checks begin on March 15. Those who challenge that initial fine unsuccessfully face a maximum fine of $4,080.

Italy has made COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for those 50 and older, while Greece has done the same for over-60s, and various European countries have done so for some professions like medical staff.

“This vaccine mandate strips people of their rights. In one move, millions of Austrians will be downgraded,” said Herbert Kickl, leader of the far-right and anti-vaccine Freedom Party.

He added that the mandate would make holdouts “second-class citizens” and his party would challenge it in the courts.



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