New Year Eve Spurs Hope in China Even as Censors Target Online COVID Content

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New Year’s Eve in China prompted an outpouring of reflection online, some of it critical, about the strict zero-COVID policy the country adhered to for almost three years and the impact of its abrupt reversal this month.

The sudden change to live with the virus has prompted a wave of infections across the country, a further drop in economic activity and international concern, with Britain and France the latest countries to impose curbs on travelers from China.

Three years into the pandemic, China this month acted to align with a world that has largely reopened to live with COVID, after unprecedented protests that became a de facto referendum against the zero-COVID policy championed by President Xi Jinping. 

The protests were the strongest show of public defiance in Xi’s decade-old presidency and coincided with grim growth figures for China’s $17 trillion economy.

On Saturday, people in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, expressed hope the new year would bring better fortune.

Several people in Wuhan bemoaned how widely the virus has spread after lifting of all the pandemic curbs, with one, 45-year-old Chen Mei, saying she just hopes that in 2023 her teenage daughter can resume normal classes over the long term.

“When she can’t go to the school and can only have classes online it’s definitely not an effective way of learning,” she said.

“Kids don’t have such good self discipline. And then for us adults sometimes because of the epidemic controls we have been locked up at home. It’s definitely had an impact.”

Thousands of users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo criticized the removal of a viral video made by local outlet Netease News that collated real-life stories from 2022 that had captivated the Chinese public.

Many of the stories included in the video, which by Saturday could not be seen or shared on domestic social media platforms, highlighted the difficulties ordinary Chinese faced as a result of the strict COVID policy.

Weibo and Netease did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

One Weibo hashtag about the video garnered almost 4 million hits before it disappeared from platforms around noon on Saturday. Social media users created new hashtags to keep the comments pouring in.

“What a perverse world, you can only sing the praises of the fake but you cannot show real life,” one user wrote, attaching a screenshot of a blank page that is displayed when searching for the hashtags.

The disappearance of the videos and hashtags, seen by many as an act of censorship, suggests the Chinese government still sees the narrative surrounding its handling of the disease as a politically sensitive issue.

Overwhelmed hospital, funeral homes

The wave of new infections has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes across the country, with lines of hearses outside crematoria fueling public concern.

China, a country of 1.4 billion people, reported one new COVID death for Friday, the same as the day before — numbers which do not match the experience of other countries after they reopened.

U.K.-based health data firm Airfinity said on Thursday around 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from COVID. Cumulative deaths in China since Dec. 1 have likely reached 100,000, with infections totaling 18.6 million, it said.

At the central hospital of Wuhan, where former COVID whistleblower Li Wenliang worked and later died of the virus in early 2020, patient numbers were down Saturday compared with the rush of the past few weeks, a hazmat-suit wearing worker outside the hospital’s fever clinic told Reuters.

“This wave is almost over,” the worker said.

A pharmacist whose store is next to the hospital said most people in the city had now been infected and recovered.

“It is mainly old people who are getting sick with it now,” he said. “They have underlying conditions and can get breathing issues, lung infections or heart problems.”

New year, new challenges

In the first indication of the toll on China’s giant manufacturing sector from the change in COVID policy, data Saturday showed factory activity shrank for the third straight month in December and at the sharpest pace in nearly three years.

Besides the growing economic toll, rising infections after lifting of the restrictions also have prompted international concern, particularly regarding the possibility of a new, stronger variant emerging out of China.

Britain and France became the latest countries to require travelers from China to provide negative COVID-19 tests. The United States, South Korea, India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan have all imposed similar measures.

The World Health Organization on Friday once again urged China’s health officials to regularly share specific and real-time information on the COVID situation in the country, as it continues to assess the latest surge in infections.

China’s narrow criteria for identifying deaths caused by COVID-19 will underestimate the true toll of the pandemic and could make it harder to communicate the best ways for people to protect themselves, health experts have warned.

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Share Data, WHO Urges China at COVID Surge Talks

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The World Health Organization met Chinese officials for talks on Friday about the surge in COVID-19 cases, urging them to share real-time data so other countries could respond effectively.

The rise in infections in China has triggered concern around the globe and questions about its data reporting, with low official figures for cases and deaths despite some hospitals and morgues being overwhelmed.

The talks came after WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged Beijing to be more forthcoming on the pandemic situation in the world’s most populous country.

The U.N. health agency said the meeting was “to seek further information on the situation, and to offer WHO’s expertise and further support.”

It said officials from China’s National Health Commission and National Disease Control and Prevention Administration briefed the WHO on China’s evolving strategy and actions on epidemiology, variant monitoring, vaccination, clinical care, communication and research and development.

“WHO again asked for regular sharing of specific and real-time data on the epidemiological situation — including more genetic sequencing data, data on disease impact including hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and deaths,” it said.

It asked for data on vaccinations delivered and vaccination status, especially in vulnerable people and those over age 60.

‘Timely publication of data’

“WHO reiterated the importance of vaccination and boosters to protect against severe disease and death for people at higher risk,” the Geneva-based organization said.

“WHO called on China to strengthen viral sequencing, clinical management and impact assessment, and expressed willingness to provide support on these areas, as well as on risk communications on vaccination to counter hesitancy.”

The U.N. agency said Chinese scientists were invited to engage more closely in WHO-led COVID-19 expert networks and asked them to present detailed data at a virus evolution advisory group meeting Tuesday.

“WHO stressed the importance of monitoring and the timely publication of data to help China and the global community to formulate accurate risk assessments and to inform effective responses,” it said.

China said this month it would end mandatory quarantine for people arriving in the country and that it had abandoned strict measures to contain the virus.

The surge in cases in China comes almost exactly three years after the first infections were recorded in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Since then, more than 650 million confirmed COVID cases and over 6.6 million deaths have been reported, though the U.N. health agency acknowledges this will be a vast undercount.

The search for the origin of the virus remains unresolved, with Tedros insisting all hypotheses remain on the table, including the theory that the virus escaped from Wuhan’s virology laboratories.

Tedros has called on China to share data and conduct the studies requested by the WHO to better understand where the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease sprang from. 

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In 2022, AP Photographers Captured Pain of a Changing Planet

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In 2022, photographers with The Associated Press captured signs of a planet in distress as climate change reshaped many lives.

That distress was seen in the scarred landscapes in places where the rains failed to come. It was felt in walloping storms, land-engulfing floods, suffocating heat and wildfires no longer confined to a single season. It could be tasted in altered crops or felt as hunger pangs when crops stopped growing. And taken together, millions of people were compelled to pick up and move as many habitats became uninhabitable.

2022 will be a year remembered for destruction brought on by a warming planet and, according to scientists, was a harbinger for even more extreme weather.

Parched earth

In June, two young men sat smoking in front of a boat that had previously been under water. The waterline in parts of Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada had dropped so much that the boat was now standing up in the mud. Such dramatic manifestations were seen in myriad places. 

In Germany, drought combined with a bark beetle infestation left large swaths of Harz forest trees spindly, while in Kenya mothers struggled to keep their children nourished and animals died because of a lack of water. Along the Solimoes River in the Brazilian Amazon, houseboat dwellers found themselves living on mud instead of water, as parts dried up.

In eastern France, normally lush sunflowers looked as if they had been fried, their leaves withered, and seeds blackened. Similar scars on the Earth’s surface were seen in reef-like structures exposed by receding waters in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the cracked bed of Hungary’s Lake Velence and the shrunken Yangtze River in southwestern China.

Storms and floods

While a lack of rain did damage in many places, in others too much precipitation altered landscapes and swallowed lives. Sometimes the same region, in a short amount of time, went from drought to deluge — what scientists refer to as a “whiplash effect.” This happened in parts of Yellowstone National Park last summer.

The country hardest hit by floods was Pakistan, with a third of its land submerged, millions of people displaced and at least 1,700 killed. But many countries were hit hard by storms.

In Cuba, a tropical cyclone in June led to so much flooding that rescuers moved through the streets of Havana in boats. Just a few months later, Hurricane Ian slammed into the island before continuing to Florida, leaving destruction and death in its wake.

Heavy floods were also seen in parts of Nigeria, India, Indonesia and numerous other places, while in one part of Brazil, a common aftereffect of flooding — landslides — killed more than 200 people.

To be sure, there were human attempts to better prepare and deal with flooding. One example: Chinese authorities continued to develop and expand “sponge cities,” which aim to use porous pavement and green spaces to absorb water and reduce the destruction of flooding.

Heat and fire

In recent years, wildfires have become commonplace across the Western U.S. amid a 23-year drought and rising temperatures. Compared to last year, there were slightly fewer wildfires in 2022 in California — the state routinely hardest hit — but many blazes still chewed through land and homes.

America was hardly alone. There were significant fires in Portugal, Greece, Argentina and many other countries. Images like a living room engulfed in flames, an evacuated woman clinging to a police officer and a man using a branch to protect his home were visceral reminders of the fury that fires unleash.

Along with fires, there were periodic bouts of extreme heat. A sweating British soldier, wearing a traditional bearskin hat outside Buckingham Palace, captured a reality for many Brits, as temperatures reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40.3 degrees Celsius), a record for the country.

How people coped with sauna-like conditions depended on the place. In Madrid, a fountain at an urban beach provided relief to parents and children. In Hungary, three people cooled off in a fill-up pool. And in Los Angeles, a woman stuck her head in front of an open fire hydrant.

Imperiled food

In October, Wilbur Kuzuzuk pulled a spotted seal to the edge of the lagoon in Shishmaref, a town in western Alaska that is on the verge of disappearing because of climate change.

The 600 residents of the Inupiat village have stayed put despite increasing risks to their way of life, including their food supply, as warming seas encroach on land and warming temperatures hurt habitats. But residents like Kuzuzuk know Shishmaref’s days are likely numbered: Twice the town has voted to relocate, though nothing has been put in motion.

All around the world there were clear threats to the food supply. In India, floods damaged corn and other crops, leaving farmers no choice but to try to salvage as much as possible. In Kenya and surrounding countries, drought increased hunger and pushed villagers to dig ever deeper in search of groundwater.

Climate migration

Taken together, all these problems pushed millions of people to migrate. Perhaps nowhere was that clearer than in Somalia, where severe drought led to starvation and prompted thousands of people to flee. Many migrants ended up in makeshift camps, like the one in Dollow, emaciated, young children in tow, desperately seeking food and water.

Much of the migration happened within borders. In India’s Ladakh region, a cold mountainous desert that borders China and Pakistan, shrinking grazable land, along with other effects of climate change, continued to force many to migrate from sparsely populated villages to urban settlements.

In Indonesia, a big driver of migration was encroaching seas. In Central Java, homes not outfitted with raised floors were swallowed, pushing those who didn’t have the means to seek other abodes.

In Kenya, a woman named Winnie Keben recounted how she lost her leg to a crocodile attack. She blamed the attack, in part, on the fact that rising water levels around Lake Baringo have brought animals closer to humans. Many scientists attribute that to climate change.

Keben’s home was also washed away, sending her family to another village.

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US Considers Airline Wastewater Testing as COVID Surges in China

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As COVID-19 infections surge in China, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering sampling wastewater taken from international aircraft to track any emerging new variants, the agency told Reuters.

Such a policy would offer a better solution to tracking the virus and slowing its entry into the United States than new travel restrictions announced this week by the U.S. and other countries, which require mandatory negative COVID tests for travelers from China, three infectious disease experts told Reuters.

Travel restrictions, such as mandatory testing, have so far failed to significantly curb the spread of COVID, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota.

“They seem to be essential from a political standpoint. I think each government feels like they will be accused of not doing enough to protect their citizens if they don’t do these,” he said.

The United States this week also expanded its voluntary genomic sequencing program at airports, adding Seattle and Los Angeles to the program. That brings the total number of airports gathering information from positive tests to seven.

But experts said that may not provide a meaningful sample size.

A better solution would be testing wastewater from airlines, which would offer a clearer picture of how the virus is mutating, given China’s lack of data transparency, said Dr. Eric Topol, a genomics expert and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.

Getting wastewater off planes from China “would be a very good tactic,” Topol said, adding that it’s important that the United States upgrade its surveillance tactics “because of China being so unwilling to share its genomic data.”

China has said criticism of its COVID statistics is groundless and downplayed the risk of new variants, saying it expects mutations to be more infectious but less severe. Still, doubts over official Chinese data have prompted many places, including the United States, Italy and Japan, to impose new testing rules on Chinese visitors as Beijing lifted travel controls.

Airplane wastewater analysis is among several options the CDC is considering to help slow the introduction of new variants into the United States from other countries, CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said in an email.

The agency is grappling with a lack of transparency about COVID in China after the country of 1.4 billion people abruptly lifted strict COVID lockdowns and testing policies, unleashing the virus into an under-vaccinated and previously unexposed population.

“Previous COVID-19 wastewater surveillance has shown to be a valuable tool and airplane wastewater surveillance could potentially be an option,” she wrote.

French researchers reported in July that airplane wastewater tests showed requiring negative COVID tests before international flights does not protect countries from the spread of new variants. They found the omicron variant in wastewater from two commercial airplanes that flew from Ethiopia to France in December 2021 even though passengers had been required to take COVID tests before boarding.

California researchers reported in July that sampling of community wastewater in San Diego detected the presence of the alpha, delta, epsilon and omicron variants up to 14 days before they started showing up on nasal swabs.

Osterholm and others said mandatory testing before travel to the United States is unlikely to keep new variants out of the country.

“Border closures or border testing really makes very little difference. Maybe it slows it down by a few days,” he said, because the virus is likely to spread worldwide, and could infect people in Europe or elsewhere who may then bring it to the United States.

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Scientists Study Link Between Winter Storms and Global Warming

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The world is getting warmer, winters included. The United States, however, has experienced severe winter storms in recent years, and experts are taking a closer look at the link between these extreme cold events and climate change.

While the link between global warming and heat waves is very direct, the behavior of winter storms is governed by complex atmospheric dynamics that are more difficult to study.

Even so, “there are certain aspects of winter storms … where the climate change linkages are fairly strong and robust,” Michael Mann, a climatologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told AFP.

For example, the warming of bodies of water — lakes or oceans — influences the amount of snowfall.

In the United States, a mechanism called “lake-effect snow” occurs around the Great Lakes region on the Canadian border. The city of Buffalo, which sits on the shores of one of the Great Lakes, was hit hard by a lethal snowstorm over Christmas weekend.

The collision between cold air from the north with the warmer water of these lakes causes convection, which leads to snowfall.

“The warmer those lake temperatures, the more moisture (is) in the air, and the greater potential for lake-effect snows,” Michael Mann wrote in a 2018 paper.

“Not surprisingly, we see a long-term increase in lake effect snowfalls as temperatures have warmed during the last century.”

Polar vortex

There is, however, no consensus on other mechanisms, such as the effect of climate change on the polar vortex and jet stream air currents.

The polar vortex is an air mass above the North Pole, located high in the stratosphere. Humans dwell in the troposphere, and the stratosphere is located just above it.

It is surrounded by a band of rotating air, which acts as a barrier between the cold air in the north and the warmer air in the south. As the polar vortex weakens, this band of air begins to undulate and take on a more oval shape, bringing more cold air southward.

According to a 2021 study, this type of disturbance is occurring more often and is reflected during the following two weeks, lower in the atmosphere, where the jet stream is located.

This air current, which blows from west to east, again following the border between cold and warm air, then meanders in such a way that it allows cold air from the north to intrude at lower latitudes, particularly over the eastern United States.

“Everybody agrees that when the polar vortex becomes perturbed or disrupted, there is an increase in the probability of severe winter weather,” Judah Cohen, lead author of the study and climatologist for Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), told AFP.

And this “stretched” polar vortex is exactly what was observed just before the storm that hit the United States this December, he pointed out.

The same phenomenon was seen in February 2021, when a bitter cold snap hit Texas, causing massive power outages.

‘Active debate’

But the heart of the debate lies elsewhere: What is causing these increased disturbances in the polar vortex?

According to Cohen, they are linked to changes in the Arctic, accelerated by climate change. On the one hand, the rapid melting of sea ice, and on the other, an increase in snow cover in Siberia.

“This is a topic that I have been studying for over 15 years, and I am more confident today in the link than I have ever been in the past,” he told AFP.

This last point, however, remains “an active debate within the scientific community,” Mann said.

“Climate models are not yet capturing all of the underlying physics that may be relevant to how climate change is impacting the behavior of the jet stream.”

Future studies will still be needed in the coming years to unravel the mystery of these complex chain reactions. 

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US Lawsuit Claims Pharma Distributor Worsened Opioid Epidemic

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The U.S. Justice Department is suing one of the largest U.S. drug distributors for failing to report suspicious orders of prescription opioids, saying the company’s “years of repeated violations” contributed to the deadly U.S. opioid epidemic. 

In a civil lawsuit filed Thursday, the department alleges that AmerisourceBergen and two subsidiaries violated the Controlled Substances Act by failing to report “at least hundreds of thousands” of suspicious orders for prescription painkillers to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The department is seeking potentially billions of dollars in penalties.

“For years, AmerisourceBergen prioritized profits over its legal obligations and over Americans’ well-being,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said during a press call.

Under the Controlled Substances Act, distributors of controlled drugs are required to monitor and report suspicious orders to the drug agency.

The lawsuit alleges that AmerisourceBergen failed to report “numerous orders from pharmacies that AmerisourceBergen knew were likely facilitating diversion of prescription opioids.”

The complaint cites five such pharmacies.

A Florida pharmacy and a West Virginia pharmacy received opioids from AmerisourceBergen that the company allegedly knew “were likely being sold in parking lots for cash,” according to the complaint.

In Colorado, AmerisourceBergen distributed prescription painkillers to a pharmacy it allegedly knew was its largest purchaser of oxycodone 30mg tablets in the state.

AmerisourceBergen identified 11 patients at the pharmacy as potential “drug addicts.” Two of those patients later died of overdoses, according to the lawsuit.

In New Jersey, an online pharmacy that received opioids from AmerisourceBergen has pleaded guilty to illegally selling controlled substances, while the chief pharmacist at another pharmacy has been indicted for drug diversion.

“These incidents were part of the systematic failure by AmerisourceBergen, including dramatically understaffing and underfunding its compliance programs,” Philip Sellinger, U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, said during the press call. “In one year, AmerisourceBergen spent more on taxicabs and office supplies than on the Controlled Substances Act compliance budget.”

In a statement, AmerisourceBergen said the lawsuit represented an attempt to “shift the onus of interpreting and enforcing the law from the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to an industry they are tasked with regulating and policing.”

The five pharmacies were “cherrypicked” by the DOJ out of thousands the company serves, the statement said.

AmerisourceBergen is one of three major U.S. pharmaceutical distributors. The other two are McKesson and Cardinal Health.

In February the companies, along with pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, agreed to pay $26 billion to settle thousands of civil lawsuits brought by state and local governments. Most of the money will go toward treatment and prevention.

The U.S. drug epidemic has killed more than 1 million people since 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Opioids are the main driver of U.S. drug overdose deaths. Of an estimated 108,000 drug overdose deaths reported in the country last year, 81,000 involved opioids such as fentanyl, according to the CDC.  


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COVID Controls Offer Insight Into China’s Surveillance Network

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For many outside China, this was the year that the term “surveillance state” became something they understood.

Western media reported in April on what were thought to be government-operated drones whirring through a locked-down Shanghai, China’s most populous city, where authorities reported a record 22,000 new cases of COVID-19 on a single day. In an unverified viral video, one drone trumpeted, “Control your soul’s desire for freedom” as it hovered over a housing compound at night.

Citizens were expected to download a “health code” app for smartphones that dictated their activities. Designed to curtail the spread of the virus, a green QR code meant freedom to move around. A red code barred movement.

In the city of Zhengzhou, authorities in June allegedly issued red codes, usually sent to people deemed by authorities to be at high risk of infection or already infected, to people heading to town to protest a local bank that was freezing their assets.

At the end of November, when unprecedented protests against the “zero-COVID” policy erupted nationwide, Western media reported that authorities began checking the smartphones of people near the demonstrations, looking for VPN software that allowed them access to sites and social platforms like Twitter beyond China’s “Great Firewall.”

By mid-December, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation to restrict the use of the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok. Wildly effective for spreading dancing baby videos and political messaging both real and fake, the lawmakers had security concerns about the data Beijing might be collecting from millions of users as each video played.

According to University of Virginia professor Aynne Kokas, who wrote the book “Trafficking Data: How China is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty,” Beijing’s strict zero-COVID response to the pandemic played a big role in showing the rest of the world what surveillance in China is like, including targeting dissidents.

“China’s handling of its zero-COVID policy and the enhancement of surveillance in China in order to achieve that zero-COVID policy has amplified global popular understanding of the scope and scale of China’s surveillance tech,” she told VOA Mandarin in an interview.

Many ways to watch

Street cameras are the primary mode of surveillance, with more than half of the world’s nearly 1 billion surveillance cameras located in China.

In addition to picking people out of crowds, surveillance cameras “aim to transform ‘unstructured information’ into ‘structured information,’ turning a chaotic visual field into something akin to a text file that can be easily, automatically analyzed, and searched,” according to an October report from Human Rights Watch.

Surveillance also includes the collection of biometric data, like voice samples, DNA, iris scans and gait “to form a multimodal portrait,” according to the HRW report. Forced biometric data collection has been tied to repression in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Chinese companies have supplied AI surveillance technology to 63 countries, 36 of which have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, according to a 2019 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the government has launched a crackdown against Uyghurs, the big data system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, or IJOP, closely tracks behaviors Beijing deems suspicious — such as avoiding neighbors or stopping cell phone use — and flags the individuals for interrogation.

Maintaining control, order

But the real effect of this sweeping surveillance system is social control, according to Maya Wang, associate director in the Asia division at HRW.

“IJOP is promoted as an anti-terrorism system, but if you study it carefully, anti-terrorism is not its real purpose,” said Wang. “The system uses variables such as whether someone goes to the gas station or how often their phone is turned off to measure suspicious behavior. Systems like IJOP are ineffective as anti-terrorism mechanisms.”

Beyond Xinjiang, in other parts of China, the government often promotes surveillance technology as a way to maintain social order, according to Bulelani Jili, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University studying Chinese technology.

“The CCP is always framing surveillance technologies as part of its needs and ambitions for political stability,” he told VOA Mandarin in an interview. “Both the promotion and application of surveillance technology has really been about ensuring political stability.”

But when China began experiencing unprecedented protests around the country late last month from people fed up with Beijing’s strict pandemic protocols, authorities employed that technology to locate protestors who believed they’d taken steps to hide themselves from the ubiquitous monitoring.

HRW China researcher Yaqiu Wang said the backlash against the zero-COVID policy and against the security forces that kept people from protesting outside banks in Henan and Anhui show that people are increasingly questioning Beijing’s positive stance on the use of surveillance technology.

TikTok restrictions

The final month of 2022 has seen a flurry of steps taken by Taiwan and the United States to restrict the use of TikTok due to security concerns posed by the Chinese-owned social media app.

In early December, Taiwan announced that government workers would be restricted from using TikTok on government devices. Then on December 18, Taiwan’s government announced it had opened a probe into TikTok on suspicion of illegally operating a subsidiary on the island.

In the U.S., 19 of its 50 states have at least partially blocked access to TikTok on government devices, with most of those restrictions coming in the past few weeks. The U.S. Senate also passed a bill December 14 that would ban federal employees from using TikTok on government devices.

These moves are signs of growing concern over the surveillance threats that TikTok poses outside China, analysts said, and more broadly, how the Chinese government uses technology to monitor people within China’s borders.

“One could see a situation where a staffer in the House or Senate would be using TikTok for entertainment purposes, but then that app could also monitor their other communications,” UVA’s Kokas said in an interview with VOA Mandarin. “When we’re talking about government phones, or government devices, those risks become even more elevated.”

Kokas said TikTok has the capacity to pose a number of national security threats, including spreading misinformation and disinformation. Gathering consumer data from TikTok also gives China a competitive advantage to build better products for the global marketplace.

At a regular press conference in November, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning rebutted the allegations about TikTok, saying that accusations of “spreading false information and using it as an excuse to suppress relevant Chinese companies has become a common practice in the United States.”

Restricting the use of TikTok on government devices is logical to Kokas, but she cautioned that it is not a panacea.

“This isn’t going to solve Chinese consumer data gathering in the U.S. by any means,” she said. But “a TikTok ban for general users doesn’t make a lot of sense. We need a more expansive data security regime in the U.S.”

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US Pays to Clean Up Agent Orange on Vietnam War Anniversary

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The United States earlier this month announced a contract worth up to $29 million to clean up dioxin contamination at the Bien Hoa Air Base in southern Vietnam, near Ho Chi Minh City, a consequence of U.S. use of the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The move is the most recent attempt to demonstrate cooperation between the two countries despite a still complicated relationship. 

The nations now work together on trade issues, climate change, and legacies of the war, such as the dioxin spraying or the so-called Christmas bombings, 50 years ago this month, when America dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong. 

“This announcement represents the United States’ commitment to our partnership with Vietnam,” Aler Grubbs, the Hanoi-based Vietnam mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said. “This contract will complete critical preparatory work, paving the way for the treatment phase of the project.” 

Some differences still remain between the United States and Vietnam, ranging from human rights to Bien Hoa itself, where the two have not been able to come to an agreement on a cemetery for former soldiers of South Vietnam, with which the U.S. was allied against communist North Vietnam in the war that ended in 1975 with a North Vietnamese victory.

USAID said it finished a similar project in 2018 to clean up Agent Orange and other chemicals that it sprayed around Da Nang in central Vietnam to defoliate the jungle used by communist forces to hide during the war. It said compared to Da Nang, Bien Hoa would require dealing with four times as much soil that has been contaminated with the chemicals, still linked to birth defects. 

Similarly, samples of tilapia fish collected in Bien Hoa in 2010 continued to show levels of Agent Orange considered to be unhealthy, according to a report from the Vietnamese Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the United Nations Development Program.

“We look forward to applying our specialized expertise to meet the project’s high safety and health requirements and technical specifications, and contribute to the overall success of the project,” said Vu Van Liem, general director of VINA E&C Investment and Construction JSC, the local corporation that has received the contract to excavate the soil and prepare it for treatment over a period of four years.

Both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments are participating in the entire cleanup across the country, which is estimated will require more than 10 years at a cost of approximately $450 million. Washington said it expects to spend $300 million in the end and has allocated more than $163 million so far.

The two nations have come a long way since the war, though they continue to have issues of disagreement. America has applied pressure on the autocratic government of Vietnam on a routine basis to recognize the freedom of speech and to release political prisoners while Hanoi denies it has any. 

In one of the more recent developments, for example, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said December 2 that Vietnam would be put on a “Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom,” along with Algeria, the Central African Republic, and Comoros.

“Countries that effectively safeguard [religion] and other human rights are more peaceful, stable, prosperous and more reliable partners of the United States than those that do not,” he said.

“We will continue to carefully monitor the status of freedom of religion or belief in every country around the world and advocate for those facing religious persecution or discrimination.”

Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not accept being put on the watch list.

“Recently Vietnam has been finalizing the legal system and the policies on religion and belief,” the ministry said in response on December 15.

“These efforts and achievements in ensuring freedom of religion and beliefs have been widely recognized by the international community.”

However, while Washington was pressuring Vietnam on one problem, it was also trying to solve another. The Agent Orange remediation in Bien Hoa was about more than cleaning up a mess decades after war. It was also about looking toward the decades to come, showing closer cooperation, such as potentially on addressing environmental problems in the future.

“This marks the largest contract yet by USAID to a local Vietnamese organization,” Grubbs said, “as we make a concerted effort to build Vietnamese expertise in this nascent area of environmental health and safety.”

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Fact Box: COVID Rules For Travelers From China Around the World

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Countries are imposing or considering imposing curbs on travelers from China amid a COVID-19 surge there after authorities relaxed “zero-COVID” rules.

They cite a lack of information from China on variants and are concerned about a wave of infections. China has rejected criticism of its COVID data and said it expects future mutations to be potentially more transmissible but less severe.

Below is a list of new regulations for travelers from China.

Countries Imposing Curbs

United States

The U.S. will impose mandatory COVID-19 tests on travelers from China beginning Jan. 5. All air passengers 2 and older will require a negative result from a test no more than two days before departure from China, Hong Kong or Macau. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said Americans should also reconsider travel to China, Hong Kong and Macau.


The country has mandated a COVID-19 negative test report for travelers arriving from China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand, the health minister said. Passengers from those countries will be quarantined if they show symptoms or test positive.


Japan will require a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival for travelers from mainland China. Those who test positive will be required to quarantine for seven days. New border measures for China will go into effect at midnight Friday. The government will also limit requests from airlines to increase flights to China.


Italy has ordered COVID-19 antigen swabs and virus sequencing for all travelers coming from China. Milan’s main airport, Malpensa, had already started testing passengers arriving from Beijing and Shanghai. “The measure is essential to ensure surveillance and detection of possible variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population,” Health Minister Orazio Schillaci said.


Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre said all passengers on direct flights from China, as well as by boat at two offshore islands, will have to take PCR tests upon arrival, starting Sunday.

Countries Monitoring Situation


Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia was continuing to monitor the situation in respect of China “as we continue to monitor the impact of COVID here in Australia as well as around the world.”


The Southeast Asian country is being “very cautious” and could impose measures such as testing requirements on visitors from China, but not an outright ban, Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista said.

Not Considering Curbs


Britain has no plans to bring back COVID-19 testing for those coming into the country, a government spokesperson said Thursday, when asked about a Daily Telegraph report saying it would consider curbs for arrivals from China.

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NASA Mulls SpaceX Backup Plan for Crew of Russia’s Leaky Soyuz Ship

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NASA is exploring whether SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft can potentially offer an alternative ride home for some crew members of the International Space Station after a Russian capsule sprang a coolant leak while docked to the orbital lab.

NASA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, are investigating the cause of a punctured coolant line on an external radiator of Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, which is supposed to return its crew of two cosmonauts and one U.S. astronaut to Earth early next year.

But the December 14 leak, which emptied the Soyuz of a vital fluid used to regulate crew cabin temperatures, has derailed Russia’s space station routines, with engineers in Moscow examining whether to launch another Soyuz to retrieve the three-man team that flew to ISS aboard the crippled MS-22 craft.

If Russia cannot launch another Soyuz ship, or decides for some reason that doing so would be too risky, NASA is weighing another option.

“We have asked SpaceX a few questions on their capability to return additional crew members on Dragon if necessary, but that is not our prime focus at this time,” NASA spokeswoman Sandra Jones said in a statement to Reuters.

SpaceX did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

It was unclear what NASA specifically asked of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capabilities, such as whether the company can find a way to increase the crew capacity of the Dragon currently docked to the station, or launch an empty capsule for the crew’s rescue.

But the company’s potential involvement in a mission led by Russia underscores the degree of precaution NASA is taking to ensure its astronauts can safely return to Earth, should one of the other contingency plans arranged by Russia fall through.

The leaky Soyuz capsule ferried U.S. astronaut Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dimitri Petelin to the space station in September for a six-month mission. They were scheduled to return to Earth in March 2023.

The station’s four other crew members — two more from NASA, a third Russian cosmonaut and a Japanese astronaut — arrived in October via a NASA-contracted SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which also remains parked at the ISS.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a gumdrop-shaped pod with four astronaut seats, has become the centerpiece to NASA’s human spaceflight efforts in low-Earth orbit. Besides Russia’s Soyuz program, it is the only entity capable of ferrying humans to the space station and back.

Three possible culprits

Finding what caused the leak could factor into decisions about the best way to return the crew members. A meteroid-caused puncture, a strike from a piece of space debris or a hardware failure on the Soyuz capsule itself are three possible causes of the leak that NASA and Roscosmos are investigating.

A hardware malfunction could raise additional questions for Roscosmos about the integrity of other Soyuz vehicles, such as the one it might send for the crew’s rescue, said Mike Suffredini, who led NASA’s ISS program for a decade until 2015.

“I can assure you that’s something they’re looking at, to see what’s back there and whether there’s a concern for it,” he said. “The thing about the Russians is they’re really good at not talking about what they’re doing, but they’re very thorough.”

Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov had previously said engineers would decide by Tuesday how to return the crew to Earth, but the agency said that day it would make the decision in January.

NASA has previously said the capsule’s temperatures remain “within acceptable limits,” with its crew compartment currently being vented with air flow allowed through an open hatch to the ISS.

Sergei Krikalev, Russia’s chief of crewed space programs, told reporters last week that the temperature would rise rapidly if the hatch to the station were closed.

NASA and Roscosmos are primarily focusing on determining the leak’s cause, Jones said, as well as the health of MS-22 which is also meant to serve as the three-man crew’s lifeboat in case an emergency on the station requires evacuation.

A recent meteor shower initially seemed to raise the odds of a micrometeoroid strike as the culprit, but the leak was facing the wrong way for that to be the case, NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano told reporters last week, though a space rock could have come from another direction.

And if a piece of space debris is to blame, it could fuel concerns of an increasingly messy orbital environment and raise questions about whether such vital equipment as the spacecraft’s coolant line should have been protected by debris shielding, as other parts of the MS-22 spacecraft are.

“We are not shielded against everything throughout the space station,” Suffredini said. “We can’t shield against everything.” 


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Italy to Screen All China Arrivals for COVID

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Italy is making coronavirus tests for visitors from China mandatory following an explosion in cases in China, the health minister said Wednesday.

“I have ordered mandatory COVID-19 antigenic swabs, and related virus sequencing, for all passengers coming from China and transiting through Italy,” minister Orazio Schillaci said.

The measure was “essential to ensure the surveillance and identification of any variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population”, he said.

Coronavirus infections have surged in China as it unwinds hardline controls that had torpedoed the economy and sparked nationwide protests.

The Italian northern region of Lombardy introduced screening from Tuesday, a day before the measure was brought in nationwide.

Lombardy, the first region to impose a lockdown when coronavirus hit Europe in early 2020, is testing arrivals from China at Milan’s Malpensa airport at least until January 30, the foreign ministry said.

Swabs collected at Malpensa in recent days are already being analyzed by the national health ministry, to help identify any new variants.


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Americans Weigh Pros and Cons as Musk Alters Twitter

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Marie Rodriguez of Bountiful, Utah, began using social media when she enlisted in the U.S. Navy. At first, she saw it as a positive thing.

“It helped me to really keep in touch with people at home while I was deployed and living overseas,” she told VOA.

However, in the two months since Tesla CEO Elon Musk acquired Twitter, Rodriguez and many of its hundreds of millions of users have been forced to reevaluate their feelings about the platform and about social media in general.

“I don’t think he’s been positive at all,” Rodriguez said. “He’s allowing all of these previously banned accounts back on the platform, and I’m seeing more offensive Tweets — more anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ hate speech.”

“Some social media platforms over-patrol,” she added, “but Twitter isn’t patrolling enough. The result is more trolling, more bots and more hate. I’ve definitely been using the platform less because of it.”

Musk is a polarizing figure among Americans. In his own self-created poll on the platform, 57.5% of respondents said he should resign as Twitter chief, compared to 42.5% who said he should stay. (Musk has said he will abide by the poll’s results and resign his post as soon as a replacement is hired.)

Independent surveys, however, have shown Musk’s actions to be less unpopular than his Twitter poll indicated. A Quinnipiac University survey from earlier this month, for example, found that Americans’ opinions are more evenly split, with 37% saying they approved of the way he’s operating Twitter, 37% disapproving and 25% offering no opinion.

“I’m generally critical of billionaires,” said Avi Gupta, a neurobiologist in the nation’s capital, “but I’m so far supportive of what Musk has done for Twitter. As far as free speech is concerned, definitely, but also the platform’s just a lot more exciting to follow.”

A new Twitter

Gupta said he became disenchanted with rival social media platform Instagram when he posted a photo of Ukrainian soldiers who appeared to be wearing patches containing Nazi symbols. The post was promptly removed by administrators.

“To me, in that example, what Instagram is saying is that reporting on Nazism is no different than glorifying it,” Gupta explained. “It’s a form of censorship, but it was happening in pre-Musk Twitter, too. They were too quick to suspend accounts when they challenged mainstream thinking — whether it be about the Ukraine war, U.S. military interventions or COVID.”

“Since Musk,” he added, “I don’t have to censor myself as much, and you’re seeing previously banned accounts from politicians and scientists welcomed back. You have to balance that with stopping dangerous hate speech, of course — which I think they’re doing OK with — but overall, I think it’s been a good thing.”

According to University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication Professor Damian Radcliffe, Musk arrived at Twitter with an entrepreneurial reputation and a desire to grow the platform that appealed to many users.

Others, however, expressed concerns about what Musk’s commitment to freedom of speech and a scaling back of platform moderation might mean, as well as the implications of users now being able to purchase a verified “blue check” account.

“Those worries seem to have been justified,” Radcliffe told VOA. “I personally have seen a lot of people I follow leave the platform. They’re pointing to a less civil discourse, as well as a greater prevalence of misinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories in their feed as the main reasons they’re departing.”

In the two months since he took over, Musk has reinstated several previously banned Twitter accounts — most notably that of former U.S. President Donald Trump, though Trump eschewed the platform after his reinstatement. Musk has also banned (and sometimes reinstated) the accounts of several journalists.

“It’s been wild to watch as he came in talking about free speech,” said Ron Gubitz, executive director of a New Orleans nonprofit organization. “But then, all of a sudden, he’s suspending journalists’ accounts, banning an account tracking his jet, and — albeit temporarily — saying we couldn’t post links to other social media.”

Gubitz is a self-described “Twitter head,” having been on the platform for more than 14 years. He said he’s been disappointed in how it has operated since Musk’s purchase.

“Initially it was annoying because the discourse was all about Musk,” he said to VOA. “What is Musk saying? What is he going to do? It felt middle-school gossipy.”

“But the user interface has also actually gotten worse since he took over,” Gubitz added. “The platform isn’t updating well for me, it’s not adding enough new tweets, there are ads at the top of the screen every time I refresh and the whole thing just feels less secure. I’m cool with change, but this is going in the wrong direction.”

America’s relationship with social media

“I use Twitter less and less every day and I’ve actually removed the app from my phone,” said Kimm Rogers, a musician from San Diego, California. “I used to see tweets from the people I follow, but now my feed shows me [acquitted Wisconsin shooter] Kyle Rittenhouse, Elon Musk and [Texas Republican Senator] Ted Cruz. There’s a lot more hate especially towards black people, LGBTQ and Jewish people. There’s also more porn showing up in my feed as well as lots of disinformation over vaccines and the war in Ukraine.”

“It’s just hard on my psyche to see the lack of common decency and the cruelty often inflicted on others on this site,” Rogers added, “It diminishes my view of humanity.”

Polls show opinions on the direction of Twitter are often connected to political leanings. Quinnipiac’s December poll showed that 63% of Republican respondents said they viewed Musk favorably, while only 9% of Democrats said the same.

Many left-leaning users have threatened to leave the platform entirely. According to information from the Twitter analytics firm Bot Sentinel, approximately 877,000 accounts were deactivated in the week after Musk purchased Twitter. Nearly 500,000 were temporarily suspended. In total, that’s more than double the usual number and has included prominent celebrities who cited a rise in hate speech and the banning of journalists as their reason for leaving.

More recently, some users have organized “Twitter Walk-out Days” in which they log off for a period of time in protest. Others have threatened to move to other social media platforms that better align with their values.

If those users do move on, Nicole Dahmen, professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, says it won’t be the first time users shifted away from a form of technology.

“Leaving Twitter is the latest iteration of unfriending Facebook a decade ago or killing your television in the 1980s,” Dahmen told VOA. “There are valid reasons to consume and participate with these mediums and there are even more valid reasons to leave them. They’ve ultimately trivialized American discourse, and our political, social and emotional health has suffered.”

But it’s not just Twitter that appears to be experiencing a plateauing of popularity around the world. From 2018 to 2022, average daily social media use increased by only five minutes — from 142 minutes to 147 minutes — according to During the previous four years, average social media use increased by a whopping 38 minutes per day.

Sense of community

“Social media can be a great thing in how it creates a sense of community and allows us to find commonalities,” said Ivory Burnett of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Burnett said she prefers Twitter over other platforms because it encourages what she sees as more authentic, “less cosmetic” interactions.

“When used for good, it’s the megaphone for an entire generation,” she told VOA. “But it also results in bullying, misunderstanding and crowd-thinking that makes it easier to spread hate and harm.”

But, like so many who, despite their frustrations with the platform, say they don’t want to start over elsewhere after dedicating so many years to building a following on Twitter, Burnett said she has no intention of leaving.

“Leave? I’ve never considered leaving,” she said and laughed. “I’ll be here until my login stops working.”

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Easing of Quarantine Sparks Surge of Interest in China Travel

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Chinese and international airlines are reviewing schedules and coping with a flood of inquiries about travel to China following this week’s announcement that strict quarantine requirements for arriving travelers will be dropped early next month.

According to the Chinese state-run media the Beijing News and Cailian Press, data from the Chinese travel website “Ctrip” shows that searches for popular cross-border destinations, including Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and the United States, increased tenfold within a half-hour after Monday’s announcement.

Searches related to outbound and group tours during the Spring Festival have increased sixfold.

According to Bloomberg, Hong Kong residents also rushed to the internet to search for flights to key mainland cities, with Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou being the most searched cities.

The decision to drop quarantine rules for inbound travelers comes after three years of strict international travel control as part of the country’s signature zero-COVID campaign.

The Chinese National Health Commission announced that the new measures will start on January 8.

“Those who come to China should undergo a nucleic acid test 48 hours before their departure, and those with a negative result can come to China without applying for a health code from our embassy or consulate abroad,” according to a document from the NHC. Arrivals into China with negative nucleic acid tests will be able to “enter society.”

The new order also requires all localities to “orderly resume Chinese citizens’ outbound tourism.”

In response, U.S. carrier United Airlines; European airlines company Lufthansa Group, which includes SWISS and Austrian Airlines; and Philippine Airlines announced they are looking into resuming additional flight operations to mainland China.

A staffer at Lexiang travel agency in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens in New York City, told VOA Mandarin that she has seen about a 30% increase of the number of travel inquiries to China. She provided only her family name, Wang, because she doesn’t want to attract attention from the Chinese authorities.

She said dozens of people have contacted her since the announcement to inquire about getting a Chinese visa or booking a flight to China.

A staffer at another Flushing travel agency who doesn’t want to reveal his identity because he doesn’t want to draw attention, told VOA Mandarin that more than a dozen people have reached out to the agency for information about getting a Chinese visa or COVID-related information for traveling in China since Monday’s announcement. He said there were barely any such inquiries in the past three years.

He said that most of the people who reached out to the firm are considering traveling to China to visit sick family members, rather than to celebrate the upcoming Lunar New Year.

He said that since the airlines haven’t started to add more flights, fares are still high and China hasn’t resumed issuing multi-entry visas, so people who want to travel still can’t just pack and go.

Reactions vary

China’s decision has been met with mixed reactions from Chinese netizens on social media.

Some celebrated the end of the quarantine rules, which clears the way for them to travel overseas.

“A long, long nightmare, I finally woke up,” one commented.

“A ridiculous era has finally come to an end,” said another commenter.

However, some commenters doubt whether easing regulations will repair the damage done in the past three years.

“There is no such thing as ‘everything goes back to the way it was.’ The lives of countless people have been completely changed, and they can only bite the bullet and live in this parallel timeline. It’s like they broke a mirror and then glued it back together, it’s not the same mirror as before,” said one comment on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Three years of Chinese government propaganda insisting on zero-COVID and highlighting the dangers of the virus have made many netizens feel uncomfortable with the sudden “opening up.” They worry that the move will worsen the current outbreak.

“A smorgasbord of strains is coming,” wrote one commenter.

Some consider virus a biological weapon

Many nationalists have bought into a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus is a biological weapon developed by the United States to attack China; they fear that opening China will make it easier for the U.S. to attack again.

“It’s time to come to China to poison,” said one comment.

Others seem to look forward to a move that could spread the virus from China to other countries.

“Spread the virus all over the world!! No one gets left behind!” said one comment. “Europe, America, Japan, South Korea and India! Every single one! Don’t even think about running away!”

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US House Bans TikTok on Official Devices

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The popular Chinese video app TikTok has been banned from all U.S. House of Representatives-managed devices, according to the House’s administration arm, mimicking a law soon to go into effect banning the app from all U.S. government devices.

The app is considered “high risk due to a number of security issues,” the House’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) said in a message sent on Tuesday to all lawmakers and staff and must be deleted from all devices managed by the House.

The new rule follows a series of moves by U.S. state governments to ban TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd, from government devices. As of last week, 19 states have at least partially blocked the app from state-managed devices over concerns that the Chinese government could use the app to track Americans and censor content.

The $1.66 trillion omnibus spending bill, passed last week to fund the U.S. government through September 30, 2023, includes a provision to ban the app on federally managed devices and will take effect once President Joe Biden signs the legislation into law.

“With the passage of the Omnibus that banned TikTok on executive branch devices, the CAO worked with the Committee on House Administration to implement a similar policy for the House,” a spokesperson for the Chief Administrative Officer told Reuters on Tuesday.

The message to staff said anyone with TikTok on their device would be contacted about removing it, and future downloads of the app were prohibited.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the new rule.

U.S. lawmakers have put forward a proposal to implement a nationwide ban on the app.

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India Inspects Drug Factories as Gambia Controversy Lingers

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India’s pharmaceuticals regulator has begun inspecting some drug factories across the country, the health ministry said on Tuesday, as it tries to ensure high standards after an Indian company’s cough and cold syrups were linked to deaths in Gambia.

India is known as the “pharmacy of the world” and its pharmaceuticals exports have more than doubled over the past decade to $24.5 billion in the past fiscal year.

The deaths of at least 70 children in Gambia has dented the industry’s image, though India says the drugs made by New Delhi-based Maiden Pharmaceuticals Ltd were not at fault.

“Joint inspections are being conducted all over the country as per standard operating procedures,” the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said in a statement. “This will ensure high standards of quality compliance with respect to drugs manufactured in the country.”

The ministry said it was inspecting “drug manufacturing units” that were at risk of making non-standard, adulterated, or spurious drugs but did not name any company.

Some health experts say India’s drug regulations are lax, especially at the level of states where thousands of factories operate.

The government in October suspended all of Maiden’s production, based in the state of Haryana, for violation of manufacturing standards.

But India’s main drugs officer told the World Health Organization this month that tests of samples from the same batches of syrups that Maiden sent to Gambia were compliant with government specifications. Maiden too said its drugs were fine.

The WHO said labs contracted by it in Ghana and Switzerland found excess levels of ethyleneglycol and diethyleneglycol contaminants in the Maiden syrups.

A Gambian parliamentary committee said last week that Maiden was responsible for the deaths of at least 70 children from acute kidney injury and called on the government to pursue legal action.

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AI-Powered Technology Sees Big Improvements in UK Stroke Treatment: Analysis

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Artificial intelligence technology has tripled the number of U.K. stroke patients recovering to a point where they can perform daily activities, according to new research released Tuesday.

Early-stage analysis of over 111,000 suspected stroke patients whose care included use of the technology found it reduced the time between being seen by a doctor and treatment beginning by more than 60 minutes, leading to improved results.

The proportion who were able to resume day-to-day activities increased from 16 to 48 percent, the analysis of the Brainomix e-Stroke imaging platform found.

The technology, developed by the UK’s med-tech solution firm Brainomix, is being used across 11 stroke treatment networks in the UK’s state-funded National Health Service (NHS) to diagnose strokes and determine the best treatment.

The platform helps doctors in the interpretation of brain scans and allows them to share the images with specialists worldwide who can access them remotely.

“AI has the potential to transform our NHS — delivering faster, more accurate diagnoses and making sure patients can get the treatment they need, when they need it,” the U.K.’s health secretary Steve Barclay said in a statement.

“Brainomix is an incredible example of how this can be achieved, using the power of AI to shave lifesaving minutes off one of the most time-sensitive diagnoses in medicine.”

Patient Carol Wilson, a teaching assistant, said the prompt diagnosis and treatment she received as a result of the technology meant she was sitting up and texting her family later the same day.

The grandmother who has since returned to work said she was “back home and able to walk around two days after having a stroke.”

Over 85,000 people suffer a stroke in the U.K. each year.

NHS England director of Transformation Dr. Timothy Ferris said the treatment was “harnessing the potential that AI has to support expert staff in delivering life-changing care.”

“Every minute saved during the initial hospital assessment of people with stroke-like symptoms can dramatically improve a patient’s chance of leaving hospital in good health,” he said.

Brainomix launched as an Oxford University spin-out in 2010. Its e-stroke platform is now used in more than 330 hospitals in more than 30 countries.

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Long COVID: Could Mono Virus or Fat Cells Be Playing Roles?

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A British historian, an Italian archaeologist and an American preschool teacher have never met in person, but they share a prominent pandemic bond.

Plagued by eerily similar symptoms, the three women are credited with describing, naming and helping bring long COVID into the public’s consciousness in early 2020.

Rachel Pope, of Liverpool, took to Twitter in late March 2020 to describe her bedeviling symptoms, then unnamed, after a coronavirus infection. Elisa Perego in Italy first used the term “long COVID,” in a May tweet that year. Amy Watson in Portland, Oregon, got inspiration in naming her Facebook support group from the trucker cap she’d been wearing, and “long hauler” soon became part of the pandemic lexicon.

Nearly three years into the pandemic, scientists are still trying to figure out why some people get long COVID and why a small portion — including the three women — have lasting symptoms.

Millions of people worldwide have had long COVID, reporting various symptoms including fatigue, lung problems, and brain fog and other neurological symptoms. Evidence suggests most recover substantially within a year, but recent data show that it has contributed to more than 3,500 U.S. deaths.

Here’s some of the latest evidence:

Women more at risk?

Many studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that women are more likely than men to develop long COVID.

There could be biological reasons.

Women’s immune systems generally mount stronger reactions to viruses, bacteria, parasites and other germs, noted Sabra Klein, a Johns Hopkins professor who studies immunity.

Women are also much more likely than men to have autoimmune diseases, where the body mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells. Some scientists believe long COVID could result from an autoimmune response triggered by the virus.

Women’s bodies also tend to have more fat tissue and emerging research suggests the coronavirus may hide in fat after infection. Scientists also are studying whether women’s fluctuating hormone levels may increase the risks.

Another possible factor: Women are more likely than men to seek health care and often more attuned to changes in their bodies, Klein noted.

“I don’t think we should ignore that,” she said. Biology and behavior are probably both at play, Klein said.

It may thus be no coincidence that it was three women who helped shine the first light on long COVID.

Pope, 46, started chronicling what she was experiencing in March 2020: flu-like symptoms, then her lungs, heart and joints were affected. After a month she started having some “OK” days, but symptoms persisted.

She and some similarly ill colleagues connected with Perego on Twitter. “We started sort of coming together because it was literally the only place where we could do that,” Pope said. “In 2020, we would joke that we’d get together for Christmas and have a party,” Pope said. “Then obviously it went on, and I think we stopped joking.”

Watson started her virtual long haulers group that April. The others soon learned of that nickname and embraced it.

Mono virus

Several studies suggest the ubiquitous Epstein-Barr virus could play a role in some cases of long COVID.

Inflammation caused by coronavirus infection can activate herpes viruses, which remain in the body after causing an acute infection, said Dr. Timothy Henrich, a virus expert at the University of California, San Francisco.

Epstein-Barr virus is among the most common of these herpes viruses: An estimated 90% of the U.S. population has been infected with it. The virus can cause mononucleosis or symptoms that may be dismissed as a cold.

Henrich is among researchers who have found immune markers signaling Epstein-Barr reactivation in the blood of long COVID patients, particularly those with fatigue.

Not all long COVID patients have these markers. But it’s possible that Epstein-Barr is causing symptoms in those who do, although scientists say more study is needed.

Some scientists also believe that Epstein-Barr triggers chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that bears many similarities to long COVID, but that also is unproven.


Obesity is a risk factor for severe COVID-19 infections and scientists are trying to understand why.

Stanford University researchers are among those who have found evidence that the coronavirus can infect fat cells. In a recent study, they found the virus and signs of inflammation in fat tissue taken from people who had died from COVID.

Lab tests showed that the virus can reproduce in fat tissue. That raises the possibility that fat tissue could serve as a “reservoir,” potentially fueling long COVID.

Could removing fat tissue treat or prevent some cases of long COVID? It’s a tantalizing question, but the research is preliminary, said Dr. Catherine Blish, a Stanford infectious diseases professor and a senior author of the study.

Scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center are studying leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells that can influence the body’s immune response and promote inflammation.

They plan to study whether injections of a manufactured antibody could reduce leptin levels — and in turn inflammation from coronavirus infections or long COVID.

“We have a good scientific basis together with some preliminary data to argue that we might be on the right track,” said Dr. Philipp Scherer.


It has been estimated that about 30% of people infected with the coronavirus will develop long COVID, based on data from earlier in the pandemic.

Most people who have lingering, recurrent or new symptoms after infection will recover after about three months. Among those with symptoms at three months, about 15% will continue to have symptoms for at least nine more months, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Figuring out who’s at risk for years-long symptoms “is such a complicated question,” said Dr. Lawrence Purpura, an infectious disease expert at Columbia University.

Those with severe infections seem to be more at risk for long COVID, although it can also affect people with mild infections. Those whose infections cause severe lung damage including scarring may experience breathlessness, coughing or fatigue for more than a year. And a smaller group of patients with mild initial COVID-19 infections may develop neurologic symptoms for more than a year, including chronic fatigue and brain fog, Purpura said.

“The majority of patients will eventually recover,” he said. “It’s important for people to know that.”

It’s small consolation for the three women who helped the world recognize long COVID.

Perego, 44, developed heart, lung and neurologic problems and remains seriously ill.

She knows that scientists have learned a lot in a short time, but she says “there is a gap” between long COVID research and medical care.

“We need to translate scientific knowledge into better treatment and policy,” she said.

Watson, approaching 50, says she has “never had any kind of recovery.” She has had severe migraines, plus digestive, nerve and foot problems. Recently she developed severe anemia.

She wishes the medical community had a more organized approach to treating long COVID. Doctors say not knowing the underlying cause or causes makes that difficult.

“I just want my life back,” Watson said, “and it’s not looking like that’s all that possible.”

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China to End Quarantine on Arrival in Fresh COVID Rule Relaxation

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China said Monday it would scrap mandatory quarantine on arrival, further unwinding years of strict virus controls as the country battles a surge in cases.

Having mostly cut itself off from the rest of the world during the pandemic, China is now experiencing an unprecedented surge in infections after abruptly lifting restrictions that torpedoed the economy and sparked nationwide protests.

And in a sudden end to nearly three years of strict border controls, Beijing said late Monday it would scrap mandatory quarantines for overseas travelers.

Since March 2020, all passengers arriving in China have had to undergo mandatory centralized quarantine. This decreased from three weeks to one week this summer, and to five days last month.

But under new rules that will take effect January 8, when COVID-19 will be downgraded to a Class B infectious disease from Class A, they will no longer need to.

“According to the national health quarantine law, infectious disease quarantine measures will no longer be taken against inbound travelers and goods,” the National Health Commission (NHC) said.

The move is likely to be greeted with joy from Chinese citizens and diaspora unable to return and see relatives for much of the pandemic.

But it comes as China faces a wave of cases that studies have estimated could kill around one million people over the next few months.

Many are now grappling with shortages of medicine, while emergency medical facilities are strained by an influx of undervaccinated elderly patients.

“At present, COVID-19 prevention and control in China are facing a new situation and new tasks,” President Xi Jinping said in a directive Monday, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

“We should launch the patriotic health campaign in a more targeted way… fortify a community line of defense for epidemic prevention and control, and effectively protect people’s lives, safety and health,” he said.

‘Impossible’ to track

Hospitals and crematoriums across the country have been overflowing with COVID patients and victims, while the NHC on Sunday announced it would stop publishing daily nationwide infection and death statistics.

That decision followed concerns that the country’s wave of infections is not being accurately reflected in official statistics.

Beijing has admitted the scale of the outbreak has become “impossible” to track following the end of mandatory mass testing.

And last week, the government narrowed the criteria by which COVID-19 fatalities were counted — a move experts said would suppress the number of deaths attributable to the virus.

The winter surge comes ahead of two major public holidays next month, in which millions of people are expected to travel to their hometowns to reunite with relatives.

Authorities are expecting the virus to hit under-resourced rural areas hard, and on Monday called for the guaranteed supply of drugs and medical treatment during New Year’s Day and late January’s week-long Lunar New Year holiday.

In recent days, health officials in the wealthy coastal province Zhejiang estimated that one million residents were being infected per day.

The coastal city of Qingdao also predicted roughly 500,000 new daily infections and the southern manufacturing city of Dongguan eyed up to 300,000.

Unofficial surveys and modelling based on search engine terms suggest that the wave may have already peaked in some major cities like Beijing and Chongqing.

A poll of over 150,000 residents of the southwestern province of Sichuan organized by disease control officials showed that 63% had tested positive for COVID, and estimated that infections peaked Friday.

Only six COVID deaths have been officially reported since Beijing unwound most of its restrictions earlier this month.

But crematorium workers interviewed by AFP have reported an unusually high influx of bodies, while hospitals have said they are tallying multiple fatalities per day, as emergency wards fill up.

The main funeral service center in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou postponed all ceremonies until January 10 to focus on cremations due to the “large workload,” according to a notice published online Sunday.

China’s censors and mouthpieces have been working overtime to spin the decision to scrap strict travel curbs, quarantines and snap lockdowns as a victory, even as cases soar.

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China’s Zhejiang Has 1 Million Daily COVID Cases, Expected to Double

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China’s Zhejiang, a big industrial province near Shanghai, is battling around a million new daily COVID-19 infections, a number expected to double in the days ahead, the provincial government said Sunday.

Despite a record surge of cases nationwide, China reported no COVID deaths on the mainland for the five days through Saturday, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Sunday.

Citizens and experts have called for more accurate data as infections surged after Beijing made sweeping changes to a zero-COVID policy that had put hundreds of millions of its citizens under relentless lockdowns and battered the world’s second-largest economy.

Nationwide figures from China had become incomplete as the National Health Commission stopped reporting asymptomatic infections, making it harder to track cases. On Sunday the commission stopped reporting daily figures, which the China CDC then published.

Zhejiang is among the few areas to estimate their recent spikes in infections including asymptomatic cases.

“The infection peak is estimated to arrive earlier in Zhejiang and to enter a period of elevated level around New Year’s Day, during which the daily new infection number will be up to two million,” the Zhejiang government said in a statement.

Zhejiang, with a population of 65.4 million, said that among the 13,583 infections being treated in the province’s hospitals, one patient had severe symptoms caused by COVID, while 242 infections of severe and critical conditions were caused by underlying diseases.

China narrowed its definition for reporting COVID deaths, counting only those from COVID-caused pneumonia or respiratory failure, raising eyebrows among world health experts.

The World Health Organization has received no data from China on new COVID hospitalizations since Beijing eased its restrictions. The organization says the data gap might be due to the authorities struggling to tally cases in the world’s most populous country.

‘Most dangerous weeks’

“China is entering the most dangerous weeks of the pandemic,” said a research note from Capital Economics. “The authorities are making almost no efforts now to slow the spread of infections and, with the migration ahead of Lunar New Year getting started, any parts of the country not currently in a major COVID wave will be soon.”

The cities of Qingdao and Dongguan have each estimated tens of thousands of daily COVID infections recently, much higher than the national daily toll without asymptomatic cases.

The country’s health care system has been under enormous strain, with staff being asked to work while sick and even retired medical workers in rural communities being rehired to help grassroots efforts, according to state media.

Bolstering the urgency is the approach of the Lunar New Year in January, when huge numbers of people return home.

Visits to Zhejiang fever clinics hit 408,400 a day — 14 times normal levels — in the past week, a Zhejiang official told a news conference.

Daily requests to the emergency center in Zhejiang’s capital, Hangzhou, have recently more than tripled on average from last year’s level, state television reported Sunday, citing a Hangzhou health official.

The eastern city of Suzhou said late Saturday its emergency line received a record 7,233 calls Thursday.

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COVID Vaccine Supplies Improved in 2022, But Demand Plummeted

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Three years ago, scientists in Wuhan, China first reported infections from a novel coronavirus. Since then, the world has developed and delivered 13 billion shots against COVID-19. It is an unprecedented achievement, but it has been tarnished by unequal access. The global program aimed at improving vaccine equity has announced it will narrow its focus to the poorest countries. VOA’s Steve Baragona has a look at the global COVID vaccine drive as a pandemic blamed for more than 6.5 million deaths enters its fourth year.
Video editor: Steve Baragona

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WHO Chief Sees Global Health Emergencies Winding Down in 2023

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World Health Organization Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gave a grim assessment of the many health challenges and threats people around the world have faced this year.

Topping the list was the COVID-19 pandemic that has sickened and killed millions of people for a third year. He noted a global outbreak of monkeypox, now known as mpox, an Ebola outbreak in Uganda, and cholera outbreaks in multiple countries as other health crises.

He said these emergencies were compounded by wars in Ethiopia and Ukraine, as well as climate disasters, including drought and flooding in the greater Horn of Africa and the Sahel, and flooding in Pakistan.

And yet, as 2022 draws to a close, he said there were many reasons for hope.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has declined significantly this year, the global monkeypox outbreak is waning, and there have been no cases of Ebola in Uganda for more than three weeks,” he said. “We are hopeful that each of these emergencies will be declared over at different points next year.”

While the pandemic is not over, Tedros said great progress has been made in containing its spread. He noted that one year ago, COVID-19 was killing 50,000 people a week. This now has dropped to fewer than 10,000 deaths a week.

Despite the significant decline, he cautioned the virus is here to stay and people have to learn how to manage the disease. He urged vigilance, masking, social distancing and, above all else, vaccinating.


Looking ahead to next year, he said the WHO’s focus will be on health promotion and disease prevention.

“Instead of focusing on sick care like we do, we focus on health care, meaning keeping people healthy,” said Tedros. “And we will do everything to make that happen. But for that to happen, we will also focus on pushing for universal health coverage, especially with a shift to primary health care as a foundation.”

The WHO chief cited emergency preparedness and response as another priority. With new virus strains emerging, he emphasized the importance of doing everything possible to prepare the world for future pandemics.

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Arctic Blast Sweeps US, Causes Bomb Cyclone

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An arctic blast has brought extreme cold, heavy snow and intense wind across much of the U.S. — just in time for the holidays. 

The weather system, dubbed a “bomb cyclone,” is disrupting travel and causing hazardous winter conditions. Where is this winter weather coming from, and what’s in store for the coming days? 

What’s happening? 

A front of cold air is moving down from the Arctic, sending temperatures plunging. 

Much of the U.S. will see below-average temperatures, said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in College Park, Maryland. 

Temperatures may drop by more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) in just a few hours, the National Weather Service predicts. 

Wind chill temperatures could drop to dangerous lows far below zero — enough to cause frostbite within minutes. In parts of the Plains, the wind chill could dip as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 57 Celsius). 

Those in the Plains, the Upper Midwest and the Great Lakes were cautioned to expect blizzard conditions as heavy winds whip up the snow, according to the National Weather Service. 

Who will be affected? 

Pretty much everyone east of the Rockies — around two-thirds of the country — will see extreme weather, said Ryan Maue, a private meteorologist in the Atlanta area. 

Though much of the West Coast will be shielded from the cold, the Arctic front is expected to pass east and south all the way through Florida. 

Heavy snowfall and intense winds could be bad news for air travel, Oravec said. 

And for those planning to hit the road for the holidays, “you’re going to have pretty serious whiteout conditions,” Maue cautioned. 

How long will it last? 

This weather system is expected to bring some major “weather whiplash,” said Judah Cohen, a winter storm expert for Atmospheric Environmental Research. 

The cold isn’t going to stick around for long. After the dramatic plunge that will keep temperatures low for about a week, “everything will snap back to normal,” Cohen said. 

Shortly after Christmas, temperatures are expected to start to warm up again, moving from west to east. They are likely to remain near normal through the end of the year in most of the U.S. 

Why is this happening? 

It all started farther north, as frigid air collected over the snow-covered ground in the Arctic, Maue said. 

Then the jet stream — wobbling air currents in the middle and upper parts of the atmosphere — began pushing this cold pool down into the U.S. 

As this arctic air is pushed into the warmer, moister air ahead of it, the system can quickly develop into serious weather — including what’s known as a “bomb cyclone,” a fast-developing storm in which atmospheric pressure falls very quickly over 24 hours. 

These severe weather events usually form over bodies of water, which have lots of warmth and moisture to feed the storm, Maue said. But with the huge amount of cold air coming through, we could see a rare bomb cyclone forming over land. 

Is this normal? 

The storm is a strong one, but “not unheard of for the winter seasons,” Oravec said. 

It’s pretty normal to have cold air build up in the winter. This week, though, shifts in the jet stream have pushed the air more to the southeast than usual, Oravec said — sweeping the freeze across the country and making storm conditions more intense. 

The U.S. probably won’t reach record-breaking lows, like those seen in the cold snap of 1983 or the polar vortex of 2014, Maue said. 

Still, “for most people alive, this will be a memorable, top-10 extreme cold event,” Maue said. 

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Hong Kong Drops More COVID-19 Restrictions but Caution Remains

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Hong Kong is forecast to grow economically next year after the city’s leader announced the removal of nearly all COVID-19 restrictions on international arrivals and said it would reopen its border with China.

But experts say the coronavirus pandemic and geopolitics have hampered Hong Kong’s international status after nearly three years of global isolation.

Last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee announced that people arriving in Hong Kong are free from COVID-19 restrictions.

International passengers can now travel freely upon arrival. Previous requirements meant arrivals were not allowed to enter places such as restaurants and bars for the first three days, monitoring their health as a precaution against catching the coronavirus. The government also scrapped its COVID-19 tracking media app that granted users access to venues such as restaurants, gyms and salons, although some designated venues will still require vaccination records for those who wish to enter.

Gary Bowerman, a tourism analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, said Hong Kong’s arrivals could still be hesitant to enter.

“Removing most entry restrictions is a big step forward, but as experience proved in Southeast Asia and South Korea, it is not until on-arrival testing is eliminated that confidence will return for inbound travel,” Bowerman told VOA. “Hong Kong is on a holding pattern, where travelers will likely wait until testing is removed before committing to travel to Hong Kong.”

COVID-19 background — China reopening

Arrivals must still be subject to a mandatory COVID-19 PCR test on arrival and one on Day Two, while the city’s face mask mandate is still in place.

Hong Kong initially closely followed China’s “zero-COVID” strategy, implementing strict policies such as vaccine passes, curfews and bans on group gatherings. But the territory has gradually eased restrictions as the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variants has been difficult to control.

Despite cases roaring in China, Lee announced Saturday that by mid-January Hong Kong’s border with the mainland would reopen.

“Hong Kong relies heavily on tourism from mainland China — which accounted for 78% of its visitors in 2018, so it would need China to reopen the border for any significant uplift to occur,” Bowerman previously told VOA.

Visitor numbers low

Hong Kong first opened borders to non-residents May 1 and then, in September, removed quarantines for arrivals. But with much of the world opening completely, Hong Kong hasn’t seen anything close to the number of arrivals it would welcome in pre-pandemic times.

This year has seen arrivals into Hong Kong remain low in comparison to before the pandemic, with only 330,223 visitors through the end of October. The city usually enjoys tens of millions of arrivals per year, with more than 65 million arrivals in 2018.

Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief economist for the Asia Pacific region for Natixis, a French investment bank, said the removal of remaining restrictions for arrivals is a “game changer.”

“The announcement [removing] “0+3” is a game changer for Hong Kong. We are going to revise our growth projection. We are at -3 [%] this year at least. We’re going to see a rebound of at least 3%, possibly 4%. So, I can see about 3.5% [economic] growth [for 2023]. That’s to these measures,” Garcia-Herrero told VOA.

But trade wars and political differences between the U.S. and China in recent years have affected Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center. Relations also have  soured between Washington and Beijing after Hong Kong authorities cracked down on pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Garcia-Herrero said geopolitics means investors and businesses are relying less on Hong Kong as an investment hub.

“There is also export ban sanctions, even if Hong Kong is a different jurisdiction, the U.S. also applies these sanctions,” Garcia-Herrero said. “Companies in the light of Hong Kong are being perceived much more like the mainland [China] and not only by observers, this affects investors’ positions. Some are leaving for Singapore. I wouldn’t say financial institutions are just shutting and leaving, but they are reducing operations and finding what they can do elsewhere is less risky. It is a geopolitical risk not a competitive risk.”

Hong Kong’s international status “is a different ballgame,” Garcia-Herrero said. “To me, a global financial center like London, New York — the point is there is a vast variety in these two stock exchanges. That’s not the case in Hong Kong anymore and I doubt it will be. For me, Hong Kong will remain increasingly this offshore center for the mainland.”

Long time coming

Business owners, residents and foreign expatriates in Hong Kong have criticized Hong Kong’s long-winded COVID-19 rules, complaining the city would lose its competitiveness and status as a global city.

The city has already seen an accelerated exodus of a number of businesses and expatriates. Data shows Hong Kong’s population has declined significantly, with more than 113,000 residents leaving the city in the past year alone, the biggest-ever drop since record keeping began more than 60 years ago.

Health perspective

But Dr. David Owens, a family physician and honorary assistant clinical professor at Hong Kong University, argued the city could have moved to open earlier to prevent further damage.

“Hong Kong border restrictions, along with other COVID policies have had no grounding in science or evidence for many months,” he told VOA. “With other COVID regulations, Hong Kong border policies will actively harm public health due to the damage to both the economy and trust in public health institutions.

“I see no impact on Hong Kong from opening the international border,” he said. “This was always a political, not medical, decision, which could have been made months ago.” 

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Shanghai Asks Residents to Stay in on Christmas as China COVID Surges

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Shanghai authorities urged residents to stay at home this weekend, seeking a toned-down Christmas in the nation’s most populous city as COVID-19 rages nationwide after tough curbs were lifted.

A branch of the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission on Saturday urged young people in particular to avoid crowded gatherings, due to the ease of spreading the coronavirus and low temperatures.

Christmas is not traditionally celebrated in China, but it is common for young couples and some families to spend the holiday together.

The omicron variant is surging weeks after the authorities abruptly ended their zero-COVID policy, lifting strict testing requirements and travel restrictions as China becomes the last major country to move toward living with the virus.

While many have welcomed the easing, families and the health system were unprepared for the resulting surge of infections. Hospitals are scrambling for beds and blood, pharmacies for drugs and authorities are racing to build clinics.

Shanghai typically hosts a large Christmas-themed market in a luxury shopping area along Nanjing West Road, and restaurants and retailers offer promotions to drum up business.

But the spread of Omicron is dampening celebrations.

Many Shanghai restaurants have canceled Christmas parties normally held for regulars, while hotels have capped reservations due to staff shortages, said Jacqueline Mocatta, who works in the hospitality industry.

“There’s only a certain amount of customers we can accept given our manpower, with a majority of team members who are unwell at the moment,” she said.

Skepticism about official data

People lamented on social media that they will be staying inside as most of their friends have tested positive for COVID.

“I originally planned to go to Shanghai for Christmas but now I can only lie in bed,” a person wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social network.

Infections in China are likely more than a million a day with deaths at more than 5,000 a day, in “stark contrast” to official data, British-based health data firm Airfinity said this week.

China’s national health authority Saturday reported 4,128 daily symptomatic COVID-19 infections, and no deaths for a fourth consecutive day.

Bloomberg News reported Friday that nearly 37 million people may have been infected with COVID on a single day this past week, citing estimates from the government’s top health authority.

The emergency hotline in Taiyuan in the northern province of Shanxi was receiving over 4,000 calls a day, a local media outlet said Saturday.

Taiyuan authorities urged residents to call the number only for medical emergencies, saying guidance about COVID “does not fall within the scope of the hotline.”

A health official in Qingdao said the port city was seeing roughly 500,000 daily infections, media reported Friday.

In Wuhan, the central city where COVID emerged three years ago, media reported Friday that the local blood repository had just 4,000 units, enough to last two days. The repository called on people to “roll up their sleeves and donate blood.”

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Chinese City Seeing Half a Million COVID Cases A Day, Official Says

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Half a million people in a single Chinese city are being infected with COVID-19 every day, a senior health official has said, in a rare and quickly censored acknowledgement that the country’s wave of infections is not being reflected in official statistics.

China this month has rapidly dismantled key pillars of its zero-COVID strategy, doing away with snap lockdowns, lengthy quarantines and travel curbs in a jarring reversal of its hallmark containment strategy.

Cities across the country have struggled to cope as surging infections have emptied pharmacy shelves, filled hospital wards and appeared to cause backlogs at crematoriums and funeral homes.

But the end of strict testing mandates has made caseloads virtually impossible to track, while authorities have narrowed the medical definition of a COVID death in a move experts have said will suppress the number of fatalities attributable to the virus.

A news outlet operated by the ruling Communist Party in Qingdao on Friday reported the municipal health chief as saying that the eastern city was seeing “between 490,000 and 530,000” new COVID cases a day.

The coastal city of around 10 million people was “in a period of rapid transmission ahead of an approaching peak,” Bo Tao reportedly said, adding that the infection rate would accelerate by another 10% over the weekend.

The report was shared by several other news outlets but appeared to have been edited by Saturday morning to remove the case figures.

China’s National Health Commission said Saturday that 4,103 new domestic infections were recorded nationwide the previous day, with no new deaths.

In Shandong, the province where Qingdao is located, authorities officially logged just 31 new domestic cases.

China’s government keeps a tight leash on the country’s media, with legions of online censors on hand to scrub out content deemed politically sensitive.

Most government-run publications have downplayed the severity of the country’s exit wave, instead depicting the policy reversal as logical and controlled.

But some outlets have hinted at shortages of medicine and hospitals under strain, though estimates of actual case numbers remain rare.

The government of eastern Jiangxi province said in a Friday social media post that 80% of its population — equivalent to around 36 million people — would be infected by March.

More than 18,000 COVID patients had been admitted to major medical institutions in the province in the two weeks up to Thursday, including nearly 500 severe cases but no deaths, the statement said.

‘No historical precedent’

There were signs that medical resources remained under stress as the weekend began, as some regional health officials warned that the worst was yet to come.

The southern manufacturing hub of Dongguan said Friday that outbreak modelling indicated up to 300,000 new infections per day, adding that the rate was “accelerating faster and faster.”

“Many medical resources and personnel are enduring severe challenges and huge pressure with no historical precedent,” read a statement issued by the health bureau of the city of 10.5 million.

The bureau also published a video showing patients connected to intravenous drips queuing outside a clinic, and a doctor sleeping on his desk after working late into the night for several days straight.

A senior health official in Hainan said Friday the island province would reach peak infections “very soon,” while in the eastern megacity of Shanghai more than 40,000 patients were treated for “fevers,” the state-run People’s Daily newspaper reported Saturday.

Authorities in Chongqing launched a campaign to inoculate residents with inhalable vaccines as the central megacity grapples with a significant outbreak.

AFP journalists in the city of 32 million this week witnessed hospitals overflowing with mostly elderly COVID-positive patients, and dozens of bodies being unloaded at crematoriums.

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US Life Expectancy Drops to Lowest in a Generation

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The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and high levels of opioid overdose deaths drove life expectancy in the United States down for the second consecutive year in 2021, with a child born in that year expected to live 76.4 years, the lowest figure since 1996, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By comparison, Americans born in 2019, the year before the pandemic took hold, could expect to live 78.8 years.

In 2019, the U.S. experienced 715.2 deaths per 100,000 people. In 2021, that rate had climbed by 23%, to 897.7.

While most countries in the world experienced a decrease in life expectancy during the pandemic, it was particularly pronounced in the U.S. And while many advanced economies, including France, Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden saw their life expectancy rates recover to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, death rates in the U.S. continued to climb.

Heart disease, cancer and COVID-19 remained the top three causes of death in 2021, unchanged from the preceding year. In 2021, the U.S. also recorded 106,699 deaths attributed to drug overdoses, or more than 30 per 100,000 people.

Since 2001, when the rate was below 10 per 100,000, the rate has increased every year.

Overdose deaths have an outsized effect on average life expectancy because victims are disproportionately young.

Differences by gender, race

Women in the U.S. have a higher life expectancy than men, on average. In 2021, a girl born in the U.S. could expect to live 79.3 years, while a boy could expect to live 73.5 years.

An American who turned 65 in 2021 could expect to live another 18.4 years on average, while women could expect to live 19.7 years longer — for men the number remained unchanged from 2020 — at 17 years.

Dividing the population by sex, race and Hispanic origin highlights stark disparities in death rates. Among men, American Indian and Alaska Native men had the highest rate of deaths per 100,000 people in 2021, at 1,717.5

The next-highest death rate was for Black men, at 1,380.2. White men experienced 1,055.3 deaths per 100,000, Hispanic men experienced 915.6, and Asian men just 578.1.

Among females, death rates were highest for American Indian and Alaska Native women, at 1236.6 per 100,000, followed by Black women, at 921.9. White women experienced 750.6 deaths per 100,000, followed by Hispanic women at 599.8. Asian women had the lowest death rate of any subgroup, with 391.1 per 100,000.

International comparison

Compared to other wealthy industrialized nations, particularly in Europe, U.S. life expectancy is not only lower, but also is getting worse.

A study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior in October charted the stark differences between the U.S. and many European nations. While almost all countries in Europe experienced a sharp decline in life expectancy in 2020, the first full year of the pandemic, many had returned to 2019 levels by the following year.

Among them, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium and France all saw life expectancy rebound to near pre-pandemic levels in 2021. Other countries, including the U.K., Portugal, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Slovenia and Iceland had all recovered some, but not all the lost life expectancy.

Alone among wealthy European countries in posting two back-to-back declines was Germany, though its combined fall in life expectancy, less than one year in total, was far smaller than in the U.S.

Other European countries, mostly former Soviet states, also saw consecutive yearly declines, including Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania and Poland, though none of those saw a decline as sharp as in the U.S.

The only European countries with a steeper drop in life expectancy than the U.S. from 2019 to 2021 were Bulgaria and Slovakia.

The differences in life expectancy between the U.S. and other wealthy countries is even more stark when compared with industrialized countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Data collected by the World Bank shows that a child born in wealthy countries in that region, including Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand had a life expectancy of 82 years or more in 2020.

Public health failure

Life expectancy declines in the U.S., particularly regarding deaths related to COVID-19, is especially frustrating to experts, who note the widespread availability of vaccines and the fact that medical professionals have far more knowledge about how to fight the disease than they did at the beginning of the pandemic.

“It is absolutely a public health failure and a political failure,” Noreen Goldman, the Hughes-Rogers professor of Demography and Public Affairs at the Princeton University School of Public and International Affairs, told VOA.

“It’s certainly due, in part, to a lack of public health infrastructure, a lack of any kind of national coordination of our strategies during the pandemic, high politicization of vaccination and higher [vaccine] refusal rates in the U.S. than most other high-income countries,” she said.

Goldman said there are other complicating factors, not the least of which is the lack of universal health care, which is present in all other wealthy nations. Other factors play a role as well, including the high prevalence of other medical conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, which are associated with poorer COVID-19 outcomes.

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