The borderless nature of the virus, Mr. Guterres said, means that “travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive — they are ineffective.”

Although the United States is not weighing the kind of blanket travel ban on foreign visitors imposed by Japan, the restrictions being weighed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States are stirring widespread concern. The agency is considering requiring travelers to provide a negative result from a test taken within 24 hours before departure, a spokesman said on Tuesday night.

Though the C.D.C. has yet to officially announce the changes, the prospect sent travelers searching for updates, booking pre-emptive tests where they could, and scouring airline websites for reservation changes, as the pandemic threatened to upend another December travel season.

Carlos Valencia, a dual Spanish-American citizen whose Seville-based company operates a study abroad program for American students, had planned to return to the United States in January. But he said that he would put the trip on hold until “there is at least some clarity about whether the new rules make a trip feasible.”

Whatever shape the restrictions take, he said, they are “way overdone — especially when you consider how lax the U.S.A. has been with getting people to wear face masks and its own health safety measures.”

Emanuela Giorgetti, a teacher in northern Italy, was hoping to join her fiancé, whom she has not seen for almost two years, for Christmas in Chicago. “When I heard the news,” she said, “I thought, ‘Here we go again.’”

Given the potential threat posed by Omicron, she said she understood the impulse to tighten the rules. But it still seemed unfair.

“We have more vaccinated people in Italy than in the U.S., we wear masks indoors and try to go by the rules,” Ms. Giorgetti said.

Reporting was contributed by Nick Cumming-Bruce, Rick Gladstone, Raphael Minder, Gaia Pianigiani, Michael D. Shear and John Yoon.

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World Omicron Fight Hindered by Fragmented Response

ROME — In a wrenchingly familiar cycle of tracking first cases, pointing fingers and banning travel, nations worldwide reacted Monday to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the piecemeal fashion that has defined — and hobbled — the pandemic response all along.

As here-we-go-again fear and resignation gripped much of the world, the World Health Organization warned that the risk posed by the heavily mutated variant was “very high.” But operating once again in a vacuum of evidence, governments chose approaches that differed between continents, between neighboring countries, and even between cities within those countries.

Little is known about Omicron beyond its large number of mutations; it will be weeks, at least, before scientists can say with confidence whether it is more contagious — early evidence suggests it is — whether it causes more serious illness, and how it responds to vaccines.

In China, which had been increasingly alone in sealing itself off as it sought to eradicate the virus, a newspaper controlled by the Communist Party gloated about democracies that are now following suit as Japan, Australia and other countries gave up flirting with a return to normalcy and slammed their borders shut to the world. The West, it said, had hoarded vaccines at the expense of poorer regions, and was now paying a price for its selfishness.

announced that government employees, health care workers and staff and students at most schools must be vaccinated by Jan. 22.

tied to a single soccer team — and Scotland reported six, while the numbers in South Africa continued to soar.

Experts warned that the variant will reach every part of the world, if it hasn’t already.

The leaders of the world’s top powers insisted that they understood this, but their assurances also had a strong whiff of geopolitics.

President Xi Jinping of China offered one billion doses of Covid vaccine to Africa, on top of nearly 200 million that Beijing has already shipped to the continent, during an address to a conference in Senegal by video link.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, boasted of China’s success in thwarting virus transmission, and said the West was now paying the price for its selfish policies. “Western countries control most of the resources needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic,” it wrote. “But they have failed to curb the spread of the virus and have exposed more and more developing countries to the virus.”

told France Inter radio on Monday that variants would continue to emerge unless richer countries shared more vaccines. “We need a much more systemic approach,” she said.

“zero Covid” strategy.

China has steadfastly kept a high wall against visitors from the rest of the world. Foreign residents and visa holders are allowed in only under limited circumstances, leading to concerns by some within the business world that Covid restrictions were leaving the country increasingly isolated.

Visitors must submit to two-week quarantines upon arrival and face potential limits on their movement after that. Movements are tracked via monitoring smartphone apps, which display color codes that can signal whether a person has traveled from or through an area with recent infections, triggering instructions to remain in one place.

In other parts of Asia, people are less focused on eradicating the virus than just surviving it.

“This news is terrifying,” said Gurinder Singh, 57, in New Delhi, who worried about his shop going under. “If this virus spreads in India, the government will shut the country again, and we will be forced to beg.”

Reporting was contributed by Declan Walsh from Nairobi, Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem, Carlos Tejada from Seoul, Sameer Yasir from Srinagar, India, Lynsey Chutel from South Africa, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Elian Peltier and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, Megan Specia from London, Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin, Emma Bubola from Rome and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.

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As World Shuts Borders to Stop Omicron, Japan Offers a Cautionary Tale

TOKYO — With the emergence of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus late last week, countries across the globe rushed to close their borders to travelers from southern Africa, even in the absence of scientific information about whether such measures were necessary or likely to be effective in stopping the virus’s spread.

Japan has gone further than most other countries so far, announcing on Monday that the world’s third-largest economy would be closed off to travelers from everywhere.

It is a familiar tactic for Japan. The country has barred tourists since early in the pandemic, even as most of the rest of the world started to travel again. And it had only tentatively opened this month to business travelers and students, despite recording the highest vaccination rate among the world’s large wealthy democracies and after seeing its coronavirus caseloads plunge by 99 percent since August.

Now, as the doors slam shut again, Japan provides a sobering case study of the human and economic cost of those closed borders. Over the many months that Japan has been isolated, thousands of life plans have been suspended, leaving couples, students, academic researchers and workers in limbo.

United States, Britain and most of Europe reopened over the summer and autumn to vaccinated travelers, Japan and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region opened their borders only a crack, even after achieving some of the world’s highest vaccination rates. Now, with the emergence of the Omicron variant, Japan, along with Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea, are quickly battening down again.

outbreak of the Delta variant.

Japan is recording only about 150 coronavirus cases a day, and before the emergence of the Omicron variant, business leaders had been calling for a more aggressive reopening.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, Japan did what most countries around the world did — we thought we needed proper border controls,” Yoshihisa Masaki, director of communications at Keidanren, Japan’s largest business lobbying group, said in an interview earlier this month.

But as cases diminished, he said, the continuation of firm border restrictions threatened to stymie economic progress. “It will be like Japan being left behind in the Edo Period,” Mr. Masaki said, referring to Japan’s isolationist era between the 17th and mid-19th centuries.

Thailand had recently reopened to tourists from 63 countries, and Cambodia had just started to welcome vaccinated visitors with minimal restrictions. Other countries, like Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, were allowing tourists from certain countries to arrive in restricted areas.

Wealthier Asian countries like Japan resisted the pressure to reopen. With the exception of its decision to hold the Summer Olympics, Japan has been cautious throughout the pandemic. It was early to shut its borders and close schools. It rolled out its vaccination campaign only after conducting its own clinical trials. And dining and drinking hours remained restricted in many prefectures until September.

Foreign companies could not bring in executives or other employees to replace those who were moving back home or to another international posting, said Michael Mroczek, a lawyer in Tokyo who is president of the European Business Council.

In a statement on Monday, the council said business travelers or new employees should be allowed to enter provided they follow strict testing and quarantine measures.

“Trust should be put in Japan’s success on the vaccination front,” the council said. “And Japan and its people are now firmly in a position to reap the economic rewards.”

Business leaders said they wanted science to guide future decisions. “Those of us who live and work in Japan appreciate that the government’s policies so far have substantially limited the impact of the pandemic here,” said Christopher LaFleur, former American ambassador to Malaysia and special adviser to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

But, he said, “I think we really need to look to the science over the coming days” to see whether a complete border shutdown is justified.

Students, too, have been thrown into uncertainty. An estimated 140,000 or more have been accepted to universities or language schools in Japan and have been waiting months to enter the country to begin their courses of study.

Carla Dittmer, 19, had hoped to move from Hanstedt, a town south of Hamburg, Germany, to Japan over the summer to study Japanese. Instead, she has been waking up every morning at 1 to join an online language class in Tokyo.

“I do feel anxious and, frankly speaking, desperate sometimes, because I have no idea when I would be able to enter Japan and if I will be able to keep up with my studies,” Ms. Dittmer said. “I can understand the need of caution, but I hope that Japan will solve that matter with immigration precautions such as tests and quarantine rather than its walls-up policy.”

The border closures have economically flattened many regions and industries that rely on foreign tourism.

When Japan announced its reopening to business travelers and international students earlier this month, Tatsumasa Sakai, 70, the fifth-generation owner of a shop that sells ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, in Asakusa, a popular tourist destination in Tokyo, hoped that the move was a first step toward further reopening.

“Since the case numbers were going down, I thought that we could have more tourists and Asakusa could inch toward coming back to life again,” he said. “I guess this time, the government is just taking precautionary measures, but it is still very disappointing.”

Mr. Dery and Ms. Hirose also face a long wait. Mr. Dery, who met Ms. Hirose when they were both working at an automotive parts maker, returned to Indonesia in April 2020 after his Japanese work visa expired. Three months before he departed, he proposed to Ms. Hirose during an outing to the DisneySea amusement park near Tokyo.

Ms. Hirose had booked a flight to Jakarta for that May so that the couple could marry, but by then, the borders were closed in Indonesia.

“Our marriage plan fell apart,” Mr. Dery, 26, said by telephone from Jakarta. “There’s no clarity on how long the pandemic would last.”

Just last week, Mr. Dery secured a passport and was hoping to fly to Japan in February or March.

Upon hearing of Japan’s renewed border closures, he said he was not surprised. “I was hopeful,” he said. “But suddenly the border is about to close again.”

“I don’t know what else to do,” he added. “This pandemic seems endless.”

Reporting was contributed by Hisako Ueno and Makiko Inoue in Tokyo; Dera Menra Sijabat in Jakarta, Indonesia; Richard C. Paddock in Bangkok; John Yoon in Seoul; Raymond Zhong in Taipei, Taiwan; and Yan Zhuang in Sydney, Australia.

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Asia Pacific

CANBERRA/SYDNEY, Nov 22 (Reuters) – Australia will allow foreign visa holders to enter the country from the start of December, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, the latest step to restart international travel and support its economy.

Australia shut its international border in May 2020 and allowed only restricted numbers of citizens and permanent residents to enter in a bid to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

The rules were relaxed in recent weeks to allow foreign family members of citizens to enter, and Morrison said this will be scaled up from Dec. 1 to allow vaccinated students, business visa holders and refugees to arrive.

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“The return of skilled workers and students to Australia is a major milestone in our pathway back,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. Australia will also allow in vaccinated tourists from South Korea and Japan from Dec 1, he said.

The return of foreign students, who are worth about A$35 billion ($25 billion) a year to the Australian economy, will be a major boost for the education sector.

More than 235,000 foreigners, including about 160,000 students, held visas for Australia at the end of October, government data showed.

Airport staff hold up welcome signage as the first international travellers arrive at Sydney Airport in the wake of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) border restrictions easing, with fully vaccinated Australians being allowed into Sydney from overseas without quarantine for the first time since March 2020, in Sydney, Australia, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy

Many Australian universities have come to rely on foreign students, who make up about 21% of total enrolments, and the border closure led higher education facilities to lay off hundreds of staff.

Many students locked out of Australia have said they would switch to alternative universities if they were unable to begin face-to-face learning in 2022. read more

The relaxation of the border rules is also expected to ease labour shortages, which threaten to stymie an economic rebound.

“This will be critical relief for businesses who are struggling to find workers just to keep their doors open and for those who need highly specialised skills to unlock big projects,” said Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the industry body, the Business Council.

Border rules, swift lockdowns and tough social distancing rules helped Australia to keep its coronavirus numbers far lower than many other comparable countries, with around 200,000 cases and 1,948 deaths.

Most new infections are being reported in Victoria state, which logged 1,029 cases on Monday. New South Wales, home to Sydney, reported 180 cases. Other states and territories are COVID-free or have very few cases.

($1 = 1.3824 Australian dollars)

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Reporting by Renju Jose and Colin Packham; Editing by Richard Pullin

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Japan’s Economy Shrinks, but Outlook Is Brighter as Virus Ebbs

Japan’s economy continued to wobble in the third quarter of 2021, tipping back into contraction, as the country struggled to find its economic footing in the face of coronavirus restrictions and a supply chain crunch that hit its biggest manufacturers.

In the July-to-September period, the country’s economy, the third largest after the United States and China, shrank by an annualized rate of 3 percent, government data showed on Monday. The result, a quarterly drop of 0.8 percent, followed a slight expansion in the previous three-month period, when economic output grew at a revised annualized rate of 1.5 percent, or a quarterly rate of 0.4 percent.

But brighter days may be ahead, at least in the near term.

Japan now has one of the highest vaccination rates among major nations, and it has lifted virtually all restrictions on its economy as its virus caseload has fallen in recent weeks to one of the lowest levels in the world.

Seventy-five percent of the country is fully vaccinated. And coronavirus case counts have hovered in the low hundreds since mid-October, a decline of about 99 percent since their August peak, heralding the return of long-suppressed consumer spending.

back foot because of a clunky vaccine rollout that left it far behind its peer countries.

By midsummer, it was in the midst of its toughest battle yet with the virus. The Delta variant caused cases to surge just as Tokyo prepared to kick off the Summer Olympics. Sponsors rolled back advertising campaigns, and tourists stayed home. The Games, which were conducted without spectators, failed to deliver the economic boost that had been promised when the country was chosen as host.

As the virus spread, Japan entered a new state of emergency. Restaurants and bars closed early and travel dried up, with many people deciding to stay home rather than brave record-high case counts.

At the same time, semiconductor shortages battered the country’s automakers, forcing many to drastically cut production. In September, the top eight Japanese manufacturers made about half as many cars as they had at the same time in the previous year.

“There was an enormous drop in production, and even if people wanted to buy cars, they couldn’t,” Ms. Kobayashi said.

Since the country ended its state of emergency last month, however, foot traffic has nearly returned to prepandemic levels, said Tomohiko Kozawa, a researcher at the Japan Research Institute.

“There’s a risk that infections could begin to spread again, but for the moment, the outlook points to recovery,” he said, adding that “we can expect high growth” in domestic consumption in the coming months.

The auto industry, too, is expected to rebound, he said, as chip manufacturers expand production and the pandemic ebbs in Southeast Asia, where the virus shut down factories that manufacture critical parts for Japanese vehicles.

“Exports should recover in the first three months of next year,” Mr. Kozawa said.

Hoping to get the economy back on track, the government is expected to pass its economic stimulus package in the coming days, which would provide cash handouts to families with children under 18, give aid to small businesses and put in place measures to offset rising fuel prices, which have increased costs across a range of industries.

Still, other factors will continue to weigh on growth. The country remains closed to tourists — and difficult to enter for many businesspeople and students — and it is unclear when the borders might reopen. Before the pandemic, many businesses in Japan had relied on a steady stream of visitors from abroad.

Although the country should be congratulated for its success in tackling the virus, it needs to articulate a vision for what comes next, said Daisuke Karakama, chief market economist at Mizuho Bank.

Even as daily reported infections in Tokyo have dropped to low double digits, “there’s no road map” he said, and “no strategy.”

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In Romania, Hard-Hit by Covid, Doctors Fight Vaccine Refusal

COPACENI, Romania — As a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic crashed over Eastern Europe last month, devastating unvaccinated populations, an Orthodox Church bishop in southern Romania offered solace to his flock: “Don’t be fooled by what you see on TV — don’t be scared of Covid.”

Most important, Bishop Ambrose of Giurgiu told worshipers in this small Romanian town on Oct. 14, “don’t rush to get vaccinated.”

The bishop is now under criminal investigation by the police for spreading dangerous disinformation, but his anti-vaccine clarion call, echoed by prominent politicians, influential voices on the internet and many others, helps explain why Romania has in recent weeks reported the world’s highest per capita death rate from Covid-19.

On Tuesday, nearly 600 Romanians died, the most during the pandemic. The country’s death rate relative to population is almost seven times as high as the United States’, and almost 17 times as high as Germany’s.

Europe’s second-lowest vaccination rate; around 44 percent of adults have had at least one dose, ahead of only Bulgaria, at 29 percent. Overall, the European Union stands at 81 percent, with several countries above 90 percent. Complicating matters, Romania has been without a government since last month, when a centrist coalition unraveled.

some form of a vaccine requirement. Here’s a closer look.

As she spoke, a 66-year-old Covid patient, Nicu Paul, gasped for breath on a bed nearby. His wife, Maria, also suffering severe pulmonary problems from Covid, lay in the next bed. Mr. Paul said he had worked for 40 years as an ambulance driver and never gotten sick — “God saved me,” he said — so he decided against vaccination because “there are so many rumors about the vaccine that I did not know what to believe.”

Romania began vaccinating its citizens last December and put the program under the military, the country’s most respected institution, according to opinion polls. The second most trusted institution, however, is the Orthodox church, which has sent mixed signals on vaccines, with Patriarch Daniel in Bucharest telling people to make up their own minds and listen to doctors, while many local clerics and some influential bishops denounced vaccines as the Devil’s work.

Colonel Ghorghita said he had been shocked and mystified by the reach of anti-vaccination sentiment. “They really believe that vaccines are not the proper way to stop Covid,” he said, adding that this was despite the fact that “more than 90 percent of deaths are unvaccinated people.” Old people, the most vulnerable demographic, have been the hardest to convince, he said, with only 25 percent of people over 80 vaccinated.

In central Bucharest, huge signs display photographs of gravely ill patients in hospitals as part of a campaign to jolt people back to reality. “They are suffocating. They beg. They regret,” reads a caption.

Dr. Streinu-Cercel said she was uneasy with trying to reach people by scaring them. “We should be talking about science, not fear,” she said, but “fear is the only thing that got the attention of the general population.”

Distrust of just about everyone and everything is so deep, she said, that some of her patients “are gasping for breath but tell me that Covid does not exist.”

“It is very difficult when so many people are denying all reality,” she added.

At a vaccination center at her hospital, only a trickle of people pass through most days, though vaccines are free and increasingly necessary following new rules requiring vaccination certificates to enter many public buildings.

One of those getting vaccinated was Norica Gheorghe, 82. She said she had held off for months on getting a shot but decided to go ahead this past week after seeing reports that nearly 600 had died in one day. “My hair stood on end when I saw this number, and I decided that I should get vaccinated,” she said.

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Covid disinformation in Romania mostly followed themes that found traction in many other countries, according to Alina Bargaoanu, a Bucharest communications professor who tracks disinformation, with people spreading wild conspiracy theories under fake names on Facebook and other social media.

But as the pandemic dragged on, she added, this largely fake virtual phenomenon morphed into a political movement driven by real people like Diana Sosoaca, an elected member of Romania’s upper house of Parliament. Ms. Sosoaca led a protest in the north of the country that blocked the opening of a vaccination center, denouncing the pandemic as “the biggest lie of the century,” and organized anti-mask rallies in Bucharest. Videos of her antics have attracted millions of views.

Ms. Bargaoanu, the disinformation researcher, said she suspected a Russian hand in spreading alarm over vaccines, but conceded that many of the most popular anti-vaccination conspiracy theories originate in the United States, making them particularly hard to debunk because “Romania is a very pro-American country.”

Colonel Ghorghita has taken to social media to rebut the more outlandish falsehoods, and also met with Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to ask them not to fan the flames of disinformation. “They don’t have a duty to recommend vaccination but they do have a duty not to recommend against it,” he said.

The Orthodox church is particularly important because of its strong influence in rural areas, where vaccination rates are half those in cities like Bucharest, where more than 80 percent of adults have received at least one shot.

In Copaceni, a rural county south of Bucharest, workers at a small clinic offering vaccines said they were appalled by Bishop Ambrose’s anti-vaccine tirades.

“I am fighting to get people vaccinated every day, and then he comes along and tells them not to bother,” said Balota Hajnalka, a doctor running the clinic.

Boryana Dzhambazova contributed reporting from Sofia, Bulgaria, and Anton Troianovski from Moscow.

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Near-Daily Covid Tests, Sleeping in Classrooms: Life in Covid-Zero China

The southwestern Chinese city of Ruili is small, remote and largely unknown internationally. It is also, when it comes to the coronavirus, perhaps the most tightly regulated place on earth.

In the past year, it has been locked down four times, with one shutdown lasting 26 days. Homes in an entire district have been evacuated indefinitely to create a “buffer zone” against cases from elsewhere. Schools have been closed for months, except for a few grades — but only if those students and their teachers do not leave campus.

Many residents, including 59-year-old Liu Bin, have gone months without income, in a city that relies heavily upon tourism and trade with neighboring Myanmar. Mr. Liu, who ran a customs brokerage before cross-border movement essentially stopped, estimated he had lost more than $150,000. He is tested on a near-daily basis. He borrows cigarette money from his son-in-law.

“Why do I have to be oppressed like this? My life is important too,” he said. “I’ve actively followed epidemic control measures. What else do we normal people have to do to meet the standards?”

remained the last country chasing full elimination, for the most part with success. It has recorded fewer than 5,000 virus-related deaths, and in parts of the country without confirmed cases, the outbreak can feel like a hazy memory.

But the residents of Ruili — a lush, subtropical city of about 270,000 people before the pandemic — are facing the extreme and harsh reality of living under a “Zero Covid” policy when even a single case is found.

live on campus. Classrooms have been converted to dorms. Since students are always around, they also have classes on weekends.

told state media he had taken 90 Covid tests over the last seven months. Another parent said that his one-year-old son had been tested 74 times.

Tens of thousands of residents have fled the city for elsewhere in China in the breaks between lockdowns; officials recently acknowledged that the population had dropped to about 200,000. To control the outflow, the authorities now require people to pay for up to 21 days of pre-departure quarantine.

In a sign of the desperation many residents are feeling, a former deputy mayor of Ruili last month wrote a blog post called “Ruili Needs the Motherland’s Care” — a stunning move in a country where officials almost never deviate from the government line.

“Every time the city is locked down is another instance of serious emotional and material loss,” wrote the official, Dai Rongli. “Each experience battling the virus is a new accumulation of grievances.”

according to state media. No cases have been traced to people leaving Ruili for elsewhere in China.

Even so, officials insist that there is little room for adjustment.

“If Ruili’s epidemic does not reach zero, there will be risk of outward transmission,” Ruili’s deputy mayor, Yang Mou, said at a news conference on Oct. 29.

Shanghai’s Disneyland spent hours waiting to be tested on Sunday night before they could leave the park. Parts of Beijing are locked down, and many incoming trains and flights have been canceled.

announced that all traffic lights would be turned red, to prevent unnecessary travel. (It later backtracked.)

Ruili is uniquely vulnerable to both the virus and the burdens of lockdown.

Nestled in the corner of Yunnan Province, it shares more than 100 miles of borders with Myanmar, attracting tourists and traders. In 2019, people passed through its border checkpoint nearly 17 million times, according to official statistics.

When China sealed up the country, trade and tourism all but collapsed. Yet Ruili’s borders remained porous, raising fears of imported cases. And the military coup in Myanmar this year has led some to seek refuge in Ruili, legally or illegally. Some residents have had to dodge stray bullets from the conflict across the border, according to Chinese media reports.

banned residents from livestreaming about the local jade industry to limit gem orders and the movement of delivery people.

told state media that “at the moment, we do not need” additional help. The day before, he had warned against “criminals” who he said would use “public opinion and false information to disrupt social order.”

have admonished people for protesting lockdown conditions.)

Earlier this year, Mr. Li and a group of fellow investors pooled together about $3 million for a jade market in Ruili, which they had hoped to open in May. Instead, the premises have sat empty, though they have continued to pay rent. He has heard nothing about government assistance.

Originally, his company employed about 50 people. Now? “We only dare to keep one person, to guard the door,” he said. “What can you do? We can’t pay them.”

The cost of daily living has shot up. A kilogram of bok choy used to cost less than 6 renminbi, or under $1, Mr. Li said; now the price has jumped to 8 or 10 renminbi.

“The ordinary people,” he sighed, “have no way to live.”

Liu Yi contributed research.

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Torn From Parents in the Belgian Congo, Women Seek Reparations

BRUSSELS — The girls were as young as 2, some still breastfeeding, and no older than 4 when they were taken from their mothers.

Like thousands of other mixed-race children born under colonial rule in Belgian Congo, the five girls, the children of African mothers and European fathers, were taken from their homes by the authorities and sent to religious schools hundreds of miles away, growing up in poverty and suffering from malnutrition and physical abuse.

The victims of a segregationist policy of the Belgian authorities who ruled a vast territory in Africa that now includes Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, they kept their childhoods a secret for decades, even from their own families. Now women in their 70s, they listened to their stories being told in public by their lawyers on a recent morning in a small courtroom in Brussels packed with dozens of spectators.

“Their names, their origins and identities were stripped from them,” said one of the women’s lawyers, Michèle Hirsch. “What they shared with me is not in the history books.”

Patrice Lumumba, a Congolese leader it helped overthrow in a coup that led to his death, and revamped a museum that celebrated colonialism. Last year, the authorities removed some statues of King Leopold II, whose rule over Congo led to the deaths of millions through forced labor and famine. King Philippe of Belgium has also expressed his “deepest regrets for the wounds of the past,” but stopped short of apologizing.

Stolen Generations,” who as “half-caste” children were taken away from their families and put into church-run compounds from the 1900s to the 1970s.

In Canada, a national commission concluded that a government’s residential school program that separated at least 150,000 Indigenous children from their families from 1883 to 1996, amounted to “cultural genocide.” The discoveries earlier this year of hundreds of unmarked graves of children who died in the schools has prompted a new reckoning over the government’s historical policies.

The number of children taken away from their families in Belgium’s former Central African territories is in the thousands, but historians are hesitant to provide a firm estimate. What is clear is that mixed-race children were seen as a threat, according to Delphine Lauwers, the lead archivist of Résolution Métis, a state-run research project created after the Belgian Parliament apologized in 2018.

“Interbreeding was upsetting a binary colonial system whose basis was the superiority of the white race over the Black race,” Ms. Lauwers said. “So the Belgian state decided to confine the mixed-race children in an in-between, a liminal space, where they were excluded from both categories.”

The five plaintiffs grew up together in a Catholic school in Katende, in what is the province of Kasai in the Democratic Republic of Congo today. Ms. Tavares Mujinga, one of the plaintiffs, said she and her fellow students lived like prisoners, with insufficient clothing and food. In letters sent to the regional authorities in the early 1950s and seen by The New York Times, the nuns warned about a lack of food, and the insalubrious dormitory and canteen.

Ms. Tavares Mujinga said a scar on her forehead comes from a nun who hit her when she was 5, and that the scars on her legs are from ulcers she got from malnutrition. But the deepest scars are psychological, she said. When Ms. Tavares Mujinga came back to her family as a teenager, her mother told her she had been forced to abandon her to avoid reprisals from the authorities.

Following Congo’s independence in 1960, some of the youngest children were abandoned to a militant group after the nuns left the area. Many of the girls were raped, according to Ms. Bintu Bingi.

“These are not stories you can tell your children,” Ms. Bintu Bingi said in an interview as she recalled how she opened up to her daughter in recent years. “The Belgian state destroyed us, psychologically and physically.”

The women moved to Belgium in the 1980s and later and all live there, except for one who moved to France.

Some legal experts are divided on whether the forced separation of the mixed-race children from their mothers amounts to crimes against humanity. Ms. Hirsch, the plaintiff’s lawyer, argued that it did, because Belgium state had tried to wipe out the civil existence of métis children.

Emmanuel Jacubowitz, a lawyer representing the Belgian state at the hearing, said the authorities didn’t deny that the policy was racist and segregationist, but that it wasn’t seen as violating fundamental rights at the time.

Eric David, a professor of international law at the University of Brussels, said it was a stretch to call the practice crimes against humanity. “There was deportation, detention, and what could amount to torture,” Mr. David said. “But there were no slavery, murder, or systemic rapes in those schools.”

Mr. Jacubowitz added that hundreds of similar requests for compensation could follow.

“It may be that Belgium’s fear is to open the tap for reparations,” said Ms. Lauwers, the archivist.

Déborah Mbongu, the granddaughter of Ms. Tavares, said she struggled to understand why Belgium was so reluctant to pay. The plaintiffs say they didn’t sue for money, but Ms. Mbongu, 23, said it was essential her grandmother and others were recognized as victims.

“For our shared history,” she said, “a crime must lead to reparations. It’s just fundamental.”

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Long Arm of Russian Law Reaches Obscure Siberian Church

ABODE OF DAWN, Russia — High on a hilltop bathed in the autumnal colors of pine, birch and larch trees, Aleksei Demidov paused for a few minutes of quiet prayer. He was directing his thoughts to his religious teacher, known as Vissarion, hoping he might feel his energy.

As he prayed, a cluster of small bells rang out from a spindly wooden gazebo. They belonged to the Church of the Last Testament, founded in 1991 by Vissarion. Except then his name was Sergei Torop, and he was just a former police officer and an amateur artist.

These days, Mr. Demidov and thousands of other church members consider Vissarion a living god. The Russian state, however, considers him a criminal.

dramatic operation led by federal security services. Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s top federal prosecutorial authority, accused them of “creating a religious group whose activities may impose violence on citizens,” allegations they deny.

A year later, the three men are still being held without criminal indictment in a prison in the industrial city of Novosibirsk, 1,000 miles from their church community. No trial has been scheduled.

Since taking power at the turn of the century, President Vladimir V. Putin has gone to great lengths to silence critics and prevent any person or group from gaining too much influence. He has forced out and locked up oligarchs, muted the news media and tried to defang political opposition — like Aleksei A. Navalny.

outlawed in 2017 and declared an “extremist” organization, on par with Islamic State militants.

Though there are accusations of extortion and mistreatment of members of the Church of the Last Testament, scholars and criminal justice experts say the arrest of Mr. Torop underscores the government’s intolerance of anything that veers from the mainstream — even a small, marginal group living in the middle of the forest, led by a former police officer claiming to be God.

“There is an idea that there is a defined spiritual essence of Russian culture, meaning conservative values and so on, that is in danger,” said Alexander Panchenko, the head of the Center for Anthropology of Religion at the European University at St. Petersburg, who has been asked to serve as an expert witness in an administrative procedure that could strip the church of its legal status as a church, an act that he said was based on “false accusations.”

“Somehow the new religious movements are now dangerous as well,” Mr. Panchenko said.

told Russian state-owned media that while there was no requirement to donate money, it was encouraged.

She said that some food items were banned and that seeking medical care was difficult. The church drew notice in 2000 when two children died because the community is so remote that they could not get medical help in time. But Ms. Melnikova also said that conditions had softened since the early days.

The accusations come from a vague Soviet-era law used to punish nonregistered groups like Baptists, evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mr. Lunkin said. The prosecutors’ office did not respond to messages seeking information about the status of the case.

In interviews last month with more than two dozen church members, none said that they had been mistreated or strained financially, and all that they could come and go freely for work or school. They said the church did not impose a financial burden on them. When the authorities searched Mr. Torop’s home, they found only 700 rubles (about $10).

Mr. Torop and his church have not been politically active or spoken out against the government. Instead, followers believe their very independence from normal Russian life is what made their church a target. “We’ve created a self-sustaining society, and our freedom is dangerous for the system,” said Aleksandr A. Komogortsev, 46, a disciple who was a police officer in Moscow for 11 years before moving to one of the biggest villages three years ago.

“We have shown how it is possible to live outside the system,” he said, gushing over a breakfast of salad and potato dumplings about how fulfilling it was to work with his hands.

Tanya Denisova, 68, a follower since 1999, said the church was focused on God’s judgment, not politics. She moved to the village in 2001, after divorcing her husband, who did not want to join the church.

“We came here to get away from politics,” she said.

Like the other faithful, Ms. Denisova eats a vegetarian diet, mostly of food grown in her large garden. Pictures of Vissarion, referred to as “the teacher,” and reproductions of his paintings hang in many rooms of her house.

Each village where followers live, like Ms. Denisova’s Petropavlovka, functions as a “united family,” with the household heads meeting each morning after a brief prayer service to discuss urgent communal work to be done for the day, and with weekly evening sessions where members of the community can solve disputes, request assistance or offer help.

At one recent meeting, members approved two new weddings after ensuring the betrothed couples were ready for marriage.

For many of the believers, their leader’s arrest, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, is a sign that Judgment Day approaches.

Others said they felt his arrest was the fulfillment of a prophecy, comparing their teacher’s plight with that of Jesus more than 2,000 years ago.

Stanislav M. Kazakov, the head of a small private school in the village of Cheremshanka, said the arrest had made the teacher more famous in Russia and abroad, which he hoped would draw more adherents.

Mr. Kazakov said his school, like other community institutions, had been subjected to repeated inspections and fines since 2019, with at least 100 students as young as 8 questioned by the police. He said the arrest and intimidation by the police had made the community stronger.

“They thought we would fall apart without him,” he said. “But in the past year, we have returned to the kind of community that holds each other together.”

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