View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Cambodia’s Internet May Soon Be Like China’s: State-Controlled

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The day Kea Sokun was arrested in Cambodia, four men in plainclothes showed up at his photography shop near Angkor Wat and carted him off to the police station. Mr. Kea Sokun, who is also a popular rapper, had released two songs on YouTube, and the men said they needed to know why he’d written them.

“They kept asking me: ‘Who is behind you? What party do you vote for?’” Mr. Kea Sokun said. “I told them, ‘I have never even voted, and no one controls me.’”

The 23-year-old artist, who says his songs are about everyday struggles in Cambodia, was sentenced to 18 months in an overcrowded prison after a judge found him guilty of inciting social unrest with his lyrics. His case is part of a crackdown in which dozens have been sent to jail for posting jokes, poems, pictures, private messages and songs on the internet.

Vietnam to Turkey, and that it will deepen the clash over the future of the web.

National Internet Gateway, set to begin operating on Feb. 16, will send all internet traffic — including from abroad — through a government-run portal. The gateway, which is mandatory for all service providers, gives state regulators the means to “prevent and disconnect all network connections that affect national income, security, social order, morality, culture, traditions and customs.”

Government surveillance is already high in Cambodia. Each ministry has a team that monitors the internet. Offending content is reported to an internet crime unit in the Ministry of Interior, the center of the country’s robust security apparatus. Those responsible can be charged with incitement and sent to prison.

But rights groups say that the new law will make it even easier for the authorities to monitor and punish online content, and that the recent arrests are meant to further intimidate citizens into self-censorship in a country where free speech is enshrined in the Constitution.

“The authorities are emboldened by China as an example of an authoritarian state that gives Cambodia political cover, new technology and financial resources,” said Sophal Ear, a dean at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University whose family escaped the Khmer Rouge, the murderous regime that seized power in Cambodia in 1975.

arrested in October.

In August, a former agriculture professor was sentenced to 18 months in prison for making jokes on Facebook about requiring chickens to wear anti-Covid masks. He was charged with incitement and with defaming the prime minister, as well as the minister of agriculture.

Weeks later, a farmer, frustrated by the government’s failed promise to subsidize longan crops while the pandemic kept borders closed to exports, posted a video of tons of his annual harvest going to rot. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

Of more than 30 arrests made over digital content since 2020, the most publicized one involved an autistic 16-year-old who was released in November. The teenager, Kak Sovann Chhay, had been jailed for comments he made in a chat group on Telegram, the private messaging app.

has more than 13 million followers.

Internet service providers have asked the authorities to provide more clarity about the gateway. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said in a statement that it had “joined with other stakeholders in sharing our feedback on this new law with the Cambodian government, and expressing our strong support for a free and open internet.”

prime minister “Zoom-bombed” an online meeting for members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party. He took to Facebook to explain the intrusion: “This entry was just to give a warning message to the rebel group to be aware that Mr. Hun Sen’s people are everywhere.”

San Mala, a senior advocacy officer with the Cambodian Youth Network, said activists and rights groups were already using coded language to communicate across online messaging platforms, knowing that the authorities had been emboldened by the decree.

“As a civil society organization, we are concerned about this internet gateway law because we fear that our work will be subjected to surveillance or our conversations will be eavesdropped on or they will be able to attend online meetings with us without invitation or permission,” said Mr. San Mala, 28.

Khmer Land,” one of the songs that got him arrested, now has more than 4.4 million views on YouTube, and Mr. Kea Sokun is already working on his next album.

“I’m not angry, but I know what happened to me is unfair,” he said. “The government made an example out of me to scare people who talk about social issues.” He said he could have had his sentence reduced if he had apologized, but he refused.

“I won’t say I’m sorry,” Mr. Kea Sokun said, “and I never will.”

Soth Ban and Meas Molika contributed reporting.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Kazakhstan Shuts Internet as Government Offices Burn in Protests

MOSCOW — Thousands of people returned to the streets across Kazakhstan on Wednesday for a fourth straight day of demonstrations driven by outrage over surging gas prices, in the biggest wave of protests to sweep the oil-rich country for decades.

Protesters stormed government buildings and captured police vehicles despite a strict state of emergency and government attempts to concede to their demands, including by dismissing the cabinet and announcing the possible dissolution of Parliament, which would result in new elections. Kazakhtelecom, the country’s largest telecommunications company, shut off internet access throughout the country on Wednesday afternoon.

Anger has been building since Sunday, when Kazakhs began protesting after the government lifted price caps for liquefied petroleum gas — frequently referred to by its initials, L.P.G. — and the cost of the fuel doubled.

Many people in the country of 19 million found the price increase particularly infuriating because Kazakhstan is an exporter of oil and gas. It added to the economic misery in a country where the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated severe income inequality.

according to the local statistics authority. Most people earn only a fraction of that amount, according to Mr. Umbetov, with the average skewed in favor of oil industry workers.

As the protests have unfolded, the demands of the demonstrators have expanded to include a broader political liberalization. Among the changes they seek is the direct election of Kazakhstan’s regional leaders by voters; in the current system, they are directly appointed by the president.

For almost 30 years, Kazakhstan was ruled by Mr. Nazarbayev, a former Communist Party boss, who is now 81.

The ascension of Mr. Tokayev created two centers of power. Mr. Nazarbayev and his family enjoy wide authority, while the new president, even though he is loyal to his predecessor, is trying to carve out a stronger role for himself, disorienting Kazakhstan’s bureaucracy and elites. This divide has contributed to the government’s slow reaction to the protesters’ demands, according to Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia expert in Moscow.

“The government has been slow because it is divided and has no idea what young people in Kazakhstan really want,” Mr. Dubnov said. “On the other hand, the protesters don’t have a leader who would articulate it clearly.”

The countries of the former Soviet Union are watching the protests closely. For Russia, the events represent another possible challenge to autocratic power in a neighboring country.

Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine in 2014 after pro-democracy protests erupted there, and the Kremlin offered support to the Belarusian dictator Aleksandr G. Lukashenko as he violently crushed peaceful protests against his autocratic rule in 2020.

The protests in Kazakhstan represent a warning signal for the Kremlin, Mr. Dubnov said, describing the government in Kazakhstan as “a reduced replica of the Russian one.”

“There is no doubt that the Kremlin would not want to see an example of such a regime beginning to talk to the opposition and conceding to their demands,” he added.

Mr. Putin has been in power for 20 years, and though a 2020 referendum gave him the right to rule until 2036, observers are watching for signs of a managed transition out of power.

Pro-Kremlin media have portrayed the events in Kazakhstan as an organized plot against Russia. Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-government tabloid, referred to the protests as a “dirty trick played on Moscow” ahead of “crucial talks between Russia and the U.S. and NATO” next week. Those discussions will be focused on the crisis in Ukraine, where there are fears of a renewed Russian invasion.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Covid Live Updates: New Year Festivities Scaled Back Worldwide as Cases Soar

Credit…Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

In the United States, over 204 million people are fully vaccinated, but that’s still only 62 percent of the population, much lower than in most other wealthy countries.

At the county level, vaccination rates range from about 83 percent in places like Montgomery County, Md., a populous area just outside Washington, D.C., to around 15 percent in rural places like McPherson County in northern South Dakota.

As the Omicron variant surges, and experts say that vaccinations strongly protect against severe illness, U.S. public health officials are closely examining ways to reach the least-vaccinated areas. But the roadblocks are not the same everywhere. Some clearly have to do with politics: Republican-leaning areas have generally been vaccine laggards. But pockets of the country can have their own quirks unrelated to partisanship.

Here is a look at the challenges faced by three counties where, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, vaccination rates are among the lowest in the nation. (State figures for those counties may vary from the C.D.C. data because of differences in methodology, reporting lags and other factors.)

LaGrange County, Ind.

Resistance to vaccines is not new in LaGrange County, a rural area along Indiana’s border with Michigan. Just 22 percent of residents are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and, according to Dr. Tony Pechin, the county health officer, only 15 percent of children in the county are up-to-date on standard vaccines by the age of 2.

Dr. Pechin said that he had encountered the usual conspiracy theories about vaccines, and that even some longtime patients would not heed his advice to get the shots.

But the most important factor, he said, is that about half the county’s 40,000 residents are Amish, a group that overwhelmingly rejects the vaccines. Among non-Amish residents, he said, the vaccination rate is 45 to 48 percent.

Dr. Pechin said that a pharmacy frequented by Amish residents was among the first in LaGrange County to receive doses but had vaccinated just eight people in six months.

The state health commissioner sent a delegation to meet with Amish leaders in the spring, and the C.D.C. sent another over the summer.

“When they were done,” Dr. Pechin said of the envoys, “they called me and just said, ‘Good luck, Tony.’”

Cameron Parish, La.

When Hurricane Laura made landfall near Cameron Parish in August 2020, many residents left damaged homes behind and took refuge inland — and have yet to return.

According to the C.D.C., the vaccination rate is just 17 percent. But Louisiana health officials say that those figures do not take account of the population shift.

“Although the numbers look awful, they’re not as bad as they appear, because of an outflux of people due to the natural disasters,” said Dr. Lacey Cavanaugh, a regional health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health.

Credit…Bryan Tarnowski/Bloomberg, via Getty Images

But if the statistics were calculated to reflect the current populations of Cameron Parish and others ravaged by recent storms, she said, they would probably still show vaccination rates below national averages. Laura destroyed much of the parish’s limited health infrastructure, so for months, health officials administered vaccines in a tent in a hospital parking lot. And for residents consumed by the work of repairing homes and businesses, getting vaccinated fell low on the priority list.

State health officials have worked to bring vaccines directly to disaster recovery events, and advised residents that getting sick with Covid-19 could make the road back even harder.

“Once you’re protected” from the virus, Dr. Cavanaugh said, “that’s one less thing for you to worry about.”

Winston County, Ala.

A rural county with a history of going its own way — it refused to join Alabama in seceding from the Union during the Civil War —  faces many of the challenges that have hampered the state’s vaccine uptake.

Vaccine misinformation is still spreading on social media, said Dr. Karen Landers, a regional officer with the state’s Public Health Department, despite months of efforts with local leaders, faith-based organizations and pharmacies. The county’s vaccination rate has stalled at around 21 percent, according to the C.D.C.

Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

Persuading young people that they are vulnerable to the disease and need a vaccine can be a particularly acute problem, she said. But Dr. Landerssaid she remained determined: “We know that not everyone will listen to us, but that does not alleviate our responsibility.”

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Welcome to the Charles Dickens Luxury Apartments

When the building was threatened with destruction, in 2007, Professor Black and a charity devoted to Georgian-era architecture tried to get it preserved. They initially failed, but the wrecking ball didn’t swing immediately, in part because the 2007-8 financial crisis left many developers in no mood to spend. It didn’t help that the land behind the Annexe was known to be filled with bodies, although how many was not yet clear.

By then, the Annexe had closed, and the University College London Hospitals National Health Service Foundation Trust — the official name of the organization that owned the building — started renting a hodgepodge of rooms in it to about 40 Londoners looking for cheap, communal living. This is a common strategy among British landlords — populate vacant buildings to prevent them from being vandalized or turned into a squatters’ paradise. Renters in such buildings are known as “guardians,” a slightly misleading term.

“Nobody was walking around with a rifle,” said Dominic Connelly, who lived in the Annexe until 2017, when everyone was finally asked to leave. He paid about $600 a month for a large former patient’s room that included a working X-ray light box.

Tenants were a mix of young people — yoga instructors, actors, a club bouncer — dwelling amid an assortment of medical equipment, security systems, a reception desk and hospital signs, including one for the child psychiatry department. The setting also seems to have inspired “Crashing,” a 2016 television mini-series about young people who flirt and couple in a disused hospital, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the auteur of “Fleabag.”

Except that at the Annexe, people occasionally showed up to dig exploratory trenches.

“You’d see them from the windows, or you’d hear them digging,” Mr. Connelly said. “It was clear they were looking for bodies. Pretty grim stuff when you think about it, so I tried not to think about it.”

All the guardians in the Annexe knew they could be evicted any day, potentially signaling the workhouse’s imminent demise. The prospect was especially galling to a resident who, for unknown reasons, wanted anonymity and has never been identified. She contacted a scholar who had written an essay for The British Medical Journal about one of the medical heroes of the Victorian age, Joseph Rogers, a physician who served as the chief medical officer at the Strand Union Workhouse and crusaded for better conditions.

The scholar was Ruth Richardson.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

How the Kremlin Is Militarizing Russian Society

MOSCOW — Stepping onto a podium in heavy boots and military fatigues at a ceremony outside Moscow, six teenagers accepted awards for an increasingly important discipline in Russia: patriotism.

For days, students from around the country had competed in activities like map-reading, shooting and history quizzes. The contest was funded in part by the Kremlin, which has been making “military patriotic” education a priority.

“Parents and children understand that this aggressive shell around us, it is tightening, it is hardening,” said Svyatoslav Omelchenko, a special forces veteran of the K.G.B. who founded Vympel, the group running the event. “We are doing all we can to make sure that children are aware of that and to get them ready to go and serve.”

Over the past eight years, the Russian government has promoted the idea that the motherland is surrounded by enemies, filtering the concept through national institutions like schools, the military, the news media and the Orthodox Church. It has even raised the possibility that the country might again have to defend itself as it did against the Nazis in World War II.

Russia masses troops on the Ukrainian border, spurring Western fears of an impending invasion, the steady militarization of Russian society under President Vladimir V. Putin suddenly looms large, and appears to have inured many to the idea that a fight could be coming.

shared the Nobel Peace Prize this year, said in his acceptance speech in Oslo this month. “People are getting used to the thought of its permissibility.”

Speaking to Russian military leaders on Tuesday, Mr. Putin insisted that Russia did not want bloodshed, but was prepared to respond with “military-technical measures” to what he described as the West’s aggressive behavior in the region.

Youth Army. Adults get their inculcation from state television, where political shows — one is called “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin.” — drive home the narrative of a fascist coup in Ukraine and a West bent on Russia’s destruction.

And all are united by the near-sacred memory of Soviet victory in World War II — one that the state has seized upon to shape an identity of a triumphal Russia that must be ready to take up arms once more.

Aleksei Levinson, the head of sociocultural research at the Levada Center, an independent Moscow pollster, calls the trend the “militarization of the consciousness” of Russians. In the center’s regular surveys, the army in 2018 became the country’s most trusted institution, surpassing even the president. This year, the share of Russians saying they feared a world war hit the highest level recorded in surveys dating to 1994 — 62 percent.

This does not mean, Mr. Levinson cautioned, that Russians would welcome a bloody territorial conquest of Ukraine. But it does mean, he said, that many have been conditioned to accept that Russia is locked in an existential rivalry with other powers in which the use of force is a possibility.

Celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II — referred to as the Great Patriotic War in Russia — has played the most important role in that conditioning. Rather than promoting only a culture of remembrance of Soviet heroism and 27 million lives lost, the Kremlin applies the World War II narrative to the present day, positioning Russia as once again threatened by enemies bent on its destruction.

the grand Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces opened last year. Its exterior is army green and its floors are made from weapons and tanks seized from the German Wehrmacht. Arched stained glass windows feature insignia and medals.

On a recent Sunday, the church and its accompanying museum and park were full of visitors. A group of fifth graders from the Suvorov Military School in Tver, wearing their uniforms, filed out in two lines before marching to the museum. Their instructor said it was fundamentally important for the students, in their first year of military school, to learn about their predecessors.

“We’re doing a bit of propaganda, too,” the section leader quipped, declining to give his name.

Beyond the church grounds, visitors walked among snow-covered trenches in a simulated front line. Further afield, under the towering dome of the church, children could ride around a go-kart like track in a miniature replica of a battle tank.

“All children should come here and develop an interest in history from an early age,” said Alina Grengolm, as her 2-year-old son scrambled up an icy tank with his father’s assistance.

In Moscow recently, more than 600 people from across Russia gathered for a government-sponsored forum aimed at promoting patriotism among youth. Sergei Kiriyenko, Mr. Putin’s powerful deputy chief of staff, praised the attendees for doing “sacred work.”

a new phase of the conflict.

In a Levada poll published last week, 39 percent of Russians said war between Russia and Ukraine was either inevitable or very likely. Half said the United States and NATO were to blame for the recent rise in tensions, and no more than 4 percent — across all age groups — said Russia was at fault.

The conviction across society that Russia is not the aggressor reflects a core ideology dating to Soviet times: that the country only fights defensive wars. The government has even earmarked money for movies that explore that theme: In April, the Culture Ministry decreed that “Russia’s historical victories” and “Russia’s peacekeeping mission” were among the priority topics for film producers seeking government funding.

“Right now, the idea is being pushed that Russia is a peace-loving country permanently surrounded by enemies,” said Anton Dolin, a Russian film critic. “This is contradicted by some facts, but if you show it at the movies and translate that idea into the time of the Great Patriotic War, we all instantly get a scheme familiar to everyone from childhood.”

On Russian state television, the narrative of a Ukraine controlled by neo-Nazis and used as a staging ground for Western aggression has been a common trope since the pro-Western revolution in Kyiv in 2014. After the revolution, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, fomented a war in Ukraine’s east and sharpened its messaging about Russia as a “besieged fortress.”

appears to have dissipated amid economic stagnation.

But the Kremlin is doubling down. Its drive to increase “patriotic education” includes funding for groups like Vympel. The “military patriotic” organization has some 100 chapters around the country, and it organized the recent skills competition in the city of Vladimir that ended on Thursday.

Veronika Osipova, 17, from the city of Rostov-on-Don near Ukraine’s border, won the award for best female student. For years, she played the harp, graduating with honors from an elite music school. But in 2015, she started learning how to shoot a machine gun and throw grenades. She resolved to join the Russian military to protect the country against its enemies.

“I follow the example of girls who, under bullets and grenades, went to fight during the Great Patriotic War,” Ms. Osipova said. “They had no choice, but we do have it, and I choose the army.”

Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, Ivan Nechepurenko from Vladimir, Russia, and Valerie Hopkins from Kubinka, Russia. Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from Moscow.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Supply Chain Shortages Help a North Carolina Furniture Town

HICKORY, N.C. — Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of workers lost their jobs and companies fretted about their economic future, something unexpected happened at Hancock & Moore, a purveyor of custom-upholstered leather couches and chairs in this small North Carolina town.

Orders began pouring in.

Families stuck at home had decided to upgrade their sectionals. Singles tired of looking at their sad futons wanted new and nicer living room furniture. And they were willing to pay up — which turned out to be good, because the cost of every part of producing furniture, from fabric to wood to shipping, was beginning to swiftly increase.

More than a year later, the furniture companies that dot Hickory, N.C., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, have been presented with an unforeseen opportunity: The pandemic and its ensuing supply chain disruptions have dealt a setback to the factories in China and Southeast Asia that decimated American manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s with cheaper imports. At the same time, demand for furniture is very strong.

In theory, that means they have a shot at building back some of the business that they lost to globalization. Local furniture companies had shed jobs and reinvented themselves in the wake of offshoring, shifting to custom upholstery and handcrafted wood furniture to survive. Now, firms like Hancock & Moore have a backlog of orders. The company is scrambling to hire workers.

12 percent nationally through October. Furniture and bedding make up a small slice of the basket of goods and services that the inflation measure tracks — right around 1 percent — so that increase has not been enough to drive overall prices to uncomfortable levels on its own. But the rise has come alongside a bump in car, fuel, food and rent costs that have driven inflation to 6.2 percent, the highest level in 31 years.

The question for policymakers and consumers alike is how long the surge in demand and the limitations in supply will last. A key part of the answer lies in how quickly shipping routes can clear up and whether producers like the craftsmen in Hickory can ramp up output to meet booming demand. But at least domestically, that is proving to be a more challenging task than one might imagine.

container ships cannot clear ports quickly enough, and when imported goods get to dry land, there are not enough trucks around to deliver everything. All of that is compounded by foreign factory shutdowns tied to the virus.

With foreign-made parts failing to reach domestic producers and warehouses, prices for finished goods, parts and raw materials have shot higher. American factories and retailers are raising their own prices. And workers have come into short supply, prompting companies to lift their wages and further fueling inflation as they increase prices to cover those costs.

Chad Ballard, 31, has gone from making $15 per hour building furniture in Hickory at the start of the pandemic to $20 as he moved into a more specialized role.

according to data from Zillow.

toilet paper to new cars. The disruptions go back to the beginning of the pandemic, when factories in Asia and Europe were forced to shut down and shipping companies cut their schedules.

“We have a labor market that is tight and getting tighter,” said Jared Bernstein, a White House economic adviser. Mr. Bernstein said the administration was predicting that solid wage growth would outlast rapid inflation, improving worker leverage.

domestic manufacturing. This moment could help that agenda as it exposes the fragility of far-flung supply networks.

But pandemic employee shortages, which are happening across the United States in part because many people have chosen to retire early, could also serve as a preview of the demographic shift that is coming as the country’s labor force ages. The worker shortages are one reason that ambitions to bring production and jobs back from overseas could prove complicated.

Hickory’s furniture industry was struggling to hire even before the coronavirus struck. It has a particularly old labor force because a generation of talent eschewed an industry plagued by layoffs tied to offshoring. Now, too few young people are entering it to replace those who are retiring.

Local companies have been automating — Hancock & Moore uses a new digital leather cutting machine to save on labor — and they have been working to train employees more proactively.

Several of the larger firms sponsor a local community college’s furniture academy. On a recent Thursday night, employers set up booths at a jobs fair there, forming a hopeful ring around the doorway of the school’s warehouse, welcoming potential candidates with branded lanyards and informational material. It was the first furniture-specific event of its kind.

But progress is slow, as companies try to assure a new — and smaller — generation of young people that the field is worth pursuing. Corporate representatives far outnumbered job seekers for much of the night.

“It’s such a tough market to find people,” said Bill McBrayer, human resources manager at Lexington Home Brands. Companies are turning to short-term workers, but even firms specializing in temporary help cannot find people.

“I’ve been in this business 35 years,” he said, “and it’s never been like this.”

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Covid Live Updates: Variant Alert From South Africa Prompts Rush to Halt Flights

ImageIn the town of Parys, South Africa, on Friday. South Africans faced travel restrictions in several countries over growing fears about the new variant.
Credit…Kim Ludbrook/EPA, via Shutterstock

An increasing number of countries — including Britain, France, Israel, Italy and Singapore — were moving on Friday to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region, a day after South African authorities identified a concerning new coronavirus variant with mutations that one scientist said marked a “big jump in evolution.”

In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement — and hours before health officials from the country were scheduled to discuss the variant with the World Health Organization.

Britain, France and Israel announced bans on flights from South Africa and several neighboring countries on Thursday, citing the threat of the new variant. Britain’s flight ban applies to six countries — South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe — and begins at noon local time on Friday.

“More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said on Twitter.

“While no cases have been detected so far on French territory, the principle of maximum precaution must apply,” Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, said in a statement, adding that anyone in France who had recently traveled to those countries should get tested and identify themselves to the authorities.

The governments of Croatia, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Japan and Singapore announced on Friday that they would impose similar restrictions. Markets were down in Japan in response to the variant’s discovery, and officials in Australia and in New Zealand said that they were monitoring it closely.

“Our scientists are at work to study the new B.1.1.529 variant,” Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, said in a statement, using the variant’s scientific name. “Meanwhile we err on the side of caution.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, also said in a Twitter post on Friday morning that it would propose restricting air travel to European countries from southern Africa because of concerns about the variant.

In the past two days, scientists detected the variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub surrounding Johannesburg. So far only a few dozen cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel and Botswana.

A number of variants have emerged since the onset of the pandemic. One underlying concern about them is whether they will stymie the fight against the virus or limit the effectiveness of vaccines. South African scientists will meet with the World Health Organization technical team on Friday to discuss the new variant, and the authorities will assign it a letter of the Greek alphabet.

In a statement posted on Friday on a government website, South Africa said it would urge Britain to reconsider its travel restrictions, saying: “The U.K.’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the U.K. seems to have been rushed, as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps.”

In December last year, South Africa was the first nation to report the appearance of the Beta variant, which has now spread to nearly 70 countries. Scientists have been concerned that some clinical trials have shown that vaccines offer less protection against the Beta variant. Since then, the more virulent and aggressive Delta variant has spread all over the world and is believed to be fueling the latest surge in cases.

With over 1,200 new infections, South Africa’s daily infection rate is much lower than that in Germany, where new cases are driving a wave. However, the density of mutations on this new variant raises fears that it could be highly contagious, leading scientists to sound the alarm early.

“This variant did surprise us — it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.

Emma Bubola, John Yoon and Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.

Credit…Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

Scientists are still unclear on how effective vaccines will be against the new variant flagged by a team in South Africa, which displays mutations that might resist neutralization. Only several dozen cases have been fully identified so far in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

The new variant, B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” with more than 30 in the spike protein alone, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.

On the ACE2 receptor — the protein that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells — the new variant has 10 mutations. In comparison, the Beta variant has three and the Delta variant two, Mr. de Oliveira said.

The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate evasion of immunity, said Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.

“All these things are what give us some concern that this variant might have not just enhanced transmissibility, so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” Dr. Lessells said.

The new variant has largely been detected among young people, the cohort that also has the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa. Just over a quarter of those ages between 18 and 34 in South Africa are vaccinated, said Dr. Joe Phaahla, the country’s minister of health.

While cases of the variant are mainly concentrated in the country’s economic hub, particularly in the country’s administrative capital, Pretoria, it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads across the country as schools close and families prepare to travel for the holiday season, Dr. Phaahla said.

Credit…Jerome Favre/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Hong Kong government said on Thursday that it had detected two cases of a new variant identified in South Africa, which scientists have warned shows a “big jump in evolution” and could limit the effectiveness of vaccines.

The infections were detected in a man who had returned to Hong Kong from South Africa this month, and later in another man staying across the hall in the same quarantine hotel. (Hong Kong requires almost all overseas arrivals to quarantine in hotels for two to three weeks.) The virus’s genetic sequence was identical in both men, suggesting airborne transmission, according to the city’s Center for Health Protection. Both men were vaccinated.

Further sequencing by the University of Hong Kong confirmed that the viruses belonged to the new variant from South Africa, officials said, though they acknowledged that information about the variant’s public health impact was “lacking at the moment.”

Some Hong Kong experts have questioned the length and efficacy of Hong Kong’s quarantines, noting that officials have recorded several cases of residents in quarantine hotels apparently infecting people who were staying in other rooms.

In the case of the latest variant infections, the government has blamed the first man for not wearing a surgical mask when opening his hotel room door, as well as “unsatisfactory air flow” in the hotel. As of Friday afternoon there had been no reports of infections in nearby rooms.

The presence of the new variant may complicate efforts to reopen the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. For months, Hong Kong officials have said that resuming quarantine-free travel between the Chinese territory and the mainland — virtually the only places in the world still pursuing a containment strategy that seeks full eradication of the virus — is their top priority, even though the strategy has damaged the city’s reputation as a global finance hub.

Mainland officials have said that Hong Kong is not doing enough to control the virus, even though the city has recorded just two locally transmitted cases in the last six months. The mainland has recently faced new domestic outbreaks; on Thursday, the National Health Commission there reported four new local cases.

On Thursday evening, Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, John Lee, said mainland officials had told him earlier in the day that Hong Kong had “basically fulfilled” the conditions to reopen the border. He said details would still need to be worked out, including the introduction of a mainland-style “health code” app that has raised privacy concerns.

Asked by a reporter whether the new variant would delay reopening with the mainland, Mr. Lee said only that the Hong Kong authorities would “ensure that adequate research and tracking are done in this regard.”

“Of course, we must manage and control any new risks,” he said.

Credit…Focke Strangmann/EPA, via Shutterstock

Nearly 20 months after pandemic lockdowns first began, governments across Europe are beginning to tighten restrictions again amid the latest wave of new coronavirus cases, threatening the gains that the region has made against the pandemic.

France is racing to offer booster shots to all adults and will not renew health passes for those who refuse. Deaths are rising in Germany, with its 68 percent vaccination rate, a worrying trend for a highly inoculated country. Austria has been in a nationwide lockdown since Monday, and made vaccinations mandatory.

In Eastern Europe, where far-right and populist groups have fueled vaccine skepticism, vaccination rates are lower than the rest of the continent. Bulgaria, where a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, is turning back to shutdowns or other restrictive measures.

The quickly deteriorating situation in Europe is worrisome for the United States, where seven-day average of new cases has risen 24 percent in the past two weeks. (The number of new deaths reported in the United States is down 6 percent.) Trends in new cases in the United States have tended to follow Europe by a few weeks.

“Time and again, we’ve seen how the infection dynamics in Europe are mirrored here several weeks later,” Carissa F. Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, told reporters on Wednesday. “The future is unfolding before us, and it must be a wake-up call for our region because we are even more vulnerable.”

The White House insists that while new infections are on the rise, the United States can avoid European-style lockdowns.

“We are not headed in that direction,” Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said this week. “We have the tools to accelerate the path out of this pandemic: widely available vaccinations, booster shots, kids’ shots, therapeutics.”

But the chief of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that some countries had lapsed into a “false sense of security.”

He issued a warning during a news briefing on Wednesday: “While Europe is again the epicenter of the pandemic, no country or region is out of the woods.”

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

In Cuba, Desires for Food and Freedom May Spark a Rare Day of Protest

HAVANA — The line starts during the day and stretches into the night. In the dark before dawn, there are hundreds of people waiting. Four women sleep on cardboard boxes, sharing a thin blanket. Others chat to stay awake. A nurse arrives after a 24-hour shift and takes her place.

They each hold a ticket to enter a Cuban government supermarket, which is the only place to find basics like chicken, ground beef and toiletries. At 5:27 a.m. on Wednesday, a man in a fraying baseball cap hands out ticket number 302.

“If you don’t get in line, you don’t buy anything,” said a 35-year-old cook who arrived at 6 p.m. the previous evening and who did not want her name published for fear of retribution.

Even in a country long accustomed to shortages of everything from food to freedom, it has been a remarkably bleak year in Cuba, with Covid-19 restrictions making life under tough new U.S. sanctions even harder.

Now a young generation of dissidents, many of them artists and intellectuals who rely on the internet to spread their ideas, are calling for a protest on Monday, a bold move with little precedent in Cuba. They hope to reignite the marches that filled the streets last summer to demand food, medicine and liberty — and to take on a government that for the first time is not made up of the veterans of 1959’s communist revolution.

Just days before the “Civic March for Change” was set to begin, the organizers appeared to be toning down the protests for fear of violence. Organizers have encouraged people to hang white sheets outside their homes, applaud at 3 p.m., and find other creative ways to demonstrate if they do not feel comfortable taking to the streets.

Despite Cuba’s one-step-forward-two steps-back dance toward openness, experts agree that Cuba is on the cusp of something important, even if the movement behind the protests is unlikely to bring down a Communist Party that has been in power for more than 60 years.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented counterrevolutionary movement in Cuba,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban ambassador to the European Union and an academic who considers himself a “critical” supporter of the government.

It is a crucial moment for the Cuban government. A generation of young people who grew up under Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl are now facing Miguel Díaz-Canel, a longtime party stalwart who became president in 2018. At 61, he represents a younger generation of Cuba’s Communist Party, and the person tasked with seeing it into the future.

Mr. Díaz-Canel blames Cuba’s economic ills on the longstanding U.S. embargo, which has been ramped up in recent years. The Trump administration restricted travel to the island, cut off remittances and further locked the island out of the international financial system, pummeling its foreign exchange inflows.

He has proved himself just as willing as his predecessors to crack down on dissent. When protesters took to the streets on July 11, Mr. Díaz-Canel encouraged party members to rush after them. Government supporters pursued the demonstrators with batons.

Some 1,000 people were arrested and 659 remain jailed, according to a count by the civil rights group, Cubalex.

After Monday’s planned demonstration was announced, the Cuban government launched a massive media campaign against it, insisting that its leaders are pawns of the United States.

Yunior García, a playwright, has emerged as one of the movement’s leaders. He was among the founders of Archipiélago, a Facebook group of about 35,000 members that promotes discussion and debate. The group is the main promoter of rallies scheduled to take place in cities around the country on Monday.

“I believe that the role of art is to awaken,” he said. “We have to shake things up so that people with dignity that make up society decide to change things.”

The Cuban government has publicly criticized Mr. García, saying that workshops he attended abroad, such as one that was about how dissidents could forge alliances with the Cuban military, amounted to planning a popular uprising. Mr. García said he was doing research for a script.

Mr. García acknowledges meeting with American officials in Havana, but said he went to record a podcast and discuss the effects of the trade embargo.

His internet and phone services are routinely cut, he said, and he recently found a decapitated chicken outside his front door, a religious hex, which he saw as a political threat. State security has even visited his mother-in-law three times at work, he added.

“They have used every tool at their disposal to intimidate us,” Mr. García said.

Mr. García said on Thursday that he would march alone, in silence, on Sunday. He also urged others to take whatever peaceful measures they could on Monday to avoid provoking a reaction from the police.

His announcement, posted on Facebook, left unclear whether the rallies would still take place. Raúl Prado, a cinematographer and one of the platform’s coordinators, said demonstrators would protest “to the extent that the circumstances allow.”

If no police car is parked outside his house preventing him from leaving on the 15th, he will march to insist on the liberation of political prisoners and to demand human rights, Mr. Prado said.

“There is no other way to achieve change,” Mr. Prado said. “If it’s not us, then the responsibility will fall on our children.”

At least two coordinators of Archipiélago have been fired from their state jobs because of their involvement with the group, which Mr. Díaz-Canel has denounced as a Trojan horse for U.S.-backed regime change.

“Their embassy in Cuba has been taking an active role in efforts to subvert the internal order of our country,” Mr. Díaz-Canel said in a recent speech.

The U.S. government spends $20 million a year on projects designed to promote democracy in Cuba — money the Cuban government sees as illegal attacks on its sovereignty.

But Archipiélago members interviewed by the Times denied receiving any money from the U.S. government, and emphasized that Cuban problems are for Cubans alone to solve.

“Archipiélago is not a movement, a political party, or an opposition group,” Mr. Prado said. “It does not have a particular political line.”

The young and hip group of Cubans behind the Facebook group contrast with classic dissidents on the island, who were often older, unknown to most Cubans and deeply divided in factions.

The arrival of the internet, which came to Cuban telephones three years ago after diplomatic deals cut with the Obama administration, was a game-changer. With internet now widely available, ordinary citizens are abreast of anti-government activities, and are quick to post their own complaints as well.

Hal Klepak, professor emeritus of history and strategy at the Royal Military College of Canada, said the scale of opposition the government has faced this year is unparalleled in Cuba’s history since the revolution.

“No one had ever imagined tens of thousands of people in the streets,” he said. “It is visible and by Cuban standards it is loud. It’s something we’ve never seen before.”

But the question remains whether ordinary Cubans will attend Monday’s protest, considering the government declared it illegal, and its organizers have toned down their calls.

The protest was scheduled on the very day that quarantine rules are being lifted, tourists are being welcomed back and children are set to return to school. The wave of Covid-19 fatalities that helped fuel the July protest has largely subsided, and 70 percent of the nation is now fully vaccinated.

Abraham Alfonso Moreno, a gym teacher who at 5 a.m. held ticket number 215 outside the government store, said he did not protest in July and would not on Monday either. “In the end, it’s not going to solve anything,” he said.

He was more fixated on finding allergy pills.

Marta María Ramírez, a feminist, pro-democracy and gay rights activist in Havana, said the people who rushed to protest in July were more concerned about food than democracy, but that could be changing.

“The first cries were not for freedom. The first cries were more urgent: food, medicine, electricity,” she said. “Freedom came afterward.”

Frances Robles contributed reporting.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Covid-19 Misinformation Goes Unchecked on Radio and Podcasts

On a recent episode of his podcast, Rick Wiles, a pastor and self-described “citizen reporter,” endorsed a conspiracy theory: that Covid-19 vaccines were the product of a “global coup d’état by the most evil cabal of people in the history of mankind.”

“It’s an egg that hatches into a synthetic parasite and grows inside your body,” Mr. Wiles said on his Oct. 13 episode. “This is like a sci-fi nightmare, and it’s happening in front of us.”

Mr. Wiles belongs to a group of hosts who have made false or misleading statements about Covid-19 and effective treatments for it. Like many of them, he has access to much of his listening audience because his show appears on a platform provided by a large media corporation.

Mr. Wiles’s podcast is available through iHeart Media, an audio company based in San Antonio that says it reaches nine out of 10 Americans each month. Spotify and Apple are other major companies that provide significant audio platforms for hosts who have shared similar views with their listeners about Covid-19 and vaccination efforts, or have had guests on their shows who promoted such notions.

protect people against the coronavirus for long periods and have significantly reduced the spread of Covid-19. As the global death toll related to Covid-19 exceeds five million — and at a time when more than 40 percent of Americans are not fully vaccinated — iHeart, Spotify, Apple and many smaller audio companies have done little to rein in what radio hosts and podcasters say about the virus and vaccination efforts.

“There’s really no curb on it,” said Jason Loviglio, an associate professor of media and communication studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “There’s no real mechanism to push back, other than advertisers boycotting and corporate executives saying we need a culture change.”

Audio industry executives appear less likely than their counterparts in social media to try to check dangerous speech. TruNews, a conservative Christian media outlet founded by Mr. Wiles, who used the phrase “Jew coup” to describe efforts to impeach former President Donald J. Trump, has been banned by YouTube. His podcast remains available on iHeart.

Asked about his false statements concerning Covid-19 vaccines, Mr. Wiles described pandemic mitigation efforts as “global communism.” “If the Needle Nazis win, freedom is over for generations, maybe forever,” he said in an email.

The reach of radio shows and podcasts is great, especially among young people: A recent survey from the National Research Group, a consulting firm, found that 60 percent of listeners under 40 get their news primarily through audio, a type of media they say they trust more than print or video.

unfounded claim that “45,000 people have died from taking the vaccine.” In his final Twitter post, on July 30, Mr. Bernier accused the government of “acting like Nazis” for encouraging Covid-19 vaccines.

Jimmy DeYoung Sr., whose program was available on iHeart, Apple and Spotify, died of Covid-19 complications after making his show a venue for false or misleading statements about vaccines. One of his frequent guests was Sam Rohrer, a former Pennsylvania state representative who likened the promotion of Covid-19 vaccines to Nazi tactics and made a sweeping false statement. “This is not a vaccine, by definition,” Mr. Rohrer said on an April episode. “It is a permanent altering of my immune system, which God created to handle the kinds of things that are coming that way.” Mr. DeYoung thanked his guest for his “insight.” Mr. DeYoung died four months later.

has said his research has been “misinterpreted” by anti-vaccine activists. He added that Covid-19 vaccines have been found to reduce transmissions substantially, whereas chickens inoculated with the Marek’s disease vaccine were still able to transmit the disease. Mr. Sexton did not reply to a request for comment.

more than 600 podcasts and operates a vast online archive of audio programs — has rules for the podcasters on its platform prohibiting them from making statements that incite hate, promote Nazi propaganda or are defamatory. It would not say whether it has a policy concerning false statements on Covid-19 or vaccination efforts.

Apple’s content guidelines for podcasts prohibit “content that may lead to harmful or dangerous outcomes, or content that is obscene or gratuitous.” Apple did not reply to requests for comment for this article.

Spotify, which says its podcast platform has 299 million monthly listeners, prohibits hate speech in its guidelines. In a response to inquiries, the company said in a written statement that it also prohibits content “that promotes dangerous false or dangerous deceptive content about Covid-19, which may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.” The company added that it had removed content that violated its policies. But the episode with Mr. DeYoung’s conversation with Mr. Rohrer was still available via Spotify.

Dawn Ostroff, Spotify’s content and advertising business officer, said at a conference last month that the company was making “very aggressive moves” to invest more in content moderation. “There’s a difference between the content that we make and the content that we license and the content that’s on the platform,” she said, “but our policies are the same no matter what type of content is on our platform. We will not allow any content that infringes or that in any way is inaccurate.”

The audio industry has not drawn the same scrutiny as large social media companies, whose executives have been questioned in congressional hearings about the platforms’ role in spreading false or misleading information.

The social media giants have made efforts over the last year to stop the flow of false reports related to the pandemic. In September, YouTube said it was banning the accounts of several prominent anti-vaccine activists. It also removes or de-emphasizes content it deems to be misinformation or close to it. Late last year, Twitter announced that it would remove posts and ads with false claims about coronavirus vaccines. Facebook followed suit in February, saying it would remove false claims about vaccines generally.

now there’s podcasting.”

The Federal Communications Commission, which grants licenses to companies using the public airwaves, has oversight over radio operators, but not podcasts or online audio, which do not make use of the public airwaves.

The F.C.C. is barred from violating American citizens’ right to free speech. When it takes action against a media company over programming, it is typically in response to complaints about content considered obscene or indecent, as when it fined a Virginia television station in 2015 for a newscast that included a segment on a pornographic film star.

In a statement, an F.C.C. spokesman said the agency “reviews all complaints and determines what is actionable under the Constitution and the law.” It added that the main responsibility for what goes on the air lies with radio station owners, saying that “broadcast licensees have a duty to act in the public interest.”

The world of talk radio and podcasting is huge, and anti-vaccine sentiment is a small part of it. iHeart offers an educational podcast series about Covid-19 vaccines, and Spotify created a hub for podcasts about Covid-19 from news outlets including ABC and Bloomberg.

on the air this year, describing his decision to get vaccinated and encouraging his listeners to do the same.

Recently, he expressed his eagerness to get a booster shot and mentioned that he had picked up a new nickname: “The Vaxxinator.”

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<