China in paradox regarding COVID-19
TAIPEI, Taiwan — The sweeping “zero-tolerance” strategy that China has used to keep COVID-19 case numbers low and its economy functioning may, paradoxically, make it harder for the country to exit the pandemic.
Most experts say the coronavirus isn’t going away and could eventually become, like the flu, a persistent but generally manageable threat if enough people gain immunity through infections and vaccines.
In countries like Britain and the U.S., which have had comparatively light restrictions against the omicron wave, there is a glimmer of hope that the process might be underway. Cases skyrocketed in recent weeks but have since dropped in Britain and may have leveled off in the U.S., perhaps because the extremely contagious variant is running out of people to infect.
Some places already are talking about easing COVID-19 precautions.
But China, which will be in the international spotlight when the Beijing Winter Olympics begin in two weeks, is not seeing the same dynamic.
The communist government’s practice throughout the pandemic of trying to find and isolate every infected person has largely protected hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and staved off the deaths that have engulfed most of the world.
But the uncompromising approach also means most people in China have never been exposed to the virus.
At the same time, the effectiveness of China’s most widely used vaccines has been called into question. New studies suggest they offer significantly less protection against infection from omicron, even after three doses, than people get after booster shots of the leading Western vaccines.
Together, those factors could complicate China’s effort to get past the pandemic.
Experts say that if the country of 1.4 billion people were to relax restrictions, it could face a surge similar to what Singapore or Australia experienced, despite a highly vaccinated population.
“China’s susceptibility to outbreaks is likely to be more because most people have not been exposed to the virus due to the stringent measures that were put in place, thus lacking hybrid immunity, which is supposed to prove better protection than vaccination alone,” said Dr. Vineeta Bal, an immunologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research.
“It is risky for China to reopen right now because omicron is spreading globally, and even if the variant doesn’t cause major illness, it’ll spread like wildfire,” she added.
Dali Yang, a professor who studies Chinese politics at the University of Chicago, said, “It’s a big challenge, for leaders, especially their rhetoric on saving lives. How do you justify opening up and then having tens of thousands of people dying in the process?”
Chinese President Xi Jinping has cited China’s approach as a “major strategic success” and evidence of the “significant advantages” of its political system over Western liberal democracies.
The world’s most populous nation was the only major economy to grow in 2020, and it accounted for a fraction of global deaths and infections.
As part of the country’s tough-minded strategy for keeping the virus at bay, residents in Chinese cities must display their infection status on a government-monitored app to enter supermarkets, offices or even the capital.
But weeks ahead of the Olympics, omicron is testing this approach with outbreaks in the southern province of Guangdong, as well as Beijing.
Blazers’ Lillard discusses his surgery, possible return
During the Tokyo Olympics, when Damian Lillard’s abdominal injury flared up, Jrue Holiday suggested it was time for surgery.
Lillard finally took his fellow Olympian’s advice and had the procedure Jan. 13. The Trail Blazers’ star point guard spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since the injury sidelined him on Jan. 3.
Holiday, who currently plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, had similar core surgery during the 2018-19 season when he was with New Orleans. He and Lillard were teammates in Japan last summer on the gold medal-winning U.S. team.
“He was the first person that pretty much confirmed that I needed to have surgery because I sat out of practice one day and I was like, ‘I can’t move,’ and I was kind of just holding it. And he just started describing every single symptom,” Lillard said. “And he was like ‘I had it.’ ”
Lillard, a six-time All-Star, averaged 24 points and 7.3 assists in 29 games this season for the Blazers. It was clear from the start that the injury, lower abdominal tendinopathy, was bothersome.
“It was just one of those things where I’ve always had control over how I moved and everything, and it had reached a point where my body couldn’t do what my mind wanted it to do, and go places that I wanted it to go,” he said. “At some point you’ve got to play chess, you’ve got to make decisions that suit you for the long haul and not just right now.”
While the injury flared up in Tokyo, Lillard said he first felt the abdominal pain in 2015 and it had been gradually getting worse ever since.
The Blazers have struggled without Lillard, the undisputed leader of the team. Playing under first-year coach Chauncey Billups, Portland is 19-26 and in 10th place in the Western Conference.
Anfernee Simons has taken over as Portland’s point guard and has averaged 15.1 points per game. Portland was also playing for an extended period without Lillard’s backcourt teammate CJ McCollum, who had a collapsed right lung before becoming a father for the first time.
McCollum recently returned and had 24 points in Portland’s 109-105 victory at the Boston Celtics on Friday night.
There was no timeline for Lillard’s return, but he’s already been doing yoga. The team previously said he would be re-evaluated in six weeks.
“I’m just a week from surgery. We said we’ll re-evaluate my situation weeks out, six to eight weeks, and we’ll talk about it then. But I’m not in a rush,” he said. “My number one goal is to win a championship. I’ve got to be in the best form of myself to make that happen and to be a part of that. So I’m not in a rush. We’ll talk about whatever that timeline is when we get to that point.”
Lillard was asked if he’d play if the Blazers decided to forgo a playoff push and play for a draft pick.
“I mean, if we’re gonna play for a draft pick it wouldn’t make sense to me. Because I’m not gonna play for no draft pick. I’m just not capable of that,” he said. “So it’d be best if that was what we were doing, or what was decided, then it wouldn’t make sense for me to play.”
Vaccines protested in European capitals
HELSINKI — Thousands of people gathered in European capitals Saturday to protest vaccine passports and other requirements that governments have imposed in hopes of ending the coronavirus pandemic.
Demonstrations took place in Athens, Helsinki, London, Paris and Stockholm.
Marches in Paris drew hundreds of demonstrators protesting the introduction of a new COVID-19 pass. It will severely restrict the lives of those who refuse to get vaccinated by banning them from domestic flights, sports events, bars, cinemas and other leisure venues. French media reported that demonstrators also marched by the hundreds in other cities.
In Sweden, where vaccine certificates are required to attend indoor events with more than 50 people, some 3,000 demonstrators marched though central Stockholm and assembled in a main square for a protest organized by the Frihetsrorelsen — or Freedom Movement.
Swedish media reported that representatives from the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement attended the action with a banner.
A similar demonstration with some 1,000 participants was held also in Goteborg, Sweden’s second-largest city.
The Finnish government authorized local and regional authorities just before Christmas to introduce “extensive and full measures” in response to rising virus cases. They included limiting or prohibiting events, moving university classes online, limiting restaurant service and closing venues where people have a higher risk of exposure.
Death toll from airstrike on Yemen prison hits 82
CAIRO — The death toll from a Saudi-led coalition airstrike that hit a prison run by Yemen’s Houthi rebels has climbed to at least 82 detainees, the rebels and an aid group said Saturday.
Internet access in the Arab world’s poorest country, meanwhile, remained largely down as the coalition continued airstrikes on the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, and elsewhere.
The airstrike in the northern Saada province Friday was part of an intense air and ground offensive that marked an escalation in Yemen’s yearslong civil war. The conflict pits the internationally recognized government, aided by the Saudi-led coalition, against the Iranian-backed rebels.
The increase in hostilities follows a Houthi claim of a drone and missile attack that struck inside the United Arab Emirates’ capital earlier in the week. It also comes as government forces, aided by UAE-backed troops and coalition airstrikes, have reclaimed the entire Shabwa province from the Houthis and pressured them in the central Marib province. Houthis there have attempted for a year to take control of its provincial capital.
Ahmed Mahat, head of Doctors Without Borders’ mission in Yemen, told The Associated Press that his group counted at least 82 dead and more than 265 wounded in the airstrike.
The Houthis’ media office said rescuers were still searching for survivors and bodies in the rubble of the prison site in Saada, on the border with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Turki al-Malki said the Houthis hadn’t reported the site as needing protection from airstrikes to the U.N. or the International Committee of the Red Cross. He claimed the Houthis’ failure to do so represented the militia’s “usual deceptive approach” in the conflict.
The Houthis used the prison complex to hold detained migrants, mostly Africans attempting to cross through the war-torn country into Saudi Arabia, according to the humanitarian organization Save the Children.
But Mahat said the airstrike hit a different part of the facility housing other types of detainees, and no migrants were killed.
Al-Malki said reports that the coalition targeted the prison were inaccurate and that the coalition would correspond “facts and details” to the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to Saudi state-run television.
The Saada attack followed another Saudi-led coalition airstrike Friday at the Red Sea port city of Hodeida that hit a telecommunications center key to Yemen’s connection to the internet. Access to the internet has remained “largely down for more than 24 hours” in the country, advocacy group NetBlocks said Saturday.
The Saada airstrike, one of the deadliest of the war, was not the first to hit a Houthi-run prison. A September 2019 airstrike hit a detention center in the southwestern Dhamar province, killing more than 100 people and wounding dozens.
Rights groups have documented the Houthis placing civilian detention centers near military barracks under constant threat of airstrikes.
Friday’s airstrikes have renewed criticism of the coalition from the United Nations and international aid and rights groups, who just days previous had blasted the Houthis for the attack on the Emirates.
Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties, killing thousands of civilians, according to monitoring groups. The Houthis, meanwhile, have used child soldiers and indiscriminately laid land mines across the country. They also launched cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE using ballistic missiles and explosives-laden drones.
The coalition continued its airstrikes on Sanaa and elsewhere Saturday, targeting a Houthi-held military facility and an abandoned headquarters of Yemeni state TV in the capital. The coalition said airstrikes also targeted the Houthis in the contested Harib district in Marib.
And Yemeni forces closely allied with the UAE, known as the Giants Brigades, said they shot down three drones carrying explosives launched by the Houthis on government-held areas in Marib and Shabwa provinces.
Vancouver eyes more affordable housing
City staff presented nine proposed updates to zoning codes during a virtual open house Tuesday that would allow more development of affordable housing.
Vancouver is rapidly expanding, which is increasing the need for more affordable housing. The city says increasing housing options near existing services and in accordance with demographic needs will improve Vancouver’s future growth and overall livability.
Bryan Snodgrass, Vancouver’s long-range principal planner, said current zoning codes restrict these housing options from coming into fruition.
“This work is trying to chip away and improvise some useful tools” for affordable housing, he said.
The updates being considered include implementing new zoning categories.
Specifically, a single-family R-17 zoning district standard would allow subdivisions with lots between 2,500 and 5,000 square feet. There would be flexibility for lot coverage and parking strategies.
It would also incorporate function requirements for street fronts. Reduced garage door size would allow space for on-site utilities and street parking; visible front doors would increase neighborhood security; rear alley parking would support street front activity; and limited building repetition would foster visual interest in neighborhoods, Snodgrass said.
Updated multi-family R-50 zoning would permit up to 50 units per acre, rather than the current limit of 35 units, and increase lot coverage and building height.
Proposed standards would also allow 1,600-square-foot cottage cluster housing to be built in lower-density residential spaces. City staff based the proposed code on what other local jurisdictions were doing, Snodgrass said.
There are pre-existing cottage clusters in Battle Ground, and other communities such as Ridgefield have approved the building standards.
Apartments with a shared kitchen and bathroom would be allowed in multi-family zones under the proposed code changes. These facilities are currently allowed only in medical or recovery environments.
Micro housing in higher-density areas, the expansion of accessory dwelling units, and building incentives for accessible housing are also addressed in the changes. The latter would require buildings to have wide doorways, no-step entries and bathrooms on the first floor.
Those present at the meeting voiced concerns regarding how new developments would affect historic neighborhood integrity and suggested that city staff consult with the Clark County Historical Preservation Commission. They also urged staff to be specific in code language to avoid homes getting rezoned in the future.
“Developments don’t typically result in the tear-down of existing homes in any number,” Snodgrass said.
Most of the updates were previously recommended in a 2016 Affordable Housing Task Force report. Many of the proposed changes are in effect throughout the county and state.
To comply with state laws, the city is proposing to allow additional density for affordable housing developments on property owned by religious organizations. State law also requires reduced minimum parking standards near busy transit stops for market rate, affordable, senior or disabled housing.
Vancouver’s Planning Commission will draft codes Tuesday for updated standards for new apartments next to existing homes, faith-based affordable housing and reduced parking for apartments near transit. Oral or written feedback can be submitted to the planning commission before the meeting.
The Vancouver City Council must approve and adopt the code updates for them to take effect. Afterward, developers would go through a site-specific review process and notify nearby properties before building. If developers want to use the new zoning district standards, they will go through public hearings before the city council and planning commission.
Witnesses: Extremists abduct 17 girls in northeast Nigeria
ABUJA, Nigeria — Islamic extremists have abducted 17 girls in northeast Nigeria, witnesses said Saturday as the West African nation’s military said it “remains resolute in decisively countering the terrorists.”
Members of the Boko Haram jihadi group attacked Pemi, a village in the Chibok local government area of Borno state, on Thursday, two residents told The Associated Press. The state is where Boko Haram’s decade-long insurgency against the Nigeria government has been concentrated.
In a statement late Friday, the Islamic State group also claimed responsibility for killing “many Christians” and setting fire to two churches and several houses during an attack on the Borno town of Bimi.
Authorities blame Boko Haram for the killing of tens of thousands of people in Nigeria and neighboring countries in West Africa.
The abduction of the girls from Pemi recalled the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, a remote town situated 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. More than 100 of the abducted students remain missing.
The militants targeted a church and Christians when they stormed Pemi on Thursday, according to local leader Hassan Chibok.
“They were shooting sporadically after they rounded the community,” Chibok said. “Some could not have access to escape, so they abducted 17 girls.” Eight of the girls came from one household, he said.
Nigeria’s military and government authorities did not immediately respond the AP’s request for comment on the abductions.
Another resident, Yana Galang, said the extremists razed a church building and targeted nearby houses.
“Some of them (the abducted girls) are 10, 11, 12 years,” Galang said. “They just parked their vehicle near the compounds. You know, as children, they just carried them and put them in the vehicle.”
A Nigerian army spokesperson, Onyema Nwachukwu, told AP on Friday that the insurgents were “desperate” to grow their influence. He was commenting on a video from a Boko Haram offshoot which purported to show child soldiers executing Nigerian army personnel.
“Having been depleted by our troops, the imbroglio in their ranks and the massive surrendering of Boko Haram, the terrorists, in a desperate move, are embarking on a recruitment drive to shore up their strength with child soldiers, who they could easily indoctrinate, manipulate and cheaply manage financially,” Nwachukwu said.
The Islamic extremist rebels in northeast Nigeria — comprising Boko Haram and its breakaway faction, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) — remain “very, very dangerous”, United Nations humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said this week.
The insurgency and its resultant humanitarian crisis, Griffiths told the AP, is “very difficult to deter (and) a grave and clear and present danger.”
Security analysts have told AP one of the challenges the Nigerian military usually faces in rooting out the rebels is their use of women and children as cover during airstrikes.
“They have also conscripted children, minors, who they engage as child soldiers and women, whom they use as sex slaves,” army spokesperson Nwachukwu said.
Berlusconi drops bid to be elected as Italy’s president
ROME — Former premier Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday bowed out of Italy’s presidential election set for next week, claiming he had the votes to win but the country could ill-afford political divisions during the pandemic.
Berlusconi also announced that he is opposing, along with his allies in a center-right bloc, any bid for the presidency by Premier Mario Draghi. Draghi, the former head of Europe’s central bank, is now leading a pandemic-unity government with wide political support.
Together, Berlusconi, anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and nationalist Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni could command some 400 of the 1,009 grand electors who are set to start casting written ballots for Italy’s next president on Monday.
The electors from the lower house of the Italian parliament, the Senate and special regional representatives are tasked with choosing a figure who could unite the country.
Berlusconi, 85, who founded the center-right Forza Italia party three decades ago and served as premier three times, long has been a lightning rod for protests. His past includes a tax fraud conviction and a slew of sex scandals linked to ‘’bunga bunga parties,” while his business empire that includes three private TV stations raised conflict-of-interest concerns.
He spent weeks sounding out his own conservative allies as well as lawmakers from centrist forces to see if he had sufficient support to add Italy’s highest office to his political resume.
The prospect of Berlusconi becoming president already prompted a protest earlier this month in Rome, and another had been set for Monday, when voting begins.
In dropping his presidential bid, Berlusconi said he had confirmed he would have had enough support to be elected to the seven-year term of president. He said he was “honored and moved” but didn’t want to be the cause of “polemics or lacerations” in a nation still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.
With his characteristic lack of modesty, Berlusconi added that the presidency “represents the unity of the nation, of the country that I love and to whose service I placed myself for 30 years, with all my energies, my abilities, my competency.”
He noted he was one of the biggest backers last year of Draghi’s appointment to head a pandemic-unity coalition government of nearly all of Italy’s main parties, from right to left. The coalition emerged in 2021 after the pandemic economically ravaged Italy and confidence ebbed in the government of then-Premier Giuseppe Conte, a populist leader.
“In this spirit, I decided to take another step on the path of national responsibility” by asking all those who had pledged support for his presidential bid not to choose him. Instead, he and his fellow center-right leaders will work to “come to agreement on a name able to reap a vast consensus in Parliament.”
Italy’s recovery from the pandemic, “must go forward,” Berlusconi said. “That’s why I consider it necessary that the Draghi government complete its work until the end of the legislature to implement” some 200 billion euros ($230 billion) in European Union pandemic recovery funds, he said. The current Parliament’s term runs until spring 2023.
Draghi, who is held in high esteem by EU leaders, is largely viewed as the guarantor that the funds will be properly spent and reforms that are required for the assistance will be enacted.
He also is considered a strong contender for the presidency, but for months has coyly sidestepped journalists’ questions on whether he wants the job. However, Draghi made clear his interest by saying he offers himself to the service of his country.
Berlusconi taking himself out of contention brought reactions of relief, including from former premier Conte, whose 5-Star Movement had been branded by Berlusconi as a danger to the nation.
“We had said it clearly — the candidacy of Berlusconi was unacceptable,” Conte tweeted. ”With his withdrawal we can take a step forward and begin a serious comparison among political forces to offer to the country a figure of high profile, authoritative, widely shared.”
Despite Berlusconi’s claim that he had secured the needed votes, League leader Salvini recently had sounded unconvinced that the media mogul was a shoe-in for the presidency.
A two-thirds majority is required in the first three rounds, making it unlikely a winner could emerge early on, given no one political bloc accounts for such a big margin. The fourth round requires a simple majority.
Past presidential elections have gone for days before yielding a victor.
The term of the current president, Sergio Mattarella, term expires on Feb. 3.
Omicron wave leaves U.S. food banks scrambling for volunteers
WASHINGTON — Food banks across the country are experiencing a critical shortage of volunteers as the omicron variant frightens people away from their usual shifts, and companies and schools that regularly supply large groups of volunteers are canceling their participation over virus fears.
The end result in many cases has been a serious increase in spending by the food banks at a time when they are already dealing with higher food costs due to inflation and supply chain issues.
“Food banks rely on volunteers. That’s how we keep the costs low,” said Shirley Schofield, CEO of the Food Bank of North Alabama. “The work still gets done but at a much higher expense.”
The extent of the problem was highlighted this past week during the national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when many food banks have traditionally organized mass volunteer drives as part of a day of service.
Michael Altfest, director of community engagement for the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, California, called it “without fail, our biggest volunteer event of the year.”
But many food banks chose to cancel their plans this year or continued with radically lower numbers than pre-pandemic years.
Altfest said his food bank’s King Day event drew 73 people spread out over two shifts, when previous years had drawn more than 200 people with all volunteer slots booked up before New Year’s Day. The food bank did not attempt an event last year.
In Tallahassee, Florida, plans for a volunteer-driven event on the holiday were abruptly canceled when all the volunteers dropped out. Schofield said executives at her food bank in Huntsville, Alabama, are debating whether to cut back on their mobile food pantry distributions because they simply do not have enough volunteer-packed food boxes to hand out.
The shortage of volunteers is not universal.
Michael Manning of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in Louisiana said his volunteer numbers have remained strong and his MLK Day event proceeded normally with two shifts of more than 50 people.
But several food banks have reported a similar dynamic: minimal volunteers for most of 2021, then a surge last fall through November and December before falling off a cliff in January.
Food banks generally use volunteers to sort through donations and to pack ready-made boxes of goods for distribution. It is common practice to arrange for local companies or schools to send over large groups of volunteers, but that has left the system vulnerable to those institutions pulling out all at once.
At the Second Harvest of the Big Bend food bank in Tallahassee, Florida, the volunteer numbers have remained solid through the omicron surge. But CEO Monique Van Pelt said she was forced to cancel her MLK Day plans because the volunteers all came from a single corporate partner that “didn’t think it was safe for them to gathering as a group in such tight quarters.”
Jamie Sizemore had planned for 54 volunteers from three corporate groups at the Feeding America, Kentucky’s Heartland food bank in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. But two groups canceled and the third sent less than half its promised number.
“We did manage to pick up some last minute individuals for a total of 12 volunteers for the day,” said Sizemore, the executive director. She added that a long-term contingent of eight assigned Kentucky National Guardsmen frequently help fill the volunteer gaps.
Even outdoor volunteer work, with seemingly less exposure risk than warehouse work, has suffered.
In Irvine, California, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County has launched an ambitious farm project on 45 acres of land provided by University of California. So far, 22 acres have been planted with cabbage and broccoli, and it’s harvest time. The plan was conceived with the intention of using up to 300 volunteers per week, organized in groups from corporate partners such as Disney. But most of the partnering organizations have suspended their volunteer drives amid the omicron surge.
“It’s a bummer because it’s a great outdoor experience,” said Claudia Keller, the food bank’s CEO . “We’re crossing our fingers that this is a short-term thing. We know many of the volunteers are chomping at the bit to get out there.”
The sudden absence of volunteer labor forces most food banks into more expensive choices. When the farm runs short of volunteers, paid laborers are employed.
At the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., CEO Radha Muthiah has to order truckloads of prepackaged boxes of mixed goods to distribute because there aren’t enough volunteers to pack.
“When it’s prepackaged, that tends to increase the price significantly,” Muthiah said.
A truckload of produce on pallets costs about $9,000, but a truckload of ready-to-distribute care packages can cost between $13,000 and $18,000, she said.
In addition to the financial costs, some executives point out a more subtle impact.
“Volunteerism is about more than just getting the boxes packed,” said Schofield, from the Alabama food bank. “It builds camaraderie and a sense of community. It’s a sign of a healthy community at large.”
Vince Hall, government relations officer for Feeding America, which coordinates the work of more than 200 food banks, said the volunteer numbers are partially a reflection of long-term emotional fatigue and burnout. As the nation endures a second pandemic winter and the omicron variant rolls back some of the progress people expected from the vaccine, long-time volunteers are wearing down.
“These people who are really part of the bedrock of our volunteer workforce, They’ve been doing this since March of 2020,” Hall said. “It takes an emotional toll on people.”
Arizona Democrats Censure Sinema After Filibuster Vote
Kyrsten Sinema, a first-term Arizona senator, was rebuked by fellow Democrats in her state after her vote on the filibuster helped sink the party’s voting-rights legislation.
Britain Says Moscow Is Plotting to Install a Pro-Russian Leader in Ukraine
In a highly unusual public statement, backed by U.S. officials, London named the putative head of a potential puppet government but few other details.