As omicron fuels surge, US students stage walkouts to protest in-person classes

Chicago Public Schools students protest outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters during a district-wide walkout, Jan. 14, 2022, in Chicago. (AP)
Chicago Public Schools students protest outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters during a district-wide walkout, Jan. 14, 2022, in Chicago. (AP)
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Updated 15 January 2022

As omicron fuels surge, US students stage walkouts to protest in-person classes

Chicago Public Schools students protest outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters during a district-wide walkout, Jan. 14, 2022, in Chicago. (AP)
  • About 600 young people from 11 Boston schools participated in student walkouts there, according to the school district, which serves nearly 52,000 pupils

BOSTON/CHICAGO: Hundreds of students in Boston and Chicago walked out of classes on Friday in protests demanding a switch to remote learning as a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant disrupted efforts at returning to in-person education around the United States.
In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, the walkout came two days after in-classroom instruction resumed for 340,000 students who were idled during a five-day work stoppage by unionized teachers pressing for tougher COVID-19 safeguards.
Protesting students said they were dissatisfied with the additional health protocols the teachers union agreed to earlier this week, ending its standoff with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“I think CPS is listening, but I’m not sure they’ll make a change,” said Jaden Horten, a junior at Jones College Prep High School, during a rally at district headquarters that drew around a thousand students.
The demonstration followed student walkouts at various schools around the city.
About 600 young people from 11 Boston schools participated in student walkouts there, according to the school district, which serves nearly 52,000 pupils. Many protesting students returned to classrooms later, while others went home after taking part in peaceful demonstrations.
An online petition started by a Boston high school senior branding schools a “COVID-19 breeding ground” and calling for a remote learning option had collected more than 8,000 signatures as of Friday morning.
The Boston Student Advisory Council, which organized the walkout, posted a series of demands on Twitter, including two weeks of online instruction and more stringent COVID-19 testing for teachers and students.
The latest wave of infections has renewed the debate over whether to keep schools open, as officials seek to balance fears about the highly contagious omicron variant with concerns that children could fall further behind academically after two years of stop-and-start instruction. The result has been a patchwork of COVID-19 policies around the country that has left parents feeling exhausted and bewildered https://www.reuters.com/world/us/exhausted-parents-navigate-patchwork-us....
Ash O’Brien, a 10th-grade student at Boston Latin School who left the building with about a dozen others on Friday, said he didn’t feel safe staying in school.
“I live with two grandparents who are immune-compromised,” he said. “So I don’t want to go to school, risk getting sick and come home to them.”
In a statement, Boston Public Schools said it supports students advocating for their beliefs and vowed to listen to their concerns.
Earlier this week, students at several New York City schools staged a walkout to protest what they said were inadequate safety measures. Mayor Eric Adams said on Thursday his administration was considering a temporary remote learning option for a significant number of students who were staying home.
Nearly 5,000 public schools across the country have closed for at least one day this week due to the pandemic, according to Burbio, a website that tracks school disruptions.
The omicron surge appears to be slowing in areas of the country that were hit first. In the last week, the average daily tally of new cases has risen only 5 percent in Northeastern and Southern states compared with the prior seven-day period, according to a Reuters analysis. In Western states, by contrast, the average number of infections documented every day has climbed 89 percent in the past week compared with the previous week.
Overall, the United States is still tallying nearly 800,000 new infections a day amid record numbers of hospitalized patients with COVID-19.


UK lawmaker says she was sacked from ministerial job for her ‘Muslimness’

UK lawmaker says she was sacked from ministerial job for her ‘Muslimness’
Updated 23 January 2022

UK lawmaker says she was sacked from ministerial job for her ‘Muslimness’

UK lawmaker says she was sacked from ministerial job for her ‘Muslimness’
  • The scandals have drained public support from both Johnson personally and his party, presenting him with the most serious crisis of his premiership.

LONDON: A British lawmaker has said she was fired from a ministerial job in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government partly because her Muslim faith was making colleagues uncomfortable, the Sunday Times reported.
Nusrat Ghani, 49, who lost her job as a junior transport minister in February 2020, told the paper she was told by a “whip” — an enforcer of parliamentary discipline — that her “Muslimness” had been raised as an issue in her sacking.
There was no immediate response to her comments from Johnson’s Downing Street office, but Mark Spencer, the government’s chief whip, said he was the person at the center of Ghani’s allegations.
“These accusations are completely false and I consider them to be defamatory,” he said on Twitter. “I have never used those words attributed to me.”
Ghani’s remarks come after one of her Conservative colleagues said he would meet police to discuss accusations that government whips had attempted to “blackmail” lawmakers suspected of trying to force Johnson from office over public anger about parties held at his Downing Street office during COVID lockdowns.
The scandals have drained public support from both Johnson personally and his party, presenting him with the most serious crisis of his premiership.
“I was told that at the reshuffle meeting in Downing Street that ‘Muslimness’ was raised as an ‘issue’, that my ‘Muslim women minister’ status was making colleagues uncomfortable,” the paper quoted Ghani, Britain’s first female Muslim minister, as saying.
“I will not pretend that this hasn’t shaken my faith in the party and I have at times seriously considered whether to continue as an MP (member of parliament).”
In his response, Spencer said Ghani had declined to put the matter to a formal internal investigation when she first raised the issue last March.
The Conservative Party has previously faced accusations of Islamophobia, and a report in May last year criticized it over how it dealt with complaints of discrimination against Muslims.
The report also led Johnson to issue a qualified apology for any offense caused by his past remarks about Islam, including a newspaper column in which he referred to women wearing burqas as “going around looking like letterboxes.”
The main opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said the Conservatives must investigate Ghani’s account immediately.
“This is shocking to read,” he said on Twitter.
Ghani’s comments about the whips’ behavior also echo allegations from another senior Conservative William Wragg, that some of his colleagues had faced intimidation and blackmail because of their desire to topple Johnson.
“Nus is very brave to speak out. I was truly appalled to learn of her experience,” Wragg said on Twitter on Saturday. He has told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that he would meet the police early next week to discuss his allegations.
Johnson has said he had neither seen nor heard any evidence to support Wragg’s claims. His office has said it would look at any such evidence “very carefully.”
“As with any such allegations, should a criminal offense be reported to the Met, it would be considered,” said a spokesperson for London’s Metropolitan Police.
Johnson, who in 2019 won his party’s biggest majority in more than 30 years, is fighting to shore up his authority after the “partygate” scandals, which followed criticism of the government’s handling of a corruption row and other mis-steps.
Johnson, who has repeatedly apologized for the parties and said he was unaware of many of them, has admitted he attended what he said he thought was a work event on May 20 last year, when social mixing was largely banned. Invitations had asked staff to “bring their own booze” to the event.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is expected to deliver a report into the parties next week, with many Conservative lawmakers saying they would await her findings before deciding whether they would take action to topple Johnson.
The Sunday Times also reported that Gray was looking into whether any rule-breaking parties had been held in Johnson’s private apartment at Downing Street.


One surrendered Hong Kong hamster tests COVID positive as city lockdown grows

One surrendered Hong Kong hamster tests COVID positive as city lockdown grows
Updated 23 January 2022

One surrendered Hong Kong hamster tests COVID positive as city lockdown grows

One surrendered Hong Kong hamster tests COVID positive as city lockdown grows
  • Thousands of people have offered to adopt unwanted hamsters

HONG KONG: Hong Kong authorities said on Sunday one hamster surrendered to authorities by pet-owners had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and that over 2,200 hamsters had been culled as the city grappled to contain an outbreak.
On Tuesday, officials ordered the killing of hamsters from dozens of pet shops after tracing a coronavirus outbreak to a worker at a shop and asked people to surrender any bought on or after Dec. 22.
While a handful of hamsters had already tested positive for the virus, this latest case is the first involving a hamster in the care of a pet-owner that had tested positive.
Despite a public outcry against the hamster crackdown, authorities urged pet-owners to continue to hand over their tiny furry pets given burgeoning health risks.
“(The government) strongly advises members of the public again to surrender ... as soon as possible their hamsters purchased in local pet shops on or after December 22, 2021 for humane dispatch,” the government said in a statement.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam earlier told reporters that she understood “pet owners are unhappy” with the killings, but said the biggest priority was to control the outbreak.
The government described the outcry as “irrational.”
Thousands of people have offered to adopt unwanted hamsters.
Some scientists and veterinary authorities have said there is no evidence that animals play a major role in human contagion with the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, officials have warned that COVID-19 infections could be growing exponentially in the congested residential area of Kwai Chung on the Kowloon peninsula, as a second building in the district with two thousands residents was locked down on Saturday for five days.
More than 35,000 residents in over a dozen buildings in the area were also ordered to take COVID-19 tests, with Lam herself visiting the area on Sunday.
Lam urged people to avoid gatherings ahead of next week’s Lunar New Year holidays to try to contain the highly infectious omicron variant.
The situation is testing Hong Kong’s “zero COVID-19” strategy focused on eliminating the disease, with schools and gyms already shut, restaurants closing at 6 p.m. (1000 GMT) and air travel with many major hubs severed or severely disrupted.
Some companies have begun to enact contingency measures.
UBS Group AG said in a note to its Hong Kong staff reviewed by Reuters that it had “decided to move to work-from-home operations for all except a minimum number of staff who have essential tasks to be completed in the office” given the Omicorn outbreak.
A UBS spokesman declined to comment on the memo.
On Friday, officials shut down the first Kwai Chung building after more than 20 cases were linked to it, with food delivered from outside three times a day and mass testing underway.


Humanitarian aid tops agenda as Taliban meet Western officials

Afghanistan's acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi gestures while speaking during an event held in the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad on November 12, 2021. (AFP)
Afghanistan's acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi gestures while speaking during an event held in the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad on November 12, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 23 January 2022

Humanitarian aid tops agenda as Taliban meet Western officials

Afghanistan's acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi gestures while speaking during an event held in the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad on November 12, 2021. (AFP)
  • Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in the country already ravaged by several severe droughts

OSLO: Human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where hunger threatens millions, will be in focus at talks opening Sunday in Oslo between the Taliban, the West and members of Afghan civil society.
In their first visit to Europe since returning to power in August, the Taliban will meet Norwegian officials as well as representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union.
The Taliban delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi.
On the agenda will be “the formation of a representative political system, responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises, security and counter-terrorism concerns, and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” a US State Department official said.
The hard-line Islamists were toppled in 2001 but swiftly stormed back to power in August as international troops began their final withdrawal.
The Taliban hope the talks will help “transform the atmosphere of war... into a peaceful situation,” government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on Saturday.
No country has yet recognized the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would “not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban.”
“But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said.

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated drastically since August.
International aid, which financed around 80 percent of the Afghan budget, came to a sudden halt and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.
Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in the country already ravaged by several severe droughts.
Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55 percent of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis.
“It would be a mistake to submit the people of Afghanistan to a collective punishment just because the de facto authorities are not behaving properly,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated Friday.
A former UN representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told AFP: “We can’t keep distributing aid circumventing the Taliban.”
“If you want to be efficient, you have to involve the government in one way or another.”
The international community is waiting to see how the Islamic fundamentalists intend to govern Afghanistan, after having largely trampled on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.
While the Taliban claim to have modernized, women are still largely excluded from public employment and secondary schools for girls remain largely closed.

On the first day of the Oslo talks held behind closed doors, the Taliban delegation is expected to meet Afghans from civil society, including women leaders and journalists.
A former Afghan minister for mines and petrol who now lives in Norway, Nargis Nehan, said she had declined an invitation to take part.
She told AFP she feared the talks would “normalize the Taliban and... strengthen them, while there is no way that they’ll change.”
“If we look at what happened in the talks of the past three years, the Taliban keep getting what they demand from the international community and the Afghan people, but there is not one single thing that they have delivered from their side,” she said.
“What guarantee is there this time that they will keep their promises?” she asked, noting that women activists and journalists are still being arrested.
Davood Moradian, the head of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies now based outside Afghanistan, meanwhile criticized Norway’s “celebrity-style” peace initiative.
“Hosting a senior member of the Taliban casts doubt on Norway’s global image as a country that cares for women’s rights, when the Taliban has effectively instituted gender apartheid,” he said.
Norway has a track record of mediating in conflicts, including in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Colombia.


Burkina Faso forces fire tear gas at anti-govt protests

Protestors take to the streets of Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou. (AP file photo)
Protestors take to the streets of Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou. (AP file photo)
Updated 23 January 2022

Burkina Faso forces fire tear gas at anti-govt protests

Protestors take to the streets of Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou. (AP file photo)
  • Nearly 12,000 people were displaced within two weeks in December, according to the UN

OUAGADOUGOU: Security forces fired tear gas at protesters barricading the streets and throwing rocks in Burkina Faso’s capital on Saturday, as anger grows at the government’s inability to stop terrorist attacks spreading across the country.
Several hundred people marched through downtown Ouagadougou chanting for President Roch Marc Christian Kabore to resign.
The extremists “are hitting (the country), people are dying, others are fleeing their homes … We want Roch and his government to resign because their handling of the country is not good. We will never support them,” said protester Amidou Tiemtore.
Some people were also protesting in solidarity with neighboring Mali, whose citizens are angry at the West African economic regional bloc, ECOWAS, which imposed sanctions on the country after the ruling junta delayed this year’s elections.
Burkina Faso’s protest comes amid an escalation in terror attacks linked to Al-Qaeda and Daesh that has killed thousands and displaced 1.5 million people.
The violence shows no signs of abating.
Nearly 12,000 people were displaced within two weeks in December, according to the UN.
Four French soldiers were also wounded during a joint operation with Burkina Faso’s military, the first time French soldiers have been injured in the country since two were killed in 2019 during a hostage release operation, said Pascal Ianni spokesman for the chief of defense for the French armed forces.
France has some 5,000 troops in the region but until now has had minimal involvement in Burkina Faso compared with Niger or Mali.
This is the second government crackdown on protests since November and comes after the government shut down access to Facebook last week, citing security reasons, and after arresting 15 people for allegedly plotting a coup.
As tensions mount, the government is struggling to stem the violence.
Last month the president fired his prime minister and replaced most of the Cabinet.
The government’s national security arm is also said to be preparing to reopen negotiations with the extremists, according to a military official and a former soldier.
The last time the government negotiated secret cease-fire talks with the extremists was around the 2020 presidential elections when fighting subsided for several months.
But locals say it’s too late for talks and that the country is being overrun by radicals who control swaths of land, and plant their flag.
”They just come and are squeezing people (out of their homes) and there is no (government) strategy,” said Ousmane Amirou Dicko, the ruler of Liptako.
For the first time since the conflict he said he no longer feels comfortable driving from the capital to his home in the Sahel.
Conflict analysts say the protests are playing right into the extremists hands and that the country needs to remain unified if it wants to succeed.
“The protests are a consequence of the pressure from the jihadists and it’s exactly what they want,” said Mahamoudou Savadogo, founder of Granada Consulting, a local conflict analysis and research company.
“The concern is that when the government is pressured it makes big political and strategic mistakes, and the country needs to remain united.”


Berlusconi pulls out of Italian presidential race

Berlusconi pulls out of Italian presidential race
Updated 23 January 2022

Berlusconi pulls out of Italian presidential race

Berlusconi pulls out of Italian presidential race
  • The 85-year-old media mogul insisted he had the support in parliament to win -- something analysts doubted
  • Berlusconi said he was withdrawing in the spirit of "national responsibility” to avoid further controversy

ROME: Billionaire former premier Silvio Berlusconi withdrew from the race for Italy's presidency on Saturday, two days before voting starts, but repeated his opposition to Prime Minister Mario Draghi taking the job.
The 85-year-old media mogul, who is still embroiled in legal proceedings over his infamous "Bunga Bunga" sex parties, insisted he had the support in parliament to win -- something analysts doubted.
But in a statement issued to the media, he said he was withdrawing in the spirit of "national responsibility", to avoid further controversy.
Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief who has led Italy's coalition government for the past year, remains the favourite to be elected head of state next week.
The governing parties, which range from left to right, including Berlusconi's Forza Italia, have however yet to reach a deal -- and with voting secret, the result is notoriously hard to predict.
More than 1,000 MPs, senators and regional representatives will begin voting Monday, with several rounds -- each taking a day -- expected before a result.
Indicating he hopes to play the kingmaker, Berlusconi said he would work with his right-wing allies to agree a candidate that can summon a "broad consensus" -- but made clear it should not be Draghi.
He said the premier should stay to help implement structural reforms promised in return for almost 200 billion euros in European Union funds, on which Italy is relying for its post-virus recovery.
"I consider it necessary for the Draghi government to complete its work until the end of the legislature," in 2023, when the next general election is due, Berlusconi said.
Many analysts also worry Draghi's departure would spark a crisis in the government and that debt-laden Italy would slip behind on a tight schedule to implement reforms to the tax and justice systems and public administration.
However, others say Draghi would be better placed as president to ensure political stability and good relations with Brussels -- particularly should the far-right win the next general election.
While a largely ceremonial role, the president wields considerable power in times of political crises, from dissolving parliament to picking new prime ministers and denying mandates to fragile coalitions.
Berlusconi announced his decision at a virtual meeting with Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party and Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy.
He noted the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, saying: "Today, Italy needs unity.... I will continue to serve my country in other ways."
Salvini praised his "generous" decision which he said enabled them to propose candidates "without any more vetoes from the left".
Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, said the withdrawal had exposed a split in the right over Berlusconi's candidacy, adding: "Now we need a high-level agreement over a shared name and a legislative pact."
In the first three rounds, the winning candidate must secure two-thirds of the vote. From the fourth round, they only need an absolute majority.