After Biden’s first year, the virus and disunity rage on

Jordane Domain gets a COVID-19 test done by a healthcare worker on January 13, 2022 in North Miami, Florida. (AFP)
Jordane Domain gets a COVID-19 test done by a healthcare worker on January 13, 2022 in North Miami, Florida. (AFP)
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Updated 17 January 2022

After Biden’s first year, the virus and disunity rage on

Jordane Domain gets a COVID-19 test done by a healthcare worker on January 13, 2022 in North Miami, Florida. (AFP)
  • The Trump-era political muzzle came off public-health authorities, freeing them to confuse the public all on their own

WASHINGTON: From the inaugural platform, President Joe Biden saw American sickness on two fronts — a disease of the national spirit and the one from the rampaging coronavirus — and he saw hope, because leaders always must see that.
“End this uncivil war,” he implored Americans on Jan. 20, 2021. Of the pathogen, he said: “We can overcome this deadly virus.”
Neither malady has abated.
For Biden, it’s been a year of lofty ambitions grounded by the unrelenting pandemic, a tough hand in Congress, a harrowing end to a foreign war and rising fears for the future of democracy itself. Biden did score a public-works achievement for the ages. But America’s cracks go deeper than pavement.
In this midterm election year, Biden confronts seething divisions and a Republican Party that propagates the delusion that the 2020 election, validated as fair many times over, was stolen from Donald Trump. That central, mass lie of a rigged vote has become a pretext in state after state for changing election rules and fueling even further disunity and grievance.
In the dispiriting close of Biden’s first year, roadblocks stood in the way of all big things pending.
The Supreme Court blocked his vaccinate-or-test mandate for most large employers. Monthly payments to families that had slashed child poverty ran out Friday, with no assurance they will be renewed. Biden’s historic initiative to shore up the social safety net wallowed in Congress. And people under 40 have never seen inflation like this.
After his lacerating speech in Atlanta invoking the darkest days of segregation, he saw his voting-rights legislation run aground when Democratic Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona announced her opposition to changing Senate rules to allow the bill to pass by a simple majority.
Altering the rules would only “worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” she said.
For all of that, Barack Obama was on to something when he paid his old vice president an odd compliment late in the 2020 campaign. Elect Joe Biden, he said, and after four years of flamboyant Trump dramas, folks could feel safe ignoring their president and vice president for a spell.
“You’re not going to have to think about them every single day,” Obama said. “It just won’t be so exhausting. You’ll be able to go about your lives.”
Indeed America saw normalcy, some say dignity, return to the White House. Pets came back and so did daily press briefings for the public.
The Trump-era political muzzle came off public-health authorities, freeing them to confuse the public all on their own.
First lady Jill Biden’s studded “Love” jacket at a global summit not-so-subtly countered the “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket her predecessor wore in a visit to a migrant child detention center.
The discipline, drive and baseline competence from the new White House produced notable results. Biden won a bipartisan infrastructure package that had eluded his two predecessors, coming away with a legacy-shaping fix for the rickety pillars of industry and society.
Biden steered more judges through Congress to the federal bench than any recent predecessor. He won approval of a Cabinet that was half women and a minority of white people for the first time. More than 6 million people are back at work and half a billion COVID-19 vaccines have been put in arms, but the nation has a long way to go to return to its pre-pandemic state.
“I think it’s a lot of achievements, a lot of accomplishment, in the face of some very serious obstacles,” Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, told The Associated Press on the cusp of Biden’s second year. “The Biden presidency remains a work in progress.”
Matthew Delmont, a civil rights historian at Dartmouth, expected more from Biden by virtue of his decades of experience as a savvy operator in the capital.
He had anticipated a far more effective COVID-19 response and more urgency, sooner, in countering the rollback of voting rights and tilting of election rules that Republicans are attempting.
“There’s something to be said for the professionalism of the White House and not going from one fire to the next,” Delmont said. “What I worry is that the Washington he understands isn’t the Washington we have anymore.”
Political science professor Cal Jillson at Southern Methodist University in Dallas said Biden has displayed “warning track power” — the ability in baseball to hit long but not, as yet, over the fence.
In Biden, Jillson sees a leader who brought the even keel that Obama had talked about but also one who only rarely delivers a speech worth remembering.
“While there are vast partisan differences in how Biden is seen, in general he is seen as stable but not forceful,” he said.
In large measure, Biden’s innate civility and predictability brought the sort of climate change that the world could get behind.
Here once more was a president who believed deeply in alliances and vowed to repair an American reputation frayed by the provocateur in office before him.
There would be no more puzzling feelers about buying Greenland. No more doting looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin — instead, Biden stepped up diplomatic confrontation over Putin’s designs on Ukraine. There would be no eerie uplit gatherings around glowing orbs with rulers of dissent-crushing Arab countries like Trump’s photo op with the Saudis.
But the world also witnessed Biden’s debacle in Afghanistan, a chaotic withdrawal that brought more than 124,000 to safety but stranded thousands of desperate Afghans who had been loyal to the US and hundreds of US citizens and green-card holders.
Discounting warnings from military and diplomatic advisers, Biden misjudged the Taliban’s tenacity and the staying power of Afghan security forces that had seen crucial US military support vanish. He then blamed Afghans for all that went wrong. Millions of Afghans face the threat of famine in the first winter following the Taliban takeover.
All presidents enter the world’s most powerful office buoyed by their victory only to confront its limitations in time. For Biden, that happened sooner than for most. A polarized public, Trump’s impeachment trial and an evenly divided Senate saw to that.
Meantime, day after day, event after event, it was the virus that commanded Biden’s attention. “That challenge casts a shadow over everything we do,” Klain said. “I think we’ve made historic progress there but it’s still a challenge.”


Sri Lanka PM warns of looming food crisis

Men wait with their carts at a market, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (REUTERS)
Men wait with their carts at a market, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (REUTERS)
Updated 13 sec ago

Sri Lanka PM warns of looming food crisis

Men wait with their carts at a market, amid the country's economic crisis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (REUTERS)
  • Last year’s ban on chemical fertilizer has affected rice production in the country
  • Island nation unable to pay for essential imports as it faces worst financial slump in decades

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s prime minister warned on Friday of looming food shortages, with the country unable to secure fertilizer for rice cultivation amid a devastating economic crisis.

The island nation of 22 million people is facing acute shortages not only of food, but also medicines and fuel, as its budget deficit climbs to $6.8 billion, or 13 percent of gross domestic product, leaving essential imports out of reach.

Many in Sri Lanka can hardly afford three meals a day, with the price of some essential food items, such as rice, having risen by 300 percent since the beginning of the year, according to the central bank’s estimates from April.

The country has already defaulted on its debts after missing a deadline for foreign debt repayments on Wednesday. The following day, it ran out of petrol, with no money coming and fuel ships remaining anchored offshore.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office after his predecessor resigned last week, said the looming food crisis was due to a lack of fertilizer for agricultural production.

“From August there is the possibility of a food crisis in Sri Lanka,” he said in a statement, adding that it remains to be seen how the county will survive.

“As Sri Lanka has not had fertilizer for cultivation, the coming rice cultivation season will not have the full production.”

A decision in April last year by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ban all chemical fertilizer has led to a fall in crop yields. Although the ban was lifted a few months later, no substantial imports have taken place.

The situation is compounded by the war in Ukraine, a leading global exporter of grain.

“The shortage of food in the country is likely not only because of the local production but also due to the scarcity of imports, which were affected by the Ukrainian war,” Prof. Palitha Weerakkody, from the Department of Crop Science of the University of Peradeniya, told Arab News.

“Rice is the staple food here and there will be around 30 percent reduction in its harvest in July since the farmers have not got their imported inputs to boost their cultivation.”

Dayan Jayatillake, Sri Lanka’s former envoy to the UN in Geneva, said the anticipated food crisis will be the “greatest tragedy in the annals of Sri Lanka.”

Jayatillake told Arab News: “The ban on chemical fertilizers has jeopardized not only the paddy cultivation but also our tea plantation, which is our cash crop. Our dollar income from the export of tea is also dwindling.”

He said:  “Denial of food security in the country cannot be taken by the common man, and it can lead to a severe uprising.”

Sri Lanka’s devastating economic crisis — the worst since independence in 1948 — has triggered widespread demonstrations across the country since March, with protesters demanding the resignation of Rajapaksa and his family, whom they blame for the worsening situation.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s elder brother, quit as prime minister on May 9, after clashes between government supporters and protesters left nine people dead and almost 300 injured.

 


Fears abound at Afghanistan’s largest bird market that swansong is nearing

A man sits beside a cage of partridges in a shop at Ka Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)
A man sits beside a cage of partridges in a shop at Ka Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 8 min 34 sec ago

Fears abound at Afghanistan’s largest bird market that swansong is nearing

A man sits beside a cage of partridges in a shop at Ka Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)
  • Kah Faroshi, also Kabul’s oldest such market, sells thousands of species from around the world
  • Few Afghans can now afford the traditional pastime of bird fighting or to keep songbirds as pets

KABUL: Mohammad Zahir was sitting alone at his shop at the Kah Faroshi market in the heart of Kabul’s old city, surrounded by parrots, partridges, quails and other birds that used to attract crowds.

Not long ago, visitors would throng to the oldest bird market in the Afghan capital, where entering the narrow, congested lanes was like a journey two centuries back, to the city’s corners untouched by war.

But now the people are gone, as few can afford the traditional pastime of bird fighting, or to keep songbirds as pets.

For Zahir, who in the good times would earn as much as $70 a day, business has almost dried up.

“Sometimes, I don’t make any sales for several days,” he told Arab News.

An Afghan woman stands in front of a shop at Kah Faroshi bird market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2018. (Reuters)

“I get embarrassed when beggars come to my door and ask for help, but I am not able to give them something as I don’t make any money.”

The 53-year-old — a former member of the national football team — started working at the market under the first Taliban regime, in power from 1996-2001. He said he was even briefly imprisoned during their rule for disobeying a ban on bird fighting, an ancient Afghan sport.

As the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan last year, it is not the prospect of the ban being re-imposed that affects his sales, Zahir said, but a financial crisis that came with international sanctions slapped on the country since their return.

“The Taliban are not eating anyone,” he said.

“It’s the economic challenges that hinder people from continuing their hobby.”

Kah Faroshi, also the largest bird market in the country, sells thousands of kinds of birds from around the world, ranging in price from as little as $1 to as much as $1,000.

Before the Taliban takeover in mid-August, it would see visitors come from across the country, as well as foreigners for whom it was a colorful tourist attraction, and a perfect background for social media posts.

“We had good sales every day before the economic situation worsened,” Mohammad Shafi, another seller, said.

“Now, we don’t make any sales on some days.”

The future of the market, which has outlived all Afghan governments, is now uncertain.

For Mohammed Marouf, who has been selling birds for nearly six decades, its downfall would end hopes that good times could return.

“I was seven when I started working at this shop with my father,” he said.

“I had the most comfortable life in the old Kabul.”

His sales have already been affected by the economic crisis, but his main customers — men who buy quails, partridges, cocks, and canaries for fighting — still allow him to stay afloat.

If a ban on the sport takes effect, he knows the business, into which he has already brought his three sons, would practically disappear.

“We will continue until it’s banned,” he said, closely inspecting the beak of a quail. “The day it’s banned, it’s banned.”

 

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Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways

Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways
Updated 20 May 2022

Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways

Ukraine apartment residents suffer war in different ways
  • The inhabitants of two of the blocks, which sit barely 100 metres apart across an overgrown lot, could be living in different worlds
  • Across the lot, where abandoned cats nose through the long grass and children once played around a set of rusting swings, the contrast in the conditions could not be more stark

SLATYNE, Ukraine: The only 10 residents left in the Commune, an apartment complex in the eastern Ukraine town of Slatyne, share the hardships of Russia’s invasion, from relentless shellfire and exploding rounds to a lack of power and running water.
But the inhabitants of two of the blocks, which sit barely 100 meters apart across an overgrown lot, could be living in different worlds.
Inside Vera Filipova’s gloomy, grimy home, blackened pots litter the messy kitchen and rumpled comforters sit on unkempt beds.
“It’s like hell,” the 65-year-old retired shop clerk told Reuters. She lives with her friend Nataliya Parkamento, a former shoe factory worker who moved in after her own home was destroyed.
This block is largely intact — unlike many buildings in Slatyne, the Commune has escaped a direct hit from the nearby fighting of a Ukrainian counter-offensive that has driven Russian troops away from the city of Kharkiv over the last two weeks.
But Filipova and Parkamento only have enough humanitarian aid to eat once a day. They cook outside on an open fire of shattered wood they pull from other destroyed homes, shielding the flames from rain with corrugated cement sheeting blown off a roof.
“I have nowhere to go and nobody to take me out of here,” said Parkamento, who fetches drinking water in a plastic bottle from a nearby well.
Across the lot, where abandoned cats nose through the long grass and children once played around a set of rusting swings, the contrast in the conditions could not be more stark.

’WINDOWS ARE BEING SMASHED’
There, Larissa and the six other residents tend neat gardens of roses, peonies, carrots and spring onions. They wash with buckets of water drawn from Slatyne’s many wells. Laundry dries on lines outside their tidy apartments, beds draped with colorful covers, house plants growing in glassed-in balconies.
The conditions are just as challenging. “Windows are being smashed, walls are being destroyed and there is nothing we can do about it,” Larissa, 46, said. But she and the others in her block have tried to make the best of it.
The seven residents — none would give their last names – said they share the humanitarian aid delivered to the complex by volunteers from the nearby town of Dergachi, supplementing it with pickled vegetables stocked in a basement.
Alla, 52, who managed a subway station in Kharkiv, 28 km (17 miles) to the south down a remote, shell-blasted road, cooks for everyone in her kitchen on a stove powered by a gas bottle. When shellfire eases, she ventures out with her husband, Volodymyr, 57, a railway worker who acts as the block’s handyman, to an abandoned home to make meals on a brick grill.
No one in either of the blocks could say why their experiences were so different. “I don’t know,” Filipova responded when asked why she and Parkamento put up with their bleak living conditions.
When the war came, some just found the energy to organize and surmount the hardships together while others languished in despair.
“We’ve tried helping them,” said Anna, 66, a tenant of the second block who has lived for 19 years in the complex built in the early 1970s. “When the humanitarian aid deliveries arrive, we visit Vera and Nataliya to bring them their aid.”
She and some of the other residents said a key to their resilience was maintaining a strict routine, cooking enough food for two days of breakfasts and dinners, eating the former at noon and the latter at 4 pm.

’WE CARE FOR EACH OTHER’
In between, they said, they haul water, read, and tend their gardens and chat, sitting on sunny days at a makeshift table in the shadow of their block, trying to ignore frequent blasts and occasional far-off small arms fire.
“All of the people who have stayed here for the last three months are like family,” Anna said of her companions. “We have got close to each other. We care for each other.”
Gardening is especially calming.
“I love the soil,” said Alla, whose family hails from a farming village in a Russian-controlled area north of Slatyne. “My soul would ache if I could not plant anything in that earth. It distracts you. How is it not possible not to love your soil?”
For all the differences in how they cope, the war is ever present for the seven friends, Filipova and Parkamento, and Volodiya Stachuk, a 34-year-old tractor driver who lives in the basement of another block next to that of the two women.
None can forget being jarred awake the night that a Russian missile plunged into an adjacent house earlier this month.
The explosion blew out that building’s walls and roof, shattered many of the Commune’s windows and shredded Stachuk’s apartment with shrapnel, forcing him to move to his basement.
The blast also killed Filipova’s cat, Gina, she said, and left Alla with a memento of the exact moment of her brush with death.
“The explosion knocked a clock off my wall and broke it,” she recalled. “It stopped at 12:05 am.”


Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict

Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict
Updated 20 May 2022

Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict

Russia prosecutes veteran rock star for criticizing Ukraine conflict
  • Shevchuk faces a maximum fine of $800 if found guilty
  • A case has been launched against him for "publicly discrediting the use of Russia's armed forces"

MOSCOW: Soviet rock legend and outspoken Kremlin critic Yuri Shevchuk has been charged with “discrediting” the Russian army after condemning Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine during a concert.
Shevchuk faces a maximum fine of 50,000 rubles (770 euros, $800) if found guilty.
A case has been launched against him for “publicly discrediting the use of Russia’s armed forces,” a court in the city of Ufa in central Russia told the RIA Novosti news agency.
RIA Novosti said the case would be transferred to Shevchuk’s hometown Saint Petersburg.
On May 18, the 65-year-old performer told his audience in Ufa that it “is not the president’s ass that needs to be licked and kissed,” according to videos posted online.
“Now people are being killed in Ukraine. Why? Our guys are dying in Ukraine. Why?” he told a cheering crowd.
The frontman of the 1980s Soviet rock band DDT, Shevchuk has over the years publicly criticized President Vladimir Putin and opposed the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.


France, Germany, Belgium report first monkeypox cases

France, Germany, Belgium report first monkeypox cases
CDC microscopic image shows monkeypox virus particles. (Reuters)
Updated 20 May 2022

France, Germany, Belgium report first monkeypox cases

France, Germany, Belgium report first monkeypox cases
  • France, Belgium and Germany reported their first cases of monkeypox, joining several other European and North American nations in detecting the disease

PARIS: France, Belgium and Germany on Friday reported their first cases of monkeypox, joining several other European and North American nations in detecting the disease, endemic in parts of Africa.
Monkeypox was identified in a 29-year-old man in the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, who had not recently returned from a country where the virus is circulating, France’s health authorities said Friday.
Separately, the German armed forces’ microbiology institute said it has confirmed the virus in a patient who developed skin lesions — a symptom of the disease.
And in Belgium, microbiologist Emmanuel Andre confirmed in a tweet that the University of Leuven’s lab had confirmed a second of two cases in the country, in a man from the Flemish Brabant.
With the growing number of detected cases in several European countries, Germany’s health agency Robert Koch Institute has urged people returning from West Africa to see their doctors quickly if they notice any chances on their skin.
The rare disease — which is not usually fatal — often manifests itself through fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion and a chickenpox-like rash on the hands and face.
The virus can be transmitted through contact with skin lesions and droplets of a contaminated person, as well as through shared items such as bedding and towels.
Cases of monkeypox have also been detected in Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden as well as in the United States and Canada, leading to fears that the disease — normally concentrated in Central and West Africa — may be spreading.
Monkeypox usually clears up after two to four weeks, according to the WHO.