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Australian Cabinet Approves 2 Billion Dollars for Fire Relief

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  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Monday that at least 2 billion dollars have been approved for bushfire recovery services.
  • The fires have been blazing across the country for months, and have burned over 14 million acres and killed at least 24 people. It has also been estimated that 480 million animals have perished in the state of New South Wales alone. 
  • Australia has faced fires before, but none quite like this, as these flames are intensified by worsening climate change. 
  • Many are frustrated with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, criticizing him of being complacent in the wake of disaster and not taking enough political action to combat climate change.

Funding for Months-Long Destruction

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced funding of at least 2 billion Australian dollars for bushfire recovery on Monday after months of devastation. 

At least 24 people have been killed and over 14 million acres burned by the fires that have raged across the country.   

The fire season kicked up in September after the nation went through its warmest recorded spring. The heat continued into December, when the record was broken for Australia’s hottest day, with average highs of 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit blazing across the continent.  

These extreme temperatures, as well as long periods of drought and fierce winds, have led to the intensification and rapid spread of the fires.

Even with the rain and cooler temperatures that also came on Monday, providing temporary relief, the circumstances remain dire. 

Tens of thousands of firefighters have been battling the flames over the past few months, a majority of them volunteers. Despite these forces, the situation in Australia is so bad that the country has requested additional international aid. 

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, around 100 U.S. firefighters have been deployed to assist in suppressing the Australian bushfires. Canada is also sending firefighters to Australia for the first time. As of Sunday, 87 Canadian firefighters were deployed to Australia, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center

Widespread Destruction

The flames have affected the nation’s east coast the most, particularly the state of New South Wales, where over 1,300 homes have been destroyed. As of Monday morning, more than 130 fires were still burning across the state, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

On Nov. 11, the state issued a “catastrophic” fire danger warning. This was the first time a rating that high had been issued since the warning system went into effect in 2009, according to The New York Times. Last month, the air quality in Sydney was measured at 11 times the “hazardous” level. 

Victoria, the state below New South Wales, has faced its own frightening conditions. 

Last week, about 4,000 residents and tourists in the town of Mallacoota fled to nearby beaches to escape the flames. About 1,000 people participated in voluntary evacuations headed by the Australian Defense Force’s navy vessels.

Devastation to Wildlife

In addition to the fires having tragic effects on Australian locals, wildlife have also gravely suffered. An estimated 480 million animals have died in New South Wales alone, according to a report by Chris Dickman, a professor at the University of Sydney. 

This figure includes mammals, birds, and reptiles and does not take into account insects, bats or frogs. It is reported that while many of these animals were likely killed directly by the fires, some succumbed later due to a loss of food and shelter resources. 

Climate Change Implications

Australia has faced tough fires before, but this season is far more intense. The nation typically sees dry, hot summers, and climate change brings extended stretches of extreme heat, which makes vegetation even more susceptible to burn.

According to scientific reports by the United Nations Association of Australia, few if any other developed countries are as vulnerable to climate change as this one. 

Backlash Against Prime Minister

Throughout this year’s fire season, Prime Minister Morrison has received backlash for his response to the disasters—and for what critics call his lack of political action in response to climate change.

In the wake of the bushfires, Morrison took a vacation to Hawaii before for the holidays. But after facing much criticism, he cut his trip short and returned home.

Scrutiny for Morrison then continued after his visit to Cobargo on Jan. 2, a town in New South Wales that has been heavily affected by the fires.

Morrison’s attempt to talk with locals and volunteers did not go well. After reaching out to thank a firefighter, the man said to him: “I don’t really want to shake your hand.”

Another Cobargo local made headlines when she criticized Morrison for not giving enough funds to Rural Fire Services.

“I’m only shaking your hand if you give more funding to RFS,” she told the Prime Minister. “So many people here have lost their homes. We need more help.”

International Attention

The Australian fires have gained attention from people all around the world, including celebrities who are donating funds toward relief and using their platforms to promote awareness. 

Nicole Kidman, who holds Australian citizenship, announced on Instagram that her family is donating $500,000 to RFS.

Musician Pink, whose full name is Alecia Beth Moore, pledged the same amount to local disaster services. 

Actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio has been posting and reposting updates on the fires for months, urging people to take action in the climate crisis.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Washington Post) (New York Times)

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Wealthy Canadian Couple Posed as Motel Workers To Jump Vaccine Queue

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  • Rodney Baker, the CEO of a Canadian casino company, resigned this week after he and his wife were caught traveling to a remote area in Yukon that is home to many indigenous people to jump the coronavirus vaccine queue.
  • The two allegedly posed as motel workers and were given the first dose of the vaccine but raised suspicions when they asked to be taken straight to the airport immediately afterward. 
  • Both individuals received two fines, one for failing to self-isolate and a second for failing to follow their signed declarations, adding up to $1,150 each.
  • The White River First Nation is calling for stiffer penalties, saying the small fine would be meaningless to the wealthy duo. For reference, the former CEO was paid a salary of more than $10.6 million in 2019.  

Couple Dupes Local Healthcare Workers

Like many other countries, officials in Canada have been working hard to ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations. In the Yukon territory specifically, health workers have been giving priority to remote communities with elderly and high-risk populations, as well as limited access to healthcare.

One of those areas is Beaver Creek, which is home to many members of the White River First Nation. However, Beaver Creek is now making headlines after two wealthy Vancouver residents traveled there to jump ahead in the vaccine queue.

The two culprits were identified as 55-year-old Rodney Baker, president and CEO of Great Canadian Gaming Corp, and his wife, 32-year-old actress Ekaterina Baker.

They reportedly flew from Vancouver to Whitehouse, then chartered a private plane to the remote community. Afterward, they went to a mobile clinic where they were able to receive the Moderna vaccine after saying they were new hires at a nearby motel.

Their presence raised suspicions given how small the population is in Beaver Creek, but the two raised even more eyebrows when they asked to be taken straight to the airport after receiving their doses.

Workers from the vaccination clinic checked with the motel and alerted law enforcement when they learned that the Bakers had lied about working there.

The couple was stopped just as they were preparing to fly back to their luxury condo in downtown Vancouver. According to CBC, both individuals received two fines, one for failing to self-isolate and a second for failing to follow their signed declaration, adding up to $1,150 each.

Indigenous Community Responds

“We are deeply concerned by the actions of individuals who put our Elders and vulnerable people at risk to jump the line for selfish purposes,” the White River First Nation’s Chief Angela Demit said in a Facebook statement addressing the situation.

She also told The Washington Post that she wants to see stiffer penalties for the couple because the relatively small fines would be “essentially meaningless” for such wealthy individuals. For reference, Mr. Baker’s annual compensation in 2019 was reported to be more than $10.6 million.

Janet Vander Meer, the head of the White River First Nation’s coronavirus response team, also called the incident, “another example of ongoing acts of oppression against Indigenous communities by wealthy individuals that thought they would get away with it.”

“Our oldest resident of Beaver Creek, who is 88 years old, was in the same room as this couple. My mom, who’s palliative, was in the same room as this couple,” she told Globalnews.ca. “That’s got to be jail time. I can’t see anything less. For what our community has been through the last few days. The exhaustion. It’s just mind-boggling.”

To prevent situations like this in the future, a spokesman for the Yukon government said it would implement new requirements for proving residency in the territory.

As far as the Bakers, Rodney resigned from his role at Great Canadian this week. A spokesperson for the company, which is currently the subject of a separate money-laundering probe, says it “has no tolerance for actions that run counter to the company’s objectives and values.”

See what others are saying: (CBC) (The Washington Post) (Yukon News)

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Protests Erupt Across the Netherlands Over COVID-19 Curfew

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  • For the third night in a row, Dutch police clashed with protesters and rioters in ten cities across the Netherlands.
  • The protests are a result of frustrations over the 9:00 p.m. – 4:30 a.m. curfew the country imposed to help stop the spread of coronavirus.
  • Rioters looted across major cities and even burned down a coronavirus testing site. So far, 184 people have been arrested and thousands have received fines for their participation.
  • The Prime Minister has said that when possible, the curfew would be the first safety measure to go, but he also made it clear that those rioting over it were criminals and will be treated as such.

Violence Over Coronavirus Curfew

The Netherlands faced riots and protests over coronavirus curfews and lockdown measures for the third night in a row.

The protests raged across ten cities, including major ones such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague. Authorities say that 184 people have been arrested so far, and thousands have received fines for their participation.

Protesters are particularly upset with an ongoing curfew in the country that puts restrictions on travel between 9:00 p.m.- 4:30 a.m.. It’s meant to slow the spread of the virus by preventing nightlife activities; however, critics have questioned just how effective those measures actually are.

Beyond the skepticism, the Netherlands is also facing a spread of misinformation about COVID-19, leading many to downplay how dangerous it is.

Last night’s protests led to violence with police, as well as a COVID-19 testing site being burnt to the ground. Wider Dutch society has been shocked by the violence since protests of this nature are relatively rare in the nation.

Mayors across the country vowed to introduce emergency measures that are intended to help deal with the protests.

Coping With the Virus

Regarding the curfew itself, the government has refused to budge on the issue. When responding to last night’s violence, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that when possible, the curfew would be the first safety measure to go. Still, he also made it clear that those rioting over it were criminals and will be treated as such.

The Netherlands had managed to maintain the virus relatively successfully, six months ago, it had among the lowest new daily cases in Europe, with around 42 daily new cases in July. That all changed in September when cases began to rise dramatically, peaking of 11,499 daily new cases on Dec. 24.

Source: Google Coronavirus Statistics

Due to the imposed restrictions, cases began to fall again, although they are still far higher than they were in the summer of 2020.

See What Others Are Saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (NPR)

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Thousands Protest in Russia Demanding Release of Putin Foe Alexei Navalny

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  • Russia faced some of the largest protests it has seen in recent years after thousands took to the streets Saturday demanding the government release opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
  • Russian authorities declared the protests illegal and detained more than 3,500 people from more than 100 cities, including Navalny’s wife.
  • The government also released a statement addressing Navalny by name for the first time, attempting to discredit claims he has made, including the idea that President Vladimir Putin has a billion-dollar villa on the Black Sea coast.

Largest Russian Protests in Recent History

Russia experienced some of its largest protests in years Saturday after opposition figure Alexei Navalny called for demonstrations to be held following his arrest.

Supporters demanded Navalny’s release but also called for an end to perceived rampant corruption in the Russian state.

Tens of thousands took to the streets and clashed with police in more than 100 cities, with independent monitors claiming that 3,500 people were detained by police. Among those detained was Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s wife, who was targeted by authorities during the protests. She is reported to have been released by Russian media agencies such as TASS.

Despite Russian authorities declaring the protests illegal and warning of repercussions for those who attend, the protests managed to reach a wide range of people. According to the New York Times, over ⅓ of protesters in Moscow said they had never protested before.

Despite the movements current popularity, it may be difficult to turn the popular, anti-Putin movement into something more.The protesters span a broad range of the political spectrum, from far-left communist and anarchist groups to nationalists and libertarians, meaning that while they dislike Putin and the corruption in the Russian government, they agree on little else.

Changing the Message

The protests unveiled a new shift in how Russian authorities deal with Navalny. In the past, authorities and state-backed media never mentioned him by name in order to downplay him; however, that changed this weekend.

Newscasters aired multiple programs to discredit him and paint him as a tool of the West, while Putin denied Navalny’s claims that he has a secret, billion-dollar villa on the coast of the Black Sea. Based on his salary of $133,000 a year, Putin would only be able to afford a single home in Russia. However, there is speculation that due to corruption and embezzling, Putin is likely the actual richest person alive.

Regarding Navalny himself, he’s still in jail pending court proceedings on Feb. 2. If those go poorly for Navalny, he could be in prison until the mid-2020s, but he is more concerned about his immediate future.

In a video to supporters prior to the protests, he made it clear that he has no intention of committing suicide. That statement was likely made due to the fact that many Russian dissidents seem to die via suicide, with much speculation about whether or not that was actually the case.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Business Insider) (Associated Press)

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