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WHO Agrees to Independent Inquiry of Pandemic Response With China’s Backing

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  • The World Health Organization said it will support an independent investigation into how it has handled the pandemic, as well as an inquiry into the source of the coronavirus.
  • The move, announced at the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly, was made after China agreed to the idea. China had previously opposed an inquiry, arguing that it would be used to blame them for the outbreak and politicize the event.
  • The WHO director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also warned countries against opening up too early.
  • The warning comes as China was forced to re-impose a lockdown of 100 million people, while the U.S. and other hot-spot European countries continue to reopen and Brazil surpasses Spain and Italy in cases.

WHO Investigation

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Monday that it will agree to an independent investigation into the organization’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the origins of the virus.

The announcement was made at the WHO’s 73rd annual World Health Assembly, where leaders from all over the world gathered virtually for the two-day event.

The meeting of the 194 member countries comes at a crucial time during the coronavirus pandemic when the international spotlight is firmly placed on the WHO and its role throughout the global outbreak.

A resolution calling for both investigations was at the top of the agenda as member states went into the highly-anticipated meeting, and the proposal had been in the works for some time.

Australia first floated the idea of an independent inquiry last month, but China fervently rejected the proposal, arguing that any investigation was just an attempt to blame them for the outbreak or politicize the situation.

Angered with Australia’s plan, China threatened to boycott Australian goods and moved to cut off major imports to the country last week.

However, China started to warm up to the proposition as drafts of a resolution calling for an investigation started gaining more support among member countries and began to shift focus on the international effort to manage the pandemic rather than where the virus started.

China’s Reversal

By Monday, the resolution had the backing of more than 120 member nations. In his opening remarks to the WHO assembly, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a stunning reversal and announced that China was backing the plan.

“China supports a comprehensive evaluation of the global response to the epidemic after the global epidemic is under control, to sum up experiences and remedy deficiencies,” he said.

While Xi did not address criticisms that Chinese officials had covered up early warnings of the outbreak in Wuhan, he did call on other countries to “step up information sharing.”

“All along we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility,” he continued. “We have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need.”

The Chinese leader also said that he would be giving $2 billion to help the international fight against COVID-19. Xi did not say exactly what he was giving the money to, but he called on member nations to support the WHO and the work it has been doing.

“At this critical juncture, to support the WHO is to support international cooperation and the battle to save lives,” he said.

The remarks appear to be a jab at President Donald Trump, who withdrew U.S. funding from the WHO last month after he accused the organization of being too close with Beijing, covering up China’s mistakes, failing to share information in a timely manner, and generally bungling its response to the pandemic.

The move received was widely condemned by global leaders, but Trump has not been the only one to accuse China of covering up the virus in its early stages. He has also not been the only one critical of the WHO and its director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has been criticized for repeatedly praising China’s response to the virus.

Tedros, for his part, also voiced his support for the resolution following Xi’s opening statement. 

“I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment to review experience gained and lessons learned, and to make recommendations to improve national and global pandemic preparedness and response,” he said.

Tedros also called for a more comprehensive global framework for pandemic preparedness and warned against countries reopening too soon.

“Countries that move too fast, without putting in place the public health architecture to detect and suppress transmission, run a real risk of handicapping their own recovery,” he added.

Countries Reopen as Cases Grow 

Tedros’ remarks come at a significant time when countries all over the world move to ease restrictions, even as infections and deaths continue to rise.

As of Monday morning, over 4.7 million cases and nearly 317,000 deaths have been confirmed worldwide. At the same time, the global community is seeing more countries beginning to reopen and more complications arising from that process.

More than 100 million people in China’s northeast region are now being forced back under lockdown conditions because of a new, growing cluster of infections. 

For China, which moved swiftly and authoritatively to clamp down on the virus and only reopened when nearly all cases were eradicated, the move marks a highly significant landmark in the global effort to lift restrictions.

“China’s swift and powerful reaction reflects its fear of a second wave after it curbed the virus’s spread at great economic and social cost,” Bloomberg explained in an article published Sunday.

“It’s also a sign of how fragile the re-opening process will be in China and elsewhere as even the slightest hint of a resurgence of infections could prompt a return to strict lockdown.”

But a multitude of countries, including some that have not gotten as strong of a handle on the virus, are still pushing to reopen.

In the U.S., a vast majority of states have begun to ease restrictions in at least some form despite the fact that cases are still growing. As of Monday morning, the U.S. had reported nearly 1.5 million confirmed cases and nearly 90,000 deaths.

This is especially alarming in some states like Texas, where gyms and movie theaters were set to open Monday, just two days after the state reported its highest single-day increase of new cases.

But widespread reopenings are not limited to the U.S. On Monday, Italy lifted many of Europe’s strictest restrictions and is now allowing restaurants, cafes, clothing retailers, hairdressers, and museums to open.

Meanwhile, Spain and other European nations have also begun to reopen shops and other small businesses.

While former hot-spots like Spain and Italy begin to lift restrictions, on Sunday, it was reported that Brazil officially surpassed both countries in confirmed cases. On Monday, the country reported over 244,000 infections.

The spike in Brazilian cases comes as the country’s second health minister in less than a month resigned over President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic.

Bolsonaro has received significant backlash for how he has managed the outbreak in his country. He has repeatedly downplayed it, pushed against distancing and quarantine measures, and even joined protests calling to end distancing and bring back military dictatorship-era policies.

During a recent interview, when a journalist asked him about the rapid spread of the virus in Brazil, he responded, “So what? What do you want me to do?”

Brazil, however, is not alone. Other Latin American countries are also grappling with growing outbreaks across the continent. According to reports, cases have also been surging in Mexico and Peru.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (NBC News) (Bloomberg)

International

New Zealand Considers Banning Cigarettes For People Born After 2004

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  • New Zealand announced a series of proposals that aim to outlaw smoking for the next generation with the hopes of being smoke-free by 2025.
  • Among the proposed provisions are plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and possibly prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004; effectively banning smoking for that generation.
  • Beyond that, the level of nicotine in products will likely be significantly reduced, setting a minimum price for tobacco and heavily restricting where it can be sold.
  • The proposals have proven to be popular as one in four New Zealand cancer deaths are tobacco-related, but some have criticized them as government overreach and worry a ban could lead to a bigger and more robust black market.

Smoke Free 2025

New Zealand announced sweeping new proposals on Thursday that would effectively phase out the use of tobacco products, a move that is in line with its hopes to become a smoke-free country by 2025.

Among a number of provisions, the proposals include plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and bar anyone born after 2004 from buying tobacco products. Such a ban would effectively end tobacco sales after a few decades. The government is also considering significantly reducing the level of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, prohibiting filters, restricting locations where tobacco products can be purchased, and setting a steep minimum price for tobacco.

“We need a new approach.” Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verral said when announcing the changes on Thursday. 

“About 4,500 New Zealanders die every year from tobacco, and we need to make accelerated progress to be able to reach [a Smoke Free 2025]. Business-as-usual without a tobacco control program won’t get us there.”

The proposals received a large welcome from public health organizations and local groups. Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, an advocate for smoke-free Maori communities, told The Guardian that the plan “will begin the final demise of tobacco products in this country.” 

The Cancer Society pointed out that these proposals would help combat health inequities in the nation, as tobacco stores were four times more likely to be in low-income neighborhoods, where smoking rates are highest.

Not Without Flaws

The proposals weren’t completely without controversy. There are concerns that a complete ban could bankrupt “dairy” store owners (the equivalent to a U.S. convenience store) who rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat. 

There are also concerns that prohibition largely doesn’t work, as has been seen in other nations with goods such as alcohol or marijuana. Many believe a  blanket ban on tobacco will increase the incentive to smuggle and sell the products on the black market. The government even acknowledged the issue in a document outlining Thursday’s proposals. 

“Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” the document said.

Some are also concerned about how much the government is intervening in people’s lives.

“There’s a philosophical principle about adults being able to make decisions for themselves, within reason,” journalist Alex Braae wrote. 

The opposition ACT party also added that lowering nicotine content in tobacco products could lead to smokers smoking more, a particular concern as one-in-four cancer cases in New Zealand are tobacco-related.

See what others are saying: (Stuff) (Independent) (The Guardian)

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International

Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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