While global cases are trending downward, surges and outbreaks are still being seen in several pockets of the world.
WHO Calls for Ongoing Vigilance
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 would be characterized as a pandemic. Two years to the day of that declaration, the top public health organization is still urging caution as many countries begin to remove restrictions.
In multiple forums this week, the WHO warned the world’s nations to continue to exercise precautions against the virus, which has now caused 452 million recorded cases and more than six million deaths, according to data obtained from Johns Hopkins University on Friday.
On Wednesday, the organization’s regional arm for the Americas said the area continues to be inordinately impacted by the pandemic, and as such, it is too soon for countries in the region to relax public health measures.
Speaking at a press conference, Dr. Carissa Etienne, the director of the Pan American Health Organization, told reporters that while the Americas represent just 13% of the world’s population, the region reported 63% of the new known COVID cases in the first two months of 2022.
Although cases globally are declining following the Omicron surge that brought historic highs, Dr. Etienne noted that new infections are still rising in parts of the Americas, such as the Caribbean, and a drop in testing is also likely skewing the true numbers.
Meanwhile, disparities still remain between wealthier and poorer nations as the latter continues to face hurdles to adequate testing and vaccination.
According to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project, COVAX, the global initiative aimed at vaccinating low-income nations, has so far succeeded at vaccinating just 14% of people in the countries the program is meant to help most.
COVID Outbreaks Spread Across China
In China, where the COVID outbreak first began, new infections have started rising again to levels not seen since the beginning of the pandemic.
On Friday, China’s National Health Commission said more than 1,000 new COVID cases had been detected the day before — a figure that the country has not topped for around two years. The numbers mark a sharp increase from just three weeks ago when the country logged just 60 new daily infections nationwide.
Chinese officials say the surges have been driven by the Omicron variant, which has proven to be successful at breaking through full vaccination in the nation. China boasts a 90% inoculation rate and until now has kept the virus controlled through strict contract tracing and quarantine measures.
Currently, most of the country’s new cases remain localized in the eastern province of Shandong and the northeastern province of Jilin. Some entire cities in northeastern China have gone into full lockdown, and partial or complete lockdowns along with mandatory testing have been imposed in more than 100 neighborhoods across the country.
Experts said the outbreaks show the limits of China’s “zero COVID” policy to keep infections as low as possible — a goal that sets the nation aside from the vast majority of others that are transitioning to living with the virus and implementing policies that mitigate its impact.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNBC) (The Wall Street Journal)
Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls
Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.
Hundreds Make It Out Alive
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.
People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.
The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.
Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.
“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”
63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
Putin’s Plans Go Poorly
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.
The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”
Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.
After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.
“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.
On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.
Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.
The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.
Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.
See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)
Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished
The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.
Settlers Get Ready to Move in
On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.
“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.
The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.
The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.
In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”
“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.
In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.
Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land
On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.
Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.
The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s
“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”
See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Peace Now) (Associated Press)
Canada Accused of Killing Poor People with Assisted Death Law
Supporters of the practice argue that people suffering near the end of their lives should have the right to die.
Two Women Choose Death Over Life
A 31-year-old woman in Toronto known as Denise is nearing final approval for a medically-assisted suicide after failing to find affordable housing with accommodations for her disability.
She has a medical condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), so some common chemicals found in everyday objects like cigarette smoke, laundry detergent, and air fresheners can trigger nausea, blinding headaches, and even anaphylactic shock.
She has also used a wheelchair since injuring her spinal cord six years ago.
Unable to work, Denise lives off of $1,169 in disability stipends per month, putting her well below the poverty line.
Specialized housing where airflow is more controlled could ease her debilitating symptoms, but efforts to find such a location have failed.
Denise has said that she and her supporters have called 10 different agencies in Toronto over the past six months to locate housing with reduced chemical and smoke exposure as well as wheelchair accessibility to no avail. She told CTV News she chose assisted suicide instead “because of abject poverty.”
Denise’s case comes shortly after a similar one in February, when a 51-year-old woman known as Sophia, who also suffered from MCS, opted for assisted suicide.
Sophia spent the pandemic mostly confined to her apartment bedroom with the vents sealed because her neighbors smoked indoors and chemical cleaners were used in the hallways.
She and her friends, supporters, and doctors searched for safe and affordable housing for two years, even asking local, provincial and federal officials for help, but nothing worked.
Canadians Debate a Controversial Law
In 2015, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that parts of the criminal code prohibiting Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) must be revised, and the following year parliament passed a law legalizing the practice.
The legislation, designed to help people suffering near the end of their lives, allowed eligible adults to request medically assisted death through a doctor or physician.
In 2021, lawmakers expanded the criteria for assisted suicide to include people with certain extreme chronic illnesses and disabilities, even if they aren’t nearing the end of their life.
While supporters of the practice say it gives people the right to end their suffering in an easy and legal way, critics argue it has become a deadly last resort for society’s most vulnerable who require healthcare and housing.
Some experts argue that cases like Denise’s and Sophia’s are extreme, and the approval process for medical assistance in dying is stringent.
Chantal Perrot, a physician and MAID provider, told The Guardian their MCS would likely not have been treated well by better housing.
“The only treatment really for that is avoidance of all triggers,” she said. “That’s pretty much impossible to do in ordinary life. So better housing can create a temporary bubble for a person – but there’s no cure for this. We do this work because we believe in people’s right to an assisted death. It’s not always easy to do. But we know that patients need it and value it.”
A special joint parliamentary committee is currently deciding whether to expand MAID access to consenting children and those with mental illness.