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Sri Lanka Lawmakers Swear in President After Rajapaksa Resigns



Many protestors are unhappy with their new leader, but some hope a more stable government will speed up negotiations with international lenders.

New Face, Old Politics

After more than 100 days of protests that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office last week, Sri Lanka’s parliament has sworn in a new president: Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Lawmakers voted 134-82 in favor of the Rajapaksa ally, with Rajapaksa’s party predominantly voting yes.

Wickremesinghe is intensely unpopular among the general population and especially among protestors, who had called for him to resign.

His party was wiped out in the 2020 elections, failing to keep a single constituency, but he held onto his post.

When Rajapaksa fled the country for the Maldives, then Singapore, then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe became acting president.

Rajapaksa formally resigned, triggering the election that concluded Wednesday.

The announcement of the results prompted chants by protestors saying, “Go home, Ranil,” which lasted a few minutes.

“The economy of the country today is in a very difficult place,” Wickremesinghe said in a speech. “Young men and women are asking for change in the system. … To go forward, we need to come up with a new program.”

Although large-scale protests did not continue Wednesday, some vowed to keep pressing their demands.

“We won’t back down,” one woman told Reuters. “We won’t let this be. We won’t settle for any less.”

“Parliamentarians have failed us,” a man told the Associated Press. “They have failed us, because they have not listened to the people’s demands.”

Wickremesinghe served as prime minister a record six times and unsuccessfully ran for president twice.

The Worst Crisis Since Independence

For months, Sri Lanka has been rocked by an ever-deepening economic collapse precipitated by dwindling foreign exchange reserves that have left the government largely unable to import key commodities such as food, fuel, and medicine.

In May, it defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt for the first time in its history.

As of last week, the country’s currency lost 80% of its value, making imports more expensive and driving up inflation, which currently sits around 55%.

People struggle to meet basic needs, with one woman who is three-months pregnant telling Sky News she can’t afford the fruits and vegetables needed to keep her unborn baby healthy.

Protests in the capital Colombo swelled to a breaking point over a week ago when crowds of people burned down the prime minister’s residence and stormed the president’s. Both officials promised to resign the same day, but only Rajapaksa has done so.

Some observers believe Wednesday’s transfer of power will stabilize the government so that it can effectively negotiate a financial bailout with the International Monetary Fund.

Others also speculate that Rajapaksa’s exit may cause social unrest to simmer down for the near future.

The week’s events marked the end of a political dynasty that dominated Sri Lankan politics for some two decades.

Barring any contingencies, Wickremesinghe will serve out the remainder of the former president’s term, which ends in November 2024.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The New York Times) (CNBC)


Woman Accused of Using Fake Psychics to Trick Mom Into Giving up $140 Million in ‘Cursed’ Paintings



When her mother became suspicious, Sabine Coll Boghici allegedly confined her to her home for months with physical threats.

A woman in Brazil was arrested Wednesday with several accomplices who posed as psychics for allegedly swindling her elderly mother out of more than $140 million in cash, jewelry, and artwork.

Genevieve Boghici, an 82-year-old widow to the late art collector Jean Boghici, reportedly held mystical beliefs, which authorities say her daughter took advantage of.

In January 2020, a self-described psychic approached Genevieve and convinced her that her daughter, Sabine Coll Boghici, was sick and soon to die, according to a statement by police in Rio de Janeiro.

To save her, the psychic claimed the mother would have to fork over “exorbitant amounts” of money for spiritual treatment.

The daughter backed up the claim, also feeding personal information to several more supposed psychics, all of whom pressured the mother to make bank transfers totaling five million reais.

Next, police say the suspects told Genevieve her art collection was cursed with “negative energy,” and that it needs to be prayed over.

Meanwhile, Sabine allegedly fired her mother’s domestic employees so her accomplices could enter the home unimpeded and remove the art.

After Genevieve became suspicious of the situation, her daughter allegedly confined her to her home for months, with the suspects mistreating and physically threatening her.

In total, around $142.42 million worth of valuables was reportedly taken, including artwork by renowned Brazilian artists.

Three of at least 16 stolen paintings were from the modernist painter Tarsila do Amaral. Police estimated them to be worth around $137.69 million.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (NBC) (CBS)

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Russia to Withdraw From ISS in 2024



The announcement comes after the Russian space agency threatened to let the space station crash into Earth in response to Western sanctions.

One Less Partner in Space

Russia announced Tuesday that it will withdraw from the International Space Station in 2024, throwing into question whether the remaining partners can keep the ISS going without Moscow.

Instead, Russia will focus on developing its own space station, called the Russian Orbital Service Station, or ROSS, which could be ready by 2025.

“The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made,” Yuri Borisov, the newly appointed head of Roscosmos, said during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. “I think that by that time we will start forming a Russian orbiting station.”

In the meantime, he promised to still fulfill the country’s obligations to partners on the station.

The station is jointly run by the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. The complex is divided into two main sections — one run by Russia, the other run by the U.S. and other partners — and it is not clear how the Russian portion will be managed after Moscow’s withdrawal.

Russian officials have discussed pulling out of the ISS since at least 2021, citing aging equipment and safety risks.

The move is in line with commitments by other partners to continue using the station until 2024. NASA plans to keep it operational until 2030.

Since launching in the late 1990s, the ISS has stood out as a bastion of post-Cold War international cooperation, particularly between Washington and Moscow.

Extraterrestrial Competition Heats up

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put stress on its relationships with other spacefaring nations and possibly accelerated its withdrawal from the ISS.

Following the start of the war, U.S. President Joe Biden imposed sanctions targeting Russia’s space program by cutting off some high-tech imports.

Dmitry Rogozin, the previous head of Roscosmos, said last month that Russia would only negotiate an extension of the station’s operations if Washington lifted sanctions on Russian space industries. He has also threatened to let the ISS crash into Earth

“There [is] the possibility of a 500-ton structure falling on India and China,” Rogozin warned. “Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, therefore all the risks are yours.”

Russia controls the station’s critical propulsion control systems, which keep it flying the correct orbit.

Despite the tensions, Moscow and Washington agreed on July 15 to launch astronauts on Russian Soyuz rockets and cosmonauts on American SpaceX rockets.

Russia isn’t the only country building its own orbital outpost. On Sunday, China launched the second module for its Tiangong space station.

The third and final module is expected to dock in October.

Once the ISS is decommissioned in 2030, the U.S. plans to shift toward a presence in low-Earth orbit led by the private sector.

NASA dished out over $400 million to three companies last December — Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman — to develop their own commercial space stations which will be finished by the end of the decade.

NASA’s plan is to maintain uninterrupted access to low-Earth orbit by transitioning its research to private industry.

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (The Washington Post) (The Verge)

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Public Health Officials Spread Awareness About Monkeypox As WHO Declares Public Health Emergency



Currently, monkeypox mostly impacts men who have sex with men, but health officials warn it is already spreading beyond that community.

WHO Emergency Declaration

Public health officials are working to combat misinformation and complacency regarding the recent monkeypox outbreak following the decision by the World Health Organization to officially declare the disease a global emergency.

The announcement was made by the WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who overruled a panel of advisors that have not yet agreed that monkeypox is an international emergency. The director told reporters that one of his reasons for sidestepping the panel was his desire to try and curb the disease before it gets worse.

“We have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly through new modes of transmission, about which we understand too little, and which meets the criteria,” he said.

The emergency declaration is notable because it marks the highest alert level the WHO can issue and means the organization views the outbreak as a significant enough threat to public health to warrant a coordinated global response.

Among other measures, the designation can lead member countries to invest in controlling the disease, marshal more funding to fight outbreaks, and put pressure on governments to share vaccines, treatments, and other resources. 

The specific designation is also significant because it is actually quite rare: according to reports, the WHO currently only uses it for COVID-19 and polio. 

Growing Cases

The decision to extend the emergency label to monkeypox underscores just how serious the situation is.

While monkeypox has existed for decades, it is endemic to western and central Africa and has largely been contained to the region. But over the last two months, it has spread around the world at an incredibly alarming rate.

According to WHO data, over 16,000 cases of monkeypox have been reported in more than 70 countries this year, with the number of confirmed infections skyrocketing 77% from late June through early July. 

Currently, more than 80% of cases confirmed in 2022 are in Europe, but over the last few weeks, infections have surged drastically in the U.S. In its most recent count, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 2,891 cases of monkeypox in America, meaning that new infections are 10 times higher than they were just a month ago.

In the U.S., like the rest of the world, the outbreak has been largely concentrated among men who have sex with men. The WHO reports that this demographic composes 98% of all cases worldwide.

Officials Debunk False Transmission Claims 

Because of the concentration of cases in the LGBTQ+ community, there has been a lot of harmful, often homophobic misinformation swirling around, including false claims that monkeypox can only be transmitted during sex.

Monkeypox belongs to the same family as smallpox, and the CDC describes it as having symptoms that are similar but less severe than that disease, including flu-like symptoms as well as a rash of pox that spreads all over the body.

Also like smallpox, monkeypox is spread by both direct and indirect contact with the rash, scabs, and fluids of an infected person. This means that, in addition to spreading from skin-to-skin physical contact with someone who has a rash, a person could also get infected from sharing clothes, blankets, or linens that have been exposed, as well as through respiratory droplets.

While the CDC says it is investigating “if virus could be present in semen, vaginal fluids, or other body fluids,” it is certain that monkeypox can be spread in non-sexual ways. 

Even just in the U.S., the CDC has recently reported a small handful of directions among cisgender women. On Friday, the agency also announced that two children had contracted it separately, marking the first documented cases among kids in this outbreak.

In response, top public health officials have been warned false claims about transmission are incredibly dangerous because they not only stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community, but also create the misconception that others are not at risk.

“At the moment, cases continue to be reported among men who have sex with men for the most part, but we should not expect that to remain as such,” Dr. Catherine Smallwood, the senior emergency officer at the WHO, told CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe.”

Smallwood said it is not unusual for the outbreak of a virus to start in one group or setting before spreading more broadly. She also added that while there have only been five reported deaths and limited hospitalizations so far, more severe cases could emerge if monkeypox spreads to vulnerable groups like young children, pregnant women, and the immunocompromised.

Next Steps

Other experts have also said that the current state of affairs presents a crucial turning point for combatting a broader outbreak — especially in the U.S. 

Unlike with COVID, the CDC had tests available before this outbreak began, and because monkeypox is similar to smallpox, there are existing smallpox treatments and vaccines are effective against both.

Also, because monkeypox has a long incubation period, the development of a contact-tracing program could seriously help containment. 

Some have complained that the federal government has not been moving fast enough on testing, and demand has exceeded supply on vaccines despite the U.S. having millions of doses of stockpiled.

WHO officials say that the emergency declaration will enhance these efforts both in the U.S. and globally. The outbreak will certainly prove to be a major test of whether the global public health system can actually internalize the lessons it learned during the COVID pandemic, but some are optimistic.

“I absolutely think that it can be contained,” Anne Rimoin, a UCLA epidemiologist who studies monkeypox, told NPR.  “But whether it will be depends upon the resources dedicated to doing this and the speed with which we can act. It really will require a major concerted effort locally, nationally and globally.”

See what others are saying: (CNBC) (NPR) (The Washington Post)

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