Day: April 22, 2017

After Ebola, Liberians Slowly Embrace Mental Health Care

Drawn-out deaths. Communities torn apart. Survivor’s guilt. Patrick Fallah says his memories of the days when the Ebola virus swept through Liberia are so awful that he sometimes has trouble focusing on the present.

“Sometimes when I have a flashback of the death of my son and others who died in the Ebola treatment unit, I don’t want to speak to people. I grieve so much that my mind is not really on what I am doing,” said Fallah, 30, who lost his 8-month-old son and stepmother and is president of the National Ebola Survivors Network of Liberia.

The trauma of the world’s deadliest Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 11,300, mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, has left many survivors fighting a battle some worry will never end.

But Liberia, one of the world’s poorest countries and with just one psychiatrist, has announced the ambitious goal of expanding access to mental health care to 70 percent of its population in the next few years.

The World Health Organization declared an end to the Ebola outbreak in June, estimating that more than 10,000 people who had been infected have survived in the three West African countries, including more than 4,000 in Liberia.

As the world’s attention has turned to other crises, many Ebola survivors still face the psychological consequences of the epidemic, feeling guilt over their pasts and worry for their futures without resources to deal with the pain.

Mental health is often an expense far beyond the reach of impoverished countries. Liberia is still struggling to rebuild its basic health services after more than a decade of back-to-back civil wars that left a quarter-million people dead, with many killings carried out by drugged, under-age fighters notorious for hacking off survivors’ limbs.

Then Ebola arrived, frightening Liberians with its lack of a cure and its transmission through contact with body fluids. Many people became too scared to touch others or offer comfort as the death toll grew.

Now Liberia’s government has announced its ambition to expand mental health care access to its more than 4.2 million people, with help from the U.S.-based The Carter Center.

“After the civil war, people didn’t go through enough counseling. You have people already going through post-traumatic depression. Then Ebola came, and that built on what was already going on,” said Dr. Francis Kateh, Liberia’s deputy health minister and chief medical officer.

The Carter Center is helping to train Liberia’s health care workers to identify mental health issues.

Last month, 21 clinicians specializing in child and adolescent mental health graduated from the training. They join 187 mental health professionals who have been trained by the center since 2010 to work in prisons, with refugees or in other settings and are based in primary care clinics and hospitals around the country.

The Carter Center hopes to replicate its program in other countries, including Sierra Leone.

But educating the public will take time, the new mental health workers say.

“There are many people living with mental health problems in Liberia without knowing they are,” said one of the new specialists, Theophilus A. Joe.

Stigma remains around mental health issues, said Musulyn Massaqoui, a registered nurse and another recent graduate. Most people come to clinics only for physical issues, she said.

Ebola survivors often have hearing and vision problems, joint pain or chronic fatigue, according to the medical aid charity Doctors Without Borders. Many also are shunned by their communities and family members, making them vulnerable to mental health issues.

Children left orphaned by Ebola or who watched family members die are especially challenged, said Fallah with Liberia’s survivors’ network, which has about 1,800 members.

“They continue to have depression. They are still thinking about their parents,” he said. “Sometimes when they sit in the class, they don’t concentrate.” During the holidays, some feel so neglected that they “want to take up knife to kill themselves.”

Some of Liberia’s newly trained mental health workers have been placed in schools and orphanages to lessen the chances of stigma, said The Carter Center’s mental health program director, Eve Byrd.

That approach is critical, she said. “If you address childhood trauma early, you’re most likely to decrease symptoms of illness as the person ages.”

Stigma in Liberia has proven to be deadly. In March, an Ebola survivor who made the cover of Time magazine for her work as a nurse during the outbreak died when she experienced complications after childbirth and the nurses on duty were too afraid to touch her.



Saturday’s March for Science an International Event

Thousands of people around the world are expected to March for Science Saturday, Earth Day, in more than 600 locations, including Seoul, Madrid, London and Cape Town.

The flagship event will be in Washington, featuring speakers and several large teach-in tents on the National Mall. There, scientists, educators and leaders from a variety of disciplines will discuss their work, effective science communication strategies and training in public advocacy.

Organizers say the international event is the first step in a global movement to acknowledge and defend the “vital role science plays in everyday life, including in heath, safety, economies and governments.”

Watch: Scientists Speak Out and March for Science

“Science extends our lives, protects our planet, puts food on our table, contributes to the economy and allows us to communicate and collaborate with people around the world,” said Caroline Weinberg, national co-chair for March for Science. “Policymakers threaten our present and future by ignoring scientific evidence when crafting policy, threatening scientific advancement through budget cuts and limiting the public’s knowledge by silencing scientists.”

Budget cuts

U.S. President Donald Trump’s most recent budget has proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency that would eliminate 56 programs and drastically reduce funding for the agency’s Office of Research and Development and Science Advisory Board. Trump’s budget also proposes about $6 billion in cuts to the National Institutes of Health, which is the largest public funder of biomedical researching funding in the world.

Organizers say the event is nonpartisan and is not aimed against the Trump administration or any politician or party.

“Defending science, innovation and discovery is an absolute must in every community throughout the world,” said Claudio Paganini, organizer, March for Science Berlin. “We are proud to join each of the marches on April 22 to say in one, unified, global voice that science is essential to our futures.”

Freedom and equality

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a first-generation Iraqi immigrant, is the pediatrician who alerted officials in Flint, Michigan, that the city’s water was contaminated with lead. She is a March for Science honorary national co-chair. 

“We march for science so that scientists have the freedom like I did, to speak out, free from politicization and to continue to make the world a better place,” she said.

Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, another March for Science honorary national co-chair, was one of the first female Mexican-Americans to earn a doctorate in the natural sciences in the United States. For more than 40 years, she has helped Chicano/Hispanic and Native American scientists attain advanced degrees and increase diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. 

“In the past several centuries, science has increasingly affected our lives for the better,” she said. “But, as seen in Flint, the fruits of science are not always distributed equally to all communities. Equally important, young people who live in underserved communities have not had equal opportunities to become scientists — to advance the frontiers of science, for the betterment of everyone. Science and our society are stronger when the people doing science reflect our society as a whole.”

Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College, London, says, “I will be marching in London on Saturday not so much to fly the flag for science — though I believe it is something worth celebrating — but because I think that in these fractious political times, when we are facing challenges that are truly global, it has never been more important for scientists to go public.”



For First Time, Drones Used in Major Search at Grand Canyon

The desperate effort this week to find two hikers who disappeared at the bottom of the Grand Canyon represented the National Park Service’s most extensive use yet of drones in a search-and-rescue mission.


The Grand Canyon is the only national park with its own fleet of unmanned aircraft for locating people who have gotten lost, stranded, injured or killed. Under a program that began last fall, it has five drones and four certified operators.


While the aerial search for the two hikers came up empty, it threw a spotlight on technology that can enter crevices and other rugged spots unreachable by foot while sparing searchers the dangers of going up in a helicopter.

Beautiful and dangerous


With its steep cliffs, nearly 2,000 square miles and mesmerizing views, the Grand Canyon can be as dangerous as it is captivating. 

Rangers were confronted with 1,200 medical emergencies, 293 search-and-rescue missions and 17 deaths in 2016, a year in which the park had nearly 6 million visitors. Last summer, a 35-year-old Yelp executive tripped while hiking, fell backward and was found dead 400 feet below.


“Our historic model was to take the helicopter to look and see,” said Grand Canyon chief ranger Matt Vandzura. But now, drones can offer “that same close look but without putting any people at risk. It has dramatically increased our ability to keep our people safe.”


The drones are about 18 inches across and 10 inches high, with a battery life of about 20 minutes. Drone operators watch the video in real time and then analyze it again at the end of the day. 

Missing hikers


The aircraft were used Monday through Wednesday in the search for LouAnn Merrell, 62, and her step grandson, Jackson Standefer, 14. The park also sent out three ground search teams of about 20 people in all, an inflatable motorboat and a helicopter.


Merrell and Standefer vanished last weekend after losing their footing while crossing a creek near the North Rim. They were on a hike with Merrell’s husband, Merrell Boot Co. co-founder Randy Merrell, and the boy’s mother. 


The park soon scaled back the operation and stopped using the drones but continued the search. In a statement, the hikers’ families backed the decision and said they were “still praying for a miracle.”


Drones used before


In November, after a visitor drove off a cliff and died, drones were sent in to examine the trees and brush and make sure it was safe for a helicopter to fly in and lift the car out.


The next month, rangers used a drone to locate a woman who had jumped to her death. Then they rappelled down to retrieve the body.


The dangers of flying choppers in the canyon were illustrated in 2003, when a Park Service helicopter experienced a mechanical failure and crash-landed on the North Rim. Those aboard suffered only minor injuries; the helicopter was totaled.


Other national parks use drones, but for wildlife research. The use of private drones is prohibited in national parks. 


James Doyle, a spokesman for the park service’s Intermountain region, said other national parks would probably seek their own drone fleets, too. He said the Grand Canyon’s extreme topography, it is a mile deep, makes it a perfect candidate.


“It’s a wonderful tool for the unfortunate situation we just found ourselves in at Grand Canyon,” Doyle said. 


Philanthropist Bill Gates Sounds Warning on Cuts to Development Aid

The founder of Microsoft, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, has given a passionate defense of foreign aid while voicing fears the political climate in the U.S. and in Britain could result in cuts to aid budgets. In a speech this week in London, he warned that withdrawing aid would “create a leadership vacuum that others will fill.”

Gates, who gives $5 billion a year to development aid through the foundation he set up with his wife, Melinda, is one of the world’s most generous philanthropists. In a speech at London’s Royal United Services Institute this week, he voiced fears that the political tide is turning against foreign aid.

“It concerns me that some world leaders are misinterpreting recent events as reasons to turn inward instead of seeing them for what they are: problems that although they are difficult and will take time, can be solved — if we invest in the long-term solutions that are necessary,” Gates said.

Watch: Billionaire Philanthropist Bill Gates Warns Against Cuts to Aid Budgets

The United States remains by far the world’s biggest donor, funding long-term programs and emergency relief across the globe. But President Donald Trump is proposing significant cuts to the $43-billion foreign aid budget as part of efforts to reduce government debt.

Gates argues that many critics of foreign aid don’t realize the major progress that has been achieved.

“If you could only pick one number to highlight the effectiveness of the development agenda since 1990, I would pick the number 122 million. That’s the number of children’s lives that have been saved,” he said.

He disputed the notion that funding foreign aid is a bottomless pit.

“As you bring down that childhood death rate, families choose to have less children,” he said. “The population goes down very substantially. Which brings within reach all of the things society is trying to do: better health, better education, economic opportunity.”

Gates’ speech in London comes as Britain gears up for a snap election in June. The UK is one of the few developed countries to meet the U.N. aid budget target of 0.7 percent of GDP. Current Prime Minister Theresa May has committed to keeping that pledge but many in her party want aid money diverted to the military.

Gates said he wanted to make the case for the facts.

“When aid is mismanaged it is a double crime, stealing both from the taxpayer and from the poor.” he said. “But let’s be clear. The bulk of this aid is getting to its recipients and having an incredible effect. There will always be a need to adjust, we’re working in very tough countries, so you’ll never get 100 percent perfect effectiveness. But you can learn. And every year, the aid is better spent.”

Aid agencies say the debate could not come at a worse time, with about 65 million refugees around the world, worsening conflicts in the Middle East and famine striking East Africa.


Lawmakers Push to Extend Retired Coal Miners Benefits

Lawmakers from coal-mining states are pushing to extend health benefits for more than 22,000 retired miners and widows whose medical coverage is set to expire at the end of April.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and other coal-state Democrats threatened to shut down the government over the issue in December, but they retreated after winning a four-month extension that preserves benefits through April 30.

As lawmakers return to the Capitol following a two-week recess, Manchin says the time for extensions is over.

“We will use every vehicle we can, every pathway we can, to make sure we do not leave here … until we have our miners protected,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor before the break.

“We’ve been very patient,” Manchin said. “I am not going to have another notice sent out to our retired miners, to their widows, saying we’ve given you 90 days or 120 days extension. That’s not going to happen this time.”

Deadline is Friday

But as a Friday deadline looms to keep the government open, lawmakers have not reached agreement on extending the benefits. A plan pushed by GOP leaders in the House would extend health benefits for 20 months, through the end of 2018.

Manchin said Senate Democrats are against that idea because it’s only a partial fix. At least a dozen Senate Republicans are willing to join Democrats in support of a more complete plan that addresses health benefits and a related issue over failing pension plans for nearly 100,000 unionized miners, Manchin said.

“This shouldn’t be a Republican or Democrat issue,” he said in an interview. “This is an issue of fairness.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said McConnell supports legislation to protect and permanently extend the health benefits, but had no word on the progress of talks related to the spending bill.

A spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan also offered no update.

Pieces and parts

President Donald Trump, who has vowed to revive the struggling coal industry, has given “verbal support” for the miners’ benefits, Manchin said, but needs to do more.

“I need him now to either tweet or call Senator McConnell and tell him it’s time to act,” Manchin said. “Mr. President, if you are listening, please tweet out: ‘Mitch, help us. We need you.’”

Trump and Republicans have decried what they describe as a “war on coal” waged by the Obama administration, and have taken a series of actions since Trump took office to boost coal production and reduce regulations, including a rule to protect streams from coal-mining debris.

Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, told reporters that the White House is “happy to talk … about pieces and parts of the miners’ programs” as part of negotiations on a bill to keep the government open.

“I don’t think we’re very interested in the pension component of that but more interested in talking about the health care component of that,” Mulvaney said.

Pension problem is bigger

Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said he is hopeful a compromise can be reached on health benefits, but he complained that Republicans appear unwilling to address the far more costly pension issue. Congress scrapped a $3 billion, 10-year measure to stabilize failing pension funds last year.

“The pension part is not going to go away. It only gets worse by the day,” he said.

Account balances have dwindled amid the coal’s industry steep decline, including continued layoffs and a rash of bankruptcy filings that have spread to the industry’s largest companies. Without congressional intervention, some pension funds could run out of cash by next year, the union says.

For the moment, Congress appears focused on health benefits.

In West Virginia, about 8,500 retired miners and their families face loss of benefits if Congress does not act. Some mining families have been unable to make doctor’s appointments after May 1 because of uncertainty over whether medical bills will be paid, Smith said.

Other states affected include Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia and Alabama.


In North Korea, Drivers Scramble to Find Gas

Motorists in Pyongyang are scrambling to fill their tanks as gas stations begin limiting services or closing amid concerns of a spreading shortage.


A sign outside one station in the North Korean capital said Friday that sales were being restricted to diplomats or vehicles used by international organizations, while others were closed or turning away local residents. Lines at other stations were much longer than usual and prices appeared to be rising significantly. 


The cause of the restrictions or how long they might last were not immediately known. 

Fuel from China


North Korea relies heavily on China for its fuel supply, and Beijing has reportedly been tightening its enforcement of international sanctions aimed at getting Pyongyang to abandon its development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.


The issue was raised at a regular Chinese Foreign Ministry news conference in Beijing Friday after a Chinese media outlet, Global Times, reported gas stations were restricting service and charging higher prices. 


But spokesman Lu Kang gave an ambiguous response when asked if China was restricting fuel deliveries.


“As for what kind of policy China is taking, I think you should listen to the authoritative remarks or statements of the Chinese government,” he said, without elaborating on what those remarks or statements are. “For the remarks made by certain people or circulated online, it is up to you if you want to take them as references.” 

New sanctions an option


One of China’s top North Korea scholars, Kim Dong-jil, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies of Peking University, said he had not heard of new restrictions on fuel to pressure Pyongyang, but said they are considered to be an option.


China’s Ministry of Commerce had no immediate comment 


Gasoline was selling at $1.25 per kilogram at one station, up from the previous 70-80 cents. According to a sign outside a station where ordinary North Korean vehicles were being turned away, the restrictions took effect Wednesday.


Gasoline is sold in North Korea by the kilogram, roughly equivalent to a liter (0.26 gallon).


When buying gas in North Korea, customers usually first purchase coupons at a cashier’s booth for the amount of fuel they want. After filling up the tank, leftover coupons can be used on later visits until their expiration date. A common amount for the coupons is 15 kilograms (19.65 liters or 5.2 U.S. gallons).


Supply is controlled by the state, but prices can vary from one station to another. 

More cars to fuel

The military, state ministries and priority projects have the best access. Several chains of gas stations are operated under different state-run enterprises, for example, Air Koryo, the national flagship airline, operates gas stations as well. 


Traffic in Pyongyang has gotten heavier than in past years, when visitors had often been struck by the lack of cars on the capital’s broad avenues.


The greater number of cars, including swelling fleets of taxis, has been an indication of greater economic activity, as many are used for business purposes, such as transporting people or goods.


Tiny Silver Implant Could Treat Chronic Ear Infections

Ear infections are one of those things almost everyone has to deal with. They’re painful, but generally easily treatable. But for many people, chronic ear infections can significantly affect their hearing and their quality of life. Polish doctors may have discovered a tiny solution for what can be a big problem. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.


Silicon Alley: The Latest New York Startups at NY TechDay

Silicon Valley is not the only place to find the next Mark Zuckerberg. Nearly 9,000 tech startups call New York City home, and their offerings reflect the unique needs of the most populous city in the U.S. VOA’s Tina Trinh reports from the NY Tech Day event in New York.


Billionaire Philanthropist Bill Gates Warns Against Cuts to Aid Budgets

The co-founder of Microsoft, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, has given a passionate defense of foreign aid and voiced fears that the political climate in the US and Britain could see aid budgets cut. In a speech in London this week, he warned that withdrawing aid would create a ‘leadership vacuum that others will fill.’ Henry Ridgwell reports.


Murals of Wide-eyed Children Bring Havana Walls to Life

The gigantic black and white portraits of children started appearing on walls around a suburban neighborhood of Havana two years ago, the work of Cuban artist Maisel Lopez.

The sober, finely painted portraits contrast with Cuba’s dilapidated buildings and pot-holed streets, colorful vintage cars and peeling pink, apricot and turquoise paint on eclectic architecture.

With nearly 30 murals completed, Lopez said he is only getting started on his “Colossi” series, a striking endeavor in the Communist-run country where street art is rare.

“I want to keep expanding further afield,” said Lopez, 31, who started painting the walls of homes and shops in his home district of Playa and is now completing his first mural in neighboring Marianao.

A chubby girl with wispy blond hair wistfully rests her chin on her hands, while a black boy with angular features peers at passersby with a slight air of defiance.

The murals are unusual in a country where public spaces are tightly controlled and posters and murals mainly have political themes or depict figures like Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Only one other artist in Havana, Yulier Rodriguez, has an equally recognizable assortment of street art. His figures are alien, the murals colorful. Lopez’s subjects are realistic and monochrome.

Lopez said in an interview last week that political art led him to paint murals. He helped with several celebrating the Bolivarian revolution during a cultural mission in 2009 to Cuba’s socialist ally Venezuela.

“A mural is constantly in interaction with the public,” said Lopez, whose work is inspired by Cuban independence hero Jose Marti, who said “children are the hope of the world.”

“That’s why I paint the children big, to mark their importance,” he said.

Unlike many street artists, including Rodriguez, Lopez seeks permits to paint on walls. While initially hard to get, he gained trust as he developed the series, he said.

Each colossus is several meters tall and takes Lopez four days to a week to paint. Each depicts a child living in the vicinity. He does not charge to paint them.

Instead, he earns a living teaching art classes and selling canvas portraits that can fetch up to $1,500.

Locals have declared themselves fans and guardians of his work, looking after it as people stop to take photographs.

“It’s really striking and gives life to the street,” said Vivian Herrera, 47, who runs a bakery next to one of the murals.

“It’s like the girl is really there, with her big, open eyes.”


‘Genius’ TV Series Shows Drama of Albert Einstein’s Life

Philosopher, humanitarian and physicist Albert Einstein is the subject of new TV series “Genius,” which delves into the drama and passion of the man who developed the theory of relativity and helped initiate the U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb.

Executive producer Ron Howard told reporters at the TV show’s launch at the Tribeca Film Festival that he had always been fascinated by Einstein.

“But I never realized how many twists and turns and, you know, there were in his life, and how much drama there was,” Howard said on Thursday.

The 10-part series for the National Geographic channel shows Einstein’s personal struggles and “how complicated, sexy, you know – kind of bohemian – a lot of his relationships were,” Howard said.

Australian Geoffrey Rush plays the older Einstein, with Britain’s Emily Watson and American actress Gwendolyn Ellis portraying older and younger versions of his second wife, Elsa.

“He wasn’t just a scientist,” Watson said of Einstein, who died in 1955. “He was a philosopher, a humanist. He was an immigrant. He was at the center of so many political events in the 20th century, or close to the center of them, and had incredibly complicated relationships in his life.”


Colas, Cigarettes: N. Korea Airline Diversifies as Threats of Sanctions Mount

Even after disembarking from North Korea’s Air Koryo plane at Pyongyang airport, it’s difficult to miss the airline’s brand. The Air Koryo conglomerate makes cigarettes and fizzy drinks, besides owning a taxi fleet and petrol stations – and all have the same flying crane logo as the carrier.

The military-controlled airline expanded into consumer products in earnest in recent months, visitors to the isolated country say. It was not clear if the diversification into the domestic market was related to the loss of many international routes when the United Nations slapped economic sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Washington is now considering tougher measures, including a global ban on Air Koryo itself, to punish North Korea for continuing weapons tests, U.S. officials have said.

But any U.S. action on Air Koryo would not be binding on other nations and would have little effect unless joined by China and Russia – both of which have sought to introduce exceptions to United Nations sanctions on North Korea in the past.

“China may indeed agree to this kind of ban on Air Koryo since it seems like China and the U.S. have reached an agreement that North Korea needs to be dealt with in some way. But the question is whether Russia will agree to sanctions against Air Koryo,” said Sun Xingjie, an associate professor at China’s Jilin University.

North Korean officials are rarely accessible to reporters, and it was not possible to get comment from Air Koryo or from the Pyongyang government.

Air Koryo now flies only to Beijing and three other cities in China, and to Vladivostok in Russia. Flights to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait were dropped last year but just last month, Air Koryo added a route from Pyongyang to the Chinese city of Dandong, the main transit point for trade between the two countries.

Air Koryo has 15 active planes on its fleet, either Russian or Ukrainian-made, and uses refuelling, maintenance and repair facilities in China and Russia, according to aviation databases and U.N. documents.

The airline has a number of domestic flights connecting the capital Pyongyang to Orang, Sondok and Samjiyon towns, according to a schedule available last year.

Businesses in secretive North Korea do not publicly share information about revenues or costs, so it was not possible to determine what effect any existing sanctions have had or may have in future.

But visitors to North Korea say the Air Koryo conglomerate, owned by the country’s air force, is clearly expanding.

Cabs, Gas Stations

In 2015, the conglomerate launched its own brand of sky-blue taxis which now parade the streets of Pyongyang alongside cabs from at least eight other state-owned companies.

Air Koryo colas and cigarettes are available in shops across Pyongyang.

Air Koryo started branching into soft drinks late last year, said Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which organizes travel to North Korea.

It got into retail sales of petrol in January. “They have at least one petrol station in Pyongyang, perhaps two,” Cockerell said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see more Air Koryo products make it to market before too long.”

A United Nations panel which investigates North Korean sanctions infringements said in a report in February there was an “absence of boundaries” between Air Koryo and the air force.

“The airline’s assets are actively utilised for military purposes,” the report said.

“Outwardly, this seems like a commercial airline, but in effect, this is run by the government,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in South Korea.

The United Nations has not sanctioned Air Koryo, although it has accused it of being involved in the smuggling of banned goods. Civilian aircraft are exempt from the U.N. ban on jet fuel exports to North Korea when refuelling overseas. Member states are required to inspect any cargo originating from North Korea, including on Air Koryo flights.

In December, the United States designated Air Koryo, 16 of its aircraft and 10 of its offices as “sanctioned entities,” meaning that U.S. citizens are generally prevented from engaging in transactions with them. It was not clear if the ban extended to Americans flying on the airline for tourism.

Officials at Pyongyang’s airport said they were unconcerned about any attempts by the global community to strengthen sanctions that could target Air Koryo directly.

“We are not afraid, we have our own counter actions prepared,” said a customs official, without elaborating, standing at the Air Koryo check-in counter.

Kim, the South Korean professor, said any sanctions on Air Koryo would have mostly a symbolic effect.

“It will not cause huge damage to the North Korean economy,” he said in the Korean language. “Air Koryo is not a ‘dollar box'[which makes a lot of foreign money].”


Fans Gather at Prince’s Home One Year After His Death

Fans are marking the anniversary of U.S. musician Prince’s sudden death from an accidental drug overdose with visits to his Paisley Park home, which has been turned into a museum.

The museum is hosting a four-day event that includes concert performances by Prince’s former bandmates and panel discussions.

It was a year ago Friday that the pop legend was found dead at Paisley Park, a recording complex outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Prince lived and created his music.

Fans come to grieve

Fans who came to the complex Friday included Mary Adams, who drove six hours from Kansas City, Missouri, with her 10-year-old daughter. 

“I needed to come here. This is where it began. I needed to pay homage to the star,” she said.

Adams said Prince had a profound impact on her life.

“Prince is the person that helped me decide that is was OK to be me, because that’s who he was. And he did it his way, his music, his style,” she added.

Minneapolis landmarks in purple

Fans are also holding a street party Saturday outside First Avenue, the club Prince made famous in Purple Rain, the title track of his breakthrough 1984 album and movie.

Landmarks around Minneapolis are being lighted in purple for two nights in tribute to Prince, while the Minnesota History Center is holding a special exhibit of Prince memorabilia.

The anniversary was supposed to be celebrated by the release of new Prince music. However, a Minnesota district court this week issued a temporary injunction barring the release of the six-song EP Deliverance after Prince’s estate filed a lawsuit claiming the works were stolen by his former sound engineer.

Prince’s commercial legacy continues to be surrounded in controversy. The pop star died without a will or children, and dozens of people came forward after his death, claiming they were heirs.

Musical legacy

Prince died at 57 from an accidental overdose of powerful painkillers he was secretly using to ease the pain of hip surgery.

Prince was 19 when he released his first album, For You, in 1978. In the decades that followed, the multitalented musician released 1999, Little Red Corvette and Purple Rain.

He sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, won seven Grammys and picked up an Oscar for Best Original Song score for Purple Rain. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

Rhonda Soso said Friday that she came from California to Paisley Park “just to be a part of the purple family, the purple army, just be a part of just his spirit, just his energy.”

“It’s just still so difficult accepting that he’s no longer here,” she added.



Trump Orders Wide Review of Financial System Regulations

U.S. President Donald Trump has ordered a full review of the powers given to government regulators to oversee the banking and finance industries following the financial meltdown of 2008.

Trump went to the Treasury Department on Friday to sign three executive orders that start the process of fulfilling his campaign pledges to undo regulations that he says unduly strain the U.S. economy.

“My entire administration [is] working around the clock to help struggling Americans achieve their financial dreams … and have real confidence in the future,” Trump said as he signed the orders. “Together we will restore prosperity to this nation.”

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin explained that two of the orders could eventually lead to a significant revision of controversial provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform law.

“Our goal is to make this a smarter, more effective process that reduces the kind of systemic risk that harmed so many Americans during the financial crisis of 2008,” Mnuchin said.

Dodd-Frank reform

One order temporarily freezes a portion of Dodd-Frank known as the Orderly Liquidation Authority, which gives the federal government broad discretion in making loans to failing financial institutions. The Trump administration argues that the OLA encourages excessive risk-taking by banks because taxpayers are potentially liable for bad loans.

Trump on Friday called the Dodd-Frank regulations “unfair” and “damaging,” saying they had “failed to hold Wall Street firms accountable.”

Critics say the review is aimed at revoking Obama-era reforms that have brought stability and transparency to the sometimes murky world of high finance, and helped to prevent another crisis.

Edwin Truman, who served as a senior Treasury official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, says Dodd-Frank encourages banks to raise more capital and be more open about their activities.

“That doesn’t mean that a complicated piece of legislation like Dodd-Frank couldn’t be improved and tweaked,” Truman told VOA. “It’s like Obamacare. It could be improved while maintaining its basic principles. So there’s scope for reform but not really repeal or replacement.”

Boston University law professor Tamar Frankel, an expert in financial system regulation, said Dodd-Frank has not achieved the purpose for which it was designed, which is to create consumer confidence in the banking industry. But she worries that a rollback of Obama-era regulations could bring about a return to dangerous lending practices.

“Loans of the kind banks made before 2008 are the poison of any financial system,” Frankel said.

Tax laws

Trump’s latest orders also authorize a review of tax laws, which the president argues impose an undue burden on taxpayers.

“This is such a privilege for me to sign,” he said during the ceremony. “This is really the beginning of a whole new way of life that this country hasn’t seen in really many, many years.”

Secretary Mnuchin told reporters Friday he was looking forward to taking a hard look at the tax code.

“We are going to go through and look at every significant financial regulation that’s been done in the past year and a half,” Mnuchin explained. “We’re going to determine if they’re needed in the tax code, or if they’re unnecessary.”

In making his case, Mnuchin pointed to statistics showing individuals and businesses cumulatively spend a total of 6.1 billion hours complying with the tax code each year, at a cost to the U.S. economy of $234.4 billion. He said the basic Form 1040 used to file taxes had grown from 34 lines and two pages of instructions to 79 lines and 211 pages of instructions.

Mnuchin has 180 days to report back to the president with recommended reforms.

Trump also hinted Friday that he’s almost ready to make another big announcement on taxes, saying he was ready to unveil a “massive tax cut” next week, shortly before he reaches the symbolic 100-day mark of his presidency.

“The process has begun long ago, ” he said, “but it really formally begins on Wednesday.”

In a separate interview with The Associated Press, Trump said the plan would provide tax cuts for both individuals and businesses. He would not provide details of the plan, saying only that the tax cuts will be “bigger I believe than any tax cut ever.”


Greece Blows Away EU-IMF Bailout Targets With Strong Budget Performance

Greece far exceeded its international lenders’ budget demands last year, official data showed on Friday, posting its first overall budget surplus in 21 years even when debt repayments are included.

The primary surplus — the leftover before debt repayments that is the focus of International Monetary Fund-European Union creditors — was more than eight times what they had targeted.

Data released by Greek statistics service ELSTAT — to be confirmed on Monday by the EU — showed the primary budget surplus at 3.9 percent of gross domestic product last year versus a downwardly revised 2.3 percent deficit in 2015.

This was calculated under European System of Accounts guidelines, which differ from the methodology used by Greece’s in bailout deliberations.

Under EU-IMF standards, the surplus was even larger.

Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said the primary budget surplus under bailout terms reached 4.19 percent of gross domestic product last year versus the 0.5 percent of GDP target.

“It is more than eight times above target,” Tzanakopoulos said in a statement. “Therefore, the targets set under the bailout program for 2017 and 2018 will certainly be attained.”

Debt-strapped Greece and its creditors have been at odds for months over the country’s fiscal performance, delaying the conclusion of a key bailout review which could unlock needed bailout funds.

The IMF, which has reservations on whether Greece can meet high primary surplus targets, has yet to decide if it will fund Greece’s current bailout, which expires in 2018.

The 2016 outperformance could lead the fund to revise some of its projections. The IMF’s participation is seen as a condition for Germany to unlock new funds to Greece.

Athens hopes to discuss the fund’s participation and its projections at the sidelines of the IMF’s spring meetings in Washington. EU and IMF mission chiefs are expected to return to Athens on Tuesday to discuss the bailout review.

After meeting Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos in Washington, IMF chief Christine Lagarde said: “We had constructive discussions in preparation for the return of the mission to discuss the two legs of the Greece program: policies and debt relief.”

ELSTAT said the overall surplus including debt repayments reached 0.7 percent of GDP compared with a 5.9 percent deficit in 2015.

Analysts attributed the outperformance to the implementation of bailout measures and increased efforts to improve the state’s revenue collection capacity.

“It’s an impressive outperformance versus the bailout program target for the primary surplus,” said Athens-based Eurobank’s chief economist Platon Monokroussos.

“The data suggests that the 2017 fiscal target under the bailout program is fully attainable under the current baseline macroeconomic scenario,” he said.

Athens faces a primary surplus target of 1.75 percent of GDP this year.