Day: July 29, 2021

Biden: Unvaccinated Federal Workers to Face Testing, Masking

With the delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 rapidly spreading across the country, U.S. President Joe Biden has announced civilian federal government employees must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing and wear masks.“Every federal government employee will be asked to attest to their vaccination status,” the president said Thursday in a speech from the White House East Room. “Anyone who does not attest or is not vaccinated will be required to mask, no matter where they work, test one or two times a week to see if they’ve acquired COVID, socially distance, and generally will not be allowed to travel for work.”The federal government employs more than 4 million Americans, including over 2 million in the federal civilian workforce, a White House statement said.The same standards will apply to federal contractors, Biden added.”If you want to do business with the federal government, get your people vaccinated,” he said.Reporters raise their hands as they shout questions to President Joe Biden after speaking about COVID-19 vaccinations in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 29, 2021.Labor unions representing federal workers are reacting cautiously.“We expect that the particulars of any changes to working conditions, including those related to COVID-19 vaccines and associated protocols, be properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation,” said Everett Kelley, the head of the American Federation of Government Employees, which is the largest union of federal workers, representing a workforce of 700,000.“Forcing people to undertake a medical procedure is not the American way and is a clear civil rights violation no matter how proponents may seek to justify it,” said Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), which represents 30,000 people across 65 agencies.”We would, therefore, encourage the administration to work collaboratively with FLEOA and other federal employee groups to incentivize all federal employees to be vaccinated, rather than penalize those who do not,” Cosme said.The decision to get vaccinated is one federal employees will be able to make, “because largely unvaccinated people continue to spread the virus and until we have more people who are vaccinated and are curbing the spread there needs to be proper protocols to keep Americans safe,” the White House deputy press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters prior to the president’s remarks.“And as a large employer, the largest in this country, who cares about the individuals who keep the government running, we have an obligation to be good stewards of the workforce and ensure their health and their safety.”Biden also said he is asking the Department of Defense to explore how and when to add mandatory inoculations for the coronavirus to the list of vaccines required for service personnel.“Our men and women in uniform who protect this country from grave threats should be protected as much as possible from getting COVID-19,” the president said. “I think this is particularly important because our troops serve in places throughout the world, many where vaccination rates are low and disease is prevalent.”The president also discussed whether people who are fully vaccinated will need booster shots.“As of now, my medical advisers say the answer is no,” Biden said. “No American needs a booster now. But if science tells us there’s a need for boosters, that’s something we’ll do.”Asked by a reporter about ordering states to compel vaccinations, the president replied the legality of that is not yet determined.“It’s still a question whether the federal government can mandate the whole country,” he said.Biden also announced the federal government will reimburse private employers who give paid time off to get vaccinated or take a family member to get shots. And he suggested more state and local governments offer $100 to those who get fully vaccinated. Again, the president tried to depoliticize the issue of vaccination.”The vaccine was developed and authorized under a Republican administration” of his predecessor Donald Trump, Biden said.He also repeated that wearing masks “is not a political statement,” while acknowledging widespread frustration with the return to masking.”I know it’s frustrating. I know it’s exhausting to think we’re still in this fight. I know we hoped this would be a simple, straightforward line without problems or new challenges. But that isn’t real life,” he said.Noting that desperate foreign leaders are calling him “almost every day” to plead with him to send more vaccine doses to their countries, Biden said it is “an American blessing that we have vaccines for each and every American. … It’s just a shame to squander that blessing.”

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Space Tourism and the Hunt for Martian Life

Experts say in a few years, billionaires and their friends won’t be the only ones who can afford to go to space. Plus, the Mars rover begins the search for ancient life, and new hardware arrives at the International Space Station. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has the Week in Space

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Los Angeles Bids Farewell to Legendary Master of the Duduk

Los Angeles has bid farewell to Jivan Gasparyan, an Armenian musician and composer who was known as the master of the duduk, an Armenian woodwind instrument. Angelina Bagdasaryan has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.Camera: Vazgen Varzhabetian. 

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Russian Module Docks With International Space Station

A long-delayed Russian laboratory module docked with the International Space Station (ISS) Thursday, eight days after it was launched from Russia’s space facility in Kazakhstan.The unmanned, 20-ton, nearly 13-meter-long Nauka (Science) module — also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) — docked with the ISS following a long and, at times, uncertain journey.The European Space Agency (ESA) says shortly after July 21 its launch from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the module deployed its solar panels and antennae as scheduled. But soon after, Russia’s mission control center in Moscow said the craft did not receive proper automated data commands and failed to complete an initial burn to raise its orbit.The ESA says flight engineers spent the week running critical propulsion tests and carrying out orbital corrections on the module, which is designed to rendezvous and dock automatically with the ISS using its own engines.  The ESA monitored the module launch as it carried with it a robotic arm developed by the agency.The troubled trip to the orbiting space station follows years of problems getting the module off the ground at all. The Nauka — designed to provide more room for scientific experiments and space for the crew — was initially scheduled to go up in 2007 but was repeatedly delayed because of technical problems. Contamination had been found in its fuel system, resulting in a long and costly replacement and other systems underwent modernization or repairs.The Nauka is now the first new module in the Russian segment of the station since 2010. Russian crew members on the station had done two spacewalks to connect cables in preparation for the new arrival. On Monday, one of the older Russian modules, the Pirs spacewalking compartment, undocked from the space station to free up room for the new module.The new module will require many operations, including up to 11 spacewalks beginning in September, to prepare it for operation.Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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Japan’s Hamada and Wolf Win Gold Medals to Match Record Haul

Japan’s Aaron Wolf and Shori Hamada grabbed gold medals in their respective judo finals Thursday, taking the host nation’s tally to eight golds from the sport at the Tokyo Games and matching their record haul from Athens 2004.Wolf, 25, and world champion in 2017, threw South Korean Cho Gu-ham to secure a dramatic ippon victory that ended more than five minutes of grueling Golden Score sudden-death overtime in the men’s -100kg final.It was the first time in 21 years that a Japanese judoka had dominated the -100 kg category at the Olympics.Wolf, whose mother is Japanese and whose father is from the United States, raised his fist in victory and burst into tears when he won the final. He later said he had used painkillers on both his bad knees the previous day.”What I’ve done up until now paid off finally, so I felt the surge of emotion,” he told reporters.
“I was just brought up as Japanese in the low city area of Tokyo. Japanese athletes of mixed parentage are increasing, so I hope that will help diversity among Japanese as a whole.”Earlier, Wolf overcame Uzbekistan’s Mukhammadkarim Khurramov to make it to the quarter-finals, where he defeated Israel’s Peter Paltchik.In the semi-finals, Wolf beat Georgian Varlam Liparteliani, the world number one and Rio silver medalist, with a dynamic o-uchi-gari throw to score a waza-ari victory.South Korea’s Cho won silver, while the bronze medals went to Jorge Fonseca of Portugal and Niiaz Iliasov of the Russian Olympic Committee.In the women’s -78 kg division final, 2018 world champion Hamada defeated French world number one Madeleine Malonga with a quick and solid pin to win the gold medal.Earlier, Hamada, 30, had pinned Beata Pacut of Poland for an ippon victory in the elimination round of 16, then downed Aleksandra Babintseva of the Russian Olympic Committee via a sliding lapel choke to reach the semi-finals.Hamada, ranked second in her division, triumphed over German Anna-Maria Wagner with a cross armlock for an ippon victory in the semi-finals.The bronze medals went to Wagner and Mayra Aguiar of Brazil. 

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Stressed by COVID, Zimbabweans Turn to ‘Friendship Bench’ for Solace

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched people’s mental health everywhere and Zimbabwe is no exception. But some Zimbabweans hit hard by the stress have found unique support at the “Friendship Bench,” now the country’s biggest counseling service. Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare.Camera: Blessing Chigwenhembe 

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China’s ‘Sponge Cities’ That Absorb Rainwater Pushed Past Limits

Nearly a year’s worth of rain fell on the Chinese city of Zhengzhou over four days this month. Flooding killed 71 people, including 14 trapped in a subway station as waters rose.Zhengzhou is part of a Chinese government initiative to build “sponge cities” in response to increasing urban flooding across the country. These cities aim to use natural processes to soak up rainwater rather than sending it coursing through concrete drainage pipes and channels that can get overwhelmed or cause other problems.These systems are catching on around the world as city planners embrace the benefits they provide, such as stormwater management, urban cooling and aesthetic appeal.But experts say the storm that drowned Zhengzhou was more than any city’s drainage system could handle. And because of climate change, these kinds of storms are becoming increasingly common around the world.”The intensity, the frequency of the storm events is much greater than we’ve been used to,” said Neil Weinstein, executive director of the Low Impact Development Center, a nonprofit group focused on sustainable stormwater management techniques.”The sponge city concept … is really good at slowing down modest-sized storms,” said David Sedlak, civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “But it’s not a replacement for the flood control infrastructure that many of our cities need to protect us from these super big floods and storms that arrive in a short period.”Rapid urbanizationChina launched its sponge city project in 2015 with 16 pilot cities. Another 14 were added the next year.The move was a response to increased flooding in Chinese cities following the country’s rapid urbanization.In 2000, just over one-third of the Chinese population lived in cities. In 2019, that figure reached 60%, according to official statistics.Building those cities meant paving over forests, fields and farmland. Unlike the green areas they replaced, pavement and the roofs of buildings do not absorb rainwater.As the area covered by these hard, impervious surfaces increases, so does the amount of water running off of them during rainstorms.”Runoff all of a sudden has nowhere to go,” said Colleen Chiu-Shee, a graduate student at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Big storms can overwhelm drainage systems and lead to flooding.At the same time, urbanization is leading to water shortages in some cities. Drainage systems designed to quickly move water off city streets do not give rainwater a chance to seep into the ground and recharge underground water sources.Low-impact developmentOther cities worldwide have dealt with the same issues. For example, in Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities, increasing development has led to untreated sewage spilling into streams when heavy rains overburden the sewer system.Beginning in the 1990s, urban planners in the Washington suburb of Prince George’s County, Maryland, began looking to natural systems to help control stormwater problems. The concepts, originally known as low-impact development, have traveled around the world under various names.The basic idea is to get away from concrete pipes and channels that quickly move water out of the city. Instead, the goal is to slow down the water and give it a place to soak into the ground.At its simplest, this includes grass-lined ditches called bioswales on roadsides or parking lots. At the other end of the scale are large constructed wetlands that absorb water and remove some forms of pollution.Plants are key components of these systems. They absorb water through their roots and release it into the air from their leaves. The roots also help aerate the soil to allow more water to infiltrate the ground.Green vs. grayThe presence of plants is why these systems are also known as “green” infrastructure, and it differentiates them from traditional “gray” infrastructure that relies on concrete and pipes.Green infrastructure also has added benefits, Sedlak said. “One is that by growing more trees and vegetation in the city, you cool it and make it more livable. The other is, you infiltrate more of that water into the ground and you have a chance of getting that water back out later as a water supply.”That’s why China calls them “sponge cities,” said Shaw Yu, a retired University of Virginia civil and environmental engineering professor. They absorb water when it rains, “and then when water is needed, it could be pumped out, like when you squeeze the sponge.”Researchers are reviewing the sponge city program, and so far, “the results are very mixed,” MIT’s Chiu-Shee said. A lot depends on who is running the program and the priorities of the investors and developers, she added.But no city is designed to deal with the kind of rain that soaked Zhengzhou, or the flooding that struck Germany and Belgium earlier this month.”The whole world is learning about how badly climate change can really affect cities nowadays,” she said. 

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Chinese Farmer Who Praised Lawyers Sentenced to 18 Years

A prominent Chinese pig farmer who was detained after praising lawyers during a crackdown on legal activists by President Xi Jinping’s government was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison on charges of organizing an attack on officials and other offenses.

Sun Dawu, chairman of Dawu Agriculture Group, was among 20 defendants who stood trial in Gaobeidian, southwest of Beijing in Hebei province. They were detained after Dawu employees in August 2020 tried to stop a state-owned enterprise from demolishing a company building.

Sun also was fined 3.1 million yuan ($480,000), the People’s Court of Gaobeidian said in a statement.

Sun was convicted of gathering people to attack state organs, obstructing public affairs, picking quarrels, sabotaging production, illegal mining, illegal occupation of farmland and illegally taking public deposits, the court said.

Other defendants received sentences ranging from one to 12 years, according to a statement from Dawu Group. It said the company was ordered to refund 1 billion yuan ($155 million) in investment that was raised improperly.

Sun became nationally known in 2003 when he was charged with illegal fundraising after soliciting investments for his business from friends and neighbors. The case prompted an outpouring of public support for Sun.

Since then, Sun has praised lawyers who help the public at a time when prominent legal figures have been imprisoned by Xi’s government. Sun’s lawyer in the 2003 case, Xu Zhiyong, disappeared in February 2020. Fellow activists say he was charged with treason.

Sun was accused of provoking quarrels, a charge used against labor and other activists, when he was detained in August 2020.

The trial officially was open to the public but only one spectator from the family of each defendant and 10 from the company were allowed due to coronavirus restrictions, defense lawyers said earlier. 

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8.2M Quake Hits Alaska, Triggering Tsunami Watch in Hawaii

A tsunami watch was issued for Hawaii on Wednesday evening following a large earthquake off the Alaska peninsula.

According to the Honolulu Star Advertiser, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center listed the magnitude as 8.1 and said, “an investigation is underway to determine if there is a tsunami threat to Hawaii.” But the U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was magnitude 8.2 and hit 91 kilometers east-southeast of Perryville, Alaska.

“Based on all available data, a tsunami may have been generated by this earthquake that could be destructive on coastal areas even far from the epicenter,” PTWC said.

Based on the preliminary seismic data, the quake should have been widely felt by almost everyone in the area of the epicenter. It might have caused light to moderate damage.

Moderate shaking probably occurred in Perryville, Chignik Lake and Sandpoint. 

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Myanmar, in Coup Aftermath, Faces Exploding Pandemic

Six months after its coup, Myanmar now faces a mushrooming COVID-19 pandemic.Deaths have risen sharply daily during the third, delta variant, infection wave that began May 25; 326 deaths were reported July 23, bringing the coronavirus death toll to 6,459. Myanmar reported 5,506 new infections out of 13,487 samples, a 40% infection rate.  Actual numbers may be higher because of those unable to get into hospitals.Cemeteries struggle to dispose of bodies quickly, without safety measures, and hearses carry three or more bodies, also transported by taxis and cars.  Social media videos and photos show bodies piled for cremation at Yangon cemeteries. Volunteers and staff since the coup wear no protective equipment other than masks.Out of capacityFree funeral operators and aid workers in Yangon say they cannot keep up with a death toll they claim is now around 1,000 a day.Sein Win Than, whose charity service transports bodies, told VOA his organization must transport at least 40 bodies to cemeteries daily but cannot keep up with requests.“We cannot take over 50 bodies a day. We have to wait for hours at the cemetery to drop off the bodies but we cannot wait anymore because of high demand. When we get to the cemetery, we must quickly leave for another trip,” he said.The situation is not unique to Yangon.In Mandalay, the death toll has risen daily because of a hospital doctor and nurse shortage.“About 60 patients die per day, but we can take only 30 dead bodies to the cemetery,” an aid worker told VOA.Kalay, in northwest Myanmar, was the first declared stay-home township when the wave hit. Aid workers and residents estimate the daily death toll has reached 20 to 30 since the last week of June.“Over 500 suspected COVID-19 patients died in Kalay and most are Christians,” Lang Khan Khai, head of Kalay’s Zomi Baptist Aid Group, told VOA July 18, referring to deaths since the last week of June.“The local crematorium was overwhelmed with bodies July 16. Now, we cannot dispose of those bodies following religious rites,” he said. At least 30 people had died every day since June, he said.However, the official count is different. A township health department official said, as of July 17, 275 patients had died out of 1,855 who tested positive in the third wave.COVID-19 infections have forced some funeral services and volunteers supplying oxygen to needy patients to suspend services, but there are also other reasons.Tin Maung Oo, whose Yangon-based charity organization provides oxygen cylinders to needy people, stopped oxygen service July 16.Oxygen is difficult to buy, he said, and some people do not return the cylinders — some rent them to friends, some sell them, so the organization ran out of cylinders.Disobeying orders for loved onesA partial July 19-25 lockdown has been extended to Aug. 1. Enforcement is lax, though, and many choose between following regulations and saving loved ones, including obtaining oxygen. Aid workers and funeral service officials said 80% of pandemic deaths were from lack of oxygen.As of July 17, hundreds of people regularly arrived at oxygen plants at 4 a.m. for refills. They say the curfew and orders make it more difficult when they need oxygen at night but they have no choice.“Getting oxygen is the most important thing for me as my mother really needs it. I don’t care about anything else,” said Ko Moe Zaw, in line at a Yangon oxygen plant July 17. He got up at 3 a.m. to line up for oxygen, but 20 people beat him there.Ko Teik, a 50-year-old garment factory employee, has lost family members because oxygen was not available. His grandfather, father and nephew died this month because of lack of oxygen.”My nephew was the last one. On July 12, his breathing level dropped seriously, and he needed more oxygen, but we could not get enough. I searched all over Yangon to get oxygen. Sadly, he was dead when I did get oxygen,” he said.The coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, said July 12 there is enough oxygen and blamed people for panic buying, warning the public not to spread rumors.“I want the people to cooperate. The main thing is not to take political advantage of it. This is a social issue, not a political issue. This is health issue and also a matter of human life,” he said.The same day, junta spokesperson Major-General Zaw Min Tun told reporters authorities were limiting sales of oxygen to discourage speculation and risky home treatments — some factories have since suspended operations.“We understand some people really need oxygen. In that case, they can buy it with the recommendation of relevant township health officers,” he said.The need for oxygen is increasing as more patients are treated at home, and an oxygen aid worker said oxygen tank prices had more than tripled. Speculators, he said, buy large numbers of cylinders wholesale, pushing resale prices up.The shortage has affected charity ambulances.”We also have to wait for hours for oxygen to be refilled so we can’t bring an oxygen cylinder when we pick up patients. Patients sometimes die in ambulances,” said Zar Ni, who works with a social welfare organization.State media announced July 17 that liquid oxygen tanks had arrived from China in Yangon and Mandalay and more tanks would arrive in days, but they would be used only for government hospitals and facilities. They did arrive and others are coming, including some from individuals or imported from Thailand, which are going to government hospitals.Dying at homePatients are being denied hospitalization and have not received adequate medical treatment at private and government hospitals. Private hospitals cannot provide enough care for COVID-19 patients and government hospitals are similarly hobbled because thousands of medical workers have joined the civil disobedience movement and left hospitals.Health Ministry guidelines say patients with symptoms should contact township health departments, and hospitals will not accept patients without a referral. Although the ministry announced township health department contact numbers, they rarely accept phone calls. Some patients who did get through were advised to stay home and refused referrals. Consequently, most people must cope on their own, despite warnings from medical professionals such as Khin Khin Gyi, the director of the Health Ministry’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Epidemiology Unit, who advises against home treatment and warns oxygen should be used only under expert guidance.“The pandemic is spreading around the world. It is not so easy to treat it at home,” she said.Some are resorting to home care because they do not trust the post-coup military.“Everyone is in trouble and everything has collapsed because of military coup. Instead of seeking help from the dictators, I would rather die at home,” Su Myat, the head of a now-closed Yangon garment factory said.Ma Theingi Htike, a resident of Sittwe, in the western Rakhine state, also had concerns about the military.“We tried to send my sister, who lost her sense of smell and taste, to private hospitals but they were full. Finally, we contacted to township health department, but they refused to provide a referral to admit her to the hospital,” she said. Finally, she said, she concluded that seeking help from military was a waste of time. Similar cases have occurred elsewhere.Aid workers found dead bodies at Yangon homes recently. On July 16, the Metta Thingaha Free Funeral Service found a father and son who had died at home in Yangon. The head of the service said the 70-year-old father was in bed, while his 40-year-old son was in a living room chair with an oxygen cylinder. The next day, Ye Thurein, a member of a township reserve fire brigade said a 70-year-old woman living alone was found dead in her fifth-floor apartment.Some health experts say the toll could rise in coming weeks because of the oxygen shortage, rising medicine prices and scarce medical supplies.“These conditions could put the lives of many people at home at risk and the death rate will definitely increase,” a senior physician in charge of a Mandalay hospital told VOA.Meanwhile, there are reports of a rising death toll as far away as Rakhine state, where the Sinbawkaing refugee camp has been shut down, and Kalay, where Lang Khan Khai, of the Zomi Baptist Aid Group cited local death figures, and which is also facing fighting between local forces and the army.“We expect the worst to happen in the coming months if we cannot control the current situation,” Lang Khan Khai said.   

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