Pope Francis’ right-hand man tests positive for COVID-19

The Vatican officials said Tuesday that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s No. 2, has very light symptoms, while Mons. Edgar Pena Parrra is asymptomatic. (AP)
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Updated 19 January 2022

Pope Francis’ right-hand man tests positive for COVID-19

  • The 67-year-old cardinal was currently in isolation, exhibiting only "mild symptoms"
  • Francis has been an avid proponent of vaccination

VATICAN CITY: The Vatican’s top diplomat and adviser to Pope Francis, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has tested positive for COVID-19, a spokesman for the Holy See said Tuesday.
The 67-year-old cardinal, who as secretary of state is the Vatican’s number two after the pope, was currently in isolation, exhibiting only “mild symptoms,” said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.
Venezuelan archbishop, Edgar Pena Parra, the Vatican’s deputy secretary of state, also tested positive, but he was asymptomatic, Bruni said.
Both men had been vaccinated.
Pope Francis, 85 and himself vaccinated, frequently meets with Cardinal Parolin, who is considered the pontiff’s right-hand man.
Francis has been an avid proponent of vaccination yet regularly appears without a mask during public audiences and does not hesitate to shake hands with the faithful and pose for photographs.
Since January 10, it has been mandatory for all Vatican employees to wear FFP2-type masks.


WHO working on more monkeypox guidance as cases rise — senior adviser

Updated 16 sec ago

WHO working on more monkeypox guidance as cases rise — senior adviser

LONDON: The World Health Organization is working on further guidance for countries on how to mitigate the spread of monkeypox, amid concerns cases could spike further in the summer months, a senior adviser for the UN agency told Reuters.
The WHO’s working theory based on the cases identified so far is that the outbreak is being driven by sexual contact, said David Heymann, chair of the WHO’s Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential. He led a meeting on the outbreak on Friday.
Monkeypox is an infectious disease that is usually mild, and is endemic in parts of west and central Africa. It is spread by close contact, which means it can be relatively easily contained through such measures as self-isolation and hygiene once a new case is identified.
The outbreak in 11 countries where it is not endemic is highly unusual, according to scientists. More than 100 confirmed or suspected cases have been reported, most of them in Europe.
Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said experts were likely to give more guidance to countries in the coming days. Health officials in several countries have warned that cases could rise further at major summer gatherings and festivals.
“What seems to be happening now is that it has got into the population as a sexual form, as a genital form, and is being spread as are sexually transmitted infections, which has amplified its transmission around the world,” Heymann said.
He said the WHO’s meeting was convened “because of the urgency of the situation.” The committee is not the group that would suggest declaring a public health emergency of international concern, WHO’s highest form of alert, which currently applies to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead Heymann said the international committee of experts, which met via video conference, looked at what needed to be studied about the outbreak and communicated to the public, including whether there is any asymptomatic spread, who are at most risk, and what the various routes of transmission are.
He said close contact was the key transmission route for the virus as the lesions that are typical of the disease are very infectious. For example, parents caring for sick children are at risk, as well as health workers, which is why some countries have started inoculating the teams treating monkeypox patients using vaccines for smallpox, a related virus.
Many of the current cases have been identified at sexual health clinics.
Early genomic sequencing of a handful of the cases in Europe has suggested a similarity with the strain that spread in a limited fashion in Britain, Israel and Singapore in 2018.
Heymann said it was “biologically plausible” that the virus had since been circulating outside of the countries where it is endemic, but had not led to major outbreaks as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions.
He stressed that the monkeypox outbreak did not resemble the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic because it does not transmit as easily. Those who suspect they may have been exposed or who are showing symptoms, including the typical bumpy rash and fever, should avoid close contact with others, he said.
“There are vaccines available, but the most important message is, you can protect yourself,” he added.

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

Updated 21 May 2022

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

  • Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy
  • The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya

ROME: Charities running migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean faced a pre-trial hearing in Sicily Saturday over alleged collusion with people traffickers after a controversial probe that involved mass wiretapping.
Twenty-one suspects, including crew members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and German NGO Jugend Rettet rescue ships, are accused of “aiding and abetting unauthorized entry into Italy” in 2016 and 2017.
“Our crews rescued over 14,000 people in distress from unseaworthy and overcrowded boats... and are now facing 20 years in prison,” Kathrin Schmidt, who sailed with Jugend Rettet’s ship Iuventa, said ahead of the hearing.
Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy for the mass wiretapping of charity workers, lawyers and journalists in what critics say is a politically motivated bid to stop sea rescues.
Italy has long been on the front line of seaborne migration from Africa to Europe, with a record 180,000 arrivals in 2016, dropping to 120,000 in 2017.
It has registered some 17,000 arrivals so far this year, according to the interior ministry.
Prosecutor Brunella Sardoni told AFP she expected the preliminary hearings process to last “several months, considering the complexity” of a case file with some 30,000 pages and hundreds of CDs.
Corso set the date for the next hearing as June 7.
Supporters of the rescue charities held a sit-in at the port in Trapani featuring large paper boats bearing the date and location of shipwrecks, and the number of victims.
The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya, returning inflatable dinghies and boats to them to be reused, and picking up people whose lives had not been in danger.
The rescuers say anyone attempting the central Mediterranean crossing to Europe — the “world’s deadliest” according to the UN — on rickety boats or unseaworthy dinghies is at risk, and should be saved.
At least 12,000 people have drowned on this route since 2014. Many shipwrecks go unrecorded.
The charities also deny ever communicating with smugglers, who are sometimes armed and can be spotted loitering near rescues in the hope of retrieving valuable engines from migrant boats.
Save the Children told AFP it “strongly rejects” the accusations, as did MSF, which slammed a “period of criminalization of humanitarian aid” it hoped would soon end.
The Iuventa was impounded in 2017 shortly after Jugend Rettet and others refused to sign a new and contentious interior ministry “code of conduct” accord, and as the European Union scaled up surveillance and policing in the Mediterranean.
“Despite the fact that mobile phones and computers were seized and analyzed, not a single contact with Libyan smugglers... has been found,” said Nicola Canestrini, lawyer for the Iuventa crew members.
Pre-trial hearings are held behind closed doors, but representatives from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Amnesty International have requested the judge allow them to sit in for transparency.
ECCHR senior legal adviser Allison West has condemned “improper investigative practices” in the investigation, led by a prosecutors’ office more used to exposing Mafia crimes.
The probe was launched after ex-policeman Pietro Gallo, working as a security contractor on Save the Children’s Vos Hestia ship, sent allegations against the charities in October 2016 to Italy’s secret services, Canestrini told AFP.
He and a fellow ex-policeman also sent them to the head of the anti-immigration League party, Matteo Salvini, before reporting their suspicions to the police.
Gallo has since said in an interview that he regrets it. Asked if he ever saw any contact between the charities and traffickers, he replied “no, never.”
The damage was done. Police placed an undercover agent on the Vos Hestia in May 2017, who would provide information including elements used to charge the four Iuventa crew members, Canestrini said. Those included alleged hand signals between the crew and smugglers.
Iuventa’s case has been studied by Forensic Architecture, an agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which uses advanced reconstruction techniques to investigate police, military and state facts.
It discredited the police theories for all three Iuventa rescues in question.


Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken

Updated 21 May 2022

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken

  • Travel bans have only symbolic impact but form part of a constant downward spiral in Russia’s relations with the US

LONDON: Russia said on Saturday it was banning entry to 963 Americans including US President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA chief William Burns
The travel bans have only symbolic impact but form part of a constant downward spiral in Russia’s relations with the United States and its allies since its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.


Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Updated 21 May 2022

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

  • Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ordered women TV presenters to cover faces from Saturday
  • Earlier this month, Afghanistan's supreme leader issued a diktat for women to cover up fully in public

KABUL: Women presenters on Afghanistan's leading TV channels went on air Saturday without covering their faces, defying a Taliban order that they conceal their appearance to comply with the group's austere brand of Islam.

Since surging back to power last year the Taliban have imposed a slew of restrictions on civil society, many focused on reining in the rights of women and girls.

Earlier this month Afghanistan's supreme leader issued a diktat for women to cover up fully in public, including their faces, ideally with the traditional burqa.

The Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ordered women TV presenters to follow suit by Saturday.

Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf.

However, broadcasters TOLOnews, Shamshad TV and 1TV all aired live programs Saturday with women presenters' faces on show.

"Our female colleagues are concerned that if they cover their faces, the next thing they will be told is to stop working," said Shamshad TV head of news Abid Ehsas.

"This is the reason they have not observed the order so far," he told AFP.

Mohammad Sadeq Akif Mohajir, spokesman for the vice ministry, said the women were violating the Taliban directive.

"If they don't comply we will talk to the managers and guardians of the presenters," he told AFP.

"Anyone who lives under a particular system and government has to obey the laws and orders of that system, so they must implement the order," he said.

The Taliban have demanded that women government employees be fired if they fail to follow the new dress code.

Men working in government also risk suspension if their wives or daughters fail to comply.

Mohajir said media managers and the male guardians of defiant women presenters would also be liable for penalties if the order was not observed.

The Taliban previously promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterized their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

During two decades of US-led military intervention in Afghanistan, women and girls made marginal gains in the deeply patriarchal nation.

But since August women have already been banned from travelling alone and teenage girls barred from secondary schools.

In the 20 years after the Taliban were ousted from office many women in the conservative countryside continued to wear a burqa.

However, most Afghan women, including TV presenters, opted for the Islamic headscarf.

Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities.


Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip

Updated 21 May 2022

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip

  • The legislation was passed by Congress with bipartisan support
  • The new legislation will provide $20 billion in military assistance

SEOUL: President Joe Biden on Saturday signed legislation to support Ukraine with another $40 billion in US assistance as the Russian invasion approaches its fourth month.
The legislation, which was passed by Congress with bipartisan support, deepens the US commitment to Ukraine at a time of uncertainty about the war’s future. Ukraine has successfully defended Kyiv, and Russia has refocused its offensive on the country’s east, but American officials warn of the potential for a prolonged conflict.
The funding is intended to support Ukraine through September, and it dwarfs an earlier emergency measure that provided $13.6 billion.
The new legislation will provide $20 billion in military assistance, ensuring a steady stream of advanced weapons that have been used to blunt Russia’s advances. There’s also $8 billion in general economic support, $5 billion to address global food shortages that could result from the collapse of Ukrainian agriculture and more than $1 billion to help refugees.
Biden signed the measure under unusual circumstances. Because he’s in the middle of a trip to Asia, a US official brought a copy of the bill on a commercial flight so the president could sign it, according to a White House official.
The logistics reflect a sense of urgency around continuing US support for Ukraine, but also the overlapping international challenges facing Biden. Even as he tries to reorient American foreign policy to confront China, he’s continuing to direct resources to the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.

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