THE WASHINGTON POST

COVID-19 Is Bad News For Those Fighting Other Diseases

A health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child in Pakistan.
A health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child in Pakistan.
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

To call it a "side effect" of the pandemic would miss the point entirely. Beyond the devastating health impacts of coronavirus on those infected is the impact the crisis is having on research and treatment for other diseases.


Nobody can argue with the massive public attention and funds focused on coronavirus, considered the worst worldwide disease outbreak in a century, infecting nearly 5 million and killing more than 320,000 people, while shutting down large parts of the global economy.


Still, experts say we are witnessing a resurgence of what were assumed to be largely controlled diseases, notably in developing countries, while resources are also being diverted from laboratories searching for cures for longstanding illnesses that affect millions around the world.


Take, for example, cancer, which is estimated to kill more than nine million people each year, and still has no definitive cure. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 50% of cancer research in the United States has been put on hold. Many labs are closed and some researchers are switching their efforts to coronavirus. Yale Medical School Professor Kevin Sheth estimated that globally, 200,000 clinical trials have been impacted. As just one example, Dr. Gwen Nichols, the chief medical officer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, told Healthline that the research process for blood cancer has been slowed significantly.


Medical professionals also warn that certain ailments are going untreated because of lockdowns put in place. One study estimates that 1.4 million more people will die of tuberculosis by 2025 because of the lack of treatment during the current crisis. In certain high incidence countries like India, Ukraine and Kenya, cases are going undiagnosed and undetected, with infection levels creeping up to 2013 highs, according to a study published by the Stop TB Partnership. Described by the World Health Organization as the "world's top infectious killer," TB is highly contagious and a vaccine only exists for children, not adults. Those with weakened immune systems and previous lung damage are likely to face more severe effects if they are infected by the coronavirus.


Then there is polio, an infectious disease that used to paralyze hundreds of thousands of children a year until it was almost eradicated by a vaccine. But there has been a resurgence this year, with The Washington Post reporting that Pakistan, Afghanistan and more than a dozen African countries have stopped or postponed delivering vaccines because of travel restrictions and the difficulty of administering drop vaccines at a safe distance.


Coronavirus has, for now, pushed these and other more or less pressing medical issues to the side. The longer-term hope is that the current crisis shines unprecedented attention on the need to invest in both long-term research and emergency care. Saving lives and defeating disease require attention to the entire organism of our health care systems.


See more from Coronavirus here

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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