LE PARISIEN
The leading daily newspaper in Paris, Le Parisien has a national edition called Aujourd'hui en France (Today in France). The newspaper was founded in 1944 by World War II resistance fighters in the occupied capital.
Society
Bertrand Hauger

Men Dressed As Mickey Mouse And Winnie The Pooh Grope Teens In France

Cartoon characters parading down the streets are usually synonymous with childhood glee, theme parks and carnival floats. But as French daily Le Parisien reports, recent encounters with the beloved icons such as Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh have been followed by calls to the police in eastern France.

Since last month, multiple reports to authorities and posts on social media have warned that at least four men wearing Disney costumes were busy swindling, catcalling and groping passers-by in the city centers of Strasbourg and Mulhouse.

According to France 3 Régions, the men, believed to be in their 40s, approached people — often teenage girls — offering to take pictures with them and demanding money, before touching them inappropriately.

As Le Parisien reports, a since deleted video posted on Instagram recently showed several individuals beating up one of the costumed men after he harassed a passer-by.

Society
Bertrand Hauger

Court Orders French Celebrity Magazine To Pay Homeless Man €40,000

Since its founding in 1949, the iconic French weekly Paris Match has published countless photos of the rich and powerful — and every now and then, a paparazzi shot might cost them.

This time, instead, it was a homeless man demanding the magazine pay serious VIP money for running a photograph of him without his permission. Last week, a court in Nanterre, west of the French capital, ordered Paris Match to pay 40,000 euros to the man for publishing his picture, as part of an investigative article on crack cocaine addiction in Paris.

"Everyone, no matter their degree of celebrity, their wealth, their present or future occupation, has a right to privacy and enjoys exclusive right over their image which allows them to oppose its use without prior authorization," the court wrote in its decision.

The photo, published without the man's consent in January 2018, showed the unnamed 48-year-old smoking crack cocaine on a metro platform in northern Paris. Unlike other people in the photograph, his face was not blurred out, the daily Le Parisien reports.

Alerted by friends who recognized him in the Paris Match article, the homeless man sued the magazine: In May 2019, the magazine was ordered to pay him 10,000 euros in damages, but failed to remove the photograph from its website and app, resulting in an additional 30,000-euro fine last week.

Le Parisien quoted the man as saying that he used some of the money to "help out friends' and that he now may be able "to get his wife and children back."

Society

Drama At French Opera: Real-Life Sabotage Winds Up In Court

A near fatal act of sabotage at a French opera house wound up in a courtroom last week, after a feud between stage hands offered an unsuspecting audience a moment of true drama six years ago. Let's rewind back to January 28, 2015, at the Théâtre du Capitole, in the southern French city of Toulouse, where Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, a five-hour tale of fated lovers, was building toward a dramatic finale. But on this particular night, the audience had no idea just how dramatic the ending would be.

Isolde sings a lament for her now dead lover, Tristan, who is lying beside her as a giant rock is lowered to hover just above him. Powered by steel ropes, the rock is set to stop precisely 60 centimeters (2 ft.) above the body of the tenor Robert Dean Smith, playing the part of Tristan. Only this rock, weighing more than 200 kilograms (440 pounds), didn't stop. Smith managed to deftly roll out just in time as a stagehand applied the emergency brake.

Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" in Toulouse — Photo: Théâtre du Capitole Facebook page

The audience lets out a gleeful gasp at this deliciously thrilling climax, unaware of how close it came to witnessing a true tragedy, as investigators believe that it was no technical glitch, but one of the stage hands who had deliberately changed the settings of the props the previous day.

French daily Le Parisien reports that six years later to the day, last Thursday, a judge in Toulouse ordered Nicolas S., the suspected technician from the Capitole, back to court to face charges for this Machiavellian act of sabotage. According to the allegation, Nicolas S. was not attempting to harm the tenor Smith but wanted to damage the reputation of a rival technician Richard R, who had been in charge of the sets that evening.

An internal investigation showed that the computer system had been hacked at 6.19 p.m. on the Jan. 27, 2015 and that, among the handful of stagehands capable of such a manipulation, only one of them was registered as being at the theater at the time: Nicolas S. Lawyers for the accused deny any wrongdoing, or motive of rivalry, on their client's part.

If convicted of the charge of manipulating an automatic safety system, the suspect could face five years in prison and a 150,000 euro fine. For Toulouse Opera lovers, it may finally be time to see how this plot ends.

Geopolitics
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

What's To Blame For COVID-19 Vaccine Delays Around The World

Delays, reluctance, shortages... the rollout of the coronavirus vaccines across the world has been beset by some recurring obstacles.

The brand new vaccination center in Saarbrücken, in western Germany, was set up in record time in two old exhibition halls. With a dozen check-in counters, two large waiting rooms with hundreds of chairs, 36 separate cubicles and doctors at the ready, the center has all it needs to welcome crowds of people in an orderly fashion. The problem, as German daily Die Welt reports: No one has turned up.

Only 200 people per day were being vaccinated in the center this week, one-tenth its capacity.

According to the latest daily update from the Robert Koch Institute, Germany has vaccinated around 239,000 people since starting its campaign on Dec. 27, well short of the 1.3 million doses that were delivered by the end of 2020.

It was the Christmas miracle the world was waiting for: Multiple vaccines for a pandemic that had plagued countries across the globe for the better part of 2020. However, the reality of implementing an unprecedented global vaccination campaign has fallen far short of miraculous in many countries.

Inoculating billions of people was always going to present almost insurmountable challenges, particularly so with a vaccine that must be kept at extremely low temperatures and requires a second booster shot within weeks. While many countries simply don't have enough doses on hand, others are facing healthcare staffing shortages; a lack of infrastructure, especially in rural and underserved areas; and growing anti-vaccination movements. Here are some of the biggest hurdles:

1. Distribution chaos: In the United States, the lack of a federal roll out plan has left it up to individual states to figure out vaccine distribution, including who should be given priority. A last minute executive order from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis allowing anyone age 65 and older to get a vaccine left Canada's so-called snowbirds flocking to Miami to be inoculated.

  • The state has one of the highest populations of elderly in the country and many of its 4.5 million seniors are camping out in the cold for a vaccine. As Broward County Mayor Steve Geller tells NBC Miami, "Many seniors are panicking because they think they were promised the vaccine immediately. They were not, but now they feel that faith has been broken."

  • Lacking their own infrastructure, some local governments are even turning to the ticketing service Eventbrite to make vaccine appointments, as reported by Vox. Other medical service providers are using Facebook events and Google Docs in lieu of creating their own appointment systems. While this might raise security concerns (there have been fake Evenbrite pages), it eliminates the inevitable crowds of the first come, first served model.

2. Nobody in charge: Sweden was another country without a clearly defined national vaccination strategy. In an opinion article published in Swedish daily Aftonbladet, opposition party Kristdemokraterna lashed out against Sweden's ruling center-left coalition for failing to act preemptively. Kristdemokraterna warned that Sweden might end up last in line for a vaccine.

  • At the heart of this problem is the fact that Sweden appointed a national vaccine coordinator who doesn't have a mandate to negotiate with medical companies. As Sweden lacks the domestic production capacity to meet the national demand for a vaccine, the country is dependent on international manufacturers.

3. Rural delivery delays: The world's second largest country in terms of landmass, Canada faces unique logistical hurdles in delivering its vaccine. More than 420,000 doses have been delivered to the provinces, but only around 28 percent have been administered.

  • "It's an utter failure when you have three-fourths of our vaccines still sitting inside of freezers," biostatistician Ryan Imgrund, who works with Ottawa Public Health, told Global News.

  • In Ontario, Canada's largest province, only around 5,000 people a day are being vaccinated, meaning it would take eight years to immunize the entire province. Ontario previously had the goal of vaccinating 8.5 million people by June, more than half of its 14.57 million population.

Defrosted vaccines being packaged for the start of the delivery — Photo: Pool Olivier Matthys/DDP via ZUMA Press

4. Safety issues: While India has approved two vaccine candidates, questions remain around their efficacy, especially for more vulnerable populations. AstraZeneca made a deal to manufacture its vaccine through the Serum Institute of India. But a trial participant who experienced neurological side-effects from the vaccine is suing the Serum Institute, while AstraZeneca is facing legal challenges in the UK for cherry-picking data. The other vaccine known as COVAXIN is developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with government agencies and is based on an inactivated form of the coronavirus. The company has completed only two of three trial phases. The third, which crucially tests for efficacy, began in mid-November.

  • Consequently, it is the elderly who will both be the first to get the vaccine and potentially face side effects, as the vaccines weren't tested to see if they prevent severe forms of COVID-19.

  • As Vasudevan Mukunth wrote in The Wire, "In other words, by messing up its validation process, the government is virtually experimenting with the most vulnerable cohort who will receive the vaccine candidates first – people like our grandparents, etc. – while those who are less likely to suffer for it will have it easier. And that is wrong, surely."

  • There are challenges for the elderly in Italy too. The senior population there faces challenges to access the vaccine delivery points. One hospital in Rome has begun to dispatch mobile units of medical professionals to reach the most remote places.

5. Supply shortages: "The problem is that Europe doesn't have its own vaccine," president of the Hauts-de-France region Xavier Bertrand told France Inter, pointing out the failings of the government. "We have half of the French population who wants to be vaccinated. ... when will these people be able to do it?"

  • Bertrand added that he expected France to match the level of action of its British neighbor: "We also have a French vaccine, Sanofi, which must be developed."

  • Le Parisien confirms that the EU had ordered 400 million doses from Sanofi, of which 90 million were to go to France. The company's delay in delivering the vaccine therefore threw a significant spanner in France's vaccination plans, leading some to question the government's choice to "go local" in terms of vaccine production.

  • Additionally, an adviser to Prime Minister Jean Castex estimated that between 25 to 30% of the 200 million vaccines ordered by France were at risk of being lost, according to Le Figaro. 50 to 60 million doses could be rendered useless because of the need to store them at -70 °C, and carry out the injection within 5 days after being removed from storage. The country's decision to prioritize the elderly has also slowed down vaccination campaigns considerably, with nursing homes required to collect consent forms from their residents — a process that can be sometimes very long, as France Bleu reports.

6. Doctor shortages: Vaccination delays in the northern Italian region of Lombardy were blamed on doctors being on vacation. But Giulio Gallera, the region's head of welfare services, warned against hysteria in the first days of the vaccination program. "It's awful to see people ranking those who have vaccinated the most people so far, let's do it in 15 or 20 days," Gallera told La Stampa. "We have doctors and nurses who have 50 days of overdue leave. I won't force them back from their holidays to perform vaccinations. But we will stay on schedule."

  • In Spain, 82,834 doses of the Pfizer vaccine had been administered by January 4. In total, the country has received 718,575 doses, of which 360,000 have been received yesterday (despite the campaign starting before the Christmas holidays). The lack of health professionals exacerbated by the Christmas holidays have slowed down the administration of the vaccinations for a week in much of the country.

  • There have also been production problems by the multinational manufacturer Pfizer manufacturer. And then there was the eruption of the new virulent strain of the virus in Great Britain and the subsequent border closures, the unpredictable logistics of several communities, lockdowns, curfews, school closures, healthcare systems being overwhelmed...

Geopolitics
Mourad Kamel

One Year After Al-Baghdadi Death, An ISIS 'Regeneration'

The U.S. killed the ruthless leader last October in Syria at a low point for ISIS. But under his successor, the group is beginning to strike back, in Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

The grisly killing 10 days ago of a French school teacher had many of the hallmarks of past attacks carried out by the bloody Islamist terror outfit ISIS. A well-defined symbolic target in the West: Samuel Paty, a respected history and geography teacher who'd been criticized by a Muslim parent and Islamist agitator for showing satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad as part of his annual lesson on free speech; the brazen brutality of the act: a swift stabbing and beheading with a butcher knife on a street near the school north of Paris; online exchanges discovered later between the perpetrator, a Russian-born French resident of Chechen origin, and an operative in Idlib, Syria.

And yet according to French daily Le Parisien, investigators say that the killer's contacts were with a different Islamist terror group in Syria (Haya't Tahrir El Sham, HTS) — and that the attack by the 18-year-old (later killed in a standoff with police) was neither inspired nor orchestrated by ISIS.

This comes almost exactly one year after a low moment for the group dubbed the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), when its ruthless leader, Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed on Oct. 26, 2019 in a U.S. Special Forces raid. But security analysts and intelligence experts now report that there are signs that ISIS is coming back to life — led by al-Baghdadi's successor, who has his own reputation as a ruthless killer.

Flash news: Al Jazeera reports that ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack Saturday that killed at least 24 civilians in a Kabul educational center, including schoolchildren.

Background check: Though it was founded in 1999, it was only in 2014 that ISIS grabbed the world's attention, succeeding al-Qaeda as the main force of Islamic terror after the death of its founder Osama bin Laden. ISIS's strategy was somewhat different than bin Laden's, with ambitions to establish a "caliphate" or Islamic state, by conquering vast territory in the Middle East, while simultaneously spreading terror across the world with attacks like the one in November 2015 at the Bataclan concert hall and cafés in Paris that killed 130, as well as multiple smaller attacks elsewhere in the West.

Former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — Photo: Al Furqaan Media/TNS/ZUMA

New leader: Faced against its enemies in the region, most notably Iran-backed Shia forces, as well as Western-led advances, ISIS had been at an apparent low point when al-Baghdadi was killed. But only three weeks later, his successor was chosen: Amir Muhammad Said al-Mawla.

• Also known under the name of Abu Omar al-Turkmani, or "the destroyer," al-Mawla has enabled the group to "reaffirm its presence in Syria and Iraq, planning more and more daring attacks' according to a UN report published in January.

• Al-Mawla was born in 1976 in the Iraqi town of Tal Afar, 70 kilometers west of Mosul. His hometown is a Turkmen enclave, which has created confusion about his ethnic origins, particularly because it was seen as very important for ISIS followers that their leader be of Arab descent.

• He holds a degree in Sharia law from the University of Mosul, just like his predecessor, and was also a former officer in Saddam Hussein's army, like many of his colleagues.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he joined the Sunni insurgency, which has killed scores of Iraqis and aimed at weakening the invasion. He was later detained for five years by US forces in the prison of Bucca, where he met al-Baghdadi.

Blood on his hands: There is no doubt on the ruthlessness of the new leader: Emirati daily Akhbar Al An has reported how al-Mawla issued rulings to exterminate the Yazidi minority in Iraq and has mobilized his men to kill and rape Yazidi men, women and children in a clear strategy of ethnic cleansing, as well as the Christian minority in Iraq.

New mission: With the loss of territory and global attention leading up to al-Baghdadi's death, the new leader took on the task of regenerating ISIS through a crucial period in the organization's history. Experts say the Islamic State operates like the mythical Hydra — you can cut off one of its heads, but another will grow back soon after.

Amir Muhammad Said al-Mawla, a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Turkmani — Photo: U.S. DOS

Regeneration: Iraqi researcher and specialist of the Islamic State, Hisham al-Hashimi, explained to the French daily Ouest-France in an interview last year that ISIS has the capacity to rebuild. "This regeneration strategy has three stages: Firstly the formation and gathering of resources (soldiers and weapons). Secondly, the starting up and preparation of the terrorist system and thirdly, taking control of the territory on which the group will be able to impose its policy and create a kind of economy that will be able to support it."

• It is notable that al-Hashimi himself was killed near his house in Baghdad by two unidentified gunmen on July 6, likely targeted because of his focus on the Islamic State.

New bastions: While ISIS-inspired attacks in the West have been rare, the group appears to be strengthening its presence in Africa and the Middle East. These latest developments come despite recent claims by U.S. President Donald Trump that ISIS is "100 percent" defeated.

Anadolu, the Turkish news agency, reports that the Islamic State is exploiting a security vacuum in the vast Anbar desert separating Syria and Iraq to set up sleeper cells, until the group can regain new territory, made up of fighters who slipped away after the retreat that began in 2017.

• According to the January report by the UN Security Council, after the loss of its territories, ISIS began to reassert its presence in Syria and Iraq, fomenting more and more daring attacks. The report states that Islamic State still has $100 million, which partly explains its resilience.

New attention, new attacks: The West has gradually been reawakened to the threat. In June, the U.S. doubled its bounty of the new ISIS leader to $10 million. Two months later, six French humanitarians were killed in Niger in an ambush of ISIS fighters on motorbikes. But the pace of overall attacks has been slowly rising elsewhere.

• Cairo authorities blame ISIS for repeated attacks on Egyptian troops in the Sinai.

• In early August, militants carrying the black flag of ISIS launched an assault on the strategic port city of Mocimboa da Praia in northern Mozambique and captured the entire town in less than a week and declared it as their new capital.

• Saturday's attack in Kabul targeted a neighborhood that is home to many from the minority Shia community in the Afghan capital, part of a longstanding ISIS strategy of targeting non-Sunni Muslims.

What's next: One year ago, some analysts believed al-Baghdadi's death was a sign that both the operations and ideology of ISIS could be living its final days. The group was also being forced to contend with rival Sunni groups, including the HTS militants who may have had a role in the killing of the French teacher. Yet the ambitions of the Islamic State are ultimately its greatest weapon, offering radicalized Sunni followers everywhere a vision of new caliphate to reign over the Muslim world. Meanwhile, its new leader al-Mawla must live up to more than his nickname "the destroyer," to also see what he can rebuild.

Future
Bertrand Hauger

The Vaccine Sprint Accelerates

The global death toll in the COVID-19 pandemic has passed 475,000, and the confirmed cases are now more than nine million worldwide. But there's another number that looms: fear of the pandemic's second wave striking countries in the coming weeks and months. Already, clusters of new outbreaks of cases have appeared in countries such as China, South Korea and Germany that thought they had put the pandemic to rest.

Indeed, there is only one way to truly vanquish that spectre: a vaccine. The race for the successful development, testing and distribution of a vaccine has been on for months, bringing in private pharmaceutical giants, national health agencies and global bodies including the World Health Organization.

• "End of the year" hopes: For Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S."s top medical expert, a vaccine is a matter of "when and not if." Fauci told Congress yesterday that though its development might take some time, he remained "cautiously optimistic," predicting that a vaccine could be available as soon as the end of this year, or the beginning of 2021. In his written testimony, Fauci listed key vaccines in development, including a potential candidate developed in partnership with biotech Moderna, expected to begin late-stage testing in July.

• How to go faster: In a article published in the scientific journal Vaccine, ominously titled "Extraordinary diseases require extraordinary solutions', two U.S. researchers insist on the need to accelerate the vaccine development process, which they argue "normally takes months to years," during which the virus will have time to infect and possibly kill millions. They therefore suggest "moving quickly through animal studies and doing human challenge studies in volunteers' by inoculating the virus to volunteers. "The ethics of such trials," the two researchers add, "as well as their acceptability to regulators as a step towards emergency use of a candidate vaccine are foremost and require immediate discussion."

Volunteer getting vaccinated in Wuhan on April 20 — Photo: TPG/ZUMA

• Calculated risk: These so-called "infectious human challenges', which involve the deliberate exposure of human volunteers to infectious agents, are not something new per se. As Le Monde notes, they were implemented before in the fight against the flu, cholera, malaria, dengue — but as the French daily notes, they still pose the ethical question: Is it OK to intentionally harm a patient? It is, according to Nir Eyal, Marc Lipsitch and Peter Smith. In The Journal of Infectious Diseases, the three U.S. doctors favor such controlled infection trials, as long as the volunteers express their full consent, and that the selection of participants (healthy young adults) helps limit the risks.

• UK rolls out innovative human trials: About 300 volunteers will be immunized over the coming weeks, as part of a trial led the Imperial College London. The BBC notes that while traditional vaccines are usually based on a modified form of the virus they seek to combat, here the vaccine uses synthetic strands of genetic code (called RNA) that mimic the virus.

• China giving its all: Beijing-based China National Biotec Group was just given the greenlight for the final stage (Phase III) of human trials for its COVID-19 vaccines in the United Arab Emirates. The company will partner with G42, an Abu Dhabi company specialized in AI and cloud computing, to conduct the trial and start local production of the vaccine. This is but one of the five different vaccine development projects China is leading right now.

• Dissenting voice: Not all are running the vaccine race. French microbiologist and hydroxychloroquine guru Didier Raoult recently told Le Parisien he thought it was "unlikely" that a vaccine would soon be available. "There isn't any against emerging diseases, despite the billions spent," he observed, before adding: "But I'm not saying it won't happen."

Geopolitics

Face Masks Around The World, Manufacturing And Moving On

There has been plenty of debate and questions surrounding the use of masks since the coronavirus pandemic started. Should we wear them or not? What type of mask works the best? Should countries make them compulsory? But even as a general scientific consensus has emerged that masks are one of the most effective tools at our disposal to prevent the virus from spreading, countries faced another problem: how to obtain, produce and control the millions of masks necessary for their health workers and population.

Many countries had to deal with severe shortages with cargos of masks being sold to the highest bidder. For some, which found themselves unable to produce masks quickly and in large volumes, the manufacturing of these protective products has become an example of the shortfalls of outsourcing, while others took this opportunity to expand their market.

After more than six months since the beginning of the pandemic in China, here's how three countries are currently dealing with the manufacturing of masks:

France - Overproduction: The textile industry finds itself with tons of cloth masks as orders have almost come to a halt, causing real difficulties to some of the 400 companies which invested hastily to respond to the government's call, according to Les Echos.

An ironic situation considering the country was facing a severe shortage at the beginning of the pandemic. According to the French Union of the textile industries, around 40 millions masks are still waiting for buyers at the moment and some companies, which mobilized all their workers for weeks to produce masks, now find themselves with the equivalent for several years of raw material stocks, that will certainly fall in value.

But why can't they find any buyers? Because French citizens and companies tend to buy cheaper single-use paper masks from Asia, Le Parisien reports. The latter cost between 0.55 and 0.60 euros compared to 3 to 5 euros for a French cloth mask. But in the end, the latter is more cost-efficient and environmentally sound, as it is reusable. The government is currently working to find a way to promote the Made in France masks, as well as to quickly find an outlet to distribute the surplus.

face_mask_production_inside1_WC

A worker demonstrates non-woven filter fabric used to make face masks in a factory in Zhongli, TaiwanPhoto: Lin Yen Ting

Turkey - Exporter: As soon as the virus started to spread worldwide at the beginning of 2020, Turkey was sought out to produce masks on a grand scale. According to data from the World Trade Organization, Turkey is one the world's largest textile exporting countries and had therefore sufficient raw material stocks to meet the high demand.

China ordered 200 million masks from Turkish medical firms in January, according to the Anadolu Agency and later on, several EU countries requested the protective products as well, a textile firm even receiving a one-billion mask order.

A Turkish protective gear factory, which was founded in less a month during the pandemic, claims to be the world's largest mask production facility that doesn't use imported material. The company is currently repurposing three ships to use them as floating masks factories that could each produced around 500 million face masks during their sea voyages to sell to countries in North and South America, Hürriyet reports.

Finland - Self-Sufficiency: At the end of May, the government announced that three Finnish companies had started to produce protective materials such as masks and respirators, following an initiative launched by the Ministry of Employment and Economy to start domestic production, Yle reports.

face_mask_production_WC_inside2

Inside a medical mask production workshop in Tangshan, Hebei Province, China Photo: Yang Shiyao

At the beginning of the pandemic, Finland faced major shortages of protective equipment and had to fight with other countries on the international market, as prices were soaring. For Minister of Labour Tuula Haatainen, the pandemic "has exposed the vulnerability of international supply chains and highlighted the importance of domestic production."

The government hopes that domestic manufacturing will cover the needs of health and social workers, who, according to its estimates, require around one million masks everyday, News Now Finland reports. Though masks are not compulsory for Finnish citizens, the country's authorities say they want to be prepared for a possible second wave of the virus in autumn.

Taiwan - Setting Standards: Since the crisis began in neighboring China, rival island nation Taiwan has been at the cutting-edge on controlling the spread of COVID-19 — and an innovative policy for distributing and tracking the use of masks gets some of the credit. It included a name-based rationing system for face masks in the beginning, and once production was accelerated, made masks widely available in convenience stores and through an app.

And now, the country continues to reap the benefits, having virtually halted the spread of the virus. Taiwan News reports that the government has further eased restrictions, including allowing passengers on trains and airplanes to take off their masks once they've passed temperature controls. Still, China Times reports an estimated 90% of passengers on mass transit were still wearing masks.

Geopolitics

The Latest: Biden And Putin Punt, Iran’s Unpopular Elections, Heavenly Harmony

Welcome to Thursday, where Biden-Putin talks reinstate ambassadors but achieve little else, Japan lifts some COVID restrictions ahead of the Olympics and boy is the Rhine river filthy. We also turn to Berlin-based daily Die Welt to understand why hackers (from Turkey and Russia alike) keep targeting Germany's Green Party.

• Biden-Putin summit talks: U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva to discuss cybersecurity and arms control. Most notably, the two leaders agreed to resume nuclear talks and reinstate their respective ambassadors. However, the summit did not result in any major breakthroughs, though the American president said he was "not confident" Putin would "change his behavior."

• Hong Kong police arrest Apple Daily executives: Hong Kong's National Security department raided the Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper. Five high-level executives were arrested on charges of violating the national security law. Last December, Apple Daily's founder, Jimmy Lai, was detained under similar circumstances.

• Iran urges citizens not to boycott Friday's election: Iran's eighth presidential election, slated for tomorrow, is expected to have very low voter turnout, as many dissatisfied citizens plan to boycott the vote. After years of economic hardship, censorship, and the recent disqualification of would-be candidates, polls suggest that only 41% of Iranians may vote.

• Japan to lift some COVID restrictions ahead of Olympics: The Japanese government will ease the State of Emergency in several prefectures, including Tokyo, this Monday in anticipation of the Olympic Games which begin on July 23. The government is also considering placing a 10,000-person cap on large spectator events.

• Construction deficiencies behind deadly Mexico City subway collapse: A new report has found that construction flaws and "structural failure" were the causes of the subway collapse in Mexico city that caused 26 deaths on May 4. According to the report carried out by a Norwegian risk management firm, metal studs that connected the rails were deficient — one of the major issues responsible for the accident.

• South Africa: Remains of 20 suspected illegal miners found: South African police are investigating the discovery of 20 bodies near an abandoned gold mine outside of Johannesburg. Authorities believe the victims were illegal miners, and police are still determining the cause of death, as many were found "wrapped in white plastic bags" with "severe body burns."

• More than 500 e-scooters found (and left) in the Rhine: Divers discovered hundreds of e-scooters in Cologne, Germany at the bottom of the Rhine river. Sadly, the discarded scooters will remain sunk, as the local e-scooter provider decided their recovery was too costly.

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Society

COVID-19 Sparks First Signs Of Worldwide Bicycle Revolution

Across the globe, the coronavirus crisis has forced people to change not only the ways they work and interact with each other, but also how they travel. And in several countries, one of the unexpected consequences of all this has been a renewed interest in transportation of the pedal-powered, two-wheeled variety.

In some places — the Netherlands comes to mind — bicycles were popular even before the pandemic. But elsewhere, people are rediscovering them as a good alternative to public transport, where commuters are more at risk of catching the virus. Bikes, in contrast, are great for keeping physical distance. Riders can also cover quite a bit of ground, and get some exercise while they're at it.

Little wonder that in some countries, bicycle sales are booming — to the point that stores can't keep up with the high demand. "We're the new toilet paper and everyone wants a piece," a bike-store manager in Sydney, Australia told The Guardian.

Interestingly, the bicycle bump is also, in some cases, the product of public policy, as governments on both the national and local level are encouraging the use two-wheelers with concrete actions and incentives:

  • In France, that means tapping into an existing but neglected resource: the approximately 9 million "dormant" bikes ​thought to be collecting dust and rust and garages or sheds. To get all those bicycle back on the streets, the government has introduced a 50-euro voucher that people can claim and use for repairs. The voucher system is part of a global 20 million-euro package called "Coup de pouce vélo" to encourage more people to bike, with temporary bike parking and free educational sessions. And it seems to already be bearing fruit: More than 4,300 people living in the Ile-de-France region have already used the voucher, the daily Le Parisien reports.

Riding a bicycle on the famous Rue de Rivoli in Paris — Photo: Aurelien MorissardXinhua/ZUMA

  • Authorities in Italy are dangling money incentives as well — to the tune of 500 euros! — which residents in cities of at least 50,000 can use to buy a bicycle, Segway or even a scooter, Il Messaggero reports. This is part of a "Relaunch Decree" announced on May 14 that also promises to extend cycle lanes. The city of Milan had already released an ambitious plan called "Strade Aperte" to transform 35 km of city streets to make them more accessible to cyclists and pedestrians with new bike lanes, widened pavements and reduced speed limits.

  • In Colombia, authorities in the capital city, Bogota, are also offering bike riders extra accommodations. The city already has an extensive cycling network with 550 km of bike routes as well as "La Ciclovia," a program that involves closing main roads to cars every Sunday for cyclists and pedestrians. But in March, Mayor Claudia Lopez extended the program, closing more than 76 km to add new temporary bike routes during weekdays. The authorities are now considering making these changes permanent, according to the Colombian daily El Tiempo, adding that this has facilitated the circulation of around 922,000 cyclists so far. The mayor also insisted that bike shops be included on the list of essential services, thus allowing them to remain open during the lockdown.

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Geopolitics

From Poland To Uruguay, What The Pandemic Means For Abortion

Across the globe, swamped hospitals and shelter-in-place measures have impacted people's access to healthcare for any number of non-COVID-19 issues. One of them is abortion, a time sensitive procedure that is also — even the best of times — both emotionally and politically charged.

Now, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, some countries have used emergency decrees to change their policies related to pregnancy terminations. While several have extended access to abortions in an effort to ease pressure on women and guarantee their rights, others have seen the situation as an opportunity to make abortions more difficult to access.

  • In Poland, which has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, access to pregnancy terminations is now becoming even more difficult as women cannot easily travel to another country to undergo abortion. On top of that, Polish President Andrzej Duda backed in a citizen's bill last month that would outlaw abortion even when the fetus is malformed, the Catholic weekly Niedziela reported. So far, terminations in Poland have only been allowed when the fetus is malformed, the health or life of the mother is endangered, or in the event of rape or incest – with the first reason accounting for most in-country terminations. Although the bill was not passed, it was not rejected either, and is now idling in a parliamentary commission.

  • France: With overwhelmed hospitals and strict lockdown measures that until this week forced people to stay home, rights groups have raised concerns about the difficulty of accessing abortions during the epidemic, warning that some women would have to wait past the legal date. Under the normal, pre-pandemic circumstances, women can ask for prescribed abortion pills and take them at home up to seven weeks after their last menstruation, or up to nine weeks under medical supervision. But in early April, the French Health authority extended access to the medication at home up to nine weeks, to guarantee women's rights to access abortion during the epidemic and to avoid as much as possible that they go into a health facility, reported Le Parisien.

  • In the United States, abortion by telemedicine is expanding rapidly as several states, including Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma, suspended access to surgical abortions during the crisis, adding abortions on a list of "non-essential" procedures, The New York Times reported. The limited access to abortion means that many women must travel much further to abortion clinics, sometimes to different states where restrictions are milder. But with traveling also close to impossible, women resort more and more to "TelAbortion," a program that has been operating as a research study for several years and which allows women to have video consultations with certified doctors and then receive abortion pills by mail to take on their own. Concerned about the program's growth, Republican senators recently introduced a bill to ban it.

  • As a result of the pandemic, human rights organizations in Germany have warned that women might not be able to visit counseling centers, which is one of the conditions for legal abortion in the country. Access to abortion is also in danger due to the shortened opening hours of these centers, travel restrictions, shortage of medical personnel, lack of protective equipment and the fact that many doctors who perform abortions are at risk because of their age, reports Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Women's Day Manifa march in Warsaw on March 8 — Photo: Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/ZUMA

  • The abortion issue is also making waves in Uruguay, one of just two countries in Latin America that allows women to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy. Abortion was legalized there in 2012, during the presidency of José Mujic (2010-2015), a leftist. But the country's new president, conservative Luis Lacalle Pou, opposes the practice, and in his inaugural address, on March 1, talked about defending the rights of "those who have no voice…the 10,000 children in this country who aren't born." Two months later, in a May 4 videoconference, the president reiterated his opposition to abortion, but also said he respects the laws of the land as they stand, the Uruguayan daily El País reports.

  • In Colombia, a high-profile court case linked to the country's decades-long civil war turned public attention to the issue of forced abortion. On May 11, a court in Pereira sentenced a man named Héctor Albeidis Arboleda Buitrago to more than 40 years in prison for carrying out numerous abortions, including on minors, at the behest of armed rebel groups. "El Enfermero" (The Nurse), as he's known, sold his services to different guerilla organizations over the course of seven years (1997-2004), the Colombian daily El Tiempo reports.

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Geopolitics
Kat Bohmbach

Dining In The Street: COVID-19 Could Replace Cars With Tables

As the new pandemic reality requires radical rethinking about how we live our lives, one hint of where we may be going could appear this summer in a neighborhood near you. The re-opening of bars and restaurants coinciding with warm weather is pushing city officials to reallocate the space that diners and motorists can occupy. It remains to be seen if this is the beginning of deeper post-COVID-19 shift in urban planning in favor of pedestrians over cars and drivers. In the meantime, here are three examples of a new look for the summer:

  • In France, where outdoor cafés and restaurants are typically crowded with tourists and locals alike sharing apéros and conversation, we may begin to see a gradual reopening this month of les terrasses, yet no formal plans have yet been made. But according tot he Le Parisien daily, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo will be making some major changes to the city's layout, for locals and commuters alike, that could include the closure of at least 30 roads from cars and traffic, including Rue de Rivoli near the Louvre, and a few other tourist-heavy areas, to open up more through-ways for pedestrians and cyclists. As far as for restaurants, cafés and bars? The mayor is also making space for them in some major ways, such as letting them spill out into the street and parking spaces so that they can still serve while respecting sanitary conditions. According to Hidalgo, "Entire streets could be reserved for them free of charge."

Paris' Rue de Rivoli on May 9 — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

  • In Lithuania, public spaces are turning into open-air markets and restaurants in an attempt to help small and local businesses stay-afloat during the pandemic. In the capital city of Vilnius, in the winding streets of the historical center, there are currently 18 businesses spilling out onto sidewalks and streets in an effort to respect the designated 2-meter space between tables. Le Monde reports that there are more than 160 restaurants already looking for a space of their own to open shop back up after the most restrictive lockdown measures are lifted on May 11th. According to Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius, "this measure will help small establishments survive and keep jobs, while the tourist season, which is increasingly important for the city's revenue, is slow to start." To give an additional boost to the restaurant and hotel sectors, new events have been created to get more people back to work, like open-air concerts and even converting the tarmac of the Vilnius airport into a massive drive-in movie theater.

  • In the United States, restaurants and stores in Tampa, Florida, are now allowed to take up more space and spread out to meet social distancing requirements and safety measures. As a part of the city's new economic package elegantly referred to as the "Lift Up Local Economic Recovery Plan," restaurants and stores can now expand onto sidewalks, streets, and even into parking lots and spaces. "Our small businesses are the backbone of our economy," Mayor Jane Castor told the Tampa Bay Times. "We need their help to safely and successfully re-open our city and get back to all the things we love — one step at a time." These "cafe and retail zones' will be opening up across the city and will face strict regulations to prevent overcrowding, such as all restaurants are to be reservation-only, police will be on duty, and an old pre-coronavirus concept takes on new meaning: No loitering.

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Society

The World's Cities Get Ready To Take Public Transport Again

Fewer seats, fewer trains, more masks. A quick world tour from Milan to Paris, Beijing to Tehran finds the wheels (tentatively) ready to roll on subways and buses.

As countries loosen lockdown restrictions, one key to getting life and the economy back up and running is how to be sure people can (safely) get around.

Cities in particular face the tricky puzzle of public transportation in the face of the acutely contagious nature of COVID-19. How can people respect social distancing inside packed buses and subways? But as the clamor to restart shutdown economies grows louder, countries and cities are busy implementing new rules. Here is how four major cities around the world are adapting public transports:

  • Milan: The capacity of the Italian city's subway will be reduced by up to 30%, carrying just around 350,000 passengers a day instead of 1.3 million, reports Corriere della Sera. The access to train and metro stations will also be controlled and limited from May 4, when the lockdown starts to loosen. The city is also testing solutions to help people respecting social distancing, like putting red stickers on the floor to tell them how far apart to stand. Many seats will be removed as well, which will divide by two the numbers of passengers in the same car.

  • Paris: France recently unveiled its plans to gradually end the lockdown beginning May 11, including new rules for the RATP, the state-owned public transport operator in the region of Paris and its daily 12 million travelers. Like in Milan, the use of face masks will be compulsory and markings on the ground will be used to make passengers respect safety distances. But contrary to the Italian city, traffic will increase. For Prime Minister Edouard Philippe public transport is a "key measure for the economic recovery" and therefore, he required the RATP to increase traffic to 70%, as it had been functioning at only 30% of its capacity in March and April, according to Le Parisien.

A staff member disinfecting a subway train carriage in Beijing — Photo: Chen Zeguo/Xinhua/ZUMA

  • Beijing: Beijing metro was one of the firsts to test high-resolution sensing cameras which can identify whether passengers are wearing masks. Now the Chinese capital is lowering its restrictions from the top level to the second level starting April 30 and is going to increase traffic in public transportation. According to Xinhua, the maximum allowable passenger capacity will be raised from 50% of full capacity to 75% on buses and to 65% on subway trains. However, the buses and subway carriages will still need to be disinfected and ventilated regularly and all passengers will be required to wear masks and have their temperatures taken. Eating in public transport has also been banned, as Beijing has implemented a new set of regulations to promote "civilized behaviour" and improve public hygiene.

  • Tehran: As the Iranian capital increasingly returns to work, the head Tehran's anti-coronavirus task force, Alireza Zaali, estimated that 570,000 people using public transport each day, ILNA reported. But in a separate report, the agency cited Zaali as saying that only half of metro passengers are currently using masks and gloves. The city council is debating the "mechanics' of enforcing the obligatory use of face masks, the daily Hamshahri reported. Some have suggested the government sell cheap masks to transport users at metro stations and bus terminals.

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