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Voice of America (VOA) is a United States government-funded multimedia news source headquartered in Washington, D.C. It was founded in 1942 as the official external broadcasting institution of the U.S. VOA produces radio, TV and Internet content in English as well as in over 40 foreign languages.
Geopolitics
Anne Sophie Goninet

Robots, A Not-So-Secret Weapon Against COVID-19

There are many reasons robots can help — for starters, they can't catch it.

We've been hearing for years how robots, for better or worse, were going to change our lives. Now in the battle against the highly contagious COVID-19, we're seeing them in a whole new light. Of course it all begins with the fact that, no, robots can't get infected. Winks aside, these artificially-intelligent machines are allowing people to avoid physical contact and maintain social distancing, easing the burden on health providers, helping police officers to implement lockdowns, and allowing people to better face life under quarantine.

  • Health: The most urgent need robots are filling is as healthcare assistants. In Italy, hospitals are turning to robots to replace doctors and nurses and keep them safe from the virus. A child-size robot named Tommy allows care providers to avoid direct contact with patients and limit the use of masks, able to monitor the equipment's parameters in a room and record messages from patients, to transfer them to the staff.

  • Law & Order: The interior ministry in Tunisia has deployed a police robot in the country's capital Tunis to make sure its inhabitants are observing the coronavirus lockdown, reports Jeune Afrique. The four-wheeled robot is equipped with a camera and controlled remotely by officers, in order to check pedestrian's ID or other papers. Drones have also been used in several countries to reinforce patrolling of certains areas. According to Le Monde, in France for instance, police officers used drones to scan beaches where people were still taking walks despite the lockdown, or to broadcast social distancing guidelines.

  • Being there: Robots have also undertaken unexpected social roles during the crisis, allowing people to be present at big life events. With the help of "Newme" avatar robots, the Business Breakthrough University in Tokyo, Japan, was able to hold a virtual graduation ceremony. The remotely controlled robots were equipped with a tablet that used video-conferencing tool Zoom and were dressed in graduation caps and gowns. This allowed students to experience the celebration of walking on the stage to accept their diplomas. In the United States, a father who was in quarantine in California after travelling on the Grand Princess cruise ship, was able to attend his daughter's wedding in Arizona with a help of a "telepresence robot" the family nicknamed the "Papabot", Voice of America reports.

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Coronavirus
Worldcrunch

Iranian Holy Water as Coronavirus Cure Risks Further Spread

TEHRAN — Dubbed "the Prophet's perfume," Shia clerics in Iran are offering a chillingly wrong response to the coronavirus outbreak. Iran's Medical System Organization lodged a formal protest this week against clerics entering hospitals to administer a liquid remedy directly to patients' lips and mouth area, according to the Farsi service of Voice of America.

Video footage showed a cleric circulating among what are estimated to be hundreds of patients, touting "Islamic medicine" as a better response to the pandemic. Doctors warn that the clerics can become carriers, bringing the virus outside hospitals to the faithful elsewhere. The outbreak in Iran is one of the worst in the world. The health ministry reported Friday that the country's death toll had risen to 2,378, with total confirmed infections total at 32,332 cases.

Over the past several weeks, there have been incidents of Shia faithful defying government orders to close mosques and religious shrines to limit the spread of the virus. "The believers are concerned about their identity, especially when scientific research clashes with religion," Haidar Hoballah, a senior teacher at the seminary in the holy city of Qom, told Middle East news site Al-Monitor.

Reacting to these and other reports of clerics touting their own remedies against COVID-19, Iranian Health Minister Sa'id Namaki urged citizens not to think Islamic or traditional medicine could combat coronavirus.

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Geopolitics

Coronavirus — Global Brief: Lining Up To Follow The South Korea Model

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. The insidious path of COVID-19 across the planet teaches is a blunt reminder of how small the world has become. Our network of multilingual journalists are busy finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to provide as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world.​ To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.

SPOTLIGHT: LINING UP TO FOLLOW SOUTH KOREAN SUCCESS

In times of unfathomable trouble, humans search for a savior. More than two months into the COVID-19 global outbreak, that role right now is not being assigned to any one doctor or researcher hero, but to a nation: South Korea.

The country was one of the earliest to be hit by the novel strain of coronavirus. At the peak of the crisis in South Korea in February, 909 new cases were popping up daily. Yet by mid-March, that number had dwindled down to around 70, while its total death toll of 111 is now well behind many European countries and the United States. Currently, the number of coronavirus-related deaths in Iran doubles every 6 days; In Italy, every 4 days; in the U.S., every two days. But in South Korea, it doubles every 2 weeks — despite the fact they never closed borders or shut down local commerce. How, in the span of a mere month, did South Korea manage to keep a relative lid on COVID-19?

What their government did do was exactly what the World Health Organization has been recommending: Test for the virus on a mass scale. The country's 2015 outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) provided first-hand insight on how to handle an epidemic, so their healthcare system was already equipped with proper infection control units and the knowledge that testing kits are key. Iran is trying to order their testing kits and other medical equipment. France, Spain and Ireland are scrambling to open the drive-through testing centers that allow South Korean doctors to both prevent contagion and deliver results in 24 hours.

• In Italy, La Stampa reports the hardest-hit country will now start "with a serious delay," to follow the South Korean model of creating a "digital passport" to track the infected and tested population.

• The Kyiv Post cites a Ukranian epidemiologist who praises the law-abiding culture of South Korea, and argues that societies who are less likely to follow rules are more at-risk.

• In the United States, whose patient 0 was identified on the same day as South Korea, politicians and healthcare workers point to the success of Moon Jae-in's government proves the incompetence of their own.

— Rozena Crossman​

THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Quarantined world: Nearly 1 billion people worldwide are now confined to their homes as Europe's restrictions tighten, U.S. states roll out lockdown measures and additional millions are placed under lockdown in India, which has seen a sharp increase in infections.

Toll: Global coronavirus deaths reach 15,000. Italy has more fatalities than any other country, including a record 1,441 two-day total over the weekend. Spain has now topped 2,000 deaths and more than 33,000 cases. Of the 32,000 cases in the U.S. nearly half are in New York state, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo estimates 40% to 80% of residents could get coronavirus.​

• Acceleration: World Health Organization chief says the coronavirus pandemic is "accelerating:" 67 days from first reported case to reach 100,000 cases, 11 days for the second 100,000 cases, 4 days for the third 100,000 cases.

Monday Markets: Wall Street traders were still bearish in the face of an extraordinary series of U.S. credit measures rolled out by the Federal Reserve to soften the economic hit of the coronavirus outbreak.

Treatment confusion: Nearly 70 medications could potentially treat the coronavirus, including such as haloperidol, used to treat schizophrenia, or chloroquine to treat malaria. However, in Nigeria three people were hospitalized Sunday after overdosing on chloroquine, which was endorsed as a cure on Twitter by U.S. President Trump.

Tokyo Games: Japanese leader Shinzo Abe told parliament Monday postponement of this summer's Olympic Games was an option. The remarks came a day after the International Olympic Committee announced it would decide the fate of the Games within a month.

New cases: Angela Merkel went into domestic quarantine after her doctor contracted COVID-19, while three top Spanish politicians test positive, including Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias. Others infected include Hollywood movie producer and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein who has been placed in isolation after testing positive at Wende Correctional Facility.

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Chinese Travel Agents Offer 'Nostalgia' Tours To North Korea

Pyongyang's Mansudae monument â€" Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

BEIJING â€" "This summer, cross the world's most difficult border and visit a country with the highest index of happiness and security" reads the advertisement of the travel agency in Taiyuan, in the remote western Chinese province of Shanxi. "Experience the China we used to know!"

On offer is an organized five-day tour to North Korea.

According to a Chinese-language report from Voice of America, following a rush in recent years to South Korea, it is now North Korea's turn to be the hot destination for Chinese tourists. These tours are typically organized as charter flights on Air Koryo, the one and only North Korean airline, explains Liang Hongen, the manager of the Taiyuan travel agency.

Air Koryo was founded in 1953, but only has around a dozen aircraft â€" some of which don't even fly. Skytrax, a UK aviation consulting firm which reviews and rates airlines, has given the company the worst ranking for each of the last five years, VOA reports.

But now, Chinese tour operators are advertising "Kim Jong-un"s private jet" and boasting "the prettiest flight attendants." Curiosity is a key motivation for Chinese visitors to tour this closed-off neighbor, together with a strange sense of nostalgia. "I liked experiencing the feeling of going back in time and reliving the China of decades ago," said one visitor.

Aboard an Air Koryo aircraft â€" Photo: Kristoferb

Another Chinese visitor added, "After all, North Korea isn't all that different from China. Apart from the material differences, the two countries’ spiritual core is basically the same. Pyongyang is not the Beijing of the 1980s â€" it’s the Beijing of today stripped of its neon lights," he wrote.

Chinese visitors stay in the best hotels in Pyongyang and visit places with important political connotations, under the guidance of a North Korean political supervisor. They visit the architectural grandeur of the residence of the country's first leader Kim Il-sung, and can also lay flowers at the Mansudae Grand Monument, where the two colossal statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il stand tall.

There are also visits to the Tower of the Juche Idea, a monument built to celebrate Kim Il-sung's 70th birthday. And for Chinese visitors in particular, a stop at the Friendship Tower that commemorates the Sino-North Korean bond forged during the Korean War, is a must.

North Korea has recently allowed an influx of Chinese tourists, accounting for 90% of the country's mere 100,000 visitors per year, to enjoy half-day tours across the border, visiting the Sinuiju tourist complex without a passport.

Foreign visitors of the country can pay in foreign currency, including the Chinese RMB, for their local consumption. North Korea, facing ever tougher economic sanctions, is now relying even more on tourists from its neighbor and only important ally, China, to bring in a bit of foreign capital.