Welcome to Tuesday, where global COVID-19 death toll surpasses 3 million, the Iran nuclear deal is back on the table, and a Soviet-produced Lord of the Rings is unearthed. Thanks to Die Welt, we also look at how the German auto industry is trying to keep up with Elon Musk.
• Iran nuclear talks back on: Iran and the United States are to start indirect talks in Vienna to try and restore the 2015 nuclear accord that Washington abandoned three years ago under the Trump administration.
• COVID global death toll hits 3 million: The pandemic continues to weigh on world events, as Reuters reports global death toll has reached 3 million. Meanwhile, amid national efforts to accelerate vaccination campaigns, Australian and New-Zealand residents will be able to travel without having to quarantine between the two countries starting April 19.
• Southeast Asian flood death toll tops 100: Rescuers are searching for dozens still missing after floods and landslides on Sunday killed more than 100 people in Indonesia and East Timor.
• Tokyo Olympics' no-show neighbor: North Korea has announced it would skip the Tokyo Olympic Games this year due to COVID-19 concerns. This decision is likely to undermine South Korean's strategy to use the Games to revive suspended peace talks.
• Putin could stay in power until 2036: Russian President Vladimir Putin signs law allowing him to run for two more terms as president.
• Kosovo's new female president: Kosovo's parliament votes as president Vjosa Osmani, the former speaker of parliament and ally of a leftist-nationalist movement.
• The Weeknd donates $1 million to Ethiopians: Canadian R&B singer The Weeknd has promised to give $1 million to Ethiopians ensnared in the Tigray crisis. The star's parents are Ethiopian immigrants.
Malaysian daily The Star reports on the government's proposal that would make it compulsory for employers to grant their workers a day off to get the coronavirus vaccine.
Achtung Tesla! German automakers try to compete with Elon Musk
Volkswagen and other German car companies want to develop their own software systems and thus close the e-car technology gap with Tesla. But success will depend on a cultural change in the established auto sector, writes Daniel Zwick in German daily Die Welt.
It's all systems go in Ingolstadt, where Volkswagen has invested billions of dollars in setting up a new subsidiary. The plan is for the organization Car.Software to soon employ 10,000 people and become the "second largest software company in Europe, after SAP," according to CEO Herbert Diess. The subsidiary's main aim is for in-house programmers to develop a single operating system for all VW cars, the automotive equivalent of Apple's iOS, used across all its smartphones.
It's a nice idea, but it's still unclear whether traditional manufacturers such as Volkswagen, BMW or Daimler are capable of developing the best operating systems for modern cars. And it's make or break: After battery technology, this software is the next most important criterion for future success. But so far their efforts in this area have been far from impressive. There are already competitors who are years ahead when it comes to building computers on four wheels. And not only Tesla, the favorite of so many electric car enthusiasts. There are new suppliers springing up in its shadow, which have the potential to shake up the industry.
In the future, the programmers will take on a larger role in product development. The main advantage of Tesla's cars is that they are built with the driver's experience in mind, going from the starting point of the software — how the product is used — to the hardware, the physical components. In German cars, it's the other way round. To change this, the companies will have to change themselves. Car manufacturers are at a crossroads, says Frank Ferchau, managing partner at ABLE Group. "The culture of the car manufacturing industry is bumping up against the software development culture, and the two don't go together," he says.
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Russian TV channel 5TV recently uploaded onto YouTube a 1991 budget adaptation of JRR Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. Entitled Хранители ("The Keepers'). The 50-minute flashy production — a far cry from Peter Jackson's trilogy — has already attracted more than 727,000 views.
Skiing across Sweden-Norway border to slide past COVID lockdown
How does a Scandinavian get around COVID restrictions? On skis.
It sounds like a bad joke, but on Saturday, a 50-year-old Norwegian man had to be rescued after attempting to circumvent quarantine requirements by skiing across the border from Sweden, reports Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
The man planned to cross the mountain range of Sylan and reach the Norwegian city of Stugudalen, some 20 kilometers from the border, where his son was supposed to pick him up. However, after skiing into bad weather, the man had to be rescued by two fishermen, who found him cold, wet and exhausted near a lake by the border.
A rescue team was called in and escorted the man to a quarantine hotel from where he is expected to be questioned by police on Tuesday. The Norwegian police say the man will be reported for breach of quarantine regulations and possibly forced to compensate authorities for the cost of the rescue operation.
For Officer Wenche Johnsen, of the Trondelag police department in central Norway, the man gets a "10 for effort, but zero for judgment."
➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on Worldcrunch.com
We are not optimistic nor pessimistic.
— Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters that he thought the resumption of nuclear talks with Washington showed that things were "on the right track," provided that "America's will, seriousness and honesty is proven."
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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