Welcome to Thursday, where Tanzania tries to understand if its president died of COVID, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi faces new charges and we discover what life on Mars *sounds* like. We also tune in to Le Monde to see how the invitation-only audio-chat app Clubhouse is seen as trouble by Arab regimes.
• Death of Tanzania President: COVID-skeptic President John Magufuli, 61, of Tanzania has died from heart failure, after weeks of speculations that he had COVID.
• N. Korea dismisses U.S. offer for nuclear talks: North Korea has issued a statement saying it has no intentions of having a discussion with the U.S.
• Tokyo Olympics official quits (again!): Olympic creative head Hiroshi Sasaki has resigned after suggesting to dress popular female Japanese entertainer Naomi Watanabe as an "Olympig" during the opening ceremony. This follows the resignation of the Games president Yoshiro Mori last month over sexist remarks when he said women talk too much.
• Atlanta shootings update: 21-year-old Robert Long has confessed to the three massage parlor shootings, telling officials about a "temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate," in self-diagnosed as a sex-addiction.
• Myanmar's ousted leader faces new charges: The Myanmar junta has charged Aung San Suu Kyi with accepting bribe money from a businessman.
• Mars rover sends back noises: NASA's Perseverance has sent back the first-ever sounds recorded on the planet Mars, in a sixteen minute audio clip.
• Library book returned after 63 years: A woman, 74, returned a copy of Ol" Paul, the Mighty Logger to the Queens Public Library in New York, which she checked out as a child, 63 years earlier. She also accompanied the return with a $500 donation to cover the late fees.
Japanese daily The Asahi Shimbun features front-page coverage of the landmark court decision that banning same-sex marriage in Japan was unconstitutional.
Clubhouse: the new social platform that is frightening Arab regimes
Glittering virtual lounges are popping up, inviting people to participate, solely by audio, in debates on all subjects. And, in the Middle East, the powers-that-be disapprove of the elites' infatuation with a trendy new app, reports Benjamin Barthe in French daily Le Monde.
A month ago, the up-and-coming app Clubhouse took the Middle East by storm. In just a few days, the latest gem from Silicon Valley had already earned its place in the crowded market of Arab social networks. Since this audio chat platform only runs on iOS for the moment, its use is restricted to iPhone owners, i.e. the relatively wealthy classes. But in these circles, especially in Egypt and among the ultra-connected youth of the wealthy Gulf States, followers for this new app started to grow rapidly.
In these countries where social pressure and official censorship stifle dissenting voices and non-conforming opinions, Clubhouse provides a unique breathing space. In these virtual rooms, where anyone can initiate a discussion on a topic of their choice, or join an ongoing conversation, Arabs are rediscovering a taste for free speech. As the powers that be have not yet found a way to lock down this new network, the three great taboos of the region (sex, politics and religion) are openly discussed.
In a sign that the application scares autocrats, the Sultanate of Oman announced on Sunday that the country had blocked Clubhouse, following the footsteps of China, who blocked it in February. In the Emirates, discussions have not been accessible for several days, which is interpreted locally as an act of censorship without saying so openly. Fans of the platform can bypass the jamming with a VPN, but in doing so, they risk breaking the law: The use of such software is strictly codified in the UAE.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
Fake plastic surgeon revealed after painfully awful nose job
In our digital era, having a pretty face is more important than ever. We spend our workdays staring at ourselves on Zoom cameras, and our off-time watching TikTok and Instagram videos.
Applying online face filters for slimming noses, tucking cheeks, perfecting skin is always an option. Of course, there are also more, well, permanent effects available on the market. Please, just be careful ...
As first reported by the Miami Herald, Alcalira Jimenez De Rodriguez, 56, was arrested for posing as a plastic surgeon after a patient's nose job went awry.
The charges against the woman from the town of Doral, west of Miami, include practicing medicine without a license and resisting arrest. The first charge was later elevated to a second-degree felony because of the disfigurement of the patient's nose.
Vincenzo Zurlo told authorities he began getting Botox treatments a few months ago. On the recommendation of a friend, he had visited Millennium Anti-Aging and Surgery Center for the anti-aging procedure multiple times before finally undergoing a more drastic procedure: rhinoplasty.
In February 2020, Zurlo paid $2,800 for a nose job, and as with most medical procedures, was prescribed antibiotics and painkillers. A few weeks later, frustrated with an exceptionally slow healing process and what appeared to be an ugly nose under all the gauze, he called his doctor, who agreed to fix his nose. In May 2020, Zurlo again paid another $2,800 to go back under the knife.
While it's not particularly rare to be disappointed with the results of a nose job, the resulting excruciating pain was a sign that something was amiss. Upon a closer look at his prescriptions, Zurlo saw that they were not written in Rodriguez's name, the Miami Herald reports.
Zurlo called the police after Rodriguez refused to share her medical practitioner number. The Florida Health Department sent in an undercover detective, posing as a client interested in plastic surgery, who caught Rodriguez mid-surgery and had her arrested on the spot. No word on how that very last amateur nip and tuck turned out.
➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on Worldcrunch.com
According to the Hong Kong Dog Rescue charity, the number of dogs being abandoned has increased by 30% in recent months in the city, which is experiencing a wave of emigration after China's imposition of a new security law that sparked mass protests. Thousands of Hong Kong residents are choosing to relocate to the UK or Canada, but many cannot afford the expensive travel arrangements and complicated COVID-19 procedures to move pets abroad.
He will pay a price.
— U.S. President Joe Biden said his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will be punished for interfering in the 2020 presidential election. In the same interview on ABC News' "Good Morning America," Biden also responded "I do" upon being asked whether he believed Putin was "a killer," prompting Russia to recall its U.S. ambassador.
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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