Welcome to Friday, where a shooting at a favela in Rio kills 25, the Pfizer jab shows promising results against COVID variants, and pizza vending machines arrive in Rome. We also look at how central banks are finally starting to take an interest in cryptocurrencies.
• COVID-19: Pfizer vs. variants, pandemic Olympics: Two different studies show that Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine is highly effective in preventing death and serious illness from the English and South African variants. Meanwhile, with less than three months to go before the summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan has decided to extend its COVID-19 state of emergency until May 31st.
• 25 killed in Brazilian police raid: A police raid against suspected drug traffickers in the favela of Jacarezinho in Rio de Janeiro has left 25 dead, among the bloodiest assaults ever by Brazilian authorities long accused of excessive violence.
• Poland and Hungary block "gender equality" phrase: Lobbying by the two central European countries has resulted in the removal of the phrase "gender equality" in a draft declaration on social cohesion that the European Union is due to publish, according to documents seen by Reuters.
• Scotland election could lead to vote on independence: Results from the Scottish election are expected later today. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, slated to lead the Scottish National Party (SNP), has vowed to push for another referendum on Scottish independence if her party wins a majority of seats.
• Chinese rocket debris to land this weekend: China's Long March 5B rocket, currently in the upper atmosphere, is set to make an uncontrolled landing this weekend. There are still no clear predictions regarding whether it will land on inhabited land. The U.S. has called on China to engage in more "responsible space behaviors," but has not announced any plans to shoot down the debris.
• European leaders urge Israel to stop settlement expansion: European countries including France and Germany have urged Israel to stop settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.
• Fresh pizza vending machines are coming to Italy: Rome has inaugurated a pizza vending machine that provides cooked pizzas in only three minutes.
"Children of the Crisis': German weekly Der Spiegel reports on new findings about pandemic-induced depression, anxiety, eating disorders and learning gaps, wondering "will it ever go away?"
Crypto tipping point: Are digital currencies too big to fail?
Central banks are opening to the idea of digital currencies. From a sovereignty perspective, that's a good thing. But there are also risks, especially with regards to steps being taken in China, reports Marie Charrel in French daily Le Monde.
In recent months, most central banks have intensified their work on digital currencies, drawing inspiration from the blockchain, the technology that allows transactions to be encrypted, recorded and secured, and that's behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, which was launched in 2008. Spurring this interest is the decline of cash payments, a trend that's been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This shift is in line with the rise of Bitcoin and its little brothers (Ether, Ripple, Litecoin...), and the proliferation of private e-currency projects, such as Facebook's Diem, still in the works.
At first glance, these central bank digital currencies — known as "MNBCs' — will not change much in the daily life of individuals and companies, since the majority of payments are already dematerialized. And yet, the difference is fundamental: Most of the euros we hold today in our accounts and savings books are created by commercial banks through credit. MNBCs, on the other hand, would be the equivalent of banknotes printed directly by monetary institutions. Moreover, they could be held directly by the latter, without going through the banks. And that would make a big difference.
Easier to trace than banknotes, MNBCs could also simplify the fight against fraud and money laundering. But this is the crux of the matter: the question of anonymity and respect for private data. The Central Bank of China (PBOC) dreams of generalizing its digital yuan during 2022. As it is designed, the system will allow users to pay via a mobile application, through which the communist regime hopes to regain control over Alipay and WeChat Pay, the two private behemoths of Chinese mobile payments. But that, in turn, will also strengthen China's surveillance of citizens, as the PBOC will know who pays what, where and when.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
Virtual pétanque: COVID forces French communal pastime online
There's croissants and cheese, bérets and Brigitte Bardot — and then there's pétanque.
On the list of the Frenchest things, this national pastime ranks pretty high, conjuring up scenes of convivial apéros where old and young gather together, a boule in one hand and a glass of pastis or rosé in the other.
What shock it must have been then to pétanque players upon learning that this highly communal sport — akin to Italy's bocce or Britain's lawn bowling — was to be moved online because of the pandemic... With large gatherings still banned in France, local daily Ouest France reports that a number of pétanque pros have decided to give the game a COVID-compliant virtual twist by competing through a Facebook group, starting on May 8.
While pétanque fans are already used to watching the sports on television, with channel L'Equipe TV regularly broadcasting competitions, this time players will also be interacting from a safe distance. Launched by world-renowned pétanque stars Philippe Quintais and Jean-Luc Robert, the Club Maboule initiative aims to keep the spirit and rules of the game: Players score points by throwing their heavy metal boules as close as possible to the smaller, target boule — a.k.a. the cochonnet.
But this virtual version will see pairs of players compete by filming their throws, with referees then checking and comparing the footage behind their screens. The online competition is open to all — pétanque beginners will just have to make sure they don't place their computers too close ...
➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on Worldcrunch.com
Between January 1998 and March 2021, 20,957 residents from Rio de Janeiro have been killed during confrontations with the police — the equivalent of one death every 10 hours. On Thursday, a police raid in a favela in the Brazilian city resulted in the death of 25 people, the deadliest police operation in Rio's history.
The third wave appears to be broken.
— Speaking at a weekly briefing on pandemic handling, Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn praised physical distancing measures as well as the country's vaccination campaign for the recent drop in COVID-19 cases, although he still advised for caution.
The role of the nuclear pact
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
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