Welcome to Friday, where the global COVID-19 death toll exceeds 4 million, ousted Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo is back in town and Joe Biden makes Juneteenth official. We also go to Hong Kong where so-called "vaccine hesitancy" is particularly high as a direct result of rising mistrust of the government.
• Global COVID-19 death toll exceeds 4 million: It took more than a year for the death toll to hit 2 million while the next 2 million were recorded in just 166 days. The number of coronavirus cases are decreasing in countries like the United States and Britain but in many other places cases are soaring due to new variants and vaccine shortages.
• New Israel-Hamas exchange of fire: For the second time since last month's ceasefire, Israel conducted dozens of air strikes on the Gaza after Palestinian militants launched incendiary balloons. There are no immediate reports of casualties.
• 80 students abducted in Nigeria school attack: Gunmen killed a police officer and kidnapped at least 80 students (mostly girls) and five teachers from a school in the Nigerian state of Kebbi. The attack is the third mass kidnapping in three weeks, which has been attributed to bandits seeking ransom payments.
• Ousted leader Gbagbo returns to Ivory Coast: Laurent Gbagbo, former President of the Ivory Coast who was ousted during a 2011 civil war, returned home after a decade of exile. Gbagbo was recently acquitted of war crimes in the Hague, and was greeted by a crowd of supporters upon landing late Thursday.
• North Korea is preparing for "dialogue and confrontation" with the U.S.: North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un outlined his strategy for relations with Washington and warned the U.S. to get ready for a "fast-changing" security situation. The country has previously accused Joe Biden, who refuses to meet Kim unless there is a concrete plan for negotiating Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal, of pursuing a "hostile policy."
• Iranians vote in Presidential elections marred by disqualifications: Opinion polls suggest that Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative Shia cleric who is head of the judiciary, is the clear favorite. But dissidents and reformists have called for a boycott, arguing that the barring of several contenders left Raisi with no serious competition. Turnout could be a historic low which would pose a problem for the country's leaders, who see voting as a sign of legitimacy.
• World's third largest diamond found in Botswana: A 1,098 carat diamond, believed to be the third-largest of its kind, has been discovered in Debswana, Botswana. It's behind the 3,106-carat Cullinan stone recovered in South Africa in 1905 and the 1,109-carat Lesedi La Rona unearthed in Botswana in 2015. The finding comes at a perfect time for Botswana, which receives 80% of the income from Debswana's sales.
German news magazine Der Spiegel focuses on how the revolutionary mRNA tech behind the vaccine successes of BioNtech and Moderna could lead to the creation of a "Superdrug" that would prove crucial in the fight against cancer, allergies, heart attacks and dementia.
Juneteenth (a portmanteau of the words "June" and "nineteenth ""), also called Juneteenth National Independence Day, marks the end of slavery in the U.S. in 1865. On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden signed a bill that officially makes it a national holiday. Calls to make Juneteenth a federal holiday increased last year during the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by the police. Biden said signing the law was one of the greatest honors he will have as president.
Politics helps explain Hong Kong's low vaccination rates
Vaccine hesitation in Hong Kong is not only about science, but also linked to questions of history, identity and current politics. The standing widespread mistrust toward the Hong Kong administration and the central government in Beijing has combined with false information about China's own SinoVac vaccine constantly circulating online among those from Hong Kong.
First Draft, a research agency tracking disinformation, recently released a study on the challenges of vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong. It concludes by stating that if the government wants to achieve its goal of a 70% vaccination rate by the end of 2021, it must carefully analyze the types of information circulating and understand people's fundamental concerns before it can improve its public health campaigns and vaccination.
However, despite the fact that vaccination is free for Hong Kong citizens and there are sufficient supplies, vaccination rates remain low. According to the Hong Kong government, as of June 9, over 2.74 million vaccines were delivered, with about 1.14 million citizens out of the total 7.5 million population receiving both injections, with the vaccinated rate of only 17.4%.
While the Hong Kong government is pressing ahead with vaccination, First Draft came to the conclusion that Hong Kong's skepticism about vaccines comes not only from safety and efficacy concerns, but also derives from a deeper distrust of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. Hong Kongers are not convinced that the government in Beijing is acting in the interest of the people, but for pure political considerations instead.
Incomplete or inaccurate headlines or reports in the media about adverse reactions to vaccinations may further discourage people from getting vaccinated. First Draft found that from February to the present, headlines such as "Vaccine Victim — Another Death from SinoVac" and "12th Person Dies from SinoVac" were widely shared on social media platforms.
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According to a UNHCR report, the number of displaced people worldwide in 2020 has increased to 82.4 million. The report also says that most refugees are located in border crisis areas or low-and middle-income countries.
French church installs COVID-compliant, automatic holy water dispenser
The pandemic has radically changed the way we manage hygiene in public spaces. Some new things are added, like hand sanitizer distributors at the entrance of shops; some are taken away, like holy water from the decorative font of your local church. But what if the former concept were applied to the latter?
In Rennes, in western France, Notre-Dame-en-Saint-Melaine Church invested in some sacred innovation: a holy water automatic distributor. According to French newspaper Ouest-France, the device works just like any disinfectant distributor, with a religious twist: when a believer puts their hand under the machine, a sensor detects it and delivers a few drops of holy water.
The cupola-like device is forged with modern, minimalistic elements: a curved hand symbol, the words eau bénite explaining its nature, and an inscription: "In the name of the Father, and the Holy Spirit."
A local priest, Father Nicolas Guillou, explains that the 1,200-euro metal font container has a 10,000 drops capacity for each refill. "And the water that doesn't fall into people's hands is collected in a small tank," to prevent any waste of the holy liquid.
While the device helps you clean your soul, regular washing of your hands with soap is still recommended against COVID-19.
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Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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