Welcome to Thursday, where India faces an oxygen shortage as COVID surges, Russia crackdowns on Navalny supporters and Italy nabs the worst slacker ever. We also turn to Le Monde for an analysis on what the killing of Chad President Idriss Déby means for the fight against jihadists in north-central Africa.
• India's COVID surge prompts oxygen shortage: The number of new COVID-19 infections in India has again hit a record, with 314,835 cases in the last 24 hours, amid a growing crisis of oxygen shortages and lack of hospital beds. The spike is being blamed in part on a double mutant variant first discovered in the country.
• Thousands arrested in Navalny protests in Russia: Police arrested more than 1,700 people yesterday, as large crowds took part in demonstrations all across Russia, in support of hunger-striking Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
• Four killed in a Pakistan hotel bombing: A car bomb near a luxury hotel in Pakistan killed four people and left 12 wounded. China's ambassador to Pakistan, who was staying at the hotel but was unharmed, may have been the target of the attack claimed by the Pakistani arm of the Taliban.
• Missing Indonesian submarine: Indonesia has about 72 hours to find a missing navy submarine before the 53 crew members run out of oxygen. The vessel disappeared on Wednesday morning, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Bali.
• Australia scraps deals and provokes China's anger: Australia has cancelled business agreements tied to China's Belt and Road initiative. The Chinese embassy in Canberra has warned about degradation in already tensed relationships between the two countries.
• U.S. green pledge on Earth Day: Joe Biden has announced plans to cut the country's emissions by at least 50% in the next ten years. The U.S. president made the announcement during a virtual climate summit hosted by the White House, with 40 world leaders participating, as the world celebrates Earth Day.
• Italian employee accused of skipping work for 15 years: A hospital employee in southern Italy has been accused of skipping work on full pay for 15 years, reportedly earning €538,000 in total, without showing up to work since 2005.
Andorran daily Bondia reports on the Ibero-American Summit in Andorra, which gathered representatives of 22 countries from Latin America and Europe's Iberian Peninsula. The leaders (gathered mostly virtually, though some were able to attend in person as evidenced on Bondia's front page) called for more equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, as well as more flexible funding to overcome the current economic crisis.
Rescue efforts are underway to find the 53 crew members of the KRI Nanggala (402), a submarine of the Indonesian Navy that went missing yesterday during a drill north of Bali. The submarine is named after the Nanggala, a mythological spear belonging to the Hindu god Balarama.
The killing of Chad's president is a blow in battle against jihad
Paris has considered Chad's army to be the most solid, experienced and tenacious in the region. But the death of Idriss Déby could change the dynamics in the French-backed fight against jihadists in the Sahel region of Africa, reports Elise Vincent and Morgane Le Cam in Paris-based daily Le Monde.
The strategists of Operation Barkhane could not have imagined worse news. The announcement Tuesday of Chadian President Idriss Déby's death as a result of his wounds "on the battlefield" has stunned the French military. This authoritarian leader, who has been in power for more than 30 years, had been their main ally in the fight against terrorism in the vast Sahel region of north-central Africa. And now, this key player in a protracted war that began in 2013 is gone.
As soon as France launched the regional anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane in 2014, Chad hosted its main command post. Since then, it is from the capital of N'Djamena that most of the actions on the ground are centralized and coordinated. Chad has also always been the largest contributor to the G5 Sahel joint force (about 1,850 soldiers out of 6,000). This military coalition composed of troops from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania have been supporting the French military since 2017.
At this stage, observers are divided on the consequences that Idriss Deby's death could have on Chad's military commitments in the region. Some, such as Remadji Hoinathy, a researcher specializing in this country at the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think tank, forecasts "a period of uncertainty." A West African diplomat adds: "Chad's first reflex will be that of internal security above all." If Chad winds up reducing its security commitments, this would pose a problem, particularly in northern Mali.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
A World Food Program study warns that an additional 3.4 million people in Myanmar will struggle to afford food in the next three to six months, in the wake of the February military coup. An estimated 2.8 million people already face hunger in Myanmar.
I hope no one gets the idea to cross the so-called red line with Russia.
— Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his annual state of the nation address, amid growing tensions abroad over Ukraine and jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. "The organisers of any provocations against Russia will regret their actions in a way they never have before," Putin warned.
✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Emma Flacard & Bertrand Hauger
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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