Welcome to Monday, where Iran's new leader has tough words for Joe Biden, Olympics athletes will get a live audience after all and Russia is developing a chewing gum form of its Sputnik vaccine. Italian news magazine Internazionale also reports on the harrowing living conditions for migrants in the country's pre-deportation facilities.
• Iran's new hardliner president says he won't negotiate with Biden: In his first comments since being elected Saturday as Iran's new president, conservative former judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi said today he is not willing to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden nor negotiate over Iran's nuclear program.
• Ethiopian elections go ahead despite international concern: Amid ethnic conflict and famine in its Tigray region, Ethiopia will still hold elections today for its next Prime Minister. Current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, slated to remain in power, has assured that the election will be democratic even as international observers voice concern about its legitimacy, noting that constituencies in conflict zones will have their votes delayed due to security concerns.
• Swedish Prime Minister ousted: Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven lost a vote of no-confidence this morning triggered by nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats. The Prime Minister now has one week to decide whether to resign or to call a snap election.
• Japan to allow domestic spectators at Olympics: Athletes will be able to benefit from a live audience, despite previous recommendations that holding the event without fans would help diminish the spread of COVID-19. Up to 10,000 viewers, or 50% capacity of most stadiums, will be allowed per venue.
• After missing for months, Dubai Princess appears in photo: Images of Sheikha Latifa appearing alive and presumably on holiday in Spain were posted to Instagram, Reuters reports. Latifa, the focus of concern for rights organizations, had been assumed to be detained against her will after attempting to escape the country in 2018. A video in February was released of the princess pleading for help.
• Apple Daily may shut down in days: The Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, may soon be shut down after seeing its office raided and assets frozen, and its founder Jimmy Lai arrested. The newspaper's Board will decide Friday whether to continue operations.
• Russia hopes to develop COVID vaccine in chewing gum form: The Russian military is currently working to be able to administer "Sputnik V" as chewable tablets and pastilles, in addition to its current usage as an intravenous injection.
Brazil is "between sadness and hope," reports daily O Dia as the country has surpassed 500,000 coronavirus deaths, the second highest in the world behind the United States. An NGO placed roses on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro to pay tribute to the victims
Invisible horrors of Italy's migrant detention centers
A young detainee's suicide is drawing attention to the otherwise invisible plight of people locked up in decrepit, pre-deportation facilities known as CPRs, reports Annalisa Camilli in Italian news magazine Internazionale.
Accused of stealing a smartphone, Moussa Balde was savagely beaten in Ventimiglia, near the French border, by three Italians with plastic pipes and bars. But after just a brief hospital visit, the 23-year-old man from Guinea was transferred to what is known in Italy as a CPR, a detention center for people awaiting deportation. Two days later he died by suicide. Balde's death is the sixth in a CPR since 2019, and it is raising serious questions about conditions in the facilities, especially given the circumstances that led up to his detention.
His suicide is only the flashpoint of the faults of a prison system that has had severe structural problems since its creation in 1998. Between June 2019 and December 2020, five other migrants died while in administrative detention in Italian CPRs. Serious shortcomings have been found in the centers: The privacy of migrants is not respected, the bathrooms lack doors, police officers attend medical examinations, health facilities are out of order or in unacceptable conditions, the heating does not work, the migrants' phones are seized on their arrival...
The pandemic has made conditions of the centers even worse, in part because repatriation flights have been suspended, making detention even more pointless for those held in the centers. "Last May, to protect the health of migrants and local communities, the UN asked the international community to suspend forced deportations," reads an investigation into CPRs run by the Italian website Frontierenews. "But Italy continued to lock foreign citizens in prison-like structures designed to detain and deport irregular migrants."
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France recorded an all-time low turnout yesterday, with the rate of abstentionnisme estimated between 66% and 68% for the first round of regional elections. The parties of both French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whom many have been predicting will face off in next year's presidential election, both suffered significant losses.
Moscow mayor to service sector employees: get vaccine or lose your job
In an unprecedented push to make vaccines obligatory, Moscow's mayor has told employees in the city that they will lose their jobs if they don't get vaccinated, Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad reports Monday in the latest move to try to curb the COVID-19 crisis spreading in the Russian capital.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin had already ordered employers of service sectors such as transportation, healthcare, education and hospitality to be sure that at least 60% of their workers were vaccinated by next month. But what was at first presented as a suggestion by employers is now to be made a requirement: those who refuse can be put on indefinite suspension with their salary withheld, while employers face a hefty fine.
This vaccination requirement is the latest, and most extreme, in a series of harsh measurements taken by the Mayor. For months, Russian politicians have rejected the idea of compulsory vaccination, with President Vladimir Putin calling it "impractical and impossible," as reported by The Moscow Times.
But in his statement, Sobyanin said he was left with no other options as Moscow's cases are rapidly increasing. According to Euronews, the Russian capital reached a new daily record of 9,120 infections on Saturday, a threefold increase compared to two weeks ago.
Although Russia was among the first countries to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine, the national vaccination rate at 12% is much lower than elsewhere. Sputnik V was registered in August 2020 and approved for distribution in Russia soon after.
Although initially met with criticism at home and abroad, the vaccine has been distributed in 59 countries as of April 2021. But Russians still harbor a great distrust of Sputnik V because the government has reportedly been downgrading the COVID figures, leaving many to believe that the virus is not such a bad thing.
In an attempt to change Muscovites' minds, writing on his Russian-language personal blog, Sobyanin referred to unvaccinated people entering public spaces as "complicit" in keeping the pandemic ongoing.
Since April 1, India's surge in COVID-19 deaths has left 3,621 children orphaned, without either parent, while 26,176 other young people have lost one parent.
"A regime of brutal hangmen must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction.
— Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned the world should "wake up" following the election of conservative Ebrahim Raisi as Iran's new president and renewed Israel's opposition to negotiations of a new nuclear deal with Iran.
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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