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Worldcrunch Today, Dec. 23: COVID In Antarctica, Trump Vs. Stimulus, Messi Record

Mount Etna has resumed eruptive activities: all show and no risk for the Sicilian population
Mount Etna has resumed eruptive activities: all show and no risk for the Sicilian population

Welcome to Wednesday, where Trump blocks U.S. stimulus package, the last continent gets its first COVID cases and Messi breaks Pele's record. We also discover the different ways the world's teachers kept 1.5 billion students learning through the pandemic's lockdowns.

SPOTLIGHT: A HUMAN MUTATION: PANDEMIC TRIALS, TRANS SPECIES VISIONS

Seeing Manel de Aguas can prompt a range of reactions. The connected artificial "fins' implanted in his skull might look silly to some, inspiring to others, or just very disturbing. "I don't feel 100% human," the 27-year-old Catalan told the La Razón daily last week.

On his Instagram page, de Aguas describes himself as a Trans Species Artist. Those fins protruding from his head help him "feel" the weather, and as such are for him both aesthetic and prosthetic. They are as much a part of what he claims as a genuine cyborg identity as they are part of his creative image and business model. Is this a kind of 21st-century circus act? A role model for all those who have ever felt deeply connected to other species on the planet? Or are we witnessing a walking preview of the hybrid future of the human race?

That's the future of "transhumanism," predicted by more and more respected thinkers, including renowned author Yuval Harari (Sapiens, Homos Deus), where advances in biotechnology, genetics and artificial intelligence may reorder what we consider to be human.

Building machines and scientific technology into our bodies is of course nothing new, though until now it's been the almost exclusive purview of the medical sector for those seeking to fix or replace something that has somehow been lost, broken or deficient. We're crossing another boundary when we fuse tech and flesh for less purely practical reasons: whether its de Aguas' apparent attempt to better connect to nature (or boost his Instagram following) — or for more nefarious ends.

"The reality is that the human species will become immortal. In 100 or 500 or 1,000 years, it doesn't matter," Laurent Alexandre, a leading French medical technologist, told Le Figaro. "The real question is at what price. The Faustian pact with technology is heavy with consequences."

Most recently, the rising interest in transhumanism has also sparked a growing number of conspiracy theories triggered by 5G technology and COVID-19 vaccines, with claims that we will soon carry, unwillingly, electronic chips in our bodies and brains.

But of course, the current pandemic is warning not only about the risks of human advancement but also about our weaknesses in the face of nature. While transhumanism opens the door to the physical enhancement of our very selves — and the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines is a testament to our technological prowess — we are still in the dark about how the virus may have been first transmitted from other species. The human condition, it seems, is still very much driven by our mortality.

— Laure Gautherin



THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID-19 latest: The UK-France travel ban is eased, though tensions remain high among truck drivers who have been stuck at border controls in Dover. Meanwhile, with 36 cases recorded in a research station, Antarctica is no longer the last continent free from the virus.

• Trump rejects stimulus: U.S. President Donald Trump has called the $900 coronavirus relief bill "wasteful" and threatened to veto it if it doesn't include higher stimulus checks. Failure to pass the bill could result in a partial government shutdown.

• Israel back to polls: Israel's parliament dissolved, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition failed to pass a budget, triggering a fourth election in two years, slated for March.

• Turkish journalist sentenced: Former editor-in-chief of Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet Can Dundar has been sentenced in absentia to 27 years and 6 months in prison for espionage and supporting terrorism. He had fled to Germany in 2016 amid Turkey's crackdown on journalists after a failed coup.

• French police officers killed: Three police officers were shot dead by a man in central France after responding to a domestic call violence. The suspected gunman was later found dead in his car.

• Rock in the UK: Researchers in the UK have discovered a new type of mineral, that they named kernowite, while analyzing a rock mined in Cornwall about 220 years ago.

Gooooooool! (x644) Argentina's Lionel Messi scored his 644th goal for Barcelona in Spain's Liga, breaking Pelé"s record of the most goals for one club.


Brazilian daily Extra features on its front page the arrest of Rio de Janeiro's outgoing mayor Marcelo Crivella, who was charged with corruption, just nine days before the end of his term in office.



HOW THE WORLD'S TEACHERS HANDLED 1.5 BILLION KIDS ON LOCKDOWN

When 63 million teachers found themselves confined at home last spring (along with at least 1.5 billion students in 191 countries), they had to start getting creative. The closure of schools around the world served to exacerbate existing educational inequalities, especially for those who already had fewer opportunities, including girls, those with learning disabilities and those living in poverty.

As around half of the out-of-school students did not have access to a computer and over 40% did not have internet at home, online learning only provided a solution for some. Nevertheless, around the globe, educators found innovative solutions to reach even the most vulnerable students to make sure a pandemic didn't halt their education.

India: In one of the countries worst hit by coronavirus, the majority of students have been left out of online learning. Only 8% of households have both a computer and internet connection. But regional governments and nonprofits have found effective solutions using cheap, available resources that don't rely on technology.

• The nonprofit Diganta Swaraj Foundation took on a low-tech mass education approach, using a loudspeaker to deliver lessons to 1,000 students in six villages in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. In southwestern India, the state of Kerala set up temporary classrooms for students who couldn't tune into online or televised lessons.

• Education apps have also skyrocketed in popularity, given that a growing percentage of the Indian population do have cell phones. In early March, Bengaluru-based education startup Byju decided to offer free access to its interactive education app, which has since seen a 60% rise in student usage.

• Ironically, many American families have turned to tutors in India to help their children through the challenges of online learning. This raises the question of how these well-trained educators could potentially reap equitable economic benefit teaching students in their own country.

Denmark: The Nordic country was one of the first to close its schools and then reopen them this past spring. Two key principles — holding outdoor lessons and maintaining smaller class sizes — have had unexpected benefits.

• Forest schools have long been popular for young students in Denmark, with around 1 in 10 pre-schoolers learning outside in nature. In the coronavirus era, these outdoor spaces can alleviate indoor virus spreading and allow students to spread out and socially distance, as reported in the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

• The model is catching on throughout Europe, especially in Germany and Norway. Studies show that students are calmer and can concentrate better when they're not sitting at desks. This model also benefits their physical health.

• Like in many countries, some Danish schools have also switched to a part-time model to lower class sizes. While kids might have less time with their educators and peers, this isn't necessarily a downside. "We can see now very clearly that smaller groups bring a higher degree of wellbeing for the kids, and give the teachers more contact with the kids during the day," Dorte Lange, vice-president of the Danish Union of Teachers, tells The Guardian.

• Lange says this may have long-term benefits: "We are looking at whether we can continue this and maybe shorten our school day a bit, with fewer lessons but with a higher degree of contact with students."

Mexico: When Mexico decided to keep its public schools closed this academic year, it was clear that online learning would be impossible for many, so the government turned to a different media platform.

• About half of Mexico's 31 million school-age children live in poverty according to UNICEF. Just 56% of households have internet access and in rural parts of the country, service is shaky at best.

• But there was a solution: As a full 93% of households have a television, an ambitious program named Aprende en Casa (Learn at Home) was set up to broadcast educational content 24/7 for students pre-kindergarten through high school, as reported in El Universal. Educational radio programs have also been delivered across 18 stations in Spanish and indigenous languages.

• "It's challenging," fifth grade teacher Omar Morales tells CNN about filming his lessons. "It's no longer 40 kids in a class where I know their names, passions, their favorite games. Here, I'm locked in a set, but I know there's millions of kids out there who still need that knowledge."

• Aprende en Casa does have serious limits, particularly in rural communities and for female students, many of whom might not return to school after the pandemic. Some students have also found the education boring and want more engaging material, according to Reforma. But hopefully, the program will provide a strong and much needed push toward using distance learning to reach underserved populations.


100

Exactly one century ago today, the Government of Ireland Act 1920 became law, resulting in the Partition of Ireland, dividing the country into two self-governing entities: Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and Southern Ireland (now Republic of Ireland).


The arrival of hundreds of Emiratis in Israel to enjoy the historic sites of Jerusalem and pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque was a slap in the face for us.

— Jerusalem-based writer and blogger Jalal Abukhater tells Al Jazeera about the influx of faithful and tourists from the United Arab Emirates, following the normalization of ties with Israel earlier this year.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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