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Coronavirus and conspiratorial dog-whistles return to New Zealand | Coronavirus pandemic



After more than 100 days without recording a case of community transmission, New Zealand is once again methodically stamping out COVID-19.  

The nation’s largest city, Auckland, is back in alert level three. Roads out of the city are closed. The remainder of the country watches on from the more permissive alert level two, nervously waiting as a more complete picture of viral spread emerges. 

So far, contact tracing seems to be working, with about 96 percent of close contacts followed up. A total of 154,000 tests have been processed over the past week, an enormous surge after public complacency around testing set in. 

The outbreak was detected on August 11, when four members of a family from South Auckland tested positive for COVID-19. By Thursday, the cluster had grown to 78 confirmed cases, highlighting the speed at which the virus spreads. 

The source of that outbreak – which has seen 133 people linked to the cluster moved into quarantine – has so far eluded authorities. Another case, a maintenance worker at a hotel used for managed isolation, is believed to have contracted the virus from a contaminated surface in the hotel’s lift.

Reports that testing of border and isolation staff in Auckland had not ramped up to levels expected by Cabinet has once again cast a spotlight on what critics call egregious mismanagement of the border and isolation facilities

Regardless, the government, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, moved quickly to contain the outbreak, announcing that Auckland would move into alert level 3 within hours of being informed of the new cases; left to spread unrestrained, COVID-19 infections grow exponentially.  

“Together we have got rid of COVID before. We have been world-leading in our COVID response,” said Ardern last week, while announcing the cabinet’s decision to extend lockdown measures by 12 days. “We can do all of that again.”  

Yet, months-long efforts to discredit lockdown measures have almost certainly contributed to a partial fraying of public patience with the approach. 

Prominent commentators and special interests are at it again, claiming it is time to abandon the country’s elimination strategy, instead “managing” the spread of COVID-19 into communities – just lock away the elderly and the infirm, the commentariat suggests.

Of course, those demanding such an approach belong to a particular class of people, one that can insulate itself from the viral rampage as it overwhelms a fragile health sector and devastates vulnerable communities. 

In the same vein, conspiracy theories and misinformation have proliferated. Fringe groups claim that COVID-19 is a 5G-linked bioweapon and promise to oppose lockdown measures with demonstrations. 

To date, protests have drawn only a scattering of people, in contrast to the online noise such groups generate. That may change.

More alarming are the manoeuvrings of the centre-right, main opposition National Party, which recently attempted to leverage conspiracy and misinformation for political gain.  

‘An interesting series of facts’

The government and health officials have long warned that COVID-19 would return to the country; New Zealanders did not have to look far to see why. In the Australian state of Victoria, rule-breaking by workers from private security firms overseeing quarantines at two Melbourne hotels led to multiple outbreaks.

With a massive drop-off in testing – on July 19, merely eight tests in the community were processed – New Zealand’s health authorities were looking to boost surveillance testing to around 4,000 per day.

On August 11, the director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, received a much-publicised COVID-19 test, an attempt to offset any complacency or stigma surrounding the procedure. In the meantime, Ardern visited a mask-making factory, abandoning the government’s reticence towards encouraging the use of masks.

Later that day, testing discovered that COVID-19 had returned to the country. 

The National Party called a press conference the following day, headed by party leader Judith Collins and her deputy, Gerry Brownlee.  

Citing the Bloomfield test and Ardern’s visit to the mask factory, Brownlee stood smirking. “It’s interesting,” he said. “An interesting series of facts.”   

The implication seemed to be that the government knew for some time that there was a COVID-19 outbreak and withheld this from the public. 

In an environment of heightened fear and misinformation, Brownlee was dog-whistling to the emergent conspirational fringe – those who vow civil disobedience – while more generally attempting to undermine faith in the public health response.

The party quickly walked back the claims. 

Brownlee told the broadcaster Newstalk ZB on August 14 that he had ended up in a “bad spot” and “didn’t intend to create any fear”.   

“The way it has been presented has been unfortunate.”   

That explanation is, of course, nonsense: on Tuesday, Brownlee reiterated his claims, again engaging in scaremongering and conspiracy-baiting in the hope of drawing a tiny number of fringe voters to his party. 

There is something deeply unappealing about a grasping politician who puts the personal pursuit of power above public wellbeing. 

The election

On Monday, Ardern announced her decision to postpone the general election – and accompanying End of Life Choice and cannabis referendums – by a month, until October 17.

This, hopefully, gives health authorities time to get on top of the latest outbreak, provides all parties ample breathing room to campaign and reassures the public that the election can be held safely.  

The government’s health-first priorities and Ardern’s compassionate leadership style have generated massive public support since the country’s first confirmed COVID-19 case on February 28.  

Ardern’s Labour Party has consistently polled above 50 percent throughout the pandemic.

Whether voters will punish the government for a number of mistakes and mishaps during the pandemic remains to be seen. Its failures to deliver flagship policies – the ill-fated KiwiBuild real estate project, for example – over the past three years will have little impact.

By contrast, the National Party’s relentless negativity has turned voters away, with the latest Roy Morgan poll putting them on 26.5 percent support. Collins, the party’s third leader in three months, has – like her predecessors – totally misread the public mood. 

Had the party provided constructive criticism of the government’s COVID-19 response, it would likely be in a much healthier electoral position. 

Instead, it mostly went down the path of scattershot criticism and dirty politics: leaking private details of COVID-19 patients to the media and inventing a “homeless man” at a managed isolation facility.

Nothing about Collins’s character suggests that she will be able to, or is interested in, correcting the party’s course. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Yellen: Private funds also needed to tackle climate change | Climate News




The cost of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 could climb to $2.5 trillion over 10 years for the US alone, according to one estimate.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said private financing, and not just government spending, will be needed to tackle the “existential threat” of climate change.

The overall cost of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement that the U.S. has rejoined — could run to $2.5 trillion over 10 years for the U.S. alone, according to one estimate, Yellen said in a speech to a virtual conference Wednesday organized by the Institute of International Finance.

“It’s going to be tremendously important for the financial services industry to marshal and allocate capital that’s needed to make the transition toward net-zero” emissions, she said in a question-and-answer segment that followed the speech. “Massive investments are likely to be needed and the bulk has to be private.”

The Treasury chief also highlighted the need to strengthen financial risk disclosures — making them more reliable, consistent and comparable across markets and countries — so investors can accurately gauge risks and opportunities.

Yellen pledged that the U.S. will help developing countries that are especially vulnerable to threats from climate change, but stopped short of making any specific financial promises on that front.

The infrastructure-focused economic proposal that President Joe Biden unveiled last month, including money to address climate change, “will be the most significant public investment in America since the 1960s, dramatically reducing U.S. emissions by greening the electricity and transportation sectors,” Yellen said.

Biden Summit

Yellen’s comments come as Biden convenes the leaders of 40 nations, corporate executives and union leaders in a two-day virtual summit on the climate change, with a focus on how to galvanize finance in the endeavor.

While many recent international climate-change discussions have focused on the role of multilateral development banks and formal climate-assistance programs, the conversation at the summit will include a more expansive look at the role of private funds in propelling clean energy and building resilience, administration officials said Wednesday.

Yellen said the Treasury is involved in a number of initiatives aimed at removing hurdles, including efforts to improve financial reporting and increasing the reliability of climate-related disclosures.

The Financial Stability Oversight Council, a multi-agency body of regulators chaired by Yellen, will be the Treasury’s principal tool in attempting to minimize financial-sector risks associated with climate change, she said.

“It’s FSOC’s job to understand these risks, to coordinate across U.S. regulatory agencies in assessing the risks and, if necessary and appropriate, acting to mitigate risks to overall U.S. financial stability,” she said in the Q&A.

Global Harmonization

Yellen said U.S. officials will also work with the multilateral Financial Stability Board and other international bodies to make reporting requirements consistent and comparable across borders. She endorsed a “solid framework” for climate-related disclosures from an FSB task force chaired by Michael R. Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

Yellen didn’t offer any specific new pledge of additional U.S. government funding to help developing nations adapt to a warming planet or build clean-energy projects.

Rich countries promised in 2009 that by 2020 they’d collectively devote $100 billion annually to climate finance, but have fallen far short. As the world’s No. 2 emitter of greenhouse-gas emissions, the U.S. is under pressure to loosen its purse strings.

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‘Chad is not a monarchy’, rebels warn interim president 




Gen Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno

Gen Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno

The son of the late President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad has been named interim president of the central African nation by a transitional military council.

Wednesday’s announcement comes a day after 37-year-old Gen Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno was named head of the 18-month council as the army announced the death of his 68-year-old father from injuries sustained while visiting troops on the front line.

A rebel force known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, known by its French acronym FACT, has advanced from the north in recent days toward the capital, N’Djamena. The group had been based in neighbouring Libya. The rebel group released a statement Tuesday vowing to take the capital and depose the younger Deby.   
“Chad is not a monarchy,” the statement read. “There can be no dynastic devolution of power in our country.”
A day before his death, the elder Deby was declared the winner of Chad’s April 11 election with 79 per cent of the vote, giving him a sixth term in office. Most opposition groups had boycotted the poll, citing arrests and a government ban on opposition rallies.  

Deby had ruled Chad since coming to power in a December 1990 coup, making him one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders. Opponents called him an autocrat and criticized his management of Chadian oil revenue. In 2008, a different rebel force reached N’Djamena and came close to toppling Deby before French and Chadian army forces drove them out of the city.
In the West, however, Deby was seen as an important ally in the fight against Islamist extremist groups in West Africa and the Sahel, like Nigeria-based Boko Haram.
The Libya-based FACT had attacked a border post on the day of the election and then moved hundreds of kilometres toward the capital. On Monday, the Chadian army said it had inflicted a heavy loss on the rebels, killing more than 300 of them.

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COVID vaccine scarcity and fake doses hamper efforts in Americas | Latin America News




Amid a limited supply of vaccines, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise across the Americas, PAHO officials said.

Amid a scramble to secure enough coronavirus vaccines in the Americas, there are reports of fake doses proliferating on the black market in several countries in the region, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

“We have received some information from Mexico, Argentina and Brazil that some doses have been offered through social media, illegal markets offering vaccines that probably are falsified,” Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of PAHO said during a weekly news conference.

“They are not real vaccines or maybe they are stolen doses from a health facility that no one can assure that they were properly stored,” Barbosa said.

A woman receiving a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, during a vaccination day campaign in Duque de Caxias near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Pfizer had identified counterfeit vaccines in Mexico and in Poland. According to the report, 80 people in Mexico had been jabbed with fake doses in a clinic, after paying $1,000 per dose.

According to the report, the people who received the fake vaccines were not adversely affected. Citing authorities, the report said in Poland the fake vaccines were seized before they were administered.

During Wednesday’s news conference, PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said the organisation was also concerned about vaccine hesitancy. She said “insidious rumours and conspiracy theories” were “inspiring fear and costing lives”.

She said PAHO was working with tech companies to tackle misinformation that has quickly proliferated on the internet and on social media sites.

“Because unreliable information spreads quickly, PAHO is collaborating with tech companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook to address fake news and ensure the public can easily find accurate information,” she said.

The reports of fake vaccines and vaccine hesitancy in the Americas came amid a scarce supply of vaccines in the region, and a rising number of COVID-19 cases.

Brazil has so far vaccinated 11.6 percent of its population and Mexico has vaccinated 8.7 percent. Other nations in the region are lagging behind [Ricardo Moraes/Reuters]

“Latin America is the region that currently has the greatest need for vaccines,” Etienne said, “this region should be prioritised for distribution of vaccines.”

“No one will be safe until we are all safe.”

Nearly half of the world’s coronavirus deaths during the weekend were in the Americas, Etienne said, adding that nearly every country in Central America is reporting a rise in infections. Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, she said were the worst hit.

“Over the weekend, the world reached a tragic milestone – more than three million have lost their lives to COVID, and nearly half of these deaths happened right here in the Americas,” Etienne said.

Chile is seeing a plateau in cases, while Brazil is reporting a drop. But despite the drop, Etienne said, cases in Brazil “remain alarmingly high.” Argentina ranked third regionally in the weekly number of new cases. Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay were also seeing a worsening. And Mexico, after weeks of decline in new cases, is seeing a slight increase.

Regionally, the United States and Chile have made the most progress in their vaccination campaigns – both have vaccinated about 40 percent of their population – according to Our World in Data.

Uruguay has inoculated more than 30 percent of its population while Brazil has so far vaccinated 11.6 percent and Mexico has vaccinated about 8.7 percent. Other nations in the region are lagging behind.

During the news briefing, officials said most of the region’s countries are relying on the global COVAX mechanism, which aims to equitably distribute vaccines to developing nations.

Etienne said more than 4.2 million vaccine doses have so far been supplied to 29 countries in the Americas through COVAX, and more doses are on the way.

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