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Algeria’s lessons from The Plague in the age of coronavirus



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image captionThe Plague has been flying off bookshop shelves worldwide

The Mediterranean city of Oran was the setting for a famous fictional outbreak of bubonic plague in Algeria under French colonial rule. The BBC’s Lucy Ash finds parallels between Albert Camus’ novel The Plague and how the country is coping with the coronavirus pandemic amid political upheaval.

Although it was published 73 years ago, today The Plague almost feels like a news bulletin. It has been flying off bookshop shelves around the world as readers struggle to make sense of the global spread of Covid-19.

Sitting in his office in the Mohamed-Boudiaf Hospital, where many of Oran’s coronavirus cases are treated, Professor Salah Lellou says he is exhausted.

An expert on tuberculosis in Algeria’s second city, he’s been working flat out for months, rarely leaving the hospital before midnight.

“The sick arrived in a very serious condition. Everyone was panicking – patients and the staff. We had a terrible time of it.

“We’re not sure if we’ve arrived at the peak, or if there’s a second wave because right now we have another spike in cases.”

Haunted by the novel

The third worst affected country in Africa after Egypt and South Africa, Algeria has officially reported 43,016 cases of coronavirus, including 1,475 deaths.

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image captionOran, a port city on the Mediterranean, was the setting for The Plague, which in the novel was in total lockdown

It imposed a strict lockdown after the first infection was recorded at the end of February and in much of the country night-time curfews remain in force.

With his salt and pepper moustache and receding hair, Prof Lellou is older than Camus’ hero, Dr Bernard Rieux, but he seems equally devoted to his patients.

Unlike many in Oran today, he is familiar with the novel set in his hometown and almost seems haunted by it.

“We weren’t able to avoid thinking about the plague Albert Camus described during this pandemic… Most patients were very scared, there were a lot of rumours going around. Everyone was caught off-guard.”

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image captionMedics have been under pressure during the pandemic

In Bouira, east of the capital, Algiers, a hospital director was cornered by angry relatives of a patient who had just died of Covid. He jumped out of the second-floor window of his office to escape, suffering multiple fractures.

“There was a parallel between coronavirus and Camus’ plague. People started to blame the authorities,” says Prof Lellou.

In Camus’ novel, the Cathedral of Sacré-Cœur in downtown Oran – now a public library – was the setting for a fiery sermon delivered by the Catholic priest, Father Paneloux, who tells the congregation they have “deserved” the calamity which has befallen them.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Algeria’s mosques have been closed and religious leaders like Sheikh Abdelkader Hamouya have been delivering health messages and sermons online.

He has a reputation as a progressive but when he reflects on the meaning of the pandemic, there are echoes of Camus’ 1940s Jesuit priest.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a message from Allah to believers, and to all people, to come back to him. To wake up!” he says.

Virus halts protests

Many Algerians tell me that the real danger they face is less the coronavirus itself and more the way the authorities are exploiting it for other purposes.

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image captionThe protesters want reforms in a country where a third of young people are unemployed

Before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, Algeria was swept up in a wave of peaceful protests – known as the Hirak, Arabic for “Movement” – which eventually forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down in April 2019 after 20 years in power.

Despite the celebrations that followed, the candidates to replace the aged president all belonged to the old guard. A former prime minister became head of state in December after widely boycotted elections.

Abdelmadjid Tebboune promised to extend a hand to the Hirak movement to build a “new Algeria”. He talked of reforms and the need to “separate money from politics”.

But with no sign of desperately needed jobs, protests became increasingly tense, with scores of activists arrested.

The authorities say Algeria is threatened by a rerun of the bloody violence of the 1990s – known as “the black decade”.

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image captionYoung volunteers have been distributing donated food aid to needy families during the lockdown

Just as the stand-off seemed to be reaching a climax, coronavirus emptied the streets. Activists like Afiff Aderrahmane agreed to temporarily halt the protests.

The web designer threw himself into charity work, setting up a website to put donors in touch with organisations which distribute food and other aid to needy families and the homeless during the lockdown.

“The Hirak during the quarantine transformed itself into one enormous act of solidarity,” he says.

Solidarity during a crisis is a major theme in The Plague.

Mr Aderrahmane could be seen as a modern-day version of Camus’ character, Jean Tarrou, who organises sanitary teams of volunteers to accompany doctors on house visits, transport the sick and support those in quarantine.

“In fact many Algerians have something in common with him… the urge to help others in difficult times,” says Mr Aderrahmane.

Fascism and repression

The sanitary teams organised by Tarrou may reflect Camus’ own experience of fighting in the French resistance.

image copyright@Nime_BD

image captionWalid Kechida, portrayed here by cartoonist Nime, is behind bars for irreverent images shared on Facebook

Written just after World War Two, the novel has often been interpreted as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France with the rats that bring the disease representing the “brown plague” of fascism.

But it can be interpreted in myriad ways and may also contain lessons for the excesses of an authoritarian state.

Walid Kechida,

the young creator of Facebook page Hirak Memes, was charged in April with offending the president and religious authorities with his irreverent images.

Although the authorities released some political prisoners to mark Independence Day on 5 July, many high-profile detainees like Kechida remain behind bars.

Earlier this month, prominent journalist Khaled Drareni was sentenced to three years for “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “endangering national unity”.

The government also passed a controversial law against “fake news” and blocked three websites that had been covering the pandemic and protests.

From 4,000 miles away, a radio station has been trying to fill the information gap.

Radio Corona International was set up by Abdallah Benadouda, an Algerian journalist now based in Providence, Rhode Island, in the US.

In 2014, he got on the wrong side of Said Bouteflika, the then-president’s brother, was sacked, blacklisted and after getting death threats, he and his wife fled.

The radio station airs each Tuesday and Friday to pay homage to the days of the street protests – and Benadouda says it helps to keep the flame of the Hirak burning.

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media captionCelebrations after the president of Algeria resigned

“I’m trying to do my best to be part of the revolution. So my body is in Providence but my mind and my heart are in Algeria.”

In The Plague, there is a French journalist – Raymond Rambert – who’s been sent to report on housing conditions in Oran and finds himself trapped as the city goes into lockdown. He is desperate to return home.

I think of Benadouda as the mirror opposite of Camus’ character. He is a journalist stuck on the outside, yearning to get back in. And his anguish increases with the mounting repression in Algeria as he worries about the safety of his contributors there, where frustration is increasing.

‘Inoculated against violence’

But like the vast majority of Algerians, Benadouda fears chaos. During the 1990s when the military fought an Islamist insurgency, 200,000 people died and 15,000 were forcibly disappeared.

Abdelkader Djeriou, the star of a gritty TV drama set in Oran, agrees. The actor often addressed huge crowds during the Hirak and was briefly imprisoned last December.

“Our experience of what we call ‘the black decade’ has inoculated us, it gave us some maturity to not be confrontational, and to avoid violence.

“This pandemic has really caused the mask to slip. We’ve seen that it’s civil society which helps the poor and those in need.”

Camus understood that when disaster strikes, people show their true colours.

The current crackdown on anti-government protests is a far cry from the freedom Algerians enjoyed at the start of the Hirak.

Algerians who know the novel might have recognised Camus’ warning against complacency at the very end of the book when he says that the plague bacillus – however the reader interprets it – never dies or disappears for good.

You can listen to Lucy Ash’s BBC World Service Assignment programme about Algeria’s Plague Revisited here.

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Sri Lanka archbishop criticises gov’t over Easter attacks probe | Sri Lanka News




On the second anniversary of the Easter attacks, the head of Sri Lanka’s Catholic church says he was ‘deeply saddened’ by the lack of progress in the investigation.

The head of Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday accused the government of stalling investigations into Easter Sunday bombings two years ago that killed 279 people.

Nearly 200 people were arrested within days of the attacks on hotels and churches, but no one has yet been charged.

Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who led commemorations on the second anniversary Wednesday, said he was “deeply saddened” by the lack of progress in the investigation.

“We have to stress that what is happening at the moment is an attitude of ‘no care’ where all factors are not properly investigated,” the cardinal said at a commemorative service in Colombo.

Catholic priests and nuns march while holding images of the victims of April 21’s Easter Sunday bomb attack in 2019, next to St. Sebastian’s Church, one of the attacked churches, during the second anniversary, in Katuwapitiya, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2021 [Dinuka Liyanawatte/REUTERS]

Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez, reporting from Negombo, Sri Lanka, said Ranjith accused the government of political posturing and the need to protect alliances had hindered the probe.

“He went as far a few days ago as saying that the bombings had nothing to do with religious extremism, but rather were about politics and people who wanted to ensure essentially grabbing power,” she added.

The cardinal has previously called for former president Maithripala Sirisena to be prosecuted for failing to prevent the attacks despite advance warnings.

An investigation ordered by Sirisena soon after the bombings found that he and his intelligence officials had precise information from India about the attack 17 days earlier, but failed to act.

Sirisena, who did not offer himself for re-election in November 2019 polls, is currently a legislator with the party of his successor Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Although none of the 200 in custody have been indicted, 16 Muslim men among them were charged on Tuesday in connection with desecrating Buddhist statues in December 2018.

The authorities have said that the destruction of the statues in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka was the forerunner to the Easter Sunday attacks four months later.

Anniversary service

Wednesday’s multi-faith remembrance service was held at the St. Anthony’s Church where 56 people died in the attacks, which came 10 years after the end of Sri Lanka’s 37-year Tamil separatist war.

Cardinal Ranjith appealed to the country’s Muslims on Wednesday to join Catholics in determining the truth behind the Easter bombings.

Two local groups that had pledged allegiance to the ISIS [ISIL] group have been blamed for the attacks.

A family member kisses the grave of one victim of April 21’s Easter Sunday bomb attack in 2019, next to St. Sebastian’s Church, one of the attacked churches, during the second anniversary [Dinuka Liyanawatte/REUTERS]

Islamic cleric Hassan Moulana, who also spoke at the service, said Muslims around the world condemn the attacks and that Islam offers no justification for the crime.

He said the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has disowned the attackers and has not allowed their bodies to be buried in its cemeteries to show their acts are not part of Islam.

Last week Sri Lanka banned 11 organisations, including the ISIL (ISIS) group and al-Qaeda.

Anyone linked to the groups – the other nine of which are local religious and social organisations – faces up to 20 years in jail, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said in a gazette notification.

Muslims, who make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people, have faced increased attacks from majority Sinhala Buddhist hardliners following the end of a civil war between Tamil separatists and government forces in 2009.

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Bitcoin: After weekend dip, chart watchers share crypto clues | Banks News




Bitcoin has yet to recover from its unexplained weekend swoon, and now the investing public is on edge about the notoriously volatile token’s next move. Enter the chart watchers.

Noting that “a chart is a chart is a chart,” Tallbacken Capital Advisors’s Michael Purves sent a note Wednesday with a technical analysis of the coin’s trading patterns. Bitcoin’s recent highs weren’t confirmed by its relative strength index, among other things, and its upward momentum is fading, he said.

“From purely a technical perspective, the bullish case looks highly challenged here in the near term,” after its recent rally, wrote Purves, chief executive officer at the firm.

It’s another sign that Bitcoin has become too big for Wall Street to ignore. With more firms allowing customers to dabble in the asset and more institutional money tied to its performance, no wonder chart watchers are capitulating and now lending their expertise to the growing batch of analysis.

Earlier, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s analysts also chimed in with their take. The last few times Nikolaos Panigirtzoglou witnessed such negative price action in Bitcoin, buyers returned in time to prevent deeper slumps. This time, the strategist is worried.

If the largest cryptocurrency isn’t able to break back above $60,000 soon, momentum signals will collapse, strategists led by Panigirtzoglou wrote in a note Tuesday. It’s likely traders including Commodity Trading Advisers (CTAs) and crypto funds were at least partly behind the buildup of long Bitcoin futures in recent weeks, as well as the unwind in past days, they said.

“Over the past few days Bitcoin futures markets experienced a steep liquidation in a similar fashion to the middle of last February, middle of last January or the end of last November,” the strategists said. “Momentum signals will naturally decay from here for several months, given their still elevated level.”

In those three previous instances, the overall flow impulse was strong enough to allow Bitcoin to quickly break out above the key thresholds, yielding further buildups in position by momentum traders, JPMorgan noted.

“Whether we see a repeat of those previous episodes in the current conjuncture remains to be seen,” the strategists said. The likelihood it will happen again seems lower because momentum decay seems more advanced and thus more difficult to reverse, they added. Flows into Bitcoin funds also appear weak, they said.

Bitcoin rose as high as $64,870 around the time of the Nasdaq listing of Coinbase Global Inc., but has retreated back to $55,000. The cryptocurrency is still up about 90% year-to-date.

The coin, down five of the last six sessions, is struggling to overtake its 50-day moving average around $56,819. For many chartists, that’s a bearish indicator since it tends to determine price momentum trends. Should Bitcoin be unable to breach its short-term trend line, it could move lower and test the $50,000 level, about a 10% decline from where it’s currently trading. The next area of support would be its 100-day moving average around $49,212. That would signify a 11% retreat from Wednesday’s trading levels.

Tallbacken’s Purves, who says the coin’s 2017 breakout and subsequent decline is a useful case study, also points Bitcoin’s daily MACD signal — or the moving average convergence divergence gauge — which has turned bearish in the intermediate-term. And its performance is still correlated to Cathie Wood’s uber-popular ARK Innovation ETF.

“Trading Bitcoin on the bullish side right now does not appear to have favorable risk-reward and if you have made profits, it seems like a good time to go to the sidelines for now,” Purves wrote.

To be sure, he said, it’s difficult to conclude how much further it could decline. Key to the issue will be how strongly institutional buyers step in. “While upside momentum is clearly looking challenged here, it is inconclusive how much downside risk remains,” he wrote in a note. “It is entirely possible that Bitcoin could simply consolidate in a range for some time.”

Bitcoin fell as much as 4.3% Wednesday to $54,341 before recouping some losses. Smaller and alternative coins that had run up in recent days also suffered declines Wednesday, with Dogecoin — the poster-child for crypto risk-taking — declining roughly 15% to trade around 31 cents. That’s down from a high of 42 cents the day prior, according to

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Pakistan: Several killed in explosion at Quetta hotel | Pakistan News




Blast in parking area of Serena Hotel also wounded nine people, with some in critical condition, police say.

At least three people have been killed and nine others wounded in a powerful explosion in the parking area of an upscale hotel in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, according to authorities.

Police said rescuers were transporting the victims of Wednesday’s blast at Serena Hotel to nearby hospitals. Footage on local news channels showed cars in flames.

Security forces rushed to the hotel and no one was allowed to approach the site of the explosion. Police said they had opened an investigation.

“Our officers are working to determine whether it was a bomb and what type of device it could be,” police official Nasir Malik told Reuters news agency.

According to senior police official Azhar Akram, some of the wounded were listed in critical condition. They were brought to Quetta’s main hospital.

No other information was immediately available.

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