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Can COVID-stricken Brazil host Copa America? | Coronavirus pandemic News



Belo Horizonte, Brazil – It is fitting that the underused Estadio Mane Garrincha football stadium in Brasilia sits almost within sight of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s office.

In a little more than a week, the cavernous arena is scheduled to host the opening match of arguably the most contentious and politicised Copa America in the history of the world’s oldest international football tournament.

Whether it happens though, regardless of Bolsonaro’s obstinacy, remains to be seen.

Until late last month, the 10-team, month-long tournament was to be, for the first time, co-hosted by two countries: Colombia and Argentina.

The former’s plans were scrapped on May 20 due to civil unrest. Ten days later, with COVID cases in Argentina having risen 54 percent, the country swapped its hosting rights for the unwelcome title of having the world’s fifth-worst coronavirus outbreak per capita.

Within 24 hours, COVID-ravaged Brazil was unveiled as the emergency solution.

Alejandro Dominguez, president of CONMEBOL – South America’s football governing body –  wrote on Twitter: “A tournament is coming that will make the continent vibrate.” He was not wrong.

Brazil the right choice?

The reality, much like COVID-19, is hard to shake: The 105-year-old tournament was switched from Colombia and Argentina because of political unrest and the coronavirus, yet relocated to a politically fractured country with the second-worst death toll in the world and no end in sight.

As of June 5, Brazil has reported just under 17 million coronavirus cases, the third most in the world, and more than 470,000 deaths, second behind the US.

Just 10 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated and the day after Brazil was confirmed as host, it recorded 94,509 new cases, the country’s second-highest number on record.

A protest banner reads ‘we don’t want the Cup, we want vaccine! Out Bolsonaro’ outside the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro which is set to host the Copa America final [Pilar Olivares/Reuters]

The decision to host the tournament prompted an eruption of criticism across South America. Footballers, politicians, health experts, lawyers and fans all expressed disbelief at the idea of hosting the tournament in a country that has consistently struggled to control the virus.

Brazil’s football federation has yet to make a statement and failed to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment. But the Brazilian national team is against the idea of having the tournament at home.

On Friday, following the team’s win over Ecuador, captain Casemiro suggested the players did not want to take part in the tournament given the COVID situation in the country.

“We can’t talk about the issue [but] everyone knows what our position is regarding the Copa America,” Casemiro said. “It’s impossible to be clearer. We want to express our opinion after the game against Paraguay.”

‘Grave site’

High-profile stars such as Argentina’s Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez of Uruguay have voiced concern too, while the Chilean national team is also considering a boycott with coach Martin Lasarte saying playing in Brazil is a “gigantic risk”.

Soon after Dominguez’s tweet, memes of mocked-up mascots and logos featuring coffins and the virus molecule circulated online.

Using the Portuguese words for “variant” and “grave site” Brazilians rebranded the tournament Cepa America and Cova America.

“Every day, more than 2,000 people are dying in Brazil because of this virus, yet it has been happening for so long now it is being considered completely natural,” Dr Jamal Suleiman, an infectious disease specialist at Hospital Emilio Ribas in Sao Paulo, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s never-ending. It’s like 10 large passenger planes crashing every single day for months. No other country in the world is like this.”

South America is home to more than half of the 15 countries with the highest seven-day incidence of COVID cases worldwide.

Yet, with $100m worth of television rights already sold, CONMEBOL is refusing to postpone its showpiece competition for a second successive year.

Without fans inside the stadium, Brazil is set to raise the curtain against Venezuela on June 13, before other matches take place in Cuiaba, Goiania, and Rio de Janeiro.

A study by Brazil’s O Globo newspaper found each of the four host cities to have fewer than 20 per cent of ICU beds available.

“Hosting the Copa America gives the message that the pandemic is under control,” added Suleiman.

“That can’t be underestimated and is exactly what Bolsonaro has been trying to do since the start, telling us it’s only a ‘gripezinha’ [small cold] and a ‘coisa de marica’ [thing for sissies]. Football isn’t a place associated with sissies, it’s seen as a macho sport. So the message that is being conveyed by hosting the event risks public health worsening considerably.”

In a COVID-free context, the emergency decision could appear logical.

In the past seven years, Brazil has hosted the football World Cup, Olympics, Under-17 World Cup, and the 2019 Copa America. The country undoubtedly boasts the best infrastructure in the region for hosting a major sports event.

“I’m against the Copa America being held this year because it’s losing its prestige, but if we’re going to have it, then Brazil is a good option,” said Lucas Assis, a 21-year-old student from Rio de Janeiro.

“Our domestic leagues are running and other teams from South America played Libertadores matches here last week, so I don’t see the difference. The mainstream media is completely against Copa America, but they have no problem broadcasting domestic football, so it feels hypocritical and political. For me, all this outrage is more to do with TV rights than people dying.”

Can vaccines rescue the tournament?

CONMEBOL argues that with 50,000 vaccines provided by Chinese manufacturer Sinovac, it can vaccinate all team delegations before the tournament begins.

Yet, time is not on the organisers’ side. A period of three weeks is recommended between the two doses. Suleiman calls the logic “completely flawed”, noting also the dangers posed to peripheral unprotected workers, such as ballboys, bus drivers and hotel staff.

“It is crazy,” said Monica Sapucaia Machado, a professor at the Brazilian Institute of Public Law in Brasilia. “They say they will vaccinate the travelling parties, but what about the people working in the airports, hotels, restaurants? Do we expect the players to stay in their hotel for a month? It’s ludicrous.”

Last week, David Neres of Ajax and Sao Paulo’s Robert Arboleda were arrested at a clandestine party with more than 100 people in attendance. Such secret events are a common theme in Brazil, where each state governor sets its own rules.

“The pandemic is completely out of control here,” said Suleiman. “The public hospitals are full, the private hospitals are full, everyone is working to their maximum capacity. Drugs for patients intubated in Sao Paulo will run out at the latest next week with no restock forecast. It’s not a comfortable situation.

“Football is a great sport, an emotional game, but the country doesn’t need the Copa America at this moment. What the country needs is a vaccine.”

‘Diversionary tactic’

The controversial decision arrived less than a week after tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets of 200 Brazilian cities calling for the impeachment of Bolsonaro.

The president has routinely played down the gravity of the coronavirus, is opposed to lockdowns, and questioned the effectiveness of vaccinations.

On Wednesday night, Bolsonaro confirmed the tournament will be held in Brazil and said the same protocol as the Copa Libertadores and World Cup qualifiers will be followed.

Yet, opposition politicians have already approached the Supreme Court with the intention of suspending the tournament on grounds of public health.

Brazil’s Socialist Party leader Carlos Siqueira called it a “project of death” while Senator Renan Calheiros urged Brazil star Neymar Jr to take a stand. Legal actions have been filed in various states across the country.

Professor Machado told Al Jazeera that Bolsonaro’s decision to greenlight the tournament is likely a “diversionary tactic” and “a means of deflecting attention” at a time when he and his government’s management of the pandemic is the subject of much criticism in a parliamentary inquiry.

Adding that some legal actions may have results, she believes it is unlikely they will be enough to force a suspension.

“The problem we have in Brazil now is we have no control,” Machado said. “Legal and technical opinions, things that have been studied for generations and are evidence-based, are not being used to make important decisions. I understand that football to Brazil is a very important business, but I don’t see how this is a smart move from any perspective, even economically.

“Excuse the expression but what’s the goal here?”

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The scrappy Hong Kong tabloid that refused to bow to Beijing | Freedom of the Press News




Hong Kong, China – The last edition of the Apple Daily, the small scrappy Hong Kong tabloid that emerged as a champion of democracy and outspoken critic of China, has rolled off the presses, four days after the newspaper celebrated its 26th anniversary.

The paper had been raided by police twice during the past 10 months on suspicion of violating the National Security Law that was imposed by Beijing almost a year ago. Since the first raid last August, founder Jimmy Lai, 73, has been in jail awaiting trial under the law.

Last week’s raid saw five top executives, including its chief editor, arrested for alleged security offences as 500 police officers swooped in on Apple’s headquarters, with another staffer – the head editorial writer – apprehended on Wednesday morning.

The final nail in the coffin, however, was Hong Kong authorities’ freeze on the bank accounts of the media group that owns the paper. The move made it impossible for the paper to pay its staff and vendors, even as readers snapped up copies to show their support.

The decision was based on “employee safety and manpower considerations”, Apple Daily said as it announced its closure on Wednesday.
“Here we say goodbye. Take care of yourselves.”

Staff members of Apple Daily and its publisher Next Digital clap out the final edition of a paper that began publishing in 1995 and became a thorn in Beijing’s side [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework meant to guarantee rights and liberties absent in the mainland. For most of the past 20 years, the territory has remained a bastion of press freedom in a country where media is muzzled.

“The demise of Apple Daily negates ‘one country, two systems’ and sets the stage for ‘one country, one system,’” said Willy Lam, a longtime commentator on Chinese politics and a veteran newspaper editor.

Bold, brash

Founded just two years before the handover, Apple Daily was at once a gamble and a leap of faith.

“The paper wanted to have some impact not just on Hong Kong but also to support the liberalisation of China,” Lam told Al Jazeera. “But as China has become less open to Western values, the paper has focused on defending Hong Kong values and holding Beijing to account.”

In its inaugural editorial, Apple Daily said it aimed to be a paper for the Hong Kong people.

Lai, its founder and funder, a devout Catholic who had made a fortune in the fashion business, named the paper after the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Its rhyming couplet jingle – “An Apple a day, no liars can hold sway” – caught the attention of Hong Kong readers used to more staid offerings.

It was loud. It was bold, It was flashy.

The paper grabbed attention when it splashed a surreptitiously shot photo of Deng Xiaoping – China’s then-paramount leader died in February at the age of 92 – on his deathbed on the front page.

Brashness was its selling point.

Its reporters frequently skewered public officials and needled the comfortable.

“It speaks truth to power and finds a way to do profitably,” said Lokman Tsui, assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Jimmy Lai, standing by one of the printing presses in 2009, created a hugely popular paper that supported democracy, was unafraid to speak truth to power and critical of the Communist Party in Beijing [File: Alex Hofford/EPA]
Apple Daily’s founder and funder, Jimmy Lai, was arrested in August under the national security law and the paper’s headquarters raided. He has now been jailed [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

The paper catered to high brow and low. Colourful spreads of scantily-clad female models appeared in the same section of the paper as erudite columns featuring quotes in Latin and Classical Chinese. With a couple of exceptions, its ranks of columnists were the who’s who of the territory’s pro-democracy circle.

Giving people what they want

Launched at the dawn of the internet age, the daily was quick to adapt to the digital world. Its website pioneered animated news – a mix of stills, short clips and clever graphics with narration dripping with sour sarcasm. Its lifestyle channel on YouTube built a fervent following.

A decade in, the paper’s circulation peaked at 500,000 in a city of approximately six million people with a dozen dailies.

Apple Daily’s brand of advocacy journalism would soon make the paper a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party. But to Lai, a rags-to-riches maverick millionaire now named Public Enemy No. 1 by Beijing, it was all about giving his customers what they would buy, even down to protest poster inserts.

In the summer of 2019, amid popular opposition to legislation that would send Hong Kong residents for trial in mainland China, the paper shorthanded “extradition to China” into the homophonic colloquial Cantonese expression of seeing someone to the grave. The expression immediately caught on and became a rallying cry in the protest movement.

“At times, we might have gone overboard but everything we did fell within the bounds of the law,” said Robert Chan, 45, who has covered mainland China for the paper for the past three years.

That is until the passage of the security law, which punishes what the authorities deem subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life sentences.

Prosecutors have used Lai’s frequent meetings with US officials in recent years, from the then-vice president on down, as “evidence” of his alleged “collusion with foreign powers”.

Staff from Apple Daily and its publisher Next Digital work on the final edition of their newspaper on June 23. In its first-ever editorial, the paper said it wanted to be a publication of the Hong Kong people. It printed a million copies of its final edition [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Early last month, rumours started to circulate that Beijing wanted to see the paper be shuttered in time for the Communist Party’s centenary celebrations on July 1.

Technology reporter for a decade, Alex Tang, 37, said like most of his colleagues he had become conditioned to taking unsubstantiated gossip with a grain of salt – until the second raid and the company asset freeze.

During the past few days, some of the 800 reporters at the paper were frustrated by the lack of a definitive answer on the last publishing date and severance.

“Management said they’d hang on till the bitter end, and they’ve kept their word,” said Tang. “The company has done its best.”

Apple Daily will live on as a website on the self-governing island of Taiwan, where it ceased paper publication last month.

But in Hong Kong, China news reporter Chan said he will mourn the loss of far more than his livelihood.

“With the paper gone, so would the values it represents: pursuit of freedom and democracy,” he said.

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‘Real and present danger’: Sydney imposes new COVID curbs | Coronavirus pandemic News




Restrictions cover an estimated five million people after Delta variant-linked cases, as neighbouring New Zealand raises alert level.

People in Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, have been ordered not to leave the metropolitan area, as authorities scramble to contain a number of new coronavirus cases of the Delta variant – a development that has prompted neighbouring New Zealand to raise its alert level following possible exposure from a tourist from Australia.

New South Wales (NSW) State Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the stricter curbs – affecting about five million people who live and work in the city – on Wednesday.

“Clearly this is an evolving situation,” Berejiklian said at a news conference.

The new rules took effect at 4pm Sydney time (06:00 GMT) and will remain in force for a week.

“Given what has occurred the NSW government will be taking action today to limit the spread of what is a very contagious variant of COVID.”

NSW health minister Brad Hazzard described the situation as “a very real and present danger” for the city as a cluster first identified in the beach surburb of Bondi grew to 21 cases with eight confirmed on Wednesday morning.

Most of the newly confirmed cases were traced to a single event, where a mass gathering was held on Tuesday.

“This is a new and more dangerous version of the virus,” Hazzard said during the news conference.

The new restrictions include a limit on household visitors to five people, including children, Berejiklian said.

Mask wearing, which had already been reinstated on Friday, will be extended with people required to wear masks in all indoor settings outside the home and at organised outdoor events. The measures also include capacity limits on public transport and in gym classes, while singing at indoor venues, including places of worship, will not be allowed.

Authorities are also urging people to come forward for testing.

“If we adhere to the health orders today, we will have a good chance on getting on top of this outbreak,” Berejiklian told reporters.

New Zealand on alert


As of Wednesday, Australia had recorded more than 30,300 cases and 910 deaths.

The country has been among the world’s most successful in containing the pandemic, allowing it to reopen its border to New Zealand.

But the new cases are testing the travel bubble between the neighbours.

On Wednesday, New Zealand raised its pandemic alert level in Wellington to level two, which is one level short of a lockdown.

Earlier, an Australian tourist who visited the capital city over the weekend tested positive for COVID when they returned to Sydney.

“These are precautionary measures which will remain in place while we contact trace and test all of those we need to,” New Zealand’s COVID response minister Chris Hipkins said.

Under the elevated alert level, offices, schools and businesses are still allowed to open, but people are required to follow social distancing rules.

Gatherings of more than 100 people are banned, including weddings and other parties.

New Zealand has a population of five million people, and has recorded a total of 2,720 cases and 26 deaths. The country has posted a 98.2 percent recovery rate.

In Australia itself, Queensland and Victoria have both closed their borders to people from many parts of Sydney as a result of the new cases.

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River Nile dam: Egypt new African allies




Recent years have seen a dramatic re-engagement with Africa, especially the Nile Basin countries.

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