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Blinken in Latvia for NATO Security Talks

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Latvia Tuesday for talks with the country’s leaders and a NATO ministerial meeting as the alliance expresses concern about Russia’s military buildup along the border with Ukraine.

Blinken’s schedule in Riga includes sessions with Latvian President Egils Levits, Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics. He is also due to meet with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the ministerial talks later in the day.

Levits told reporters after his own talks with Stoltenberg on Monday that Russia’s military presence represents direct pressure on Ukraine, and that NATO “will remain in solidarity with Ukraine.”

Stoltenberg called on Russia to reduce tensions in the region, saying the military buildup is “unprovoked and unexplained.”

“Any future Russian aggression against Ukraine would come at a high price and have serious political and economic consequences for Russia,” Stoltenberg said.

A main focus of work at the NATO ministerial meeting is updating what the group calls its Strategic Concept, which was last changed a decade ago.

Stoltenberg said it is important to revisit the strategic document given the changed nature of the threats NATO faces, what he called a “more dangerous world.”

“We see the behavior of Russia, we see cyber, we see terrorist threats, we see proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Stoltenberg said. “And we see the security consequences of China which is now becoming more and more a global power.”

The talks in Riga also come as NATO members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland deal with a border crisis with neighboring Belarus.

The European Union accuses Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of enticing thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, to travel to Belarus and try to cross into Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in order to destabilize the European Union. The EU says Lukashenko is retaliating for sanctions it imposed against his government.

Blinken is scheduled to travel Wednesday to Sweden to meet with fellow ministers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and to discuss bilateral ties with Swedish officials.

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Turkey’s Economic Turmoil Threatens to Stoke Refugee Tensions

Last week’s 10% drop in the value of the Turkish currency plunged it to historic lows, threatening an economic crisis. The Turkish lira has dropped 45 percent this year, prompting concerns that economic turmoil could further raise tensions over the presence of millions of refugees. For VOA, Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

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New Twitter CEO Steps From Behind the Scenes to High Profile 

Newly named Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal has emerged from behind the scenes to take over one of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile and politically volatile jobs. 

But his prior lack of name recognition, coupled with a solid technical background, appears to be what some big company backers were looking for to lead Twitter out of its current morass. 

A 37-year-old immigrant from India, Agrawal comes from outside the ranks of celebrity CEOs, which include the man he’s replacing, Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or SpaceX and Tesla’s Elon Musk. Those brand-name company founders and leaders have often been in the news — and on Twitter — for exploits beyond the day-to-day running of their companies.

Having served as Twitter’s chief technology officer for the past four years, Agrawal’s appointment was seen by Wall Street as a choice of someone who will focus on ushering Twitter into what’s widely seen as the internet’s next era — the metaverse. 

Agrawal is a “‘safe’ pick who should be looked upon as favorably by investors,” wrote CFRA Research analyst Angelo Zino, who noted that Twitter shareholder Elliott Management Corp. had pressured Dorsey to step down. 

Elliott released a statement Monday saying Agrawal and new board chairman Bret Taylor were the “right leaders for Twitter at this pivotal moment for the company.” Taylor is president and chief operating officer of the business software company Salesforce. 

Agrawal joins a growing cadre of Indian American CEOs of large tech companies, including Sundar Pichai of Google parent Alphabet, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and IBM’s Arvind Krishna. 

He joined San Francisco-based Twitter in 2011, when it had just 1,000 employees, and has been its chief technical officer since 2017. At the end of last year, the company had a workforce of 5,500. 

Agrawal previously worked at Microsoft, Yahoo and AT&T in research roles. At Twitter, he’s worked on machine learning, revenue and consumer engineering and helping with audience growth. He studied at Stanford and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. 

While Twitter has high-profile users like politicians and celebrities and is a favorite of journalists, its user base lags far behind old rivals like Facebook and YouTube and newer ones like TikTok. It has just over 200 million daily active users, a common industry metric.

As CEO, Agrawal will have to step beyond the technical details and deal with the social and political issues Twitter and social media are struggling with. Those include misinformation, abuse and effects on mental health. 

Agrawal got a fast introduction to life as CEO of a high-profile company that’s one of the central platforms for political speech online. Conservatives quickly unearthed a tweet he sent in 2010 that read “If they are not gonna make a distinction between muslims and extremists, then why should I distinguish between white people and racists.”

As some Twitter users pointed out, the 11-year-old tweet was quoting a segment on “The Daily Show,” which was referencing the firing of Juan Williams, who made a comment about being nervous about Muslims on an airplane.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a message for comment on the tweet. 

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Twitter Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey Steps Down

Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey is stepping down as the company’s leader.  

In a news release, Twitter said Dorsey would be replaced by Parag Agrawal, who has been the company’s chief technology officer since 2017. The move is effective immediately.  

“I’ve decided to leave Twitter because I believe the company is ready to move on from its founders. My trust in Parag as Twitter’s CEO is deep. His work over the past 10 years has been transformational. I’m deeply grateful for his skill, heart, and soul. It’s his time to lead,” Dorsey said in a statement.

Dorsey made his resignation official in a tweet Monday and attached a letter with an explanation of why he was leaving.  

“not sure anyone has heard but, I resigned from Twitter,” he wrote.

On Sunday, Dorsey tweeted “I love twitter.”

Dorsey, 45, founded the microblogging platform in 2006 and was CEO until 2008 when he was pushed aside only to return to the top spot in 2015.  

Last year, Elliott Management, a major stakeholder in the company, wanted Dorsey to choose between being CEO of Twitter or CEO of Square, a digital payment company he founded.  

Twitter’s stock rose on the news, but trading of the shares was suspended.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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Belarus Migrant Crisis Divides Polish Society

Thousands of migrants continue to wait in Belarus to enter the European Union through Poland, a crisis in the central European country that has sharply divided its society between those who want to assist migrants and those who refuse to open their borders. Elizabeth Cherneff narrates this report from Ricardo Marquina in Warsaw.

Camera: Ricardo Marquina

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Israeli Court: 6-Year-Old Cable Car Crash Survivor to Return to Italy

Israel’s Supreme Court on Monday upheld lower court rulings in the bitter custody battle surrounding a 6-year-old boy who survived a cable car crash in Italy, saying he should be returned to his relatives there within two weeks. 

Eitan Biran has been the focus of a legal battle between his paternal relatives in Italy and his maternal family in Israel since surviving the May 23 cable car crash, which killed 14 people, including his parents and younger brother.

Eitan and his parents were living in Italy at the time of the accident. After his release from a Turin hospital following weeks of treatment, Italian juvenile court officials ruled the child would live with a paternal aunt, Aya Biran, near Pavia, in northern Italy. 

His maternal grandfather, Shmulik Peleg, then spirited him away without the knowledge of the relatives in Italy, taking him across the border into Switzerland by car and then flying him to Israel on a private jet. Peleg has said he acted in the child’s best interest. 

The Peleg family said it would continue to fight “in every legal way” to return the child to Israel. It was not immediately clear what legal options were available following the Supreme Court ruling. 

Earlier this month, an Italian judge issued an arrest warrant for Gabriel Abutbul Alon, who is accused of having driven the car on September 11 that spirited Eitan from his home near Pavia to Switzerland. Alon was arrested in Cyprus last week. 

Peleg was also named in the arrest warrant. 

The boy’s family in Italy said they were happy with the Supreme Court decision, calling it “just and awaited.”

“We can only be happy with the end of this case, which represents a victory for the law and justice,” they said in a statement. Eitan is expected to arrive December 12 in Italy, “where he is awaited with joy.” 

 

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In French Pantheon, Josephine Baker Makes History Yet Again

France is inducting Josephine Baker — Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French World War II spy and civil rights activist — into its Pantheon, the first Black woman honored in the final resting place of France’s most revered luminaries.

On Tuesday, a coffin carrying soils from the U.S., France and Monaco — places where Baker made her mark — will be deposited inside the domed Pantheon monument overlooking the Left Bank of Paris. Her body will stay in Monaco, at the request of her family.

French President Emmanuel Macron decided on her entry into the Pantheon, responding to a petition. In addition to honoring an exceptional figure in French history, the move is meant to send a message against racism and celebrate U.S.-French connections.

“She embodies, before anything, women’s freedom,” Laurent Kupferman, the author of the petition for the move, told The Associated Press.

Baker was born in 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. At 19, having already divorced twice, had relationships with men and women, and started a performing career, she moved to France following a job opportunity.

“She arrives in France in 1925, she’s an emancipated woman, taking her life in her hands, in a country of which she doesn’t even speak the language,” Kupferman said. 

She met immediate success on the Theatre des Champs-Elysees stage, where she appeared topless and wearing a famed banana belt. Her show, embodying the colonial time’s racist stereotypes about African women, caused both condemnation and celebration.

“She was that kind of fantasy: not the Black body of an American woman but of an African woman,” Theatre des Champs-Elysees spokesperson Ophélie Lachaux told the AP. “And that’s why they asked Josephine to dance something ‘tribal,’ ‘savage,’ ‘African’-like.” 

Baker’s career took a more serious turn after that, as she learned to speak five languages and toured internationally. She became a French citizen after her marriage in 1937 to industrialist Jean Lion, a Jewish man who later suffered from anti-Semitic laws of the collaborationist Vichy regime.

In September 1939, as France and Britain declared war against Nazi Germany, Baker got in touch with the head of the French counterintelligence services. She started working as an informant, traveling, getting close to officials and sharing information hidden on her music sheets, according to French military archives.

Researcher and historian Géraud Létang said Baker lived “a double life between, on the one side, the music hall artist, and on the other side, another secret life, later becoming completely illegal, of intelligence agent.” 

After France’s defeat in June 1940, she refused to play for the Nazis who occupied Paris and moved to southwestern France. She continued to work for the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as a cover for her spying activities.

That year, she notably brought into her troupe several spies working for the Allies, allowing them to travel to Spain and Portugal. “She risks the death penalty or, at least, the harsh repression of the Vichy regime or of the Nazi occupant,” Letang said.

The next year, seriously ill, Baker left France for North Africa, where she gathered intelligence for Gen. Charles De Gaulle, including spying on the British and the Americans — who didn’t fully trust him and didn’t share all information.

She also raised funds, including from her personal money. It is estimated she brought the equivalent of 10 million euros ($11.2 million) to support the French Resistance. 

In 1944, Baker joined a female group in the Air Force of the French Liberation Army as a second lieutenant. The group’s logbook notably mentions a 1944 incident off the coast of Corsica, when Senegalese soldiers from colonial troops fighting in the French Liberation Army helped Baker out of the sea. After her plane had to make an emergency landing, they brought “the shipwrecked to the shores, on their large shoulders, Josephine Baker in the front,” the logbook writes. 

Baker also organized concerts for soldiers and civilians near combat zones. After the defeat of the Nazis, she went to Germany to sing for former prisoners and deportees freed from the camps. 

“Baker’s involvement in politics was individual and atypical,” said Benetta Jules-Rosette, a leading scholar on Baker’s life and a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego. 

After the war, Baker got involved in anti-racist politics. She fought against American segregation during a 1951 performance tour of the U.S., causing her to be targeted by the FBI, labeled a communist and banned from her homeland for a decade. The ban was lifted by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and she returned to be the only woman to speak at the March on Washington, before Martin Luther King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.

Back in France, she adopted 12 children from all over the world, creating a “rainbow tribe” to embody her ideal of “universal fraternity.” She purchased a castle and land in the southwestern French town of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, where she tried to build a city embodying her values.

“My mother saw the success of the rainbow tribe, because when we caused trouble as kids, she would never know who had done it because we never ratted on each other, risking collective punishment,” one of Baker’s sons, Brian Bouillon Baker, told the AP. “I heard her say to some friends ‘I’m mad to never know who causes trouble, but I’m happy and proud that my kids stand united.’”

Toward the end of her life, she ran into financial trouble, was evicted and lost her properties. She received support from Princess Grace of Monaco, who offered Baker a place for her and her children to live.

She rebuilt her career but in 1975, four days after the triumphant opening of a comeback tour, she fell into a coma and passed away from a brain hemorrhage. She was buried in Monaco.

While Baker is widely appreciated in France, some critics of Macron question why he chose an American-born figure as the first Black woman in the Pantheon, instead of someone who rose up against racism and colonialism in France itself. 

The Pantheon, built at the end of the 18th century, honors 72 men and five women, including Baker. She joins two other Black figures in the mausoleum: Gaullist resister Felix Eboué and famed writer Alexandre Dumas.

“These are people who have committed themselves, especially to others,” Pantheon administrator David Medec told the AP. “It is not only excellence in a field of competence, it is really the question of commitment, commitment to others.”

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Russia Says Latest Zircon Hypersonic Missile Test Successful

Russia said Monday it had carried out another successful test of its Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, as world powers race to develop the advanced weaponry.

Russia, the United States, France and China have all been experimenting with so-called hypersonic glide vehicles — defined as reaching speeds of at least Mach 5.

As part of “the completion of tests” of Russia’s hypersonic missile weapons, the Admiral Gorshkov warship launched a Zircon missile at a target in the Barents Sea at a range of 400 kilometers, the defense ministry said.

“The target was hit,” the ministry said, describing the test as successful.

The missile has undergone several recent tests, with Russia planning to equip both warships and submarines with the Zircon.

Putin revealed the development of the new weapon in a state of the nation address in February 2019, saying it could hit targets at sea and on land with a range of 1,000 kilometers and a speed of Mach 9.

Russia’s latest Zircon test came after Western reports that a Chinese hypersonic glider test flight in July culminated in the mid-flight firing of a missile at more than five times the speed of sound over the South China Sea.

Up until the test, none of the top powers had displayed comparable mastery of a mid-flight missile launch.

China denied the report, saying it was a routine test of a reusable space vehicle.

Russia has boasted of developing several weapons that circumvent existing defense systems, including the Sarmat intercontinental missiles and Burevestnik cruise missiles.

Western experts have linked a deadly blast at a test site in northern Russia in 2019 — which caused a sharp spike in local radiation levels — to the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile.

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Taiwan, Europe Must Defend Democracy Together, President Says

Taiwan and Europe must work together to defend against authoritarianism and disinformation, President Tsai Ing-wen told visiting lawmakers from the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Monday.

Lithuania has faced sustained pressure from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, since allowing the opening of a de facto Taiwanese embassy in its capital.

Beijing has ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taipei to accept Chinese sovereignty claims and to limit its international participation, though Tsai says Taiwan will not bow to threats and will defend its freedom and democracy.

Tsai told the lawmakers at the Presidential Office that Taiwan and the Baltic nations – once part of the Soviet Union – share similar experiences of breaking free from authoritarian rule and of fighting for freedom.

“The democracy we enjoy today was hard earned. This is something we all understand most profoundly,” she said.

“Now the world faces challenges posed by the expansion of authoritarianism and threat of disinformation. Taiwan is more than willing to share its experience at combating disinformation with its European friends. We must safeguard our shared values to ensure our free and democratic way of life.”

Matas Maldeikis, leader of the Lithuanian parliament’s Taiwan Friendship Group, told Tsai in response their group was in Taipei to express their solidarity with the island.

“Lithuanian government policy towards Taiwan has wide support in our society.

Preserving freedom and the rules-based international order is in the vital interests for both Taiwan and Lithuania,” he said.

There is much opportunity for economic and cultural cooperation, added Maldeikis, whose trip has been condemned by China.

No European Union member state has official ties with Taiwan.

The United States has strongly backed its NATO ally Lithuania in its spat with China.

Lithuania faces problems too with pressure from Russia and Belarus, with migrants on its border with Belarus.

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Talks on Iran Nuclear Deal Resuming in Vienna

Talks about reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resume Monday in Vienna after a five-month break and for the first time since a new president took office in Iran.

Like six previous rounds of negotiations, which began in April, the United States is participating indirectly, similar to the 2015 deal, which was known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran will talk directly with the remaining signatories of the 2015 deal — Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany — with European diplomats shuttling back and forth to consult with the U.S. side. 

At stake is the resumption of the agreement that brought limits to Iran’s nuclear program lasting between 10 and 15 years in exchange for sanctions relief.

The United States withdrew from the agreement in 2018 during the administration of President Donald Trump, after which Iran began stepping away from its commitments.

To date, Iran has exceeded its agreed limits on the amount of uranium it stockpiles, enriched uranium to higher levels and utilized more advanced centrifuges in its nuclear facilities.

The original agreement came in response to fears that Iran was working to develop nuclear weapons, which Iran has denied, saying its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes such as research and generating power.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Louis Vuitton Star Designer Virgil Abloh Dies After Battle With Cancer

Virgil Abloh, fashion’s highest profile Black designer and the creative mind behind Louis Vuitton’s menswear collections, died on Sunday of cancer, Vuitton’s owner LVMH said.

The French luxury goods giant said Abloh, 41, had been battling cancer privately for years.

“Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,” LVMH’s billionaire boss Bernard Arnault said in a statement.

Abloh, a U.S. national who also worked as a DJ and visual artist, had been men’s artistic director for Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury brand, since March 2018.

His arrival at LVMH marked the marriage between streetwear and high-end fashion, mixing sneakers and camouflage pants with tailored suits and evening gowns. His influences included graffiti art, hip hop and skateboard culture.

The style was embraced by the group as it sought to breathe new life into some labels and attract younger customers.

In July this year, LVMH expanded his role, giving him a mandate to launch new brands and partner with existing ones in a variety of sectors beyond fashion.

LVMH also bought a 60% stake in Abloh’s Off-White label, which it folded into the spirits-to-jewelry conglomerate.

“For over two years, Virgil valiantly battled a rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma,” a message posted to his Instagram said. “He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019, undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art, and culture.”

Abloh drew on messages of inclusivity and gender-fluidity to expand the Louis Vuitton label’s popularity, weaving themes of racial identity into his fashion shows with poetry performances and art installations.

With an eye to reaching Asian consumers grounded by the coronavirus pandemic, the designer sent his collections of colorful suits and utilitarian-flavored outerwear off to Shanghai last summer, when many labels canceled fashion shows.

“Virgil Abloh was the essence of modern creativity,” said an Instagram post by Alexandre Arnault, one of Bernard Arnault’s sons and executive vice president for product and communications at U.S. jeweler Tiffany, which LVMH bought this year.

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Katrin Jakobsdottir, Iceland’s Staunch Feminist PM, Begins Second Term

Katrin Jakobsdottir, a popular and fervent feminist who has become a unifying force after years of political upheaval, on Sunday kicked off her second term as prime minister of Iceland.

The country’s three coalition parties agreed that the 45-year-old former journalist would remain premier, a post she has held since 2017, despite her Left-Green Movement’s weak showing in September’s legislative election.

That mere fact illustrates Jakobsdottir’s pivotal role in the unusually broad coalition, made up of her Left-Greens, the conservative Independence Party and the center-right Progressive Party.

The unlikely alliance has been hard for some in her party to accept.

“I know I’ve been criticized for it, but when I look back, I think this government has done a good job and I think it has really shown what is possible in politics,” she told AFP in a recent interview.

Jakobsdottir has won over Icelanders with her integrity, sincerity and consensual management style.

Almost 60% said they wanted her to stay on as prime minister, in a poll published in October, even though her party won only 12.6% of votes at the ballot box.

A former education minister, from 2009 to 2013, she has remained down-to-Earth and avoided scandal during her years in power, earning the people’s trust, according to analysts.

“Katrin Jakobsdottir is a very skilled politician (who) has more of a consensus style than confrontational style,” notes University of Iceland political science professor Olafur Hardarson.

This is only the second time since 2008 that a government made it to the end of its four-year mandate on the sprawling island of 370,000 people.

Deep public distrust of politicians amid repeated scandals sent Icelanders to the polls five times from 2007 to 2017.

However, holding onto power has come at a high price, with Jakobsdottir forced to make concessions on key issues like immigration and the environment during her first term.

She had to back down from a promise to create a national park in the center of the country, to protest a natural national treasure, after her two allies refused to support the legislation.

Born into a family of academics and lawmakers, Jakobsdottir is the second woman to head Iceland’s government.

Her concern for the environment was awakened in the 2000s by a controversial project to build a hydroelectric dam in eastern Iceland.

“I wouldn’t say I was the most radical activist in town, but, yes, I began my political participation through demonstrations,” she told U.S. magazine The Nation in 2018.

She joined the youth wing of the Left Green Movement in 2002, before becoming deputy leader a year later. She has been the head of the party since 2013.

The slender, athletic politician has been a member of parliament for 14 years.

A huge football fan, she has rooted for Liverpool FC since she was a child.

That makes for a sometimes-tense atmosphere in her Reykjavik apartment, where her husband and three sons are all Manchester United supporters.

“I clearly didn’t raise my children well enough,” she joked on a radio show earlier this year, blaming her husband who has spent more time with their children due to her hectic schedule.

In a country that champions gender equality, she has made women’s causes a priority. Among other things, she has extended parental leave.

Her friends are meanwhile quick to point out her funny side. 

“With her sense of humor and jokes she can put a room at ease,” says former party member Rosa Bjork Brynjolfsdottir, who studied with her at university.

With a degree in Icelandic and French studies and a Masters in Icelandic literature, Jakobsdottir is a fan of crime novels and fiction, finding time to read almost every day. 

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Swiss Vote to Approve COVID Restrictions as Infections Rise

Swiss voters on Sunday gave clear backing to legislation that introduced a system with special COVID-19 certificates under which only people who have been vaccinated, recovered or tested negative can attend public events and gatherings.

Final results showed 62% of voters supporting the legislation, which is already in force. The referendum offered a rare bellwether of public opinion on the issue of government policy to fight the spread of coronavirus in Europe, which is currently the global epicenter of the pandemic.

The vote on the country’s “COVID-19 law,” which also has unlocked billions of Swiss francs (dollars) in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic, came as Switzerland — like many other nations in Europe — faces a steep rise in coronavirus cases.

The Swiss federal government, unlike others, hasn’t responded with new restrictions. Analysts said it didn’t want to stir up more opposition to its anti-COVID-19 policies before they faced Sunday’s test at the ballot box — but that if Swiss voters gave a thumbs-up, the government may well ratchet up its anti-COVID efforts.

Of the country’s 26 cantons (states), only two — Schwyz and Appenzell Innerrhoden, both conservative rural regions in eastern Switzerland — voted against the legislation.

Josef Ender, a spokesman for one of the groups that opposed it, told SRF public radio “it was important that the Swiss population could form an opinion on the tightening of the COVID law.” He maintained that “even if there is a ‘yes'” to the legislation, it violates parts of the country’s constitution.

Turnout on Sunday was 65.7%, an unusually high figure in a country that holds referendums several times a year.

On Tuesday, Swiss health authorities warned of a rising “fifth wave” on infections in the rich Alpine country, where vaccination rates are roughly in line with those in hard-hit neighbors Austria and Germany at about two-thirds of the population. Infection rates have soared in recent weeks.

The seven-day average case count in Switzerland shot up to more than 5,200 per day from mid-October to mid-November, a more than five-fold increase. Austria, meanwhile, has imposed a national lockdown to fight the rising infections.

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COVID-Positive Czech President Appoints New PM From Plexiglass Cubicle

Czech President Milos Zeman appointed the leader of a center-right alliance Petr Fiala as prime minister on Sunday in a ceremony he performed from a plexiglass cubicle after testing positive for COVID-19.

Fiala leads a bloc of five center and center-right opposition parties that won an election in October, ousting the incumbent premier Andrej Babis and his allies.

The new government will have to tackle a new wave of coronavirus infections that is threatening to overwhelm hospitals and an energy crisis, after the collapse of a large electricity provider. The coalition has also said it plans to rework the 2022 state budget to reduce a large deficit.

“The new government has a very complicated time ahead and many challenges… I want it to be a government of change for the future,” Fiala said at a news conference.

He expected his cabinet to be appointed in mid-December.

The new prime minister also called on people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and praised medical staff as cases are on the rise.

Opponents of vaccination and government’s anti-coronavirus measures such as a ban on Christmas markets gathered in their thousands in Prague later on Sunday for a protest rally.

Only 58.5% of Czechs are vaccinated against the coronavirus. This compares to a European Union average of 65.8%, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Zeman performed the inauguration ceremony from a plexiglass cubicle after testing positive for coronavirus. Zeman, who arrived in a wheelchair escorted by a medic in full protective gear, contracted the virus after a six-week stay in hospital for an unrelated illness.

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Australian Government Vows to Unmask Online Trolls

Australia’s government said Sunday it will introduce legislation to unmask online trolls and hold social media giants like Facebook and Twitter responsible for identifying them.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose conservative coalition government faces an election in the first half of 2022, said the law would protect Australians from online abuse and harassment.

“The online world should not be a wild west where bots and bigots and trolls and others can just anonymously go around and harm people and hurt people, harass them and bully them and sledge them,” Morrison told reporters.

“That is not what can happen in the real world, and there is no case for it to be able to be happening in the digital world.”

Attorney General Michaelia Cash said the legislation, reportedly to be introduced to parliament by early 2022, is needed to clarify that the social media platforms, and not the users, were responsible for defamatory comments by other people.

Confusion had been sown by a High Court ruling in September that found Australian media, as users managing their own pages on a social network, could be held liable for defamatory third-party comments posted on their pages, Cash said.

Under the planned Australian legislation, the social media companies themselves would be responsible for such defamatory content, not the users, she said.

It would also aim to stop people making defamatory comments without being identified, she said.

“You should not be able to use the cloak of online anonymity to spread your vile, defamatory comments,” the attorney general said.

The legislation would demand that social media platforms have a nominated entity based in Australia, she said.

The platforms could defend themselves from being sued as the publisher of defamatory comment only if they complied with the new legislation’s demands to have a complaints system in place that could provide the details of the person making the comment, if necessary, Cash said.

People would also be able to apply to the High Court for an “information disclosure order” demanding a social media service provide details “to unmask the troll,” the attorney general said.

In some cases, she said, the “troll” may be asked to take down the comment, which could end the matter if the other side is satisfied.

Australia’s opposition leader Anthony Albanese said he would support a safer online environment for everyone.

But he said the government had failed to propose action to stop the spread of misinformation on social media and accused some of the government’s own members of spreading misinformation about COVID and vaccinations.

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Britain Snubbed as France Hosts Channel Migration Talks

France hosts a meeting of European ministers on Sunday to discuss ways to stop migrants crossing the Channel in dinghies, but without Britain, which has been excluded following a row last week.

Ministers responsible for immigration from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium will meet in the northern French port of Calais on Sunday afternoon to discuss how to tackle people-smuggling gangs that provide boats to migrants seeking to cross the narrow waterway.

The talks were called following the shocking deaths of 27 people last Wednesday as they attempted to cross from France to England in a dinghy that began losing air while at sea in cold winter temperatures.

The aim of the meeting is “improving operational cooperation in the fight against people-smuggling because these are international networks which operate in different European countries,” an aide to French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told AFP.

The main focus had been set to be talks between Darmanin and his British counterpart Priti Patel after both countries vowed in the immediate aftermath of the mass drownings to cooperate more.

But within 48 hours of the accident, French President Emmanuel Macron had accused British Prime Minister Boris Johnson of being “not serious” in unusually personal criticism that pushed relations to fresh lows.

France was irked by Johnson’s initial reaction, which was seen as deflecting blame onto France, and then by his decision to write a letter to Macron which he published in full on his Twitter account before the French leader had received it.

Patel’s invitation to Sunday’s talks was promptly withdrawn over the breach of diplomatic protocol, with an aide to Darmanin calling Johnson’s letter “unacceptable.”

Britain’s departure from the European Union has caused years of ill-will between Paris and London, with relations seen as at their lowest point in at least two decades.

Cross-border crime

Without the participation of Britain — the destination country for the thousands of migrants massed in northern France — there are limits to what can be achieved at the meeting.

The invitation to France’s other northern neighbors reflects concern about how people-smuggling gangs are able to use Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as bases to organize their operations.

Representatives from the European Commission, as well as the EU’s border force Frontex and police agency Europol will also attend.

Many migrants are believed to travel to launch sites in northern France from Belgium, while inflatables and life jackets can be bought in other countries such as the Netherlands and Germany without raising suspicion.

One of the five men arrested in connection with the accident last Wednesday was driving a car with German registration, according to French officials.

Solutions?

While France and Britain agree on the need to tackle people-smugglers more effectively, they remain at odds over how to prevent people taking to the water.

In his public letter to Macron, Johnson again pressed for British police and border agents to patrol alongside their French counterparts along the coast — something rejected in the past as infringing on French sovereignty.

More controversially, he also proposed sending back all migrants who land in England, which he claimed would save “thousands of lives by fundamentally breaking the business model of the criminal gangs.”

“Those are exactly the kinds of things we need to do,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News on Sunday, while denying that Johnson had made a mistake by publishing his letter to Macron.

“Our policy is very clear: these boats must stop. We can’t just do it on our own. We do need the cooperation of the French,” he added.

The European Commission’s vice president on Saturday bluntly told Britain it needed to sort out its own problems after its decision to leave the EU following a 2016 referendum.

“I recall well the main slogan of the referendum campaign is ‘we take back control’,” Margaritis Schinas told reporters during a trip to Greece.

France, which received 80,000 asylum requests in 2020 compared with 27,000 in the UK, has suggested Britain should enable migrants to lodge their demands in northern France.

Activist groups have also called for safe routes for asylum seekers to arrive in Britain.

Investigations into last week’s accident continue, with French police giving no details officially about the circumstances or the identities of the victims.

A total of 17 men, seven women and three minors died, with migrants living along the coast telling AFP that the deceased were mostly Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans.

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As Europe’s Teleworking Laws Evolve, Portugal’s Meets Skepticism

Portugal’s new law on working from home makes the European Union country sound like a workers’ paradise.

Companies can’t attempt to contact their staff outside working hours. They must help staff pay for their home gas, electric and internet bills. Bosses are forbidden from using digital software to track what their teleworkers are doing.

There’s just one problem: The law might not work. Critics say the new rules are half-baked, short on detail and unfeasible. And they may backfire by making companies reluctant to allow working from home at all.

In many places around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a trend toward the digitalization of work and more flexible work arrangements. Amid such a sudden and massive shift in the employment landscape, governments are scrambling to accommodate working from home in their employment laws. Those efforts are largely still in their infancy.

Many Europeans stopped going into the office regularly in March 2020 to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

In Europe, unlike in the United States, worker protections are widely regarded as entitlements. Laying off a staff member, for instance, can entail substantial severance pay.

Without a promised European Commission directive on how to legally frame the shift to more extensive working from home, governments’ legislative responses have been patchy and piecemeal.

During the pandemic some countries have recommended teleworking. Others — like Portugal — have demanded it. Most EU countries have specific legislation on teleworking, though with different approaches, and others are considering it through amendments, extensions or conventions.

As home working grew in recent years, workers’ right to disconnect — allowing staff to ignore work matters outside formal working hours — was adopted before the pandemic in countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium. It is now becoming the standard.

But Portugal is putting the onus on companies.

“The employer has a duty to refrain from contacting the employee outside working hours, except in situations of force majeure,” meaning an unanticipated or uncontrollable event, the new law says.

Also, parents or caregivers with children up to 8 years old have the right to work from home if they choose, as long as the type of work they do is compatible with teleworking.

Fines for companies breaking the law go up to almost 10,000 euros ($11,200) for each infringement.

The Portuguese rules are meant to address the downside of what has become known as WFH.

The technology that enables working from home has also opened the door to abuses, such as drawn-out workdays as staff remain reachable outside their normal eight-hour shift. The consequences may include attrition between work and private life and a sense of isolation.

 

But the new law has met with skepticism from those it is intended to protect.

Andreia Sampaio, 37, works in communications in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. She agrees with the law’s purpose but thinks it is too general and will be very hard to enforce.

“We have to have common sense,” she said, adding that she doesn’t mind being contacted out of hours if it’s an urgent matter. “We have to judge each case by its merits.”

Prompted by the pandemic but designed to apply in the post-pandemic future, the law could come into force as soon as Dec. 1.

It is largely the brainchild of the center-left Socialist Party, which has governed Portugal since 2015. Ahead of an election for a new government on Jan. 30, it is keen to burnish its progressive credentials and hoist a banner about workers’ rights.

Nevertheless, practical questions abound: Must staff be taken off company email lists when their shift finishes and then put back on when they start work again? What about Europeans who work in financial markets and need to know what’s going on in, say, Hong Kong, and have colleagues working in different time zones?

What if an industrial machine that can’t be stopped requires the attention of an engineer who’s off? Who is it that can’t contact the employee — the department supervisor? The company CEO? What constitutes contact — a phone call, a text message, an email?

“The devil is always in the details … but also in the implementation,” said Jon Messenger, a specialist on working conditions at the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency based in Geneva.

The Portuguese Business Confederation, the country’s largest grouping of companies, wasn’t involved in drawing up the new law and thinks it is full of holes.

Teleworking rules need to be flexible, tailored to each sector and negotiated between employers and staff, says Luís Henrique of the confederation’s legal department.

“We’re treating situations that are completely different as if they were all the same. That’s not realistic,” Henrique said. “(The law) can’t be one-size-fits-all.”

Policing and enforcing the new rules may also be challenging in what is one of the EU’s economically poorest countries. In Portugal, which is notorious for red tape and slow justice and poorly resourced public services, how long will it take to resolve a complaint?

Across Europe over the past decade the number of labor inspections has collapsed, according to data analyzed by the Brussels-based European Trade Union Confederation, which represents 45 million members in 39 European countries. 

The country with the biggest drop in the number of inspections since 2010? Portugal, with 55% fewer checks up to 2018. 

“Ambitious, progressive laws … run up against the reality that ways of policing them aren’t in place yet,” said Henrique of Portugal’s business confederation. 

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Smugglers Net Millions per Kilometer from Migrants Crossing Channel

The price to cross the English Channel varies according to the network of smugglers, between 3,000 and 7,000 euros ($3,380 and $8,000) though there are rumors of discounts. 

Often, the fee also includes a very short-term tent rental in the windy dunes of northern France and food cooked over fires that sputter in the rain that falls for more than half the month of November in the Calais region. Sometimes, but not always, it includes a life vest and fuel for the outboard motor. 

And the people who collect the money — up to 300,000 euros ($432,000) per boat that makes it across the narrows of the channel — are not the ones arrested in the periodic raids along the coastline. They are just what French police call “the little hands.” 

Now, French authorities are hoping to move up the chain of command. The French judicial investigation into Wednesday’s sinking that killed 27 people has been turned over to Paris-based prosecutors who specialize in organized crime. 

To cross the 33-kilometer (20-mile) Dover Strait, the narrowest point of the channel, the rubber dinghies must navigate frigid waters and passing cargo ships. As of November 17, 23,000 people crossed successfully, according to Britain’s Home Office. France intercepted about 19,000 people.

At a minimum, smuggling organizations this year have netted 69 million euros ($77.7 million) for the crossing, or 2 million euros per kilometer. 

“This has become so profitable for criminals that it’s going to take a phenomenal amount of effort to shift it,” the U.K. Home Office’s Dan O’Mahoney told Parliament on November 17.

Golden age for smugglers 

Between coronavirus and Brexit, “this is a golden age for the smugglers and organized crime because the countries are in disarray,” said Mimi Vu, an expert on Vietnamese migration who regularly spends time in the camps of northern France.

“Think of it like a shipping and logistics company,” Vu said.

The leg through central Europe can cost around 4,000 euros ($4,500), according to Austrian authorities who on Saturday announced the arrest of 15 people suspected of smuggling Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian migrants into the country in vanloads of 12 to 15 people. The suspects transported more than 700 people at a total cost of more than 2.5 million euros ($2.8 million), police said. In this network, the migrants were bound for Germany. 

The alleged smugglers — from Moldova, Ukraine and Uzbekistan — were recruited in their home countries via ads on social media offering work as drivers for 2,000-3,000 euros ($2,250-3,380) a month. 

The men handling the last leg are essentially just making the final delivery. If arrested, they are replaceable, Vu said.

Frontex, the European border agency, echoed that in a 2021 risk report that describes the operational leaders as managers who “are able to orchestrate the criminal business from a distance, while mostly exposing low-level criminals involved in transport and logistics to law enforcement detection.”

The chain starts in the home country, usually with an agreed-upon price, arranged over social media. That fee tends to shift over the journey, but most willingly pay extra as their destination grows closer, she said. That’s precisely when the logistics grow more complicated. 

More channel crossings 

Channel crossings by sea were relatively rare until a few years ago, when French and British authorities locked down the area around the Eurotunnel entrance. The deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in the back of a container truck may also have contributed to a new reluctance to use that route.

But the first attempts were disorganized, using small inflatables and even kayaks bought at the local Decathlon sports store. 

“At the beginning, it’s always the pioneers,” said Nando Sigona, professor of international migration and forced displacement at the University of Birmingham. “But once it started to seem that it was working for a number of people, you could see the bigger players came to be involved.” 

One migrant from Sudan, who would only give his name as Yasir, had been trying for three years to get to the U.K. 

While shaking his head about the tragedy, he pointed out that other methods of smuggling, such as hiding on a truck, were also dangerous.

“You could break a leg,” he said. “You can die.” 

And as dangerous as the sea voyage might prove, it seemed to many migrants to be safer than other options. The only thing preventing it is the cost, which he had heard was 1,200 euros ($1,350).

“We don’t have any money,” Yasir said. “If I had money, I’d go to the boat.” 

Police cracked down on local boat purchases, and the larger inflatables started to show up, hauled by the dozens inside cars and vans with German and Belgian license plates, police said. France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said a car with German license plates was seized in connection with the investigation. 

Police raids on the camps to pull down tents and disrupt operations have given smugglers yet another chance to make money, said Nikolai Posner, of the aid group Utopia 56. Now, the fee includes a short-term tent rental and access to basic food, usually cooked over an open fire. 

“There is one solution to stop all this, the deaths, the smugglers, the camps. Make a humanitarian corridor,” said Posner. He said asylum requests should be easier on both sides of the channel. 

Work in Britain 

In part because of Brexit and coronavirus, expulsions from the U.K. this year dropped to just five people, according to the Home Office. Vu said people who are intercepted at sea or land by British border forces end up in migrant centers, but usually get back in touch with the smuggling networks and end up working black market jobs.

That’s the complaint in France, where the interior minister said British employers appear more than happy to hire under the table, providing yet another financial incentive.

“If they’re in Calais, it’s to get to Britain, and the only people who can guarantee them passage are these networks of smugglers,” said Ludovic Hochart, a Calais-based police officer with the Alliance union. “The motivation to get to England is stronger than the dangers that await.” 

On Sunday ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and EU officials will meet to search for solutions. But, with France and Britain at sharp odds over migration, fishing and how to rebuild a working relationship after Brexit, there is one notable absence: a British delegation. 

For Vu, that’s a missed opportunity: “This is transnational crime. It spans many borders and it’s not up to only one country to solve it.”

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Anti-Government Protesters Block Bridges, Roads in Serbia 

Skirmishes on Saturday erupted in Serbia between police and anti-government demonstrators who blocked roads and bridges in the Balkan country in protest over new laws they say favor interests of foreign investors devastating the environment. 

Hundreds of people on Saturday appeared simultaneously in the capital Belgrade, the northern city of Novi Sad and other locations to block main bridges and roads for one hour in what organizers described as a warning blockade. They pledged further protests if the laws on property expropriation and referendum weren’t withdrawn. 

Police officers blocked the demonstrators from reaching the bridges, which led to skirmishes as police helicopters flew overhead. The protesters then marched around while managing to stop traffic at a key bridge in Belgrade and in various central streets. 

Organizers said a number of people have been detained. Police earlier have warned that any blockade of bridges is illegal.

Environmental concerns

A number of environmental groups and civil society organizations are angry that the authorities have lowered the referendum threshold and allowed for swift expropriation of private property if deemed to be in the public interest. Activists argue this will pave the way for foreign companies to circumvent popular discontent over projects such as the bid by the Rio Tinto company to launch a lithium mine in western Serbia.

Serbia’s authorities have rejected the accusations, saying the new laws are needed because of infrastructure projects. The country’s autocratic president, Aleksandar Vucic, said a referendum will be organized on the Rio Tinto mine. 

Environmental issues recently have drawn public attention as local activists accuse the populist government of allowing for the devastation of nature for profit. Experts have warned that the planned lithium mine in western Serbia would destroy farmland and pollute the waters.

Following decades of neglect, Serbia has faced major environmental problems such as air and water pollution, poor waste management and other issues. Serbia is a candidate nation for European Union entry, but little so far has been achieved with regards to improving the country’s environmental situation.

Show of support

Protesters on Saturday blew whistles during the blockade and chanted “We won’t give up Serbia.” Huge columns of cars and other vehicles formed at several locations as the demonstrators allowed only the emergency services to pass. 

The protest coincided with a convention of Vucic’s populist Serbian Progressive Party as thousands of his supporters were bused into the capital for the gathering that was designed as a show of support for his policies. 

Although formally seeking EU membership, Vucic has refused to align the country’s foreign policies with the 27-nation bloc and has instead strengthened the Balkan country’s alliance with Russia and China. 

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Britain, Germany and Italy Detect Omicron Coronavirus Variant Cases

Britain, Germany and Italy detected cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant Saturday, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new steps to contain the virus, while more nations imposed restrictions on travel from southern Africa.

 

The discovery of the variant has sparked global concern, a wave of travel bans or curbs and a sell-off on financial markets on Friday as investors worried that omicron could stall a global recovery from the nearly two-year pandemic.  

 

The two linked cases of the new variant detected in Britain were connected to travel to southern Africa, British Health Minister Sajid Javid said.

 

Speaking later, Johnson laid out measures that included stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country but that stopped short of curbs on social activity other than requiring mask wearing in some settings.

 

“We will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result,” Johnson told a news conference.

People who had come into contact with people testing positive for a suspected case of omicron would have to self-isolate for 10 days and the government would tighten up the rules on wearing face coverings, Johnson said, adding the steps would be reviewed in three weeks.

 

The health ministry in the German state of Bavaria also announced two confirmed cases of the variant. The two people entered Germany at Munich airport on November 24, before Germany designated South Africa as a virus-variant area, and were now isolating, said the ministry, indicating without stating explicitly that the people had traveled from South Africa.  

 

In Italy, the National Health Institute said a case of the new variant had been detected in Milan in a person coming from Mozambique.

 

Czech health authorities also said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia.

 

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants of the disease, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

 

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, said at the same news conference as Johnson that there was still much uncertainty around omicron, but “there is a reasonable chance that at least there will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant.”

 

The variant was first discovered in South Africa and had also since been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.

 

Flights to Amsterdam

 

Dutch authorities said that 61 out of about 600 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights Friday from South Africa had tested positive  for the coronavirus. Health authorities were carrying out further tests to see if those cases involved the new variant.

One passenger who arrived Friday from South Africa, Dutch photographer Paula Zimmerman, said she tested negative but was anxious for the days to come.

 

“I’ve been told that they expect that a lot more people will test positive after five days. It’s a little scary the idea that you’ve been in a plane with a lot of people who tested positive,” she said.

 

Financial markets plunged on Friday, especially stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector, as investors worried the variant could cause another surge in the pandemic. Oil prices tumbled by about $10 a barrel.

 

It could take weeks for scientists to fully understand the variant’s mutations and whether existing vaccines and treatments are effective against it.

 

 Travel Curbs

 

Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop omicron from circulating globally, many countries around the world – including the United States, Brazil, Canada and European Union nations – announced travel bans or restrictions Friday on southern Africa.

 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and State Department added Saturday to Washington’s previously announced travel restrictions, advising against travel to eight southern African countries.

 

Also Saturday, Australia said it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and will require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens returning from there.

 

Japan said it would extend its tightened border controls to three more African countries after imposing curbs Friday on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho.

 

Britain also said it was expanding its “red list” to put travel curbs on more southern Africa countries, while South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman, Kuwait and Hungary announced travel restrictions on southern African nations.

 

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the foreign ministry said on Saturday, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.

 

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.

 

Vaccinations

 

The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on disparities in how far the world’s population is vaccinated. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in low-income countries have received their first COVID-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.  

 

Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Vaccine Alliance that with the WHO co-leads the COVAX initiative to push for equitable distribution of vaccines, said this was essential to ward off the emergence of more coronavirus variants.

 

While we still need to know more about omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,” he said in a statement to Reuters.

 

“We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population, not just the wealthy parts.”

 

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