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WHO: Nearly 200 Cases of Monkeypox in More Than 20 Countries

The World Health Organization says nearly 200 cases of monkeypox have been reported in more than 20 countries not usually known to have outbreaks of the unusual disease but described the epidemic as “containable” and proposed creating a stockpile to equitably share the limited vaccines and drugs available worldwide.

During a public briefing on Friday, the U.N. health agency said there are still many unanswered questions about what triggered the unprecedented outbreak of monkeypox outside of Africa, but there is no evidence that any genetic changes in the virus are responsible.

“The first sequencing of the virus shows that the strain is not different from the strains we can find in endemic countries and (this outbreak) is probably due more to a change in human behavior,” said Dr. Sylvie Briand, WHO’s director of pandemic and epidemic diseases.

Earlier this week, a top adviser to WHO said the outbreak in Europe, U.S., Israel, Australia and beyond was likely linked to sex at two recent raves in Spain and Belgium. That marks a significant departure from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are mainly infected by animals like wild rodents and primates, and outbreaks haven’t spilled across borders.

Although WHO said nearly 200 monkeypox cases have been reported, that seemed a likely undercount. On Friday, Spanish authorities said the number of cases there had risen to 98, including one woman, whose infection is “directly related” to a chain of transmission that had been previously limited to men, according to officials in the region of Madrid.

U.K. officials added 16 more cases to their monkeypox tally, making Britain’s total 106. And Portugal said its caseload jumped to 74 cases on Friday.

Doctors in Britain, Spain, Portugal, Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere have noted that the majority of infections to date have been in gay and bisexual men, or men who have sex with men. The disease is no more likely to affect people because of their sexual orientation and scientists warn the virus could infect others if transmission isn’t curbed.

WHO’s Briand said that based on how past outbreaks of the disease in Africa have evolved, the current situation appeared “containable.”

Still, she said WHO expected to see more cases reported in the future, noting “we don’t know if we are just seeing the peak of the iceberg (or) if there are many more cases that are undetected in communities,” she said.

As countries including Britain, Germany, Canada and the U.S. begin evaluating how smallpox vaccines might be used to curb the outbreak, WHO said its expert group was assessing the evidence and would provide guidance soon.

Dr. Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, said that “there is no need for mass vaccination,” explaining that monkeypox does not spread easily and typically requires skin-to-skin contact for transmission. No vaccines have been specifically developed against monkeypox, but WHO estimates that smallpox vaccines are about 85% effective.

She said countries with vaccine supplies could consider them for those at high risk of the disease, like close contacts of patients or health workers, but that monkeypox could mostly be controlled by isolating contacts and continued epidemiological investigations.

Given the limited global supply of smallpox vaccines, WHO’s emergencies chief Dr. Mike Ryan said the agency would be working with its member countries to potentially develop a centrally controlled stockpile, similar to the ones it has helped manage to distribute during outbreaks of yellow fever, meningitis, and cholera in countries that can’t afford them.

“We’re talking about providing vaccines for a targeted vaccination campaign, for targeted therapeutics,” Ryan said. “So, the volumes don’t necessarily need to be big, but every country may need access to a small amount of vaccine.”

Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.

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Nobel Laureate Denounces Rape as Weapon of War

When asked if he is afraid for his life, Dr. Denis Mukwege responded candidly: “I am human.” Due to the nature of his work, the renowned gynecological surgeon has received death threats for years.

But the Congolese Nobel Peace Prize laureate said he draws his strength from the women he treats. Patients who come to him to heal after going through unimaginable horrors.

“The women I’m treating are so powerful,” Mukwege said in an interview with VOA’s Straight Talk Africa TV program. “What I’m doing is just a small sense if I compare what they [rape survivors have been through] in the situation of conflict where everyone wants to use them.”

He is now honoring the women he says inspired him, including his mother, in a new book titled “The Power of Women: A Doctor’s Journey of Hope and Healing.” In it, he reexamines the agency of women in spaces and platforms where decisions are made and at times despite some patriarchal societies that often fail women, he said, women continue to give back and nurture for a greater good.

Ukraine, Ethiopia rape survivors

Mukwege’s work is particularly relevant today as sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war in conflicts around the globe. He used two examples to illustrate the urgency of the issue: Ukraine and Ethiopia.

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, his foundation had established contact with women in Donbas who were raped in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. There have been more than 700 reports of rape by Russian forces in Ukraine since the February invasion, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudsman said May 9. In northern Ethiopia, both government and Tigrayan forces have been accused of sexual violence. Nisha Varia, formerly the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division, told VOA that rape in Tigray is being used as a weapon and is accompanied by ethnic slurs and other degradation.

Mukwege said when rape is used during conflicts, it is “used to humiliate, to just make the so-called enemy to feel powerless, to be in a situation that is completely humiliating and you can’t really fight against it. It’s a weapon, but it’s a strategy of war,” he said.

But he said he is heartened by an international outcry about the violence against women in Ukraine. He would like to see the same outcry against atrocities in other parts of the world.

“The international community should react in each conflict because the suffering is universal and the reaction against the suffering or to take care of the suffering people should be also universal,” he said, adding that “the case of Ukraine shows us that if there is a will, we have the capacity to stop atrocities.”

Mukwege said a universal sentiment connects most women who have been raped, whether he speaks to victims in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. He said perpetrators leave a sense of fear and that you hear victims saying, “they’ll kill me,” he said. “Most of the women have the impression that they don’t exist at all after being raped.”

Mukwege, who met with senior U.S. officials and first lady Jill Biden during his visit to Washington, is also calling for more efforts to prosecute perpetrators so women can receive justice.

 

“I think that justice is very important. It’s not revenge,” he said. “Justice is not only pressure against the perpetrators, but justice is needed for victims because in the process of healing, victims need really to be recognized as a victim. They need really to get someone with this power, this authority, to say you are not guilty. It’s not your fault.”

Justice and resilience

Death threats against Mukwege at times come from unknown sources and he has been forced to live at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC, where he treats rape survivors. “I can’t leave the hospital without an escort. I have the police who are taking care of me,” he said. “To get this kind of life living in the hospital with your patients and my family and so on. This is a terrible thing.”

Since 1999, Mukwege and his team have treated more than 50,000 survivors of sexual violence at the hospital he founded [[ https://panzifoundation.org/dr-denis-mukwege/ ]]. The hospital also treats the psychological trauma of women caught up in the ongoing violence between militia groups in the eastern DRC.

Mukwege said those resilient women are the best hope for some of the world’s war-torn regions. After they have healed, they demand change.

“When women stand up after being treated, they didn’t stand for themselves, they are standing for themselves and for their children, for their family. For me, this is really wonderful. Society can’t protect them, but when they get healing and stand up, they stand up and raise their voice for all the community.”

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G7 Pledges Put Coal on Notice, Could Boost Climate Aid

Officials from the Group of Seven wealthy nations announced Friday that they will aim to largely end greenhouse gas emissions from their power sectors by 2035, making it highly unlikely that those countries will burn coal for electricity beyond that date. 

Ministers from the G-7 countries meeting in Berlin also announced a target to have a “highly decarbonized road sector by 2030,” meaning that electric vehicles would dominate new car sales by the end of the decade. 

And in a move aimed at ending the recurring conflict between rich and poor nations during international climate talks, the G-7 recognized for the first time the need to provide developing countries with additional financial aid to cope with the loss and damage caused by global warming. 

The agreements, which will be put to leaders next month at the G-7 summit in Elmau, Germany, were largely welcomed by climate activists. 

“The 2035 target for power sector decarbonisation is a real breakthrough. In practice, this means countries need to phase out coal by 2030 at the latest,” said Luca Bergamaschi, director of Rome-based campaign group ECCO. 

Coal is a heavily polluting fossil fuel that is responsible for a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans. While there are ways to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of coal, experts say it is almost impossible to reduce it to zero, meaning it will likely have to be the first fossil fuel to be phased out. 

G-7 members Britain, France and Italy have already set themselves deadlines to stop burning coal for electricity in the next few years. Germany and Canada are aiming for 2030; Japan wants more time; while the Biden administration has set a target of ending fossil fuel use for electricity generation in the United States by 2035. 

A common target would put pressure on other major polluters to follow suit and build on the compromise deal reached at last year’s U.N. climate summit, where nations committed merely to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal — with no fixed date. 

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry called the agreements reached in Berlin “very comprehensive and forward-leaning.” 

“I think it will help lay the groundwork for what has to happen at the G-20,” he told The Associated Press, referring to a meeting later this year of the broader Group of 20 leading and emerging economies, who are responsible for 80% of global emissions. 

Getting all G-20 countries to sign on to the ambitious targets set by some of the most advanced economies will be difficult, as countries such as China, India and Indonesia remain heavily reliant on coal. 

Under pressure to step up their financial aid to poor nations, the G-7 ministers in Berlin said they recognized that “action and support for vulnerable countries, populations and vulnerable groups need to be further scaled up.” 

This includes governments and companies “providing enhanced support regarding averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse impacts of climate change,” they said. 

Developing countries have for years demanded a clear commitment that they will receive funds to cope with the destruction wrought by climate change. Wealthy nations have resisted the idea, however, for fear of being held liable for costly disasters linked to their emissions. 

“After years of roadblocks, the G-7 finally recognize that they need to financially support poor countries in addressing climate-related losses and damages,” said David Ryfisch of the Berlin-based environmental campaign group Germanwatch. 

“But that recognition is not enough, they need to put actual money on the table,” he added. “It is now up to (German Chancellor Olaf) Scholz to mobilize significant financial commitments by leaders at the Elmau summit.” 

Germany’s energy and climate minister, Robert Habeck, said the 40-page communique couldn’t hide the fact that G-7 countries had long been laggards on combating global warming. 

“But we’re trying to make up for those things that didn’t go so well in the past,” he said. “Including on climate finance.” 

Speaking at a former coal depot, later converted into a gas storage facility and now home to clean energy startups, Habeck also highlighted the pledge by G-7 countries to end what he called the “absurdity” of fossil fuel subsidies in the coming years. 

Separately, the United States and Germany signed an agreement Friday to deepen their bilateral cooperation on shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The deal will see the two countries work together to develop and deploy technologies that will speed up that clean energy transition, particularly in the area of offshore wind power, zero-emissions vehicles and hydrogen. 

The U.S. and Germany pledged to also collaborate on promoting ambitious climate policies and energy security worldwide. 

Kerry said both countries aim to reap the benefits of shifting to clean energy early, through the creation of new jobs and opportunities for businesses in the growing market for renewables. 

Such markets depend on common standards of what hydrogen can be classified as “green,” for example. Officials will now work on reaching a common definition to ensure that hydrogen produced on one side of the Atlantic can be sold on the other side. 

Habeck said the agreement reflected the urgency of tackling global warming. Scientists have said steep emissions cuts need to happen worldwide this decade if the goals set in the 2015 Paris climate accord are to be met. 

“Time is literally running out,” Habeck said, calling climate change “the challenge of our political generation.” 

 

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Companion Robot Responds to User’s Emotional Cues, Health Needs

The arrival of the pandemic intensified feelings of loneliness and social isolation for millions of older people, many of whom were already battling depression and other health issues. For those struggling, a robot companion might make a difference, and states like New York are starting to provide them to residents free of charge. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more. Camera: Adam Greenbaum

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Racism In The Ranks: Dutch Police Film Spurs Conversation

A documentary about discrimination within the ranks of Dutch police has sparked a national conversation in the Netherlands about racism, with many officers and others hoping it will finally bring about change.

The Blue Family, or De Blauwe Familie in Dutch, discusses a culture of bullying and fear in the national police force. It premiered on Dutch television Monday, timed around the second anniversary this week of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police.

“There is no way back,” Peris Conrad, one of the officers featured in the film, told The Associated Press.

Born in the former Dutch colony Surinam, Conrad dreamed of being a police officer as a child. He moved to the Netherlands when he was 4 years old, and after a stint in the military, became a security guard.

While in that job, he had an encounter with police officers who were looking for information about crime in the Surinamese community. The officers encouraged him to join the force himself, which he did, ultimately spending 26 years in service.

But Conrad, who is Black, recalled how in his first year at the police academy, colleagues hung a picture of him with cell bars drawn on it. The caption read: “Our monkey in a cage.”

Police leaders received an early showing of the film and promised action.

“The personal stories make it painfully clear how great the impact is (of the racism), and how long it will last,” Police Chief Henk van Essen said in a statement. “We all have something to do; not just executives, but all 65,000 colleagues. Because safety outside starts with safety inside.”

“There is no room for racism and discrimination in our police,” Justice Minister Dilan Yesilgöz told Dutch talk show RTL Boulevard.

The Dutch parliament voted by a large majority this week to place police leaders under stricter supervision, citing the suicides in recent years of three officers who had complained about discrimination.

Last year, a Dutch newspaper published messages from police group chats that showed officers making racial slurs and joking about killing non-white people. “One less Turk” one officer wrote, in response to the slaying of a 16-year-old girl who was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in her high school’s bicycle shed.

As in other countries, the problems in the Netherlands have a long history. A 1998 report by the Ministry of Internal Affairs said discrimination was driving out police officers with a “migration” background — defined as having at least one parent born abroad.

While 24% of the Dutch population meets that definition, only 14% of the police force does. The National Police Corps employs some 65,000 people, and around 40,000 work as officers.

Margot Snijders has spent 30 years on the national force, including several years working on diversity and inclusion efforts. After years of frustration, she took a step back from that role.

“People don’t trust us, and they don’t want to work for us,” Snijders, who also appears in The Blue Family, told The Associated Press.

George Floyd’s death in the U.S. two years ago prompted protests of racial injustice in the Netherlands and around the world. Controle Alt Delete, an advocacy organization that pushes for better law enforcement practices, wanted to highlight problems within the Dutch police force.

The group brought on board filmmakers Maria Mok and Meral Uslu to direct and produce the documentary, which was backed by Dutch public broadcaster KRO-NCRV.

Problems with racism, as well as discrimination against women and members of the LGBTQ community, are widespread and systemic within police ranks, said Jan Struijs, the chairperson of the country’s largest police union.

Struijs also took part in the film. “I hope this is a historic turning point,” he told the AP.

The first article of the country’s constitution, which is displayed on posters in every police station, outlaws discrimination against any group. The Dutch consider themselves to be some of the most open-minded, tolerant people in the world.

There’s been no significant criticism of the The Blue Family, those involved in the documentary welcomed the response to it.

“I have been saying the same things for years, only now do they get a positive reaction,” Snijders said.

The Dutch police union is calling for better mental health counseling for officers and more accountability for ones who make racist jokes.

Conrad sees a need for widespread change, both in policy and leadership.

In the meantime, he’s forbidden his 20-year-old son from joining the force.

“I don’t want him to experience this,” he said.

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Louvre Ex-Director Charged in Art Trafficking Case

A former director of the Louvre Museum in Paris has been charged with conspiring to hide the origin of archaeological treasures that investigators suspect were smuggled out of Egypt in the chaos of the Arab Spring, a French judicial source said Thursday.

Jean-Luc Martinez was charged Wednesday after being taken in for questioning along with two French specialists in Egyptian art, who were not charged, another source close to the inquiry told AFP.

The Louvre, which is owned by the French state, is the world’s most visited museum with around 10 million visitors a year before the COVID-19 pandemic and is home to some of Western civilization’s most celebrated cultural heritage.

The museum declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

French investigators opened the case in July 2018, two years after the Louvre’s branch in Abu Dhabi bought a rare pink granite stele depicting the pharaoh Tutankhamun and four other historic works for 8 million euros ($8.5 million).

Martinez, who ran the Paris Louvre from 2013-21, is accused of turning a blind eye to fake certificates of origin for the pieces, a fraud thought to involve several other art experts, according to French investigative weekly Canard Enchaine.

He has been charged with complicity in fraud and “concealing the origin of criminally obtained works by false endorsement,” according to the judicial source.

Martinez is currently the French foreign ministry’s ambassador in charge of international cooperation on cultural heritage, which focuses in particular on fighting art trafficking.

“Jean-Luc Martinez contests in the strongest way his indictment in this case,” his lawyers told AFP in a statement.

Arab Spring looting

“For now, he will reserve his declarations for the judiciary, and has no doubt that his good faith will be established,” they said.

French investigators suspect that hundreds of artifacts were pillaged from Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries during protests in the early 2010s that became known as the Arab Spring. They suspect the artifacts were then sold to galleries and museums that did not ask too many questions about previous ownership.

Martinez’s indictment comes after the German-Lebanese gallery owner who brokered the sale, Robin Dib, was arrested in Hamburg in March and extradited to Paris for questioning.

Marc Gabolde, a French Egyptologist, was quoted by Canard Enchaine as saying that he informed Louvre officials about suspicions related to the Tutankhamun stele but received no response.

The opening of the inquiry in 2018 roiled the Paris art market, a major hub for antiquities from Middle Eastern civilizations.

In June 2020, prominent Paris archaeology expert Christophe Kunicki and dealer Richard Semper were charged with fraud for false certification of looted works from several countries during the Arab Spring.

They also had a role in certifying another prized Egyptian work, the gilded sarcophagus of the priest Nedjemankh that was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2017.

Gabolde said an Egyptian art dealer, Habib Tawadros, was also involved in both suspect deals.

After New York prosecutors determined that the sarcophagus had been stolen during the revolts against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Met said it had been a victim of false statements and fake documentation, and returned the coffin to Egypt.

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Indian Novel ‘Tomb of Sand’ Wins International Booker Prize

Indian writer Geetanjali Shree and American translator Daisy Rockwell won the International Booker Prize on Thursday for Tomb of Sand, a vibrant novel with a boundary-crossing 80-year-old heroine.

Originally written in Hindi, it’s the first book in any Indian language to win the high-profile award, which recognizes fiction from around the world that has been translated into English. The $63,000 prize money will be split between New Delhi-based Shree and Rockwell, who lives in Vermont.

Translator Frank Wynne, who chaired the judging panel, said the judges “overwhelmingly” chose Tomb of Sand after “a very passionate debate.”

The book tells the story of an octogenarian widow who dares to cast off convention and confront the ghosts of her experiences during the subcontinent’s tumultuous 1947 partition into India and Pakistan.

Wynne said that despite confronting traumatic events, “it is an extraordinarily exuberant and incredibly playful book.”

“It manages to take issues of great seriousness — bereavement, loss, death — and conjure up an extraordinary choir, almost a cacophony, of voices,” he said.

“It is extraordinarily fun, and it is extraordinarily funny.”

Shree’s book beat five other finalists including Polish Nobel literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk, Claudia Pineiro of Argentina and South Korean author Bora Chung to be awarded the prize at a ceremony in London.

The International Booker Prize is awarded every year to a translated work of fiction published in the U.K. or Ireland. It is run alongside the Booker Prize for English-language fiction.

The prize was set up to boost the profile of fiction in other languages — which accounts for only a small share of books published in Britain — and to salute the often-unacknowledged work of literary translators.

Wynne said the prize aimed to show that “literature in translation is not some form of cod liver oil that is supposed to be good for you.”

Tomb of Sand is published in Britain by small publisher Tilted Axis Press. It was founded by translator Deborah Smith — who won the 2016 International Booker for translating Han Kang’s The Vegetarian — to publish books from Asia.

The novel has not yet been published in the United States, but Wynne said he expected that to change with “a flurry of offers” after its Booker victory.

In Britain, “I would be gobsmacked [astonished] if it didn’t increase its sales by more than 1,000% in the next week,” Wynne said. “Possibly more.”

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Japan to Resume Tourism in June; Only Packaged Tours for Now

Japan will open its borders to foreign tourists in June for the first time since imposing tight pandemic travel restrictions about two years ago, but only for package tours for now, the prime minister said Thursday.

Beginning June 10, Japan will allow the entry of people on tours with fixed schedules and guides, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said.

Tourists from areas with low COVID-19 infection rates who have received three vaccine doses will be exempt from testing and quarantine after entry.

Japan this week is hosting small experimental package tours from four countries, Australia, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. That experiment, which involves only 50 people who received special visas, not tourist visas, is to end May 31.

“Free and active exchange of people is the foundation of economy and society, as well as that of Asia’s development,” Kishida told his speech at a Tokyo hotel Thursday.

Japan, while watching the infection situation, will gradually accept more tourists in stages to the level of arrivals before the pandemic, he added.

After facing criticism that its strict border controls were xenophobic, Japan began easing its restrictions earlier this year and currently allows entry of up to 10,000 people a day, including Japanese citizens, foreign students and some business travelers.

Japan will double the cap to 20,000 a day from June 1, which will also include package tour participants, said Makoto Shimoaraiso, a Cabinet official in charge of pandemic measures.

The scale of the package tours and other details will be finalized after officials evaluate the results of the current experimental tours, he said.

It will take some time before foreign visitors can come to Japan for individual tourism, Shimoaraiso said.

Japan this week also eased requests for mask wearing. While masks are still requested on public transportation, hospitals and other public facilities, people can take off masks outdoors where others are not around or talking. Despite the easing, most Japanese so far are seen sticking to wearing masks in public.

Japan’s tourism industry, hit hard by the border controls, is eager for foreign tourism to resume. COVID-19 infections have slowed in Japan since earlier this year and the government is gradually expanding social and economic activity.

Kishida said during a visit to London earlier this month that he planned to ease the border controls as early as June in line with the policies of other Group of Seven industrialized countries, but gave no further details.

Foreign tourist arrivals fell more than 90% in 2020 from a record 31.9 million the year before, almost wiping out the pre-pandemic inbound tourism market of more than 4 trillion yen ($31 billion). 

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