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WHO: Delta Now Dominant COVID Variant Globally 

The delta variant of the coronavirus has overtaken all other variants of concern, the World Health Organization said Tuesday. 

“Less than 1% each of alpha, beta and gamma are currently circulating. It’s really predominantly delta around the world,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on COVID-19. 

According to Van Kerkhove, the delta variant is so highly transmissible it has replaced other variants circulating around the world. 

Hundreds of people demonstrated Tuesday in Australia’s second-largest city against coronavirus restrictions the government imposed on the construction industry. 

Officials announced that construction sites in Melbourne would be closed for two weeks amid concerns that the movement of workers was contributing to the spread of COVID-19. 

Construction workers are also now required to have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine before being allowed to return to work. 

Victoria state, where Melbourne is located, reported 603 new cases on Tuesday, the most infections there in a single day this year. 

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Tuesday that fines for breaking coronavirus protocols would increase starting in November. 

The changes would increase the fine for someone intentionally failing to comply with a COVID-19 order from about $2,800 to $8,400. Those breaking the restrictions could also face up to six months in prison. 

Businesses that violate coronavirus restrictions could face fines of up to $10,500. 

“Our success has been really based on the fact that people by and large have been compliant,” Ardern said at a news conference. “However, there has been the odd person that has broken the rules and put others at risk.” 

Meanwhile, Governor Jay Inslee, of the western U.S. state of Washington, is asking the federal government for help dealing with the strain on hospitals as the delta variant drives large numbers of infections. 

Inslee sent a letter Monday to White House pandemic coordinator Jeffrey Zients saying hospitals in his state are at or beyond capacity and that he is requesting military personnel to help staff hospitals. 

“Once the delta variant hit Washington state, COVID-19 hospitalizations skyrocketed,” Inslee said. “From mid-July to late August, we saw hospitalizations double about every two weeks. The hospitals have surged to increase staffed beds and stretch staff and have canceled most non-urgent procedures but are still over capacity across the state.” 

New daily infections and the number of people hospitalized in Washington are at or near their highest levels during the pandemic. 

Washington health officials report 69% of people ages 12 years and older in the state are fully vaccinated. 

That is higher than the national figure, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting 64% of the population ages 12 and older being fully vaccinated. 

The new death toll from the virus in the United States was 2,302 on Monday — the highest recorded since March, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

 

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Nigerian NGO Marks World Peace Day With Photos of Carnage in Northeast

The Nigerian aid group Center for Civilians in Conflict is marking this year’s U.N. International Day of Peace with a photo exhibit on the conflict in the country’s northeast. The photographs depict some of the millions of civilians caught up in the 12-year conflict started by militant group Boko Haram.

The photo exhibit opened Tuesday morning at the Thought Pyramid Art Center in Abuja. Around 150 visitors arrived in batches to see images taken from scenes of the Boko Haram insurgency and the communities affected by it. 

Art lover Hillary Essien, who attended the exhibit, says the photos tell a story of pain and survival. 

“They’re actual people, being here and seeing that these people are out there away from their homes, families, fearing for their lives, it’s just really touching to be honest,” she said. 

Nigerian photojournalist Damilola Onafuwa took the photos for nonprofit Center for Civilians in Conflict, and says he’s happy about the effect the pictures are having on viewers. 

“When I create these works, I only create them because I want people to know,” he said. “I want to share the stories of people that I’m photographing. When people see it and I see how much impact it has on them, that makes me very happy.” 

Nigeria has been battling the Boko Haram insurgency for 12 years. The fighting has claimed an estimated 350,000 lives, according to the United Nations Development Program, and displaced millions of others. 

But Boko Haram is not the only group threatening the northeast. Armed criminal groups are becoming more active, often kidnapping people for ransom. Communal clashes over grazing lands are leading to raids and burnings of villages.

The Center for Civilians in Conflict says the exhibit aims to raise awareness about these issues with the view of addressing them. 

“The exhibition tries to chronicle the lives of ordinary Nigerians who are trying everything possible to maintain the peace,” said Beson Olugbuo, a director at the center. “The idea is to use photographs as a means of advocacy and also to remind the federal government that they have a primary responsibility to maintain law and order, to protect lives and property and ensure that peace reigns.” 

The International Day of Peace is observed every year on September 21.

 

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McDonald’s to Phase Out Plastic Toys from Happy Meals 

Fast-food giant McDonald’s said Tuesday it would phase out plastic toys from its signature Happy Meals by 2025. 

“Starting now, and phased in across the globe by the end of 2025, our ambition is that every toy sold in a Happy Meal will be sustainable, made from more renewable, recycled, or certified materials like bio-based and plant-derived materials and certified fiber,” the company said in a statement. 

McDonald’s said that this process had already begun in Britain and Ireland, and that all its Happy Meal toys in France were already made sustainably. 

The signature meal for children typically contains a plastic toy, often an action figure. But the new plan means that figurines may be made of cardboard for the child to assemble.

McDonald’s, which has been serving Happy Meals since 1979, said that its new plan to make toys out of renewable materials will reduce fossil fuel-based plastic in its toys by 90%. 

But a large part of McDonald’s packaging remains plastic, the company acknowledges, saying that it has “set goals” for all its packaging to be from “renewable, recycled, or certified sources” by 2025. 

 

 

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Filmmakers Phil Grabsky and Shoaib Sharifi Chronicle 20 Years in Afghanistan

My Childhood My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan is the latest documentary by award-winning filmmakers Phil Grabsky and Shoaib Sharifi. Grabsky spoke with VOA’s Penelope Poulou about this 20-year film expose on life in Afghanistan through the eyes of an Afghan youth from his early childhood to today.

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Johnson & Johnson Says Its COVID Booster Shot Improves Protection

U.S.-based pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson said Tuesday new “real world” and phase 3 study data show a second shot of its single-dose vaccine about two months after the initial shot increased its effectiveness to 94%.

In a news release on its website, the company said its clinical trial in the United States showed the booster shot also provided as much as 100 percent protection against severe or critical COVID-19 symptoms beginning at least 14 days after final vaccination.  

The company also said there was no evidence of reduced effectiveness over the study duration, including when the delta variant became dominant in the U.S.

They said tests performed outside the U.S. showed it provided up to 87% protection against severe or critical COVID-19. The company also said a booster given six months after the initial dose saw antibody levels increase by nine times one week after the booster and continued to climb as high as 12-fold.

On Friday, an FDA advisory committee voted to recommend emergency authorization of additional Pfizer shots for Americans 65 and older and those at high risk of severe illness, but voted to recommend against broader approval, saying it wants to see more data.

J&J said it has submitted data to the FDA and plans to submit it to other regulators, the World Health Organization and other vaccine advisory groups worldwide to inform their decision-making.

Some information in this report came from the Associated Press and the Reuters.

 

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Melbourne Protesters Rally Against Coronavirus Restrictions 

Hundreds of people demonstrated Tuesday in Australia’s second-largest city to protest coronavirus restrictions the government imposed on the construction industry.

Officials announced construction sites in Melbourne would be closed for two weeks amid concerns that the movement of workers was contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

Construction workers are also now required to have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine before being allowed to return to work.

Victoria state, where Melbourne is located, reported 603 new cases on Tuesday, the most infections there in a single day this year.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Tuesday that fines for breaking coronavirus protocols would increase starting in November.

The changes would change the fine for someone intentionally failing to comply with a COVID-19 order from about $2,800 to $8,400. Those breaking the restrictions could also face up to six months in prison.

Businesses that violate coronavirus restrictions could face fines of up to $10,500.

“Our success has been really based on the fact that people by and large have been compliant,” Ardern said at a news conference. “However, there has been the odd person that has broken the rules and put others at risk.”

Meanwhile, Governor Jay Inslee, of the western U.S. state of Washington, is asking the federal government for help dealing with the strain on hospitals as the delta variant drives large numbers of infections.

Inslee sent a letter Monday to Jeffrey Zients, the White House pandemic coordinator, saying hospitals in his state are at or beyond capacity and that he is requesting military personnel to help staff hospitals.

“Once the Delta variant hit Washington state, COVID-19 hospitalizations skyrocketed,” Inslee said. “From mid-July to late August, we saw hospitalizations double about every two weeks. The hospitals have surged to increase staffed beds and stretch staff and have canceled most non-urgent procedures but are still over capacity across the state.”

New daily infections and the number of people hospitalized in Washington are at or near their highest levels during the pandemic.

Washington health officials report 69% of people aged 12 years and older in the state are fully vaccinated.

That is higher than the national figure, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting 64% of the population age 12 and older being fully vaccinated.

The Pfizer and BioNTech drug companies said Monday that lower-dose shots of their two-dose COVID-19 vaccine are safe and effective for 5- to 11-year-old children.

The U.S. company and its German partner BioNTech said trials showed the vaccine was well tolerated and robust, neutralizing antibody responses at the lower dose levels necessary in younger children.

Pfizer said it planned soon to seek authorization to use the vaccine in younger patients in the United States, Britain and the European Union, a move that could greatly expand the scope of the vaccination effort. About 28 million U.S. children fall into the age range, and millions of adults have still declined to get the jab.

Pfizer said it studied a lower dose — one-third the strength of the adult dose — in tests involving more than 2,200 kindergartners and elementary school students. Two-thirds of the children were given the vaccine, and the remaining third were given saltwater shots. The company said the vaccinated children developed antibody levels that were just as strong as those exhibited by teenagers and young adults.

With students now back in school and the delta variant spreading throughout the United States, many parents have been anxious for government health officials to approve the vaccine for their young children.

Compared with older people, children are at lower risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but more than 5 million children in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 460 have died, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

U.S. vaccine maker Moderna is also studying its shots in young children. Both Pfizer and Moderna are studying using the vaccine in infants as young as 6 months, with results expected later this year.

On Monday, deaths in the United States from COVID-19 reached 675,975, surpassing deaths from the 1918 Spanish flu.

(Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.) 

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Journalists in Europe, US Face Harassment over Pandemic Coverage

When Italian reporter Francesco Giovannetti told protesters that he was covering them for the left-leaning daily La Repubblica, insults poured out with abandon.

It was August 30 in Rome, outside the Ministry of Public Education, and demonstrators were speaking out against Italy’s “green pass,” a COVID-19 measure requiring workers to show proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test, or that they had recovered from the virus.

The verbal assault soon escalated into a physical one when one man, who moments earlier had threatened to kill Giovannetti, began to attack the journalist.

“He beat me in the face,” Giovannetti told VOA. “He landed four or five of these hits.”

The police soon intervened. 

Attacked during protests

The attack occurred two days after Italian journalist Antonella Alba was harassed and assaulted while covering similar protests in Rome.

Neither journalist was seriously injured, but Giovannetti’s and Alba’s experiences underscore a broader danger for journalists who cover the pandemic in Europe and the United States.

Journalists have been harassed and attacked over reporting on COVID-19, especially when it comes to coverage of anti-masking campaigns, anti-vaccine campaigns and other forms of COVID-19 denialism.

“We are seen as propaganda right now,” Giovannetti said. “We are a target.” 

Anti-media sentiment was on the rise before the pandemic, according to press freedom analysts. But it has intensified in part due to pressure from extremist and populist groups energized against public health mandates and vaccines, said Attila Mong, a correspondent in Berlin for the advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Seen as the enemy

In trying to report about health safety, reporters are being viewed by some as the enemy.

“Most responsible media outlets follow scientific and public health instructions and advice, and they broadcast public health messages around mask wearing, about vaccination, about social distancing,” Mong told VOA. “Given this fact, people who oppose these measures perceive the media outlets as part of the government.” 

An international rise in populist rhetoric contributes to this phenomenon, said Reporters Without Borders (RSF) spokesperson Pauline Adès-Mével. “It’s important to recall that some political leaders, such as (former U.S. President) Trump or (Brazil’s president Jair) Bolsonaro, declared the press the enemy of the people,” she told VOA. “Such populist declarations are extremely worrying.”

Not to mention dangerous. 

On August 28, Alba, who reports for Italian public broadcaster Rai News 24, was covering a Rome protest against Italy’s COVID-19 measures. Some of the protesters were affiliated with Forza Nuova – Italian for “New Force” – a far-right, ultra nationalist political party in Italy.

Alba said that demonstrators surrounded her, taunting her for wearing a mask, insulting her and calling the journalist a terrorist. One tried to take Alba’s phone, injuring her in the process.

“I was there to ask (demonstrators), ‘Why are you here?’” Alba told VOA. “My question was very simple, and I couldn’t find an answer that made sense.”

The most coherent explanation was that the green pass would restrict individual freedom. But Alba didn’t buy that. “This is a big contradiction,” Alba said. “If you want freedom, why are you treating me like this? Using violence is not freedom.”

“They wanted to be seen. They wanted to be heard. That’s why I was there, too, because a journalist reports for everybody,” she said. 

COVID-19 deniers and anti-vaccination protesters stormed a newsroom of Slovenian public broadcaster RTV on September 3. And in early August, protesters tried to assault the offices of British public broadcaster BBC – but they had the wrong building.

Journalists in the U.S. haven’t been exempt.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has counted at least 24 pandemic-related press freedom incidents over the past 18 months, including five in August alone. 

Two reporters were assaulted while covering an anti-vaccination rally in Los Angeles on August 14. Four days later in Miami, WLRN reporter Danny Rivero was assaulted while covering a mask mandate protest. 

Rivero told VOA he thinks that some of the protesters, including one who assaulted him, were members of the far-right group, Proud Boys. Some of the protesters were chanting about a conspiracy theory that someone was paying to have a mask mandate instituted, Rivero said. 

Across the street, a group of pro-mask mandate demonstrators had gathered. 

Rivero was interviewing and taking photos of some of the anti-mask mandate protesters. One of them became angry when Rivero took his photo; a group soon formed around Rivero, shoving him and attempting to take his camera, which was around his neck.

“There was a big guy with a big belly, and he just kept walking up toward me, closer and closer,” Rivero told VOA. “And he started bumping me with his belly, and pushing me back and saying, ‘Take off the freaking camera, or I’m going to smash your face in.’” 

Rivero had reported in tense environments before, but the harassment hadn’t gone beyond verbal attacks. He was shocked that people would physically assault him for doing his job.

“I took 30 seconds just to catch my breath a little bit, and then I just went right back to work,” Rivero said. The police advised him against returning to that side of the protest to interview more people, but Rivero didn’t have any issues.

Suspicious of media

The pandemic fury comes at a time when more Americans are suspicious of the media.

A June study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found 29% of people surveyed in the U.S. trust the news, placing the U.S. last out of 46 countries analyzed in the report.

The pandemic has provided people who were already wary of the media with the affirmation to double down, according to Kirstin McCudden, managing editor at the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

“If you were part of a group that didn’t trust the media to begin with, you can also blame them for the coronavirus coverage,” she told VOA.

“The blame rolls downhill toward journalists,” McCudden said, adding that the media find themselves at an “intersection of being responsible for the news and blamed for the news.” 

WLRN reporter Rivero says he views the current environment “as a growing level of not just distrust but disdain for the work that we do.”

“They don’t want to hear things that might force them to question things and that might poke holes in things that they believe, one way or the other. They don’t like to hear that, so we become a target,” Rivero said. 

CPJ’s Mong told VOA that news outlets, as well as politicians and authorities, are responsible for addressing this issue.

“Journalists themselves very often don’t come forward because they think it’s already part of their everyday lives,” Mong said. “It’s extremely important that even the slightest cases are investigated.” 

For Italian journalist Alba, being assaulted has not deterred her.

“I am continuing to report,” she told VOA. “I’m not afraid.” 

 

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UN Chief: Climate Targets Not on Track 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern Monday that the world is not on track to meet several urgent targets in the fight against climate change.   

“Based on the present commitments of member states, the world is on a catastrophic pathway to 2.7-degrees [Celsius] of heating, instead of 1.5 we all agreed should be the limit,” Guterres told reporters. “Science tells us that anything above 1.5 degrees would be a disaster.”  

To get to 1.5 degrees, the U.N. says wealthier nations need to step up with $100 billion a year between now and 2025.   

Greenhouse gas emissions also need to be cut by nearly half by 2030 to enable nations to reach carbon neutrality by the 2050 target. This includes the difficult job of getting countries to phase out the use of polluting coal plants.   

“Where I believe there is still a long way to go is in relation to the reduction of emissions,” Guterres said.   

Nearly 80% of emissions are from G-20 countries.  

Review conference  

In November, nations will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for a key climate conference to review progress on commitments since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

On Monday, Guterres co-hosted with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson a small meeting of key countries for one of the final gatherings ahead of the conference. Guterres and Johnson have both raised alarms that the review conference, known as COP26, cannot fail and that ambitious commitments are needed.   

“I think that Glasgow — COP26 — is a turning point for the world,” Johnson told reporters. “It is a moment when we have to grow up and take our responsibilities.”  

The U.N. says half of the annual $100 billion in public climate financing needs to go to adaptation efforts in developing countries.  

Guterres expressed concern that progress on this has not been sufficient. Although he did point to some movement, including new commitments from Sweden and Denmark on Monday.   

“I believe that this 50% might gain traction, but we are still not yet there,” he said.

“It is the developing world that is bearing the brunt of catastrophic climate change in the form of hurricanes and fires and floods, and the real long-term economic damage that they face,” Johnson said. “And yet, it is the developed world that over 200 years has put the carbon in the atmosphere that is causing this acceleration of climate change. And so it really is up to us to help them.”  

Climate action activists say it is not spending the money that is holding back accelerated progress.   

“The pandemic has shown that countries can swiftly mobilize trillions of dollars to respond to an emergency — it is clearly a question of political will,” said Nafkote Dabi, Oxfam International’s Global Climate Policy lead. “Let’s be clear, we are in a climate emergency. It is wreaking havoc across the globe and requires the same decisiveness and urgency.”  

 

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