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National News

Who goes first? Vaccine rollout forces stark moral choices

HOOD RIVER, Ore. (AP) — As COVID-19 surged, retired attorney Susan Crowley did some simple math and discovered a chilling fact: people over 60 made up 91% of coronavirus deaths in Oregon. So the 75-year-old was shocked when the state started vaccinating teachers this week before senior citizens in a push to get children back into classrooms.
“I look at these figures and I am literally afraid. It’s not just a question of missing beers with my friends. It’s a question of actually being afraid that if I am not careful, I will die,” she said. “The thing that is so upsetting to me is that seniors don’t matter, the elderly don’t matter. And it’s painful to hear that implication.”
Democratic Gov. Kate Brown has defended her decision, choking up in a recent news conference because she said she “knows of families where 12- and 13-year-olds are attempting suicide” because of social isolation. Meanwhile, her sister, a cancer survivor, is being asked return to her Minnesota classroom without a vaccine, Brown told The Associated Press.
“No matter what you do, people aren’t happy,” she said. “The teachers in Minnesota are furious at the governor because they are doing seniors first. And here, the seniors are furious at me because I am doing teachers first. There are no right answers, and there are no easy decisions.”
With a mass vaccination campaign underway, the U.S. is facing a moral dilemma as officials from California to New Jersey decide who gets the shots first. Everyone from the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions to communities of color and front-line workers are clamoring for the scarce vaccine — and each group has a compelling argument for why they should get priority.
It has local health officials and volunteer advisory committees doing ethical gymnastics the likes of which haven’t been seen since the military’s rationing of a new wonder drug — penicillin — during World War II or the decision to give white men first access to life-saving dialysis machines in the 1960s, when the new technology was in short supply.
Hospitals and medical professionals make such moral decisions when triaging emergency room patients in a disaster or ranking recipients for organ transplants, said Courtney Campbell, an ethics professor at Oregon State University. But what’s happening now is on such a large scale that ordinary people — not just public health officials — are reckoning with questions of who is most important to society and why, he said.
“We’re being asked to emphasize some of our shared national values. … We’re being called to treat other persons as equals, and that means equals in the sight of the law, but also moral equals, so that matters of privilege or wealth or socioeconomic status get leveled out,” he said. “This is a time when we get tested as to whether we’re going to walk the talk.”
While the nationwide priority has been inoculating health care workers and those in nursing homes, the decisions get more difficult deeper into the vaccine rollout. Federal guidance says states should prioritize the elderly, front-line essential workers and those with underlying medical conditions in the next phases, but ultimately it’s up to state and local officials to decide how to distribute the shots.
Complicating matters is the nation’s vaccine distribution has been marked by disarray and confusion. States have complained about shortages and inadequate deliveries that have forced them to cancel mass vaccination events and appointments.
Originally, Oregon’s governor said teachers and residents over 65 would both be eligible this week but rolled that back because supplies weren’t there. Now, the state’s vaccine advisory committee is wrestling with how to prioritize the next groups.
In emotional, tense exchanges at a recent meeting, members debated the hypothetical merits of giving the vaccine to a tribal elder who’s one of the last speakers of their language versus a teacher or a migrant worker who puts food on people’s tables. Some advocated vaccinating all people of color first, regardless of age or health, while others favored giving the shots to those with certain chronic conditions, regardless of race.
Oregon is focused on fairness in vaccine access for marginalized communities. Other states, like New Jersey, raised eyebrows by putting smokers toward the front of the line. In Mississippi, authorities are trying to address disparities that show 70% of the vaccine has gone to white residents by establishing a drive-through clinic at a stadium in Jackson, a majority Black city.
Oregon lawmakers of color wrote a letter urging the vaccine advisory committee to prioritize low-income seniors, inmates and front-line workers instead of solely focusing on racial minorities, saying doing so would reach many people of color.
“We are concerned about the way this is being framed and how these groups … are pitted against each other and against BIPOC communities in general,” the letter said, using an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color.
Dr. Kalani Raphael, a kidney specialist at Oregon Health & Science University and a Native Hawaiian on the advisory committee, said minority communities’ health care experiences are often invisible, particularly with COVID-19. He pointed to the death of a friend, a Utah community organizer, who got the virus after working to improve health care access for other Pacific Islanders.
“She was getting better. And then she just dropped dead at home, right in front of her kids,” said Raphael, his voice heavy with emotion. “These stories, to me, re-center the problem in these communities that are invisible and give them the support and attention and seriousness they deserve.”
While Oregon health officials grapple with who will be eligible next, vaccines started Monday for teachers and early childhood educators. More than 90% of students have been studying online for nearly 11 months.
Jennifer Dale, a mother of three from the Portland suburb of Lake Oswego, has organized rallies and written letters in a push to return to in-person learning. But teachers getting priority over seniors made her reevaluate.
“I can support my kids and their education if it means my parents continue to be prioritized for a vaccine, because they are much more likely to have negative consequences from COVID than a young healthy teacher,” she said.
Leslie Bienen, a Portland mother of two, also has seen her children struggling with online school. When she heard teachers would be vaccinated before seniors, she was torn.
“It’s so complicated. At first, I felt like that is really wrong,” Bienen said. “But if you think of public health as harm reduction, you can’t just think of one thing.”

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National News

Chicago schools reopening hits snag as union fight escalates

CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago ditched plans Tuesday for thousands of teachers to report to schools this week ahead of students after the teachers union said its members wouldn’t comply and were prepared to picket over coronavirus safety concerns.
The reversal in the nation’s third-largest district also meant roughly thousands of pre-K and special education students who started in-person classes earlier this month as part of gradual return would shift back to online learning. The district went remote last March, but district officials say it’s not working, particularly for many low-income Black and Latino students who comprise the majority of the district.
“This is a great disappointment,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an evening news conference. “There is no question that students are persevering. But there is also no question that there is no substitute for in-person learning.”
The battle to reopen schools in the roughly 355,000-student district has waged for months as schools worldwide have grappled with a start-and-stop approach amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Chicago Teachers Union argues the district hasn’t gone far enough in its safety plan, despite installing thousands of air filters, deep-cleaning schools and offering limited COVID-19 testing. The union wants widespread vaccinations, better metrics and more testing to protect teachers.
Thousands of pre-K and special education students began attending in-person classes earlier this month over the union’s objections. Dozens of teachers and staff who didn’t show up were docked pay and locked out CPS systems, unable to teach remotely.
Teachers and staff for K-8 were due in class this week for students’ Feb. 1 return, but the union overwhelmingly voted to reject in-person learning over the weekend. Even after the district pushed their in-person start date to Wednesday, an agreement couldn’t be reached. District officials haven’t set a date for high school students’ return.
CTU told its roughly 25,000 members Tuesday that “short of some late-breaking” agreement with the district, all teachers and staff would defy plans to teach in person and continue online. If the district were to punish teachers, all teachers, including high school, would protest starting Thursday.
“If CPS retaliates against members for exercising their right to a safe workplace, all CTU members will stop working on Thursday and set up picket lines at schools,” the union email read.
The district has said the union’s failure to report for duty constitutes an illegal strike. But the union blamed the district, saying it was illegal to cut teachers off, triggering the work stoppage.
The union’s collective bargaining agreement, which was approved after a 2019 strike, prohibits its members from striking during the terms of the contract and bars district officials from locking out its workers.
Both sides said Tuesday that bargaining would continue, while Lightfoot said the district was also sticking to its plan of welcoming back students Monday. Students in K-8 have the option for two days of in-person instruction.
“For the past three weeks, thousands of CPS students have been safely learning in person, and the union’s action will prevent these students from receiving the classroom support their parents needed and chose,” district CEO Janice Jackson said in a Tuesday email to parents.
Union officials have pushed for teachers to be vaccinated before in-person teaching resumes. Illinois started its newest phase of vaccinations this week which includes teachers, but the district said it would start vaccinating employees next month in a process that could take months.
“We want to return to safe, welcoming and thriving schools — and that can’t happen until we put the health and safety precautions of our educators, our students and the larger community ahead of the unreasonable demand to return to school buildings that lack the necessary protocols to keep us safe,” Stacy Davis Gates, CTU’s vice president, said in a statement.
CPS has said with proper precautions it is safe to reopen schools. Health officials generally agree, saying there’s growing evidence children aren’t major drivers of community spread and transmission is relatively low in schools if masks and other safety measures are taken. Union officials have dismissed the studies, saying dozens of cases have emerged in Chicago schools.
Still, attendance in Chicago has been lower than expected.
While roughly 6,500 of the nearly 17,000 eligible preschool and special education students expressed interesting in returning in a December survey, only about 3,200 attended each day earlier this month, according to CPS. Roughly 70,000 students in K-8 were expected to attend.

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National News

No Mardi Gras parades, so thousands make ‘house floats’

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — You just can’t keep a good city down, especially when Mardi Gras is coming.
All around New Orleans, thousands of houses are being decorated as floats because the coronavirus outbreak canceled the elaborate parades mobbed by crowds during the Carnival season leading to Fat Tuesday.
Some smaller groups announced no-parade plans before the city did. Pandemic replacements include scavenger hunts for signature trinkets that normally would be thrown from floats or handed out from a streetcar, as well as outdoor art and drive-thru or virtual parades. The prominent Krewe of Bacchus has an app where people can catch and trade virtual trinkets during Carnival and watch a virtual parade Feb. 14, when the parade had been scheduled.
But the “house float” movement started almost as soon as a New Orleans spokesman announced Nov. 17 that parades were off.
That morning, Megan Joy Boudreaux posted what she later called a silly Twitter joke: “We’re doing this. Turn your house into a float and throw all the beads from your attic at your neighbors walking by.”
But the more she thought about it, the more she liked it. She started a Facebook group, the Krewe of House Floats, expecting a few friends and neighbors to join. The numbers rose. Thirty-nine subgroups evolved to discuss neighborhood plans.
By Carnival season’s official start Jan. 6, the group had more than 9,000 members, including out-of-state “expats.” About 3,000, including a few as far afield as England and Australia, will have their houses on an official online map, said Charlotte “Charlie” Jallans-Daly, one of two mapmakers.
Houses are to be decorated at least two weeks before Fat Tuesday, which is Feb. 16 this year. With widespread addresses and two weeks to gawk, the hope is that people will spread out widely in time and space.
“I didn’t think I was starting a Mardi Gras krewe. Here I am,” Boudreaux said. “I’ve got myself a second full-time job.”
Discussions in the Facebook groups include how-tos, ads for props and neighborhood themes. Artists have given livestreamed outdoor lessons.
Katie Bankens posted that her block’s theme was Shark Week staycation paradise. When a resident worried that she was not “crafty” enough, administrator Carley Sercovich replied that if they could play music and throw trinkets to neighbors, “you are perfect for this Krewe!”
Boudreaux also suggested that people could hire or buy from out-of-work Carnival artists and suppliers hit by the parade cancellation. A spreadsheet of artists and vendors followed. One of them, artist Dominic “Dom” Graves, booked more than 20 five-person classes in professional papier mache techniques, at $100 a person.
Devin DeWulf, who already had started two pandemic charities as head of the Krewe of Red Beans walking club, kicked the house float idea up a few notches at the suggestion of Caroline Thomas, a professional float designer. Their “Hire a Mardi Gras Artist” crowdfunded lotteries collected enough money to put crews to work decorating 11 houses, plus commissioned work at two more houses and seven businesses.
“We’ve put about 40 people to work, which is nice,” DeWulf said. With Mardi Gras approaching, he said a 12th lottery would be the last.
One commissioned house is rented by a pair of nuns.
Sisters Mary Ann Specha and Julie Walsh, who run a shelter for homeless women with children, had to get permission for their own crowdfunding from the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Dubuque, Iowa. “They loved it,” Specha said.
The crowdfunded decorations may be auctioned after Mardi Gras to raise more money, DeWulf said.
Several mansions along a short stretch of St. Charles Avenue had elaborate displays with signs noting their creation by one of the city’s biggest float-making studios.
Tom Fox, whose wife, Madeline, painted a Spongebob Squarepants scene and made jellyfish from dollar store bowls, said he thinks a new tradition may have begun.
“Even when Mardi Gras comes back, I think people are going to keep doing this,” he said.

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National News

Biden to reopen ‘Obamacare’ markets for COVID-19 relief

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fulfilling a campaign promise, President Joe Biden plans to reopen the HealthCare.gov insurance markets for a special sign-up opportunity geared to people needing coverage in the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden is expected to sign an executive order Thursday, said two people familiar with the plan, whose details were still being finalized. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the pending order ahead of a formal announcement.
Although the number of uninsured Americans has grown because of job losses due to the economic hit of COVID-19, the Trump administration resisted calls to authorize a “special enrollment period” for people uninsured in the pandemic. Failure to repeal and replace “Obamacare” as he repeatedly vowed to do was one of former President Donald Trump’s most bitter disappointments. His administration continued trying to find ways to limit the program or unravel it entirely. A Supreme Court decision on Trump’s final legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act is expected this year.
The White House had no comment on Biden’s expected order, but the two people familiar with the plan said the new enrollment period would not go into effect immediately. Instead, the White House wants to provide time for the Department of Health and Human Services to mount a marketing campaign, and for insurers to get ready for an influx of new customers.
The Obama-era health care law covers more than 23 million people through a mix of subsidized private insurance sold in all states, and expanded Medicaid adopted by 38 states, with Southern states being the major exception. Coverage is available to people who don’t have job-based health insurance, with the Medicaid expansion geared to those with low incomes.
Biden’s order would directly affect HealthCare.gov, the federal insurance marketplace currently serving 36 states. The marketplace concluded a successful annual sign-up season in December, with enrollment for 2021 growing by about 7%. Final numbers for this year that include insurance markets directly run by the states will be available soon.
Opening the insurance markets is also likely to result in higher Medicaid enrollment, since people who qualify for that program are automatically referred.
The special sign-up opportunity is only a down payment on health insurance for Biden, who has promised to build on former President Barack Obama’s health law to push the U.S. toward coverage for all. For that he’d need congressional approval, and opposition to the health law still runs deep among Republicans.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki signaled Tuesday that Biden is also looking at limiting or reversing Trump administration actions that allowed states to impose work requirements for able-bodied low-income adults as a condition of getting Medicaid. Such rules are seen as a way to cull the program rolls.
“President Biden does not believe, as a principle, it should be difficult … for people to gain access to health care,” she said. “He’s not been supportive in the past, and is not today, of putting additional restrictions in place.”
Of some 28 million uninsured Americans before the pandemic, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation estimates, more than 16 million were eligible for some form of subsidized coverage through the health law.
Experts agree that number of uninsured people has risen because of layoffs, perhaps by 5 million to 10 million, but authoritative estimates await government studies due later this year.
Biden’s expected order was first reported by The Washington Post.

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National News

The Hammer makes one last trip to spot where he hit No. 715

ATLANTA (AP) — The Hammer made one last trip to the spot where he hit No. 715.
After a nearly three-hour funeral service Wednesday that featured two former presidents, a long-time baseball commissioner and a civil rights icon, the hearse carrying Hank Aaron’s body detoured off the road bearing his name to swing through the former site of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
That’s where Aaron broke an iconic record on April 8, 1974, eclipsing the home run mark established by Babe Ruth.
The stadium was imploded in 1997 after the Braves moved across the street to Turner Field, replaced by a parking lot for the new ballpark. But the outer retaining wall of the old stadium remains, along with a modest display in the midst of the nondescript lot that marks the exact location where the record-breaking homer cleared the left-field fence.
A steady stream of baseball fans have been stopping by the site — comprised of a small section of fence, a wall and a baseball-shaped sign that says “Hank Aaron Home Run 715” — since “Hammerin’ Hank” died Friday at the age of 86. The fence is now covered with flowers, notes and baseball memorabilia.
Fittingly, Aaron’s funeral procession went by the display on the way to his burial at South-View Cemetery, the oldest Black burial ground in Atlanta and resting place for prominent civil rights leaders such as John Lewis and Julian Bond.
The police-escorted line of cars passed near the gold-domed Georgia state capitol, went under the tower that displayed the Olympic torch during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, and headed down Hank Aaron Drive.
At the bottom of a hill, the procession took a sharp right turn toward the site of the former stadium. Aaron’s flower-covered hearse and all the vehicles that followed did a loop through the circular parking lot, which covers the footprint of the cookie-cutter stadium that became home of the Braves after they moved from Milwaukee in 1966.
It was a touching tribute that capped off several days of remembrances for one of baseball’s greatest players. The Braves held a memorial ceremony Tuesday at their current home, suburban Truist Park.
The funeral service touched as much on Aaron’s life beyond the field as it did his unparalleled baseball accomplishments, honoring his business acumen, charitable donations, and steadfast determination to provide educational opportunities for the underprivileged.
“His whole life was a home run,'” former President Bill Clinton said. “Now he has rounded the bases.”
Clinton said the two became close friends after Aaron endorsed him during the 1992 presidential campaign, helping him pull out a narrow victory in Georgia. Clinton had been the last Democrat to win the state until Joe Biden edged Donald Trump in November.
“For the rest of his life, he never let me forget who was responsible for winning,” Clinton quipped, drawing a few chuckles during the mostly somber ceremony. “Hank Aaron never bragged about anything — except carrying Georgia for me in 1992.”
Bud Selig, who was commissioner of Major League Baseball for more than two decades and another close friend of Aaron’s, said one of his fondest memories was being at Milwaukee’s County Stadium as a fan for the pennant-clinching homer that sent the Braves to the 1957 World Series.
“The only ticket I could get was an obstructed-view seat in the bleachers behind a big, metal post,” the 86-year-old Selig said. “The image of the great Aaron, deliriously happy, being hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates and carried off the field is indelibly imprinted in my memory.”
Andrew Young, a top lieutenant of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil right movement and a former Atlanta mayor, said Aaron helped transform his adopted hometown into one of America’s most influential cities.
The Braves moved to the Deep South during an era of intense racial strife, Young pointed out, but having one of the game’s greatest Black players helped ease some of the tensions.
Atlanta continued its explosive growth, eventually landing such major sporting events as the Olympics, multiple Super Bowls and World Series, as well as numerous college sports championships.
“Just his presence, before he hit a hit, changed this city,” the 88-year-old Young said. “We’ve never been the same.”
Only about 50 people attended the funeral service at Friendship Baptist Church because of COVID-19 restrictions. Others sent videotaped messages, including another former president, Jimmy Carter.
Remembering his tenure as governor of Georgia, the 96-year-old Carter joked that after the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce gave Aaron a new Cadillac, he followed up with “a $10 tag” to go on the vehicle. It said “HLA 715,” a nod to the initials for Henry Louis Aaron.
The two became close friends and even took vacation trips to Colorado with their wives. In one pursuit, at least, Carter was the better athlete.
“Hank and I both learned how to ski together,” Carter said. “He skied fairly well. I was a little bit better than that on skis.”
A longtime Braves fan, Carter noted he was at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the night Aaron hit his iconic home run.
On Wednesday, the Hammer went there for the final time.

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National News

San Francisco to strip Washington, Lincoln from school names

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The names of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and other prominent figures including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein will be removed from 44 San Francisco public schools, a move that stirred debate Wednesday on whether the famously liberal city has taken the national reckoning on America’s racist past too far.
The decision by the San Francisco Board of Education in a 6-1 vote Tuesday night affects one-third of the city’s schools and came nearly three years after the board started considering the idea. The approved resolution calls for removing names that honored historical figures with direct or broad ties to slavery, oppression, racism or the “subjugation” of human beings.
In addition to Washington and Thomas Jefferson — former presidents who owned slaves — the list includes naturalist John Muir, Spanish priest Junipero Serra, American Revolution patriot Paul Revere and Francis Scott Key, composer of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Changing the name of Dianne Feinstein Elementary school, named for the Democratic senator and former mayor of San Francisco, has raised eyebrows. The trailblazing 87-year old’s star has dimmed in recent years with dismayed liberals joining calls for her retirement last year after she embraced Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham at the end of heated confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Feinstein’s spokesman Tom Mentzer said the senator had no comment.
The committee that selected the names included Feinstein on the list because as mayor in 1984 she replaced a vandalized Confederate flag that was part of a long-standing flag display in front of City Hall. When the flag was pulled down a second time, she did not replace it.
“I want to ensure people this in no way cancels or erases history,” San Francisco Board of Education President Gabriela Lopez said, commenting specifically about Feinstein and the wider group as well. “But it does shift from upholding them and honoring them, and these opportunities are a great way to have that conversation about our past and have an opportunity to uplift new voices.”
Lopez said the decision is timely and important and sends a strong message that goes beyond racism tied to slavery and condemns wider “racist symbols and white supremacy culture we see in our country.”
For some San Francisco parents, the brush stroke was too broad.
“This is a bit of a joke. It’s almost like a parody of leftist activism,” said Gerald Kanapathy, a father of two young children, including a kindergartener at a San Francisco school not on the list.
“I don’t particularly mind the notion that some of the schools need to be renamed. There are a lot of questionable choices out there,” he said. “But they sort of decided on this and pushed it through without much community input.”
A group called Families for San Francisco opposed the vote for similar reasons, calling it a “top-down process” in which a small group of people made the decision without consulting experts and the wider school community.
“We think it is very important for the community at large to be engaged to figure out who should be honored with public school names,” said Seeyew Mo, the group’s executive director.
“We would like to have historical experts to provide historical context as we are evaluating people from the past with today’s sensibilities,” he said.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who is Black, called the move poorly timed given the coronavirus pandemic that has kept the city’s schools closed since March.
“Our students are suffering, and we should be talking about getting them in classrooms, getting them mental health support and getting them the resources they need in this challenging time,” Breed said, adding that she supports the discussion of renaming schools but feels it should include parents, students and others and take place when classrooms reopen.
The renaming process was led by a committee created in 2018 to study the names of district schools amid a national reckoning on racial injustice that followed a deadly clash at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The committee was asked to identify schools named for people who were slave owners or had connections to slavery, colonization, exploitation of workers or others, and anyone who oppressed women, children, queer or transgender people. They also sought to change names of schools that honored anyone connected to human rights or environmental abuses or espoused racist or white supremacist beliefs.
Lopez said the schools have until April to suggest new names, which the board will vote on, and the actual renaming “could take a couple of years.”
Historian Harold Holzer cautioned against what he called “a danger of excess” if the country takes a wrecking ball to its past.
“I think there’s a danger in applying 21st-century moral standards to historical figures of one or two centuries ago,” he said. “We expect everyone to be perfect. We expect everyone to be enlightened. But an enlightened person of 1865 is not the same as an enlightened person of 2021.”
Holzer disagrees with the renaming of Abraham Lincoln High School, which the San Francisco committee said was due to the treatment of Native Americans during his administration.
In the midst of the Civil War in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the Confederacy.
“No one deserves more credit for the destruction of slavery,” said Holzer, a Lincoln Scholar and director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House of Public Policy Institute. “Lincoln is much more liberator than he is an abuser on the subject of racial justice.”

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International Headlines

Pope marking Holocaust warns another genocide possible

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis marked Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday by warning that warped ideologies can pave the way to another genocide.
Francis spoke off the cuff at the end of his weekly general audience, held in his private library because of coronavirus restrictions, to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where Nazis killed more than 1 million Jews and others.
In all, about 6 million European Jews and millions of other people were killed by the Germans and their collaborators.
The Argentine pope insisted on the need to remember, saying it was a sign of humanity and a condition for a peaceful future. But he said remembering “also means to be aware that these things can happen again, starting with ideological proposals that claim to save a people and end up destroying a people and humanity.”
He warned that the Holocaust began that way, opening “this path of death, extermination and brutality.”
Francis prayed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial during his 2016 visit to Poland.

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International Headlines

Russia’s Putin warns of worsening global instability

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Wednesday that the world risks sliding deeper into instability as the coronavirus pandemic combines with global rivalries and other international tensions.
Speaking by video link during a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum, Putin pointed at growing inequality and unemployment and a rise of populism as potential triggers for new conflicts that he said could plunge the world into a “dark anti-Utopia.”
“The pandemic has exacerbated the problems and disbalances that have been accumulating,” the Russian leader said. “International institutions are weakening, regional conflicts are multiplying and the global security is degrading.”
Putin hailed the decision by Russia and the United States to extend their last nuclear arms control pact as a positive move, but he added that spiraling tensions have come to resemble the situation before World War II.
“I strongly hope that such ‘hot’ global conflict is impossible now. It would mean the end of civilization,” he said. “But the situation may become unpredictable and spin out of control. There is a real danger that we will face a downturn in global development fraught with an all-out fight, attempts to solve contradictions by searching for internal and foreign enemies, and the destruction of basic traditional values.”
Putin attributed the worsening economic situation to a Western liberal economic model that he said “foments social, racial and ethnic intolerance with tensions erupting even in countries with seemingly long-established civil and democratic institutions.”
The Russian leader pointed to what he described as the negative role of technology companies that run top social networks, charging that they have abused their position and tried to “control the society, replace legitimate democratic institutions and usurp an individual’s right to decide how to live and what views to express.”
“We have seen it all in the United States,” Putin said without elaborating.
Putin also claimed that there has been ” increasingly aggressive pressure on those countries that disagree with a role of obedient satellites, the use of trade barriers, illegitimate sanctions, restrictions in the financial, technological and information spheres.”
Relations between Russia and the West have sunk to post-Cold War lows after Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, Russia’s meddling in the U.S. elections and recently, the poisoning and the subsequent arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
“The era marked by attempts to create a centralized unipolar global order is over now,” Putin said in an apparent reference to the perceived global domination of the U.S.

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International Headlines

China envoy urges EU to develop its ‘strategic autonomy’

BRUSSELS (AP) — China’s envoy to the European Union on Wednesday urged the 27-nation bloc to deepen its ties with his country even further and said that he hoped the EU’s desire for “strategic autonomy” will guide its foreign policy in the future.
The EU is China’s biggest trading partner, but they are also economic competitors, and as Beijing has become more assertive in recent years the bloc has struggled to balance its commercial interests with a country that it sees as “a systemic rival” and has human rights concerns about.
The two sealed a major investment agreement in December, but the EU also expressed concerns about freedom of expression, the intimidation of journalists, as well as the detention of human rights defenders, lawyers, and intellectuals in China.
“China and the EU are comprehensive and strategic partners with 45 years of diplomatic ties. The China-EU relationship has stood the test of time and has a solid basis and a value of its own. It’s not attached to any other major country relations,” Chinese Ambassador Zhang Ming said.
Speaking at a Friends of Europe think-tank event, Zhang said the “EU is a strong advocate for strategic autonomy and open cooperation. Hopefully such a spirit will continue to guide the EU’s foreign policy and contribute to world stability and development.”
As the Trump administration abandoned international agreements and organizations, raising tensions with its allies at NATO, French President Emmanuel Macron underlined the need for Europe to have “strategic autonomy” and better manage its own security needs.
The term has sown confusion about Europe’s intentions, with some countries seeing it as a by-word for acting independently from the United States, others for greater trade protectionism, or even for breaking away from the NATO military alliance. EU foreign ministers are still trying to establish exactly what it means.
Critics say the investment deal, which will give European businesses about the same level of market access in China as those from the United States, risks raising tensions with President Joe Biden’s administration after the EU proposed a trans-Atlantic dialogue to address “the strategic challenge presented by China’s growing international assertiveness.”
Zhang welcomed Biden’s decision to return the United States to the Paris climate change agreement and the World Health Organization, and said he hoped that Biden will help to bring China-U.S. relations “back to a sound and steady track.”
“Confrontation will lead us to a dead end. In addressing the current crises and building back better, the whole of mankind must work together in solidarity,” he said.
Zhang also said that he hopes Beijing’s European friends can take a closer look at his country’s culture, history and realities and “see China in an objective, rational and respectful light; bear in mind the importance of EU-China cooperation for the two sides and the world.”
“It is totally unacceptable to attack and discredit China by lying for political and personal gains,” he said.

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International Headlines

Cyprus to start loosening COVID-19 lockdown next month

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — A steady decrease in new coronavirus infections three weeks into Cyprus’ nationwide lockdown is allowing for the start of the gradual, targeted lifting of closures and restrictions, the country’s health minister said Wednesday.
Constantinos Ioannou said that the first places to reopen as of Feb. 1 will be hair and beauty salons followed a week later by retail stores, shopping malls and elementary schools. Students in their final year of high school will also go back to classes on Feb. 8, while places of worship will again permit a maximum attendance of 50 faithful. The number of people allowed to visit family at home is capped at four people as of Feb. 8
Ioannou said twice-a-day excursions requiring text message approval remain in effect for now because authorities want to avoid “hasty, high-risk actions” that would undermine efforts for a speedy return to normality.
To ensure workplace safety, reopened businesses will be obligated to conduct rapid coronavirus tests to at least 20% of their staff. Ioannou said Cyprus is second among all European Union member states in the number of rapid and PCR testing relative to its population.
The health minister said despite a delay in vaccine procurement, authorities are upbeat about making up lost ground because authorities have ordered “many more” vaccine doses than the country’s 900,000-strong population.
He noted a higher-than expected number of people wishing to be vaccinated and projected that 100,000 people will be vaccinated by the end of March including those over 80 and front-line health care workers.
More testing will be carried out on confirmed infections to determine the spread of the new coronavirus variant within the community, Ioannou said.
Cyprus on Tuesday announced 109 new COVID-19 cases from nearly 11,000 tests, a far cry from 907 cases it reported a month ago. There have been 190 deaths attributed to the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.