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COVID-19 pandemic in Africa is now reaching ‘full speed’

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The COVID-19 pandemic in Africa is reaching “full speed,” the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief said Thursday, while a South African official said a single province is preparing 1.5 million graves.
Just a day after confirmed coronavirus cases across Africa surpassed the half-million milestone the total was over 522,000 and climbing, with more than 12,000 deaths. With testing levels low, the real numbers are unknown.
South Africa has the most confirmed cases with over 224,000, and for the first time Gauteng province — home to Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria — has the country’s most cases with over 75,000, or 33%.
Provincial official Bandile Masuku, a medical doctor, startled South Africans when he told reporters Wednesday that Gauteng is preparing over 1.5 million graves. “It’s a reality that we need to deal with,” he said, and it’s the public’s responsibility “to make sure that we don’t get there.”
But the province in a statement Thursday sought to calm fears, saying it “does not have over a million already open dug graves” and clarified that the official was saying the province has enough space for that many. It also said six members of Gauteng’s COVID-19 War Room have tested positive for the virus.
Modeling has shown that South Africa will have nowhere close to that many deaths in the months ahead. Several models forecast between 40,000 and 80,000 by the end of the year.
Asked about the graves, Africa CDC chief John Nkengasong said “there’s absolutely no harm to think ahead” and prepare for the “worst-case scenario.”
‘We’ve crossed a critical number here,” he said of the half-million milestone. “Our pandemic is getting full speed.”
He called for more mask-wearing, saying “this battle will be won or lost at the community level.” He also called for more testing, as just 5.7 million tests for the new virus have been conducted across the continent of 1.3 billion people.
With painful memories of many people dying in Africa while waiting for accessible HIV drugs years ago, the Africa CDC on Thursday launched a consortium aimed at securing more than 10 late-stage COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials on the continent as early as possible.
“We want to be sure we don’t find ourselves in the 1996 scenario where HIV drugs were available but it took almost seven years for those drugs to be accessible on the continent,” Nkengasong said.
With any COVID-19 vaccine, a “delay in Africa of even one year would be catastrophic,” he said.
He said the new consortium of African institutions will engage with the GAVI vaccine alliance and other entities outside the continent amid efforts to ensure that a vaccine is distributed equitably from the start.
Those efforts are challenged by the United States and others assertively making deals with vaccine makers to secure supplies in advance.
The African Union last month said governments around the world should “remove all obstacles” to swift and equitable distribution of any successful COVID-19 vaccine, including by making all intellectual property and technologies immediately available.
Africa in recent days has begun taking part in COVID-19 vaccine trials in the face of increasing misinformation on the continent. Trials have begun in South Africa and Egypt, but Nkengasong said a “continent of 1.3 billion people deserves more than just two countries participating.”
A vaccine “is the only weapon to allow our lives to return to normal,” he said.
Conducting clinical trials in Africa is crucial to see how a vaccine performs in a local context — “extremely important,” the World Health Organization’s Africa chief, Matshidiso Moeti, told reporters Thursday.
Many life-saving vaccines have lagged between five and 20 years from the time they become available in high-income countries to when they’re available in low-income ones. That’s in part because local data is lacking, said Shabir Madhi, principal investigator of the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trial in South Africa.
Africa has some 17% of the world’s population and less than 3% of its clinical trials, he said. “If anything, the criticism right now shouldn’t be about the possibility of using Africans as guinea pigs.”
Africa sees few trials “because there’s very little financial incentive on the part of industry,” Madhi added. “So the entire conversation needs to be flipped on its head.”

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Regional governor in Russia arrested on murder charges

MOSCOW (AP) — A provincial governor in Russia’s far east has been arrested on charges of involvement in multiple murders, officials said Thursday.
Sergei Furgal, the governor of the Khabarovsk region along the border with China, was arrested in Khabarovsk and was flown to Moscow.
The Investigative Committee, the nation’s top criminal investigation agency, said Furgal is accused of involvement in the murders of several businessmen in the region and nearby territories in 2004 and 2005.
Russian TV stations showed the video of Furgal’s arrest, in which agents removed the 50-year-old governor from his car, searched him and drove him away.
During interrogation in Moscow, Frugal denied the charges, according to the Tass news agency.
President Vladimir Putin will review the charges against Furgal before making a decision on whether to relieve him of his duties, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. In Russia, the president has the authority to fire governors and name acting governors who then face elections.
The Investigative Committee said that four of Furgal’s suspected accomplices were also arrested.
Before defeating a Kremlin-backed rival to win the governor’s seat in 2018, Furgal served as a federal lawmaker on the ticket of the Liberal-Democratic Party for a decade. In 2015-2016, he headed the public health committee in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma.
While Furgal has never challenged Russian government policy, his victory in the gubernatorial election was a humiliating setback for the main Kremlin party, the United Russia.
Liberal-Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky criticized law enforcement agencies over the arrest, arguing that there was no need to put Furgal in handcuffs. He hailed Furgal as “the best governor the region ever had” and warned that the entire party faction of 40 members of the 450-seat Duma may leave the legislature and call on its members to renounce other official posts to protest Furgal’s arrest.
Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin dismissed Zhirinovsky’s demarche as blackmail.
The charges against Furgal date back to the period when he worked as a businessman with interests ranging from imports of consumer goods to timber and metals before launching his political career.
Following the 1991 Soviet collapse, Russia plunged into violent turf battles between rival criminal clans for control over business assets, and contract murders of businessmen were a regular occurrence during the 1990s and the early 2000s.
Alexander Khinshtein, the head of the information and communications committee in the lower house of parliament, said that Russian law enforcement agencies long had been aware of Furgal’s alleged criminal connections.
“I’m not surprised about his arrest. I’m surprised that it happened so late,” he tweeted.

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Albania Holocaust memorial honors locals who protected Jews

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania unveiled a Holocaust memorial in the capital on Thursday to honor the dead and the Albanians who protected Jews from the Nazis.
The marble memorial was put at an entrance to Tirana’s Artificial Lake Park, close to Mother Teresa Square. The inscription was written in three languages — English, Hebrew and Albanian — and it said that “Albanians, Christians and Muslims endangered their lives to protect and save the Jews.”
The Nazis murdered 6 million people, but Albania was the only country where no Jews died or were handed over. Albanians protected their few hundred Jewish friends, and helped other Jews who fled from Germany and Austria by either smuggling them abroad or hiding them at home.
“We are the only country with more Hebrews after World War II, where the Hebrews came in search of protection and salvation,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said.
Nazi German forces occupied Albania from September 1943 until November 1944, when they were pushed out by local communist partisans.
U.S. Ambassador Yuri Kim praised Albanians’ “besa,” or tradition of trust in rescuing Jews.
A small Jewish community living in Albania left the ex-communist country for Israel just after the fall of the regime in 1991.
Israeli Ambassador Noah Gal Gendler highly praised Albania’s example of protecting the Jewish community during the war.
“An excellent example from a small country which highlights the values of humanity, sacrifice and love, values which still stand as fundamental in Albania,” he said. “It would be magnificent if more nations would learn this part of Albania.”

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Singaporeans vote in polls expected to return ruling party

SINGAPORE (AP) — Wearing masks and plastic gloves, Singaporeans began voting Friday in a general election that is expected to return Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s long-governing party to power.
Senior citizens were the first to cast ballots as 1,100 polling stations across the city-state opened at 8 a.m., with strict safety measures in place for Southeast Asia’s first national election since the coronavirus pandemic began. Older voters were scheduled to vote early in the day as protection against the virus, and people being treated for COVID-19 or under quarantine at home were not allowed to vote.
The health crisis and concerns over an economic recession will likely send voters opting for stability under Lee’s People’s Action Party. It faces 10 small opposition parties that are contesting the 93 parliamentary seats mostly on a one-on-one basis against the PAP. The opposition has said it does not want to govern, but urged the 2.65 million eligible voters to reduce the PAP’s overwhelming majority in parliament and deny it a “blank check.”
The PAP has dominated politics since 1959, when Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, became Singapore’s first prime minister and built the resource-poor city-state into one of the world’s richest nations during 31 years in office. In 2015, the party won 69.9% of the total vote and 93% of parliamentary seats. But it has also been criticized for tight government control, media censorship and use of oppressive laws and civil lawsuits against dissidents.
Retiree Dennis Phua, 74 , said the vote shouldn’t have been rushed as the PAP’s five-year mandate would last to April next year. He hopes for louder opposition voices in parliament so the PAP wont be “so arrogant.”
“There are so many things we are not satisfied with. It’s a good government, but the way they do things can be better,” said a masked Phua as he queued outside a school to vote.
But not all agree.
“I hope that it will remain as status quo. For so many years, it has been the same and so far so good,” said homemaker Florence See, 64. She praised the government for putting in place strict measures to protect voters.
Lee has faced opposition from his estranged younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, who said the PAP had turned into an elitist party. The younger Lee joined an opposition party last month but is not running in the election. The prime minister has said the polls are about securing the country’s future, not his family feud.
“We need a strong and capable government. Not only to take decisive action to prevent another major outbreak, but also to save businesses and jobs, which is at the top of everyone’s minds,” Lee said in a televised speech late Thursday.
Singapore’s election follows polls in Mongolia last month and in South Korea in April, when governing parties in both countries scored resounding victories.
The polls come just weeks after the country emerged from a two-month lockdown aimed at controlling one of Asia’s worst virus outbreaks. The tiny nation of 5.8 million people has reported more than 45,000 cases, most of them foreign workers living in crowded dormitories that were overlooked in the early phase of its crisis management.
With the economy forecast to shrink this year by up to 7%, Lee’s government has unveiled several economic assistance packages totaling nearly 100 billion Singapore dollars ($71.7 billion) but warned the full economic impact hasn’t been felt yet.
While coronavirus cases have mostly declined, new daily cases still top 100. The government says the elections can be held safely with the number of polling stations increased from 880 to 1,100 and other safety measures.
All voters are required to wear masks and be screened for fever and respiratory symptoms upon arrival. They must use hand sanitizer and disposable gloves when casting ballots and keep one meter (yard) away from others.
Voters are allocated a two-hour window to cast their ballots to reduce crowding. Election officials wear full personal protective gear and polling booths are sanitized every half hour. The last hour of voting is reserved for those with fever or on stay-home notice after returning from overseas.
Polls will be open 12 hours and results are expected to begin arriving late Friday,

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Lives Lost: Young Venezuelan dreamed of better life in Peru

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Yurancy Castillo did not want to leave her family.
But as inflation in Venezuela soared, rendering her salary as a social worker nearly worthless, the young woman known for her beaming smile and wild amber-colored curls decided her future rested far away, in Peru.
One of her three brothers sold his motorcycle to help her buy the expensive bus ticket for the long journey across four vast nations.
“Don’t worry,” she told her tearful mother before leaving. “I’m going or a better future.”
Those dreams would be stifled time and again.
In Peru, she found jobs selling sewing machines and waitressing, but they paid little. Peruvians, skeptical of Venezuelan arrivals, often made her feel unwelcome. But the biggest thief of dreams proved a diminutive, silent foe.
In May, she came down with a fever and a week later went to the hospital. She was admitted and given oxygen but did not improve. After three weeks in an intensive care unit deep in southern Peru, she died at 30.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from the coronavirus around the world.
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“Children are supposed to bury their parents,” Mery Arroyo, 54, her mother, says. “I never thought my girl would leave before me, in another country.”
Castillo grew up in the city of Barquisimeto, a sprawling metropolis located along the banks of the winding Turbio River. Her father, a transportation coordinator at a milk and yogurt factory, made a modest living but the five Castillo children lived comfortably. Those were the days when Venezuela was still one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations, and there was always plenty of food at the dinner table.
Castillo, the middle child and one of two daughters, stood out at school, where she was chosen multiples times as “class queen.” At school dances, she’d energetically break into the quick footed, percussive dances popular in the region. Her jovial demeanor attracted a bevy of friends who affectionately called her “La Pelua,” a Venezuelan moniker used to refer to women with a bountiful head of curly hair.
As a young adult she took a job with the mayor’s office, surveying vulnerable, elderly residents arriving at a social assistance center in need of medical care. Just as she was embarking on life in her 20s, Venezuela’s economy began to implode. Corruption, mismanagement and political turmoil sent oil production plummeting.
At Castillo’s family home, the power was frequently out and the refrigerator increasingly sparse. Her father’s pension was barely enough to purchase a bag of flour.
So when her boyfriend took off for Peru, she decided to join him – embarking on a new life abroad just as millions of other Venezuelans fleeing their country’s crisis have chosen to do in the last several years.
“In this country, you can no longer live,” her mother says. “We just survive.”
The couple settled in Arequipa, a colonial-era city surrounded by four volcanoes. The money she made working odd jobs was meager but still enough for her parents back home to buy pasta, rice and sometimes chicken. But living in a foreign country was lonely. She asked her siblings to come be with her.
“At least here if you work you can make money,” she told them.
A year later her two older siblings boarded buses to Peru.
The three siblings, along with her 6-year-old nephew, rented a two-bedroom apartment together in the bustling, gray capital of Lima. Castillo worked six days a week selling sewing machines. Life was hard, but at least they were together, they said. Every 15 days the siblings alternated sending money back to their parents.
On Sundays, Castillo’s day off, her sister would make pabellon, a Venezuelan beef stew served with rice and beans. Then they’d explore Lima, visiting the zoo, the parks, and the beach – set alongside a sea of frigid, dark blue water, far different than the warm aqua-colored ocean they had grown up visiting in Venezuela.
Earlier this year, Castillo decided to visit her boyfriend in Arequipa. While there, President Martín Vizcarra ordered the nation on lockdown. All domestic travel ceased. In phone calls, she urged her siblings to stay inside and promised to do the same. Talking to her mother, she expressed frustration about being in Peru. She wanted to go back to Venezuela, start a business, buy her parents new furniture and take them to the beach.
“As soon as this quarantine is over, I’m leaving,” her mom recalled.
In mid-May, she called her sister, worried: She’d come down with a relentless fever and raspy cough. Maybe it was chikungunya, the mosquito-transmitted virus that has some similar symptoms, she reasoned.
Her relatives feared otherwise. They urged her to see a doctor.
The last photograph Castillo’s mother received of her daughter shows her sitting in a chair at the Honorio Delgado Hospital wearing an oxygen mask.
“She could barely speak,” Arroyo says.
Despite having no pre-existing conditions, she deteriorated steadily. Doctors called her boyfriend every day asking for pricey medicines. Friends and family around the continent mounted a campaign on social media to raise funds. Miraculously, they were always able to pull together just enough to buy what she needed.
“She was young, strong, brave,” Emilio Cañizalez, a friend, says. “I thought they could save her.”
Her death on June 17th has stirred sadness and anger. Her mother is angry with a government that she says is responsible for her daughter’s decision to migrate. Her friends are angry with opposition leaders they contacted about Castillo’s illness but did nothing to help. They’re all angry with how Castillo’s story ends.
“This has scarred me,” Cañizalez says. “Now I don’t believe in anybody.”
For now, her ashes rest in a tiny wooden box in Arequipa.
One day, when the pandemic is over, her sister will carry her back to Venezuela.

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WHO experts to visit China as part of COVID-19 investigation

BEIJING (AP) — Two World Health Organization experts will spend the next two days in the Chinese capital to lay the groundwork for a larger mission to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One animal health expert and one epidemiologist during their visit to Beijing on Saturday and Sunday will work to fix the “scope and terms of reference” for the future mission aimed at learning how the virus jumped from animals to humans, the agency’s statement said Friday.
Scientists believe the virus may have originated in bats, then was transmitted through another mammal such such as a civet cat or an armadillo-like pangolin before being passed on to people at a fresh food market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
In an effort to block future outbreaks, China has cracked down on the trade in wildlife and closed some wet markets, while enforcing strict containment measures that appear to have virtually stopped new local infections.
The WHO mission is politically sensitive, with the U.S. — the top funder of the U.N. body — moving to cut ties with it over allegations the agency mishandled the outbreak and is biased toward China.
More than 120 nations called for an investigation into the origins of the virus at the World Health Assembly in May. China has insisted that WHO lead the investigation and for it to wait until the pandemic is brought under control. The U.S., Brazil and India are continuing to see an increasing number of cases.
The last WHO coronavirus-specific mission to China was in February, after which the team’s leader, Canadian doctor Bruce Aylward, praised China’s containment efforts and information-sharing. Canadian and American officials have since criticized him as being too lenient on China.
An Associated Press investigation showed that In January, WHO officials were privately frustrated over the lack of transparency and access in China, according to internal audio recordings. Complaints included that China delayed releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information.
Privately, top WHO leaders complained in meetings the week of Jan. 6 that China was not sharing enough data to assess how effectively the virus spread between people or what risk it posed to the rest of the world, costing valuable time.

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US envoy, after Seoul visit, reassures Japan of alliance

By MARI YAMAGUCHI Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — A U.S. envoy reassured top Japanese officials Friday of the importance of their alliance in dealing with regional security threats, just as the North Korean leader’s sister expressed low expectations of a summit between her brother and President Donald Trump this year.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun is in Tokyo after his visit to Seoul where he discussed nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, which has refused to resume talks due to what it calls hostile American policies.
Biegun met with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Taro Kono separately and reaffirmed the importance of their alliance in maintaining and strengthening “the free and open Indo-Pacific” and dealing with regional concerns including North Korea and China.
Earlier Friday, Kim Yo Jong said her brother won’t be meeting Trump because there is no need for the North to gift Trump meetings when it’s not getting any reward in return. In her statement released through Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency, she called for major concessions from washing ton to keep alive the nuclear diplomacy.
Kim Yo Jong is seen as her brother’s closest confidant and was recently confirmed as his top official for inter-Korean affairs.
South Korea on Thursday asked Biegun to try to revive the talks with the North. He stressed during his meetings in Seoul that resuming the diplomacy with the North was important. But he separately accused a senior North Korean nuclear negotiator who had blamed the deadlocked talks on American hostility of being “locked in an old way of thinking.” Those remarks indicated Washington won’t likely make concessions to resume the talks despite the North’s pressure.
Kim Yo Jong said “a surprise thing may still happen, depending upon the judgement and decision between the two top leaders” but that the U.S. needed summit talks while Pyongyang did not.
North Korea has demanded that the U.S. lift international sanctions and provide a security guarantee if it’s truly committed to talks about the status of its nuclear weapons program.
Some analysts believe North Korea, which is sensitive about potential changes in U.S. leadership, will avoid serious talks with the Americans for now before an eventual return to negotiations after the U.S. presidential election in November.
Kim Yo Jong said that the diplomacy could be salvaged only by a reciprocal exchange of “irreversible simultaneous major steps.”
The nuclear diplomacy has stalled since a second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in early 2019.

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Twins joined at head separated at Vatican pediatric hospital

ROME (AP) — Doctors at the Vatican’s pediatric hospital said Tuesday they have successfully separated conjoined twins whose skulls were fused back-to-back, an exceedingly rare surgery for an equally rare congenital defect.
The twins, Ervina and Prefina Bangalo, were born June 29, 2018 in Mbaiki, Central African Republic with their heads attached and sharing critical blood vessels around their brains. Such cases of conjoined twins occur once in every 2 million births or so.
The Bambino Gesu Pediatric Hospital, which is Vatican-owned but operates within the Italian public health system, brought the twins and their mother to Italy soon after their birth. The hospital said the toddlers are recovering well a month after their third and definitive separation surgery on June 5.
Video released by the hospital showed the girls waving along to music from their beds, clapping and holding markers, as well as celebrating their second birthday in their mother’s arms as hospital staff sang “Happy Birthday” to them in Italian.
The key goal of the surgery was “to obtain a separation with the girls in perfect condition. So the objective we gave ourselves was very ambitious, and we did everything to reach it,” Dr. Carlo Marras, chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Bambino Gesu, said.
Marras led the team that worked for nearly two years planning and executing the separation.
At a press conference to announce the outcome of the sisters’ surgery, Marras said the prognosis was “these girls can have a normal life” after a phase of rehabilitation.
There have been successful separation surgeries in the past of twins joined at the head, but most have been for twins whose heads were fused vertically, at the top. Ervina and Previna’s skulls were joined back-to-back in what is known as “total posterior craniopagus.”
That made the surgery particularly challenging since the back of the head is a far more critical place for blood supply to the brain and drainage of blood away from it, said Dr. Jesse Taylor, head of plastic surgery at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who has participated in some separation surgeries.
“It’s one of those configurations that I think a lot of centers, when they see it, say, ‘You know, we’re not sure that this can be done safely,'” Taylor said. “The venous drainage tends to be the main limiting step for separability” in twins connected at the back of the head.
He said in typical separation surgeries, doctors can “borrow” some blood vessels to give to each twin. “But when it comes to the back of the head, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room for borrowing veins,” Taylor explained.
Marras said that indeed, the most complicated aspect of the Bangalo twins’ separation was to give each child autonomous venous drainage systems — procedures that began with two surgeries in May and June 2019. The final, 18-hour surgery last month to physically separate them involved a team of 30 doctors and nurses, who made use of 3-D imaging and neurosimulators.
Before the separation surgery, members of the Vatican hospital’s staff gave the girls mirrors so they could see one another. They knew what each other sounded like, but the mirrors helped them associate facial expressions with their personalities and sounds, Marras said.
“It was an experience that wasn’t just professional but above all human: to think that you can arrive at something that we had only imagined, with all the possibilities of failure. It was a magical moment. Marvelous,” he said.
Marras said there was only one previously known case of a separation of twins conjoined at the back of the head, performed in the United States during the 1980s. He said the outcome in that case was poor.
He was referring to the 1987 surgery at Johns Hopkins University by a team led by Dr. Ben Carson, who is now U.S. President Donald Trump’s housing secretary. Both twins suffered serious neurological problems; an Associated Press story from 1989, two years after the surgery, said one of the boys was in a vegetative state and the other had severe developmental delays.
In the case of the sisters from Central African Republic, Marras said the girls so far have suffered no neurological harm.
The twins’ mother, Ermine Nzotto, wiped tears from her eyes as she watched a video prepared by the hospital of the twins’ before and after their separation. Nzotto said she never went to school but hopes her daughters would study to become doctors.
“It’s a joy, that I can see my girls run and play like other children. May they tomorrow study and learn to become doctors to save the other children of this world,” she said through an interpreter.
The mother thanked Marras, the hospital president and Pope Francis, who visited Central African Republic’s capital of Bangui in 2015 and has since strongly supported Bambino Gesu’s collaboration with the pediatric hospital there.
Nzotto said she also hopes that Francis will now baptize her girls.
Hospital President Mariella Enoc had met the twins soon after they were born during a visit to the Central African Republic and was the driving force behind bringing them to Rome and seeing if they could be separated.
She said deciding to do so created ethical and economic questions, since the cost of 1 million euros ($1.1 million) paid for primarily by the hospital foundation could have been spent on less-risky procedures that might have benefited more children.
But Enoc said: “When you find a life that can be saved, you have to save it.”

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Mexico president heads to Washington for meeting with Trump

MEXICO CITY (AP) — For his first foreign trip as president, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador travels to Washington Tuesday to meet with President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly taken shots at Mexico and Mexican migrants to rally his base.
The visit, coming just four months before U.S. elections, has many Mexicans cringing. Trump has insulted them, threatened crippling tariffs to strongarm Mexico into playing an uncomfortable role in U.S. immigration policy and insisted they will pay for a border wall meant to keep migrants out of the U.S.
But López Obrador has had a surprisingly warm relationship with Trump. He likes to point out that more recently Trump helped Mexico reach a deal with other oil-producing nations to cut production and aided Mexico in obtaining more ventilators to face the coronavirus pandemic. Both presidents talk about a blossoming friendship that seems to stem from their pursuit of unapologetically nationalist agendas.
López Obrador hints at the real reason for the trip when he reels off U.S. economic statistics — the size of the U.S. pandemic stimulus package, the number of jobs the U.S. got back in June. Mexico’s economy was in recession before the pandemic, has shed about 1 million jobs since and is forecast to contract this year by as much as 10%.
“This helps us by being neighbors,” López Obrador said Tuesday, before departing. “This is about the economy, it’s about jobs, it’s about well-being.”
There is no doubt Trump will try to use the visit to his advantage. The encounter will draw attention to a trade accord replacing one Trump said was a bad deal and will allow the president to bash former Vice President Joe Biden for voting in favor of the old North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump could stir his base with sharp words for Mexico or simply play up López Obrador’s desire to express his gratitude.
In 2016, Trump, then a candidate for the presidency, visited López Obrador’s predecessor, an invitation for which President Enrique Peña Nieto was harshly criticized, inlcuding by López Obrador. Trump left that visit and flew to Arizona where he railed against immigrants.
López Obrador, a pragmatist and nationalist above all, knows there is no more important ally than the behemoth to the north, especially as Mexico’s economy plunges deeper into recession. If Trump wins a second term, López Obrador could be calculating he’ll have a friend for the remaining four years of his administration. If the Democrats take office, he trusts they will respect the importance of the bilateral relationship and not hold a grudge.
“Maybe he’s making the right bet and we don’t know it,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She expects Trump to use the visit to rally his base, perhaps even reviving the claim that Mexico will pay for the border wall, a topic López Obrador repeatedly dodged Tuesday.
“He’s conscious of what can happen,” she said. “It happened to Peña Nieto. It can easily happen to him.”
López Obrador insists that he has no desire to be drawn into U.S. domestic politics. He says he’s going to mark the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which took effect July 1.
“There is no way (López Obrador) can spin this visit in his favor,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Payan said the trade accord doesn’t merit wading into U.S. political waters. “The (trade) agreement is done, finished and in force,” he said. “There is no need to thank anyone. There is no need to express any kind of gratitude. There is no need for a pilgrimage.”
That’s a decision Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently reached in deciding not to attend the meeting.
On Monday, López Obrador added another reason.
“If we have a good relationship with the United States government, we are going to avoid mistreatment” of Mexicans living in the U.S., López Obrador said. López Obrador has repeatedly raised the importance of the remittances sent home by migrants and praised them as heroes.
Payan said immigration is always on the bilateral agenda, but he sees little chance for Mexico winning any concessions from Trump, whose administration continues to curtail legal and illegal immigration.
“I think Trump is more interested in restricting access to the American labor market today more than ever,” Payan said.
Mexico’s worrisome level of violence — 2019 saw the highest number of murders on record — could be an opening. López Obrador could ask for more U.S. assistance in intelligence or tracking drug traffickers’ financial transactions. He says he won’t undermine Mexico’s sovereignty and has been a harsh critic of the Merida Initiative that brought U.S. financial and material support to Mexico as his predecessors battled the cartels.
For Trump, the visit is an opportunity to criticize his opponent for supporting NAFTA more than two decades ago, possibling helping garner votes in the Midwest states where workers blamed the old trade deal for prompting U.S. companies to shift manufacturing to Mexico, where labor costs were lower.
Trump said replacing the “disastrous NAFTA trade deal” was one of the biggest promises he made to his supporters in 2016. Trade was perhaps the single biggest reason he ran for president in the first place, Trump says.
He is fond of saying that after NAFTA was created, the U.S. lost one in four manufacturing jobs while asserting that the new deal will create nearly 100,000 new, high-paying American auto jobs, boost exports for U.S. farmers and ranchers and increase trade with Mexico and Canada.
Trump is correct that the United States has lost nearly 4 million factory jobs since that pact took effect in January 1994. But most economists attribute the losses more to the recessions of 2001 and 2007-2009, automation and low-cost competition from China.
Biden has said he didn’t regret voting for NAFTA during his time in the Senate. “Fair trade is important,” Biden has said. “Not free trade. Fair trade. And I think that back in the time during the Clinton administration, it made sense at the moment.”
From López Obrador’s perspective, a good relationship with whoever occupies the White House is Mexico’s best policy.
“We’re going to offer our opinion, but we’re not planning for confrontation,” López Obrador said Tuesday. “We’re going to look to convince, we’re going to seek understanding.”

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Serbs storm parliament after virus lockdown announced

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Thousands of protesters fought running battles with police and tried to storm the parliament building in Belgrade on Tuesday after the Serbian president announced that a coronavirus lockdown will be reintroduced in the Balkan country.
Police fired several rounds of tear gas at the protesters, some chanting “Resignation! Resignation!” as they gathered in front of the downtown parliament building in the Serbian capital. Some of the protesters briefly managed to enter the parliament by force, but were pushed back by riot police.
The protesters responded by hurling flares, stones, bottles and eggs at the police. Several clashes erupted between some of the most extremist rioters apparently belonging to far-right groups and the baton-wielding police.
Protesters also clashed with police in front of the state TV building. The broadcaster is accused by the opposition of having a pro-government bias.
A number of police vehicles were set on fire.
Serbian police director Vladimir Rebic told the state television that a number of demonstrators have been detained and police officers injured, but did not specify how many. He said smaller protests were also held in other Serbian cities.
“I appeal to the citizens … to help ease the tensions,” Rebic said. “I’m certain police will respond adequately and prevent any form of hooligan behavior.”
Earlier, President Aleksandar Vucic called the virus situation in Belgrade “alarming” and “critical” as the city’s hospitals neared their capacity limits after health officials reported highest single-day death toll from the coronavirus on Tuesday.
Vucic said the government would reimpose a curfew as of Friday. He said it will “probably” last from 6 p.m. on Friday till 5 a.m. on Monday. He also said the groups of no more than five people will be allowed together.
Many blame the autocratic Serbian president for lifting the previous lockdown measures just so he would cement his grip on power after parliamentary elections. He has denied those claims.
Soccer and tennis matches were played in packed stands and the election was held on June 21 despite warnings from experts that the mass gatherings without social distancing could lead to a new coronavirus wave.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic denounced the protest, saying the state will protect law and order and accused opposition politicians of being behind the storming of parliament.
“I strongly condemn the vandalism of politicians who are behind the violent break into the Serbian Parliament at the moment when the state and the health system face the toughest blow from the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic,” Brnabic said.
The country’s Health Ministry said Tuesday that 13 people had died in 24 hours in Serbia and 299 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed.
That brought the total to 16,719 confirmed cases and 330 virus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic in Serbia, which went from having one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns to a near-complete reopening at the beginning of May.