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China cancels Everest climbs over fears of virus from Nepal

BEIJING (AP) — China has canceled attempts to climb Mount Everest from its side of the world’s highest peak because of fears of importing COVID-19 cases from neighboring Nepal, state media reported.
The closure was confirmed in a notice Friday from China’s General Administration of Sport, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
The move reflects the abundance of caution China has taken in dealing with the pandemic. While China has mostly curbed domestic transmission of the coronavirus, Nepal is experiencing a surge with record numbers of new infections and deaths.
China had issued permits to 38 people, all Chinese citizens, to climb the 8,849-meter (29,032-foot) -high mountain this spring. Nepal has given permission to 408 people. Climbing was not allowed from either side last year because of the pandemic.
In Nepal, several climbers have reported testing positive for COVID-19 after they were brought down from the Everest base camp.
The month of May usually has the best weather for climbing Everest. Scores have reached the summit this week and more are expected to make attempts later this month once the weather improves. Two climbers have died on the Nepalese side, one Swiss and one American.
China earlier said it would set up a separation line at the peak and prohibit people on its side from coming into contact with anyone on the Nepalese side. It was unclear how that would be done.
An expert climbing guide, Lukas Furtenbach of Austria, said he was calling off his current Everest attempt with a team of over a dozen climbers from the Nepalese side because of virus fears.
“We ended our expedition today because of safety concerns with the given COVID outbreak,” Furtenbach said in a message from base camp. “We don’t want (to) send people or Sherpas up, they (could) get sick high up there and die.”
Before leaving for the mountain, he had warned that the virus could spread among the hundreds of other climbers, guides and helpers who are now camped on the base of Everest if all of them are not checked immediately and safety measures aren’t taken.

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US climate envoy Kerry meets with pope on climate crisis

VATICAN CITY (AP) — John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, met privately with Pope Francis on Saturday, afterward calling the pope a “compelling moral authority on the subject of the climate crisis” who has been “ahead of the curve.”
The former U.S. Secretary of State told Vatican News that the pope’s embrace of climate issues “hopefully can push people to greater ambition to get the job done.”
Kerry is visiting European capitals to strengthen cooperation on climate change ahead of the next round of U.N. climate talks in Glasgow this November.
Kerry said United States, the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, must take a lead in cutting emissions and be joined by other big emitting countries.
“Everybody shares an obligation here. No one country can get this job done. If the United States was at zero emissions tomorrow, we’d still have crisis,” Kerry said.
The United States, which is responsible for 11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, has set a target under Biden of reducing emissions over the next decade by 50% to 52%, Kerry said.
Another 20 developed countries are responsible for 73.75% of emissions, he added.
“We need other big emitting countries to step up and also offer some reductions. You can’t just keep going along with a coal-fired power plant or with more coal coming online and really be the part of the solution that we need,” Kerry said.

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Myanmar junta attacks western town that resisted coup

BANGKOK (AP) — The U.S. and British embassies in Myanmar expressed concern about reports of fierce government attacks on a town in western Chin state, where the ruling junta declared martial law because of armed resistance to military rule.
The fighting began around 6 a.m. Saturday when government troops reinforced by helicopters began shelling the western part of the town of Mindat, destroying several homes, said a spokesman of the Chinland Defence Force. It is a locally formed militia group opposed to the February coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Helicopters also took part in the attack, according to the spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Mindat town is now under siege and is bracing for an all-out assault by the junta troops from air and by land,” said a statement by the Chin Human Rights Organization.
The shadow National Unity Government, set up by lawmakers who were blocked by the army from taking their seats in Parliament, warned that “within the next 48 hours, Mindat can potentially become a battleground and thousands of people are facing the danger of being displaced.” Many have already left the town of about 50,000 people, said a resident contacted by phone who was also fleeing.
The Mindat Township People’s Administration, another opposition grouping, claimed that 15 young men had been seized by government troops and used as human shields. It said at least five defenders of the town had been killed in clashes and at least 10 others wounded.
None of these details could be independently verified, but a Myanmar state television broadcast Saturday night reported that fighting was going on, and acknowledged the town’s defenders have been putting up stiff resistance against the army.
“The military’s use of weapons of war against civilians, including this week in Mindat, is a further demonstration of the depths the regime will sink to to hold onto power,” the British Embassy said on Twitter. “We call on the military to cease violence against civilians.”
The U.S. Embassy said it was “aware of increasing violence in Mindat, including reports of the military shooting civilians,” and urged that evidence of atrocities be sent to U.N. investigators.
Detailed tallies compiled by several different watchdog groups say government security forces have killed upwards of 750 protesters and bystanders as they have tried to suppress opposition to the military’s seizure of power. In April, security forces were accused of killing more than 80 people in one day to destroy street barricades that militants had set up as strongholds in the city of Bago.
In many or most cases, police and soldiers were trying to break up peaceful protests, though as they increased the use of lethal force, some protesters fought back in self-defense. In recent weeks there has been an upsurge in small bombings in many cities, mostly causing little damage and few casualties.
The junta says the death toll is less than 300, and the use of force was justified to quash what it calls riots.
Mindat’s resisters are only lightly armed, mostly with a traditional type of single-shot hunting rifle, but the territory around the town is mountainous and wooded, favoring defenders over attackers.
The report on state television MRTV listed past attacks on government forces and installations, most recently on Thursday, when it claimed a force of about 100 blocked security forces from entering the town, destroying one vehicle and leaving an unspecified number of security forces dead and missing.
In a later attack, it said, an even bigger force was said to have launched an attack from the city on security forces patrolling nearby, destroying six vehicles and causing an unspecified number of government casualties.
The opposition government earlier this month announced a plan to unify groups such as the Chinland Defense Force into a national “People’s Defense Force,” which would serve as a precursor to a “Federal Union Army” of democratic forces including ethnic minorities.
Khin Ma Ma Myo, deputy defense minister of the shadow government, said one of the duties of the People’s Defense Force is to protect the resistance movement from military attacks and violence instigated by the junta.

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Afghan cease-fire ends amid calls for fresh peace talks

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A three-day cease-fire marked by violent attacks — most claimed by the Islamic State group — ended Sunday in Afghanistan amid calls for renewed peace talks between the government and Taliban.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the negotiating teams of the government and the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban refer to their ousted regime, met briefly Saturday in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar. They renewed their commitment to finding a peaceful end to the war and called for an early start to talks that have been stalled, he said.
The U.S. has been pressing for accelerated talks as it withdraws the last of its 2,500-3,500 soldiers and NATO its remaining 7,000 allied forces.
Even as the Taliban and government signed on to the cease-fire, which was declared to mark the Islamic holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, violence continued unabated in Afghanistan. A bombing Friday in a mosque north of the capital killed 12 worshippers, including the prayer leader. Another 15 people were wounded. The Taliban denied involvement and blamed the government intelligence agency.
In a statement Sunday, the IS affiliate took responsibility for the mosque attack, saying its fighters planted an explosive device in “a worship place for disbelievers Sufis,” killing the “apostate Imam,” or prayer leader. The statement claimed 40 worshipers were wounded.
The IS also claimed it blew up several electrical grid stations over the weekend. That left the capital Kabul in the dark for much of the three-day holiday that followed the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
In posts on its affiliated websites, IS claimed additional attacks over the last two weeks that destroyed 13 electrical grid stations in several provinces. The stations bring imported power from the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The attacks have left nine provinces including Kabul with disrupted power supplies, said Sanger Niazai, a government spokesman. There was also concern that local warlords, demanding protection money from the government to safeguard stations in areas they control, may have been behind some of the destruction.
At least one local warlord was arrested last year after demanding protection money.
The seemingly unstoppable violence in Afghanistan has residents and regional countries fearful the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO soldiers could lead to further chaos. Washington said it wants its last soldier out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 at the latest, but the withdrawal is progressing quickly and a Western official familiar with the exit said it is likely to be completed by early July. He spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the withdrawal are not being made public.
On Saturday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed concern about the rapid withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces in a phone call with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Wang called the withdrawal hasty and warmed it would “severely” impact the Afghan peace process and negatively affect regional stability, He called on the United Nations to play a greater role.

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West Bank erupts in protest amid more Israel-Hamas fighting

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Turmoil from the battle between Israel and Hamas spilled over into the West Bank on Friday, sparking the most widespread Palestinian protests in years as hundreds of young demonstrators in multiple towns clashed with Israeli troops, who shot and killed at least 11 people.
Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip continued into early Saturday, when an airstrike on a house in Gaza City killed at least seven Palestinians — the highest number of fatalities in a single hit. That strike came a day after a furious overnight barrage of tank fire and airstrikes that wreaked destruction in some towns, killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands fleeing their homes.
The Israeli military said the operation involved 160 warplanes dropping some 80 tons of explosives over the course of 40 minutes and succeeded in destroying a network of tunnels used by Hamas to elude airstrikes and surveillance.
Israel appeared determined to inflict as much damage as possible on Gaza’s Hamas rulers before international efforts for a cease-fire accelerated. Since Monday night, Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, which has pounded the Gaza Strip with strikes. In Gaza, at least 126 people have been killed, including 31 children and 20 women; in Israel, seven people have been killed, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.
Houda Ouda said she and her extended family ran frantically into their home in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, seeking safety as the earth shook in the darkness.
“We even did not dare to look from the window to know what is being hit,” she said. When daylight came, she saw the destruction: streets cratered, buildings crushed or with facades blown off, an olive tree burned bare, dust covering everything.
The latest airstrike targeted a three-story house on the edge of a refugee camp. Said Alghoul, who lives nearby, said Israeli warplanes dropped at least three bombs on the home without warning residents in advance.
“I could not endure and ran back to my home,” he said. Rescuers called a bulldozer to dig through the rubble for survivors or bodies.
Shortly afterward, Hamas said it fired a salvo of rockets at southern Israel in response to the airstrike.
The conflict, which was sparked by tensions in Jerusalem during the past month, has reverberated widely. Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations have seen daily violence, with mobs from each community clashing and trashing each other’s property. New clashes broke out Friday in the coastal city of Acre.
In the occupied West Bank, on the outskirts of Ramallah, Nablus and other towns and cities, hundreds of Palestinians protested against the Gaza campaign and Israeli actions in Jerusalem. Waving Palestinian flags, they trucked in tires that they set up in burning barricades and hurled stones at Israeli soldiers. At least 10 protesters were shot and killed by soldiers. An 11th Palestinian was killed when he tried to stab a soldier at a military position.
In east Jerusalem, online video showed young Jewish nationalists firing pistols as they traded volleys of stone with Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, which became a flashpoint for tensions over attempts by settlers to forcibly evict a number of Palestinian families from their homes.
On Israel’s northern border, troops opened fire when a group of Lebanese and Palestinian protesters on the other side cut through the border fence and briefly crossed. One Lebanese was killed. Three rockets were fired toward Israel from neighboring Syria, but they either landed in Syrian territory or in empty areas, Israeli media said. It was not immediately known who fired them.
The spiraling violence has raised fears of a new Palestinian “intifada,” or uprising, at a time when the peace process has been virtually nonexistent for years. The tensions began in east Jerusalem earlier this month, with Palestinian protests against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a frequent flashpoint located on a mount in the Old City revered by Muslims and Jews.
Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday, in an apparent attempt to present itself as the champion of the protesters. In the conflict that spiraled from there, Israel says it wants to inflict as much damage as it can on Hamas’ military infrastructure in Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Hamas would “pay a very heavy price” for its rocket attacks. Israel called up 9,000 reservists Thursday to join its troops massed at the Gaza border.
An Egyptian intelligence official said Israel had turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year cease-fire that Hamas had accepted. The official, who was close to Egypt’s talks with both sides, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal negotiations.
On Friday, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel-Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr, arrived in Israel as part of an attempt by Washington to de-escalate the conflict.
U.S. President Joe Biden gave a show of support to Netanyahu in a call a day earlier, saying “there has not been a significant overreaction” in Israel’s response to Hamas rockets. He said the aim is to get a “significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks.”
Hamas has fired some 2,000 rockets toward Israel since Monday, according to the Israeli military. Most have been intercepted by anti-missile defenses, but they have brought life to a standstill in southern Israeli cities, caused disruptions at airports and have set off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children, ages 7 and under, were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced their four-story apartment building to rubble in the neighboring town of Beit Lahia, residents said. Four strikes hit the building, Rafat’s brother Fadi said. The building’s owner and his wife also were killed.
“It was a massacre,” said Sadallah Tanani, another relative. “My feelings are indescribable.”
When the sun rose Friday, residents streamed out of the area in pickup trucks, on donkeys and on foot, taking pillows, blankets, pots and pans and bread. Thousands took shelter inside 16 schools run by the United Nations relief agency UNWRA, agency spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said.
Mohammed Ghabayen, who took refuge in a school with his family, said his children had eaten nothing since the day before, and they had no mattresses to sleep on. “And this is in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis,” he said. “We don’t know whether to take precautions for the coronavirus or the rockets or what to do exactly.”
Israeli military officials cheered the operation as a successful blow against the tunnel network. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said 160 warplanes operated in a “synchronized manner” for about 40 minutes as part of the operation.
He said the military aims to minimize collateral damage in striking military targets. But measures the military takes in other strikes, such as warning shots to get civilians to leave, were not “feasible this time.”
Military correspondents in Israeli media said the military believed dozens of militants were killed inside the tunnels. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, but the Israeli military said the real number is far higher.
“We turned the tunnels which they thought were death traps for our soldiers into traps for them.” Reserve Air Force Col. Koby Regev said on Israeli television.

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UK races to test, vaccinate as virus variant threatens plans

LONDON (AP) — Britain deployed public health officials, supported by the army, to distribute coronavirus tests door-to-door in two northern England towns on Saturday in an effort to contain a fast-spreading variant that threatens plans to lift all lockdown restrictions next month.
Cases of a strain first identified in India have more than doubled in a week, defying a sharp nationwide downward trend in infections won by months of restrictions and a rapid vaccination campaign. Government scientific advisers say the variant is likely more transmissible than the U.K.’s dominant strain, though it’s unclear by how much.
“If the virus is significantly more transmissible, we are likely to face some hard choices,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a news conference on Friday. “I have to level with you that this could be a serious disruption to our progress.”
He said the next stage of lockdown-easing measures would take place as planned on Monday, but warned the variant might delay plans to lift all restrictions, including social distancing and face-covering rules, on June 21.
Johnson said soldiers would help carry out “surge testing” in Bolton and Blackburn in northwest England, where pop-up vaccination sites were also being set up to speed the inoculation drive.
The government’s scientific advisory committee says there is no evidence so far that the variant causes more severe disease or that existing vaccines won’t work against it. More than two-thirds of British adults have received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 37% have had both doses.
The government is shortening the gap between doses for people over 50 from 12 to eight weeks in a bid to give them more protection.
The government’s Scientific Group for Emergencies says the Indian-identified variant, formally known as B.1.617.2, could be up to 50% more transmissible than one first recorded in southeast England last year that is now the U.K.’s dominant strain. But they say there is a high level of uncertainty about the exact figure.
Mark Walport, a member of the advisory group, said the new variant had “intensified” the race between the virus and vaccines.
“The knife edge on which the race sits has just sharpened,” he said.
Britain has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest reported toll in Europe. But new infections have plummeted to an average of around 2,000 a day, compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter peak, and deaths have fallen to single figures a day.
Restrictions that have curbed travel, commerce and daily life for months are gradually being lifted. Starting Monday, restaurants and pubs in England can open indoors, museums, theaters, cinemas and hotels can reopen, and people can once again hug friends and family members they don’t live with.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following similar but slightly different paths. The Scottish government is keeping the city of Glasgow and the northern area of Moray under restrictions because of rising case numbers there.
Critics said the government should have acted sooner to ban travelers from India, which has been gripped by a devastating coronavirus outbreak.
Labour Party lawmaker Yvette Cooper said the government had not barred visitors arriving from India until April 23, a decision that let in “many hundreds of new variant cases.”
“This was predictable but it was not inevitable,” she said.

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Back-to-back tornadoes kill 12 in China; over 300 injured

BEIJING (AP) — Back-to-back tornadoes killed 12 people in central and eastern China and left more than 300 others injured, authorities said Saturday.
Eight people died in the inland city of Wuhan on Friday night and four others in the town of Shengze, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) east in Jiangsu province, local governments said.
The first tornado struck Shengze about 7 p.m., damaging homes and factories and knocking out power, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The Suzhou city government, which oversees the town, said in a social media post that four people had died and 149 others had minor injuries. Shengze is near Shanghai on China’s east coast.
Another tornado hit Wuhan at about 8:40 p.m. with winds of 86 kilometers (53 miles) per hour, destroying more than two dozen homes and triggering a power outage affecting 26,600 households, Xinhua said. Officials in Wuhan said at a news conference Saturday that eight had died and 230 were injured.
They said that 28 homes collapsed in Wuhan, another 130 were damaged and put economic losses at 37 million yuan ($5.7 million), the Hubei Daily newspaper said. Construction site sheds and two cranes were also damaged, while downed power lines knocked out electricity, Xinhua said.
Photos showed a swarm of rescuers searching through building debris in Wuhan after midnight Friday and workers clearing metallic debris at a factory in Shengze in the morning.
Wuhan is the city where COVID-19 was first detected in late 2019.
Tornados are rare in China. In July 2019, a tornado killed six people in the northeastern Liaoning province, and another tornado the following month killed eight on the southern resort island of Hainan.
In 2016, a tornado and accompanying hailstorm killed 98 people in the eastern Jiangsu province.

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UK jubilant as lockdown restrictions to be lifted next week

LONDON (AP) — When London’s Science Museum reopens next week, it will have some new artifacts: empty vaccine vials, testing kits and other items collected during the pandemic, to be featured in a new COVID-19 display.
Britain isn’t quite ready to consign the coronavirus to a museum — the outbreak is far from over here. But there is a definite feeling that the U.K. has turned a corner, and the mood in the country is jubilant. “The end is in sight,” one newspaper front page claimed recently. “Free at last!” read another.
Thanks to an efficient vaccine rollout program, Britain is finally saying goodbye to months of tough lockdown restrictions.
Starting Monday, all restaurants and bars in England can reopen with some precautions in place, as can hotels, theaters and museums. And Britons will be able to hug friends and family again, with the easing of social distancing rules that have been in place since the pandemic began.
It’s the biggest step yet to reopen the country following an easing of the crisis blamed for nearly 128,000 deaths, the highest reported COVID-19 toll in Europe.
Deaths in Britain have come down to single digits in recent days. It’s a far cry from January, when deaths topped 1,800 in a single day amid a brutal second wave driven by a more infectious variant first found in Kent, in southeastern England.
New cases have plummeted to an average of around 2,000 a day, compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter.
There are still worries. British authorities have expressed anxiety about a rise in cases of a coronavirus variant first identified in India. Government officials are poised to order further action, including door-to-door testing in the worst-affected areas. One response being considered is moving up the date for a second dose of vaccine for eligible groups to increase protection.
British health officials have raced to get ahead of the virus by vaccinating hundreds of thousands of people a day at hospitals, soccer pitches, churches and a racecourse. As of this week, almost 38 million people — approximately 68% of the adult population — have received their first dose. Almost 19 million have had both doses.
It’s an impressive feat, and many credit Britain’s universal public health system for much of the success.
Experts say the National Health Service, one of the country’s most revered institutions, is able to target the whole population and easily identify those most at risk because almost everyone is registered with a local general practitioner.
That infrastructure, combined with the government’s early start in securing vaccine doses, was key. British authorities began ordering millions of doses from multiple manufacturers late last spring, striking deals months ahead of the European Union and securing more than enough vaccine to inoculate the entire population.
“I don’t think it’s surprising that the two countries in the world with probably the strongest primary care systems, which are us and Israel, are doing the best with vaccine rollout,” said Beccy Baird, a policy researcher at the King’s Fund, a charity for improving health care.
“We have the medical records. We can understand where our patients are. We’re not trying to negotiate with loads of different insurance companies. … It’s the same standard right through the country,” she added. “Whereas in the States, it’s going to be harder to really think about how do you reach underserved communities, how do you get out there and provide the same access to everybody to this vaccine?”
David Salisbury, a former director of the government’s immunization program and a fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank, added that Britain also has the edge because of its track record in successfully rolling out other vaccines, such as the seasonal flu shot.
Many around the world were skeptical about Britain’s decision to delay the second dose by up to 12 weeks to free up vaccine for more people, but that strategy also paid huge dividends. The two shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were intended to be given three and four weeks apart.
Anthony Harnden, an Oxford academic and a top government vaccination adviser, said “there were lots of questions asked” and “we were up against many countries” who disagreed with spacing out the two doses, but officials stuck to the plan.
“You have to remember, looking back at that time, there were a thousand or more people dying every day in the U.K. So there was a huge imperative to get our vulnerable people vaccinated,” he said. “It was an innovative strategy, a bold strategy, but it was based on our experience of previous vaccines.”
The vaccine program’s success has been a much-needed boost for Britain.
Many of those who accuse the government of poorly managing the outbreak last year say the U.K. is finally doing something right.
“We didn’t hand (the vaccine rollout) over to an outsourcing company. That would have been a major failure. And we also didn’t delay the way we did in the first wave. We moved quickly,” said Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “So it was almost like the mirror image of the mistakes we made in the first wave.”
Still, McKee said he is worried that too many people may throw caution to the wind too soon.
Young people, who run a much lower risk of serious illness but can still spread the virus, are not included in the vaccination program. Official figures also show significant gaps in vaccine uptake among minorities and poor people.
McKee and many others are also concerned about the variants that are turning up. That risk is especially worrying as the U.K. slowly reopens to foreign tourists this summer.
“We’ve seen very discouraging evidence from Chile and from the Seychelles, both of which have high proportions of people who have been vaccinated and where many restrictions were lifted, and they’ve had upsurges,” McKee said.
Harnden is more optimistic. If the U.K. can roll out a booster vaccine program later this year and if people remain cautious, he said, “we can get ourselves out of this” and get close to normal by the summer of 2022.
“We’re not completely out of this yet,” he said, “but we’re in a much, much better place than in the last few months.”

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Misinformation surges amid India’s COVID-19 calamity

NEW DELHI (AP) — The man in the WhatsApp video says he has seen it work himself: A few drops of lemon juice in the nose will cure COVID-19.
“If you practice what I am about to say with faith, you will be free of corona in five seconds,” says the man, dressed in traditional religious clothing. “This one lemon will protect you from the virus like a vaccine.”
False cures. Terrifying stories of vaccine side effects. Baseless claims that Muslims spread the virus. Fueled by anguish, desperation and distrust of the government, rumors and hoaxes are spreading by word of mouth and on social media in India, compounding the country’s humanitarian crisis.
“Widespread panic has led to a plethora of misinformation,” said Rahul Namboori, co-founder of Fact Crescendo, an independent fact-checking organization in India.
While treatments such as lemon juice may sound innocuous, such claims can have deadly consequences if they lead people to skip vaccinations or ignore other guidelines.
In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.” Life began to resume, and so did attendance at cricket matches, religious pilgrimages and political rallies for Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.
Four months later, cases and deaths have exploded, the country’s vaccine rollout has faltered and public anger and mistrust have grown.
“All of the propaganda, misinformation and conspiracy theories that I’ve seen in the past few weeks has been very, very political,” said Sumitra Badrinathan, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who studies misinformation in India. “Some people are using it to criticize the government, while others are using it to support it.”
Distrust of Western vaccines and health care is also driving misinformation about sham treatments as well as claims about traditional remedies.
Satyanarayan Prasad saw the video about lemon juice and believed it. The 51-year-old resident of the state of Uttar Pradesh distrusts modern medicine and has a theory as to why his country’s health experts are urging vaccines.
“If the government approves lemon drops as a remedy, the … rupees that they have spent on vaccines will be wasted,” Prasad said.
Vijay Sankeshwar, a prominent businessman and former politician, repeated the claim about lemon juice, saying two drops in the nostrils will increase oxygen levels in the body.
While Vitamin C is essential to human health and immunity, there is no evidence that consuming lemons will fight off the coronavirus.
The claim is spreading through the Indian diaspora, too.
“They have this thing that if you drink lemon water every day that you’re not going to be affected by the virus,” said Emma Sachdev, a Clinton, New Jersey, resident whose extended family lives in India.
Sachdev said several relatives have been infected, yet continue to flout social distancing rules, thinking a visit to the temple will keep them safe.
India has also experienced the same types of misinformation about vaccines and vaccine side effects seen around the world.
Last month, the popular Tamil actor Vivek died two days after receiving his COVID-19 vaccination. The hospital where he died said Vivek had advanced heart disease, but his death has been seized on by vaccine opponents as evidence that the government is hiding side effects.
Much of the misinformation travels on WhatsApp, which has more than 400 million users in India. Unlike more open sites like Facebook or Twitter, WhatsApp — which is owned by Facebook — is an encrypted platform that allows users to exchange messages privately.
The bad information online “may have come from an unsuspecting neighbor who is not trying to cause harm,” said Badrinathan, the University of Pennsylvania researcher. “New internet users may not even realize that the information is false. The whole concept of misinformation is new to them.”
Hoaxes spread online had deadly results in 2018, when at least 20 people were killed by mobs inflamed by posts about supposed gangs of child kidnappers.
WhatsApp said in a statement that it works hard to limit misleading or dangerous content by working with public health bodies like the World Health Organization and fact-checking organizations. The platform has also added safeguards restricting the spread of chain messages and directing users to accurate online information.
The service is also making it easier for users in India and other nations to use its service to find information about vaccinations.
“False claims can discourage people from getting vaccines, seeking the doctor’s help, or taking the virus seriously,” Fact Crescendo’s Namboori said. “The stakes have never been so high.”

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Lightning suspected of killing 18 Asiatic elephants in India

GAUHATI, India (AP) — Lightning is believed to have killed a herd of 18 wild Asiatic elephants in remote northeastern India, a forest official said Friday.
The elephants, including five calves, were found dead during rains in the protected Kondali forest reserve, wildlife official Jayanta Goswami said. The forest guard reached the remote area Thursday and found 14 elephants dead atop a hill and four at its bottom.
Preliminary reports by veterinarians said the elephants were struck by lightning, but Goswami said autopsies were being done to ascertain the exact cause of death.
The reserve is in Assam state’s Nagaon district, 150 kilometers (95 miles) east of Gauhati, the state capital.
Assam is home to an estimated 6,000 or more wild Asiatic elephants who constantly come out of the forests in search of food.
Conservationists have urged the government to prevent encroachment of people and to establish free corridors for the elephants to move between forests safely. In recent years, wild elephants have entered villages, destroyed crops and even killed people.