Monday, November 29, 2021

President Joe Biden speaks as he announces that he is nominating Jerome Powell for a second four-year term as Federal Reserve chair, during an event in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Biden also nominated Lael Brainard as vice chair, the No. 2 slot at the Federal Reserve. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh=Newsis)
President Joe Biden speaks as he announces that he is nominating Jerome Powell for a second four-year term as Federal Reserve chair, during an event in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Biden also nominated Lael Brainard as vice chair, the No. 2 slot at the Federal Reserve. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh=Newsis)

Democrats and climate activists generally supported President Joe Biden’s decision to release a record 50 million barrels of oil from America’s strategic reserve, even as the move appeared to contradict his long-term vision of combating climate change.
 

The U.S. action, announced Tuesday in coordination with countries such as India, the United Kingdom and China, is aimed at global energy markets and helping lower gasoline prices that have risen more than a dollar per gallon since January. But it could also undermine Biden’s climate goals, including a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.


 Some leading climate hawks, however, said they were not concerned by the move because they see it as a short-term fix to meet a specific problem. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has focused on combating climate change, said Biden was “taking effective action to protect Americans from oil price gouging” even as the administration continues to boost renewable energy that it hopes will eventually mean less dependence on fossil fuels.


 “This is what reserves are for – defending our economy against disruption,? Markey tweeted. “Profiteering can’t go unanswered, especially as Big Oil makes billions and fuels the climate crisis through exports.?


 The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an emergency stockpile to preserve access to oil in case of natural disasters, national security issues and other events. Maintained by the Energy Department, the reserves are stored in caverns created in salt domes along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts. There are roughly 605 million barrels of petroleum in the reserve.


 Markey and other Democrats had urged Biden to release oil from the reserve to ease prices on consumers. There have also been calls on the president to reinstate a ban on crude oil exports that was lifted in 2015. Biden has made no move to reimpose the export ban, which was repealed by congressional Republicans in a bid to assert U.S. energy dominance and promote domestic production.


 Biden has authority under the legislation to declare an emergency and limit or stop oil exports for up to a year but is not expected to do so.


 Kelly Sheehan, senior director of energy campaigns with the Sierra Club, hailed Biden’s actions as a way to ease Americans’ energy burdens. But she said the current spike in oil prices was a reminder that “the only way to truly achieve energy security is to rapidly transition away from risky fossil fuels like oil and gas and make it easier for more people to access clean energy.?


 Lorne Stockman, research director of Oil Change International, an environmental group focused on creating a “fossil-free future,? said Biden should have acted sooner, if only to counter a barrage of Republican criticism blaming him for high gasoline prices.


 “Presidents are always blamed for high gas prices, whether they have anything to do with it or not,? Stockman said, calling the measure a small step to bring short-term relief to American consumers.


 Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, Biden said the rise in gas prices made the move necessary and that it wouldn’t distract from his larger ambitions of moving toward energy independence.


 “My effort to combat climate change is not raising the price of gas,” Biden said. “What it is doing is increasing the availability of jobs building electric cars like the one I drove … in a GM factory in Detroit last week.”


 Americans who buy electric cars will save up to $1,000 in fuel costs this year, Biden said, “and we’re going to put those savings within reach of more Americans and create jobs installing solar panels, batteries and electric heat pumps. We can make our economy and consumers less vulnerable to these sorts of price spikes when we do that.”


 Biden said the White House was looking into potential price gouging by oil companies squeezing customers while making money off lower costs. And Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said U.S. companies were keeping production below pre-pandemic levels in order to increase profits.


 The coronavirus pandemic has roiled energy markets. As closures began in April 2020, demand collapsed and oil futures prices turned negative. Energy traders did not want to get stuck with crude that they could not store. But as the economy recovered, prices jumped to a seven-year high in October.


 Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., called Biden’s use of the strategic reserve, along with calls for OPEC and Russia to increase production, “desperate attempts to address a Biden-caused disaster” and no substitute for increased American energy production.

 Lukas Ross, manager of climate and energy justice at Friends of the Earth, another environmental group, said the spike in gas prices shows that “our continued dependence on a volatile compound that is literally cooking the climate is exactly why we need” Biden’s sweeping social and environmental bill approved as quickly possible.


 The $2 trillion bill, which has been approved in the House and is pending in the Senate, includes about $550 billion for climate change efforts, including proposals to boost wind and solar power and support electric vehicles. Republicans unanimously oppose the measure.
 

Biden has said the U.S. needs to transition away from oil dependence, and “now is the moment to keep that promise by urgently speeding the transition to electric cars and a renewable energy grid,” said Kassie Siegel, director of a climate law institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group.


 “Price volatility will always be part of Big Oil’s playbook,” she added. “Let’s break their stranglehold on our economy once and for all.” (AP=Newsis)

Taliban fighter stand near the flags in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi=Newsis)
Taliban fighter stand near the flags in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi=Newsis)

The Taliban were in full control of Kabul’s international airport on Tuesday, after the last U.S. plane left its runway, marking the end of America’s longest war and leaving behind a quiet airfield and Afghans outside it still hoping to flee the insurgents’ rule.

Vehicles raced back and forth along the Hamid Karzai International Airport’s sole runway on the northern, military side of the airfield. Before dawn broke, heavily armed Taliban fighters walked through hangars, passing some of the seven CH-46 helicopters the State Department used in its evacuations before rendering them unflyable.

Taliban leaders later symbolically walked across the runway, marking their victory while flanked by fighters of the insurgents’ elite Badr unit.

“The world should have learned its lesson and this is the enjoyable moment of victory,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a livestream posted by a militant.

Later speaking to Al-Jazeera Arabic on the airport’s tarmac, Mujahid rejected having a caretaker government and insisted that Kabul remained safe.

“There will be security in Kabul and people should not be concerned,” he said.

Taliban fighters greeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi=Newsis)
Taliban fighters greeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi=Newsis)

Taliban fighters draped their white flags over barriers at the airport as others guarded the civilian side of the airfield. Inside the terminal, several dozen suitcases and pieces of luggage were left strewn across the floor, apparently left behind in the chaos. Clothes and shoes also were scattered. A poster of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed anti-Taliban fighter, had been destroyed.

The airport had seen chaotic and deadly scenes since the Taliban blitzed across Afghanistan and took Kabul on Aug. 15. Thousands of Afghans besieged the airport, some falling to their death after desperately hanging onto the side of an American C-17 military cargo jet. Last week, an Islamic State suicide attack at an airport gate killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.

But on Tuesday, after a night that saw the Taliban fire triumphantly into the air, guards now blearily on duty kept out the curious and those still somehow hoping to catch a flight out.

“After 20 years we have defeated the Americans,” said Mohammad Islam, a Taliban guard at the airport from Logar province, cradling a Kalashnikov rifle. “They have left and now our country is free.”
“It’s clear what we want. We want Shariah (Islamic law), peace and stability,” he added.

Mohammad Naeem, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, similarly praised the takeover in an online video early Tuesday.

“Thank God all the occupiers have left our country completely,” he said, congratulating fighters by referring to them as mujahedeen, or holy warriors. “This victory was given to us by God. It was due to 20 years of sacrifice by the mujahedeen and its leaders. Many mujahedeen sacrificed their lives.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative who oversaw America’s talks with the Taliban, wrote on Twitter that “Afghans face a moment of decision & opportunity” after the withdrawal.

“Their country’s future is in their hands. They will choose their path in full sovereignty,” he wrote. “This is the chance to bring their war to an end as well.”

But the Taliban face what could be a series of major crises as they fully take over the government. The majority of the billions of dollars Afghanistan holds in foreign reserves is now frozen in America, pressuring its now-depreciating Afghani currency. Banks have implemented withdrawal controls, fearing runs on their deposits in the uncertainty. Civil servants across the country say they haven’t received their salary in months.

Medical equipment remains in short supply, while thousands who fled the Taliban’s advance remain living in squalid conditions. A major drought also has cut into the country’s food supplies, making its imports even more important and raising the risk of people going hungry.

Militiamen loyal to Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, take part in a training exercise, in Panjshir province, northeastern Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. The Panjshir Valley is the last region not under Taliban control following their stunning blitz across Afghanistan. Local fighters held off the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban a decade later under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a guerrilla fighter who attained near-mythic status before he was killed in a suicide bombing in 2001. (AP Photo/Jalaluddin Sekandar=Newsis)
Militiamen loyal to Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, take part in a training exercise, in Panjshir province, northeastern Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. The Panjshir Valley is the last region not under Taliban control following their stunning blitz across Afghanistan. Local fighters held off the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban a decade later under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a guerrilla fighter who attained near-mythic status before he was killed in a suicide bombing in 2001. (AP Photo/Jalaluddin Sekandar=Newsis)

During the evacuation, U.S. forces helped evacuate over 120,000 U.S. citizens, foreigners and Afghans, according to the White House, making it the largest airlift in the history of the American military. Coalition forces also evacuated their citizens and Afghans. But for all who got out, foreign nations and the U.S. acknowledged they didn’t evacuate all who wanted to go.

At the airport’s eastern gate, a handful of Afghans still tried their luck to get in, hoping for any flight. As of now, however, commercial airlines are not flying into the airport and it remains unclear who will take over managing the country’s airspace. On their way out, the U.S. military warned pilots the airport was “uncontrolled” and “no air traffic control or airport service are available.”

Several of those trying to come into the airport came from Kandahar province, the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan that saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting. One of the men, Hekmatullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, carried paperwork he said showed he worked as a translator.

Hekmatullah said he had waited four days for an opportunity to leave.
“But now I don’t know what chances I have,” he said.(AP=Newsis)

A sign warns of extreme heat danger as people walk on salt flats in Badwater Basin, Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Death Valley National Park, Calif. Death Valley in southeastern California's Mojave Desert reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit (53 Celsius) on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service's reading at Furnace Creek. The shockingly high temperature was actually lower than the previous day, when the location reached 130 F (54 C). (AP Photo/John Locher=Newsis))
A sign warns of extreme heat danger as people walk on salt flats in Badwater Basin, Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Death Valley National Park, Calif. Death Valley in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit (53 Celsius) on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service’s reading at Furnace Creek. The shockingly high temperature was actually lower than the previous day, when the location reached 130 F (54 C). (AP Photo/John Locher=Newsis))

Firefighters working in searing weather struggled to contain a Northern California wildfire that continued to grow Sunday and forced the temporary closure of a major highway, one of several large blazes burning across the U.S. West amid another heat wave that shattered records and strained power grids.

In Arizona, two firefighters died Saturday after a plane they were in crashed during a survey of a small wildfire in rural Mohave County. The Beech C-90 aircraft was helping perform reconnaissance over the lightning-caused Cedar Basin Fire, near the tiny community of Wikieup, when it went down around noon.

The two firefighters were the only people on board. Officials identified one of them as Jeff Piechura, a retired Tucson fire chief who was working for the U.S. Forest Service. The name of the other was withheld until relatives could be notified. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

In California, officials asked all residents to reduce power consumption quickly after a major wildfire in southern Oregon knocked out interstate power lines, preventing up to 5,500 megawatts of electricity from flowing south into the state.

The California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s power grid, said Saturday the Bootleg Fire took three transmission lines off-line, straining electricity supplies as temperatures in the area soared.

“The Bootleg Fire will see the potential for extreme growth today,” the National Weather Service in Medford, Oregon, tweeted Sunday.

Pushed by strong winds, the blaze exploded to 224 square miles (580 square kilometers) as it raced through heavy timber in Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest, near the Klamath County town of Sprague River.

To the southeast, the largest wildfire of the year in California was raging near the border with Nevada. The Beckwourth Complex Fire – a combination of two lightning-caused blazes burning 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Lake Tahoe – showed no sign of slowing its rush northeast from the Sierra Nevada forest region after doubling in size between Friday and Saturday.

Late Saturday, flames jumped U.S. 395, which was closed near the small town of Doyle in California’s Lassen County. The lanes reopened Sunday, and officials urged motorists to use caution and keep moving along the key north-south route where flames were still active.

“Do not stop and take pictures,” said the fire’s Operations Section Chief Jake Cagle. “You are going to impede our operations if you stop and look at what’s going on.”

Cagle said structures had burned in Doyle, but he didn’t have an exact number. Bob Prary, who manages the Buck-Inn Bar in the town of about 600 people, said he saw at least six houses destroyed after Saturday’s flareup. The fire was smoldering Sunday in and around Doyle, but he feared some remote ranch properties were still in danger.

“It seems like the worst is over in town, but back on the mountainside the fire’s still going strong. Not sure what’s going to happen if the wind changes direction,” Prary said. Erratic winds were a concern for firefighters, Cagle noted, with gusts expected to reach 20 mph (32 kph).

The blaze, which was only 9% contained, increased to 131 square miles (339 square kilometers). Temperatures in the area could top 100 degrees (37 Celsius) again Sunday.

It was one of several fires threatening homes across Western states that were expected to see triple-digit heat through the weekend as a high-pressure zone blankets the region.

Death Valley in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit (53 Celsius) on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service’s reading at Furnace Creek. The shockingly high temperature was actually lower than the previous day, when the location reached 130 F (54 C).

Death Valley also recorded a 130-degree day in August of last year. If that reading and the one Friday are confirmed by experts as accurate, they will be the hottest highs recorded there since July 1913, when the Furnace Creek desert hit 134 F (57 C), considered the highest measured temperature on Earth.

The National Weather Service warned the dangerous conditions could cause heat-related illnesses.

Palm Springs in Southern California also hit a record high temperature of 120 F (49 C) Saturday, while Las Vegas tied the all-time record high of 117 F (47 C).

NV Energy, Nevada’s largest power provider, also urged customers to conserve electricity Saturday and Sunday evenings because of the heat wave and wildfires affecting transmission lines throughout the region.
In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little mobilized the state’s National Guard to help fight fires sparked after lightning storms swept across the drought-stricken region. (AP=Newsis)

Smoke caused by Israeli airstrikes are seen at a residential building in Gaza City, early Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra=Newsis)
Smoke caused by Israeli airstrikes are seen at a residential building in Gaza City, early Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra=Newsis)

Israel stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, flattening a high-rise building used by the Hamas militant group and killing at least three militants in their hideouts on Tuesday as Palestinian rockets rained down almost nonstop on parts of Israel.

It was the heaviest fighting between the bitter enemies since 2014, and it showed no signs of slowing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to expand the offensive, while Gaza militants unleashed a fierce late-night barrage of rockets that set off air-raid sirens and explosions throughout the densely populated Tel Aviv metropolitan area.

Five Israelis, including three women and a child, were killed by rocket fire Tuesday and early Wednesday, and dozens of people wounded. The death toll in Gaza rose to 35 Palestinians, including 10 children, according to the Health Ministry. Over 200 people were wounded.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed during clashes with Israeli troops that entered al-Fawar refugee camp in southern Hebron, the ministry said.

In another sign of widening unrest, demonstrations erupted in Arab communities across Israel, where protesters set dozens of vehicles on fire in confrontations with police.

The fighting between Israel and Hamas was the most intense since a 50-day war in the summer of 2014. In just over 24 hours, the current round of violence, sparked by religious tensions in the contested city of Jerusalem, increasingly resembled that devastating war.

The booms of Israeli airstrikes and hisses of outgoing rocket fire could be heard in Gaza throughout the day, and large plumes of smoke from targeted buildings rose into the air. Israel resumed a policy of airstrikes aimed at killing wanted militants and began to take down entire buildings – a tactic that drew heavy international criticism in 2014.

In Israel, the nonstop barrages of rocket fire left long streaks of white smoke in their wake, while the explosions of anti-rocket interceptors boomed overhead. Air-raid sirens wailed throughout the day, sending panicked residents scurrying for cover.

In a nationally televised address, Netanyahu said that Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant groups “have paid, and I tell you here, will pay a heavy price for their aggression.”

He claimed that Israel had killed dozens of militants and inflicted heavy damage on hundreds of targets.

“This campaign will take time,” he said. “With determination, unity and strength, we will restore security to the citizens of Israel.”

He stood alongside Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a political rival, in a show of unity. “There are lots of targets lined up. This is only the beginning,” Gantz said. The military said it was activating some 5,000 reservists and sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border.

The current violence has coincided with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a time of heightened religious sentiments.

Critics say heavy-handed Israeli police measures in and around Jerusalem’s Old City helped stoke nightly unrest. Another flashpoint has been the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians are under threat of eviction by Jewish settlers.

Confrontations erupted last weekend at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Over four days, Israeli police fired tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs at the forces. At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque.

On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza. From there on, the escalation was rapid.

In a televised address, Hamas’ exiled leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel bore responsibility. “It’s the Israeli occupation that set Jerusalem on fire, and the flames reached Gaza,” he said.

Palestinian health officials gave no breakdown on the death toll in Gaza, but Islamic Jihad confirmed that three senior commanders were killed in a strike on their hideout in a Gaza City apartment building. The Health Ministry said 10 children and a woman were also killed.

Netanyahu said Israel had attacked hundreds of targets. The fiercest attack was a set of airstrikes that brought down an entire 12-story building. The building housed important Hamas offices, as well as a gym and some start-up businesses. Israel fired a series of warning shots before demolishing the building, allowing people to flee and there were no casualties.

Israeli aircraft heavily damaged another Gaza City building early Wednesday. The nine-story structure housed residential apartments, medical companies and a dental clinic. A drone fired five warning rockets before the bombing. Israel said Hamas had intelligence offices and the group’s command responsible for planning attacks on Israeli targets in the occupied West Bank.

Fighter jets struck the building again after journalists and rescuers had gathered around. There was no immediate word on casualties. The high-rise stood 200 meters (650 feet) away from the Associated Press bureau in Gaza City, and smoke and debris reached the office.

Soon after the bombing, Hamas announced that it would resume its attacks and aimed 100 rockets at the Israeli desert town of Beer-Sheva. Hamas said the renewed barrage was in response to the strike on the building. The latest rocket attack early Wednesday killed a man and his seven-year-old daughter in the central city of Lod, according to Israel’s Kan public radio.

The Israeli military said hundreds of rockets were launched toward Israel. Two women, including an Indian caregiver, were killed in separate rocket strikes in the southern city of Ashkelon.

Then, late at night, Hamas said it unleashed a barrage of 130 rockets toward Tel Aviv in response to the destruction of the high-rise. As the rockets rose into the skies, mosques across Gaza blared with chants of “God is great,” “victory to Islam” and “resistance.”

One rocket killed a woman in the city of Rishon LeZion, and another struck a bus in the nearby city of Holon, wounding three people, including a young girl.
The violence was beginning to spill over to Israel’s own Arab population.

In Lod, thousands of mourners joined a funeral for an Arab man killed by a suspected Jewish gunman the previous night. The crowd clashed with police, and set a synagogue and some 30 vehicles, including a police car, on fire, Israeli media reported. Paramedics said a 56-year-old man was seriously hurt after his car was pelted with stones.

The city’s mayor, Yair Revivo, described the situation in the mixed Jewish-Arab city as “civil war,” and the government ordered a deployment of paramilitary border guards from the West Bank to Lod.

In neighboring Ramle, ultra-nationalist Jewish demonstrators were filmed attacking cars belonging to Arabs. In the norther port town of Acre, protesters torched a Jewish-owned restaurant and hotel. Police arrested dozens of others at Arab protests in other towns.

Diplomats sought to intervene, with Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations working to deliver a cease-fire. All three serve as mediators between Israel and Hamas.

The U.N. Security Council planned to hold its second closed emergency meeting in three days Wednesday on the escalating violence, an indication of growing international concern. Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private, said the U.N.’s most powerful body did not issue a statement because of U.S. concerns that it could escalate tensions.

The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.

Netanyahu has been caretaker prime minister since an inconclusive parliamentary election in March. After failing to form a coalition government by a deadline last week, his political rivals have now been given the opportunity.
The support of an Arab-backed party with Islamist roots is key for the anti-Netanyahu bloc. But the current tensions might deter the party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, from joining a coalition with Jewish parties, at least for the time being.

The sides have three more weeks to reach a deal. If they fail, Israel would likely begin an unprecedented fifth election campaign in just over two years. (AP=Newsis)

(210427) -- MUMBAI, April 27, 2021 (Xinhua) -- People wearing face masks wait for vaccination in Goregaon, a western suburb in Mumbai, India, April 26, 2021. (Str/Xinhua=Newsis)
(210427) — MUMBAI, April 27, 2021 (Xinhua) — People wearing face masks wait for vaccination in Goregaon, a western suburb in Mumbai, India, April 26, 2021. (Str/Xinhua=Newsis)

India crossed a grim milestone Wednesday of 200,000 people lost to the coronavirus as a devastating surge of new infections tears through dense cities and rural areas alike and overwhelms health care systems on the brink of collapse.

The health ministry reported a single-day record 3,293 COVID-19 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing India’s total fatalities to 201,187, as the world’s second most populous country endures its darkest chapter of the pandemic yet.

The country also reported 362,757 new infections, a new global record, which raised the overall total past 17.9 million. The previous high of 350,000 on Monday had capped a five-day streak of recording the largest single-day increases in any country throughout the pandemic.

India, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, is the fourth to cross 200,000 deaths, behind the United States, Brazil and Mexico. And as in many nations, experts believe the coronavirus infections and fatalities in India are severe undercounts.

The first known COVID-19 death in India happened on March 12, 2020, in southern Karnataka state. It took five months to reach the first 50,000 dead. The toll hit 100,000 deaths in the next two months in October 2020 and 150,000 three months later in January this year. Deaths slowed until mid-March, only to sharply rise again.

For the past week, more than 2,000 Indians have died every day.
India thought it had weathered the worst of the pandemic last year, but the virus is now racing through its population and systems are beginning to collapse.

Hospitalizations and deaths have reached record highs, overwhelming health care workers. Patients are suffocating because hospitals’ oxygen supplies have run out. Desperate family members are sending SOS messages on social media, hoping someone would help them find oxygen cylinders, empty hospital beds and critical drugs for their loved ones. Crematoriums have spilled over into parking lots, lighting up night skies in some cities.

With its health care system sinking fast, India is now looking at other nations to pull it out of the record surge that is barreling through one state and then another.

Many countries have offered assistance, including the U.S., which has promised to help with personal protective equipment, tests and oxygen supplies. The U.S. will also send raw materials for vaccine production, strengthening India’s capacity to manufacture more AstraZeneca doses.

Health experts say huge gatherings during Hindu festivals and mammoth election rallies in some states have accelerated the unprecedented surge India is seeing now.

They also say the government’s mixed messaging and its premature declarations of victory over the virus encouraged people to relax when they should have continued strict adherence to physical distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large crowds.

The national capital New Delhi is in lockdown, as are the southern states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Some other states, too, have enforced restrictions in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

India has also called on its armed forces to help fight the devastating crisis. India’s chief of Defense Staff, General Bipin Rawat, said late Monday that oxygen supplies would be released from armed forces reserves and its retired medical personnel would join health facilities to ease the pressure on doctors.
Meanwhile, India’s vaccination program appears to be struggling. So far nearly 10% of the country’s population have received one jab, but just over 1.5% have received both vaccines.

Indians 18 and older will be eligible for a vaccine from Saturday.
Meanwhile, the loss of lives is accelerating.

Radha Gobindo Pramanik is among the countless Indians who lost a family member to the virus. His daughter, Navanita Paramanik Rajput, died on April 18.

At first, Rajput complained of colds and fever. But when the 37-year-old’s oxygen levels started to drop, her father and husband decided to take her to a government hospital.

Pramanik said she came out of the ambulance smiling but by the time her husband finished filling the hospital registration form, her daughter was gasping for breath.

“Before I could understand anything, she collapsed in the arms of her husband,” Pramanik said, sobbing. (AP=Newsis)

Anti-coup protesters stand beside a burning tire as they fortify their position against the military during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar on Tuesday March 30, 2021. Thailand’s prime minister denied Tuesday that his country’s security forces have sent villagers back to Myanmar who fled from military airstrikes and said his government is ready to shelter anyone who is escaping fighting.(AP Photo=Newsis)
Anti-coup protesters stand beside a burning tire as they fortify their position against the military during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar on Tuesday March 30, 2021. Thailand’s prime minister denied Tuesday that his country’s security forces have sent villagers back to Myanmar who fled from military airstrikes and said his government is ready to shelter anyone who is escaping fighting.(AP Photo=Newsis)

Protesters in Myanmar on Thursday marked two months since the military seized power by again defying the threat of lethal violence and demonstrating against its toppling of the country’s democratically elected government.

Security forces have escalated violence and routinely shot protesters but have been unable to crush the massive public resistance to the Feb. 1 coup. International condemnation and sanctions imposed by Western nations on the military regime have failed to restore peace.

In Yangon, the country’s biggest city, a group of young people gathered shortly after sunrise Thursday to sing songs honoring the more than 500 protesters killed so far. They then marched through the streets chanting slogans calling for the fall of the junta, the release of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the return of democracy.
Protests were also held in Mandalay and elsewhere.

The demonstrations followed a night of violence including police raids and several fires. In Yangon, several retail shops owned in whole or part by Myanma Economic Holdings Ltd., an investment arm of the military, went up in flames. The shops are also targets of boycotts by the protest movement.

The crisis in the Southeast Asian nation has expanded sharply in the past week, both in the number of protesters killed and with military airstrikes against the guerrilla forces of the Karen ethnic minority in their homeland along the border with Thailand. The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar warned the country faces the possibility of civil war, a stark reversal for the country that had been progressing slowly toward greater democracy following decades of brutal military rule.

In areas controlled by the Karen, more than a dozen civilians have been killed since Saturday and more than 20,000 have been displaced, according to the Free Burma Rangers, a relief agency operating in the area.

The U.N. Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia called on countries in the region on Thursday “to protect all people fleeing violence and persecution in the country” and “ensure that refugees and undocumented migrants are not forcibly returned,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The U.N. Security Council late Thursday strongly condemned the use of violence against peaceful protesters. The press statement was unanimous but weaker than a draft that would have expressed its “readiness to consider further steps,” which could include sanctions. China and Russia, both permanent Council members and both arms suppliers to Myanmar’s military, have generally opposed sanctions.

In addition to the deaths reported by the relief agency, an airstrike on a gold mine in Karen guerrilla territory on Tuesday killed as many as 11 more people, according to a local news outlet and an education worker in touch with residents near the site.

Saw Kholo Htoo, the deputy director of the Karen Teacher Working Group, said residents told him five people were killed at the mine and six others at a nearby village. The Bago Weekly Journal also reported the attack.

“Our soldiers know how to escape, but the airstrike killed the civilians,” said Saw Thamein Tun, a central executive committee member of the Karen National Union, the leading political body representing the Karen minority.

About 3,000 Karen villagers have fled to Thailand in recent days, but many have returned under unclear circumstances. Thai authorities said they went back voluntarily after a brief stay, but aid groups say they are not safe and many remain in hiding in the jungle and in caves on the Myanmar side of the border.

An opposition group consisting of elected lawmakers who were not allowed to be sworn into office Feb. 1 has put forth an interim charter to replace Myanmar’s 2008 constitution. By proposing greater autonomy for ethnic minorities, the group’s move could help ally the armed ethnic militias active in border areas with the mass protest movement based in cities and towns.

On Thursday, demonstrators in several areas burned copies of the 2008 constitution to celebrate the move by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the country’s legislature, which calls itself the legitimate government.

In Mandalay, protesters burned pages under the gaze of Buddhist monks who gave their backing with the three-fingered salute adopted by the resistance.

The 2008 constitution ensured military dominance by reserving it enough seats in the legislature to block any charter changes and by retaining control of key government ministries.

In seeking an alliance with ethnic minority armed groups, the ousted lawmakers hope to form a joint army as a counterweight to the government armed forces.

More than a dozen ethnic minority groups have sought greater autonomy from the central government for decades, sometimes through armed struggle. Even in times of peace, relations have been strained and cease-fires fragile.

Several of the major groups – including the Kachin, the Karen and the Rakhine Arakan Army – have denounced the coup and said they will defend protesters in their territories.

Ousted leader Suu Kyi, already charged with four minor criminal offenses, is facing an additional one of violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which is punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment, said one of her lawyers, Khin Maung Zaw.

He said Suu Kyi and Australian economist Sean Turnell, who served as her adviser and was also detained on the day of the coup, were officially charged on March 25 in a Yangon court. He provided no other details.

The junta has announced it is also investigating Suu Kyi for alleged corruption, and has presented video testimony on state television of a business tycoon and a fellow politician accusing her of accepting large amounts of cash and gold. Her supporters dismiss the accusations as politically motivated and aimed at preventing her return to politics.

A hearing that Suu Kyi attended by video was held Thursday at a court in the capital, Naypyitaw, to discuss her legal representation. (AP=Newsis)

Protesters shout slogans and flash three-finger salutes during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. Police in Myanmar escalated their crackdown on demonstrators against this month’s military takeover, deploying early and in force on Saturday as protesters sought to assemble in the country’s two biggest cities and elsewhere. (AP Photo=Newsis)
Protesters shout slogans and flash three-finger salutes during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. Police in Myanmar escalated their crackdown on demonstrators against this month’s military takeover, deploying early and in force on Saturday as protesters sought to assemble in the country’s two biggest cities and elsewhere. (AP Photo=Newsis)

Police in Myanmar’s biggest city fired tear gas Monday at defiant crowds who returned to the streets to protest last month’s coup, despite reports that security forces had killed at least 18 people a day earlier.

The protesters in Yangon were chased as they tried to gather at their usual meeting spot at the Hledan Center intersection. Demonstrators scattered and sought in vain to rinse the irritating gas from their eyes, but later regrouped.

The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar after five decades of military rule. It came Feb. 1, the same day a newly elected Parliament was supposed to take office. Ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party would have led that government, but instead she was detained along with President Win Myint and other senior officials.

The army has leveled several charges against Suu Kyi – an apparent effort by the military to provide a legal veneer for her detention and potentially to bar her from running in the election the junta has promised to hold in one year. On Monday, Suu Kyi made a court appearance via videoconference and was charged with two more offenses, her lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters.

Accused of inciting unrest, she was charged under a law that dates from British colonial days and has long been criticized as a vaguely defined catch-all statute that inhibits freedom of expression. That charge carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison. The other charge from Monday carries a one-year sentence.

Following her detention on the day of the coup, the 75-year-old Suu Kyi was initially held at her residence in the capital of Naypyitaw, but members of her National League for Democracy party now say they don’t know where she is.

Since the takeover, a movement of protests in cities across the country has been growing – and the junta’s response has become increasingly violent.

The U.N. said it had “credible information” that at least 18 people were killed and 30 were wounded across Myanmar on Sunday. Counts from other sources, such the Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent television and online news outlet, put the death toll in the 20s.

Any of the reports would make it the highest single-day death toll since the military takeover. The junta has also made mass arrests, and the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reported that as many as 1,000 people were detained Sunday. Several journalists have been among those detained, including one for The Associated Press.

At least five people are believed to have been killed Sunday in Yangon when police shot at protesters, who have remained nonviolent despite provocation from the security forces and pro-military counter-demonstrators.

People erected makeshift sidewalk shrines Monday at the spots where several of the victims were shot and also paid their respects by standing outside the hospitals where the bodies were being released to families.

In Dawei, a small city in southeastern Myanmar where five people were reported killed Sunday, the number of protesters on the streets Monday was lower than usual, but they paraded to the applause of bystanders.

Confirming the deaths of protesters has been difficult in areas outside Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw. But in many cases, there was evidence posted online such as videos of shootings, photos of bullet casings collected afterwards and gruesome pictures of bodies.

In a statement published Monday in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry declared that the junta “is exercising utmost restraint to avoid the use of force in managing the violent protests systematically, in accordance with domestic and international laws in order to keep minimum casualties.”

But U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and arbitrary arrests “unacceptable,” said U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

“Words of condemnation are necessary and welcome but insufficient. The world must act. We must all act,” the U.N.’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said in a separate statement.

He proposed that countries could institute a global embargo on the sale of arms to Myanmar and “tough, targeted and coordinated sanctions” against those responsible for the coup, the crackdown and other rights abuses.

Social media posts from Myanmar have increasingly urged the international community to invoke the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” to intervene directly to restrain the junta.

Any kind of coordinated action at the United Nations, however, would be difficult since two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia, would almost certainly veto it.

Instead, some countries have imposed or are considering imposing their own sanctions. In Washington, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement saying the U.S. is “alarmed” by the violence and stands in solidarity with Myanmar’s people.

Washington is among those that have levied sanctions, and Sullivan said it would “impose further costs on those responsible,” promising details “in the coming days.”

Members of Suu Kyi’s party have also created a committee that they are asking other countries to recognize as a provisional government and the true representatives of Myanmar’s people.

The committee recently appointed a doctor and philanthropist from the ethnic Chin minority to be a special envoy to the United Nations.

In an interview Sunday night with the AP, the envoy, Sasa, who uses one name, said he would discuss with U.N. human rights expert Andrews pursuing legal actions against the generals through international courts.

“We are looking at international criminal courts and other U.N. mechanisms. It will be a little bit difficult to do it though the United Nations Security Council but we are looking at great length what can be done” to bring these generals to account, he said, speaking from a secret location due to fears for his safety.

Many expect Myanmar’s military to be intractable, but Sasa said he believes the junta is already beginning to see the difficulty of running a functioning government.

“I hope that they will come to the negotiating table, so we can talk together,” said Sasa.

Among the arrests made Sunday, the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners was able to identify about 270 people, bringing to 1,132 the total number of people the group has confirmed has been arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup.

Thein Zaw, an AP journalist, was taken into police custody on Saturday morning while providing news coverage of the protests. He remains in police custody.

The AP called for his immediate release.

“Independent journalists must be allowed to freely and safely report the news without fear of retribution. AP decries in the strongest terms the arbitrary detention of Thein Zaw,” said Ian Phillips, the AP’s vice president for international news.

According to information collected by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and local media reports, at least seven other journalists were detained over the weekend – all of whom work for local media. At least another 13 have been detained since the coup. (AP=Newsis)

FILE - In this Dec. 4, 2013, file photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden as they pose for photos at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (AP Photo/Lintao Zhang, Pool, File=Newsis)
FILE – In this Dec. 4, 2013, file photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden as they pose for photos at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (AP Photo/Lintao Zhang, Pool, File=Newsis)

As a new U.S. president takes office, he faces a determined Chinese leadership that could be further emboldened by America’s troubles at home.

The disarray in America, from the rampant COVID-19 pandemic to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, gives China’s ruling Communist Party a boost as it pursues its long-running quest for national “rejuvenation” – a bid to return the country to what it sees as its rightful place as a major nation.

For Joe Biden, sworn in Wednesday as the 46th president, that could make one of his major foreign policy challenges even more difficult as he tries to manage an increasingly contentious relationship between the world’s rising power and its established one.

The stakes are high for the both countries and the rest of the world. A misstep could spark an accidental conflict in the Western Pacific, where China’s growing naval presence is bumping up against America’s. The trade war under President Donald Trump hurt workers and farmers in both countries, though some in Vietnam and elsewhere benefited as companies moved production outside China. On global issues such as climate, it is difficult to make progress if the world’s two largest economies aren’t talking.

A more confident China may push back harder on issues such as technology, territory and human rights. Analysts draw parallels to the 2008 global financial crisis, from which China emerged relatively unscathed. The country’s foreign policy has grown increasingly assertive since then, from staking out territory in disputed waters in the South China Sea to its more recent use of Twitter to hit back at critics. China’s relative success in controlling the pandemic could fuel that trend.

The U.S. has also shifted, with wide support among both Republicans and Democrats for treating China as a competitor, and embracing the need for a tougher approach to China, if not always agreeing with how Trump carried it out. Biden needs to be wary of opening himself up to attacks that he is soft on China if he rolls back import tariffs and other steps taken by his predecessor.

His pressing need to prioritize domestic challenges could give China breathing room to push forward its agenda, whether it be technological advancement or territorial issues from Taiwan to its border with India. Kurt Tong, a former U.S. diplomat in Asia, sees a stalemate in the coming few years, in which China keeps doing what it has been doing and the U.S. is not happy about it.

“I think it’s going to be a tough patch, it’s just going to be more disagreements than agreements and not a lot of breakthroughs,” said Tong, now a partner with The Asia Group consultancy in Washington, D.C.

Biden has pointed to potential areas of cooperation, from climate change to curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, but even in those areas, the two countries don’t always agree.

The pandemic, first viewed as a potential threat to President Xi Jinping’s leadership as it spiraled out of control in the city of Wuhan in early 2020, has been transformed into a story of hardship followed by triumph.

The Communist Party has sought to use the pandemic to justify its continued control of the one-party, authoritarian state it has led for more than 70 years, while rounding up citizen-journalists and others to quash any criticism of its handling of the outbreak.

That effort has been aided by the failure of many other nations to stop the spread of COVID-19. Biden takes over a country where deaths continue to mount and virus-related restrictions keep it in recession. China is battling small outbreaks, but life has largely returned to normal and economic growth is accelerating.

“It would have been more difficult for them to push that narrative around the world if the United States had not done such a poor job,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C. “That’s a theme that runs through many issues, that China’s just able to point to the United States and democracy in general as not delivering good governance.”

It’s impossible to gauge support for the Communist Party in a country where many would be unwilling to criticize it publicly, for fear of repercussions. But Niu Jun, an international relations professor at Peking University, said that objectively, public trust should rise given China’s faster recovery from the outbreak.

“To ordinary people, the logic is very simple,” he said, predicting the pandemic would spark public thinking and discussion about which system of governance is more effective.

“The party’s policies are good, our policies are not like the ones in foreign countries, ours are good,” said Liu Shixiu, strolling with her daughter in Wuhan, the city that bore the brunt of the pandemic in China. “We listen to the party.”

It is unclear whether the Communist Party foresees exporting its way of governance as an alternative to the democratic model. For now, Chinese officials note that countries choose different systems and stress the need for others to respect those differences.

“As China becomes more and more confident, maybe they’ll try to shape the internal operations or ways of thinking of other countries,” Tong said. “But to me, it feels more like they don’t want anyone to be able to say that China is bad and get away with it.”

The leadership wants China to be seen and treated as an equal and has shown a willingness to use its growing economic and military might to try to get its way. (AP=Newsis)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in London, to attend a cabinet meeting at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. Britain's rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday has been dubbed "V-Day," recalling the World War II D-Day landings that marked the start of the final push to defeat Nazi Germany. The U.K. is the first Western country to authorize widespread use of a vaccine. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham=Newsis)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in London, to attend a cabinet meeting at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. Britain’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday has been dubbed “V-Day,” recalling the World War II D-Day landings that marked the start of the final push to defeat Nazi Germany. The U.K. is the first Western country to authorize widespread use of a vaccine. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham=Newsis)

A growing list of European Union nations and Canada barred travel from the U.K. on Sunday and others were considering similar action, in a bid to block a new strain of coronavirus sweeping across southern England from spreading to the continent.

France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria all announced restrictions on U.K. travel, hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Christmas shopping and gatherings in southern England must be canceled because of rapidly spreading infections blamed on the new coronavirus variant.

Johnson immediately placed those regions under a strict new Tier 4 restriction level, upending Christmas plans for millions.

France banned all travel from the U.K. for 48 hours from midnight Sunday, including trucks carrying freight through the tunnel under the English Channel or from the port of Dover on England’s south coast. French officials said the pause would buy time to find a “common doctrine” on how to deal with the threat, but it threw the busy cross-channel route used by thousands of trucks a day into chaos.

The Port of Dover tweeted Sunday night that its ferry terminal was “closed to all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice due to border restrictions in France.”

Eurostar passenger trains from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam were also halted.

Germany said all flights coming from Britain, except cargo flights, were no longer allowed to land starting midnight Sunday. It didn’t immediately say how long the flight ban would last. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said he was issuing a flight ban for 24 hours starting at midnight “out of precaution.” “There are a great many questions about this new mutation,” he said, adding he hoped to have more clarity by Tuesday.

Canada announced its own ban Sunday night. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement that for 72 hours starting at midnight Sunday, “all flights from the UK will be prohibited from entering Canada.” He added that travelers who arrived Sunday would be subject to secondary screening and other health measures. A follow-up statement from the government said cargo flights were not included in the ban.

The British government said Johnson would preside at a meeting of the government’s crisis committee, COBRA, on Monday in the wake of the other nations’ measures. They come at a time of huge economic uncertainty for the U.K., less than two weeks before it leaves the EU’s economic structures Dec. 31, and with talks on a new post-Brexit trade relationship still deadlocked.

Johnson said Saturday that a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70% more transmissible than existing strains appeared to be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England in recent weeks. But he stressed “there’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” or that vaccines will be less effective against it.

On Sunday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock added to the alarm when he said “the new variant is out of control.” The U.K. recorded 35,928 further confirmed cases, around double the number from a week ago.
Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, called a special crisis meeting on Monday to coordinate the response to the virus news among the bloc’s 27 member states.

The Netherlands banned flights from the U.K. for at least the rest of the year. Ireland issued a 48-hour flight ban. Italy said it would block flights from the U.K. until Jan.6, and an order signed Sunday prohibits entry into Italy by anyone who has been in the U.K. in the last 14 days.

The Czech Republic imposed stricter quarantine measures from people arriving from Britain.

Beyond Europe, Israel also said it was banning flights from Britain, Denmark and South Africa because those were the countries where the mutation is found.

The World Health Organization tweeted late Saturday that it was “in close contact with U.K. officials on the new (hash)COVID19 virus variant” and promised to update governments and the public as more is learned.

The new strain was identified in southeastern England in September and has been spreading in the area ever since, a WHO official told the BBC on Sunday.

“What we understand is that it does have increased transmissibility, in terms of its ability to spread,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19.

Studies are under way to better understand how fast it spreads and whether “it’s related to the variant itself, or a combination of factors with behavior,” she added.

She said the strain had also been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, where there was one case that didn’t spread further.
“The longer this virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change,” she said. “So we really need to do everything we can right now to prevent spread.”

Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations among samples of the virus causing COVID-19. Many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.

British health authorities said that while the variant has been circulating since September, it wasn’t until the last week that officials felt they had enough evidence to declare that it has higher transmissibility than other circulating coronaviruses.

Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said officials are concerned about the new variant because it contained 23 different changes, “an unusually large number of variants” affecting how the virus binds to and enters cells in the body.

Officials aren’t certain whether it originated in the U.K., Vallance added. But by December, he said it was causing over 60% of infections in London.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. surgeon general said Sunday that the emergence of the new strain doesn’t change the public health guidance on precautions for reducing the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands.

“While it seems to be more easily transmissible, we do not have evidence yet that this is a more deadly virus to an individual who acquires it,” Vivek Murthy said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “There’s no reason to believe that the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus, as well.”

Europe has been walloped this fall by soaring new infections and deaths due to a resurgence of the virus, and many nations have reimposed a series of restrictions to reign in their outbreaks.

Britain has seen over 67,000 deaths in the pandemic, the second-highest confirmed toll in Europe after Italy. Europe as a whole has recorded nearly 499,000 virus deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts believe is an undercount, due to limited testing and missed cases.

The European Medicines Agency, meanwhile, is meeting Monday to approve the first COVID-19 vaccine for the European Union’s 27 nations, bringing vaccinations closer for millions of EU citizens. The vaccine made by German pharmaceutical company BioNTech and American drugmaker Pfizer is already in use in the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries.

The EMA moved up its assessment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by a week after heavy pressure from EU governments, especially Germany, which has said that after the EMA approval it could start vaccinating citizens as early as next Sunday.

In an urgent address to the nation on Saturday, Johnson ordered all non-essential shops, hairdressers and gyms in London and large parts of southern England closed and told Britons to reorganize their holiday plans. No mixing of households is allowed indoors in the region, and only essential travel is permitted. In the rest of England, people will be allowed to meet in Christmas bubbles for just one day instead of the five that were planned.

After he spoke, videos emerged online showing crowds of people at London’s train stations, apparently making a dash for places in the U.K. with less stringent coronavirus restrictions. Health Secretary Matt Hancock called those scenes “totally irresponsible.”

While Hancock insisted officials had acted “very quickly and decisively,” critics said Britain’s Conservative government should have moved against rising infections much earlier.

“The alarms bells have been ringing for weeks, but the prime minister chose to ignore them,” said Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party. “It is an act of gross negligence by a prime minister who, once again, has been caught behind the curve.” (AP=Newsis)

Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., laugh as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci=Newsis)
Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., laugh as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci=Newsis)

President-elect Joe Biden signaled on Sunday he plans to move quickly to build out his government, focusing first on the raging pandemic that will likely dominate the early days of his administration.

Biden named a former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, and a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, David Kessler, as co-chairs of a coronavirus working group set to get started, with other members expected to be announced Monday.

Transition team officials said that also this week Biden will launch his agency review teams, the group of transition staffers that have access to key agencies in the current administration to ease the transfer of power. The teams will collect and review information such as budgetary and staffing decisions, pending regulations and other work in progress from current staff at the departments to help Biden’s team prepare to transition. White House officials would not comment on whether they would cooperate with Biden’s team on the review.

“People want the country to move forward,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden deputy campaign manager, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press, and see Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris “have the opportunity to do the work, to get the virus under control and to get our economy back together.”

It’s unclear for now whether President Donald Trump and his administration will cooperate. He has yet to acknowledge Biden’s victory and has pledged to mount legal challenges in several closely contested states that decided the race.

Biden adviser Jen Psaki pressed for the Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration to quickly recognize Biden as the president-elect, which would free up money for the transition and clear the way for Biden’s team to begin putting in place the transition process at agencies.

“America’s national security and economic interests depend on the federal government signaling clearly and swiftly that the United States government will respect the will of the American people and engage in a smooth and peaceful transfer of power,” Psaki said in a Twitter posting.

A GSA official said Sunday that step had not been taken yet.
A bipartisan group of administration officials from the Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton administrations on Sunday called on the Trump administration to move forward “to immediately begin the post-election transition process.”

“This was a hard-fought campaign, but history is replete with examples of presidents who emerged from such campaigns to graciously assist their successors,” members of the Center for Presidential Transition advisory board said in a statement.

The statement was signed by Bush White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt as well as Bill Clinton-era chief of staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty and Obama Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

Biden aides said the president-elect and transition team had been in touch with Republican lawmakers. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Trump’s closest allies, opened a Cabinet meeting on Sunday by congratulating Biden, a former vice president and longtime senator.

“I have a long and warm personal connection with Joe Biden for nearly 40 years, and I know him as a great friend of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “I am certain that we will continue to work with both of them in order to further strengthen the special alliance between Israel and the U.S.”
George W. Bush, the sole living Republican former president, also wished Biden well.
“Though we have political differences, I know Joe Biden
to be a good man, who has won his opportunity to lead and unify our country,” Bush said.

Biden faces key staffing decisions in the days ahead. The always-frenzied 10-week transition period before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 already has been shortened by the extra time it took to determine the winner of Tuesday’s election.

The second Catholic to be elected president, Biden started his first full day as president-elect by attending church at St. Joseph on the Brandywine near his home in Wilmington, as he does nearly every week. After the service, he visited the church cemetery where several family members have been laid to rest, including his late son, Beau.

Beau Biden, a former Delaware attorney general, died in 2015 from cancer. Before his death, he had encouraged his father to make a third run for the White House.

Joe Biden said Saturday in a victory speech that he would announce a task force of scientists and experts Monday to develop a “blueprint” to begin beating back the virus by the time he assumes the presidency. He said his plan would be “built on bedrock science” and “constructed out of compassion, empathy and concern.”

Murthy, who had advised Biden during the campaign, was named to a four-year term as surgeon general in 2014 by President Barack Obama. Murthy was asked to resign by Trump months into the Republican’s term. Kessler was appointed as FDA commissioner by President George H.W. Bush and served in the position through President Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House.

Biden senior adviser Ted Kaufman said the transition team will focus on the “nuts and bolts” of building the new administration in coming days.
Biden may not make top Cabinet choices for weeks. But he built his presidential run around bipartisanship and he has spent the days since Tuesday’s election pledging to be a president for all Americans. That suggests he could be willing to appoint some Republicans to high-profile administration positions.
Many former Republican officeholders broke with Trump to endorse Biden’s campaign. Biden’s selection of some of them to join the new government could appease Senate Republicans, who may have to confirm many of Biden’s choices for top jobs. The GOP could retain control of the chamber after two special elections in Georgia on Jan. 5.

Still, too much across-the-aisle cooperation could draw the ire of progressives. Some already worry that uncooperative Senate Republicans could force Biden to scale back his ambitious campaign promises to expand access to health care and lead a post-pandemic economic recovery that relies on federal investment in green technology and jobs to help combat climate change.

“I think there will be a huge misuse of the word `unity’ to imply that we need to water down the ideas that Joe Biden just campaigned on,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. He said the country was more united around bold solutions to big problems than small-scale efforts.

Biden’s efforts at bipartisan reconciliation could still be derailed by Trump’s refusing to concede the race.

Symone Sanders, a Biden campaign senior adviser, said that while several Republican lawmakers have been in contact with the president-elect in recent days, the campaign has yet to hear from White House officials.
“I think the White House has made clear what their strategy is here and that they are going to continue to participate and push forward these flailing and, in many – in many respects, baseless legal strategies,” Sanders said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Trump had a right to pursue recounts and legal challenges. But he noted that those efforts will unlikely change the outcome and he urged the president to dial back his rhetoric.

“I think one has to be careful in the choice of words. I think when you say the election was corrupt or stolen or rigged that that’s unfortunately rhetoric that gets picked up by authoritarians around the world. And I think it also discourages confidence in our democratic process here at home,” Romney said on NBC. (AP=Newsis)