Austin Places 8,500 Troops on Heightened Readiness to Deploy to Europe > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by DoD News, less than a minute ago

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby updated reporters during a Defense Department news briefing.

Biden Meeting with European Leaders About Threat of Russian Invasion of Ukraine

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U.S. President Joe Biden is meeting virtually Monday afternoon with key European leaders about the ongoing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as he weighs sending several thousand U.S. troops to the Baltics and Eastern Europe.  Biden has not decided whether to move U.S. military equipment and personnel closer to Russia. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in advance of the meeting with the European officials that the U.S. has "always said we'd support allies on the eastern flank" abutting Russia.  U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin placed 8,500 U.S. military personnel on "high alert" of being dispatched to Eastern Europe, where most of them could be activated as part of a NATO response force in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.  "It's very clear the Russians have no intention right now of de-escalating," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. "What this is about, though, is reassurance to our NATO allies."  Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion of the onetime Soviet republic but vowed to impose quick and severe economic sanctions on Moscow.  Kirby said the U.S. military is "keenly focused" on the Russian military's 127,000-troop buildup along the Ukraine border and in Belarus. He said the U.S. is "taking steps to heighten readiness over Ukraine," including for a NATO response force if the Western military forces are activated.  U.S. and Russian officials have had four face-to-face meetings in the past two weeks over Western concerns about the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russian fears of NATO operations in Eastern Europe, and Biden has also talked directly with European allies.  The White House said Biden would be in the highly secure Situation Room for his Monday call. He is meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Polish President Andrzej Duda and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  Earlier Monday, NATO said its members were sending more ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe in response to Russia's military buildup along its border with Ukraine.  A NATO statement said additional troops and equipment could be sent from several countries, including Denmark, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the United States.  "NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance," Stoltenberg said. "We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense."   Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov accused the United States and its NATO allies of escalating tensions. The United States and Britain also announced orders for their embassy staff and family members in Kyiv to leave Ukraine, citing the potential for Russian military action.   Ukraine's Foreign Ministry noted the U.S. move but expressed displeasure.   "While we respect right of foreign nations to ensure safety & security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one & an instance of excessive caution," spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko tweeted Monday.  European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday the EU was not planning any similar withdrawals. He spoke to reporters as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to join virtually.  "We are not going to do the same thing, because we don't know any specific reasons. But Secretary Blinken will inform us," Borrell said.  In addition to its order Sunday for the departure of eligible family members from the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, the State Department also authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. direct-hire employees, asked U.S. citizens in Ukraine to consider departing the country, and reissued travel advisories warning against traveling to either Ukraine or Russia.  Asked about the timing of these actions on Sunday evening in Washington, a senior State Department official told reporters they come against the backdrop of reports that Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine.  The State Department official said security conditions, particularly along Ukraine's borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and could deteriorate with little notice.  The State Department officials who briefed reporters declined to give any estimates of the number of Americans working at the embassy in Kyiv or of the number of Americans living in Ukraine.  Russia denies it plans to invade Ukraine and has sought guarantees against further NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. The U.S. and Russia are planning to exchange written statements this week about their demands of each other.  Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.   

DOD Is Making Significant Strides in Countering Human Trafficking, Official Says > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by Terri Moon Cronk, about 1 hour ago

Human trafficking is as old as time and can be found almost anywhere, yet the Defense Department has made significant strides in countering it over the last 20 years, said an official in DOD's Combating Trafficking in Persons Program.

Honoring an American trailblazer for diversity

by Noelani Kirschner, about 2 hours ago

Terence A. Todman, one of the first Black U.S. ambassadors, championed human rights at home and abroad. Learn more.

Yizker bikher books commemorate Holocaust deaths – but also celebrate Jewish communities' life

about 4 hours ago

Russian Markets Plunge as War Fears Mount

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The Russian stock market took a dive Monday as war fears triggered a massive sell-off, with tens of billions of dollars wiped from the value of some of the country’s leading businesses. As concerns mount that President Vladimir Putin is poised to order an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the ruble also hit a 14-month low, prompting the Central Bank to intervene by halting its regular purchases of foreign currency to help prop up the ruble. “The Bank of Russia has decided not to purchase foreign currency on the domestic market,” the bank said in a statement. “This decision was made in order to reduce the volatility of financial markets.” The bank regularly converts the proceeds of the country’s oil and gas exports to avoid the ruble being impacted by swings in the value of global commodities. The bank offered no details on when it would resume buying foreign currencies. The ruble was down 2.3% in early Monday trading but steadied after the bank’s announcement. Meanwhile, the Russian stock market plunged more than 10% on Monday but was 7% down when trading concluded. Since the start of the Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine in October, the market has lost more than a quarter of its value. Anders Aslund is chairman of the International Advisory Council at the Center for Social and Economic Research, a policy group in Warsaw, Poland. Aslund predicts the market could fall much further if the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and Western powers over Ukraine worsens. “So far, the Russian RTS stock index in USD has only fallen 27% from its high point on October 27 before Putin started threatening Ukraine,” Aslund tweeted. “It has far more to fall. In 2008, it fell by 80% from May to October (Georgia war + global financial crisis).” Meanwhile, the European stock markets have held fairly steady in recent weeks — a blitheness that's not necessarily reassuring, analysts say, as the European stock markets didn’t miss a beat in the immediate wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, a slaying that triggered World War I.  The London and Paris bourses were “slow to grasp why Sarajevo was different and unique,” noted Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, international business editor of The Telegraph. European investors and traders appeared Monday to take greater note of the geopolitical maneuverings, and markets nudged down lower on the news that Britain was joining the United States in withdrawing some diplomats and their families from the embassies in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.  The German and French stock markets were down about 2% in early trading, with analysts saying a New York Times report that U.S. President Joe Biden is considering deploying 5,000 troops to bolster the defenses of Ukraine’s NATO neighbors contributed to jitters. The London stock market also traded lower. Some analysts suggested the dips were as much the result of traders watching what the U.S. Federal Reserve might do about tightening monetary policy than the unfolding Ukraine crisis. With the crisis deepening, the attention of the markets and Western policy makers is turning to the possible energy implications for Europe, which gets about half of its natural gas supplies from Russia. Fears have been mounting that the Kremlin might retaliate by stopping gas exports in the event the West imposes fresh sanctions on Russia. The result would be an energy shock for a continent that is already mired in an energy crunch and experiencing soaring prices. “Should tensions between Russia and the Ukraine escalate, the initial uncertainty around its impact on gas flows would likely lead the market to once again add a significant risk premium to European gas prices," Goldman Sachs analysts told clients. Last week, the Reuters news agency reported the U.S. State Department has been putting together a global strategy to increase supplies of liquefied natural gas to Europe in the event a Russian invasion of Ukraine leads to gas shortages. Amos Hochstein, senior adviser for energy security at the State Department, has been holding talks with several Middle East and North African countries, as well as companies in Europe, about how to boost gas supplies if Russia seeks to weaponize energy. In London Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters that the intelligence about Russian intentions was “gloomy” but added that a Russian invasion was not inevitable. “The intelligence is very clear that there are 60 Russian battle groups on the borders of Ukraine. The plan for a lightning war that could take out Kyiv is one that everybody can see. We need to make it very clear to the Kremlin, to Russia, that that would be a disastrous step,” Johnson said. He added, “We also need to get a message (to Moscow) that invading Ukraine, from a Russian perspective, is going to be a painful, violent and bloody business. I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya.” He was referring to the brutal wars fought between Russia and Chechen rebels in the 1990s that left tens of thousands of people dead. Chechnya had waged wars of independence against Russia. Speaking as Britain started to withdraw some embassy staff from Ukraine, Johnson said, “We do think it prudent to make some changes now.”

Pakistan Swears in First Female Supreme Court Judge

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Pakistan swore in its first woman Supreme Court judge Monday in what is being hailed as a landmark moment in the historically male-dominated judicial history of the Muslim-majority nation. Ayesha Malik, 55, took the oath at a ceremony in the capital Islamabad that was televised live. She now joins the bench alongside 16 male judges at the top court. “I want to congratulate Justice Ayesha Malik on becoming the first woman judge of the Supreme Court. I wish her all the best,” Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted. The process to elevate Malik to the top court from the Punjab provincial high court, which she joined in 2012, had been unusually contentious. Pakistan’s nine-member judicial commission, which decides on the promotion of judges, had turned down Malik’s elevation last year, before voting 5-4 to elect her this year. Large sections of bar councils and lawyers' associations across Pakistan vehemently opposed her nomination, saying it was not in line with seniority lists as Malik was not among the top three most senior jurists of the provincial court. Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, who administered the oath to her, told reporters after the ceremony that Malik was competent enough to be elevated to the Supreme Court. “She deserved to become a judge of the Supreme Court [and] she became one. That’s what it is,” Ahmed said. Senior opposition Senator Sherry Rehman tweeted the picture of Monday’s oath taking ceremony to congratulate Malik. Christian Turner, the British high commissioner to Pakistan, said Malik’s appointment as first woman Supreme Court judge “will inspire girls to believe that there are no barriers to their aspirations.” Malik, who was educated at Harvard University, was widely hailed last year for her landmark Lahore High Court ruling, outlawing so-called virginity tests on sexual assault survivors in Punjab, the country’s most populous province. She declared the practice "humiliating," saying it "had no forensic value" and "offends the personal dignity of the female victim and therefore is against the right to life and right to dignity." Malik also directed the federal and provincial governments to take necessary steps to "ensure that virginity tests are not carried out in medico-legal examination of the victims of rape and sexual abuse." The WHO has called the test “unscientific, harmful, and a violation of women's and girls' human rights.”  “The biggest way I’ve had an impact is that I’ve become a voice. I'm there to call out the discrimination, call out stereotyping, and bring out the gender perspective,” Malik said in a conversation with a United Nations media outlet when she was the provincial high court judge. “I'm the voice that nudges, reminds, and suggests ways to improve ourselves and make our system more inclusive.” 

January 24, 2022

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A look at the best news photos from around the world.

Supreme Court to Hear Challenges to Race-based College Admissions 

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said it will hear two cases that could determine if race can be used as a factor for college admission.  The cases, brought by the conservative group Students for Fair Admissions, targets Harvard, the country's oldest private school, and the University of North Carolina, one of the nation's oldest public schools.  The group maintains Harvard discriminates by using a quota-like system that disproportionately rejects qualified Asian applicants thus violating their civil rights.  "Harvard's mistreatment of Asian-American applicants is appalling," the plaintiffs wrote in their brief in the Harvard case. "That Harvard engages in racial balancing and ignores race-neutral alternatives also proves that Harvard does not use race as a last resort."  Harvard says race is only one consideration for admission.  "Harvard does not automatically award race-based tips but rather considers race only in a flexible and non-mechanical way; consideration of race benefits only highly qualified candidates; and Harvard does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants," the school wrote the court in its brief.  At UNC, Students for Fair Admissions is demanding a colorblind admissions process.  "Public schools have no legitimate interest in maintaining a precise racial balance," Students for Fair Admissions wrote in its brief to the court. Both cases are seen as landmark challenges to affirmative action policies in university admissions. Affirmative action seeks to address disadvantages and discrimination certain groups have historically faced in America and ensure equal access of opportunity in education, employment and other areas.    UNC Charlotte’s website says it enrolls “a diverse, competitive class of scholars” each year and that the university prides itself “on being one of the most diverse public universities” in the state. The site adds: “Having a diverse student body gives our students the opportunity to learn from other students from different backgrounds and cultures … to create a holistic and informed academic and social experience.”    Institutions of higher learning that prioritize achieving racially-diverse student bodies have at times been accused of watering down admissions criteria for certain minority applicants and, in effect, penalizing more qualified applicants from other groups.    Chief Justice John Roberts has been an outspoken critic of affirmative action, famously declaring in a 2006 opinion, "It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race."    The cases will likely be heard during the Supreme Court’s 2022 term, which starts in October.  Some information in this report comes from Reuters. 

Why most NFL head coaches are white -- behind the NFL's abysmal record on diversity

about 5 hours ago

More Anti-Coup Protests as Turmoil in Sudan Continues

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Thousands of Sudanese took to the streets in the capital of Khartoum and other cities Monday, activists said, continuing relentless anti-coup protests that have rocked the country since a military coup three months ago. Security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters in several locations in the capital, including the area around the fortified presidential palace, which has seen clashes in previous rounds of protests since the Oct. 25 coup, according to the activists. The military takeover has upended Sudan's transition to democratic rule after three decades of repression and international isolation under autocratic President Omar al-Bashir. The African nation has been on a fragile path to democracy since a popular uprising forced the military to remove al-Bashir and his Islamist government in April 2019. Protesters, mostly young people, marched Monday in the streets of Khartoum and its sister city of Omdurman, according to the pro-democracy movement. There were also protests elsewhere in the country, including the provinces of Kassala, Red Sea, Jazira and the already restive Darfur region, the movement said. Footage circulated online showed security forces attempting to disperse protests with tear gas. Protesters were seen taking cover and hurling stones at the troops. Activist Nazim Sirag said two protesters suffered gunshot injuries in Khartoum. No fatalities were reported Monday. More than 70 people have been killed and hundreds of others injured in protests since the coup, according to a local medical group. Sudan has been politically paralyzed since the coup. The turmoil has further worsened since the resignation earlier this month of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Hamdok resigned earlier this month, citing failure to reach a compromise between the generals and the pro-democracy movement. He had been reinstated in November in a deal with the military that angered the pro-democracy movement. The United Nations mission has in the past two weeks been engaged in separate consultations with Sudanese rival factions in efforts to find a way out of the crisis.

Trial Begins for Cops Accused of Violating George Floyd's Rights 

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The federal trial for three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd's civil rights as Derek Chauvin pinned the Black man's neck to the street began Monday with opening statements, after a jury of 18 people was swiftly picked last week. J. Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are broadly charged with depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under government authority. All three are charged for failing to provide Floyd with medical care and Thao and Kueng face an additional count for failing to stop Chauvin, who was convicted of murder and manslaughter in state court last year.  Legal experts say prosecutors have to prove Kueng, Lane and Thao willfully violated Floyd's constitutional rights, while defense attorneys are likely to blame Chauvin for Floyd's murder, which was videotaped and triggered worldwide protests, violence and a reexamination of racism and policing. Floyd, 46, died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin pressed him to the ground with his knee on Floyd's neck for 9 1/2 minutes while Floyd was facedown, handcuffed and gasping for air. Kueng knelt on Floyd's back and Lane held down his legs. Thao kept bystanders from intervening.  Attorneys for the Floyd family have said bystander video shows that the three officers "directly contributed to [Floyd's] death and failed to intervene to stop the senseless murder."  On Thursday, 18 people were chosen for the jury; 12 will deliberate and six will be alternates. Two of the jurors — one expected to deliberate and one alternate — appear to be of Asian descent. The rest appear to be white. The jurors include people from the Twin Cities area, the suburbs and southern Minnesota. The court declined to provide demographic information.  Federal prosecutions of officers involved in on-duty killings are rare. Prosecutors face a high legal standard to show that an officer willfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights. Essentially, prosecutors must prove that the officers knew what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway.  The indictment charges Thao, who is Hmong American; Lane, who is white; and Kueng, who is Black, with willfully depriving Floyd of the right to be free from an officer's deliberate indifference to his medical needs. The indictment says the three men saw Floyd clearly needed medical care and failed to aid him. Thao and Kueng are also charged with a second count alleging they willfully violated Floyd's right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not stopping Chauvin as he knelt on Floyd's neck. It's not clear why Lane is not mentioned in that count, but evidence shows he asked twice whether Floyd should be rolled on his side. Both counts allege the officers' actions resulted in Floyd's death. U.S. District Judge Magnuson told jurors that the trial could last four weeks. It's not known whether any of the three officers will testify. It's also not clear whether Chauvin will testify, though many experts who spoke to The Associated Press believe he won't. Lane, Kueng and Thao also face a separate state trial in June on charges they aided and abetted both murder and manslaughter.

WHO Chief: World Will Live with COVID-19 for Foreseeable Future

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The head of the World Health Organization warned Monday that COVID-19 will be around for the foreseeable future, and everyone will have to learn to live with it. The WHO chief issued the warning at the opening of the agency’s weeklong executive board meeting. Two years ago, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern. Then there were fewer than 100 cases and no deaths reported outside China. Those numbers now stand at nearly 350 million cases and more than 5.5 million deaths. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it is hard to know when the pandemic will end. However, while the coronavirus is circulating, he said it will continue to mutate in unpredictable and dangerous ways.  “It is dangerous to assume that omicron will be the last variant, or that we are in the endgame. On the contrary, globally the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge,” he said. Tedros said countries must learn to manage this deadly disease and use the knowledge gained to prepare for future pandemics. To change the course of the pandemic, he said the conditions driving it must change. He said the acute phase of the pandemic can be ended this year if countries use all the strategies and tools available to combat COVID-19. He adds this will work only if all countries, rich and poor alike, have equitable access to vaccines, treatments, and other tools. “Vaccines alone are not the golden ticket out of this pandemic. But there is no path out unless we achieve our shared target of vaccinating 70 percent of the population of every country by the middle of this year. We have a long way to go,” he said. The WHO chief notes 86 countries have not been able to reach last year’s target of vaccinating 40 percent of their populations. He warned the emergency phase of the pandemic will not end until the gap between the have and have-not countries is bridged. 

COVID vaccine doesn't hurt odds of getting pregnant

by Jillian McKoy-Boston U., about 7 hours ago

A new study finds no link between COVID vaccines and chances of getting pregnant, but COVID-19 infection may have a short-term effect on male fertility.

Germany Seen as Western Alliance’s Weak Link

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Germany doesn’t appear to view Russian military threats against Ukraine with the same sense of urgency as the United States and some of its European allies, who have started to identify Berlin as a weak link in the Western alliance, say diplomats and analysts. The country’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has added his voice to the stern Western warnings about massive consequences for Russia if President Vladimir Putin orders an invasion of Ukraine. But Germany has refused requests from Ukraine for military assistance, prompting exasperation in Kyiv.  Berlin has also blocked the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania from supplying Kyiv with German-made weapons. Ukrainian dismay only deepened Saturday when the head of the German navy, Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, described Western fears of a Russian invasion as “nonsense” and called for Vladimir Putin to be given “the respect he demands — and probably deserves.” The German defense ministry quickly condemned the comments, and the admiral promptly resigned.   That has failed to quell Ukrainian fury. Kyiv believes the admiral’s remarks reflect the thinking of a chunk of the German establishment and has called on Berlin to change its whole position on the geopolitical conflict. “Today, more than ever, the firmness and solidarity of Ukraine and its partners are important to curb Russia's destructive intentions,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry. Ukrainian officials point to a series of disappointing German positions amid rising Western fears that war momentum is building. “Everything is moving towards armed conflict,” says Estonia’s defense chief Gen. Martin Herem. He and his counterparts in Central Europe are watching closely to see if Russian reservists are mobilized. They fear Putin has been rearming Russia the past decade for this moment and that he’s only waiting now for frigid weather to harden the ground more so Russian armor has an easier time rolling across Ukraine.   Berlin has remained ambiguous about whether it will be prepared in the event of war to shut down the just-completed Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline, which will pump natural gas from Russia to Germany. Responding to increasing domestic and international pressure, Scholz said last week Germany is ready to discuss closing the pipeline should Russia attack but has demurred from committing to anything more. Scholz’s studied ambiguity is worrying many NATO members. Berlin has pushed back on proposals that include cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international cross border payments system in any possible post-invasion sanctions package the Western allies announce. Last week, German officials told the country’s leading business newspaper that excluding Russia from SWIFT isn’t being considered. The U.S. National Security Council has denied this, saying “no option is off the table.” Baltic states have also expressed their frustration with Berlin’s reluctance to give the go-ahead for them to supply Ukraine with German-made military equipment. Germany’s defense minister Christine Lambrecht told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag Saturday that arms deliveries to Ukraine are “currently not helpful.” The Ukrainians have been lobbying Berlin furiously to secure vessels to defend their coasts on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Some analysts say Scholz is in a tricky position in terms of Germany’s domestic politics and that much of what is being interpreted by outsiders as pulling in a different direction from allies should be seen more as strategic ambiguity required to keep together his three-party coalition government, which is deeply split on relations with Russia. Scholz’s own party, the Social Democrats (SPD), the coalition’s senior partner, has a powerful left-wing which advocates closer ties with Moscow, and its parliamentary leader, Rolf Mützenich, has championed a new “European peace order including Russia.” And even moderate SPD luminaries are reluctant to pursue a tough Russia policy; they favor détente and dialogue. Germany’s defense minister Lambrecht and the SDP’s secretary-general, Kevin Kühnert, are opposed to shutting down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saying it should be kept separate from the unfolding geopolitical crisis.   They want to see the pipeline, which is awaiting regulatory approval, up and running. More than 60 percent of Germans agree with them, according to an opinion poll published last week by state broadcaster ARD. The Greens and the center-right Free Democrats want Germany to pursue a much more forthright policy towards Russia. But to further complicate matters, the Greens, whose origins lie in the anti-nuclear peace movement of the 1970s and 1980s, are ideologically opposed to the export of weapons to conflict zones. “Since the new coalition government entered office in December, confusion has reigned about who is now setting the direction of its policy on Russia – the SPD-led Chancellery or the Green-led Foreign Office? This naturally includes the role and importance of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which still awaits approval to operate from German and EU regulators,” comments Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a policy research organization. The “cacophony of different voices” doesn’t present “a picture of clear German leadership,” she adds. Divisions within the German coalition are likely to be exacerbated, Puglierin says, in the coming weeks as fears mount about the country’s economic vulnerability to any fallout from the unfolding geopolitical confrontation. Germany exports machinery, vehicles and vehicle parts to Russia and the country’s politically influential auto-manufactures fear blowback. The imposition of new wide-ranging and punishing Western sanctions on Russia will likely have major economic consequences for Germany, especially if Moscow retaliates by suspending natural gas supplies to Germany. Like other Western European nations, Germany is battling an energy crunch and soaring energy prices. According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, Germany buys 50 percent to 75 percent of its natural gas supplies from Russia.  Ten other EU members, including Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Latvia and Hungary, also get more than three-quarters of their natural gas imports from Russia.  Ukrainian officials — and Germany’s NATO allies — fear any wavering by such a key player as Germany risks being seen by the Russian president, who has been adept exploiting European divisions in the past, as evidence that the alliance against him isn’t as united as Washington and Kyiv would wish.  They fear that could prompt the Russian leader to make a big military gamble. “That’s why Berlin’s decision on Friday to stop Estonia selling German-made weapons to Ukraine was a mistake,” according to Tom Tugendhat, a British lawmaker and chairman of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

China’s Media Freedom Record Criticized Ahead of Beijing Games

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With the Beijing Games just two weeks away, media rights groups are calling attention to China’s record of jailing journalists. In its latest monthly listing of the world’s most endangered journalists, the advocacy group One Free Press Coalition — a collective of more than 30 media outlets and rights groups — allots all 10 spots to journalists jailed in China or Hong Kong.   Topping the list are Jimmy Lai, the founder of Hong Kong’s now shuttered pro-democracy paper Apple Daily, and Zhang Zhan, a lawyer turned reporter who has been imprisoned since May 2020 for covering the pandemic in Wuhan via YouTube. [ China has been the leading jailer of journalists for three consecutive years, data from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists shows. As of December 2021, at least 50 journalists were behind bars for their work, including some imprisoned for coverage of the pandemic. “Is that the kind of environment in which the International Olympic Committee feels you can have a free and open Games, where athletes can compete and that celebrates the Olympic ideals?” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. CPJ is part of the One Free Press Coalition.  When Beijing hosted the Games in 2008, “China made a lot of commitments that it didn't keep,” Butler told VOA. “For the good of the Olympic movement, [the IOC] ought to be very cautious about going to a place like China.” The U.S., Britain, Canada and other countries announced diplomatic boycotts of the Games because of Beijing’s human rights record. China responded by saying Washington should “stop politicizing sports.”   In an email to VOA, the IOC’s media relations team said that the committee “Recognizes and upholds human rights as enshrined in both the Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Charter and in its code of ethics.” But, it added, “The IOC has neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country. The email said that the IOC is striving to advance its human rights work, and that it works closely with the organizing committee of each Games on issues including labor conditions, diversity, environment, media coverage, and the right to protest. “With all that we are seeing from Beijing 2022 with regard to these obligations, at this stage we have no reason to doubt their implementation,” the email said. But, the IOC added, “Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues.  Globally, the pandemic has allowed for greater government control over information, and China is not alone in jailing reporters for critical coverage, international rights groups have found. But with the virus highly transmissibly in confined spaces, it puts the lives of those detained for speaking out at greater risk. Journalists who are in poor health, like Zhang, are at particular risk. The RSF Courage in Journalism awardee’s health has worsened after she staged hunger strikes in prison. The 38-year-old was hospitalized for 11 days in August. Despite lingering health issues reported by her family, Zhang was returned to prison, where human rights groups say she has limited access to health care or adequate nutrition. Zhang's brother Ju has said that the journalist’s weight dropped to under 40 kilograms. “The doctor had warned me in August that she could die if she continues her hunger strike,” Zhang Ju told VOA in November. “Prison authorities have restrained Zhang and force-fed her with a tube.”    The U.S. State Department and rights groups including PEN have called on Beijing to free Zhang.  "Zhan should never have been imprisoned in the first place. Her only apparent 'crime' was documenting life in Wuhan in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic,” James Tager, PEN America’s research director, told VOA. “Now, amid continued concerns over her deteriorating health, we face the appalling realization that Zhang's life is literally at risk, all as a consequence of the Chinese government's willingness to treat her independent reporting as a crime deserving of years-long imprisonment.” When she was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in December 2020, the court proceedings lasted only three hours. PEN International said at the time the trial did not meet global standards. At that point, Zhang had been in custody for at least seven months and was already in poor health. She appeared in court in a wheelchair, according to PEN.  Chinese authorities later disbarred Ren Quanniu, the lawyer who represented Zhang. Ren also provided legal representation to other politically sensitive cases.  Zhang has been imprisoned for over 18 months, but others on the One Free Press Coalition list have been detained far longer, including Uyghur blogger Ilham Tohti, who was detained in 2014, and Uyghur Gulmire Imin, who has been imprisoned since 2009 after reporting on riots and protests in the Xinjiang autonomous region. The list also includes Haze Fan, a reporter for Bloomberg who has been held in pretrial detention for over a year, and journalists from Hong Kong. Alongside Lai, who was convicted for his involvement in pro-democracy protests and is awaiting trial on separate charges under Hong Kong’s national security law, the One Free Press Coalition lists radio journalist Wan Yiu-sing, who was arrested by the city’s police in February 2021.

Cameroon Separatists Release Eight Workers, Still Holding Several Officials

about 8 hours ago

Separatists in western Cameroon have released eight rubber plantation workers they abducted earlier this month. But the anglophone rebels are still holding onto five government officials and a top chief they abducted months ago in Cameroon's Northwest Region. In a video circulating on social media, scores of family members and supporters shout with joy that God has spared the lives of their relatives. Police say the video, taken at the market square in the town of Tiko, also shows eight rubber plantation workers abducted by separatist fighters on January 15. In the video, the eight former abductees look tired and hungry but show no signs of physical injury. Gabriel Nbene Vefonge, president of the Cameroon Agriculture and Allied Workers Trade Union, was in the crowd welcoming back the former abductees. He said the rubber plantation workers were found in the bush on Sunday and taken to the government hospital in Tiko for medical care. He told VOA that they were reunited with their families on Monday. "Family members generally were highly demoralized and we keep praying that such an incident should not occur any longer. These are breadwinners who toil so that they can put bread on the table for their family members. As they continue to join their families, once again we thank God for their release," he said. Cameroonian authorities blamed anglophone separatists for the abduction of the eight workers. The military said in a statement Monday that the workers have regained their freedom but gave no further details. Fighters on social media platforms including Facebook and WhatsApp say the workers were released after pledging never to collaborate with Cameroonian soldiers deployed to fight the separatists. The whereabouts of five government officials abducted by separatists in the town of Ndian last year are still unknown. Six government officials were abducted on June 16. One of them was found dead two days later. The president of the Northwest region’s House of Chiefs, an elected organ that discusses community development, also remains missing. The government said Fon Kevin Shumitang was kidnapped from his palace in the town of Bambalang by separatists on December 7. Fru Angwafor, president of the Northwest Regional Assembly, a regional lawmaking body, said he is counting on the military to rescue Shumitang. "At our level we have done the necessary contacts and in matters of security, we can only go to the competent services that have set up the necessary enquiries and strategies to get back our vice president of the regional executive council," said Angwafor. Capo Daniel is deputy defense chief of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, one of the separatists groups. He said fighters abducted Shumitang for collaborating with the central government in Yaoundé. "His arrest was as a result of his participation in that House of Chiefs that does not represent the aspirations of our people. All members of that House of Chiefs will be subject to arrest by the Ambazonian forces for violation of Southern Cameroon territorial integrity," said Daniel. Separatists in English-speaking western Cameroon launched their rebellion in 2017 after what they said was years of discrimination by the country’s French-speaking majority. The conflict has killed more than 3,000 people and displaced more than a half-million.

From Furry to Scaly: South Africans Embrace Pandemic Pet

about 8 hours ago

South Africa has seen a jump in pet sales during the coronavirus pandemic — and not just for guard dogs, which are common because of a high crime rate. South Africa’s pet shops say in a world of social distancing, people are finding companionship in a range of furry and even slithering animals. For many, finding a snake in their garden would be a fright. But for 15-year-old Jimmy Deib, it’s a comforting sight. He started adopting snakes during the first pandemic lockdown, in part being inspired by a friend who had a snake as a pet. “I just used to spend my days playing with my snakes and just holding them and cleaning the enclosures and looking at them. They really are just majestic animals. It’s not an aggressive, evil killer, like people think. And I can tell you that they are really awesome pets. I have dogs and I have some snakes that are like dogs. Like, they are really intelligent,” said Deib. And he said he’s not alone in his hobby. He’s joined online groups with other snake parents to share tips and tricks about where to buy and how to care for the creatures. They’re certainly not for everyone. But pet ownership and spending on pet care — from health to treats — has climbed during the pandemic, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Cat breeder Cheryl Moss said there was certainly a rise in sales for more traditional pets. “I think a lot of people now they’ve realized home is actually where your heart needs to be, not work," said Moss. "And they need to now make their homes a home where they’ve got someone to come home to and share with them. And I’ve certainly had a lot of queries, a lot of interest. People saying, ‘You know what, I'm lonely, it’s time for a companion.’” The pandemic was particularly hard for Dr. Cherie-Claire Susmak and her husband, who is also a physician.  She said getting a ragdoll kitten helped relieve their stress. “Sometimes the unspoken love of a cat, especially after a rough shift where you don’t even really want to talk. And you just have someone who, who just is there, loves you, cuddles you. When you get home and you hold that baby, you just feel, okay, I can breathe,” she said. Psychologists agree that pets have therapeutic benefits and that emotional support is increasingly recognized by the public. Leigh Tucker is a clinical psychologist at the University of the Western Cape. “We are seeing that there have been very positive shifts that have been made, where there’s a lot more narrative around the role of dogs and cats in the household and what they can offer. And our animal companions can be there to provide that comfort and that reassurance during difficult times," said Tucker. While the pandemic has changed perceptions of the role of cats and dogs in the home, Tucker warns economic pressures and job losses are forcing some families to give up their new pets. That’s not a concern for Deib, who anticipates his collection growing. “I would love to do that one day, open like my own little reptile zoo. And I also was looking into going into nature conservation and that. So, I love nature and animals,” he said. Snakes may not be a conventional pet, but they can certainly give you a hug. And in the eyes of their owners, they’re great companions.

Ghanaian Football Team Scores Against Sea Turtle Poachers

about 8 hours ago

The coast of Ghana is home to five of the world's endangered sea turtles, which are threatened by fishing nets and poachers who sell their meat and eggs. To help revive the turtle populations, a group of young footballers have taken it upon themselves to guard turtle nests and rescue turtles captured by fishermen.   Empty sea turtle shells are commonly found on the beach along Ghana’s coastal Gomoa Fetteh community. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says six out of the seven species of sea turtles are endangered. Peter Kusaana of the Environmental Justice Foundation says five of those species used to nest in Ghana, but the numbers have reduced. “Over the years, we are only now recording about four or three of these species nesting in Ghana, meaning that we have already lost two of these turtle species in Ghana," he said.  Fishermen here say about 50 turtles are killed every year along the eight-kilometer shoreline, drowned in fishing nets or poached for their meat and eggs.  Ama Akorfa, a turtle processor, explains why the locals poach turtles.  She says the meat is a delicacy. She makes stew with the turtle’s entrails and sells the remaining meat.    Saving the remaining turtles is a team effort. The Fetteh Youngsters Football Club since 2019 has taken it upon themselves to protect the turtles. The team’s coach, Daniel Kwesi Botchwey, says they leverage the community’s support for the team to help save the endangered sea turtles. “There has been the need for us to educate the community about it. And since the football team is for the community, because I always say, 'Fetteh Youngsters is a community-based team, it is for the community.' And the chief of the town, he is the live patron of the club, so everyone in the community supports Fetteh Youngsters. So, we have taken it as a means, as a tool, to educate the community,” said coach Botchwey. During nesting season, the football team patrols the beaches from dusk until dawn to ward off poachers and other predators that would harm nesting turtles or their eggs.    The players also engage the turtle meat sellers and fishing community to educate them on the importance of protecting marine life.   Peter Kusaana of Ghana’s Environmental Justice Foundation says their efforts are paying off. He explains that turtle poaching reduced from 47 killed in the 2019-2020 nesting season to 26 in the last one, while more nests have been found along the coast. “The number of nesting events recorded, meaning that the data points that have been captured by our patrollers, has increased," he said. "In 2019-2020, we had around 50 cases that were recorded in our data sheets. In 2020-2021, we have over 145.”  They’re team numbers that the Fetteh Youngsters Football Club is proud of. But eliminating the demand for endangered sea turtles — that’s their top goal, and one they’re playing overtime to score.

Assange Wins First Stage in Effort to Appeal US Extradition

about 8 hours ago

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Monday won the first stage of his effort to overturn a U.K. ruling that opened the door for his extradition to U.S. to stand trial on espionage charges. The High Court in London gave Assange permission to appeal the case to the U.K. Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court must agree to accept the case before it can move forward. "Make no mistake, we won today in court," Assange's fiancee, Stella Moris, said outside the courthouse, noting that he remains in custody at Belmarsh Prison in London.   "We will fight this until Julian is free," she added. The Supreme Court normally takes about eight sitting weeks after an application is submitted to decide whether to accept an appeal, the court says on its website.   The decision is the latest step in Assange's long battle to avoid a trial in the U.S. on a series of charges related to WikiLeaks' publication of classified documents more than a decade ago. Just over a year ago, a district court judge in London rejected a U.S. extradition request on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. U.S. authorities later provided assurances that the WikiLeaks founder wouldn't face the severe treatment his lawyers said would put his physical and mental health at risk.   The High Court last month overturned the lower court's decision, saying that the U.S. promises were enough to guarantee Assange would be treated humanely. Those assurances were the focus of Monday's ruling by the High Court.   Assange's lawyers are seeking to appeal because the U.S. offered its assurances after the lower court made its ruling. But the High Court overturned the lower court ruling, saying that the judge should have given the U.S. the opportunity to offer the assurances before she made her final ruling. The High Court gave Assange permission to appeal so the Supreme Court can decide "in what circumstances can an appellate court receive assurances from a requesting state ... in extradition proceedings." Assange's lawyers have argued that the U.S. government's pledge that Assange won't be subjected to extreme conditions is meaningless because it's conditional and could be changed at the discretion of American authorities. The U.S. has asked British authorities to extradite Assange so he can stand trial on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse linked to WikiLeaks' publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents. Assange, 50, has been held at the high-security Belmarsh Prison since 2019, when he was arrested for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that, he spent seven years holed up inside Ecuador's Embassy in London. Assange sought protection in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed. American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.   Lawyers for Assange argue that their client shouldn't have been charged because he was acting as a journalist and is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press. They say the documents he published exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kids and partners made pandemic easier to bear

by Sandra Knispel-U. Rochester, about 9 hours ago

People who went through the first six months of the pandemic with their kids or a romantic partner at home fared better than those on their own, research finds.

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Schools join the fight against human trafficking

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More women in a STEM field leads people to label it as a 'soft science,' according to new research

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How many bones do penguins have?

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Kazakhstan's internet shutdown is the latest episode in an ominous trend: digital authoritarianism

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NATO Members Send Ships, Jets to Eastern Europe as Ukraine Tensions Mount

about 11 hours ago

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said Monday its members are sending more ships and fighter jets to eastern Europe in response to Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine. A NATO statement noted announced deployments or considerations for sending additional troops and equipment from multiple nations, including Denmark, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the United States. “NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the United States and its NATO allies of escalating tensions. The United States and Britain also announced orders for their embassy staff and family members in Kyiv to leave Ukraine, citing the potential for Russian military action. Ukraine’s foreign ministry noted the U.S. move but expressed displeasure. “While we respect right of foreign nations to ensure safety & security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one & an instance of excessive caution,” spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko tweeted Monday.   European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday the EU is not planning any similar withdraws. He spoke to reporters as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to join virtually. “We are not going to do the same thing because we don’t know any specific reasons. But Secretary Blinken will inform us,” Borrell said. In addition to its order Sunday for the departure of eligible family members from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, the U.S. State Department also authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. direct hire employees, asked U.S. citizens in Ukraine to consider departing the country and reissued travel advisories warning against traveling to either Ukraine or Russia. Asked about the timing of these actions on Sunday evening in Washington, a senior State Department official told reporters they come against the backdrop of reports Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine. The State Department official said security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice.   The official said President Joe Biden has said a Russian military invasion of Ukraine could happen at any time, and if there is an invasion, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv would have limited ability to assist Americans who might want to leave the country. The State Department officials who briefed reporters declined to give any estimates of the number of Americans working at the embassy in Kyiv or of the number of Americans living in Ukraine. The State Department officials said these orders are being taken as a “prudent precaution” that in no way undermines U.S. support for the government of Ukraine, and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv will continue to operate. The State Department also asked all U.S. citizens in Ukraine to complete an online form so that the State Department may better communicate with them, saying this is especially important for citizens who plan to remain in Ukraine. Russia has massed 127,000 troops just across its border with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, sparking fears of an impending Russian invasion. The United States and its European allies have expressed the need to use diplomatic channels to address the crisis and have said a Russian incursion would be met with massive sanctions. Russia denies it plans to invade Ukraine and has sought guarantees against further NATO expansion in eastern Europe.   Earlier Sunday, Blinken warned Russia that Washington knows “all of the tactics and techniques” that Moscow can deploy to undermine the Ukrainian government but will continue to engage in diplomatic talks in hopes of easing tensions in eastern Europe. “It is certainly possible that the diplomacy the Russians are engaged in is simply going through the motions and it won’t affect their ultimate decision about whether to invade or in some other way intervene, or not in Ukraine,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” show. “But we have a responsibility to see the diplomacy through for … as far and as long as we can go because it’s the more responsible way to bring this to a closure.” In a separate interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” show, Blinken ruled out the United States immediately imposing severe economic sanctions on Moscow, which it has vowed to do if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine.  “If they’re triggered now,” Blinken said of the possible sanctions, “you lose the deterrent factor.” Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, following Blinken on CNN, accused the administration of President Joe Biden of a “doctrine of appeasement” in dealing with Russia over threats to Ukraine. “The sanctions need to be imposed now,” Ernst said. “President Putin only understands strength and power. We need to have firm resolve.” Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

WHO Chief: COVD at ‘Critical Juncture’

about 11 hours ago

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday that COVID-19 has now entered its third year and called on countries to come together to end the global pandemic. “We are at a critical juncture,” Tedros said during a news conference in Germany. “We cannot let it continue to drag on, lurching between panic and neglect.”  Sunday, WHO’s Europe director told Agence France-Presse that it is “plausible” that the omicron variant has moved Europe “towards a kind of pandemic endgame.” He speculated that 60% of Europeans would be infected with omicron by March.  “There will be for quite some weeks and months a global immunity, either thanks to the vaccine or because people have immunity due to the infection, and also lowering seasonality,” Kluge said. However, he also warned, “We anticipate that there will be a period of quiet before COVID-19 may come back towards the end of the year, but not necessarily the pandemic coming back.”  Similarly, the leading U.S. epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told ABC’s “This Week” show that the number of omicron cases in the U.S. has started to recede.  “Things are looking good,” he said. “I don’t want to be overconfident, but [the falling number of the coronavirus cases are] headed in the right direction.”  For the seventh consecutive day Sunday, Beijing’s local government reported new COVID-19 cases, just days before the city hosts the Winter Olympics. Provinces near the capital also reported new infections. Several thousand anti-vaccination mandate protesters marched in Washington Sunday along the National Mall. In the United States, the Supreme Court recently rejected a vaccination mandate President Joe Biden tried to impose on 84 million workers employed at large businesses but let stand a narrower mandatory vaccination order affecting 17 million hospital health care workers.  The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center in the U.S. reported early Monday that worldwide it has recorded more than 351 million COVID infections and 5.6 million deaths. The center said nearly 10 billion COVID vaccine shots have been administered. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. 

New Conservative Target: Race as Factor in COVID Treatment

about 11 hours ago

Some conservatives are taking aim at policies that allow doctors to consider race as a risk factor when allocating scarce COVID-19 treatments, saying the protocols discriminate against white people.  The wave of infections brought on by the omicron variant and a shortage of treatments have focused attention on the policies.  Medical experts say the opposition is misleading. Health officials have long said there is a strong case for considering race as one of many risk factors in treatment decisions. And there is no evidence that race alone is being used to decide who gets medicine. The issue came to the forefront last week after Fox News host Tucker Carlson, former President Donald Trump and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio jumped on the policies. In recent days, conservative law firms have pressured a Missouri-based health care system, Minnesota and Utah to drop their protocols and sued New York state over allocation guidelines or scoring systems that include race as a risk factor. JP Leider, a senior fellow in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota who helped develop that state’s allocation criteria, noted that prioritization has been going on for some time because there aren’t enough treatments to go around. "You have to pick who comes first," Leider said. "The problem is we have extremely conclusive evidence that (minorities) across the United States are having worse COVID outcomes compared to white folks. ... Sometimes it’s acceptable to consider things like race and ethnicity when making decisions about when resources get allocated at a societal level." Since the pandemic began, health care systems and states have been grappling with how to best distribute treatments. The problem has only grown worse as the omicron variant has packed hospitals with COVID-19 patients. Considerable evidence suggests that COVID-19 has hit certain racial and ethnic groups harder than whites. Research shows that people of color are at a higher risk of severe illness, are more likely to be hospitalized and are dying from COVID-19 at younger ages. Data also show that minorities have been missing out on treatments. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an analysis of 41 health care systems that found that Black, Asian and Hispanic patients are less likely than whites to receive outpatient antibody treatment. Omicron has rendered two widely available antibody treatments ineffective, leaving only one, which is in short supply. The Food and Drug Administration has given health care providers guidance on when that treatment, sotrovimab, should be used, including a list of medical conditions that put patients at high risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19. The FDA’s guidance says other factors such as race or ethnicity might also put patients at higher risk.  The CDC’s list of high-risk underlying conditions notes that age is the strongest risk factor for severe disease and lists more than a dozen medical conditions. It also suggests that doctors and nurses "carefully consider potential additional risks of COVID-19 illness for patients who are members of certain racial and ethnic minority groups."  State guidelines generally recommend that doctors give priority for the drugs to those at the highest risk, including cancer patients, transplant recipients and people who have lung disease or are pregnant. Some states, including Wisconsin, have implemented policies that bar race as a factor, but others have allowed it. St. Louis-based SSM Health, which serves patients in Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, required patients to score 20 points on a risk calculator to qualify for COVID-19 antibody treatment. Non-whites automatically got seven points. State health officials in Utah adopted a similar risk calculator that grants people two points if they’re not white. Minnesota’s health department guidelines automatically assigned two points to minorities. Four points were enough to qualify for treatment. New York state health officials’ guidelines authorize antiviral treatments if patients meet five criteria. One is having "a medical condition or other factors that increase their risk for severe illness." One of those factors is being a minority, according to the guidelines. The protocols have become a talking point for Republicans after The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by political commentators John Judis and Ruy Teixeira this month complaining that New York’s policy is unfair, unjustified and possibly illegal. Carlson jumped on Utah’s and Minnesota’s policies last week, saying "you win if you’re not white." Alvin Tillery, a political scientist at Northwestern University, called the issue a winning political strategy for Trump and Republicans looking to motivate their predominantly white base ahead of midterm elections in November. He said conservatives are twisting the narrative, noting that race is only one of a multitude of factors in every allocation policy. "It does gin up their people, gives them a chance in elections," Tillery said.  After the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm based in Madison, sent a letter to SSM Health on Friday demanding that it drop race from its risk calculator, SSM responded that it already did so last year as health experts’ understanding of COVID-19 evolved. "While early versions of risk calculators across the nation appropriately included race and gender criteria based on initial outcomes, SSM Health has continued to evaluate and update our protocols weekly to reflect the most up-to-date clinical evidence available," the company said in a statement. "As a result, race and gender criteria are no longer utilized." America First Legal, a conservative-leaning law firm based in Washington, D.C., filed a federal lawsuit Sunday against New York demanding that the state remove race from its allocation criteria. The same firm warned Minnesota and Utah last week that they should drop race from their preference factors or face lawsuits. Erin Silk, a spokeswoman for New York state’s health department, declined to comment on the lawsuit. She said the state’s guidance is based on CDC guidelines and that race is one of many factors that doctors should consider when deciding who gets treatment.  She stressed that doctors should consider a patient’s total medical history and that no one is refused treatment because of race or any other demographic qualifier. Minnesota health officials dropped race from the state’s criteria a day or two before receiving America Legal First’s demands, Leider said. They said in a statement that they’re committed to serving all Minnesotans equitably and are constantly reviewing their policies. The statement did not mention the letter from America Legal First. Leider said the state is now picking treatment recipients through a lottery.  Utah dropped race and ethnicity from its risk score calculator on Friday, among other changes, citing new federal guidance and the need to make sure classifications comply with federal law. The state’s health department said that instead of using those as factors in eligibility for treatments, it would "work with communities of color to improve access to treatments" in other ways. Leider finds the criticism of the race-inclusive policies disingenuous.  "It’s easy to bring in identity politics and set up choices between really wealthy folks of one type and folks of other types," he said. "It’s hard to take seriously those kinds of comparisons. They don’t seem very fair to reality."

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