Cyberattacks Increasingly Hobble Pandemic-Weary US Schools

For teachers at a middle school in New Mexico’s largest city, the first inkling of a widespread tech problem came during an early morning staff call.

On the video, there were shout-outs for a new custodian for his hard work, and the typical announcements from administrators and the union rep. But in the chat, there were hints of a looming crisis. Nobody could open attendance records, and everyone was locked out of class rosters and grades.

Albuquerque administrators later confirmed the outage that blocked access to the district’s student database — which also includes emergency contacts and lists of which adults are authorized to pick up which children — was due to a ransomware attack.

“I didn’t realize how important it was until I couldn’t use it,” said Sarah Hager, a Cleveland Middle School art teacher.

Cyberattacks like the one that canceled classes for two days in Albuquerque’s biggest school district have become a growing threat to U.S. schools, with several high-profile incidents reported since last year. And the coronavirus pandemic has compounded their effects: More money has been demanded, and more schools have had to shut down as they scramble to recover data or even manually wipe all laptops.

“Pretty much any way that you cut it, incidents have both been growing more frequent and more significant,” said Doug Levin, director of the K12 Security Information Exchange, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps schools defend against cybersecurity risk.

Precise data is hard to come by since most schools are not required to publicly report cyberattacks. But experts say public school systems — which often have limited budgets for cybersecurity expertise — have become an inviting target for ransomware gangs.

The pandemic also has forced schools to turn increasingly toward virtual learning, making them more dependent on technology and more vulnerable to cyber-extortion. School systems that have had instruction disrupted include those in Baltimore County and Miami-Dade County, along with districts in New Jersey, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Levin’s group has tracked well over 1,200 cyber security incidents since 2016 at public school districts across the country. They included 209 ransomware attacks, when hackers lock data up and charge to unlock it; 53 “denial of service” attacks, where attackers sabotage or slow a network by faking server requests; 156 “Zoombombing” incidents, where an unauthorized person intrudes on a video call; and more than 110 phishing attacks, where a deceptive message tricks a user to let a hacker into their network.

Recent attacks also come as schools grapple with multiple other challenges related to the pandemic. Teachers get sick, and there aren’t substitutes to cover them. Where there are strict virus testing protocols, there aren’t always tests or people to give them.

In New York City, an attack this month on third-party software vendor Illuminate Education didn’t result in canceled classes, but teachers across the city couldn’t access grades. Local media reported the outage added to stress for educators already juggling instruction with enforcing COVID-19 protocols and covering for colleagues who were sick or in quarantine.

Albuquerque Superintendent Scott Elder said getting all students and staff online during the pandemic created additional avenues for hackers to access the district’s system. He cited that as a factor in the Jan. 12 ransomware attack that canceled classes for some 75,000 students.

The cancellations — which Elder called “cyber snow days” — gave technicians a five-day window to reset the databases over a holiday weekend.

Elder said there’s no evidence student information was obtained by hackers. He declined to say whether the district paid a ransom but noted there would be a “public process” if it did.

Hager, the art teacher, said the cyberattack increased stress on campus in ways that parents didn’t see.

Fire drills were canceled because fire alarms didn’t work. Intercoms stopped working.

Nurses couldn’t find which kids were where as positive test results came in, Hager said. “So potentially there were students on campus that probably were sick.” It also appears the hack permanently wiped out a few days worth of attendance records and grades.

Edupoint, the vendor for Albuquerque’s student information database, called Synergy, declined to comment.

Many schools choose to keep attacks under wraps or release minimal information to prevent revealing additional weaknesses in their security systems.

“It’s very difficult for the school districts to learn from each other, because they’re really not supposed to talk to each other about it because you might share vulnerabilities,” Elder said.

Last year, the FBI issued a warning about a group called PYSA, or “Protect Your System, Amigo,” saying it was seeing an increase in attacks by the group on schools, colleges and seminaries. Other ransomware gangs include Conti, which last year demanded $40 million from Broward County Public Schools, one of the nation’s largest.

Most are Russian-speaking groups that are based in Eastern Europe and enjoy safe harbor from tolerant governments. Some will post files on the dark web, including highly sensitive information, if they don’t get paid.

While attacks on larger districts garner more headlines, ransomware gangs tended to target smaller school districts in 2021 than in 2020, according to Brett Callow, a threat analyst at the firm Emsisoft. He said that could indicate bigger districts are increasing their spending on cybersecurity while smaller districts, which have less money, remain more vulnerable.

A few days after Christmas, the 1,285-student district of Truth or Consequences, south of Albuquerque, also had its Synergy student information system shut down by a ransomware attack. Officials there compared it to having their house robbed.

“It’s just that feeling of helplessness, of confusion as to why somebody would do something like this because at the end of the day, it’s taking away from our kids. And to me that’s just a disgusting way to try to, to get money,” Superintendent Channell Segura said.

The school didn’t have to cancel classes because the attack happened on break, but the network remains down, including keyless entry locks on school building doors. Teachers are still carrying around the physical keys they had to track down at the start of the year, Segura said.

In October, President Joe Biden signed the K-12 Cybersecurity Act, which calls for the federal cyber security agency to make recommendations about how to help school systems better protect themselves.

New Mexico lawmakers have been slow to expand internet usage in the state, let alone support schools on cyber security. Last week, state representatives introduced a bill that would allocate $45 million to the state education department to build a cybersecurity program by 2027.

Ideas on how to prevent future hacks and recover from existing ones usually require more work from teachers.

In the days following the Albuquerque attack, parents argued on Facebook over why schools couldn’t simply switch to pen and paper for things like attendance and grades.

Hager said she even heard the criticism from her mother, a retired school teacher.

“I said, ‘Mom, you can only take attendance on paper if you have printed out your roster to begin with,'” Hager said.

Teachers could also keep duplicate paper copies of all records — but that would double the clerical work that already bogs them down.

In an era where administrators increasingly require teachers to record everything digitally, Hager says, “these systems should work.”

US FDA Gives Full Approval to Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ((FDA)) Monday gave full approval to U.S. pharmaceutical company Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, which will be marketed under the name Spikevax.

The vaccine has been widely distributed in the United States and around the world under the FDA’s emergency use authorization since December of 2020. It is the second COVID-19 vaccine the agency has fully approved, after Pfizer’s vaccine received the designation in August of 2021.

In a statement, acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said full authorization of the vaccine is an important step in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that while hundreds of millions of doses of the Moderna shot have been administered under the emergency use authorization, she understands “for some individuals, FDA approval of this vaccine may instill additional confidence in making the decision to get vaccinated.”

Woodcock said the public can be assured that the Moderna vaccine “meets the FDA’s high standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality required of any vaccine approved for use in the United States.”

The Moderna vaccine has been approved for use in more than 70 countries including Britain, Canada, Japan and those in the European Union.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters.

Malaysian Businesses Pivot Amid Tourism Decline

At the W Kuala Lumpur hotel, high tea sets are prepared for delivery to customers celebrating the upcoming Chinese New Year. Inside are meats such as rolled smoked duck as well as tiger prawn sliders and fresh baked treats including red date cheesecake and chocolate tarts. A five-star hotel known for upscale dining in now also relies on home delivery.

“Delivery was something new and we hadn’t considered it really prior to the pandemic,” said Christian Metzner, general manager of the W Kuala Lumpur, adding that although home delivery currently makes up about 15% of his hotel’s food and beverage sales, it was 100% during periods when dining in was not allowed in Malaysia. “We started working with apps and different [delivery] companies,” he said.

Like hotels around the world, the pandemic led to a deep drop in business for the W Kuala Lumpur. Foreigners no longer flew in for vacations or business trips. So the hotel, part of the Marriott chain, pivoted and increased its marketing towards potential customers who live in Malaysia.

The hotel shut down twice during the past two years, for about three months each time. Its last closure ended in August 2021. Management says while business is still down 25% from pre-pandemic levels, during the past several months the hotel has been operating well above the break-even point, drawing customers to guest rooms and the pool for staycations as well as offering food on popular local delivery platforms. 

“Just to stay in the game we had to actually connect and open our channels, open our minds to other channels to sell our products and sell our experience,” Metzner said, adding that the hotel chain’s health and safety protocols — continuously disinfecting public areas, mobile phone check-ins and other measures — also help.

Prior to the pandemic, tourism accounted for more than 15% of Malaysia’s GDP. Because so much of that business disappeared, Yap Lip Seng, chief executive officer of the Malaysian Association of Hotels, the W Kuala Lumpur’s successful shift to the domestic market a rare achievement.

“You need to set yourself apart from the pack,” Yap said, adding that the majority of the country’s hotels are still not able to turn a profit. “First, your competition is with the stand-alone restaurants outside and second, you have to compete with the same grade of hotels within that area.”

Northern Malaysia boasts the popular vacation destination of Langkawi, an archipelago known for its beaches and sea activities. For 21 years, Oli Khalid and his wife Tanja Bindemann have been running a cafe here called the Red Tomato, which has long been a gathering spot for foreign tourists who come for the fresh baked bread, big salads and warm hospitality.

“They come as strangers, travelers, and they leave as friends. That’s our motto,” said Khalid.

But Khalid and Bindemann haven’t been able to make as many new friends over the past two years. Khalid said there were times when business was down 90%.Although there has been an uptick in Malaysian customers recently, business is still half of what it was compared to pre-pandemic levels.

In November, the Malaysian government started a tourist bubble to try to draw vaccinated foreigners to Langkawi. But Khalid and other managers of local businesses said it hasn’t yet yielded a significant increase in customers.

Khalid said he has seen other local businesses close down and says if the situation doesn’t improve, his cafe might go bust in another six months. “We do have sleepless nights thinking, ‘What are we supposed to do?’” Khalid says. “What’s going to happen and what if the situation doesn’t improve, what do we do?”

The Malaysian government is considering additional steps to allow more foreign tourists inside the country. That’s an idea that small mom-and-pop shops such as Khalid’s — as well as major international hotel chains like Metzner’s — say would boost their bottom lines.

Military to Aid Outback Town Cut Off by Australian Floods

The Australian air force is preparing to deliver 20 tons of emergency supplies to remote communities cut off by flood waters. Traffic has been disrupted on the main highway and railway between Adelaide in South Australia and Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory.    

Heavy rain and storms in recent days have damaged freight routes in South Australia. 

A 14-day major emergency was declared Friday by state authorities. It gives the police special powers to ensure food reaches isolated communities. 

South Australia has a population of 1.7 million who are already under a major emergency declaration for COVID-19. The state was also badly impacted by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, although the floods have occurred away from the areas worst-hit by the fires. 

The area is expected to receive yet more rain, with up to 200 millimeters forecast in the coming days.  

A military plane is scheduled to land Monday in the outback settlement of Coober Pedy to deliver food and other essentials.  

The town is 850 kilometers north of Adelaide on the Stuart Highway and is known as the “opal capital of the world” because of its mining resources. The impact on mining and farming might not be known for days. 

Tim Jackson, the administrator of the Coober Pedy Council, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the arrival of supplies would ease community concerns. 

“People are pretty relaxed generally speaking, I think, and particularly now that they know there is a significant food drop being made today. It is just a bit frustrating. It is just the unknown about when the highway is going to be opened again. (I) understand that it is the first time both the rail and road have been impacted simultaneously,” Jackson said.

Flooding in South Australia and the disruption to freight routes have led to shortages on supermarket shelves in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. 

Higher-than-average rainfall this summer is associated with a La Niña weather system, which can also produce a higher-than-normal number of tropical cyclones. 

The naturally occurring system develops when strong winds move the warm surface waters of the Pacific Ocean from South America towards Indonesia. 

In Australia, the La Niña system increases the likelihood of cooler daytime temperatures, reducing the risk of bushfires and heatwaves. 

Conservationists are warning that the impact of climate change will increase the incidence and intensity of “extreme rainfall events” in Australia. They have said that the risks of flooding are exacerbated when the atmosphere is “made warmer and wetter by climate change.” 

Iran Supreme Leader Says ‘Wrong Decisions’ Have Hurt Economy

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Sunday that the country’s poor economic situation was not only due to international sanctions but also to government mismanagement.

“Wrong decisions and shortcomings” were part of the reason for the Islamic republic’s “unsatisfactory” economic data, he said about the decade from March 2011 to last year.

Indicators such as “GDP growth, capital formation, inflation, housing and liquidity growth were not satisfactory,” Khamenei said.

“The main cause of these problems is not only sanctions, but also wrong decisions and shortcomings,” he told a meeting with economic officials.

“If the authorities had cooperated more with the producers in these 10 years, the damage would have been less, and the successes would have been greater,” he added in an implicit attack on former president Hassan Rouhani’s governments from 2013 to 2021.

Iran, which last year elected President Ebrahim Raisi, has been hit by severe economic sanctions imposed in 2018 by the United States, and has seen its inflation rate surge to close to 60 percent.

Khamenei criticized the high prices and low quality of some home-made products, especially cars.

He also charged that “despite the government’s support,” the price of some domestically-produced home appliances had doubled.

Iran has witnessed a number of protest rallies in the past few weeks by civil servants, including from the judiciary, against tough economic conditions.

Regarding companies operating despite the sanctions, Khamenei said that “we have successful examples and businesses that did not wait for the lifting of sanctions.”

Iran has been negotiating in Vienna — directly with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, and indirectly with the United States — to revive its tattered 2015 nuclear deal.

The landmark agreement offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

But the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump and reimposed biting economic sanctions on Iran.

Beijing Seals Off More Residential Areas, Reports 12 Cases

Beijing officials said Sunday they sealed off several residential communities in the city’s northern district after two cases of COVID-19 were found.

Residents in the Anzhenli neighborhood in Chaoyang district were sealed off on Saturday, and will not be allowed to leave their compound.

Beijing is on high alert as it prepares to host the Olympic Games opening on Friday.

While the cases are low compared to other countries in the region, China has double down on its “zero-tolerance” policy, which includes breaking the chain of transmission as soon as it is found.

The city is also setting up 19 points in the area to test residents every day until Friday, officials said at a briefing on the pandemic, according to state-backed Beijing News.

The Chinese capital reported a total of 12 cases of COVID-19 between 4 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, said Pang Xinghuo, the vice head of the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control. All those cases came from people who were already under some kind of pandemic control measures.

The city conducted multiple rounds of testing for millions of residents this past week in Fengtai district, where some residential compounds were locked down.

Violent Protests Highlight India’s Grim Unemployment Situation

Violent protests by job seekers that gripped two Indian states this week have turned the spotlight on India’s unemployment crisis, especially among young and educated people, economists say.

Angry mobs burned train cars and tires, and blocked rail traffic in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two of India’s most populous states, over alleged flaws in the recruitment process for jobs in the government-run rail sector.

They complained of lack of transparency and said that the process unfairly gives an advantage to graduates applying for low-skilled jobs.

There were more than 12 million applicants for the 35,000 openings, reflecting the acute job scarcity. Even before the pandemic battered the economy, unemployment was running at a four-decade high, reflecting the inability of the job market to cater to the more than 10 million new applicants every year.

The situation has worsened in the last two years even though the economy is recovering. It is most stark in states such as Bihar, where the unemployment rate is double the national average. One of India’s least developed states, it has very few avenues for private sector employment, which is why government jobs that are better paid and offer security are highly prized.

Among the applicants for a rail sector job is Guddu Kumar Singh, a 32-year-old resident of Bihar, who has spent nearly 15 years applying unsuccessfully for a variety of government jobs. After failing to make the cut for a clerk in the Indian army after graduating from high school, he focused on improving his educational qualifications and earned a degree in economics — he and his brother were the first generation in his farming family to get college degrees. Like millions of others, the family saw education as the path to a brighter future.

“I was a sincere student – I spent 13, 14 hours a day studying to get my degree. I was so positive. I never thought I would not get a job,” Singh said. “I am totally dejected. My family also asks me, what did I achieve by studying?”

According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, an independent think tank, India’s unemployment rate was nearly 8% in December. It says, however, that this number does not reflect the true scale of unemployment in India because millions of educated people have stopped looking for jobs.

They are people like Singh — if he does not get a railway job he could simply drop out of the job market, returning to what he has been doing while he searched for a job – tutoring school students.


“Unemployment is higher among younger and more educated people because appropriate jobs are not available,” economist Arun Kumar, a former professor with New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said.

“The organized sector barely generates about 300,000 jobs a year, so where do the other aspirants go? There is a crisis of unemployment.”

The huge gap between supply and demand has resulted in qualified people taking jobs of much lower skills.

Earlier this month, graduates, post-graduates, engineers, and civil judge aspirants were among the more than 10,000 young people who turned up for interviews for 15 government jobs such as drivers and watchmen in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, according to a report by local broadcaster NDTV.

Economists say that part of the problem is that, unlike several other Asian countries, India never created a large-scale manufacturing sector — its growth is being powered by its booming services sector, which creates fewer jobs.

The government says job creation is a priority – in recent years, it has been trying to pitch India as an attractive investment destination to woo global manufacturers. Those efforts have intensified since the pandemic as India eyes the opportunity of luring companies that are looking to move some manufacturing out of China.

“India is committed to becoming a trustworthy partner for the world’s global supply chains,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum earlier this month. “We are making way for free trade agreements with many countries. India’s capacity to adopt to innovative technologies and its spirit of entrepreneurship can give new energy to all our global partners. This is why now is the best time to invest in India.”

Economists like Kumar, though, point out that even if India is able to attract companies to set up factories, modern manufacturing generates far fewer jobs than it did in the past because of automation.


“India must invest more resources in more employment-intensive sectors like health and education that provide jobs for more qualified people like teachers, nurses, technicians,” he said. “The frustration among the young and educated is boiling over.”

Indian commentators have called the recent protests a wake-up call in a country where half the population of 1.3 billion is under 25. The Indian Express newspaper said they were a “sobering message.”

The government has suspended the examination for rail jobs and said a committee has been formed to investigate candidates’ concerns.

For those like Singh, who sees it as his last chance to secure employment, the uncertainty is unbearable.

“I feel really anguished when I think of the years I spent getting a college degree. If I had spent the same time doing something else, I would have had better earnings.” 


2 NY Nurses Allegedly Forged COVID Vaccination Cards, Made $1.5 Million

New York authorities have arrested two Long Island nurses who officials say made more than $1.5 million by forging COVID-19 vaccination cards.

Julie DeVuono, the owner of Wild Child Pediatric Healthcare and her employee, Marissa Urraro, have been charged with felony forgery, authorities say. DeVuono was also charged with offering a false instrument for filing.

Officials say the two women entered the false information on the cards into New York’s immunization database.

The Suffolk County district attorney’s office said the women sold the fake cards for $220 for adults and $85 for children.

Officials say about $900,000 in cash was seized from DeVuono’s home.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, is in self-isolation until Tuesday after a possible COVID exposure on a flight to Auckland, officials said Saturday.

“The prime minister is asymptomatic and is feeling well,” her office said. She is scheduled to be tested for the virus Sunday.

India’s health ministry said Sunday that 234,281 people had tested positive for COVID in the previous 24-hour period.

Meanwhile, more than 100,000 daily cases of the coronavirus were reported in Russia for the first time Saturday as the highly contagious omicron variant spreads throughout the country. The government’s coronavirus task force reported a record high 113,122 new cases, a sevenfold increase from earlier in January.



Myanmar Cybersecurity Law ‘Days’ Away as Coup Anniversary Nears

Myanmar’s military government is set to pass a new cybersecurity law that will ban the use of internet services, a move that has been condemned by digital rights activists and business groups.

The Southeast Asian country has been in turmoil since a coup by the military last February. A widespread grassroots movement has seen thousands refuse to accept military rule, with anti-coup communications and demonstrations now largely mobilized online.

But a draft bill released by the junta, if passed, would criminalize the use of virtual private networks and online gambling, carrying a punishment of one to three years’ imprisonment and fines of up to $2,800.

The first draft of the bill was released last year, but progress on the legislation slowed after substantial public outcry and industrywide criticism. The legislation is expected to become law next week.

“We are speculating the bill will actually be official within just a few days, it might come before the first of February,” Ma Htike, a digital rights activist, told VOA.

People living in Myanmar rely heavily on internet access, especially social media platforms such as Facebook, for news, and many have struggled to get online since the junta took control of the country’s telecommunication regulators after the Feb. 1, 2021, coup. Major Norwegian telecommunication operator Telenor recently quit its operations inside the country because of the political situation.

The military regularly shuts down the internet, routinely blocks social media platforms and censors what information can be found online, all in the name of ensuring national “stability.”

But political analyst Aung Thu Nyein describes the latest draft legislation as unusually severe.

“The leaked new communication law is the most draconian law restricting many freedoms and privacy of a person,” he told VOA. “This law could be a major roadblock to technological development as well, such as prohibiting the use of digital coins and blockchain technology, etc.

“It is definitely for the purpose of oppression of freedom of speech and a tool for control,” he said.

Junta-enforced regional internet blackouts make VPNs vital to accessing independent news online via private networks outside of the country.

According to Top10VPN, Myanmar went without internet access for 72 consecutive days from February to April of last year, driving demand for VPNs up by 7,200%. The report also says the shutdowns came at a cost, with Myanmar suffering nearly $3 billion in lost revenue, according to the indicators from the World Bank, The International Telecommunication Union, Eurostat and the U.S. Census.

Htike says most of Myanmar’s citizens continue to struggle with the blackouts.

“There are still various locations that the mobile internet has not been available,” she told VOA, adding that junta-backed regulators have scheduled price increases for internet subscriptions, which is likely to pose “a big obstacle” for most citizens in a country with typically low per capita incomes.

“[The] internet plays a pivot role to send information to all parts of the country, from cities to remote corners,” said Aung Htun, a journalist for Burma VJ, an informal network of professional and citizen video journalists who pool footage. “That’s why the military tried to raise the data fees higher than previously.”

In its attempts to control the flow of information, the Myanmar military has also cracked down on the country’s media. According to Reporting ASEAN, a monitoring group in Southeast Asia, 120 journalists have been arrested with 49 still detained and 16 convicted. The licenses of at least five media outlets have been revoked.

Aung Htun also says the looming internet restrictions under the new law will put people at increased risk of arrest in public, where the military sometimes randomly searches phones.

“It’s getting more difficult to hide data in your phone. It’s better to use simple ways; don’t keep any important data in your phone,” he said, adding that journalists must “stay low, and try to be in touch with your colleagues [only] by secure network.”

Freedom House, a nonprofit research institute that ranks internet freedom by country on a scale in which 100 is “most free,” placed Myanmar at 17 in 2021.

Ten foreign businesses and industry groups in Myanmar said in a joint letter they are “deeply concerned” over the latest draft of the cybersecurity law.

“If enforced, the current draft disrupts the free flow of information and directly impacts businesses’ abilities to operate legally and effectively in Myanmar,” the statement read.

Htike said the new law could force customers to break the law in order to use basic business services.

“Myanmar’s economy really declined after the coup, but still small businesses have used social media and networks, but with this kind of [restriction] it’s going to be very difficult,” she added.

Feb. 1 marks one year since the Myanmar military removed the country’s democratically elected government. To mark the anniversary, anti-coup activists have called for a silent strike, which leaves the streets of towns and cities across Myanmar deserted.

“Silent strikes are a good strategy for people to get involved,” said Htike, who also warned that risks remain whether you’re demonstrating in the streets or online.

Myanmar’s military routinely stops and searches people to check phones for evidence of VPN activity, such as whether the phone has Facebook access, which is impossible without a VPN.

They also surveil the web for digital anti-junta activity.

In a silent protest, Htike added, “it might be difficult for [the military] to do search and seizure [on empty streets], but [even] if people are active [only] online, they can [still] be targeted there.”

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948, but most of its modern history has been under military rule.

After a brief period of civilian rule, the military in November 2020 began making unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud. On Feb. 1 of 2021, the military removed the democratically elected government and arrested leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, both of whom have since been sentenced to several jail terms.

Widespread opposition to military rule has resulted in thousands of arrests and at least 1,499 killings, according to the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Hong Kong Allows Pet Stores to Resume Hamster Sales After COVID Cull

Dozens of pet stores that sold hamsters in Hong Kong may resume business starting Sunday, Hong Kong’s government said, after being shuttered last week and culling thousands of hamsters over coronavirus fears.

Authorities enraged pet lovers with an order to cull more than 2,200 hamsters after tracing an outbreak to a worker in a shop where 11 hamsters tested positive. Imported hamsters from Holland into the Chinese territory had been cited as the source. All hamster imports remain banned.

The city’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said in a statement late Saturday that it collected 1,134 samples from animals other than hamsters including rabbits and chinchillas, which were all negative.

Five stores, including the Little Boss pet shop, where authorities traced the outbreak, remained closed until they pass “the virus test,” the government said.

“All the other concerned pet shops on the other hand have been thoroughly disinfected and cleaned and the environmental swabs collected from these shops have all passed the COVID-19 virus test,” it said.

The government said on Friday it would compensate pet shops trading in hamsters, offering a one-off payment of up to $3,850.

People who had in recent weeks bought hamsters, popular apartment pets in the congested city, were ordered to surrender them for testing and what the government described as “humane dispatch.”

Thousands of people offered to adopt unwanted hamsters amid a public outcry against the government and its pandemic advisers, which authorities called irrational.

A study published in The Lancet medical journal, which has not yet been peer reviewed, said Hong Kong researchers have found evidence that pet hamsters can spread COVID-19 and linked the animals to human infections in the city.

However, the economic and psychological tolls from Hong Kong’s hardline approach to curbing the virus are rapidly rising, residents say, with measures becoming more draconian than those first enforced in 2020.

Australia Promises Multimillion Dollar Plan to Tackle Great Barrier Reef Pollution

There has been a mixed response to Australia’s $700 million plan to combat water pollution on the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system.

The nine-year Australian plan promises to fund projects that reduce erosion and pesticides and fertilizers running off farmland into the sea.  There will be other conservation efforts, including combating coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish and illegal fishing.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society has welcomed the initiative.  It said that curbing pollution was essential to build the reef’s “resilience to climate change.” 

Environment Minister Sussan Ley says the plan will help protect one of the country’s great natural treasures.  

“This is an extraordinary investment in a reef.  I don’t think there has ever been one as large anywhere in the world,” said Ley. “The reef economy is worth 6.4 billion [Australian] dollars, there are 64,000 jobs that depend on the reef and if you live anywhere along one of our reef communities in Queensland, you know how important it is.  So, it is also about COVID recovery because our tourism operators are waiting to show national and international tourists our beautiful Great Barrier Reef.”

However, other scientists have said that action to improve water quality will mean nothing if global carbon emissions are not reduced.  

They have identified climate change as the major threat to the 344,400-square-kilometer ecosystem that stretches down Australia’s northeast coast.  Warming ocean temperatures have caused widespread coral bleaching in recent years.  

Under stress, the corals expel symbiotic algae, which live in their tissues, and give the corals their color and supply them with nutrients.

The reef narrowly avoided being listed as “in danger” by UNESCO last year amid concerns over its long-term health.  

In October, a study by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, a United Nations-supported network of researchers, reported that about 14% of the world’s coral had been lost since 2009. 

It found that reefs were among the world’s “most vulnerable ecosystems” to man-made threats, including climate change, overfishing and pollution. 

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef spans an area about the size of Japan.

Scientists Call Rich Nations’ Failure to Provide Vaccines to World ‘Reckless’

A group of 300 scientists say wealthy nations’ failure to provide the rest of the world with access to COVID-19 vaccines is a “reckless approach to public health” that results in conditions that allow for variants, such as the highly contagious omicron variant, to emerge.

In a letter to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the scientists said Britain’s people and the National Health Service have been placed at risk because of the UK’s global vaccination policy, according to a report in The Telegraph.

Reuters reports that the letter urges Britain to support the waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-17 vaccines, tests and treatments.

The scientists who signed the letter include a Nobel prize winner and a former National Health Service chief executive, The Telegraph reported.

Three billion people worldwide remain unvaccinated.

Nineteen COVID-19 cases were reported Friday among Winter Olympics athletes and officials in China, bringing their total number of cases to 36.

Pope Francis said Friday at the International Catholic Media Consortium on COVID-19 Vaccines, “To be properly informed, to be helped to understand situations based on scientific data and not fake news, is a human right.”

More than 370 million global COVID-19 infections have been recorded, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and nearly 10 billion vaccine doses have been administered.

Omicron Drives US Deaths Higher Than in Fall’s Delta Wave

Omicron, the highly contagious coronavirus variant sweeping across the country, is driving the daily American death toll higher than was the case during last fall’s delta wave, with deaths likely to keep rising for days or even weeks. 

The seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. has been climbing since mid-November, reaching 2,267 on Thursday and surpassing a September peak of 2,100 when delta was the dominant variant. 

Now omicron is estimated to account for nearly all the virus circulating in the nation. And even though it causes less severe disease for most people, the fact that it is more transmissible means more people are falling ill and dying. 

“Omicron will push us over a million deaths,” said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California-Irvine. “That will cause a lot of soul searching. There will be a lot of discussion about what we could have done differently, how many of the deaths were preventable.” 

The average daily death toll is now at the same level as last February, when the country was slowly coming off its all-time high of 3,300 a day. 

More Americans are taking precautionary measures against the virus than before the omicron surge, according to an AP-NORC poll this week. But many people, fatigued by crisis, are returning to some level of normality with hopes that vaccinations or prior infections will protect them. 

Omicron symptoms are often milder, and some infected people show none, researchers agree. But like the flu, it can be deadly, especially for people who are older, have other health problems or who are unvaccinated. 

“Importantly, ‘milder’ does not mean ‘mild,’ ” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said this week during a White House briefing. 

‘He just wasn’t sure’

Until recently, Chuck Culotta was a healthy middle-aged man who ran a power-washing business in Milford, Delaware. As the omicron wave was ravaging the Northeast, he felt the first symptoms before Christmas and tested positive on Christmas Day. He died less than a week later, on December 31, nine days short of his 51st birthday. 

He was unvaccinated, said his brother, Todd, because he had questions about the long-term effects of the vaccine. 

“He just wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do — yet,” said Todd Culotta, who got his shots during the summer. 

At one urban hospital in Kansas, 50 COVID-19 patients have died this month and more than 200 are being treated. University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, posted a video from its morgue showing bagged bodies in a refrigeration unit and a worker marking one white body bag with the word “COVID.” 

“This is real,” said Ciara Wright, the hospital’s decedent affairs coordinator. “Our concerns are, ‘Are the funeral homes going to come fast enough?’ We do have access to a refrigerated truck. We don’t want to use it if we don’t have to.” 

Dr. Katie Dennis, a pathologist who does autopsies for the health system, said the morgue has been at or above capacity almost every day in January, “which is definitely unusual.” 

With more than 882,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the United States has the largest COVID-19 toll of any nation. 

Faster increases ahead

During the coming week, almost every U.S. state will see a faster increase in deaths, although deaths have peaked in a few states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Maryland, Alaska and Georgia, according to the COVID-19 Forecast Hub. 

New hospital admissions have started to fall for all age groups, according to CDC data, and a drop in deaths is expected to follow. 

“In a pre-pandemic world, during some flu seasons, we see 10,000 or 15,000 deaths. We see that in the course of a week sometimes with COVID,” said Nicholas Reich, who aggregates coronavirus projections for the hub in collaboration with the CDC. 

“The toll and the sadness and suffering is staggering and very humbling,” said Reich, a professor of biostatistics at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. 

In other developments: 

— The White House said Friday that about 60 million households had ordered 240 million home test kits under a new government program to expand testing opportunities. The government also said it has shipped tens of millions of masks to convenient locations across the country, including deliveries Friday to community centers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

The national drugstore chain Walgreens is among pharmacies receiving the government-provided masks. The chain has started offering N95 masks for free at several stores, as long as supplies last. The company’s website lists locations in the Midwest for the initial wave of stores offering masks, but Walgreens said more stores would offer them soon. 

— The leading organization for state and local public health officials has called on governments to stop conducting widespread contact tracing, saying it’s no longer necessary. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials urged governments to focus contact tracing efforts on high-risk, vulnerable populations such as people in homeless shelters and nursing homes.

Innovative Electric Vehicles on Display at Washington Auto Show

Electric vehicles are in high demand as gas prices and concerns about carbon emissions and global warming climb. From the 2022 Washington Auto Show, VOA’s Saqib Ul Islam examines where consumers and car manufacturers think all-electric vehicles are heading in the future.

Camera: Saqib Ul Islam Produced by: Saqib Ul Islam

Consumer Spending Drops as Inflation Continues to Rise 

A key inflation indicator was up 5.8% over last year, the Commerce Department said Friday. It was the indicator’s highest jump since 1982.

The rise came in the government’s personal consumption expenditures index (PCE), which the Federal Reserve uses to guide interest rate moves. The PCE tracks actual consumer spending.

Another indicator, the consumer price index (CPI), jumped 7% last year, the government reported earlier this month. The CPI tracks the price of a basket of various goods.

The increased prices of goods could be behind a 0.6% drop in consumer spending in December, the department said. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

Inflation has also largely erased wage gains seen in many U.S households.

The pandemic, labor shortages and supply chain problems continue to drag on the economy.

The growing inflation adds pressure on the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates, which comes with the danger of slowing economic growth.

“No one wants to go back to the ’80s, but the economy is. Can stagflation from an overly aggressive Fed be next?” Christopher Rupkey, chief economist at FWDBONDS in New York, said in an interview with Reuters. “The Fed let its guard down and now they risk it all by saying they might have to move faster and higher on interest rates.”

The Fed could move as early as March to raise interest rates.​

Some information for this report came from Reuters and The Associated Press.

FAA, Telecom Companies to Turn On More 5G Towers

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday U.S.-based telecommunications companies AT&T and Verizon can activate more of their fifth-generation, or 5G, transmitters after consultation with the agency. 

Earlier this month, the telecommunication companies agreed they would delay launching the new wireless service near key airports after weeks of legal wrangling with the nation’s largest airlines and U.S. government regulators that feared the 5G service would interfere with aircraft technology and cause massive flight disruptions. 

But in its release Friday, the FAA said both companies provided additional data about the exact location of wireless transmitters and supported more thorough analysis of how 5G C-band signals interact with aircraft instruments. 

The agency said it used that data to precisely map the size and shape of the areas around airports where 5G signals might interfere with aircraft, allowing the regulators to shrink the areas where wireless operators had to delay their antenna activations. 

The FAA said that will allow wireless providers to safely turn on more towers as they deploy new 5G service in major markets across the country. The agency expressed its appreciation for the “collaborative approach” AT&T and Verizon took in providing the data. 

The FAA says it is continuing to work with helicopter operators and others in the aviation community to ensure they can safely operate in areas of current and planned 5G deployment. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters. 


CDC: Immunocompromised Could Benefit From Extra Shot of Moderna, Pfizer Vaccines

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday a third primary shot of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for immunocompromised people could significantly reduce their need for hospitalization. 

The CDC said the recommendation of a third shot, not a booster, is the result of a study of immunocompromised people in which the third shot proved to be about 88% effective against hospitalization. The two-shot regime proved to be 69% effective in avoiding hospitalization among that group.

The government authorized the third shots of Pfizer or Moderna for people with compromised immune systems in August. 

Later, in October, regulators said the immunocompromised who had gotten their third shots would be eligible for boosters early this year for even more protection.  However, that information has not trickled down to all health facilities and people have reported that they have been turned away at some hospitals and pharmacies. 

More than a million-and-a-half doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine recently arrived in Ethiopia from the United States.  The shots were provided to the East African nation through COVAX, the international vaccine alliance that strives to offer the world’s poorest countries equitable access to the life-saving shots.   

The American Embassy in Ethiopia said the vaccines arrived in two shipments on January 24 and 26, bringing “the number of doses of vaccines provided to Ethiopia by the American people to over 6.1 million since July 17, 2021.”

The head of the hospital system in Paris has questioned whether the unvaccinated should pay a portion of their hospitalization costs.

“When free and efficient drugs are available, should people be able to renounce it without consequences … while we struggle to take care of other patients?” Martin Hirsch posed in a recent television interview. 

His proposal has been met with mixed reaction from politicians and citizens.

Paris Mayor Anne Hildalgo, who is a Socialist, said she is against the idea, while Olga Givernet, a lawmaker from President Emanuel Macron’s party, said, “the issue as raised by the medical community could not be ignored.”  

Meanwhile, a recent poll revealed that 51% of the French population believe the unvaccinated should pay a portion of their hospital costs. France has universal health care which pays the entire amount of COVID-19 hospitalization, which costs more than $3,000 per day. 

Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and a Republican vice-presidential nominee, has been spotted dining out in New York City, after having tested positive for COVID-19.  Her positive test forced the postponement of a trial in which she is suing The New York Times newspaper. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has advised anyone who has come in contact with Palin to get tested. 

More than 366.3 million global COVID-19 infections have been recorded, according to The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.  The center said early Friday 5.6 million people have died from COVID-19.   Almost 10 billion vaccine doses have been administered, according to Johns Hopkins.

Homeless See Progress from COVID-19 Policies, But Can it Last?

Billions of dollars have poured in from federal and local governments to help America’s homeless survive the coronavirus pandemic. And this spending is helping – for now. VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias examines whether the strategies spurred by the pandemic could be a long-term solution to this chronic U.S. problem.

Toyota Heading to Moon with Cruiser, Robotic Arms, Dreams

Toyota is working with Japan’s space agency on a vehicle to explore the lunar surface, with ambitions to help people live on the moon by 2040 and then go live on Mars, company officials said Friday.

The vehicle being developed with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is called Lunar Cruiser, whose name pays homage to the Toyota Land Cruiser sport utility vehicle. Its launch is set for the late 2020’s.

The vehicle is based on the idea that people eat, work, sleep and communicate with others safely in cars, and the same can be done in outer space, said Takao Sato, who heads the Lunar Cruiser project at Toyota Motor Corp.

“We see space as an area for our once-in-a-century transformation. By going to space, we may be able to develop telecommunications and other technology that will prove valuable to human life,” Sato told The Associated Press.

Gitai Japan Inc., a venture contracted with Toyota, has developed a robotic arm for the Lunar Cruiser, designed to perform tasks such as inspection and maintenance. Its “grapple fixture” allows the arm’s end to be changed so it can work like different tools, scooping, lifting and sweeping.

Gitai Chief Executive Sho Nakanose said he felt the challenge of blasting off into space has basically been met but working in space entails big costs and hazards for astronauts. That’s where robots would come in handy, he said.

Since its founding in the 1930s, Toyota has fretted about losing a core business because of changing times. It has ventured into housing, boats, jets and robots. Its net-connected sustainable living quarters near Mount Fuji, called Woven City, where construction is starting this year.

Japanese fascination with the moon has been growing.

A private Japanese venture called ispace Inc. is working on lunar rovers, landing and orbiting, and is scheduled for a moon landing later this year. Businessman Yusaku Maezawa, who recently took videos of himself floating around in the International Space Station, has booked an orbit around the moon aboard Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s Starship.

Toyota engineer Shinichiro Noda said he is excited about the lunar project, an extension of the automaker’s longtime mission to serve customers and the moon may provide valuable resources for life on Earth.

“Sending our cars to the moon is our mission,” he said. Toyota has vehicles almost everywhere. “But this is about taking our cars to somewhere we have never been.” 

US Congress Considers Bills to Boost Competition with China

With President Joe Biden’s broader domestic agenda stymied in the Senate, Democratic leaders in Congress have begun looking for legislative victories elsewhere, with a new focus on improving the U.S. ability to compete with China.

Democrats in the House of Representatives are attempting to come to agreement on legislation that would provide large financial subsidies to the semiconductor industry as well as generous research and development grants to support supply chain resilience, buoy domestic manufacturing operations and underwrite new scientific research.

The effort in the House follows a push in the Senate last year, which resulted in bipartisan passage of the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021. That bill proposed $52 billion in assistance to the semiconductor industry as well as nearly $200 billion more on research and development projects meant to bolster U.S. competitiveness.

The House is likely to pass its own version of the legislation, meaning the two chambers would have to come to an agreement on final language before a bill could go to the White House to be signed into law. It remains unclear whether an eventual House bill would garner any Republican support in that chamber, or whether compromise language would continue to attract the Republican support that helped the Senate’s original bill come to the floor for a vote.

But in a statement this week, the president made it clear that he would like to see the legislation on his desk.

Biden praised the “transformational investments” that the legislation would make. With the proposed legislation, he said, “We have an opportunity to show China and the rest of the world that the 21st century will be the American century – forged by the ingenuity and hard work of our innovators, workers, and businesses.”

Countering Chinese subsidies

In Congress, even among conservative lawmakers who generally shy away from government intervention in the economy, there is recognition of a need to balance the scales for U.S. companies that frequently find themselves in competition with Chinese firms that receive subsidies and other preferences from the government in Beijing.

When the Senate passed its version of the bill in June, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said, “This type of targeted investment in a critical industry was unthinkable just a couple years ago, but the need for smart industrial policy is now widely accepted.”

That comes as a surprise to many observers of U.S. policymaking.

“There is somewhat of an ambivalence, or confusion, in D.C. where, on the one hand, people want to say that China’s industrial policies are both very unfair, and also very important in explaining China’s competitive success,” Gerard DiPippo, a senior fellow in the Economics Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA. “But then, they also seem reluctant to actually engage in those policies because they think those policies are actually very distortionary and ineffective. So, it sort of cuts both ways.”

Semiconductors in focus

Despite strong economic growth in the U.S. over the past year, a persistent shortage of semiconductors has caused some sectors of the economy – the automobile industry in particular – to lag behind. Supply chain disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic have been difficult to resolve, leading many members of Congress to propose funding to “re-shore” domestic production of semiconductors.

Both the Senate bill and the version being considered by the House of Representatives would funnel $52 billion in grants and subsidies to the industry.

However, China is not a major competitor of the United States when it comes to semiconductors. While China does make some semiconductors, the largest manufacturer in the world is TSMC, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. in Taiwan.

‘Decoupling’ seen as troubling

Some American companies that do business with China are concerned about the long-term efforts of both countries to achieve economic independence from each other.

“China is upset with efforts to increase export restrictions on U.S. goods, block Chinese companies from accessing certain U.S. goods, and restrict some direct investments in China,” Doug Barry, a senior director with the U.S.-China Business Council, told VOA in an email exchange.

“They worry about incentives to relocate production of some critical goods back to the U.S. At the same time, China is working to reduce dependence on certain goods like advanced semiconductors, while slow-walking promised market access reform and opening,” Barry said.

“Our members worry that these efforts signal mutual economic decoupling that’s not in the long-term interest of either country,” he said. “Both governments need to engage in direct talks to better manage differences, adhere to WTO principles, and ensure that Phase One Agreement commitments are fully met.”

Government interference ‘misguided’

Ryan Young, a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told VOA that efforts by Congress to mimic China by trying to manipulate the U.S. economy are “misguided” at best, and at worst destructive.

“This falls into what I think of as the ‘But they do it, too,’ argument,” Young said. While it is indisputable that the Chinese government creates all sorts of advantages for certain sectors within its economy, he said, it doesn’t follow that the answer is for the U.S. to do the same.

Despite government support, large Chinese tech firms are burdened with substantial debt, operational inefficiencies and political meddling, he said.

Further, Young noted that the semiconductor industry, which the legislative efforts target above all else, has already taken steps to bring some of its production into U.S. territory, with chip giant Intel expanding a $50 billion complex of chip manufacturing facilities in Arizona.