COVID Protests Hit Shanghai as Anger Spreads Across China

Protests simmered in Shanghai early Sunday, as residents in several Chinese cities, many of them angered by a deadly fire in the country’s far west, pushed back against heavy COVID-19 curbs nearly three years into the pandemic.

A fire Thursday that killed 10 people in a high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, has sparked widespread public anger as many internet users surmised that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down, which city officials denied.

In Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub, residents gathered on Saturday night at the city’s Wulumuqi Road — which borrows its name from Urumqi — for a vigil that turned into a protest in the early hours of Sunday.

“Lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China!” the crowds in Shanghai shouted, according to a video circulated on social media.

At one point a large group began shouting, “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping, free Urumqi!” according to witnesses and videos, in a rare public protest of the Chinese leadership.

A large group of police looked on and sometimes tried to break up the crowd.

China is battling a surge in infections that has prompted lockdowns and other restrictions in cities across the country as Beijing adheres to a zero-COVID policy even as much of the world tries to coexist with the coronavirus.

China defends President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-COVID policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting toll on the world’s second-biggest economy.

Videos from Shanghai widely shared on Chinese social media showed crowds facing dozens of police and calling out chants including: “Serve the people,” “We don’t want health codes” and “We want freedom.”

Some social media users posted screenshots of street signs for Wulumuqi Road, both to evade censors and show support for protesters in Shanghai. Others shared comments or posts calling for all of “you brave young people” to be careful. Many included advice on what to do if police came or started arresting people during a protest or vigil.

Anger nationwide

Shanghai’s 25 million people were put under lockdown for two months earlier this year, an ordeal that provoked anger and protest.

Chinese authorities have since then sought to be more targeted in their COVID curbs, but that effort has been challenged by a surge in infections as China faces its first winter with the highly transmissible omicron variant.

While low by global standards, China’s case numbers have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections reported by health authorities on Sunday for the previous day.

On Friday night, crowds took to the streets of Urumqi, chanting “End the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air after the deadly fire, according to videos circulated on Chinese social media.

Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.

In Beijing, 2,700 kilometers away, some residents under lockdown staged small protests or confronted local officials on Saturday over movement restrictions, with some successfully pressuring them into lifting the curbs ahead of schedule.

A video shared with Reuters showed Beijing residents in an unidentifiable part of the capital marching around an open-air carpark Saturday, shouting “End the lockdown!”

The Beijing government did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

The next few weeks could be the worst in China since the early weeks of the pandemic both for the economy and the health care system, Mark Williams of Capital Economics said in note last week, as efforts to contain the outbreak will require additional localized lockdowns in many cities.

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COVID Protests in China’s Urumqi Region

Protesters, angry about long COVID-19 lockdowns, have taken to the streets in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western Xinjiang region.

The protests followed a high-rise apartment building fire in Urumqi on Thursday that killed 10 people and concerns that the lockdown measures may have prevented firefighters from entering the building quickly and may have hampered the exit of some residents.

The demonstrations also follow online discussions, now removed, on Chinese social media questioning why there are maskless spectators at the World Cup games, while China continues to subject its citizens to long lockdowns.

“More than 120 countries in the rest of the world have lifted their COVID restrictive measures quite some time ago,” began one of the questions posed by a writer who said he lives in north central Shannxi province, home to China’s ancient capital city Xi’an.

“Why should they lead freer lives than Chinese citizens? I did not see anyone sporting face masks at the Qatar World Cup opening ceremony and did not hear of any attendee showing proof of negative COVID tests; does this mean they live on a different planet from us?”

Urumqi has been under lockdown since August. However, it is reporting about 100 new COVID cases each day.

Urumqi is also home to many Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group that human rights groups and western governments say suffered many human rights abuses at the hands of the Chinese government. China rejects the charges as interference in its internal affairs.

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China Reports Third Consecutive Daily Record for New COVID Cases

China reported 35,183 new COVID-19 infections on Friday, of which 3,474 were symptomatic and 31,709 were asymptomatic, the National Health Commission said on Saturday, setting a new high for the third consecutive day.

That compared with 32,943 new cases a day earlier — 3,103 symptomatic and 29,840 asymptomatic infections, which China counts separately.

Excluding imported cases, China reported 34,909 new local cases on Friday, of which 3,405 were symptomatic and 31,504 were asymptomatic, up from 32,695 a day earlier.

There were no deaths, keeping fatalities at 5,232. As of Friday, mainland China had confirmed 304,093 cases with symptoms.

Mega-cities continue to struggle to contain outbreaks, with Chongqing and Guangzhou recording the bulk of new cases.

Chongqing, a southwestern city of 32 million people, reported 7,721 new local cases for Friday, a jump of almost 20% from the previous day.

Guangzhou, a prosperous city of nearly 19 million people in southern China, reported 7,419 new local cases for Friday, down slightly from 7,524 cases a day earlier.

New local cases for Friday in the capital Beijing jumped 58% to 2,595, according to figures released by local health authorities Saturday.

There are COVID outbreaks in almost all Chinese provinces, with Hebei, Sichuan, Shanxi and Qinghai provinces each registering more than a thousand new cases on Friday.

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US Bans Huawei, ZTE Equipment Sales, Citing National Security Risk

The Biden administration has banned approvals of new telecommunications equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies HWT.UL and ZTE 000063.SZ because they pose “an unacceptable risk” to U.S. national security.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said Friday it had adopted the final rules, which also bar the sale or import of equipment made by China’s surveillance equipment maker Dahua Technology Co 002236.SZ, video surveillance firm Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co Ltd 002415.SZ and telecoms firm Hytera Communications Corp Ltd 002583.SZ.

The move represents Washington’s latest crackdown on the Chinese tech giants amid fears that Beijing could use Chinese tech companies to spy on Americans.

“These new rules are an important part of our ongoing actions to protect the American people from national security threats involving telecommunications,” FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

Huawei declined to comment. ZTE, Dahua, Hikvision and Hytera did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rosenworcel circulated the proposed measure — which effectively bars the firms from selling new equipment in the United States — to the other three commissioners for final approval last month.

The FCC said in June 2021 it was considering banning all equipment authorizations for all companies on the covered list.

That came after a March 2021 designation of five Chinese companies on the so-called “covered list” as posing a threat to national security under a 2019 law aimed at protecting U.S. communications networks: Huawei, ZTE, Hytera Communications Corp Hikvision and Dahua.

All four commissioners at the agency, including two Republicans and two Democrats, supported Friday’s move.

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NASA’s Orion Capsule Enters Far-Flung Orbit Around Moon

NASA’s Orion capsule entered an orbit stretching tens of thousands of miles around the moon Friday, as it neared the halfway mark of its test flight.

The capsule and its three test dummies entered lunar orbit more than a week after launching on the $4 billion demo that’s meant to pave the way for astronauts. It will remain in this broad but stable orbit for nearly a week, completing just half a lap before heading home.

As of Friday’s engine firing, the capsule was 380,000 kilometers from Earth. It’s expected to reach a maximum distance of almost 432,000 kilometers in a few days. That will set a new distance record for a capsule designed to carry people one day.

“It is a statistic, but it’s symbolic for what it represents,” Jim Geffre, an Orion manager, said in a NASA interview earlier in the week. “It’s about challenging ourselves to go farther, stay longer and push beyond the limits of what we’ve previously explored.”

NASA considers this a dress rehearsal for the next moon flyby in 2024, with astronauts. A lunar landing by astronauts could follow as soon as 2025. Astronauts last visited the moon 50 years ago during Apollo 17.

Earlier in the week, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with the capsule for nearly an hour. At the time, controllers were adjusting the communication link between Orion and the Deep Space Network. Officials said the spacecraft remained healthy.

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London to Expand Vehicle Pollution Zone to Cover 9 Million People

Older and more heavily polluting vehicles will have to pay to enter the entire metropolitan area of London starting next August, the British capital’s mayor said Friday.

Sadiq Khan said the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) would be expanded beyond its current confines starting August 29 to encompass the entire 9 million people of greater London.

Announcing a parallel expansion of bus services in outer London, he argued that air pollution from older and heavier vehicles was making Londoners “sick from cradle to the grave.”

The ULEZ has proved transformational, the mayor said, and its extension would mean “5 million more people will be able to breathe cleaner air and live healthier lives.”

But the plan has prompted a fierce backlash from political opponents and some residents in the capital, who point to a survey indicating that most Londoners opposed extending the zone.

The two-month outreach exercise was held earlier this year by Transport for London, which runs the capital’s various transport systems. The survey heard from 57,913 people, including nearly 12,000 campaigners on either side of the issue.

Although it found 55% of respondents had “some concern” about their local air quality, the survey also recorded 59% as opposed to the ULEZ being expanded.

That rose to 70% in the outer London areas set to be part of the enlargement.

“Sadiq Khan has broken his promise to listen to Londoners,” the Conservative grouping in London’s lawmaking assembly said on Twitter.

“He must U-TURN on the ULEZ expansion.”

The zone has been expanded once since it was introduced in April 2019 and currently covers a large area within London’s North and South Circular inner ring-roads and the city center.

Unless their vehicles are exempt, drivers entering the zone must pay a daily charge of $15.

Gasoline cars first registered after 2005, and diesel cars after September 2015, typically meet the ULEZ standards for nitrous oxide emissions and are exempt.

Air pollution caused around 1,000 annual hospital admissions for asthma and serious lung conditions in London between 2014 and 2016, according to a 2019 report.

A coroner ruled in 2020 that air pollution made a “material contribution” to the death of a 9-year-old London girl in 2013, the first time in Britain that air pollution was officially listed as a cause of death.

Air pollution is “affecting children before they’re even born, and giving them lifelong health issues,” the campaign group Mums for Lungs tweeted.

“Good news for the health of all Londoners,” it said in response to the ULEZ announcement.

Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, a U.N. climate envoy and former mayor of New York, said Khan was “helping to clean London’s air and set an example for cities around the world.”

But opponents of the ULEZ argue it amounts to a tax on poorer drivers least able to afford to replace their polluting vehicles and has hurt small businesses.

The announcement will be “a hammer-blow for desperate drivers and businesses already struggling with crippling fuel costs” during a cost-of-living crisis, said the head of roads policy for motoring body the RAC, Nicholas Lyes.

All cars and vans entering central London during the daytime also pay a “congestion charge” of 15 pounds, a measure first introduced in 2003.

Similar programs have been set up in several other British towns and cities to reduce emission levels and improve air quality.

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Global Wildlife Summit Approves Shark Protections 

Delegates at a global summit on trade in endangered species on Friday approved a plan to protect 54 more shark species, a move that could drastically reduce the lucrative and cruel shark fin trade. 

Members of the requiem shark and the hammerhead shark families will now have their trade tightly controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). 

The binding resolutions were adopted by consensus on the final day of the two-week meeting by delegates from 183 countries and the European Union. 

“Proposal 37 approved,” Shirley Binder, Panamanian delegate and head of the plenary, said of the requiem shark proposal, after Japan failed to get the blue shark removed from the measure. 

The proposal regarding the hammerhead shark passed without debate. 

Binder earlier told AFP the “historic decision” would mean up to 90 percent of sharks in the market would now be protected.  

The insatiable appetite in Asia for shark fins, which make their way onto dinner tables in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, has spurred their trade. 

Despite being described as almost tasteless and gelatinous, shark fin soup is viewed as a delicacy and is enjoyed by the very wealthy, often at weddings and expensive banquets. 

Shark fins, representing a market of about $500 million per year, can sell for about $1,000 a kilogram (2.2 pounds). 

“This will be remembered as the day we turned the tide to prevent the extinction of the world’s sharks and rays,” said Luke Warwick, director of shark protection for the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). 

The shark species will now be listed on what is known as CITES Appendix II, which is for species that may not yet be threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade in them is closely controlled. 

“The crucial next step will be to implement these listings and ensure they result in stronger fisheries management and trade measures as soon as possible,” Warwick said. 

 

From villain to darling 

Sharks have long been seen as the villain of the seas they have occupied for more than 400 million years, drawing horror with their depiction in films such as “Jaws” and occasional attacks on humans. 

However, these ancient predators have undergone an image makeover in recent years as conservationists have highlighted the crucial role they play in regulating the ocean ecosystem. 

Joaquin de la Torre of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) told AFP that more than 100 million sharks are killed every year. 

“Sharks and rays are the most threatened species, more even than elephants and big cats,” he said.

With many shark species taking more than 10 years to reach sexual maturity, and having a low fertility rate, the constant hunting of the species has decimated their numbers. 

In many parts of the world, fishermen lop the shark’s fins off at sea, tossing the shark back into the ocean for a cruel death by suffocation or blood loss. 

The efforts by conservationists led to a turning point in 2013, when CITES imposed the first trade restrictions on some shark species.

Exploitation

Delegates have been considering 52 proposals to change the protection levels of more than 600 species.

They also approved new protections for the guitarfish ray, crocodiles, frogs and some turtle species. 

“Many of the proposals adopted here reflect there is ongoing overexploitation and unsustainable trade, and escalating illegal trade, and some are due to complex interactions of other threats reducing species populations in the wild, including climate change, disease, infrastructure development and habitat loss,” said Susan Liberman of WCS. 

CITES, which came into force in 1975, has set international trade rules for more than 36,000 wild species. Its signatories include 183 countries and the European Union. 

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Uganda Closes Schools to Fight Ebola, New Cases Fall

Uganda closed schools nationwide on Friday to curb the spread of Ebola, despite the health minister insisting to AFP that new cases had declined.

The directive to close schools two weeks before the end of term was announced earlier this month following the deaths of eight children from the highly contagious disease. 

But in recent weeks, the number of new infections registered in the capital, Kampala, and the epicenters of Mubende and Kassanda has declined, Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng told AFP.

“The major breakthrough in this fight against Ebola for Uganda is that the communities have realized that Ebola is deadly and it kills,” she said. 

“We encourage the population to remain alert and cooperate with the health teams if we are to win this battle and there are signs Uganda is winning,” she added.

Uganda’s WHO office said Thursday that as of November 22, no case had been declared for nine days in Kamapala, 10 days in Mubende and 12 days in Kassanda.

The outbreak has claimed 55 lives out of 141 known cases, according to Ugandan authorities, who have imposed lockdowns in Mubende and Kassanda.

The measures include a dusk-to-dawn curfew, a ban on personal travel and the closure of markets, bars and churches.

At a school in Kampala, one parent told AFP he was relieved to take his child home.

“I think this early closure was really necessary, because of the situation, the Ebola situation in the country,” said banker Joab Baryayaka. “We trust they are safer with us than staying at school, where we cannot guarantee the situation.”

Since the outbreak was declared in Mubende on September 20, the disease has spread across the East African nation.

President Yoweri Museveni has repeatedly ruled out imposing nationwide COVID-like restrictions.

According to WHO criteria, an outbreak of the disease ends when there are no new cases for 42 consecutive days — twice the incubation period of the disease.

The strain now circulating is known as the Sudan Ebola virus, for which there is no vaccine, although several would-be jabs are heading toward clinical trials.

Ebola is spread through bodily fluids. Common symptoms are fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhea. 

Outbreaks are difficult to contain, especially in urban environments.

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China Reports Another One-Day COVID Case Record, Tightens Curbs

China on Friday reported another single-day record-high number of COVID-19 infections, as cities across the country enforced measures and curbs to try to control outbreaks. 

Excluding imported infections, China recorded 32,695 new local COVID-19 cases on Thursday, of which 3,041 were symptomatic and 29,654 were asymptomatic, up from 31,144 a day earlier, which was the previous record.

Big outbreaks are numerous and far-flung, with the southern city of Guangzhou and southwestern Chongqing recording the bulk of the new cases, although hundreds of new infections have been reported daily in cities such as Chengdu, Jinan, Lanzhou, Xian and Wuhan. 

Cases quadrupled in Shijiazhuang to 3,197 on Thursday from the previous day.  

China’s capital, Beijing, reported 424 symptomatic and 1,436 asymptomatic cases on Thursday, compared with 509 symptomatic and 1,139 asymptomatic cases the previous day, local government data showed. 

Financial hub Shanghai – where a COVID lockdown that began in mid-April crippled the city of 25 million residents for two months – reported nine symptomatic cases and 77 asymptomatic cases on Thursday, compared with nine symptomatic cases and 58 asymptomatic cases a day before, the local health authority reported. 

Guangzhou, a city in the south of nearly 19 million people, reported 257 new locally transmitted symptomatic and 7,267 asymptomatic cases Thursday, compared with 428 symptomatic and 7,192 asymptomatic cases a day before, local authorities said. 

Chongqing reported 258 new symptomatic locally transmitted COVID-19 infections and 6,242 asymptomatic cases for Thursday, compared with 409 symptomatic and 7,437 asymptomatic cases the previous day, local government authorities said. 

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Twitter, Others Slip on Removing Hate Speech, EU Review Says

Twitter took longer to review hateful content and removed less of it in 2022 compared with the previous year, according to European Union data released Thursday.

The EU figures were published as part of an annual evaluation of online platforms’ compliance with the 27-nation bloc’s code of conduct on disinformation.

Twitter wasn’t alone; most other tech companies signed up to the voluntary code also scored worse. But the figures could foreshadow trouble for Twitter in complying with the EU’s tough new online rules after owner Elon Musk fired many of the platform’s 7,500 full-time workers and an untold number of contractors responsible for content moderation and other crucial tasks.

The EU report, carried out over six weeks in the spring, found Twitter assessed just over half of the notifications it received about illegal hate speech within 24 hours, down from 82% in 2021.

In comparison, the amount of flagged material Facebook reviewed within 24 hours fell to 64%, Instagram slipped to 56.9%, and YouTube dipped to 83.3%. TikTok came in at 92%, the only company to improve.

The amount of hate speech Twitter removed after it was flagged slipped to 45.4% from 49.8% the year before. TikTok’s removal rate fell by a quarter to 60%, while Facebook and Instagram saw only minor declines. Only YouTube’s takedown rate increased, surging to 90%.

“It’s worrying to see a downward trend in reviewing notifications related to illegal hate speech by social media platforms,” European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova tweeted. “Online hate speech is a scourge of a digital age and platforms need to live up to their commitments.”

Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment. Emails to several staff on the company’s European communications team bounced back as undeliverable.

Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter last month fanned widespread concern that purveyors of lies and misinformation would be allowed to flourish on the site. The billionaire Tesla CEO, who has frequently expressed his belief that Twitter had become too restrictive, has been reinstating suspended accounts, including former President Donald Trump’s.

Twitter faces more scrutiny in Europe by the middle of next year, when new EU rules aimed at protecting internet users’ online safety will start applying to the biggest online platforms. Violations could result in huge fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual global revenue.

France’s online regulator Arcom said it received a reply from Twitter after writing to the company earlier this week to say it was concerned about the effect that staff departures would have on Twitter’s “ability maintain a safe environment for its users.”

Arcom also asked the company to confirm that it can meet its “legal obligations” in fighting online hate speech and that it is committed to implementing the new EU online rules. Arcom said that it received a response from Twitter and that it will “study their response,” without giving more details.

Tech companies that signed up to the EU’s disinformation code agree to commit to measures aimed at reducing disinformation and file regular reports on whether they’re living up to their promises, though there’s little in the way of punishment.

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Avian Flu Outbreak Wipes Out 50.54 Million US Birds, a Record

Avian flu has wiped out 50.54 million birds in the United States this year, making it the country’s deadliest outbreak in history, U.S. Department of Agriculture data showed on Thursday. 

The deaths of chickens, turkeys and other birds represent the worst U.S. animal-health disaster to date, topping the previous record of 50.5 million birds that died in an avian flu outbreak in 2015. 

Birds often die after becoming infected. Entire flocks, which can top a million birds at egg-laying chicken farms, are also culled to control the spread of the disease after a bird tests positive. 

Losses of poultry flocks sent prices for eggs and turkey meat to record highs, worsening economic pain for consumers facing high inflation and making Thursday’s Thanksgiving celebrations more expensive in the United States. Europe and Britain are also suffering their worst avian-flu crises, and some British supermarkets rationed customers’ egg purchases after the outbreak disrupted supplies. 

The U.S. outbreak, which began in February, infected flocks of poultry and non-poultry birds across 46 states, USDA data show. Wild birds like ducks transmit the virus, known as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), through their feces, feathers or direct contact with poultry. 

“Wild birds continue to spread HPAI throughout the country as they migrate, so preventing contact between domestic flocks and wild birds is critical to protecting U.S. poultry,” said Rosemary Sifford, the USDA’s chief veterinary officer. 

Farmers struggled to keep the disease and wild birds out of their barns, having bolstered security and cleaning measures following the 2015 outbreak. In 2015, about 30% of the cases were traced directly to wild bird origins, compared with 85% this year, the USDA told Reuters. 

Government officials are studying infections at turkey farms, in particular, in hopes of developing new recommendations for preventing infections. Turkey farms account for more than 70% of the commercial poultry farms infected in the outbreak, the USDA said.  

People should avoid unprotected contact birds that look sick or have died, though the outbreak poses a low risk to the general public, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. 

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Wildlife Summit to Vote on Shark Protections 

Delegates at a global summit on trade in endangered species were scheduled to decide Thursday whether to approve a proposal to protect sharks, a move that could drastically reduce the lucrative and often cruel shark fin trade.

The proposal would place dozens of species of the requiem shark and the hammerhead shark families on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The appendix lists species that may not yet be threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade in them is closely controlled.

If Thursday’s plenary meeting gives the green light, “it would be a historic decision,” Panamanian delegate Shirley Binder told AFP.

“For the first time, CITES would be handling a very large number of shark species, which would be approximately 90% of the market,” she said.

Spurring the trade is the insatiable Asian appetite for shark fins, which make their way onto dinner tables in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.

Despite being described as gelatinous and almost tasteless, shark fin soup is viewed as a delicacy and is enjoyed by the very wealthy, often at weddings and expensive banquets.

Shark fins, representing a market of about $500 million per year, can sell for about $1,000 a kilogram.

From villain to conservation darling

Sharks have long been seen as the villain of the seas they have occupied for more than 400 million years, terrifying people with their depiction in films such as “Jaws” and their occasional attacks on humans.

However, these ancient predators have undergone an image makeover in recent years as conservationists have highlighted the crucial role they play in regulating the ocean ecosystem.

According to the Pew Environment Group, between 63 million and 273 million sharks are killed every year, mainly for their fins and other parts.

With many shark species taking more than 10 years to reach sexual maturity, and having a low fertility rate, the constant hunting of the species has decimated their numbers.

In many parts of the world, fisherman lop the sharks’ fins off at sea, tossing the shark back into the ocean for a cruel death by suffocation or blood loss.

The efforts by conservationists led to a turning point in 2013, when CITES imposed the first trade restrictions on some shark species.

“We are in the middle of a very large shark extinction crisis,” Luke Warwick, director of shark protection for the nongovernmental organization Wildlife Conservation Society, told AFP at the beginning of the summit.

Heated debate

Thursday’s vote followed a fierce debate that lasted nearly three hours, with Japan and Peru seeking to reduce the number of shark species that would be protected.

Japan had proposed that the trade restriction be reduced to 19 species of requiem sharks, and Peru called for the blue shark to be removed from the list.

Both suggestions were rejected, however.

“We hope that nothing extraordinary happens and that these entire families of sharks are ratified for inclusion in Annex II,” Chilean delegate Ricardo Saez told AFP.

Several delegations, including host Panama, displayed stuffed toy sharks on their tables during the earlier Committee I debate.

The plenary was also scheduled to vote on ratifying a proposal to protect guitarfish, a species of ray.

The shark initiative was one of the most discussed at this year’s CITES summit in Panama, with the proposal co-sponsored by the European Union and 15 countries.

Participants at the summit considered 52 proposals to change species protection levels.

CITES, which came into force in 1975, has set international trade rules for more than 36,000 wild species. Its signatories include 183 countries and the European Union.

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Salt, Drought Decimate Buffaloes in Iraq’s Southern Marshes

Abbas Hashem fixed his worried gaze on the horizon — the day was almost gone and still, there was no sign of the last of his water buffaloes. He knows that when his animals don’t come back from roaming the marshes of this part of Iraq, they must be dead.

The dry earth is cracked beneath his feet and thick layers of salt coat shriveled reeds in the Chibayish wetlands amid this year’s dire shortages in fresh water flows from the Tigris River.

Hashem already lost five buffaloes from his herd of 20 since May, weakened with hunger and poisoned by the salty water seeping into the low-lying marshes. Other buffalo herders in the area say their animals have died, too, or produce milk that’s unfit to sell.

“This place used to be full of life,” he said. “Now it’s a desert, a graveyard.”

The wetlands — a lush remnant of the cradle of civilization and a sharp contrast to the desert that prevails elsewhere in the Middle East — were reborn after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, when dams he had built to drain the area and root out Shiite rebels were dismantled.

But today, drought that experts believe is spurred by climate change and invading salt, coupled with lack of political agreement between Iraq and Turkey, are endangering the marshes, which surround the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq.

This year, acute water shortages — the worst in 40 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization — have driven buffalo herders deeper into poverty and debt, forcing many to leave their homes and migrate to nearby cities to look for work.

The rural communities that rely on farming and herding have long been alienated from officials in Baghdad, perpetually engaged in political crises. And when the government this year introduced harsh water rationing policies, the people in the region only became more desperate.

Oil-rich Iraq has not rebuilt the country’s antiquated water supply and irrigation infrastructure and hopes for a water-sharing agreement for Tigris with upstream neighbor Turkey have dwindled, hampered by intransigence and often conflicting political allegiances in Iraq.

In the marshes, where rearing of water buffaloes has been the way of life for generations, the anger toward the government is palpable.

Hamza Noor found a patch where a trickle of fresh water flows. The 33-year-old sets out five times a day in his small boat across the marshes, filling up canisters with water and bringing it back for his animals.

Between Noor and his two brothers, the family lost 20 buffaloes since May, he said. But unlike other herders who left for the city, he is staying.

“I don’t know any other job,” he said.

Ahmed Mutliq, feels the same way. The 30-year-old grew up in the marshes and says he’s seen dry periods years before.

“But nothing compares to this year,” he said. He urged the authorities to release more water from upstream reservoirs, blaming provinces to the north and neighboring countries for “taking water from us.”

Provincial officials, disempowered in Iraq’s highly centralized government, have no answers.

“We feel embarrassed,” said Salah Farhad, the head of Dhi Qar province’s agriculture directorate. “Farmers ask us for more water, and we can’t do anything.”

Iraq relies on the Tigris-Euphrates river basin for drinking water, irrigation and sanitation for its entire population of 40 million. Competing claims over the basin, which stretches from Turkey and cuts across Syria and Iran before reaching Iraq, have complicated Baghdad’s ability to make a water plan.

Ankara and Baghdad have not been able to agree on a fixed amount of flow rate for the Tigris. Turkey is bound by a 1987 agreement to release 500 cubic meters per second toward Syria, which then divides the water with Iraq.

But Ankara has failed to meet its obligation in recent years due to declining water levels and rejects any future sharing agreements that forces it to release a fixed number.

Iraq’s annual water plan prioritizes setting aside enough drinking water for the nation first, then supplying the agriculture sector and also discharging enough fresh water to the marshes to minimize salinity there. This year, the amounts were cut by half.

The salinity in the marshes has further spiked with water-stressed Iran diverting water from its Karkheh River, which also feeds into Iraq’s marshes.

Iraq has made even less headway on sharing water resources with Iran.

“With Turkey, there is dialogue, but many delays,” said Hatem Hamid, who heads the Iraqi Water Ministry’s key department responsible for formulating the water plan. “With Iran, there is nothing.”

Two officials at the legal department in Iraq’s Foreign Ministry, which deals with complaints against other countries, said attempts to engage with Iran over water-sharing were halted by higher-ups, including the office of then-Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

“They told us not to speak to Iran about it,” said one of the officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss legal issues.

Iraq’s needs are so dire that several Western countries and aid organizations are trying to provide development assistance for Iraq to upgrade its aging water infrastructure and modernize ancient farming practices.

The U.S. Geological Survey has trained Iraqi officials in reading satellite imagery to “strengthen Iraq’s hand in negotiations with Turkey,” one U.S. diplomat said, also speaking anonymously because of the ongoing negotiations.

As the sun set over Chibayish, Hashem’s water buffalo never returned — the sixth animal he lost.

“I have nothing without my buffaloes,” he said.

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Senegal’s Women Gold Miners Carry Heavy Burden

Every few minutes, 14-month-old Awa coughs, the phlegm rising from deep within her chest.

Her mother, Meta Ba, says Awa’s been coughing that way for as long as she can remember.

Ba, who suffers from chronic migraines, works as an artisanal gold miner in Senegal’s far eastern region of Kedougou, near the borders of Mali and Guinea.

Gold mining in Senegal plays a key role in the country’s economy, but the use of mercury during the treatment process is harming the environment and the health of the miners.

In Kedougou, home to 98% of Senegal’s gold mines, more than five tons of mercury are used annually.

Health experts say the heavy metal attacks the nervous, digestive and immune systems.

It can harm the lungs and kidneys and impair hearing, balance, vision, thinking and breathing. It can also cause birth defects.

Women make up half of the miners and are charged with treating the gold after it is mined, which involves mixing mercury with ore, then vaporizing the mercury to isolate the gold. They do so without gloves or masks.

Some of the female miners have visible health conditions, such large growths stemming from their throats and drooping red eyes.

They often carry their children with them to work, causing both to suffer the health consequences.

“She is still breastfeeding, so I can’t leave her at home,” Ba said. “If I don’t come here to work, how will I survive? How will I make a living?”

But Kedougou’s gold mines are no place for children.

Scores of open pits plunge 15 meters deep, without barriers or markers. There is no safety equipment, and miners say the dust they are being exposed to is toxic.

Still, Awa and other children play and nap just steps from the pits.

The metal also infiltrates the environment, damaging the ecosystem.

“When the mercury is separated from the gold, it creates a vapor that rises into the atmosphere and clings to the leaves,” said Mamadou Drame, president of the Gold Panning Federation of Kedougou. “Then with the rain or wind it leaches into the ground and gets washed into the rivers where the fish are exposed.”

Locals risk ingesting the toxic metal, not only when they consume the fish, but when they eat the crops grown from the contaminated soil or the livestock that graze there.

A 2018 study by Duke University found dangerously high levels of the neurotoxic form of mercury in soil and water ecosystems near artisanal gold mines in Senegal that far exceed World Health Organization guidelines.

Mercury can also seep into drinking water.

“The well is contaminated,” Ba said. “When you drink this water, you know you’ll get sick.”

The toxin does not break down over time. Once an ecosystem is contaminated, future generations will pay the price.

Gold mining in Kedougou is also causing soil degradation and deforestation.

Artisanal and small-scale miners work independently in the Kedougou region. The industry is critical to the miners’ ability to make a living.

Kedougou’s mines employed more than 30,000 people in 2018 and generated $136 million. The region draws miners from Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and other neighboring countries.

In 2016 Senegal ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a multilateral agreement that seeks to reduce mercury pollution.

Senegal’s Ministry of Mines and Geology only created an artisanal and small-scale mining department last year and the sector is still largely unregulated.

Abou Sow, who heads the department, acknowledged the urgency of the health and environment crisis.

In 2020 he helped the ministry launch a project to install 400 mercury-free gold processing units in Kedougou.

“Everyone who comes to the center to process their gold will know that there will be no use of chemicals,” Sow said. “We will also establish regulations that will allow us to sanction those who are treating their gold outside the center using chemicals.”

Construction has yet to start, though, and is expected to take at least two years.

Until then, miners like Ba say they and their children will continue to be exposed to toxic elements.

“These women are breathing nothing but toxins all around them,” said Khady Camara, founder of environmental organization Vacances Vertes. “It’s high time the government start regulating this industry.”

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China’s Daily COVID Cases Highest Since Pandemic Began

China’s daily COVID cases have climbed to the highest since the pandemic began, official data showed Thursday, despite the government persisting with a zero-tolerance approach involving grueling lockdowns and travel restrictions.

The numbers are relatively small when compared with China’s vast population of 1.4 billion and the caseloads seen in Western countries at the height of the pandemic.

But under Beijing’s strict zero-COVID policy, even small outbreaks can shut down entire cities and place contacts of infected patients into strict quarantine.

The country recorded 31,454 domestic cases — 27,517 without symptoms — on Wednesday, the National Health Bureau said.

The unrelenting zero-COVID push has caused fatigue and resentment among swathes of the population as the pandemic’s third anniversary approaches, sparking sporadic protests and hitting productivity in the world’s second-largest economy.

On Wednesday, violent protests erupted at Foxconn’s vast iPhone factory in central China, with video showing dozens of hazmat-clad personnel wielding batons and chasing employees.

The latest figures exceed the 29,390 infections recorded in mid-April when megacity Shanghai was under lockdown, with residents struggling to buy food and access medical care.

Several cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing have tightened COVID restrictions as cases surge.

The capital now requires a negative PCR test result within 48 hours for those seeking to enter public places such as shopping malls, hotels and government buildings, Beijing authorities said. Schools across the city have moved to online classes.

The southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou — where nearly a third of the latest COVID cases were found — has built thousands of temporary hospital rooms to accommodate patients.

A series of new rules announced by the central government earlier this month appeared to signal a shift away from zero-COVID, easing quarantine requirements for entering the country and simplifying a system for designating high-risk areas.

But China has yet to approve more effective mRNA vaccines for public use and only 85% of adults over 60 had received two doses of domestic vaccines by mid-August, according to health authorities.

And Shijiazhuang, a city neighboring Beijing that was seen as a pilot for testing reopening strategies, reversed most of its easing measures this week.

“The path to reopening may be slow, costly and bumpy,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura, said in a note. “Shanghai-style full lockdowns could be avoided, but they might be replaced by more frequent partial lockdowns in a rising number of cities due to surging COVID case numbers.” 

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40 Million Children Face Growing Threat of Measles, WHO Warns

More than 40 million children missed getting vaccinated against measles last year, prompting a significant setback in global efforts to eradicate the highly contagious disease worldwide, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a joint report Wednesday.

Vaccination campaigns were disrupted in several countries because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, dropping global measles-containing vaccine (MCV) coverage from 86% in 2019 to 81% in 2021, the lowest coverage rate since 2008. 

 

Now, nearly all of the 40 million children who missed their first or second doses of the MCV are “dangerously susceptible to [a] growing measles threat,” the report warned.  

 

“The paradox of the pandemic is that while vaccines against COVID-19 were developed in record time and deployed in the largest vaccination campaign in history, routine immunization programs were badly disrupted, and millions of kids missed out on lifesaving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. 

 

“The record number of children underimmunized and susceptible to measles shows the profound damage immunization systems have sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, CDC director.

Last year, about 9 million measles cases were reported around the world, with 128,000 deaths.  

 

Over the last two decades, successful MCV campaigns have helped prevent an estimated 56 million deaths globally, according to WHO.  

 

Ten countries in Asia and Africa – India, Somalia, Yemen, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Liberia, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Congo – carry the highest numbers of measles cases and fatalities in the world. 

 

COVID-19 restrictions have also disrupted immunization campaigns for polio, which causes irreversible paralysis. Polio has been eradicated all over the world except in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where immunization drives have seen access restrictions because of insecurity and limited public awareness.

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