News, June 25th

DR Congo:  eastern Ebola outbreak defeated, ‘mission impossible’ now a ‘sign of hope’

After nearly two years and 2,280 deaths, the world’s second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is finally over, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

“The outbreak took so much from all of us, especially from the people of DRC, but we came out of it with valuable lessons, and valuable tools”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The Ebola outbreak in eastern DRC began in August 2018 and ranked second only to the 2014-2016 outbreak, which, in an active conflict zone in West Africa, killed 2,287 people and infected 3,470 – 28 per cent of whom were children, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever that is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads through humans.

Noting that a vaccine has been “licensed, and effective treatments identified”, the WHO chief stated, “the world is now better-equipped to respond to Ebola”.

“It wasn’t easy, and at times it seemed like a mission impossible”, WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti told journalists.

Despite medical advances, with more than 300 attacks on health facilities and 11 deaths among medical staff and patients, insecurity has been a main obstacle in responding. And beyond armed violence, widespread mistrust among affected communities has added additional hurdles.

“Ending this Ebola outbreak is a sign of hope for the region and for the world, that with solidarity and science and courage and commitment, even the most challenging epidemics can be controlled”, said Dr. Moeti.

UNICEF welcomed the announcement but warned that in response to a new Ebola outbreak in the north-western province of Equateur, increased efforts must continue.

The head of the UN Emergency Ebola Response Office, Abdou Dieng, pointed out though that “before we even ended the 10th epidemic, an 11th epidemic was started in Mbandaka”.

“We have beaten Ebola in Eastern DRC, but the struggle isn’t over yet”, he said.

On 1 June, the virus resurfaced in Equateur province, infecting 24 and killing 13 people. Genetic sequencing has shown that the outbreak is not linked to the one in the east or to an Equateur outbreak in 2018.

“Despite this, communities across DRC need to know now and in the future that they can recover from the disease”, reminded Mr. Dieng.

After almost two years of building preparedness and response capacities for Ebola, the DRC and its nine neighbors have stronger skills, systems, and capacities to manage a range of emergencies.

“These have been quickly activated in response to COVID-19 in the DRC and its neighboring countries”, asserted Dr. Moeti. “Working together we leave an enduring legacy which is now supporting the fight against COVID-19 and other outbreaks”.

There are now more than 332,000 COVID-19 cases on the African continent and 8,700 people have lost their lives. Africa is no longer the WHO region least affected by coronavirus.

In the past week, 10 of 47 countries in the region accounted for 89 per cent of new cases with five nations accounting for 80 per cent of new deaths.

And in some countries, more than five per cent of infections are among health-care workers – a huge concern as their safety is a priority to help others.

While cautioning that cases among refugees and internally displaced people living in crowded conditions “could easily spread”, Dr. Moeti warned “when they are absent, communities are at greater risk”.

Meanwhile, UNICEF DRC Representative Edouard Beigbeder noted that “as DRC records over 6,000 cases of COVID-19 infection, it is more important than ever that international donors support the country’s already overburdened health systems to fight against the disease and tackle the impacts on children and their families”.

Financial Conditions Have Eased, but Insolvencies Loom Large

Amid the human tragedy and economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent surge in risk appetite in financial markets has caught analysts’ attention. After sharp declines in February and March, equity markets have rallied back, in some cases to close to their January levels, while credit spreads have narrowed significantly, even for riskier investments. This has created an apparent disconnect between financial markets and economic prospects. Investors seem to be betting that lasting strong support from central banks will sustain a quick recovery even as economic data point to a deeper-than-expected downturn, as shown in the June 2020 World Economic Outlook Update.

In the newest Global Financial Stability Update, we analyze the tug of war between the real economy and financial markets and the risks involved. With huge uncertainties about economic outlook and investors highly sensitive to COVID-19 developments, pre-existing financial vulnerabilities are being exposed by the pandemic. Debt levels are rising, and potential credit losses resulting from insolvencies could test bank resilience in some countries. Some emerging market and frontier economies are facing refinancing risks, and lower-rated countries have started to regain access to markets only slowly.

Major central banks around the world have contributed to the substantial easing of financial conditions via interest rate cuts and a balance sheet expansion of over $6 trillion, including asset purchases, FX swap lines, and credit & liquidity facilities. These swift and unprecedented actions by central banks have restored confidence and boosted investor risk taking, including in emerging markets, where asset purchases have been deployed for the first time. Risky asset prices have rebounded since the precipitous fall early in the year, while benchmark interest rates have fallen. With the easing of global financial conditions, risk appetite has retuned also to emerging markets. Aggregate portfolio outflows have stabilized, and some countries have experienced some modest inflows again. In credit markets, spreads of investment-grade companies in advanced economies are currently quite contained, contrary to the sharp widening seen during previous large economic shocks. Spreads have also narrowed significantly in emerging countries, albeit less so in frontier markets. On net, financial stability risks in the short term are little changed since the last Global Financial Stability Report, as prompt and bold actions by policymakers have helped cushion the impact of the pandemic on the global economic outlook.

The disconnect between financial markets and the real economy can be illustrated by the recent decoupling between the soaring U.S. equity markets and plunging consumer confidence (two indicators that have historically trended together), raising questions about the rally’s sustainability if not for the boost provided by central banks.

This divergence raises the specter of another correction in risk asset prices should investors’ attitude change, posing a threat to the recovery. So-called bear equity market rallies have occurred in the past during periods of significant economic pressures, only to unwind swiftly.

A number of developments could trigger a decline in risk assets’ prices. The recession could be deeper and longer than currently anticipated by investors. There could be a second wave of infections, with ensuing containment measures. Geopolitical tensions or broadening social unrest in response to rising global inequality could lead to a reversal in investor sentiment. Finally, expectations about the extent of central banks’ support could turn out to be too optimistic, leading investors to reassess their appetite and pricing of risk.

Such a repricing, especially if amplified by financial vulnerabilities, could result in a sharp tightening in financial conditions, thus constraining the flow of credit to the economy. Financial stress could worsen an already unprecedented economic recession, making a recovery even more challenging.

Pre-existing financial vulnerabilities are being laid bare by the pandemic. First, in advanced and emerging market economies alike, corporate and household debt burdens could become unmanageable in a severe economic contraction. Aggregate corporate debt has been rising over several years, and it now stands at historically high levels relative to GDP. Household debt has also increased in many economies, some of which now face an extremely sharp economic slowdown. The deterioration in economic fundamentals has already led to a corporate ratings downgrade, and there is a risk of a broader impact on the solvency of companies and households.

Second, the realization of credit events will test the resilience of the banking sector as they assess how governments’ support for households and companies translates into borrowers repaying their loans. Some banks have started to prepare for this process, and expectation of further pressure on their profitability is reflected in the declining prices of their stocks.

Third, nonbank financial companies could also be affected. These entities now play a greater role in the financial system than before. But since their appetite for continuing to provide credit during a deep downturn is untested, they could end up being an amplifier of stress. For example, a sharp correction in asset prices could lead to large outflows in investment funds (as seen early in the year), possibly triggering fire sales of assets.

Fourth, while conditions have eased in general, risks remain for some emerging and frontier markets that face more urgent refinancing needs. Their debts’ rollover will be more costly should financial conditions suddenly tighten. Some of these countries also have low levels of reserves, making it harder to manage portfolio outflows. Credit-rating downgrades could worsen this dynamic.

Countries need to strike the right balance between competing priorities in their response to the pandemic, being mindful of the trade-offs and implications of continuing to support the economy while preserving financial stability.

The unprecedented use of unconventional tools has undoubtedly cushioned the pandemic’s blow to the global economy and lessened the immediate danger to the global financial system—the intended objective of policy actions. However, policymakers need to be attentive to possible unintended consequences, such as a continued buildup of financial vulnerabilities in an environment of easy financial conditions. The expectation of continued support from central banks could turn already stretched asset valuations into vulnerabilities—particularly in a context of financial systems and corporate sectors that are depleting their buffers during the pandemic. Once the recovery is underway, policymakers should urgently address vulnerabilities that could sow the seeds of future problems and put growth at risk down the road.

France announces ‘large scale’ coronavirus testing campaign

France said on Thursday it was launching a “large scale” coronavirus testing campaign in a bid to identify any dormant infection clusters.

Some 1.3 million people in the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, will receive vouchers for a virus test, Health Minister Olivier Veran told Le Monde newspaper.

Even those who display no symptoms would be eligible, he said.

People who live near previous hotspots will be targeted in a bid to identify asymptomatic carriers who may be transmitting the virus without knowing it, said the minister.

The tests would determine if a person is currently infected, not whether they had had the virus previously.

The government will start with a pilot campaign in Ile-de-France and three other regions — between them accounting for about three-quarters of people who required intensive care for coronavirus complications.

“We are in an experimental phase to see if this corresponds to what the French want,” Veran said of the testing campaign.

“The experiment may be extended to other regions later.”

Figures released on Wednesday showed that 29,731 people had died in the Covid-19 outbreak in France to date, though the rate has slowed to 11 deaths in 24 hours.

Veran told the newspaper that “the peak of March-April is behind us, but we have not finished with the virus”, and urged people to continue to “avoid large gatherings and risky behavior” that could help the virus spread.

A lack of systematic testing at the height of the epidemic means statisticians can only model the real number of people infected.

In May, Veran admitted there had been “a gap between the theory and the practice” of testing in France, with many people holding a doctor’s prescription for a test unable to get them.

France has ramped up its capacity since then and said in May it would be able to carry out 700,000 per week.

Until now, tests were on prescription and reserved for people with possible coronavirus symptoms, or those who had been in contact with a sick person.

Google announces new licensing program to help news industry

As traditional media outlets urge social media giants to give their dues for using their news content especially during the difficult COVID-19 times, Google on Thursday announcing a new licensing program to pay publishers for high-quality content.

To be launched later this year, the program will help participating publishers monetize their content through an enhanced storytelling experience that lets people go deeper into more complex stories, stay informed and be exposed to a world of different issues and interests.

“We will start with publishers in a number of countries around the globe, with more to come soon,” Brad Bender, VP Product Management, News, said in a statement.

To begin with, Google has signed partnerships with local and national publications in Germany, Australia, and Brazil.

In Australia, public broadcaster’s ABC and SBS earlier sought direct payments from Google and Facebook for using their content under the upcoming mandatory code of conduct for online platforms.

Following suggestions that online platforms should be forced to pay publishers in Australia AU$600 million or more every year, Google said earlier this month that the direct economic value it gets from News content in Search is “very small”.

With the new licensing program, where available, Google will also offer to pay for free access for users to read paywalled articles on a publisher’s site.

This will let paywalled publishers grow their audiences and open an opportunity for people to read content they might not ordinarily see, said the tech giant.

Google’s publisher partners said this is a positive shift.

“This interesting new partnership with Google will allow us to curate an experience that will bring our award-winning editorial voice into play, broaden our outreach and provide trusted news in a compelling way across Google products,” said Stefan Ottlitz, managing director of Germany’s SPIEGEL Group.

To date, The Google News Initiative (GNI) has provided funding to more than 5,300 local publications globally via a Journalism Emergency Relief Fund, an ad-serving fee waiver on Google Ad Manager and a $15 million Support Local News Campaign to help alleviate some immediate economic constraints.

“Over the years, we’ve built audiences and driven economic value for publishers by sending people to news sites over 24 billion times a month, giving publishers the opportunity to offer ads or subscriptions and increase the audience for their content,” informed Bender.

How the Trump Administration is Advancing Efficient Federal Operations

Today, the Council on Environmental Quality released the annual update on agency performance in meeting the goals of President Trump’s Executive Order 13834 on Efficient Federal Operations. A priority of this Administration is the efficient management of Federal operations to meet statutory requirements established by Congress in a streamlined, cost-effective manner that supports agencies’ missions and advances environmental protection. Despite an incredibly diverse set of Federal government operations, whether it’s the Department of Defense, which ensures our nation’s security, or the Smithsonian Institution, which protects our nation’s priceless art and heritage, all Federal agencies are uniquely contributing to Federal sustainability goals and making substantial progress in carrying out their shared obligations as good stewards of the environment.

Fiscal year 2019 data, published today on sustainability.gov, demonstrates that agencies continued to improve environmental performance in the past year and made government-wide progress, reducing building energy use by more than 641 billion Btu and water consumption by more than 175 million gallons, increasing the total value of sustainable acquisitions, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from Federal operations for the third year in a row. The Federal Government also exceeded renewable energy requirements with 8.6 percent of electricity consumed coming from renewable qualifying sources as defined in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Contributing to each of these improvements is the substantial progress made in fiscal year 2019 in sustainable buildings, with an increase of 11 million square feet – for a total of 207 million square feet– in the Federal portfolio. Sustainable buildings are those that are constructed and operated to reduce energy, water, and material resource use; improve indoor environmental quality; reduce negative impacts on the environment; reduce the environmental and energy impacts of transportation; and consider the indoor and outdoor effects of the building on human health and the environment.

An example is the Department of the Interior’s Genoa National Fish Hatchery and Great River Road Interpretive Center in Genoa, Wisconsin. This high-performance sustainable building has achieved energy performance 62 percent better than an average building by implementing numerous innovative energy efficient strategies. In addition, implementation of new, water efficient technologies conserve about 36,900 gallons of potable water annually.

Federal agencies have also made substantial progress in reducing energy use, with the lowest total energy use on record and the second lowest building energy use per square foot since 2003. Sixteen agencies have surpassed the 30 percent statutory energy reduction requirement, and agencies continue to demonstrate improvements over last year, such as the Department of Commerce, which reduced its energy use per square foot by 6.9 percent in one year, in large part through an innovative energy efficiency project at the National Institute of Technology campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that included the installation of a new Combined Heat and Power Plant and a five mega-watt solar array.

NASA’s Glenn Research Center also reduced its energy use at Lewis Field and Plum Brook Station, with an innovative project that implements energy conservation measures to improve heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; lighting; and potable water systems. The project is saving 61.8 billion Btu of energy and 7.2 million gallons of water annually, and in the first year, the estimated energy, water, and maintenance cost savings totaled $1.2 million.

These examples show that despite a wide variety of missions and operational requirements, agencies are achieving, and in many cases far exceeding, sustainability goals. Through all the hard work by Federal agencies in meeting President Trump’s Executive Order, we are not only conserving resources, but saving taxpayer dollars, improving agency resilience to meet their missions, and continuing to serve the American people.

Judge Testifies at House Hearing on Pandemic Impacts

Through a combination of advance planning, expanded use of technology, and the dedication of thousands of employees, the federal Judiciary’s response to the pandemic has enabled courts to continue to operate, while ensuring the health and safety of the public and court personnel, U.S. Senior District Judge David G. Campbell told Congress on Thursday.

Judge Campbell testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet at a hearing on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the federal court system. Campbell appeared on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the national policy-making body of the federal Judiciary. He chairs the conference’s Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure for the Federal Courts.

“Like other institutions throughout the United States and the world, the operations of the federal judiciary have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Campbell said in his prepared testimony for the subcommittee. “I am pleased to report, however, that the federal courts continue to operate in all categories of cases despite unprecedented challenges.”

The courts, he said, by necessity, also continue to take a localized approach to reflect the disparate nature and evolving impact of the pandemic in various regions of the country.

Campbell provided the lawmakers with a comprehensive list of the measures taken by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the courts since the pandemic hit the United States earlier this year. Among these are:

The inter-governmental Federal Judiciary COVID-19 Task Force, created in February, greatly facilitated the Judiciary’s rapid response to the pandemic. The task force continues to monitor and assess the impact of the virus on court operations nationally and to provide advice on emerging issues. It is comprised of chief judges and court executives, AO staff, and representatives from the General Services Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Protective Service, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The AO and the task force developed guidance to the courts on a wide range of pandemic-related issues in the areas of bankruptcy administration, budgets, court interpreting, court reporting, facilities and security, finance and internal control, financial disclosure, human resources and benefits, information technology, jury duty, naturalization ceremonies, probation and pretrial services, procurement, and telework.

The Federal Judiciary COVID-19 Recovery Guidelines were published in April to provide courts with gating criteria to consider as they prepare for the phased return of courthouse operations. The criteria included the number of COVID-19 cases in the court facility within a 14-day period; a sustained downward trend of cumulative daily COVID-19 case counts over a 14-day period in the community; and the rescission of local restrictive movement or shelter-in-place orders.

The Judiciary greatly expanded its use of technology, including temporarily authorizing the use of video and teleconferencing technologies, increasing capacity to handle bandwidth strains, obtaining the necessary equipment and licenses for certain platforms, providing the public and the media access to listen to proceedings, and strengthening its IT infrastructure to address the greater use of telework.

Individual courts are developing protocols to resume jury trials and grand juries that are tailored to meet the conditions in their district’s courthouses that will minimize health and safety risks for all participants.

Bankruptcy courts have entered orders and revised procedures on a wide variety of topics, including courthouse closures and clerk’s office operations, meetings of creditors, deadlines and time periods in pending cases, electronic signature requirements, and access to telephonic and video technology for hearings.

The greater demands that the pandemic has placed on courts has created an urgent need for additional funding, Campbell said. The Judiciary is seeking supplemental appropriations of $36.6 million for ongoing impacts of the pandemic on federal court operations. Earlier this year, Congress provided the Judiciary with $7.5 million in supplemental appropriations under the CARES Act to address immediate information technology needs and increased testing and treatment costs in probation and pretrial services programs.

The Judiciary is also in the process of amending its rules to include emergency procedures it might need to take in the future. Conference committees began by soliciting comments from lawyers, judges, parties, and the public on challenges encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The deadline for submitting comments was June 1, and many of them were posted on the Judiciary’s website.

Myanmar’s Economy Severely Impacted by COVID-19: Report

The global COVID-19 pandemic is dealing a severe blow to Myanmar’s economy. Economic growth in a baseline scenario is projected to drop from 6.8 percent in FY18/19 to just 0.5 percent in FY2019/20, according to the World Bank’s Myanmar Economic Monitor, released today.

If the pandemic is protracted, the economy could contract by as much as 2.5 percent in FY2019/20, with the expected recovery in 2020/21 subject to further downside risks.

The slowing economic growth threatens to partially reverse Myanmar’s recent progress in poverty reduction while reducing the incomes of households that are already poor. Under the baseline scenario, in which the domestic spread of the coronavirus is brought under control, the global economy swiftly recovers, and Myanmar’s GDP growth rate is projected to bounce back to 7.2 percent in FY2020/21, poverty rates would increase in the short term and will not return to pre-crisis levels until FY2021/22. Under the downside scenario, poverty rates would remain above their pre-crisis level until at least FY2022/23.

The report also looks at the Myanmar government’s response to the crisis through the COVID-19 fund and Economic Relief Plan (CERP), which includes measures to offer relief and initiate a resilient recovery – including tax relief, credit for businesses, food and cash to households, as well as policies to facilitate trade and investment.

“At the moment, the medium-term outlook for Myanmar’s economy is positive, but there are significant downside risks due to the unpredictable evolution of the pandemic. Robust policy actions are urgently needed. It will be important for the government to boost the effectiveness of the CERP by ensuring flexibility in spending targets, extending support to smaller enterprises and ensuring all poor households can benefit from the plan,” said Mariam Sherman, World Bank Country Director for Myanmar, Cambodia and Lao PDR.

The report highlights that the effects of the crisis are not being evenly felt across sectors. Industrial production is expected to contract by 0.2 percent in FY2019/20 as lockdown measures restrict access to labor, the closure of the overland border with China disrupts the supply of industrial inputs, and consumer demand—both domestic and international—remains soft. Precautionary behavior and travel bans continue to negatively impact wholesale and retail trade, tourism-related services, and transportation. Due to the ongoing disruption of supply chains and weakening external demand, exports are expected to remain weak over the rest of the fiscal year. Tax revenues are projected to decline by 6.0 percent, year-on-year, in FY2019/20.  

Meanwhile the agriculture sector has so far proven to be more resilient, and the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector is experiencing a surge of activity driven by a sharp increase in telecommuting and e-commerce. Falling consumer demand under COVID-19 is moderating inflation.

The Myanmar Economic Monitor is a biannual analysis of economic developments, economic prospects, and policy priorities in Myanmar. The publication draws on available data reported by the Government of Myanmar and additional information collected as part of the World Bank Group’s regular economic monitoring and policy dialogue.

Pakistan to ground 150 pilots for cheating to get licenses

Pakistan’s state-run airline said Thursday it will ground 150 pilots, accusing them of obtaining licenses by having others take exams for them, an accusation that followed a probe into last month’s crash that killed 97 people in Karachi.

Abdullah Hafeez, a spokesman for Pakistan International Airlines, did not give additional details about the alleged cheating but said a process to fire the pilots had been initiated.

“We will make it sure that such unqualified pilots never fly aircraft again,” he told The Associated Press. He said the safety of passengers was the airline’s top priority.

Alarmed over the situation, the International Air Transport Association said it was following reports from Pakistan “regarding fake pilot licenses, which are concerning and represent a serious lapse in the licensing and safety oversight by the aviation regulator.”

The global airline organization said it was seeking more information.

The move by PIA to ground the pilots comes a day after the country’s aviation minister, Ghulam Sarqar Khan, said 262 out of 860 Pakistani pilots had “fake” licenses. He made the revelation while presenting preliminary findings of a probe to parliament into the May 22 Airbus A320 crash.

The announcement stunned lawmakers present in the National Assembly and shocked family members of passengers who died last month when Flight PK8303 went down after departing from the eastern city of Lahore, crashing in a congested residential area in Karachi. The crash killed 97 people, including all the crew members. There were only two survivors on board and a girl died on the ground.

Neither Khan nor Hafeez released additional details about the alleged methods used by the pilots to wrongfully obtain licenses to fly commercial planes. Khan said only that they did not take examinations themselves to get the required certificates, which are issued by the civil aviation authority.

But officials familiar with the process involved in issuing pilot’s licenses said an unspecified number of people who had the skills to fly a plane but lacked technical knowledge had in the past bribed qualified persons to take exams for them. They didn’t elaborate.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said Pakistan International Airlines learned about the scandal two years ago and fired at least four pilots at the time on accusations of falsifying exams to obtain a license from the civil aviation authority.

Hafeez said notices were being issued to all those pilots who he believed had tainted licenses.

Shortly after the May 22 crash, Pakistan announced it would investigate the incident and share its findings.

In presenting preliminary findings of the probe to parliament Wednesday, Khan said the pilot, before making his first failed landing attempt, did not pay attention to warnings from the air control tower when he was told the plane was too high to land. However, he said the pilot and co-pilot were medically fit and qualified to fly.

The crash took place when the plane attempted to land a second time. At that point, air traffic control told the pilot three times that the plane was too low to land, but he refused to listen, saying he would manage, Khan said. The minister added that, for its part, air traffic control did not inform the pilots about damage caused to the engines after the plane’s first failed landing attempt.

“The engines of the plane were damaged when they scraped the runway, but the air traffic control did not inform the pilot,” he said.

Pennington County reports one death and seven new coronavirus cases

On Pennington County resident died and seven more have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Thursday’s report from the South Dakota Department of Health.

Pennington County has reported 13 deaths, and there are now 482 total positive tests with 141 listed as active cases. There were 77 tests included in Thursday’s report for Pennington County.

The outbreak at the Avatara Arrowhead extended care facility in Rapid City has now identified 43 residents and 19 staff members who have tested positive for coronavirus.

The state saw an increase of 60 cases of COVID-19 illness as 777 tests were reported Thursday. The state has reported 6,479 total positive tests That includes 800 active cases — up 19 from Wednesday.

A total of 79 are hospitalized — down two from Wednesday. The state has reported 87 total deaths from COVID-19.

Oglala-Lakota County added five new cases on 14 tests. Fifteen of the 65 cases in Oglala-Lakota County are listed as active. Fall River County tested eight residents and reported two positive tests. Five cases there are still active. Meade County reported 40 tests with one new positive. There are 10 active cases there. Custer County reported nine negative tests with six active cases in the county and Lawrence County recorded 15 negative tests. Ten cases there are still active.

Minnehaha County reported 10 new cases and Brown County had five new cases. Beadle and Hughes counties reported four positive tests and Brown, Clay, and Lincoln each reported three new cases. Codington and Miner counties each added two and Bennett, Brule, Charles Mix, Corson, Hanson, McCook, Todd, and Yankton counties all added one.

In other outbreaks, 163 of 169 employees at the DemKota Beef plant in Aberdeen have recovered. The state reported that 112 of 126 Jack Links employees in Alpena have recovered as have 71 of the 95 employees who tested positive at Dakota Provisions plant in Huron.

Pushing against the spirit of commitment for peace

Last week was the “deadliest” in the 19-year conflict in Afghanistan, during which the Taliban group carried out 422 attacks in 32 provinces, killing 291 security personnel and wounding 550 others. President Ashraf Ghani condemned the violence, which he blamed on the Taliban. The government sees the violence “as pushing against the spirit of a commitment to peace”, he noted.

In the most recent violent act on June 23, 15 Afghan security personnel were killed, and seven others were injured in attacks by the Taliban. Earlier, on the evening of June 22, Taliban gunmen launched an attack on a security checkpoint in Kunduz province, wounding nine militia members and six Afghan soldiers. In a similar attack in the province, six policemen died, and one was injured.

On the occasion of Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire starting from May 23. However, as soon as the ceasefire ended, the group attacked an Afghan border station on May 29, killing at least 14 security officers.

These moves came as Kabul and the Taliban signaled that they were moving closer to the launch of long-overdue peace talks. President Ashraf Ghani announced that he would complete the release of Taliban prisoners, a key condition for the rebels to start the peace process aimed attending the nearly 20-year-war.

In addition, the attacks also raised concerns about the “premature death” of the peace agreement signed in Qatar in February between the US and the Taliban. This agreement is considered a commitment to pave the way for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban. Under the agreement, the US will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in May 2021 if the Taliban meets conditions contained in the deal, including severing ties with terrorist groups.

Commander of the U.S. Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie said on June 18 that the US has reduced its troop level to 8,600 in Afghanistan, fulfilling its first phase pullout obligations under the US-Taliban deal. He said the US has fulfilled its part of the agreement. McKenzie also called full withdrawal an “aspirational” commitment, but also one which was conditional.

However, the fate of the agreement is currently very fragile. On one hand, the agreement threatened to become “a mess of paper” as instead of fulfilling its commitments to “security” and “toward peace”, the Taliban has launched hundreds of attacks all over Afghanistan. On the other hand, a condition of the agreement stipulating the Taliban’s severance of relations with terrorist groups is also at risk of being ruled out. According to a recently released United Nations report, the Taliban affirmed that it would maintain close ties with the Al-Qaeda network, despite the peace deal with the US.

It is clear that violence in Afghanistan has increased in spite of the US-Taliban deal for peace in the country. A recent report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) indicated that conflicts taking place in the first three months of this year in Afghanistan caused 1,300 civilian deaths and injuries, including 152 children and 60 women. The number of civilian deaths increased by 20% compared to the first three months of 2019.

Establishing a sustainable peace in Afghanistan is now a burning desire for its people. In order to facilitate the process of moving towards the start of negotiations within Afghanistan, during which the parties will seek a genuine solution to restore peace, the bloody violence in this South Asian nation must be stopped immediately.

Tokyo 2020 not planning to restart Olympic flame display

The organizers of the Tokyo Olympic Games have no plans to restart the Olympic flame display or other mass participation events.

Tokyo 2020 spokesman Masa Takaya told a press conference on Wednesday, “We have no particular timing to start our events gathering a certain number of people.”

The Olympic flame has been kept in a secure location in Tokyo after the public display in Fukushima was suspended in March.

According to a roadmap approved by the IOC two weeks ago, the postponed test events will be restarted in March 2021 and the Olympic torch relay held from March to July.

Takaya said he was very much “encouraged” to see that Japan’s professional baseball league has started, and the country’s J-League football competitions will also resume this weekend.

“We will have to carefully monitor the situation,” he said, adding that Tokyo 2020 does not have any “concrete” plans.

Japan lifted its state of emergency on May 25, but Tokyo has still seen new cases every day since then.

Japanese broadcaster NHK said that a total of 55 new cases were confirmed on Wednesday in the Japanese capital.

It’s the first time since May 5 that the daily figure topped 50. The figure is also the largest since May 25.

UNESCO recognizes Cuba’s leadership in education

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recognized the results of Cuba’s work to achieve quality, inclusive education in the 2020 Global Monitoring Report on Education for All -known as the GEM report.

This global monitoring mechanism is used to evaluate progress on Sustainable Development Goal (SDA) No. 4: Ensure inclusive, equitable, quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

The 2020 report emphasizes that Cuba has achieved 100% participation in early childhood education, in accordance with target 4.2 of this goal: “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood care and development and preschool education, so that they are ready for primary school.”

Yahima Esquivel, Cuba’s permanent representative to UNESCO, noted on her Twitter account that the report “recognizes the effectiveness of the Cuban program “Educate your Child” in ensuring inclusive, quality education from early childhood and in rural contexts,” and praises “Cuba’s Sex Education Program, highlighting its preventive approach, gender and sexual rights, throughout the basic curriculum, optional courses and postgraduate studies.”

The diplomat likewise commented on the international organization’s recognition of Cuba exemplary work on inclusion of students with special needs in the conventional education system.

Once again, UNESCO recognizes the leadership of Cuba in this sector at the world level, a nation that in Article 73 of its Constitution states, “Education is a right of all persons and a responsibility of the state, which guarantees free, accessible, quality education services for comprehensive development, from early childhood to postgraduate university education.”

Update on Mine Draw Fire

The Mine Draw Fire is currently active in Custer State Park between Hwy 16A and Center Lake. The fire started on June 24, 2020 at approximately 11:15 a.m. and the cause remains under investigation. It’s estimated to be approximately 60 acres and 25% contained.

The safety of the public and firefighters will continue to be the primary objective of this incident. Additional objectives are to minimize growth of the fire and keep the fire North of Shop Draw Road, East of Highway 87, and West of Mine Draw Road.

There are 117 firefighters on scene, with additional resources available should they be needed.  There are two, Type 1 Helicopters and one air attack plane being used on the fire, with additional air resources also available.

Temperatures for the day will start in the low 60s and climb to near 80 degrees. Skies will be mostly sunny until early afternoon, at which point cloud cover will increase. Showers and thunderstorms will move into the area after 5:00 p.m. Heavy rain is likely.

Currently, Highway 87 North is closed from the junction of 16A and Needles Highway to Playhouse road. This will remain closed to avoid road congestion and aid firefighters in accessing the fire to increase containment. Visitors can still access the iconic Needles and Center Lake Campground from American Center Road or Iron Mountain Road.

Custer State Park remains open, however, Grace Coolidge Walk-in Fishing Area, Center Lake beach and lake access are closed due to bucket usage for helicopters. Fire managers will continue to reevaluate closures and open areas as soon as it’s safe to do so. Park Managers request that visitors respect these closures for the safety of the public and firefighters.

Published by jim

Curator of things...

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