Sky News host Paul Murray says Australia must have an ANZAC Day this year identical to the one in 2019 and hopes state governments follow Queensland’s example to keep the commemoration.
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Interstate travellers say they have been left in limbo by an NT government decision to declare Melbourne Airport a coronavirus hotspot, with many unexpectedly finding themselves in mandatory quarantine.
The NT Government’s coronavirus hotspot declaration includes Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport
It means anyone who travels to the NT via the airport is required to enter quarantine
Travellers from regional Victoria and Tasmania have questioned the measure
Caprice Ariston said she barely spent any time in terminal four of the city’s Tullamarine airport, where she boarded a flight to Darwin via Sydney at 6:00am on Friday.
The 24-year-old lawyer’s partner drove her straight there from their home in Geelong, 75 kilometres south-east of the city.
“I was a little bit late, so I just basically ran through the terminal and only just made it,” she said.
By the time she had landed in Sydney, there were rumours of a snap lockdown in either Melbourne or Victoria, but no official announcement had been made.
Ms Ariston said she checked NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s Facebook page before catching her 12:10pm AEDT flight from Sydney, but she could not see an update on the situation unfolding in Melbourne.
A hotspot would be declared at around the same time as her plane took off.
But when she switched on her phone after later touching down in Darwin — where she intended to visit family — her phone was buzzing.
The NT Government had declared Greater Melbourne a hotspot — a declaration that, for the first time, included Melbourne Airport because a person worked there before testing positive to coronavirus.
Ms Ariston said she learned that even though she left the airport before the declaration, she was still required to quarantine in Howard Springs because she arrived in the Territory after it came into effect.
“I just never even anticipated that Melbourne Airport might be included,” she said.
“I think that’s why I was frustrated because I literally have not touched anything in the airport. I’ve been in Geelong the whole time.”
Some people caught out by the announcement have questioned whether it is a fair approach, pointing out others who were in the airport hours before them were only required to get a test and self-isolate.
Tourists ordered to quarantine
Darwin resident Geoff McCumstie and his wife had been enjoying a mountain-biking holiday in Tasmania.
They were returning home from Launceston via a connecting flight from Melbourne Airport on Friday, but say it was the only time they set foot in Melbourne.
“When we got to the gate, there was a fair amount of confusion,” Mr McCumstie said.
“We started hearing some announcements that it [Melbourne Airport] was declared a hotspot and we needed to make a decision about whether we stayed in Melbourne or went back to Darwin on that flight.”
“Now, I’m a 58-year-old male. Do I really want to stay in Melbourne and risk the opportunity to contract COVID-19? The answer to that is no,” he said.
He said he was frustrated he and his wife were required to pay the $2,500 per person fee to quarantine in the NT.
“I don’t live in Melbourne. I don’t know anyone in Melbourne,” he said.
“We really had no choice,” he said.
Declaring the hotspot on Friday, NT Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie said he made the decision to include the airport because there were known exposure sites at the location.
“This decision today is to protect the health and safety of Territorians,” he said.
Federal Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly has also declared Greater Melbourne a Commonwealth hotspot, and said cases linked to the airport are of particular concern.
Travellers question NT directions
Both Ms Ariston and Mr McCumstie said they were confused as to why they had to quarantine when they visited the airport days after an infectious person worked there on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, people in the NT who transited through the airport on that day are only required to get a COVID-19 test and self-isolate until they return a negative result.
That means they can isolate at home and do not have to pay to enter quarantine.
A spokeswoman from NT Health said it was up to travellers to keep up to date with the Chief Health Officer’s directions and make considered decisions when travelling.
She did not directly respond to a question about why people at the airport on Tuesday did not have to quarantine.
Ms Ariston said the arrangement did not make sense to her.
“My mum came the night before I did through Melbourne Airport,” she said.
Mr McCumstie said he was more than happy to quarantine for the safety of others, but the inconsistency concerned him.
“We understand the risks that COVID presents, especially to the Indigenous population,” he said.
“There’s no way I want to see that get into the Territory.
“[But] it’s a very inconsistent approach. It doesn’t seem to be a very risk-based approach.”
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DURING HIS final days Mohamed Monir, an Egyptian journalist, was so short of breath he could barely speak. In a video recorded in July last year, as his final hours approached, he begged for oxygen. He died in a hospital isolation unit after contracting covid-19 in prison while awaiting trial. He had been arrested the previous month after, among other things, writing an article lambasting the Egyptian government’s response to the pandemic. He was charged with spreading false news, misusing social media and joining a terrorist group.
Covid-19 has indeed unleashed a flood of misinformation. But it has also given governments such as Egypt’s an excuse to crack down on their critics using the pretext of restricting the spread of fake news. Between March and October last year 17 countries passed new laws against “online misinformation” or “fake information”, according to the International Press Institute (see map). Among those leading this charge are such guardians of free speech as Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban and Rodrigo Duterte. Other authoritarians, such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, have followed since then. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, is keen to pass a law to stop the dissemination of fake news after the protests that roiled the city in 2019.
Governments have always regulated speech. And the spread of disinformation is indeed a serious and growing problem. If politicians are enacting laws against fake news to catch people spreading deliberate lies, “that’s one thing”, argues Marko Milanovic, an expert in international law at the University of Nottingham. If, however, they are putting in place broad, vague measures that are in fact intended to curb the freedom of the press and free speech more widely, “that’s a huge problem.”
Some governments have cited the pandemic as justification for new laws. Under legislation introduced in March 2020 in Russia, media outlets found guilty of deliberately spreading false information about matters of public safety, including covid-19, face fines of up to €117,000 ($140,000). Russia already imposed fines on people for spreading “false information” but the new regulations fall under the criminal code which means the punishments can also include time in jail. The editor of one website was fined 60,000 roubles ($810) for reporting that 1,000 graves had been dug for potential victims of covid-19. Tatyana Voltskaya, a freelance journalist, was fined 30,000 roubles in December for a radio report that included an interview with an anonymous health worker, who described the shortage of ventilators in Russian hospitals and other difficulties faced by doctors battling covid-19.
Other governments are reviving obsolete legislation, ostensibly to combat fake news related to covid-19. Their true aims, however, are to hamper independent journalism or “retaliate against those doing reporting that they don’t appreciate”, says Courtney Radsch of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based NGO. In March the Jordanian government used a “defence” law from 1992 that permits the declaration of a state of emergency in exceptional circumstances to do so as part of its efforts to stem the spread of covid-19. The law allows the government to monitor the content of newspapers and censor or shut down any outlet without giving any reason. On Christmas Eve Jamal Haddad, the Jordanian publisher of a news website, was detained after publishing an article asking why officials had received vaccinations against covid-19 when these were not yet available to ordinary citizens.
And some authorities are invoking laws that may not even exist. Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist in Zimbabwe, was arrested in January for tweeting about police violence while enforcing lockdowns. The government says that “anyone who spreads false news will be charged in terms of Section 31 of the Criminal Code”, according to Doug Coltart, one of Mr Chin’ono’s lawyers. But the section of the law criminalising the dissemination of “falsehoods” had been struck down in 2014 by the Zimbabwean constitutional court.
Some of the new laws are temporary. But their creators appear in no hurry to lift them. Mr Orban imposed a state of emergency in Hungary in March last year. Among other measures it made the dissemination of “misinformation” punishable by up to five years in prison. The state of emergency ended in June, but Mr Orban’s government reimposed it in November as the country faced a second wave of covid-19 cases.
South Africa also introduced temporary legislation in March 2020, as part of a package of measures to limit the spread of covid-19. It stipulated that those publishing falsehoods about the disease could face fines or up to six months in prison. Only a handful of people have been arrested. Those who have been prosecuted were social-media users charged with promoting unscientific nonsense, such as a man who claimed that covid tests spread the disease. So far, journalists have been fairly relaxed about the restrictions, in part because the government listened to their concerns, reckons Izak Minnaar, a former broadcaster who works on disinformation issues as part of the country’s National Editors’ Forum. Fact-checking of contentious social-media posts is done by an independent body rather than one run by the government, for instance. But the law has set a precedent for tighter curbs on the press. “We cannot make it permanent,” says Siyavuya Mzantsi, editor of the Cape Times.
Even as free-speech campaigners in rich democracies offer support to those fighting censorship in poorer, less free places, their own governments are providing the would-be censors with cover, even inspiration. Germany’s Network Enforcement Law (NetzDG), passed in 2017, is meant to protect readers from fake news and hate speech by requiring social-media platforms to remove material deemed incendiary. More than a dozen countries, from Russia to Turkey, have copied this legislation as a way to suppress dissent online. Many of these countries expressly referred to the German law as justification for their repressive legislation. Turkey’s allows the government to remove online content and reduce the bandwidth of social-media sites so much that they become unusable. Jacob Mchangama and Joelle Fiss of Justitia, a Danish think-tank, have described the NetzDG as “the Digital Berlin Wall” because it has accidentally become a “prototype for global online censorship”.
None so zealous
Converts to the cause of tackling fake news are often guilty of peddling the stuff themselves. Brazilian politicians are in the process of passing a law against fake news. But the president, Jair Bolsonaro, has downplayed the dangers of covid-19 and touted ineffective pills. Though he was infected in July last year, he says his background as an athlete helped him shrug it off. He is cool on the law because he worries it will affect his supporters, some of whom are also quick to spread misinformation. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has prescribed saunas and hockey as cures for covid-19. In a survey of 1,406 journalists conducted by the International Centre for Journalists, a non-profit organisation in Washington, 46% said that elected officials were the source of misinformation relating to covid-19 that they had encountered. They also blamed government agencies and networks of trolls linked to various states.
These laws are making journalists’ jobs harder. In Hungary they have made reporting more arduous. Sources are less willing to talk. Atlatszo, an independent news site established in 2011, has three lawyers who do a legal check of articles to make sure that everything complies with the regulation. Mr Orban’s government has become more secretive. It is more reluctant to answer questions from independent media outlets. It has established a central “Operative Unit” to deal with journalists’ inquiries. As a result questions to local hospitals, schools and municipalities are now handled by national authorities. In Myanmar the “True News Information Team” exists largely to suppress reports about crimes committed by the army, which since February 1st has been in charge of the whole country.
In desperation some have gone into exile. Belarusian journalists have fled to Poland. Many Nicaraguan reporters have moved to Costa Rica. After Lucia Pineda, a Nicaraguan journalist, was arrested and held in prison for six months in 2019, she moved her news website, 100% Noticias, there. Gerall Chávez, another Nicaraguan hack, co-founded a website called Nicaragua Actual but works out of Costa Rica, too. He still worries that his work puts him in danger. Last summer he received death threats on Facebook, including a cartoon showing him being killed. His parents, who are still in Nicaragua, were sent the same animation on a USB stick.
Others are censoring themselves. In countries that have had such laws on the books for a while, this is already apparent. Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act, passed in 2018, imposes hefty fines on journalists or individuals found guilty of “cyberterrorism”. It has created a culture of fear, one journalist explains, which silences reporters. The government does not need new laws to do so. “Our legal system, our judiciary is so fragile that…if the government wants to harass someone, they don’t need any piece of legislation,” he says.
Such repression is changing how journalists publish and where people seek their news. Some media outlets are moving onto new platforms, such as Telegram, an online-messaging service. In Belarus the government responded to big protests over a contested election in August by shutting down the internet and arresting scores of journalists. Between mid-August and mid-November subscriptions to the Telegram channel for Tut.by, a news website, grew by 28%. In Hungary many publishers are controlled by the government. During the pandemic they have published nothing but articles praising the effectiveness of the state’s response, says Tamás Bodoky, the editor of Atlatszo. His site, by contrast, has reported on controversies concerning the government’s handling of the crisis. He reckons that explains the rise in its average monthly views from around 182,000 in 2019 to over 285,000 in 2020: “People were actively looking for articles about the pandemic which were not government propaganda.” No laws can stop them doing that. ■
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Inconvenient truths”
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There should be a call for our court system to bring governments to account for social injustices, writes Gerry Georgatos.
HUMAN HISTORY is not shaped by the resistances of diverse acts of courage by the oppressed. Human history is always shaped by the oppressor. The art of defiance, campaigns and struggles cost lives and injustices continue.
Social justice systemic repair cannot be delivered or galvanised expeditiously by campaigns alone or in a belief that governments will deliver on promises.
In the last few years, I have launched 17 legal actions, initiated the suing of governments and government instruments for individuals and their families whipped and shackled by injustices. We hear the cries but pass them by. These legal actions, which take years, have redressed some individuated claimants with compensability but on the systemic front, the social justice remains betrayed.
As each day rises, so do preventable injustices. People fear the front foot and instead go on the back foot, hiding, refusing to weep or acknowledge sisters and brothers tormented, devastated.
Some fight for reforms which majorly subsume our lives with no end in sight, pitch divides and toxify people. Others are exhausted and covet a life of an inner circle, mostly family and some friends.
Robodebt claims the life of a 19-year-old mum
Centrelink’s robodebt scandal has been claiming the lives of people struggling with debt, yet our Government remains inactive.
Class actions and wider representation legal actions are a way to corner governments into systemic repair, into improved human rights policy and practices. The Robodebt Class Action has proven we can have government by the people through the court. Even royal commissions cannot compel governments to enable recommendations but courts can compel rulings be upheld, laws upheld, systemic injustices done away with.
There are many class actions coming to take on our governments. The Banksia Hill Class Action on behalf of vulnerable children may well succeed where campaigns have not, where governments betray promises, to ensure governments do invest in providing every human right and support to vulnerable children. Even though Australia is without a human rights bill, human rights are not some fairy tale but are enshrined in laws.
Western Australia is the nation’s embarrassment when it comes to social justice; it is our nation’s backwater. The further west we go across the continent, the worse it gets – the arrest rates, the jailing rates, the homeless rates, the acute poverty, the lack of social housing, the self-harming rates, the suicide rates. Western Australia is the mother of all these statistics.
The further west we journey across the continent, the less there is of a practice of universal human rights, the less social justice.
Unless we take to court the legal demands and onus for political reforms, the travesties and tragedies and the horror scale will not just continue but will get worse.
Governments and their instruments can do so much more but are not. Neglecting children, harrowing children to the hovels and miserable corrals they call juvenile detention correctional facilities is reprehension and abomination.
Dickensian Australia – homeless orphans and ten-year-old children gaoled
Instead of offering assistance, our political system is one that would sooner incarcerate children in desperate need.
If it takes class actions and stalwart law firms to help our poorest, our homeless, to reduce prison populations and incarceration rates, to reduce suicides, to oblige governments to spend on authentic ways forward and meet the rights of all our children and people, then may the courts gear up for this way forward. Individuated actions are all well and good but let us get governments educated through the courts, for all our sakes.
I’ve spent four decades campaigning for the rights of our vulnerable, changed some laws, got some policies up, righted some wrongs, each one taking years and then there are all the many more battles still unwon.
Life is brief and we need to do everything we can for one another, as if we all matter as much as the most privileged.
Australia’s juvenile detention centres are grim Dickensian poor houses where the majority of children are further failed. There is no disputing this. It is now about doing something about it.
We must never live in fear. We must be who we should be 24/7, not selectively. What the heart sees, the mouth must speak.
Gerry Georgatos, the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Master in Human Rights Education and a Master in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. He is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP).
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With the legislation now before a parliamentary inquiry, the launch of News Showcase in Australia will see it pay seven domestic outlets, including the Canberra Times, to use their content.
Financial details of the content deals weren’t disclosed, and Canberra Times publisher, Australian Community Media, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Google said it looked forward to striking agreements with more Australian publishers, whose position has been bolstered by Canberra’s aggressive push back against Facebook and Google.
“This provides an alternative to the model put forward by the Australian Government,” said Derek Wilding, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney’s Centre for Media Transition.
Last month Reuters said it had signed a deal with Google to be the first global news provider to Google News Showcase. Reuters is owned by news and information provider Thomson Reuters Corp.
Google declined to add a further comment when contacted by Reuters.
Last month, Google and a French publishers’ lobby agreed to a copyright framework for the tech firm to pay news publishers for content online, in a first for Europe.
Under the proposed legislation in Australia, Google and Facebook would have to pay publishers and broadcasters for content included in search results or news feeds as well.
If they failed to strike a deal with publishers, a government-appointed arbitrator would decide the price.
While Google’s public stance on potentially leaving the country remains firm, Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Google’s approach had been “constructive” in recent days during private meetings.
“The Prime Minister [Scott Morrison] and myself and [Communications Minister] Paul Fletcher had a very constructive discussion with the head of Google just yesterday,” Mr Frydenberg said.
“In that discussion … they re-committed to Australia, we re-committed [to the legislation].”
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Wildlife groups have accused the Victorian Government of “massively overinflating” numbers in order to support a 65 per cent increase in the number of kangaroos that can be killed for commercial purposes under the Kangaroo Harvesting Program.
The Victorian Government has substantially increased the quota of kangaroos that can be harvested
It says the quota is based on an almost 40 per cent increase in their estimated number across the state compared to 2018
Animal welfare advocates say harvesting is inhumane and will affect tourism
Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas announced last week the 2021 quota had increased by 37,780 from last year to 95,680 kangaroos.
Ms Thomas said this was due to an almost 40 per cent increase in the estimated number of kangaroos across the state compared to 2018.
“When you talk to macropod specialists, when you talk to ecologists, kangaroos can increase their population by up to ten per cent in a really good year,” Cr Vincent said.
“That’s with great grazing conditions and no catastrophic fires.
She said the quota increase was “absolutely staggering”.
“It was less than 12 months ago that our state was still burning, that we were desperately trying to rescue kangaroos and our wildlife,” Cr Vincent said.
“Now to see a 65 per cent increase in the quota it’s absolutely staggering, to see such an increase in the number of kangaroos that are going to be slaughtered across 95 per cent of our state for profit.”
She said the program was inhumane.
“Wildlife is a huge drawcard for our tourists and residents alike. It is terrifying to think that our community who love and appreciate the native wildlife here will be subjected to witnessing such brutal slaughter,” Cr Vincent said.
Harvesting ‘closely monitored’
Hunting has to the comply with the National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies, according to the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).
Aerial surveys in October last year were used to estimate a kangaroo population of 1.9 million, up from 1.425 million in 2018.
In a statement, a DELWP spokesperson said:
“The number of kangaroos available for the commercial harvesting program and the Authority to Control Wildlife (ATCW) system is determined by the result of an aerial count conducted by experienced operators.
“These results are combined with other information such as rainfall data, the age and sex ratio of the animals, and information about how far kangaroos move around the landscape.
[That data is] used by DELWP scientists to estimate the total population of grey kangaroos across Victoria and the sustainable level of take.
The number of kangaroos controlled through the commercial harvesting program and the ATCW system is closely monitored to ensure it remains sustainable.”
Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas has been contacted for comment.
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Rather than marginalising the homeless, governments must start taking steps to ensure their health and wellbeing, writes Gerry Georgatos.
A CRY from the alleyways, verge squats and lonely parks. The scale of homelessness is abominable in Western Australia, where otherwise the privileged enjoy life in our nation’s wealthiest jurisdiction.
Most recently, the Western Australian Government, with an election looming, overreacted and called in police to close down the Fremantle homeless camp. This was after a media blitz on the Government’s horrific track record on homelessness and the lack of public housing.
Life is short and it matters what we do for sisters and brothers languishing far behind the line of disadvantage.
The Fremantle camp for the homeless was what Matagarup (Heirrisson) homeless camp was. What Sydney’s Glebe, Belmore Park and Martin Place homeless camps were. They foreground to Australians what otherwise for the majority is unimaginable. The Fremantle camp was safer than the streets.
Australia’s homeless – third highest rate and street homeless deaths increasing
Gerry Georgatos, who works at poverty’s coalfaces, argues that on average each year, 5% of Australia’s street homeless die on the streets.
The street homeless experience various violence, are robbed, are predated upon. Homeless women and youth are beaten and raped in alleyways and squats. Who hears their cries?
The sad indisputable comparator is Pioneer Park camp, with all its tragedy and travesty, was safer than the alleyways, car parks, verges, parks, squats and traps,
Last year, more than 40 homeless souls died on the streets of Perth.
It is beyond immoral reprehension the disingenuous Trump-esque meltdown by Premier Mark McGowan and the Western Australian Government to try and extinguish public empathy for the homeless by defaming the street homeless as charlatans. This cruelty has been tried before by the disgraced and sacked former Perth City Council.
What is Western Australia becoming when the Premier and ministers lower themselves to a misinformation campaign to cover up their penny-pinching ways concerning the homeless?
Western Australia fails the homeless and vulnerable worse than any other State. It has one of the highest homeless rates in the nation.
Yet, Western Australia is proportionally the richest state in the world’s 13th biggest economy. To permanently house all the State’s street homeless, the most vulnerable, will cost much less than one standalone state budget surplus. To end all forms of homelessness in this State, by building 16,000 quality public, social and community houses, could cost between five billion dollars to no more than eight billion. This spend could be recovered within two years of State budget surpluses.
It will also reduce the burden of preventable disease and poor health and reduce the ancillary homeless service support costs.
Australia’s homeless situation – we need to do better
The response from our government during the pandemic has raised questions as to how to combat homelessness moving forward.
Western Australia can inspire the nation, go from the nation’s backwater to a social justice giant and end street homelessness and if the political will exists. In 2011, the now Premier, then Opposition Housing Shadow Minister, stood next to me at a rally for the homeless. And for a call for public housing. Shadow leader, Eric Ripper and present-day Greens parliamentarian, Alison Xamon, were also speaker at the rally.
In Opposition, Mr McGowan was one with human rights practitioners calling for more public housing and for homeless friendly precincts. As Premier McGowan, along with some of his Ministers – not all – he is heralding a never-before-seen assault on human rights practitioners. Who would have believed? I first met Mark, nearly two decades ago, through soup kitchens and food banks we were both involved with.
Earlier last year, during the first wave of our State’s lockdowns, our small service, the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project, accommodated more homeless than our Government did. They put up in a hotel, 20. We put up 43. They’re a Government, we’re not.
This past weekend, a suicidal young woman – homeless and drug-affected – cried out for help. We responded, calling an ambulance which turned up to a Perth city park with police. Unbelievably, a little while later, she was discharged from hospital.
She cried out for help once again and she was violent and abusive. But we managed to get her into hotel accommodation, to come down from the drugs. For our thanks, the other responder was punched. Had we not intervened, she might be more than likely another street homeless death.
How the economy contributes to the homelessness problem
An economy that rewards those who profit from material wealth has led to an increase in homelessness.
Here is an edited support letter I wrote to a Department of Housing Office in Perth in hoping to secure a home for this young woman:
The above are only snippets of Kelly’s life and reasons to triage to prioritisation. Kelly will not be alone: she will have many supporters and networks. There will be a safety net but the Kelly I know, once housed, will be houseproud and independent, and thrive.
* Kelly is a pseudonym.
Gerry Georgatos, the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Master in Human Rights Education and a Master in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. He is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP).
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VAST, POOR, and landlocked, Mongolia is hard to defend against covid-19. Yet its record fighting the plague had looked quite good until recently. Its first documented case of domestic transmission came only in November. Infections have since spread across the capital, Ulaanbaatar, home to nearly half the country’s 3.2m people. The government claims, improbably, there have been no deaths.
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A full-blown epidemic would completely unravel the threadbare health system. Yet a protest by thousands of mainly young Mongolians in Ulaanbaatar’s main square on January 20th highlights resistance to the government’s oppressive approach. They were decrying the way a mother, diagnosed with covid-19, and her newborn baby were hustled out into the cold to a coronavirus unit. The health minister and a deputy prime minister offered to resign.
Mongolia’s initial success came at a high price, says Sumati Luvsandendev of the Sant Maral Foundation, a polling outfit. The ruling Mongolian People’s Party, which strengthened its hold in a landslide parliamentary win in June, has shown a heavy hand—after all, it is the successor to the party that ruled when Mongolia was a Soviet satellite. As the pandemic spread from China a year ago, it closed the borders even to the many Mongolians who work abroad. Most have still not managed to return.
At home, schools have been shut for nearly a year. The livelihoods of many Mongolians vanished when street stalls, beauty salons and other small businesses shut down. The government provided little support, says Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a former minister from the opposition Democratic Party who runs an NGO encouraging better sanitation in the districts of canvas and felt gers (yurts) in which 60% of the capital’s population live.
Hunger stalks the ger districts, which house migrants from the countryside looking for a more prosperous life. Mongolia’s herders are helping out their urban cousins. A recent campaign urged herding families to donate a sheep to city folk. They gave enough to feed 15,000 families.
Not all is gloom. The banning of coal in favour of smoke-free briquettes for heating and cooking in the ger districts is improving Ulaanbaatar’s pea-soup pollution. Businesses are starting to reopen, if haphazardly. The mining industry is booming again, with coal as well as copper from Oyu Tolgoi, a flagship mine, pouring across the border to China. Four years ago Mongolia faced twin fiscal and balance-of-payments crises. Today, mining revenue can stave off the worst. But that still leaves the government heavily in debt, and the economy ever more in thrall to its giant southern neighbour, a situation that worries nearly all Mongolians.
Yet Mongolia remains a land of frustratingly untapped potential. With 20 times more livestock—sheep, cattle, horses, goats, yaks and camels—than people, it could make much more of its cashmere as well as its intrinsically organic meat. But, says Julian Dierkes of the University of British Columbia, that takes much better branding, quality control and, in the case of meat, logistical dexterity than the government and business have managed so far.
Politics suddenly looks brittle. The disciplinarian prime minister, Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh, perhaps afraid his luck curbing the pandemic is running out, appears to fancy the relatively cushy post of president, for which an election takes place in June. The incumbent, Khaltmaagiin Battulga of the Democratic Party, exemplifies the best way into Mongolia’s macho politics: winning fame as a wrestler. His presidency is notable for its dearth of foreign-policy initiatives. Rather than vigorously strengthen ties with “third” neighbours such as America, Australia, Japan and South Korea as a counterweight to Mongolia’s two actual ones, China and Russia, he has instead befriended that other muscly martial-arts fan, Vladimir Putin.
The Democratic Party’s old guard, resistant to fresh blood, was punished in the parliamentary elections. Yet both main parties lack programmes and policies. Some modernisers, including Ms Oyungerel, lament a quasi-militarist flourish in politics—all salutes, medal-pinning and uniforms even for the civil service. She says she will challenge Mr Battulga for her party’s presidential nomination. Liberal and, worse, a woman, the odds are against her. Yet her call for a new politics resonates with younger Mongolians. Right now the stage seems to be theirs. Mr Khurelsukh apparently refused to accept his ministers’ resignations. That led to behind-the-scenes objections from members of his own party. On January 21st the prime minister resigned, leaving the future of the MPP government in confusion.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Pastoral care”
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THE STEAM and smoke that billow through the encampments that circle India’s capital are even thicker than the city’s wintertime smog. Hundreds of thousands of angry farmers descended on Delhi seven weeks ago. Stopped at the borders, they pitched tents, blocked traffic, sharpened slogans—and began to cook. Mobile generators power giant automated chapati-making machines. Vats of steaming mustard greens hiss at January’s chilly dampness. To mark Lohri, a regional festival, the protesters built the usual bonfires, throwing in copies of the three farm-reform acts that Narendra Modi, the prime minister, rushed through parliament in September. Their leaders say they will stay put until the three laws are revoked.
On January 12th they almost got their way. The Supreme Court issued an “extraordinary order of stay of implementation of the farm laws”. The chief justice, Sharad Arvind Bobde, is presenting the judiciary as an impartial mediator, but would clearly like the farmers to go home. “While we may not stifle a peaceful protest,” he said, he nonetheless hoped that the court’s order would be “perceived as an achievement” by the farmers and that their leaders would “convince their members to get back to their livelihood.”
The Supreme Court did not say how long the suspension would last, or what the legal justification for it was. Instead, it named a committee of four experts to ponder the worthiness of the laws. All four of its members, however, have already made statements in defence of the reforms.
The farmers welcomed the suspension, but said it was not enough to persuade them to disperse. They have vowed to drive their tractors into Delhi on January 26th, in a rival cavalcade to the annual Republic Day parade presided over by the prime minister. Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) towers over national politics, having won a second term in government in 2019 with the biggest majority in 35 years. But whereas rival parties trouble it very little, protest movements like that of the farmers, or the people who demonstrated against discriminatory new rules on citizenship a year ago, are different. They are harder both to anticipate and to face down.
The cheery but determined faces in the camps have attracted sympathy from across the country, despite the complexity of the policies involved, and the relative wealth of the protesters, most of whom come from the states of Punjab and Haryana, where farmers’ incomes are more than twice the national average. Agronomists and economists are in nearly uniform agreement with the thrust of the new laws, which do away with restrictions on where and to whom farmers can sell their crops, and seek to make it easier to invest in storage and distribution, in particular. These new freedoms should benefit farmers in the long run.
But the protesters are worried that Mr Modi’s allies in big business will find a way to game the new system. They also fear that the changes presage the shrinking or scrapping of especially generous subsidies for those growing wheat and rice, the main crops in Haryana and Punjab, despite the government’s assurances to the contrary. The government has managed to inflame matters further by claiming, without any evidence, that many of the protesters are really Sikh separatists, working to undermine the state. BJP functionaries have been circulating old pictures of Sikhs waving secessionist placards, falsely asserting that they are part of the current protests.
The Supreme Court appears to be trying to help the government out of this impasse, by providing the farmers with a face-saving victory that may dampen the protests without necessarily undoing the reforms. It is not clear how soon its committee will report, whether it will recommend any changes and what weight its findings will carry. The government must hope that the protests in the meantime will lose momentum. It was recently saved from surprisingly big and persistent demonstrations against the citizenship law by the advent of covid-19. But the farmers, with their generators and communal kitchens, look ready for a long stay. Whatever the Supreme Court’s intention, its ruling has done little to clear the air. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Ploughing on”
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Ryanair has hit out at the UK and Irish governments for their handling of coronavirus vaccine roll-outs while slashing flights and its passenger forecasts.
The no-frills carrier said it was to “significantly cut” services from Thursday 21st January which would result in “few, if any, flights being operated to/from Ireland or the UK from the end of Jan”.
The company blamed renewed COVID-19 lockdowns for the decision and said its cutbacks would remain in place until “such time as these draconian travel restrictions are removed”.
The statement added: “All customers affected by these further flight cancellations and further travel restrictions will receive emails advising them of their entitlements of free moves and/or refunds later today.”
Ryanair, which has received stinging criticism from consumer groups for its handling of refunds during the crisis to date, called on the Irish and UK governments to accelerate, what it called, the “slow pace” of vaccine provision to help unlock COVID’s grip on the travel industry.
A Sky News job tracker has shown aviation among the worst hit by the pandemic.
Ryanair was particularly critical of the Dublin government’s performance on the vaccine roll-out, describing its restrictions as the most “stringent” in Europe.
The company said of the cancellations: “These new cutbacks will reduce full year (FY March ’21) traffic forecast from currently ‘below 35 million’ to between 26 million to 30 million passengers.
“Ryanair does not expect these flight cuts and further traffic reductions will materially affect its net loss for the year to 31 March 2021 since many of these flights would have been loss making.”
The imposition of lockdowns in England and Scotland this week prompted holiday firms, including TUI UK, to cancel breaks abroad leaving those shores until mid-February.
Rival airlines including British Airways and easyJet are also reviewing their flight schedules.
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