Jon Batiste to Sing for Macron at Biden’s First State Dinner

Musician Jon Batiste is on tap to perform at President Joe Biden’s first White House state dinner on Thursday that will highlight long-standing ties between the United States and France and honor President Emmanuel Macron.

“An artist who transcends generations, Jon Batiste’s music inspires and brings people together,” said Vanessa Valdivia, a spokesperson for first lady Jill Biden, whose office is overseeing dinner preparations.

“We’re thrilled to have him perform at the White House for the first state dinner of the Biden-Harris administration,” Valdivia said.

The black-tie dinner for Macron will be part of what is shaping up to be a busy social season at the White House. The Bidens’ granddaughter Naomi Biden was married on the South Lawn earlier this month. And first lady Jill Biden was set on Monday to unveil the White House decorations that will be viewed by thousands of holiday visitors over the next month.

Batiste will be adding White House entertainer to an already long list of roles, including recording artist, bandleader, musical director, film composer, museum creative director and scion of New Orleans musical royalty.

He won five Grammy Awards this year, including for album of the year for “We Are.” During the awards show in April, Batiste ended his dance-filled performance of “Freedom” by jumping up on Billie Eilish’s table.

Batiste, 36, most recently was bandleader and musical director of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” leaving the broadcast after a seven-year run.

Batiste composed music, consulted on and arranged songs for Pixar’s animated film “Soul.” He won a Golden Globe for the music alongside Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails. The trio also earned the Academy Award for best original score. For their work on “Soul,” Batiste, Reznor and Ross won the Grammy for best score soundtrack for visual media.

The Washington Post was first to report that Batiste will perform at the dinner.

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China, US Can Cooperate on Climate Issues Despite Tensions, Experts Say

Amid a recent flurry of meetings that brought together officials from the United States and China, along with other world leaders, experts say the two countries can work together on climate change despite lingering tensions.

The two largest economies are the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters but also rivals as China seeks to expand its influence around the world. Tensions have also risen amid policies toward Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway province.

Despite the geopolitical tensions, working together to implement the agreements at the recent G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia can be the first step, according to Belinda Schaepe, climate diplomacy researcher in London at E3G, a research group that focuses on cooperation among China, the European Union and U.S.

“The two sides should cooperate to implement the G-20 Bali Energy Transitions Roadmap that was endorsed by both Xi and Biden at the recent leaders’ summit,” Schaepe told VOA in an email this week. “They should also support implementation of the G20 Sustainable Finance roadmap developed by the Sustainable Finance Working Group which China and the US co-chaired.”

She was referring to U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. They met in person for the first time since Biden took office and held more than three hours of talks during the G-20 summit, which brought together leaders from the 20 biggest economies.

Energy roadmap

The G-20 Bali Energy Transitions Roadmap includes boosting stable, transparent and affordable energy markets, as well as accelerating energy transitions by strengthening energy security and scaling up zero and low emission power generation. The G-20 Sustainable Finance Roadmap focuses on ensuring investment goes to achieving sustainable goals. The U.S. said in a statement that this will improve the credibility of financial institutions’ net zero commitments. These commitments are pledges to fight climate change.

The U.S. and China also resumed talks on climate issues at the recently concluded 27th United Nations Climate Conference, known as COP27, hosted by Egypt. China had put the bilateral cooperation on pause in August in protest after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.

High-level cooperation between these two countries is critical to combat climate change, said Dan Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley at a press conference at COP27 on potential U.S.-China cooperation.“If we lose sight that those high-level agreements and partnerships, even if they are trade or rights that need to be resolved through data, verification and trust, that is these watershed moments that really define climate success,” Kammen said. “If that partnership doesn’t extend between the two major powers here, it’s not going to accelerate our global decarbonization.”

Reviving the COP26 agreement 

On a technical level, Schaepe said a climate declaration from the two countries, initiated in Glasgow, Scotland at last year’s climate conference, COP26, can offer some guidelines.

Both sides agreed last year to set up regulatory frameworks and environmental standards on cutting greenhouse gases this decade, as well as policies on decarbonization and deploying green technologies such as carbon capture.

At COP27, Kammen provided a case in point in terms of tech cooperation: His school cooperated with the city of Shenzhen on a project involving electric taxi cabs. It called for researchers to analyze data from about 20,000 electric taxis in the city and predict travel and queuing time at charging stations. With the real time information, he said, drivers could cut down time for each taxi by more than 30 minutes each day and allow the city to contract more green energy business.

Fossil fuel use

Domestic issues like improving Shenzhen’s electric taxi fleet are likely a focus for cooperation, according to Deborah Seligsohn, assistant professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. She focuses on environmental governance in China and U.S.-China relations. 

“A lot of the hard work on both sides is going to be domestic no matter what…the basic work of mitigation is based on a lot of domestic policy. Both countries know they need to be the leading countries for reducing emissions. It’s not a difficult issue to find common ground to discuss,” Seligsohn told VOA News in a video call last week. 

The expert suggested the two cooperate on ensuring a just transition in the fossil fuel industry. 

“Both countries have communities where the fossil fuel production is the major industry. The challenge is not just how you find jobs for the specific people who work in the fossil fuel [industry], but how you maintain the vibrancy of everything else from public schools to the grocery stores,” she explained. 

Currently, China is home to more than 1,000 coal-fired power plants, according to Statista, the largest coal producer in the world, while the U.S. is the globe’s largest oil and gas producer, with more than 94,000 such facilities. 

China’s coal output hit a record high in March, and a few months later, it was also seen to ramp up its coal supply to cope with the worst heatwaves in decades. In October, China again boosted its coal supply for winter heating. Currently, half of the country’s energy has been generated by burning coal, which is used to make electricity.

Carbon emissions in China, however, were projected to drop because of slowed economic growth due to COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Experts project the slowdown will be short-lived.

Uncertain future

Whether the U.S. and China are motivated enough to reduce the use of fossil fuels remains to be seen, according to Paul Harris, chair professor of global and environmental studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. 

“What’s most likely is that they [the U.S. and China] will, as in the past, cooperate on things that tend to distract from the real problem,” Harris told VOA earlier this week in an email. 

“Here I’m thinking of carbon capture and sequestration, and pie-in-the-sky favorite approach of polluters around the world because it makes us all think that we can keep on burning fossil fuels. We can’t.”

The climate expert said the cooperation will likely be on a bumpy road, as geopolitics likely will get in the way.

“There’s distrust on both sides, and Beijing is in no mood to compromise on its red lines, Taiwan especially,” he added. “The stop to Sino-US climate talks never should have happened. A real question is whether China is now serious about serious cooperation with the United States on climate change. I have very serious doubts.”

 

This story was published with support of Climate Tracker’s COP27 Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship.

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Key US Lawmakers Vow Continuing Ukraine Support 

Newly empowered U.S. Republican lawmakers set to take leadership roles in the House of Representatives in January promised Sunday that Congress would continue to support Ukraine militarily in its nine-month fight against Russia but said there would be more scrutiny of the aid before it is shipped to Kyiv’s forces.

Congressmen Michael McCaul of Texas and Mike Turner of Ohio, likely key officials overseeing new Ukraine aid packages, told ABC’s “This Week” show there would be continued bipartisan Republican and Democratic support for Ukraine as Republicans assume a narrow House majority, even though some opposition from both parties has emerged.

Turner, likely the new chairperson of the House Intelligence Committee, said, “We’re going to make sure they get what they need. We will have bipartisan support.”

McCaul, the likely head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “If we give them what they need, they win.”

But McCaul said there would be a difference in considering Ukraine aid from the outgoing Democratic control of the House when Republicans take over.

“The fact is, we are going to provide more oversight, transparency and accountability,” he said. “We’re not going to write a blank check.”

On the battlefield, Russia struck several areas in eastern and southern Ukraine overnight Saturday, Ukrainian officials said, as utility crews tried to restore power, water and heating following devastating attacks on infrastructure in recent weeks. Some Ukrainians only have a few hours of electricity a day, if any.

But Ukrenergo, the state power grid operator, said Sunday that electricity producers are now supplying about 80% of demand, up slightly from Saturday’s 75% figure.

In its daily report, the British Defense Ministry said both Russia and Ukraine have committed “significant forces” to the area around the Ukrainian towns of Pavlivka and Vuhledar in the south-central Donetsk province.

The agency said in an intelligence update posted on Twitter Sunday that the area “has been the scene of intense combat over the last two weeks, though little territory has changed hands.”

The area will likely remain “heavily contested,” the ministry said, because “Russia assesses the area has potential as a launch point for a future major advance north to capture the remainder of Ukrainian-held Donetsk Oblast.”

However, the ministry said the odds of Russia realizing that goal are slim because “Russia is unlikely to be able to concentrate sufficient quality forces to achieve an operational breakthrough.”

On Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hosted a summit in Kyiv to mark the 90th anniversary of Holodomor, or the Great Famine, and to promote the Grain from Ukraine initiative to send grain to countries most afflicted by famine and drought.

The Holodomor was a manufactured famine engineered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the winter of 1932-1933, during which as many as 8 million Ukrainians died.

Zelenskyy used the anniversary to reiterate Ukraine’s commitment to export grain and other foodstuffs to the global market. These are “not just empty words,” he said.

“In general, under the Grain from Ukraine program, by the end of next spring, we plan to send at least 60 vessels from our ports — at least 10 per month — to countries at risk of famine and drought,” he said. “This is Ethiopia, these are Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Congo, Kenya, Nigeria.”

The initiative is in addition to the U.N.-brokered deal that allows shipments of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea. The Kremlin has said those Ukraine exports have not been reaching the most vulnerable countries.

Zelenskyy said Kyiv had raised around $150 million from more than 20 countries and the European Union to export grain to at-risk countries.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Ukraine — despite its own financial straits — has allocated $24 million to purchase corn for countries in need.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Midterms Free of Feared Chaos as Voting Experts Look to 2024

Before Election Day, anxiety mounted over potential chaos at the polls.

Election officials warned about poll watchers who had been steeped in conspiracy theories falsely claiming that then-President Donald Trump did not actually lose the 2020 election. Democrats and voting rights groups worried about the effects of new election laws, in some Republican-controlled states, that President Joe Biden decried as “Jim Crow 2.0.” Law enforcement agencies were monitoring possible threats at the polls.

Yet Election Day, and the weeks of early voting before it, went fairly smoothly. There were some reports of unruly poll watchers disrupting voting, but they were scattered. Groups of armed vigilantes began watching over a handful of ballot drop boxes in Arizona until a judge ordered them to stay far away to ensure they would not intimidate voters. And while it might take months to figure out their full impact, GOP-backed voting laws enacted after the 2020 election did not appear to cause major disruptions the way they did during the March primary in Texas.

“The entire ecosystem in a lot of ways has become more resilient in the aftermath of 2020,” said Amber McReynolds, a former Denver elections director who advises a number of voting rights organizations. “There’s been a lot of effort on ensuring things went well.”

Even though some voting experts’ worst fears didn’t materialize, some voters still experienced the types of routine foul-ups that happen on a small scale in every election. Many of those fell disproportionately on Black and Hispanic voters.

“Things went better than expected,” said Amir Badat of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “But we have to say that with a caveat: Our expectations are low.”

Badat said his organization recorded long lines at various polling places from South Carolina to Texas.

There were particular problems in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. Shortages of paper ballots and at least one polling location opening late led to long lines and triggered an investigation of the predominantly Democratic county by the state’s Republican authorities.

The investigation is partly a reflection of how certain voting snafus on Election Day are increasingly falling on Republican voters, who have been discouraged from using mailed ballots or using early in-person voting by Trump and his allies. But it’s a very different problem from what Texas had during its March primary.

Then, a controversial new voting law that increased the requirements on mail ballots led to about 13% of all such ballots being rejected, much higher compared with other elections. It was an ominous sign for a wave of new laws, passed after Trump’s loss to Biden and false claims about mail voting, but there have been no problems of that scale reported for the general election.

Texas changed the design of its mail ballots, which solved many of the problems voters had putting identifying information in the proper place. Other states that added regulations on voting didn’t appear to have widespread problems, though voting rights groups and analysts say it will take weeks of combing through data to find out the laws’ impacts.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law is compiling data to determine whether new voting laws in states such as Georgia contributed to a drop in turnout among Black and Hispanic voters.

Preliminary figures show turnout was lower this year than in the last midterm election four years ago in Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Texas — four states that passed significant voting restrictions since the 2020 election — although there could be a number of reasons why.

“It’s difficult to judge, empirically, the kind of effect these laws have on turnout because so many factors go into turnout,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Los Angeles law school. “You also have plenty of exaggeration on the Democratic side that any kind of change in voting laws are going to cause some major effect on the election, which has been proven not to be the case.”

In Georgia, for example, Republicans made it more complicated to apply for mailed ballots after the 2020 election — among other things, requiring voters to include their driver’s license number or some other form of identification rather than a signature. That may be one reason why early in-person voting soared in popularity in the state this year, and turnout there dipped only slightly from 2018.

Jason Snead, executive director of the conservative Honest Elections Project, which advocates for tighter voting laws, said the fairly robust turnout in the midterm elections shows that fears of the new voting regulations were overblown.

“We are on the back end of an election that was supposed to be the end of democracy, and it very much was not,” Snead said.

Poll watchers were a significant concern of voting rights groups and election officials heading into Election Day. The representatives of the two major political parties are a key part of any secure election process, credentialed observers who can object to perceived violations of rules.

But this year, groups aligned with conspiracy theorists who challenged Biden’s 2020 victory recruited poll watchers heavily, and some states reported that aggressive volunteers caused disruptions during the primary. But there were fewer issues in November.

In North Carolina, where several counties had reported problems with poll watchers in the May primary, the state elections board reported 21 incidents of misbehavior at the polls in the general election, most during the early, in-person voting period and by members of campaigns rather than poll watchers. The observers were responsible for eight of the incidents.

Voting experts were pleasantly surprised there weren’t more problems with poll watchers, marking the second general election in a row when a feared threat of aggressive Republican observers did not materialize.

“This seems to be an increase over 2020. Is it a small increase? Yes,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. “It’s still a dry run for 2024, and we can’t quite let down our guard.”

One of the main organizers of the poll watcher effort was Cleta Mitchell, a veteran Republican election lawyer who joined Trump on a Jan. 2, 2020, call to Georgia’s top election official when the president asked that the state “find” enough votes to declare him the winner. Mitchell then launched an organization to train volunteers who wanted to keep an eye on election officials, which was seen as the driver of the poll watcher surge.

Mitchell said the relatively quiet election is vindication that groups like hers were simply concerned with election integrity rather than causing disruptions.

“Every training conducted by those of us doing such training included instruction about behavior, and that they must be ‘Peaceful, Lawful, Honest,'” Mitchell wrote in the conservative online publication The Federalist. “Yet, without evidence, the closer we got to Election Day, the more hysterical the headlines became, warning of violence at the polls resulting from too many observers watching the process. It didn’t happen.”

Voting rights groups say they’re relieved their fears didn’t materialize, but they say threats to democracy remain on the horizon for 2024 — especially with Trump announcing that he’s running again. Wendy Weiser, a voting and elections expert at the Brennan Center, agreed that things overall went smoother than expected.

“By and large, sabotage didn’t happen,” Weiser said. “I don’t think that means we’re in the clear.”

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VOA Immigration Weekly Recap, Nov. 20–26

Editor’s note: Here is a look at immigration-related news around the U.S. this week. Questions? Tips? Comments? Email the VOA immigration team: ImmigrationUnit@voanews.com.

In Pennsylvania, Afghan Refugees Celebrate First Thanksgiving

Judith Samkoff needed a bigger dinner table for Thanksgiving this year.

The 65-year-old Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, resident helped resettle an Afghan refugee family of eight, and because this is their first holiday in the United States, Samkoff invited them to her father and sister’s home for Thanksgiving.

One of Samkoff’s guests is Hadia, a 24-year-old Afghan refugee whose family fled Afghanistan in November 2021. VOA’s immigration reporter Aline Barros has more.

New Refugees Celebrate First Thanksgiving in US

Refugees from around the world who resettled in the Washington area got together to celebrate their first Thanksgiving in the United States. VOA’s Shahnaz Nafees has the story.

‘Kite Runner’ Actor a Two-Time Refugee

The Afghan actor Ali Danish Bakhtyari, who played the role of an orphan in the 2007 film The Kite Runner, has fled the Taliban rule in his home country twice: first in the late 1990s, and then in 2021, when the United States withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. Keith Kocinski has the story from New York.

Immigration around the world

Rights Group Accuses Turkey of Mass Afghan Deportations

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch accuses Turkish authorities of carrying out mass deportations of Afghan refugees, including those most at risk. For VOA, Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

EU Ministers Endorse New Migrant Plan After France-Italy Spat

European interior ministers welcomed Friday an EU plan to better coordinate the handling of migrant arrivals, after a furious argument over a refugee rescue boat erupted between Italy and France. Reported by Agence France-Presse.

The Inside Story-Cause of Death: Migrant Workers and the 2022 Qatar World Cup

Thousands of migrant workers died in Qatar building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. VOA’s Heather Murdock takes you to Nepal where families are asking “Why is no one taking responsibility?” on The Inside Story: Cause of Death, Migrant Workers & the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

Chinese Refugees in Italy Wary of Beijing Outposts

Chinese refugees in Italy, some of whom are dissidents, are increasingly wary of the presence of what appear to be four outposts of Beijing’s security apparatus operating without official diplomatic trappings, according to experts. Allen Giovanni Ai reports for VOA News.

News Brief

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced it is extending filing fee exemptions and expediting application processing for certain Afghan nationals.

“These actions will help Afghan nationals resettle, and in many cases reunite with family, in the United States by enabling USCIS to process their requests for work authorization, long-term status, status for immediate relatives, and associated services more quickly.”

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‘Fame’ and ‘Flashdance’ Singer-Actor Irene Cara Dies at 63

Oscar, Golden Globe and two-time Grammy winning singer-actress Irene Cara, who starred and sang the title cut from the 1980 hit movie “Fame” and then belted out the era-defining hit “Flashdance … What a Feeling” from 1983’s “Flashdance,” has died. She was 63.

Her publicist, Judith A. Moose, announced the news on social media, writing that a cause of death was “currently unknown.” Moose also confirmed the death to a reporter for The Associated Press Saturday. Cara died at her home in Florida. The exact day of her death was not disclosed.

“Irene’s family has requested privacy as they process their grief,” Moose wrote. “She was a beautifully gifted soul whose legacy will live forever through her music and films.”

During her career, Cara had three Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including “Breakdance,” “Out Here On My Own,” “Fame” and “Flashdance … What A Feeling,” which spent six weeks at No. 1. She was behind some of the most joyful, high-energy pop anthems of the early ’80s.

Tributes poured in Saturday on social media, including from Deborah Cox, who called Cara an inspiration, and Holly Robinson Peete, who recalled seeing Cara perform: “The insane combination of talent and beauty was overwhelming to me. This hurts my heart so much.”

Movie fame started with the movie ‘Fame’

Cara first came to prominence among the young actors playing performing arts high schoolers in Alan Parker’s “Fame,” with co-stars Debbie Allen, Paul McCrane and Anne Mear. Cara played Coco Hernandez, a striving dancer who endures all manner of deprivations, including a creepy nude photo shoot.

“How bright our spirits go shooting out into space, depends on how much we contributed to the earthly brilliance of this world. And I mean to be a major contributor!” she says in the movie.

Cara sang on the soaring title song with the chorus — “Remember my name/I’m gonna live forever/I’m gonna learn how to fly/I feel it coming together/People will see me and cry” — which would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for best original song. She also sang on “Out Here on My Own,” “Hot Lunch Jam” and “I Sing the Body Electric.”

Three years later, she and the songwriting team of “Flashdance” — music by Giorgio Moroder, lyrics by Keith Forsey and Cara — accepted the Oscar for best original song for “Flashdance … What a Feeling.”

The movie starred Jennifer Beals as a steel-town girl who dances in a bar at night and hopes to attend a prestigious dance conservatory. It included the hit song “Maniac,” featuring Beals’ character leaping, spinning, stomping her feet and the slow-burning theme song.

“There aren’t enough words to express my love and my gratitude,” Cara told the Oscar crowd in her thanks. “And last but not least, a very special gentlemen who I guess started it all for me many years ago. To Alan Parker, wherever you may be tonight, I thank him.”

Career started on Broadway

The New York-born Cara began her career on Broadway, with small parts in short-lived shows, although a musical called “The Me Nobody Knows” ran over 300 performances. She toured in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” as Mary Magdalene in the mid-1990s and a tour of the musical “Flashdance” toured 2012-14 with her songs.

She also created the all-female band Irene Cara Presents Hot Caramel and put out a double CD with the single “How Can I Make You Luv Me.” Her movie credits include “Sparkle” and “D.C. Cab.”

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US Black Friday Online Sales Hit $9 Billion Despite Inflation

U.S. shoppers spent a record $9.12 billion online on Black Friday, a report showed Saturday, as consumers weathered the squeeze from high inflation and grabbed steep discounts on everything from smartphones to toys.

Online spending rose 2.3% on Black Friday, Adobe Inc’s data and insights arm Adobe Analytics said, thanks to consumers holding out for discounts until the traditionally big shopping days, despite deals starting as early as October.

Adobe Analytics, which measures e-commerce by analyzing transactions at websites, has access to data covering purchases at 85% of the top 100 internet retailers in the United States.

It had forecast Black Friday sales to rise a modest 1%.

Adobe expects Cyber Monday to be the season’s biggest online shopping day again, driving $11.2 billion in spending.

Consumers were expected to flock to stores after the pandemic put a dampener on in-store shopping over the past two years, but Black Friday morning saw stores draw less traffic than usual with sporadic rain in some parts of the country.

Americans turned to smartphones to make their holiday purchases, with data from Adobe showing mobile shopping represented 48% of all Black Friday digital sales.

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Biden, Family Attend Christmas Tree Lighting on Nantucket

The Biden family’s tradition of eating lunch, shopping and watching a Christmas tree lighting in downtown Nantucket Friday became mostly about keeping the president’s 2-year-old grandson from having a meltdown.

There was President Joe Biden’s daughter, Ashley, dancing and clapping with nephew Beau to “Jingle Bell Rock” to keep him entertained as they waited with the crowd that had gathered for the 48th annual tree lighting ceremony on Main Street.

There was Beau perched on the shoulders of his dad, Hunter Biden.

There was Beau being carried by his father, then not being carried by his father, then appearing to say things that suggested he wanted to get out of the cold and intermittent heavy rain.

Beau’s grandfather walked with him at various points.

Every member of the family seemed to be doing whatever they could to keep blond-haired Beau, who is named after his late uncle, happy for a few hours until the tree was lit.

The Bidens have a more than 40-year tradition of spending Thanksgiving on Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusetts.

The day after, they go out to lunch — this year, they dined at the Brotherhood of Thieves restaurant. Afterward, they hit Nantucket Bookworks, a nearby bookstore. The president emerged carrying his purchases in a reusable tote bag. 

They meandered along downtown Nantucket’s cobblestone streets, going into some stores and window shopping at others. The first lady and Ashley had gotten some of their shopping done earlier Friday, so the spree after lunch was mostly for the president.

Biden spent time inside a leather goods store and a pet store, among other businesses. At one point, he looked through the window of a lingerie store but did not go inside.

“We’re thankful for you,” someone yelled to the president.

The tree lighting ceremony went off with a bit of a hitch. The red, green and blue lights on the tree failed to come on following a countdown from 10.

The high school’s acapella chorus came out to sing until the problem was solved and the tree was illuminated, ushering in the Christmas season in Nantucket.

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World Economic Outlook for 2023 Increasingly Gloomy

The outlook for the global economy headed into 2023 has soured, according to a number of recent analyses, as the ongoing war in Ukraine continues to strain trade, particularly in Europe, and as markets await a fuller reopening of the Chinese economy following months of disruptive COVID-19 lockdowns.

In the United States, signs of a tightening job market and a slowdown in business activity fueled fears of a recession. Globally, inflation grew and business activity, especially in the eurozone and the United Kingdom, continued to shrink.

In an analysis released Thursday, the Institute of International Finance predicted a global economic growth rate of just 1.2% in 2023, a level on par with 2009, when the world was only beginning its emergence from the financial crisis.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) agrees with the pessimistic forecast. In a report issued this week, the organization’s interim Chief Economist Alvaro Santos Pereira wrote, “We are currently facing a very difficult economic outlook. Our central scenario is not a global recession, but a significant growth slowdown for the world economy in 2023, as well as still high, albeit declining, inflation in many countries.”

U.S. interest rates

In the U.S., inflation and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to combat it have been the dominant factors in most analyses of the current and future states of the economy.

The U.S has been experiencing its highest levels of inflation in 40 years, with prices beginning to jump significantly in mid-2021. By the beginning of 2022, annualized rates were over 6%, and while fluctuating a bit, touched a high of 6.6% in October.

Beginning in March, the central bank’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which sets base interest rates, has engaged in a dramatic series of increases, raising the benchmark rate from between 0.0% and 0.25% to between 3.75% and 4.0% today.

The idea behind the Fed’s moves is to change consumers’ incentives. By making the interest rates on savings more appealing, and the rates on borrowing less so, the central bank is working to reduce demand and thereby slow the rate of price increases.

In general, the Fed believes that an annual 2% rate of inflation is healthy and considers that its long-term target.

Avoiding a recession

The Fed’s goal is to get inflation under control without plunging the economy into a damaging recession. And while a number of economic signs indicate that efforts to slow demand might be working, the threat of a recession still looms.

Evidence released this week showed that business activity in the U.S. contracted for a fifth consecutive month as companies reacted to decreased consumer demand. Although the economy has continued to add jobs in recent months, applications for unemployment benefits are on the rise, suggesting a potential softening in the labor market.

The Federal Reserve this week released the minutes from the early November meeting of the FOMC. The minutes revealed a pessimistic view among the central bank’s staff economists about the U.S. economy in the coming year.

Among their findings was that they “viewed the possibility that the economy would enter a recession sometime over the next year as almost as likely as the baseline.”

A “substantial majority” of the voting members of the committee indicated that they believe it is time to slow the rate of interest rate increases, suggesting that the FOMC will retreat from its recent 0.75% increases when it meets in December, perhaps raising rates by just 0.5%.

Global struggle

Internationally, governments are facing a difficult challenge: supporting their citizens during a time when prices are rising dramatically, particularly for necessities like food and fuel, which have been deeply affected by the war in Ukraine.

In a report this week, the International Monetary Fund pointed to the difficult balancing act governments must manage, saying, “With many people still struggling, governments should continue to prioritize helping the most vulnerable to cope with soaring food and energy bills and cover other costs — but governments should also avoid adding to aggregate demand that risks dialing up inflation. In many advanced and emerging economies, fiscal restraint can lower inflation while reducing debt.”

According to the Institute of International Finance (IIF), while global growth will be low but net positive in 2023, specific areas will face declines. Chief among them is Europe, where the IIF forecasts a 2.0% decline in cumulative GDP.

Bright spots

To the extent that there are bright spots in the global economy in 2023, they are in areas such as Latin America and China.

Many countries of Latin America, where the export of raw materials, including timber, ore, and other major economic inputs drives many economies, global inflation has proved beneficial insofar as the prices for those goods have risen. The IIF report projects a 1.2% expansion in GDP across the region, even as much of the remainder of the world sees economic contraction.

China has suffered economically as a result of President Xi Jinping’s “zero-COVID” strategy, which has forced massive lockdowns of whole cities and regions, with serious disruption to economic activity. The IFF and other organizations expect significant loosening in China’s policy in the coming year, which will lead to economic growth of as much as 2.0% as the Chinese economy attempts to revive itself.

U.K. to suffer

With the exception of Russia, which is still laboring under crushing sanctions related to its invasion of Ukraine, the United Kingdom faces the gloomiest outlook for the coming year of any of the world’s largest economies.

With inflation running significantly ahead of other countries, annualized price increases are expected to touch 10% by the end of the year, before slowly moderating in 2023.

Among the G-7 countries, the U.K. is the only one in which economic output has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and it is forecast to shrink further. The OECD projects that the British economy will decline in size by 0.3% in 2023 and will grow at only 0.2% in 2024.

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Program Aims to Boost Ranks of Black Teachers

After a student in his classroom had yet another outburst, Tyler Wright couldn’t bear to see him get written up again. Wright, then a student teacher at a Charleston elementary school, led the child out to the hallway for a chat.

Within minutes, the student started crying.

“He was telling me that he really doesn’t get to see his dad and stuff like that,” Wright said. “That his dad was supposed to come see him but never did. At the end of the day, that was the root cause for the outbursts, because the child was angry.”

Wright told him that he grew up in a similar situation, but he still paid attention the best he could, despite what was going on at home. The conversation was all it took, Wright said, for the student to open up and improve his behavior.

Wright became a full-time teacher at Stono Park Elementary in January, thanks to a program in Charleston aimed at making the teaching profession more accessible to Black men, who are vastly underrepresented in classrooms in South Carolina and around the United States.

Just 7% of America’s public school teachers were Black during the 2017-18 school year although Black students make up 15% of the student population, according to the most recent available data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Their absence in classrooms is deeply felt, especially in states like South Carolina, where almost a fifth of students are Black and Black males account for less than 3% of teachers.

Having teachers who reflect the identity of their students can foster connections between teachers and students — and help avoid the kind of misinterpretation of behavior that can contribute to disparities in discipline for Black students, experts say. Research shows that Black teachers can lead to improved academic performance and higher graduation rates for Black students.

At a time of teacher shortages in South Carolina and around the country, the presence of Black teachers also can make it more likely for Black students to pursue careers in education themselves.

“The issue starts fairly young,” said Eric Duncan, a member of the policy team at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “They get negative impressions of school because they are traditionally overdisciplined or misidentified in terms of behavior challenges, when they may have some other issues or challenges that should be addressed in a more culturally proficient way.”

There are other barriers to the teaching for Black men. Many come from low-income families and face pressure to find higher-paying jobs, and there are license requirements that were deliberately created to prevent people of color from becoming teachers, Duncan said.

The program in Charleston, Men of CHS Teach, is a partnership between the University of South Carolina and the Charleston County School District. It places new teachers in elementary classrooms even if they haven’t participated in a student teacher program and creates an alternative pathway for them to get teaching licenses.

CCSD decided to focus on recruiting elementary teachers because it’s typically difficult to fill those positions with men, and research shows that if Black students have a teacher of color in elementary school, they’re less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to consider college. For Black boys of low-income backgrounds, those effects are even greater.

Program organizers hope to hire 20 male teachers of color within the next five years. Close to half of the district’s student population is non-white.

Wright was one of the program’s first inductees. He decided he wanted to teach after working as a student concerns specialist at one of the district’s high schools. A few years later, Wright is leading a classroom of his own.

The South Carolina districts that have seen the greatest increase in Black male teachers in recent years are Charleston, York 3, Richland 1 and Aiken, with a net total of almost 80 new hires from 2017 to 2021. However, they still have a small share of Black male teachers overall.

Statewide, the racial demographics of teachers barely changed between 2016 and 2021, according to an analysis of state teacher workforce data.

The program in Charleston was partially inspired by Call Me MiSTER, a Clemson University program that aims to recruit, train and certify men of color to become elementary school teachers in South Carolina.

Mark Joseph, the program’s director, said they’ve seen a decrease in applicants in recent years and have had to put more effort into recruitment. It’s a new era of teaching after the pandemic, Joseph said, and the program has had to adapt.

“We took a different approach in terms of talking about leadership, talking about college, talking about what it’s like being a part of a program that provides support, encouragement, brotherhood and teamwork,” he said.

One realization, he said, has been that teachers are ambassadors for the teaching profession.

After all, the teachers they’re looking to recruit aren’t coming out of thin air — they’re sitting in classrooms across South Carolina.

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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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UN Weekly Roundup: November 19-25, 2022 

Editor’s note: Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this past week, as seen from the United Nations perch. 

Russia’s war in Ukraine passes 9-month milestone

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday that Russia would not break his country, as nine months have passed since President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion. This week has been particularly bad, as Russia launched scores of missile attacks aimed at taking out the country’s power grid with winter temperatures dropping below freezing. On Wednesday, the Ukrainian president requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which he addressed by video. He urged the council to take “concrete steps to protect humanity and life” by adopting a resolution condemning any forms of “energy terror.”

He also repeated his call for U.N. experts to examine and assess critical infrastructure facilities in his country that have been or may be hit by Russian missiles. “Russia is doing everything to make the electric generator a more powerful and necessary tool than the U.N. Charter,” he said.

Human Rights Council orders investigation into crackdown on Iranian protesters

In a special session on Thursday, the Geneva-based Human Rights Council condemned Iran’s repression of peaceful demonstrators following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in mid-September and voted to create an international fact-finding mission to investigate the deadly crackdown. The 47-country council voted 25 in favor and 6 against — Armenia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Pakistan and Venezuela — with 16 abstentions. The U.N. rights office says more than 300 protesters, including at least 40 children, have been killed by security forces since the protests began two months ago. At least 14,000 protesters have been arrested and at least 21 of them face the death penalty.

Security Council urges Yemen’s Houthis to extend truce

Security Council members on Tuesday urged Yemen’s Houthi rebels to renew a truce that expired in October and to engage in substantive talks to end the more than eight-year-old conflict. A two-month-long truce was originally agreed to on April 2 for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It led to a drop in civilian casualties and some relief in importing fuel and resuming commercial flights. The parties renewed it twice, but it expired on October 2 and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have not agreed to extend it.

In brief 

— The International Organization for Migration said Wednesday that more than 50,000 people worldwide have lost their lives during migratory journeys since IOM’s Missing Migrants Project began documenting deaths in 2014. IOM noted the lack of action by governments in countries of origin, transit and destination to address the issue of missing migrants. More than 60% of missing migrants remain unidentified, according to the report. Of those whose nationality could be identified, more than 9,000 were from Africa, over 6,500 were from Asia and another 3,000 were from the Americas. More than half of the deaths occurred on routes to and inside Europe, with Mediterranean routes claiming over 25,000 lives.

— Several U.N. human rights experts said Friday that the Afghan Taliban’s treatment of women and girls may amount to gender persecution, a crime against humanity. Despite pledges to the contrary, the Taliban has increasingly tightened restrictions on females since taking power in August 2021. The de facto authorities have reimposed dress codes, prohibited most women from working outside the home, cut them off from secondary education and, most recently, forbidden them from going to parks and gyms. The U.N. experts, which include several special rapporteurs, said confining women to their homes is ‘tantamount to imprisonment” and is likely leading to more domestic violence and mental health challenges.

— U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Monday that Washington would seek international condemnation of North Korea’s November 18 intercontinental ballistic missile test. The test was Pyongyang’s eighth ICBM launch this year and part of a record 63 ballistic missile launches in 2022. At the U.N. Security Council, Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. would propose a presidential statement – one step below a council resolution. But such a statement requires all 15 members to agree, and Russia and China signaled they would block such a measure. To date, no statement has been adopted.

— The U.N. said Wednesday that the U.N. coordinator for the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Amir Abdulla, is stepping down from his position for personal reasons. The secretary-general expressed his gratitude for Abdulla’s work. His deputy, Ben Parker, will act as officer in charge for the U.N. at the joint coordination center in Istanbul until the position is filled. Since the initiative was signed in late July, nearly 12 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain and other foodstuffs have been exported from three Ukrainian ports.

— U.N. Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer said on November 19 that she was encouraged by the announcement of the mass release of detainees in Myanmar. She repeated calls for the immediate release of all children and political prisoners, including President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The country’s military junta said it would release nearly 5,800 prisoners to mark national day on November 17.

Quote of Note

“The old methods and the fortress mentality of those who wield power simply don’t work. In fact, they only aggravate the situation. We are now in a full-fledged human rights crisis.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk at Thursday’s special session on the Iranian government’s crackdown on protesters.

What we are watching next week

Friday marks the International Day for the Elimination for Violence against Women and the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Secretary-General Guterres is calling on governments to increase funding to women’s rights groups and organizations.

 

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Musk Plans to Relaunch Twitter Premium Service, Again

Elon Musk said Friday that Twitter plans to relaunch its premium service that will offer different colored check marks to accounts next week, in a fresh move to revamp the service after a previous attempt backfired.

It’s the latest change to the social media platform that the billionaire Tesla CEO bought last month for $44 billion, coming a day after Musk said he would grant “amnesty” for suspended accounts and causing yet more uncertainty for users.

Twitter previously suspended the premium service, which under Musk granted blue-check labels to anyone paying $8 a month, because of a wave of imposter accounts. Originally, the blue check was given to government entities, corporations, celebrities and journalists verified by the platform to prevent impersonation.

In the latest version, companies will get a gold check, governments will get a gray check, and individuals who pay for the service, whether or not they’re celebrities, will get a blue check, Musk said Friday.

“All verified accounts will be manually authenticated before check activates,” he said, adding it was “painful, but necessary” and promising a “longer explanation” next week. He said the service was “tentatively launching” Dec. 2.

Twitter had put the revamped premium service on hold days after its launch earlier this month after accounts impersonated companies including pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., Nintendo, Lockheed Martin, and even Musk’s own businesses Tesla and SpaceX, along with various professional sports and political figures.

It was just one change in the past two days. On Thursday, Musk said he would grant “amnesty” for suspended accounts, following the results of an online poll he conducted on whether accounts that have not “broken the law or engaged in egregious spam” should be reinstated.

The yes vote was 72%. Such online polls are anything but scientific and can easily be influenced by bots. Musk also used one before restoring former U.S. President Donald Trump’s account.

“The people have spoken. Amnesty begins next week. Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Musk tweeted Thursday using a Latin phrase meaning “the voice of the people, the voice of God.”

The move is likely to put the company on a crash course with European regulators seeking to clamp down on harmful online content with tough new rules, which helped cement Europe’s reputation as the global leader in efforts to rein in the power of social media companies and other digital platforms.

Zach Meyers, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank, said giving blanket amnesty based on an online poll is an “arbitrary approach” that’s “hard to reconcile with the Digital Services Act,” a new EU law that will start applying to the biggest online platforms by mid-2023.

The law is aimed at protecting internet users from illegal content and reducing the spread of harmful but legal content. It requires big social media platforms to be “diligent and objective” in enforcing restrictions, which must be spelled out clearly in the fine print for users when signing up, Meyers said.

Britain also is working on its own online safety law.

“Unless Musk quickly moves from a ‘move fast and break things’ approach to a more sober management style, he will be on a collision course with Brussels and London regulators,” Meyers said.

European Union officials took to social media to highlight their worries. The 27-nation bloc’s executive Commission published a report Thursday that found Twitter took longer to review hateful content and removed less of it this year compared with 2021.

The report was based on data collected over the spring — before Musk acquired Twitter — as part of an annual evaluation of online platforms’ compliance with the bloc’s voluntary code of conduct on disinformation. It found that Twitter assessed just over half of the notifications it received about illegal hate speech within 24 hours, down from 82% in 2021.

The numbers may yet worsen. Since taking over, Musk has l aid off half the company’s 7,500-person workforce along with an untold number of contractors responsible for content moderation. Many others have resigned, including the company’s head of trust and safety.

Recent layoffs at Twitter and results of the EU’s review “are a source of concern,” the bloc’s commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders tweeted Thursday evening after meeting with Twitter executives at the company’s European headquarters in Dublin.

In the meeting, Reynders said he “underlined that we expect Twitter to deliver on their voluntary commitments and comply with EU rules,” including the Digital Services Act and the bloc’s strict privacy regulations known as General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR.

Another EU commissioner, Vera Jourova, tweeted Thursday evening that she was concerned about news reports that a “vast amount” of Twitter’s European staff were fired.

“If you want to effectively detect and take action against #disinformation & propaganda, this requires resources,” Jourova said. “Especially in the context of Russian disinformation warfare.”

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After a Year, Omicron Still Driving US COVID Surges and Worries

A year after omicron began its assault on humanity, the ever-morphing coronavirus mutant drove COVID-19 case counts higher in many places just as Americans gathered for Thanksgiving. It was a prelude to a wave that experts expect to soon wash over the U.S.

Phoenix-area emergency physician Dr. Nicholas Vasquez said his hospital admitted a growing number of chronically ill people and nursing home residents with severe COVID-19 this month.

“It’s been quite a while since we needed to have COVID wards,” he said. “It’s making a clear comeback.”

Nationally, new COVID cases averaged around 39,300 a day as of Tuesday — far lower than last winter but a vast undercount because of reduced testing and reporting. About 28,000 people with COVID were hospitalized daily and about 340 died.

Cases and deaths were up from two weeks earlier. Yet a fifth of the U.S. population hasn’t been vaccinated, most Americans haven’t gotten the latest boosters and many have stopped wearing masks.

Meanwhile, the virus keeps finding ways to avoid defeat.

The omicron variant arrived in the U.S. just after Thanksgiving last year and caused the pandemic’s biggest wave of cases. Since then, it has spawned a large extended family of sub-variants, such as those most common in the U.S. now: BQ.1, BQ.1.1 and BA.5. They edged out competitors by getting better at evading immunity from vaccines and previous illness — and sickening millions.

Carey Johnson’s family got hit twice. She came down with COVID-19 in January during the first omicron wave, suffering flu-like symptoms and terrible pain that kept her down for a week. Her son Fabian Swain, 16, suffered much milder symptoms in September when the BA.5 variant was dominant.

Fabian recovered quickly, but Johnson had a headache for weeks. Other problems lingered longer.

“I was like, ‘I cannot get it together.’ I could not get my thoughts together. I couldn’t get my energy together” said Johnson, 42, of Germantown, Maryland. “And it went on for months like that.”

Hot spots emerge

Some communities are being particularly hard hit right now. Tracking by the Mayo Clinic shows cases trending up in states such as Florida, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

In Arizona’s Navajo County, the average daily case rate is more than double the state average. Dr. James McAuley said 25 to 50 people a day are testing positive for the coronavirus at the Indian Health Service facility where he works. Before, they saw just a few cases daily.

McAuley, clinical director of the Whiteriver Indian Hospital, which serves the White Mountain Apache Tribe, said they are “essentially back to where we were with our last big peak” in February.

COVID-19 is part of a triple threat that also includes flu and the virus known as RSV.

Dr. Vincent Hsu, who oversees infection control for AdventHealth, said the system’s pediatric hospital in Orlando is nearly full with kids sickened by these viruses. Dr. Greg Martin, past president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, sees a similar trend elsewhere.

Pediatric hospitals’ emergency departments and urgent care clinics are busier than ever, said Martin, who practices mostly at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. “This is a record compared to any month, any week, any day in the past,” he said.

Looking to the future, experts see the seeds of a widespread U.S. wave. They point to what’s happening internationally — a BA.5 surge in Japan, a combination of variants pushing up cases in South Korea, the start of a new wave in Norway.

Some experts said a U.S. wave could begin during the holidays as people gather indoors. Trevor Bedford, a biologist and genetics expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said it could peak at around 150,000 new cases a day, about what the nation saw in July.

A new wave would be rough, said Dr. Mark Griffiths, medical director of the emergency department of Children’s Health Care of Atlanta-Spalding Hospital. “So many systems are on the brink of just being totally overburdened that if we get another COVID surge on top of this, it’s going to make some systems crack.”

One bright spot? Deaths are likely to be much lower than earlier in the pandemic. About 1 in 2,000 infections lead to death now, compared with about 1 in 200 in the first half of 2020, Bedford said.

Omicron’s yearlong reign

The same widespread immunity that reduced deaths also pushed the coronavirus to mutate. By the end of last year, many people had gotten infected, vaccinated or both. That “created the initial niche for omicron to spread,” Bedford said, since the virus had significantly evolved in its ability to escape existing immunity.

Omicron thrived. Mara Aspinall, who teaches biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University, noted that the first omicron strain represented 7.5% of circulating variants by mid-December and 80% just two weeks later. U.S. cases at one point soared to a million a day. Omicron generally caused less severe disease than previous variants, but hospitalizations and deaths shot up given the sheer numbers of infected people.

The giant wave ebbed by mid-April. The virus mutated quickly into a series of sub-variants adept at evading immunity. A recent study in the journal Science Immunology says this ability to escape antibodies is due to more than 30 changes in the spike protein studding the surface of the virus.

Omicron evolved so much in a year, Bedford said, it’s now “a meaningless term.”

That rapid mutation is likely to continue.

“There’s much more pressure for the virus to diversify,” said Shishi Luo, head of infectious diseases for Helix, a company that supplies viral sequencing information to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Doctors said the best protection against the bubbling stew of sub-variants remains vaccination. And officials said Americans who got the new combination booster targeting omicron and the original coronavirus are currently better protected than others against symptomatic infection.

Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said getting the booster, if you’re eligible, is “the most impactful thing you could do.”

Doctors also urge people to continue testing, keep up preventive measures such as masking in crowds, and stay home when sick.

“COVID is still a very significant threat, especially to the most vulnerable,” said Dr. Laolu Fayanju of Oak Street Health in Cleveland, which specializes in caring for older adults. “People have to continue to think about one another. We’re not completely out of the woods on this yet.

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Thwarting a Red Wave, Gen Z Emerges as Powerful Voting Force

Driven by concerns about climate change, public education and, to a lesser extent, access to abortion, 21-year-old Ava Alferez made sure to vote in the 2022 midterm elections.

“I don’t think it’s right to complain about something if you don’t get out there and vote,” says the Virginia college student, who describes herself as a liberal democrat. “I also think that every vote matters.”

Alferez is among millions of America’s youngest voters who voted in near-record numbers during the 2022 midterms, breaking heavily for Democrats, and thwarting an anticipated ‘red wave’ that many expected would hand Republicans a significant majority in Congress. The strong showing signals that Gen Z is a rising political force.

“I think Republicans don’t account for Gen Z and they don’t realize the impact that we will have, especially within the next five years,” says Eric Miller, a 20-year-old Virginia college student who identifies as a Republican and says he voted for Donald Trump in 2020. “I think the 2022 midterms are a little bit of a wake-up call for Republicans to be more in touch with young people.”

Midterm elections occur halfway through a president’s four-year term. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives — where members serve two-year terms — and 35 of 100 Senate seats were up for grabs in 2022.

Historically, the president’s political party almost always loses seats in Congress with the opposing party traditionally making significant gains. Republicans did pick up a majority in the House this election cycle, but only by a handful of seats, while Democrats narrowly held on to the Senate.

“I think the data is going to bear out that young voters were quite consequential in many of these swing states and some of these elections,” says John Wihbey, an associate professor of media innovation and technology at Northeastern University.

The early numbers from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) suggest that 27% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 cast ballots Nov. 8, the second-highest youth midterms turnout in 30 years. (The highest was in 2018.)

“It is reproductive rights, climate change, immigration, racial justice, gender justice,” says Wihbey, listing the issues that drove young people to the polls.

Young evangelicals are not that different from their more liberal peers, according to a recent survey.

“They are diversity and equity conscious, more so than older generations and, therefore, they’re going to take those things seriously and listen to people who talk about those things, like AOC [New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] or [Vermont Sen.] Bernie Sanders,” says Kevin Singer, co-director of Neighborly Faith, a partner in the study. “They’re very, I guess you could say, cosmopolitan when it comes to their political perspectives.”

Wihbey says Gen Z doesn’t get its news from traditional sources like newspapers but rather gets secondhand or filtered news from social media, which has resulted in young voters forming opinions about politics at a much greater rate than previous generations.

“I wouldn’t say that’s surprising at all because everyone’s just on their phones all the time on social media,” says Alferez, who says she has voted in every election since reaching voting age. “It would make sense that they get all their information on TikTok or maybe if they see a political post, they’ll still look in the comments and everyone’s very opinionated and comments, and they’ll probably form opinions based on that.”

CIRCLE’s early analysis shows that young voter turnout may have delivered key wins for Democrats in some battleground states, but that doesn’t mean either political party can take the youth vote for granted.

“It’s possible that younger voters will be less tethered to a particular party and may vote on an issue basis more frequently,” Wihbey says. “I think part of what the digital world does is it creates fewer strong ties to particular parties or causes and emphasizes the new or the rising social issue.”

That appears to be true of young voters across the political spectrum, according to the results of the survey of young evangelicals.

“They’re less beholden to the Republican Party, I think, than older generations are, and we also see that they listen to Fox News and, say, CNN at about the same rate,” Singer says. “They listen to Joe Biden and listen to Elon Musk, and that’s not a huge surprise given that Generation Z is a lot more comfortable with drawing inspiration from a variety of sources than they are being held to the norms of certain institutions.”

Miller, the young Republican voter, says his generation is less interested in partisan bickering and more interested in finding common ground.

“We do a little more research. We don’t just watch, maybe, Fox News, and we listen to the other side, what they’re trying to say,” Miller says. “I think the center is where everything is key. Obviously, I don’t think the extremes will ever get along in any kind of time frame. But I think we can reach out to moderate Democrats, even liberals — but just not progressive liberals maybe — but I definitely see a way forward.”

The results of the survey of young evangelicals appears to confirm increased openness on the part of Gen Z conservatives.

“Young evangelicals are frankly just more peaceable with others than older generations are. Our study found that, for example, they’re more likely to be engaged with people of different faiths than their faith leaders encourage them to be,” Singer says. “There’s definitely more of an enthusiasm about diversity and pluralism and I think, for that reason, they’re more likely to entertain the perspectives of those with whom their parents would disagree.”

Signs of youth voter enthusiasm were evident ahead of Election Day. CIRCLE found that youth voter registration was up compared to 2018, especially in places where abortion-related issues were on the ballot, or where voters recently voted on abortion-related measures.

“My worry is that, as we see a lot of policy whiplash, whether it’s on reproductive rights or on other things, that they become cynical or disengage,” Wihbey says. “I think one of the most important things here is that they see the political system that we have in our democracy as an important lever of social change, and not as something that just is a kind of dead end.”

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Inflation Clouds ‘Black Friday’ Shopping Bonanza

Retailers braced for their biggest test of the year: Will U.S. consumers open their wallets wide for the Black Friday sales that kick off the holiday shopping season?

Consumer confidence is precarious, rattled by soaring inflation in the world’s biggest economy, casting uncertainty on this festive shopping season that starts the day after Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday.

A year ago, retailers faced product shortfalls in the wake of shipping backlogs and COVID-19-related factory closures. To avert a repeat, the industry front-loaded its holiday imports this year, leaving it vulnerable to oversupply at a time when consumers are cutting back.

“Supply shortages was yesterday’s problem,” said Neil Saunders, managing director for GlobalData Retail, a consultancy. “Today’s problem is having too much stuff.”

Saunders said retailers have made progress in recent months in reducing excess inventories, but that oversupply created banner conditions for bargain-hunters in many categories, including electronics, home improvement and apparel.

Juameelah Henderson always checks for sales, “but more so now,” she said while exiting an Old Navy store in New York with four bags of items.

The clothing chain’s prices were “pretty good,” she said. “If it’s not on sale, I really don’t need it.”

Higher costs for gasoline and household staples like meat and cereal are an economy-wide issue but do not burden everyone equally.

“The lower incomes are definitely hit worst by the higher inflation,” said Claire Li, a senior analyst at Moody’s. “People have to spend on the essential items.”

Leading forecasts from Deloitte and the National Retail Federation project a single-digit percentage increase, but it likely won’t exceed the inflation rate.

The consumer price index has been up about 8% on an annual basis, which means that a similar size increase in holiday sales would equate with lower volumes.

European countries including Britain and France have been marking Black Friday for a few years now, too, and are also enduring sky-high inflation. So merchants there face a similar dilemma.

“Retailers are desperate for some spending cheer, but the worry is that it could turn out to be more of a Bleak Friday,” said Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said in London.

Diminishing savings

U.S. shoppers have remained resilient throughout the myriad stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, often spending more than expected, even when consumer sentiment surveys suggest they are in a gloomy mood.

Part of the reason has been the unusually robust state of savings, with many households banking government pandemic aid payments at a time of reduced consumption due to COVID-19 restrictions.

But that cushion is starting to whittle away. After hitting $2.5 trillion in excess savings in mid-2021, the benchmark fell to $1.7 trillion in the second quarter, according to Moody’s.

Consumers with incomes below $35,000 were affected the most, with their excess savings falling nearly 39% between the fourth quarter of 2021 and mid-2022, according to Moody’s.

Accompanying this drop has been a rise in credit card debt visible in Federal Reserve data and anecdotally described by chains that also report more purchases made with food stamps.

“We’re seeing continued pressure,” said Michael Witynski, chief executive of Dollar Tree, a discount retailer that has seen “shifts” in shoppers, “where they’re very consumable and needs-based focused to try and make that budget work and stretch it over the month.”

Mixed picture

Earnings reports from retailers in recent days have painted a mixed picture on consumer health.

Target stood on the downcast side of the ledger, pointing to a sharp decline in shopping activity in late October, potentially portending a weak holiday season.

The big-box chain expects a “very promotional” holiday season, said Chief Executive Brian Cornell.

“We’ve had a consumer who has been dealing with very stubborn inflation for quarter after quarter now,” Cornell said on a conference call with analysts.

“They’re shopping very carefully on a budget, and I think they’re looking at discretionary categories and saying, ‘All right, if I’m going to buy, I’m looking for a great deal and a great value.'”

But Lowe’s, another big U.S. chain specializing in home-improvement, offered a very different view, describing the same late-October period as “strong” and seeing no evidence of consumer deterioration.

“We are not seeing anything that feels or looks like a trade down or consumer pullback,” said Lowe’s Chief Executive Marvin Ellison.

Consumers like Charmaine Taylor, who checks airline websites frequently, are staying vigilant.

Taylor thus far has been thwarted in her travel aspirations due to high plane ticket prices. Taylor, who works in child care, isn’t sure how much she’ll be able to spend on family this year.

“I’m trying to give them some little gifts,” Taylor said at a park in Harlem earlier this week. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to. Inflation is hitting pretty hard.”

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US Slams Taliban for Publicly Flogging Afghan Men, Women

The U.S. special envoy for women, girls and human rights in Afghanistan has sharply criticized the ruling Islamist Taliban for organizing public floggings of people, including women, accused of “moral crimes” such as theft and adultery. 

 

“This is both appalling and a dangerous sign that the Taliban are becoming more defiant in showing the world that they are embracing the policies of the past,” Rina Amiri said on Twitter. 

 

Her reaction came a day after the Taliban Supreme Court said that 11 men and three women had been flogged “for different sins, including adultery, robbery and other forms of corruption,” in a football stadium in the country’s east. 

 

The announcement noted that the punishment was administered Wednesday morning “in the presence of respected scholars, security forces, tribal elders and local residents.” 

 

It was the latest sign of the Taliban’s application of their strict interpretation of Islamic law, known as Shariah, to criminal justice, and restoring policies of their rule from 1996 to 2001, when flogging took place in much of Afghanistan. 

 

“It didn’t end up well before, and it will once again take the country on a perilous path,” Amiri warned. 

 

Earlier this month, reclusive Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada ordered senior judges to apply Shariah punishments in cases already concluded. Taliban authorities have since implemented public floggings in at least two provinces for crimes such as adultery, false accusations of adultery, theft, banditry, alcohol consumption, apostasy and sedition. 

 

The Supreme Court said about two weeks ago that 19 people, including nine women, had been lashed in northeastern Takhar province for adultery, theft and running away from home. Each was lashed 39 times, it said. 

 

The Shariah legal system is derived from Islam’s holy book, the Quran, and the deeds as well as sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. 

 

Amnesty International urged the Taliban to immediately and unconditionally end the “criminal practice” of public flogging and all other forms of corporal punishment. The rights watchdog stressed the need for putting in place a formal justice mechanism with fair trials and access to legal remedies. 

 

“The Taliban continue to ignore widespread criticism as they flagrantly flout basic human rights principles in an alarming slide into what looks like a grim reminder of their rule” of decades ago, Amnesty said.  

 

“These outrageous punishments are just another step in the legalization of inhuman practices by the Taliban’s cruel justice system and expose the de-facto authorities’ complete disregard for international human rights law.” 

 

The Taliban returned to power in August 2021 after almost 20 years of insurgency against U.S.-led NATO troops and their Afghan partners. The international troops withdrew from Afghanistan just days after the Taliban seized power. 

 

No country has yet to formally recognize the Taliban rule because of human rights and terrorism-related concerns. The international community has been pressing the Islamist rulers to reverse restrictions on Afghan women if they want legitimacy for their men-only government. 

 

Since they seized power in August 2021, the Taliban have ordered women to cover their faces in public and not undertake long road trips without a close male relative. They have also ordered many female government staff members to stay at home. Women are banned from visiting gyms, parks and public baths. 

 

While public and private universities are open to women across Afghanistan, teenage girls are not allowed to attend secondary schools from grades seven to 12. 

 

U.S. envoy Amiri also criticized the Taliban for dissolving the Afghan Independent Bar Association last November, saying it was a model of gender inclusion. 

 

“Now women are sidelined from practicing law & many women judges & lawyers are forced to beg for food for their children rather than use their skills. Such injustice,” she said in a separate tweet Thursday. 

 

The Taliban defend their governance, saying it is in line with Afghan culture and Islamic law.

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High-Flying Balloon Characters Star in Thanksgiving Parade

Throngs of spectators lined the streets of New York on Thursday as colorful, high-flying balloons helped usher in the holiday season during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The annual tradition, which dates back nearly a century, packed streets as a procession of giant inflatables and floats streamed for more than 40 blocks from Central Park to Herald Square.

Children balanced atop metal barricades and hung from scaffolding to watch the balloons amid mostly sunny skies and a slight breeze.

“Blue, Blue. There’s Blue,” yelled Divyam Kumar, 6, as his father helped balance him and his 4-year-old brother Aanu Aryan on a metal rail.

The youngster was referring to the star of the animated show “Blue’s Clues” — not to be confused with the international cartoon sensation Bluey, an Australian cattle pup making her parade debut.

Bluey’s balloon towered as tall as a four-story building and stretched as wide as seven taxi cabs.

Stuart, the one-eyed Minion, was also there to thrill the crowd.

Snoopy, dressed as an astronaut, again made an appearance, as did Papa Smurf, Ronald McDonald and SpongeBob.

This year’s parade, by the numbers: 16 giant balloons, 28 floats, 40 novelty and heritage inflatables, 12 marching bands, 10 performance groups, 700 clowns and one Santa Claus.

The procession of characters were joined by singer Paula Abdul, in her first parade appearance; indie pop band Fitz and the Tantrums; boy band Big Time Rush; “Blue’s Clues & You!” host Josh Dela Cruz; singer Gloria Estefan; gospel singer Kirk Franklin; actor Mario Lopez; reggae star Ziggy Marley; and Miss America 2022 Emma Broyles.

Singers Joss Stone, Jordin Sparks and Betty Who were also part of the festivities, as well as the stars of “Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin” — Adam Devine, Sarah Hyland and Flula Borg. Jimmy Fallon & The Roots were on a float celebrating Central Park.

President Biden and Jill Biden called into the parade, as they did last year. Biden thanked firefighters, police officers and first responders, saying, “They never take a break.”

They thanked the troops and Biden said he would be reaching out to speak to some today.

Asked about their plans for the day in Nantucket, the Bidens said it would involve family, and some time spent locally, thanking first responders.

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As Trump Looms, South Koreans Mull Their Own Nukes

In December 2019, then-U.S. President Donald Trump was asked whether he thought it was worth it to have “all those” U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

“It could be debated. I could go either way,” Trump answered.

The comments came at the height of tense negotiations over Trump’s demand that Seoul pay much more to host approximately 28,000 U.S. troops.

Trump’s answer did not come out of the blue. Throughout his time as president — and in fact, even before and after his presidency — Trump regularly questioned the value of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

According to I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, a 2021 book by two Washington Post journalists, Trump privately told close aides that he planned to “blow up” the U.S.-South Korea alliance if he won reelection in 2020.

In part because he lost that election, no one knows how serious Trump was about upending the U.S. relationship with South Korea.

Some analysts say Trump was only being transactional, as he was with many other allies, and that he never intended to abandon Seoul.

Others are not so sure, noting Trump once went so far as to suggest South Korea should get its own nuclear weapons so that Seoul could protect itself.

Faced with an increasingly hostile and nuclear-armed neighbor, South Korea can afford little ambiguity on the matter, which helps explain why a growing number of prominent voices in Seoul would like to see if Trump’s nuke offer still stands.

Going mainstream

One of the most outspoken advocates of South Korea getting its own nuclear weapons is Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a nonpartisan foreign policy research organization outside Seoul.

Cheong spoke to VOA several days after Trump announced his 2024 presidential bid. He said it is not just the possible return of Trump that is concerning — it’s the chance that his America First ideas will have a lasting impact on U.S. foreign policy.

“The United States has a presidential election every four years…[it] may go back to isolationism, which is why South Korea’s own nuclear armament is essential to maintain stable security and deter North Korea,” Cheong told VOA.

Fringe figures have long called for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, but recently the proposal has gone mainstream. This year, several well-known scholars have proposed Seoul either acquire its own nuclear arsenal or request the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons that were removed in the early 1990s.

A poll published in May by the conservative Asan Institute for Policy Studies suggested that more than 70% of South Koreans support their country developing indigenous nuclear weapons — the highest level of support since the organization began asking the question in 2010.

Cheong is trying to turn that support into something more organized. In early November, he launched the ROK Forum for Nuclear Strategy, which promotes South Korea’s nuclear armament and discusses plans to make it happen. In its infancy, the group already has more than 40 members, according to Cheong.

Not just Trump

Trump is far from the only factor driving South Korea’s nuclear arms debate.

South Korean leaders are also alarmed at the rapid development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. North Korea has conducted a record number of launches this year, including both long-range missiles that could reach the United States and shorter-range ones that threaten Seoul. U.S. and South Korean officials say North Korea could conduct another nuclear test soon.

North Korea has also embraced a more aggressive nuclear posture. In October, leader Kim Jong Un oversaw a series of launches simulating a tactical nuclear strike on South Korea. The North is likely moving ahead with deploying tactical nuclear weapons to frontline positions, analysts say.

In addition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the risks that non-nuclear states face when confronted with an aggressive, nuclear-armed neighbor.

Although South Korea is protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, some South Korean analysts believe the United States may be reluctant to respond to a North Korean attack if Pyongyang has the ability to destroy a major U.S. city — in essence, the fear is that the United States would not want to risk San Francisco to save Seoul.

“North Korea believes there’s a slight chance that they could get away with a nuclear attack without getting a reprisal from the United States,” said Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant general in the South Korean army.

Big obstacles

In Chun’s view, acquiring nuclear weapons is one way for South Korea to guarantee its security, although he acknowledges major barriers.

Among the uncertainties is the question of how China, Russia, and others in the region would respond. For instance, would Japan, another U.S. ally in Northeast Asia, feel compelled to get its own nuclear weapons?

Analysts are also unsure exactly how the United States would react if South Korea eventually did begin pursuing nuclear weapons. And many South Koreans who support acquiring nukes hint they would tread cautiously with that in mind.

“It’s not as if I’m going to risk the alliance in order to have South Korea get nuclear weapons. But what happens if the U.S. president says he’s going to pull U.S. troops from Korea? What if that becomes a reality?” asked Chun.

In some ways, the situation mirrors the 1970s, when South Korea briefly pursued a nuclear weapons program amid questions about the long-term U.S. security commitment.

Instead, South Korea ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It is now uncertain what consequences South Korea would face for abandoning its commitments under the pact.

Reassurance limits

When asked about the issue in recent months, Pentagon and State Department officials have ruled out the idea of returning tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. Instead, they have focused on how the U.S. is prepared to use the full range of its capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to defend South Korea.

At a meeting earlier this month with his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said Seoul is not considering the return of tactical nuclear weapons and remains committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

At that Pentagon meeting, both sides agreed to several measures meant to reinforce the U.S. security commitment. The steps included increasing the deployment of U.S. strategic assets, such as long-range bombers and aircraft carriers, to South Korea, and vowing that any North Korean nuclear strike “will result in the end of the Kim regime.”

What they didn’t discuss, at least according to the 10-page joint communique released following the meeting, was Trump or his America First ideas — perhaps the one area where U.S. officials can offer the least reassurance.

“You can’t,” said Jenny Town, a Korea specialist at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“Democracies are democracies and policies can shift,” she said.

Much depends on how Trump and his ideas fare in the 2024 elections. But even if Trump loses again, Town said, many in South Korea will have concerns about the future.

“It isn’t business as usual anymore,” she said. “It’s recent memory, and it doesn’t fade very quickly.”

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