WASHINGTON (AP) — One year after the nation was brought to a near-standstill by the coronavirus, President Joe Biden pledged in his first prime-time address to make all adults eligible for vaccines by May 1 and raised the possibility of beginning to "mark our independence from this virus" by the Fourth of July. He offered Americans fresh hope and appealed anew for their help.
Speaking in the White House East Room Thursday night, Biden honored the "collective suffering" of Americans over the past year in his 24-minute address and then offered them a vision for a return to a modicum of normalcy this summer.
"We are bound together by the loss and the pain of the days that have gone by," he said. "We are also bound together by the hope and the possibilities in the days in front of us."
He predicted Americans could safely gather at least in small groups for July Fourth to "make this Independence Day truly special."
But he also cautioned that this was a "goal" and attaining it depends on people's cooperation in following public health guidelines and rolling up their sleeves to get vaccinated as soon as eligible. Only that, he said, can bring about an end to a pandemic that has killed more than 530,000 Americans and disrupted the lives of countless more.
COVID relief bill could permanently alter social safety net
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package is being hailed by Democrats and progressive policy advocates as a generational expansion of the social safety net, providing food and housing assistance, greater access to health care and direct aid to families in what amounts to a broad-based attack on the cycle of poverty.
With more than $6 billion for food security-related programs, more than $25 billion in emergency rental assistance, nearly $10 billion in emergency mortgage aid for homeowners, and extensions of already-expanded unemployment payments through early September, the package is full of provisions designed to help families and individuals survive and recover from pandemic-induced economic hardships.
"When you stand back and look at it, that's when you really can appreciate the sheer scope of it," said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research & Action Center, a food-security advocacy group. "The scope is both impressive and much needed."
Several aspects seem targeted at restructuring the country's social safety net and actually lifting people out of poverty. It's the kind of ambition and somewhat old school Democratic Party ideal that has observers referencing former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.
"We haven't seen a shift like this seen since FDR. It's saying families are too big to fail, children are too big to fail, the elderly are too big to fail," said Andre Perry, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. "It's a recognition that the social safety net is not working and was not working prior to the pandemic."
Amid pandemic, 'an international epidemic' of childhood pain
PARIS (AP) — By the time his parents rushed him to the hospital, 11-year-old Pablo was barely eating and had stopped drinking entirely. Weakened by months of self-privation, his heart had slowed to a crawl and his kidneys were faltering. Medics injected him with fluids and fed him through a tube — first steps toward stitching together yet another child coming apart amid the tumult of the coronavirus crisis.
For doctors who treat them, the pandemic's impact on the mental health of children is increasingly alarming. The Paris pediatric hospital caring for Pablo has seen a doubling in the number of children and young teenagers requiring treatment after attempted suicides since September.
Doctors elsewhere report similar surges, with children — some as young as 8 — deliberately running into traffic, overdosing on pills and otherwise self-harming. In Japan, child and adolescent suicides hit record levels in 2020, according to the Education Ministry.
Pediatric psychiatrists say they're also seeing children with coronavirus-related phobias, tics and eating disorders, obsessing about infection, scrubbing their hands raw, covering their bodies with disinfectant gel and terrified of getting sick from food.
Also increasingly common, doctors say, are children suffering panic attacks, heart palpitations and other symptoms of mental anguish, as well as chronic addictions to mobile devices and computer screens that have become their sitters, teachers and entertainers during lockdowns, curfews and school closures.
Myanmar court extends detention of AP journalist
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A court in Myanmar on Friday extended the pre-trial detention period for an Associated Press journalist arrested while covering demonstrations against the military's seizure of power last month. He is facing a charge that could send him to prison for three years.
Thein Zaw, 32, was one of nine media workers taken into custody during a street protest on Feb. 27 in Yangon, the country's largest city, and has been held without bail. His next hearing at the Kamayut Township court will be on March 24.
The hearing Friday, which Thein Zaw attended via a video teleconference, came at the end of his initial remand period.
Thein Zaw and at least six other members of the media have been charged with violating a public order law, according to his lawyer, Tin Zar Oo, and the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Separate hearings were held Friday for the other detained journalists.
Tin Zar Oo and one of Thein Zaw's brothers were allowed into the courtroom to take part in the 10-minute videoconference. Tin Zar Oo said she was able to submit documents giving her power of attorney for the case, but only at the next hearing might be allowed to submit a bail application.
For Syrians, a decade of displacement with no end in sight
BAR ELIAS, Lebanon (AP) — Mohammed Zakaria has lived in a plastic tent in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley for almost as long as war has raged in his native Syria.
He and his family fled bombings in 2012, thinking it would be a short, temporary stay. His hometown of Homs was under siege, and subject to a ferocious Syrian military campaign. He didn't even bring his ID with him.
Almost 10 years later, the family still hasn't gone back. The 53-year-old Zakaria is among millions of Syrians unlikely to return in the foreseeable future, even as they face deteriorating living conditions abroad. On top of his displacement, Zakaria now struggles to survive Lebanon's financial meltdown and social implosion.
"We came on the assumption that we would come in and out," said Zakaria, sitting outside his tent on a cold day recently as his children walked around in worn-out slippers.
Syria has been mired in civil war since 2011, when Syrians revolted against President Bashar Assad amid a wave of Arab Spring uprisings. The protests in Syria, which began in March that year, quickly turned into insurgency — and eventually a full-blown civil war — in response to a brutal military crackdown by Assad's security apparatus.
Federal look into Breonna Taylor's death casts a wider net
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Their numbers have dwindled since protesters first flooded Louisville's streets after police fatally shot Breonna Taylor in her home a year ago, but their push for justice has never waned.
A federal investigation of the shooting that has been quietly proceeding could be their last chance.
"We can't expect people to continue to emotionally and mentally keep moving forward when there hasn't been any justice yet for Breonna Taylor," said Rep. Attica Scott, a state lawmaker who was tear-gassed and arrested during summer protests in the city. "We've been failed every single time from every level of government, and we need a freaking break."
That could come in the form of the ongoing inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice, which appears to have expanded well beyond the actions of the three police officers who fired their guns into Taylor's home on March 13, 2020. Last year, a grand jury formed by state Attorney General Daniel Cameron charged one officer with putting Taylor's neighbors in danger but issued no charges related to her death.
The warrant that sent the police to Taylor's home was not part of Cameron's criminal investigation, but that document and how it was obtained are under review by federal investigators. And there are signs the investigation could range into the Louisville police response to protests after the shooting.
Faith leaders' year of pandemic: grief, solace, resilience
In a pandemic-wracked year, religious leaders and spiritual counselors across the U.S. ministered to the ill, fed the hungry, consoled the bereaved. Some did so while recovering from COVID-19 themselves or mourning the loss of their own family members and friends.
At times, they despaired. So many people got sick, so many died, and these faith leaders couldn't hug the ailing and the grieving, or hold their hands.
For safety's sake, their congregations were kept away from in-person services for months, but the need to minister to them only intensified.
Amid the grief and anxiety, these faith leaders showed resilience and found reasons for hope as they re-imagined their mission. Here are some of their reflections on a trying year.
Defying rules, anti-vaccine accounts thrive on social media
With vaccination against COVID-19 in full swing, social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter say they've stepped up their fight against misinformation that aims to undermine trust in the vaccines. But problems abound.
For years, the same platforms have allowed anti-vaccination propaganda to flourish, making it difficult to stamp out such sentiments now. And their efforts to weed out other types of COVID-19 misinformation — often with fact-checks, informational labels and other restrained measures, has been woefully slow.
Twitter, for instance, announced this month that it will remove dangerous falsehoods about vaccines, much the same way it's done for other COVID-related conspiracy theories and misinformation. But since April 2020, it has removed a grand total of 8,400 tweets spreading COVID-related misinformation — a tiny fraction of the avalanche of pandemic-related falsehoods tweeted out daily by popular users with millions of followers, critics say.
"While they fail to take action, lives are being lost," said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a watchdog group. In December, the nonprofit found that 59 million accounts across social platforms follow peddlers of anti-vax propaganda — many of whom are immensely popular superspreaders of misinformation.
Efforts to crack down on vaccine misinformation now, though, are generating cries of censorship and prompting some posters to adopt sneaky tactics to avoid the axe.
Iraqi woman who met the pope sees little chance for change
BAGHDAD (AP) — The story of Doha Sabah Abdallah's personal tragedy and loss deeply resonated with Pope Francis during his historic visit last weekend to the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, once devastated by Islamic State group militants.
Back in 2014, her son's death alerted the town's Christian community to the impending IS onslaught. A mortar shell fired by the militants as they approached Qaraqosh struck outside Abdallah's house, killing her son and two cousins playing in the front yard.
The pope heard Abdallah's testimony at a church ceremony in Qaraqosh last Sunday.
But just days after the pontiff's visit — meant to give hope to Iraq's dwindling Christian community and encourage its members to stay — Abdallah doubts the realities of life in Iraq will change.
She said she would also leave if given a chance.
N Korean defectors struggle to send money home amid pandemic
ANSAN, South Korea (AP) — For the first time in years, Choi Bok-hwa didn't get her annual birthday call from her mother in North Korea. Each January, Choi's mother had climbed a mountain and used a broker's smuggled Chinese cellphone to call South Korea to wish her happy birthday and arrange a badly needed money transfer.
Choi, who hasn't sent money or talked to her 75-year-old mother since May, believes the silence is linked to the pandemic, which led North Korea to shut its borders tighter than ever and impose some of the world's toughest restrictions on movement.
Other defectors in the South have also lost contact with their loved ones in North Korea amid the turmoil of COVID-19 — and the trouble is not just on the North Korean side. The disconnection between defectors and their families in the North is shutting down an important emotional and financial link between the rival Koreas, whose citizens are banned from contacting each other.
Defectors in the South have long shared part of their income with parents, children and siblings in North Korea. But these defectors, who face chronic discrimination and poverty in the South, now say they've stopped or sharply reduced the remittances because of plunging incomes. Others are postponing them because they can't contact the brokers who act as middlemen or because the brokers are demanding extremely high fees.
Choi, a singer in a North Korean-themed art troupe, last year earned only about 10-20 percent of what she usually gets because of canceled performances.