World mulls next step as US backs IP waiver on vaccines

GENEVA (AP) — Activists cheered, Big Pharma complained and government leaders assessed next steps on Thursday after the Biden administration's blockbuster move to support an easing of patent and other protections on COVID-19 vaccines that many hope will help poorer countries get more doses and speed the end of the pandemic.

The move to support waiving intellectual property protections on vaccines under World Trade Organization rules marked a dramatic shift for the United States, which had previously lined up with many other developed nations opposed to the idea floated by India and South Africa.

Attention is set to turn to those richer nations, notably in the European Union, to see whether they will come on board. A key hurdle: Any decision at the WTO, a Geneva-based trade body, has to be by consensus — meaning that any single country could hold up any waiver. 

The EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the 27-nation bloc was ready to talk about the U.S. proposal — but cagily remained noncommittal for now.

"We are ready to discuss how the U.S. proposal for waiver on intellectual property protection for COVID vaccines could help" end the crisis, she said in a video address. "In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains." 

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India hits another grim record as it scrambles oxygen supply

NEW DELHI (AP) — Infections in India hit another grim daily record on Thursday as demand for medical oxygen jumped seven-fold and the government denied reports that it was slow in distributing life-saving supplies from abroad. 

The number of new confirmed cases breached 400,000 for the second time since the devastating surge began last month. The 412,262 cases pushed India's tally to more than 21 million. The Health Ministry also reported 3,980 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 230,168. Experts believe both figures are an undercount. 

Eleven COVID-19 patients died as the pressure in the oxygen line dropped suddenly in a government medical college hospital in Chengalpet town in southern India on Wednesday night, possibly because of a faulty valve, The Times of India newspaper reported.

Hospital authorities said they had repaired the pipeline last week, but the consumption of oxygen doubled since then, the daily said. 

Demand for hospital oxygen has increased seven times since last month, a government official said, as India scrambles to set up large oxygen plants and transport cryogenic tankers, cylinders and liquid oxygen. India created a sea bridge on Tuesday to ferry oxygen tankers from Bahrain and Kuwait in the Persian Gulf, officials said.

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Biden ready to sell $2.3T infrastructure plan in Louisiana

President Joe Biden will push the case for his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan in the reliably Republican state of Louisiana — directly challenging GOP lawmakers who say that low taxes for corporations and the wealthy will fuel economic growth.

Biden is leaning into the stagecraft of the presidency on Thursday by choosing to speak in the city of Lake Charles in front of a 70-year-old bridge that is 20 years past its designed lifespan. 

Even as he engages with Republicans in Washington, Biden is trying to sell their voters on the idea that higher corporate taxes can provide $115 billion for roads and bridges and hundreds of billions of dollars more to upgrade the electrical grid, make the water system safer, rebuild homes and jump-start the manufacturing of electric vehicles.

A White House official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the speech ahead of delivery, said Biden would pose a basic question to voters about whether tax cuts for big companies and CEOs will make the country stronger than programs designed to bolster the middle class. 

Biden hinted at the theme when answering questions from reporters after a Wednesday speech at the White House that also emphasized his separate $1.8 trillion plan for education and children to be funded by higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

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Ramadan in China: Faithful dwindle under limits on religion

KASHGAR, China (AP) — Tursunjan Mamat, a practicing Muslim in western China's Xinjiang region, said he's fasting for Ramadan but his daughters, ages 8 and 10, are not. Religious activity including fasting is not permitted for minors, he explained.

The 32-year-old ethnic Uyghur wasn't complaining, at least not to a group of foreign journalists brought to his home outside the city of Aksu by government officials, who listened in on his responses. It seemed he was giving a matter-of-fact description of how religion is practiced under rules set by China's Communist Party. 

"My children know who our holy creator is, but I don't give them detailed religious knowledge," he said, speaking through a translator. "After they reach 18, they can receive religious education according to their own will."

Under the weight of official policies, the future of Islam appears precarious in Xinjiang, a rugged realm of craggy snow-capped mountains and barren deserts bordering Central Asia. Outside observers say scores of mosques have been demolished, a charge Beijing denies, and locals say the number of worshippers is sinking. 

A decade ago, 4,000 to 5,000 people attended Friday prayers at the Id Kah Mosque in the historic Silk Road city of Kashgar. Now only 800 to 900 do, said the mosque's imam, Mamat Juma. He attributed the drop to a natural shift in values, not government policy, saying the younger generation wants to spend more time working than praying.

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Facebook's oversight board: Watchdog or distraction?

Facebook's oversight board, which on Wednesday upheld the company's ban of former President Donald Trump, also had some harsh words for its corporate sponsor: Facebook. "In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities," the board wrote in its decision.

But critics aren't convinced that the board's decision represents a triumph of accountability. Many, in fact, see its narrow focus on one-off content issues as a distraction from deeper problems such as Facebook's massive power, its shadowy algorithms that can amplify hate and misinformation, and more serious and complicated questions about government regulation. 

"It's much easier to talk about Donald Trump" than about Facebook's business, said Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson, a longtime critic of Facebook. "They want to keep us in conversation about this piece of content or that piece of content, that this is about freedom of speech rather than about algorithms amplifying certain types of content, which has nothing to do with freedom of speech." 

The board, Robinson said, is "is a ruse to stave off regulatory action." 

Coming after months of deliberation and nearly 10,000 public comments on the matter, the board's decision on Trump told Facebook to specify how long the suspension of his account would last, saying that its "indefinite" ban on Trump was unreasonable. The ruling, which gives Facebook six months to comply, effectively postpones any possible Trump reinstatement and puts the onus for that decision squarely back on the company. 

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Republicans promote pandemic relief they voted against

NEW YORK (AP) — Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., said it pained her to vote against the $1.9 trillion "American Rescue Plan."

But in the weeks that followed, the first-term Republican issued a news release celebrating more than $3.7 million from the package that went to community health centers in her district as one of her "achievements." She said she prided herself on "bringing federal funding to the district and back into the pockets of taxpayers."

Malliotakis is far from alone.

Every Republican in Congress voted against the sweeping pandemic relief bill that President Joe Biden signed into law three months ago. But since the early spring votes, Republicans from New York and Indiana to Texas and Washington state have promoted elements of the legislation they fought to defeat.

The Republicans' favorite provisions represent a tiny sliver of the massive law, which sent $1,400 checks to millions of Americans, extended unemployment benefits until September, increased the child tax credit, offered housing assistance for millions of low-income Americans and expanded health care coverage. Republicans tried to negotiate a smaller package, arguing that Biden's plan was too expensive and not focused enough on the nation's health and economic crises.

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Biden hits schools goal even as many students learn remotely

President Joe Biden has met his goal of having most elementary and middle schools open for full, in-person learning in his first 100 days, according to new survey data, but the share of students choosing to return has continued to lag far behind.

The survey, conducted in March by the Education Department and released Thursday, found that 54 percent of public schools below high school were offering full-time classroom learning to any student who wanted it. It marks steady progress since January, when the figure was 46 percent.

But even with that milestone achieved, most students continued to learn at least partly away from school. Almost 4 in 10 students continued to take all their classes remotely, the survey found, and another 2 in 10 were split between classroom and remote learning.

The disparity reflects a trend that has alarmed education officials at all levels: Even when schools reopen, many families have opted to keep students at home for remote learning. It has been most pronounced among Black, Hispanic and Asian American students, most of whom spent no time in a classroom in March, the survey found.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona applauded the nation's progress but also drew attention to racial disparities, saying schools must do more to reach all students.

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On the ground and afar, diaspora boosts India's virus fight

India's large diaspora — long a boon to India's economy — is tapping its wealth, political clout and expertise to help its home country combat the catastrophic coronavirus surge that has left people to die outside overwhelmed hospitals.

Around the world, people of Indian descent are donating money, personally delivering desperately needed oxygen equipment and setting up telehealth consultations and information sessions in hopes of beating back the outbreak.

Two humanitarian groups in the U.S. led by people of Indian background raised more than $25 million in recent days to help the teetering health care system. Indian American doctors, hotel owners and other entrepreneurs, some responding to requests for help from Indian leaders, have pledged or donated millions more.

In Britain, volunteers at three Hindu temples raised more than 600,000 pounds ($830,000) last weekend by racking up 20,127 kilometers (12,506 miles) on stationary bikes, or roughly three times the distance from London to New Delhi. And in Canada, Sikhs have donated between $700 and $2,000 to each of dozens of people in need of costly oxygen cylinders.

The magnitude of the response reflects the deep pockets of many people in the overseas Indian community, as well as their deep ties to India, which have fueled similar efforts to help the country in the past.

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On social media, memories pop up from a pandemic still going

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — When the pandemic passed the one-year mark, Lisa Phillips wasn't exactly eager to walk down memory lane. She had developed symptoms and quarantined with a suspected case of COVID-19 last spring, lost her mother to the disease in July and been hospitalized in November from what she describes as a nervous breakdown fueled by grief and isolation.

But Phillips also wasn't ready to delete the apps that provide those reminders that showed her each day what she'd shared on social media just a year earlier. That pain, she says, shouldn't be forgotten. So she still wanted to save the memories — but for later.

As we navigate these weeks that are unspooling a year after March, April and May 2020, memories from earlier in the COVID-19 crisis are popping up in people's social media feeds when throwbacks, reposts and commemorations crack open the digital time capsule of the pandemic before it's even over. 

Out spill the first reminders of a zillion virus-inflected anniversaries, ranging from the relatively trivial to the tragic: the empty toilet paper shelves, the new masks, the start of remote work or school, the gratitude to exhausted health care staff, the In Memoriams.

For Phillips, 42, of Phoenix, the trauma still feels fresh. "If you're not ready to relive the anniversary and beginning of this ongoing pandemic, you're not alone," she tweeted.

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Netflix series signals racial breakthrough in Italian TV

MILAN (AP) — The Netflix series "Zero," which premiered globally last month, is the first Italian TV production to feature a predominantly Black cast, a bright spot in an otherwise bleak Italian television landscape where the persistent use of racist language and imagery is sparking new protests. 

Even as "Zero" creates a breakthrough in Italian TV history, on private networks, comedy teams are asserting their right to use racial slurs and make slanty-eye gestures as satire. The main state broadcaster RAI is under fire for attempting to censor an Italian rapper's remarks highlighting homophobia in a right-wing political party. And under outside pressure, RAI is advising against — but not outright banning — the use of blackface in variety skits. 

With cultural tensions heightened, the protagonists of "Zero" hope the series — which focuses on second-generation Black Italians and is based on a novel by the son of Angolan immigrants — will help accelerate public acceptance that Italy has become a multicultural nation. 

"I always say that Italy is a country tied to traditions, more than racist,'' said Antonio Dikele Distefano, who co-wrote the series and whose six novels, including the one on which "Zero" was based, focus on the lives of the children of immigrants to Italy. 

"I am convinced that through these things — writing novels, the possibility of making a series — things can change,'' he said.

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