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Hopkins: 39.3 Million Global COVID Cases

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Sunday that there are nearly 39.7 million COVID-19 infections worldwide and 1.1 million deaths from the virus.

The U.S. continues to lead the world in COVID cases, with 8.1 million infections.

India said Sunday it had recorded more than 61,000 COVID-19 cases in the previous 24-hour period. India has almost 7.5 million COVID-19 cases, with more than 114,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins statistics.

In Italy, where a new record for daily cases – 11,705 – was set Sunday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has given mayors the power to close public squares and other places people gather after 9 p.m.

“The situation is critical. The government is there but everyone must do their part,” he told a news conference. Conte’s government is trying to avoid another shutdown like the one imposed in March.

Italy was one of the hardest hit countries in Europe, and as a second wave of the coronavirus has hit, it has ordered such measures as mandatory mask wearing in public, restricting the hours when restaurants can offer table service and banning festivals.

Paris streets were deserted Saturday night as the city began a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, designed to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

At least seven other French cities, including Lyon, Grenoble, Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier, Lille, Rouen and Saint-Étienne are also under the nighttime curfew, scheduled to be in place for four weeks.

Belgium will be placed under a 12 a.m. to 5 a.m. nationwide curfew Monday to combat the country’s rising COVID-19 caseload. In addition, Belgium has ordered all cafes, bars, and restaurants shuttered, starting Monday.

Two European foreign ministers – Austria’s Alexander Schallenberg and Belgium’s Sophie Wilmès – have been infected with the coronavirus.  Both attended a European Union meeting in Luxembourg on Oct. 12.

The Dutch king and queen cut their vacation to Greece short amid criticism that they were doing the opposite of what the Dutch people have been advised to do during the pandemic – stay home as much as possible to flatten the spread of the virus.

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima left The Hague Friday but returned Saturday.

“We do not want to leave any doubts about it: in order to get the Covid-19 virus under control, it is necessary that the guidelines are followed,” the couple said in a royal statement.  “The debate over our holiday does not contribute to that.”



Source: Voice Of America


Pelosi Signals Pre-election Coronavirus Relief Deadline

WASHINGTON – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday said that an agreement with the Trump administration on a new coronavirus relief package would have to be reached within the next 48 hours or it won’t get done before the national presidential election on Nov. 3.

Pelosi has engaged in weeks of talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, representing President Donald Trump, but the two officials have been unable to reach a deal even as the number of coronavirus cases is surging again in the U.S. and the economic recovery has slowed.

Pelosi and Mnuchin are negotiating on a package that could cost between $1.8 trillion and $2.2 trillion but have not agreed on specific terms of a national strategic testing plan, among other issues. Even if they do reach an accord, some Republican senators say they are opposed to spending such a sum in addition to the $3 trillion approved months ago by Congress for coronavirus relief.

Pelosi, on ABC’s “This Week” show, said whether she reaches a deal with Mnuchin by Tuesday “depends on the [Trump] administration” and the commitments it makes.

“We’re saying to them we have to [decide] on some of these things (in the legislation). Are we going with it or not, and what is the language,” she said.

Mnuchin said last week he would accept Pelosi’s demands for a national strategic testing plan, subject to minor edits.

But Pelosi said Sunday she considered Mnuchin’s edits to be significant, including changing “shall” to “may,” “requirements” to “recommendations” and “a plan” to “a strategy, not a strategic plan.”

Pelosi said the word changes would give the White House too much flexibility in overseeing coronavirus relief. Mnuchin has said that he does not believe Democratic lawmakers want to hand Trump a legislative victory two weeks before the election.

Aside from the legislative language, Pelosi and Mnuchin have yet to agree on funding for cities and states, child care, tax credits for lower-income Americans, liability protections sought by Republicans and other issues. Both sides want to send a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks to most Americans and restore some level of federal unemployment benefits for jobless workers.

Federal unemployment payments totaling $600 a week on top of less generous state benefits expired at the end of July.


Source: Voice Of America


Czechs to Wait 2 Weeks Before Considering COVID Lockdown

PRAGUE – The Czech Republic, which has the highest coronavirus infection rate in Europe, will wait at least two weeks before deciding whether to order a full lockdown to stem its epidemic, Deputy Prime Minister Karel Havlicek said Sunday.

In the past week, bars and restaurants in the country of 10.7 million have been ordered to close except for takeout orders, and schools have moved to distance learning. Sport and fitness clubs, theaters and cinemas had already shut, but shops have remained open.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said it had registered 828 cases per 100,000 population in the last two weeks, more than 10 times the rate in neighboring Germany.

Since schools reopened in September, the cumulative number of cases has risen almost seven times.


Officials have warned that hospital admissions are set to rise sharply until the restrictions show an impact.

“We will not decide this week about a lockdown,” Havlicek said on Czech television. “We have clearly said we will wait (until Nov. 2) for results.”

Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said on CNN Prima’s Sunday show the new measures should cut the R number, which measures average spread from one infected person, by 30-40%. A number above 1.0 indicates an exponential increase, and the current rate is estimated at 1.4.

If the latest restrictions are not effective enough, he said there were few options other than a lockdown.

The growth in COVID-19 cases with more than 100,000 this month, bringing the total to 171,487 as of Saturday evening, and 1,402 deaths overall, according to Johns Hopkins University data, is forcing authorities to make plans for field hospitals and seeking foreign help.

The Czech Fire Rescue Service said it had sent a formal request through European Union channels for ventilators.

In Prague, more than 2,000 sports fans according to city hall estimates, including militant soccer supporters’ groups known as ultras, protested against the coronavirus measures, defying restrictions on gatherings.

Police used water cannon and tear gas amid clashes. Emergency services reported nine people were injured.




Source: Voice Of America

Uganda’s ‘Taxi Divas’ Rise From Covid-19’s Economic Gloom

KAMPALA, UGANDA – The women grappled with each other inside the vehicle. The driver jerked to ease the grip around her neck, then turned to elbow her attacker in the back seat. She flung the door open to make her escape, ending the simulated attack.

“This one is too strong for me,” the attacker said, smiling and shaking her head. Then it was another woman’s turn in the exercise to prepare drivers for Uganda’s new all-female ride-hailing service, Diva Taxi.

The taxi service, dreamed up by a local woman who lost her logistics job at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, was launched in June and has recruited more than 70 drivers. They range from college students to mothers hoping to make good use of their secondhand Toyotas.

“It started off as a joke, supported by close friends and family, but eventually the idea picked up,” said company spokeswoman Rebecca Makyeli. “They said, ‘Why not?’ So we called it Diva Taxi.”

It’s uncommon to find women taxi drivers in Uganda, a socially conservative east African country where most women labor on farms or pursue work in the informal sector.

Diva Taxi believes countless women are looking for job opportunities at a time of severe economic distress. The International Labor Organization has said women’s employment in developing countries is likely to be hit harder than men’s in the pandemic.

“I should say I was personally affected by COVID,” Diva Taxi founder Gillian Kobusingye said. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.

A regular traveler, she found herself grounded indefinitely as authorities imposed restrictions on movement to slow the spread of the virus. For several weeks, even taxis were not authorized to operate in Uganda.

Still, Kobusingye felt optimistic.

“Despite whatever circumstance in the world, there will be need of something to reach somebody. … And how does that happen? Through transport,” she said.

She believed that a woman seeking to become a driver was likely to want the opportunity more than any man. And she backed women to be more reliable.

“Our ladies are extremely hardworking, very motivated, and I like their sense of pride when they do this work,” she said. “They do it with one heart compared to other people, and that’s the difference we have with our competitors.”

Some clients, who include men, agree.

“The divas are always on time,” said Kampala-based auditor Jemimah Bamwebaze, a regular user. She also feels safer “being driven by a fellow woman.”

A prospective driver must have a car in good condition and a smartphone equipped with the mobile app that clients use, along with a valid driver’s license and a certificate of good conduct issued by Interpol.

With Diva Taxi, 85% of proceeds from a trip go to the driver, strikingly low in Uganda but part of a plan to size up the market, Makyeli said.

Driver Donna Ochen, a FedEx accountant furloughed in March who looks after three children, said she had been “doing nothing” at home when she saw a Diva Taxi employee on television discussing opportunities for women. With the consent of her skeptical husband, she contacted the company and was recruited.

“I decided to take it up because it would be an opportunity for me to serve and earn and support my family,” Ochen said. And “it would empower me to do something for myself rather than sitting.”

Another driver, college student Tracy Abola, said her mother, a teacher, had been out of work since schools were shut down in March. Abola had been driving a 1998 Toyota “to keep up appearances with friends” until she learned she could make money with Diva Taxi.

“So I decided to do something so that I can also help a bit at home,” she said.

The Diva Taxi app has been downloaded at least 500 times, and each of the company’s 72 drivers makes an average of 30 rides each week, Makyeli said. The company expects to have 2,000 active users by the end of this year, a modest target in a city of more than 3 million people where taxis and passenger motorcycles are the main means of transport for the working class.

Despite the security training — each driver also receives a canister of pepper spray — safety remains a concern.

Ochen said she drives only during the day “to avoid being caught up in any tricky situations,” including with drunken groups.

Even though she hopes to return to her job as an accountant, she plans to remain a Diva Taxi driver for as long as possible.

“We love what we are doing and it’s really fun,” said founder Kobusingye, an occasional driver herself. “I can’t wait to partner with every woman out there that’s willing to be part of Diva Taxi.”




Source: Voice Of America


Touch-and-Go: US Spacecraft Prepares to Grab a Sample of Asteroid

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. – After circling an ancient asteroid hundreds of millions of miles away for almost two years, a NASA spacecraft this week will attempt to descend to the treacherous, boulder-packed surface and snatch a handful of rubble.

The drama unfolds Tuesday as the U.S. takes its first crack at collecting asteroid samples for return to Earth, a feat accomplished so far only by Japan.

Brimming with names inspired by Egyptian mythology, the Osiris-Rex mission is looking to bring back at least 2 ounces (60 grams) worth of asteroid Bennu, the biggest otherworldly haul from beyond the moon.

The van-sized spacecraft is aiming for the relatively flat middle of a tennis court-sized crater named Nightingale — a spot comparable to a few parking places here on Earth. Boulders as big as buildings loom over the targeted touchdown zone.

“So for some perspective, the next time you park your car in front of your house or in front of a coffee shop and walk inside, think about the challenge of navigating Osiris-Rex into one of these spots from 200 million miles away,” said NASA’s deputy project manager Mike Moreau.

Once it drops out of its half-mile-high (0.75 kilometer-high) orbit around Bennu, the spacecraft will take a deliberate four hours to make it all the way down, to just above the surface.

Then the action cranks up when Osiris-Rex’s 11-foot (3.4-meter) arm reaches out and touches Bennu. Contact should last five to 10 seconds, just long enough to shoot out pressurized nitrogen gas and suck up the churned dirt and gravel. Programmed in advance, the spacecraft will operate autonomously during the unprecedented touch-and-go maneuver. With an 18-minute lag in radio communication each way, ground controllers for spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin near Denver can’t intervene.

If the first attempt doesn’t work, Osiris-Rex can try again. Any collected samples won’t reach Earth until 2023.

While NASA has brought back comet dust and solar wind particles, it’s never attempted to sample one of the nearly 1 million known asteroids lurking in our solar system until now. Japan, meanwhile, expects to get samples from asteroid Ryugu in December — in the milligrams at most — 10 years after bringing back specks from asteroid Itokawa.

Bennu is an asteroid picker’s paradise.

The big, black, roundish, carbon-rich space rock — taller than New York’s Empire State Building — was around when our solar system was forming 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists consider it a time capsule full of pristine building blocks that could help explain how life formed on Earth and possibly elsewhere.

“This is all about understanding our origins,” said the mission’s principal scientist, Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.

There also are selfish reasons for getting to know Bennu better.

The solar-orbiting asteroid, which swings by Earth every six years, could take aim at us late in the next century. NASA puts the odds of an impact at 1-in-2,700. The more scientists know about potentially menacing asteroids like Bennu, the safer Earth will be.

When Osiris-Rex blasted off in 2016 on the more than $800 million mission, scientists envisioned sandy stretches at Bennu. So the spacecraft was designed to ingest small pebbles less than an inch (2 centimeters) across.

Scientists were stunned to find massive rocks and chunky gravel all over the place when the spacecraft arrived in 2018. And pebbles were occasionally seen shooting off the asteroid, falling back and sometimes ricocheting off again in a cosmic game of ping-pong.

With so much rough terrain, engineers scrambled to aim for a tighter spot than originally anticipated. Nightingale Crater, the prime target, appears to have the biggest abundance of fine grains, but boulders still abound, including one dubbed Mount Doom.

Then COVID-19 struck.

The team fell behind and bumped the second and final touch-and-go dress rehearsal for the spacecraft to August. That pushed the sample grab to October.

“Returning a sample is hard,” said NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen. “The COVID made it even harder.”

Osiris-Rex has three bottles of nitrogen gas, which means it can touch down three times — no more.

The spacecraft automatically will back away if it encounters unexpected hazards like big rocks that could cause it to tip over. And there’s a chance it will touch down safely but fail to collect enough rubble.

In either case, the spacecraft would return to orbit around Bennu and try again in January at another location.

With the first try finally here, Lauretta is worried, nervous, excited “and confident we have done everything possible to ensure a safe sampling.”



Source: Voice Of America