Group has joined the UN Global Compact's corporate responsibility initiative, representing its ongoing commitment to and pursuit of sustainable and socially responsible goals. Group joins the United Nations Global Compact


SINGAPORE, June 7, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — Group, leading global travel services provider, has joined the United Nations Global Compact to inspire change. Since 17th May 2021, Group has been committed to the UN Global Compact corporate responsibility initiative and its principles in the areas of human rights, labour, the environment and corruption. Group has joined the UN Global Compact’s corporate responsibility initiative, representing its ongoing commitment to and pursuit of sustainable and socially responsible goals. Group has joined the UN Global Compact in its aim to mobilize a global movement to create an improved world for everyone. To make this happen, the UN Global Compact will support Group to do business responsibly by aligning strategies and operations with its ten principles on human rights, labour, environment, and anti-corruption, as well as take strategic actions to advance broader societal goals, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, with an emphasis on collaboration and innovation.

“We are very pleased to have joined the UN Global Compact in its mission to achieve a better world. In recent years, the travel industry has led efforts to unite for common causes, which is why joining the UN Global Compact to align strategies and operations was an obvious decision for our company. It has always been my firm belief that travel is such a positive force for deepening understanding between peoples and nations. We will continue in the pursuit of common aims, to look at more ways we can be more sustainable, resilient, and create a better future for our communities and societies.” said Jane Sun, CEO of Group. Group’s participation in the UN Global Compact is an obvious next step for the travel group which has previously led the travel industry with its efforts supporting various Sustainable Development Goals. These include but are not limited to promoting undeveloped destinations to boost local socioeconomic growth, assisting in carbon offsetting, empowering women, and working with the Edesia project to donate food to young children suffering from malnutrition in West African countries.

As part of its ongoing efforts, Group donated over three million surgical masks to nations in need and most recently donated 400 oxygen generators to India to provide support during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Furthermore, Group pledged to support UN’s Women’s Empowerment Principles and instills these principles at all levels of its organization. At Group, currently female employees make up over 50% of the workforce, 41% of mid-level managerial positions and over 30% of executive posts. It has implemented various policies, ranging from support for expectant and new mothers, to generous paid leave, and the flexibility to work at home, to help capable women achieve their highest potential in their career without having to compromise on family life. Whilst these industry-leading steps have seen significant success, the company is committed to continuing to improve the status of women in the workplace.

About Group: Group is a leading global travel service provider comprising of, Ctrip, Skyscanner, and Qunar. Across its platforms, Group enables local partners and travelers around the world to make informed and cost-effective bookings for travel products and services, through the aggregation of comprehensive travel-related information and resources, and an advanced transaction platform consisting of mobile apps, websites and 24/7 customer service centers. Founded in 1999 and listed on NASDAQ in 2003 and HKEX in 2021, Group has become one of the best-known travel brands in the world, with the mission to “pursue the perfect trip for a better world”. Group PR, Group Logo (PRNewsfoto/ Group) Group Logo (PRNewsfoto/ Group)


Fishing crew

UK announces trade deal with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein


British fishermen are eager to gain access to Norwegian waters

The UK has signed a post-Brexit trade deal with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, the government has announced.

The agreement will be a major boost for trade between the four non-EU nations, which is already worth £21.6bn, UK minister Liz Truss said.

She claimed it would boost sectors such as digital and cut tariffs on UK farm products such as cheese and meat.

Britain is Norway’s top trading partner outside the European Union (EU).

The UK government said reduced import tariffs on shrimps, prawns and haddock would cut costs for UK fish processing, helping to support jobs in Scotland, East Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire.

British beef

As Britain is no longer part of the European Common Fisheries Policy, it must deal directly with Norway and UK fleets are keen to have access to the country’s sub-Arctic seas.

However, many Norwegian farmers have expressed concerns at opening up the domestic market to British beef and cheese.

State broadcaster NRK says the country’s market of 5.4 million people is small but potentially lucrative, with strong purchasing power.

The countries involved are the three non-EU members of the European Economic Area, which allows them to be part of the EU’s single market.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said “the deal allows for growth in trade for both our countries”.

However, the Norwegian government said the deal with the UK would not restore all the advantages it had when both countries were in the EEA.

Analysis box by Chris Morris, Reality Check correspondent

Analysis box by Chris Morris, Reality Check correspondent

In terms of their overall trade volumes, this deal is more significant for Norway and Iceland than it is for the UK.

But politically, it’s really important for the post-Brexit British government to show that new trade deals are being done quickly. Even if – as the Norwegian side points out – it is less open than the previous relationship inside the same single market.

The new deal builds on the rollover agreement the UK signed before it left the EU’s economic zone, and the government is keen to stress it includes important elements on digital trade which go beyond what the EU has.

But digital and data provisions are relatively new elements in free trade agreements, and it’s still unclear how effective they are in the long term.

“At first sight, the deal looks cautiously ambitious,” says trade expert David Henig from the European Centre for International Political Economy.

“In many fields, from climate change to SMEs [small businesses] to digital, it sets out some goals, without it being obvious that the underlying provisions will deliver them.”

So, it’s a decent start. But it’s the implementation that counts.

“Prior to the UK’s exit from the EU, Norway enjoyed free movement of goods, services, capital and persons to the UK through the EEA agreement,” Norway said.

“A free trade agreement will not provide similar access to the British market.”

The UK’s international trade secretary, Liz Truss, said the deal would be “a major boost for our trade with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, growing an economic relationship already worth £21.6bn, while supporting jobs and prosperity in all four nations at home”.

Iceland’s Foreign Minister, Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, said an agreement with the UK had been a priority for his country and would be “crucial for both Icelandic companies and consumers”.

Brexit box banner

Brexit box banner

Displaced children wait to get drinking water at a distribution point near their temporary camp in Sake, eastern DR Congo. Photo: 28 May 2021

Mount Nyiragongo: Half a million without water in DR Congo


Displaced people – including children – have been seen queuing to get drinking water at a temporary camp in Sake

Nearly 500,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been left without clean drinking water after a volcano erupted, the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned.

It says because cholera is endemic and poses a great threat there is an urgent need to provide people in the eastern city of Goma with safe drinking water.

A reservoir and pipes were damaged when Mount Nyiragongo erupted on 22 May.

Hundreds of thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes.

“We are assisting the immediate needs of displaced people, but it is not enough,” said Magali Roudaut, MSF head of mission in DRC.

“We demand urgent support of other humanitarian organisations to assist people.”

MSF said its teams were providing medical services in the nearby town of Sake, “where between 100,000 and 180,000 people are gathering in churches, schools, mosques, and on the streets”.

Mount Nyiragongo, 10km (six miles) from Goma, spewed lava 10 days ago, killing 32 people, the UN says.

There have been many tremors since one of the world’s most active volcanoes erupted.

In an effort to assess the level of risk experts have flown drones into a second smoking crater where molten lava has been spitting out of the ground.

A Map showing where Lake Kivu is in DR Congo

A Map showing where Lake Kivu is in DR Congo

Emmanuel Macron

Macron threatens to withdraw French troops from Mali


Mr Macron told West African leaders that French soldiers will not be in the region “forever”

President Emmanuel Macron has warned that France would withdraw troops from Mali if political instability there leads to greater Islamist radicalisation.

It follows a second coup in nine months in the West African nation.

Mr Macron warned of the risk of Mali “moving towards” greater Islamist influence.

France has 5,100 troops in the Sahel region which has been a front line in the war against Islamist militancy.

French troops have been supporting forces in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad to battle militants in the Sahel region since 2013.

Mr Macron told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper that he had told regional leaders that France would not support countries where there was no democratic legitimacy or transition, and that France had no intention of keeping its troops in Africa forever.

For decades France has provided military support to back leaders of its former colonies in Africa, often sending troops or despatching air strikes to counter armed rebels.

French soldiers on a military vehicle during the visit of the French president in Gao, northern Mali. 13 Jan 2017

French troops are part of Operation Barkhane against militants in the Sahel

What is happening in Mali?

Coup leader Colonel Assimi Goïta was named transitional president by the constitutional court on Friday, two days after he declared himself the interim leader.

He defended the removal of President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane as necessary because they had failed in their duties and were seeking to sabotage the country’s transition.

Soldiers arrested and detained the two men after a cabinet reshuffle that Col Goïta said he was not consulted about.

He also led the coup last August, which saw the elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta forced out of office.

Col Goïta has now promised that a new prime minister would be appointed within days, and that elections would still go ahead next year as planned.

Colonel Assimi Goïta speaks to the press at the Malian Ministry of Defence in Bamako, Mali

Colonel Goïta has led two coups in the last nine months

Meanwhile, regional leaders will on Sunday hold a “consultation” meeting in Ghana, which Col Goïta is expected to attend.

Why is Mali so unstable?

It is difficult to enact reforms quickly – and the vast landlocked country is poor, with large areas underdeveloped.

A coup in 2012 led to militant Islamists exploiting the chaos and seizing the north of the country.

French troops helped regain territory, but attacks have continued as the insurgents have capitalised on the persistent political instability in the region.

This has all led to public confidence waning over the army leaders’ ability to tackle the Islamist insurgency that has spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

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U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

State Department Worker Committed ‘Corporate Espionage’ for Tens of Thousands in Bribes: Feds


U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

A federal construction contractor that worked for several U.S. agencies bribed a State Department worker to commit “corporate espionage” and steer contracts worth more than $100 million to his company in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in cash, federal investigators allege in a newly-unsealed search warrant affidavit.

Iranian-born May Salehi, who was assigned to the State Department’s division of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), had a security clearance and a mountain of debt, according to the document. To get out of her financial hole, special agents working for the State Department’s Inspector General believe Salehi, 65, illegally helped steer what might have amounted to more than $100 million in State business to a Washington, D.C.-based company as part of a “multifaceted fraud scheme” that spanned several years and at least half a dozen countries.

Salehi began working for the State Department in 1996, according to her LinkedIn profile. A State Department spokesperson told The Daily Beast that Salehi is still employed there. She does not have a lawyer listed in court records, and did not respond to a message seeking comment. No arrests have yet been made, according to the affidavit.

The origins of the case can be traced back to 2014, when Montage, Inc. of Chevy Chase, Maryland, won a $26.1 million State contract to renovate the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, Nigeria. But the project went two years over deadline, and nearly bankrupted the firm, the affidavit states. That’s when something strange happened: Instead of avoiding State Department projects following the Nigeria “debacle,” the affidavit says Montage “transformed its business model so that it relied almost exclusively on State Department projects thereafter—indeed, the exact type of overseas, complex, U.S. embassy/consulate project that Montage had just been nearly decimated by.”

Over the next three years, Montage mysteriously won six major contracts with the State Department to build U.S. embassies or consulates overseas. This “seemingly counterintuitive” development can be “explained by the existence of a State Department insider who had an illegal relationship with Montage,” according to the affidavit. From that point on, roughly 95 percent of Montage’s revenue came exclusively from State Department contracts—$106.5 million of $111.4 million to date—nearly double what it had taken in previously.

Who’s the Mole?

In September 2020, State Department agents raided Montage’s offices on suspicion of, among other things, bank fraud, money laundering, and unauthorized removal and retention of classified materials. There, they seized numerous documents, nearly 40 computers, several cell phones, and a 96-terabyte server.

One office was the D.C. headquarters Montage lists publicly as its primary place of business. The second was what investigators describe in the warrant as the company’s “secret” office suite in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The space was purchased through a shell company and had a sign by the door identifying it as the American Society for Addictive Medicine.

There, agents encountered Montage founder and principal Sina Moayedi. In the affidavit, Special Agent Christopher Swenson states he told Moayedi that if he happened to have “information about a Government insider, that it would be something we would be very interested to hear.”

“Moayedi’s demeanor and expression changed immediately, as he raised his head and made direct eye contact with me, stating in substance, ‘I think I understand what you’re asking: You want to know if I’m paying someone in the State Department?’” the agent recalled.

Investigators suspected Moayedi had forged business licenses and credentials for Montage employees he said would be working on government projects. A resume he submitted to the State Department for a project manager on one job claimed the employee had “years of full-time complex work in the construction field in various capacities.” However, the affidavit states the person “had actually sold meat as a door-to-door salesman, was a landscaper, and built swimming pools for several years during the same time period.”

Agents interviewed two unnamed Montage executives, who blamed the company’s troubles on its former CFO, claiming he had embezzled money from the firm. But when they visited the ex-CFO at his home in Maryland, a different story emerged.

During the interview, Swenson read the former CFO an email in which a Montage bookkeeper painted him as an alcoholic, and said he had mental health problems. The CFO had covered up his alleged theft by “creating an entire phony universe of Quickbooks, payroll, receivables, payables and bank account statements,” the bookkeeper claimed in the message, and said the CFO “took payroll under assumed names.”

Upon learning that he was being set up as Montage’s fall guy, the former CFO turned on Moayedi, describing him as a “master forger” who electronically altered bank balances, forged resumes, and kept at least four sets of books that Moayedi not only used to dupe lenders but also to significantly reduce his own personal tax burden.

That’s when the CFO dropped a bombshell. He told agents that Moayedi “had cultivated a career employee at the State Department” and paid this person “bribes in exchange for intelligence regarding Government contracts,” the affidavit states. The CFO didn’t remember the State Department insider’s name, but recalled that she was a female “Iranian friend” of Moayedi’s whom he met through a “community group relating to Iranian heritage.”

The CFO told agents that he had met the insider at a pre-bid conference for a State Department project in Slovenia a few years back. She had also helped Moayedi and Montage win a State Department contract in the Caribbean in exchange for a $60,000 kickback, the CFO said. To hide the transaction, the CFO claimed Moayedi cut a check which the CFO cashed and provided to a middleman, who passed the cash to the corrupt State Department employee. To further obfuscate the truth, the insider was told to give the middleman a $2,000 Persian rug in exchange for the cash “in case ‘anyone asked’” about it.

Follow the Money

A search of State Department travel records identified the insider as May Salehi, an engineer in the State Department’s OBO Project Development and Coordination Division. Passport records confirmed that Salehi, who lived less than a mile from Montage’s “secret” office, was in fact born in Iran.

Salehi’s position requires a security clearance, so investigators analyzed her official paperwork for clues. One red flag involved Salehi’s 2007 divorce, which took place shortly after she secured a $1.5 million mortgage for a home in Great Falls, Virginia. The mortgage payments on the house ran approximately $10,000 a month—exceeding Salehi’s gross salary at the time of $9,333 a month. Another detail that raised agents’ suspicions was a Porsche Boxster convertible Salehi purchased in 2014, paying off $15,000 of a 60-month, $25,000 loan in a lump-sum the following year.

<div class="inline-image__credit">U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia</div>

U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

A review of phone records found that Salehi had “significant, sudden telephonic contacts with Moayedi in the precise period that Montage’s fortunes suddenly changed,” the affidavit says. Financial records subpoenaed by investigators turned up numerous transactions, each worth tens of thousands of dollars, including one with a memo line that read, “Final payment for Anna’s house.”

Investigators then dug into Salehi’s State Department email account. They found that Salehi “likely knew of Montage and Moayedi (in her professional capacity) by 2006, as Montage was bidding State Department projects at that time in New Delhi, India and Abuja, Nigeria,” the affidavit says, noting that agents found at least one official document in her email archive listing Sina Moayedi as Montage’s point of contact. She had also forwarded numerous internal State project documents from her work email to her personal email, all of which pertained to contracts Montage later won. Many of them were sent at odd intervals, furthering investigators’ suspicions.

“In particular, forwarding trip reports so long after the conclusion of the trip itself tends to negate any suggestion that Salehi was merely ‘taking her work home with her,’ and therefore forwarded these emails for the purpose of finishing up State Department business from home,” states the affidavit. “On the other hand, transferring these documents from her State Department account to Salehi Personal Email Account-1 would have certain benefits for someone engaged in selling Government information. For example, such transfers would allow Salehi to print hard copies for later dissemination without any State Department oversight.”

A review of Salehi’s search history on her State Department computer revealed further evidence against her. According to the affidavit, Salehi searched for “SCI clearance,” “herb for anxiety,” “Kratom herb for anxiety,” “Montage construction company litigations,” “what is litigation,” YouTube videos about litigation, and “Shiva Hamidinia,” who was Montage’s longtime legal counsel. Investigators subpoenaed cell phone records from a Montage employee and found a text from Moayedi that said: “Nela please conf call me 1/2 through your meeting with Shiva and May.” Agents also discovered Salehi’s contact info within Moayedi’s cell phone contacts and his Telegram, Skype, and iCloud accounts.

The feds now want to seize further documents they believe will bolster the government’s case against Salehi.

“[A]mong the materials we are requesting permission to seize are Salehi’s tax-related documents and filings, which are likely to contain either (implicit) admissions of her having received bribe payments, or false statements in an attempt to conceal the bribery scheme, just as she appears to have done in her State Department financial disclosure forms,” the affidavit says.

<div class="inline-image__credit">U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia</div>

U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Investigators asked a judge to let them search Salehi herself, including “any and all clothing and personal belongings, backpacks, briefcases, purses, bags, and electronic devices that are within Salehi’s immediate vicinity and control, wherever Salehi is located within the federal judicial district of the District of Columbia.”

According to court filings, agents executed two warrants at 6:12 a.m. on May 20 and seized Salehi’s Apple Watch, three iPhones, a Macbook Pro, a micro SD card, a Dell laptop, an iPad, and a letter-size manila folder with a gray folder inside.

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U.S. Senate Candidate Khaled Salem Advises Israel and United Nations to Double Down and End Hamas Terrorism Forever


Salem offers support and solidarity for Israel, urging patience as Israel continues to dismantle Hamas organization and intercept missiles smuggled through illegal tunnels

NEW YORK, May 25, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — Khaled Salem, the popular candidate running for the U.S. Senate against Chuck Schumer in 2022, today implored the United Nations and the State of Israel to “finish the job” by ending efforts of the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza and the West Bank by destroying all missiles and the illegal tunnels used to transport weapons. The range of the deadly rockets and missiles launched by Hamas make clear how dangerous and capable the terrorists are of bombing Israeli cities and the West Bank settlements.

Khaled specifically calls on President Joseph Biden, the United States Congress and NATO to support Israel and its people and to not give in to terrorist-sponsored Palestinian protests instigated by Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. The terrorist-sponsored nations know that Israel is the first line of defense for western civilization against radical Islam.

“It is in the best interest of all peaceful nations to understand the dangerous, growing range of terrorist missiles launched at Israeli citizens from Gaza. I commend the Israeli military and admire its efforts over 11 days of fighting as Israel defends its citizens. The missiles pummeling Israel have a longer reach every year, now up to 150 km, because of Iranian-sponsored terrorist technology. Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, Iran, various Arab nations and Turkey are behind the scenes and intent on Israel’s demise. I believe that it is crucial for America to support the Jewish State’s governance of the West Bank, as 70% of Israel’s Jewish population and 80% of Israel’s industrial base are located within a 100 square mile area.”

As Khaled explained, if Hamas and Hezbollah gain access to the West Bank, Israel could be decimated in hours. Iranian-made rockets can now reach Northern Israel and the Lebanon border, which is especially troubling.

Khaled also brought another issue to light after having traveled to Ukraine. On a recent trip, he was penalized and detained at the airport, because of his place of birth even his holding U.S. citizenship. Khaled is sending a strong message to the U.S. State Department of State to allow the option of omitting the place of birth on U.S. passports to protect dual citizens abroad from discrimination.

In further policy announcements, Khaled plans to introduce re-education and training Bills for Americans affected by COVID-19 job loss. He will ask Congress to create a subsidy for Americans able to return to work after having received their vaccinations but are hesitant to lose unemployment insurance, in order to guarantee that their families will be fed and safe.

Key global policy positions from Mr. Salem include:

Free university education for American students with a $0 budget from the government to support this plan.
Laws and procedures to reduce domestic violence nationwide.
The establish a home loan program for middle class single parents with no penalty for credit history.
Freeing US citizens who are allegedly detained abroad.
Free medical insurance for American people.
* Reduce the NY State Sales Tax for six years until the state recovers from COVID-19 economic hardship.

Khaled asks New York Voters to look not at his religion or where he came from, but rather what he offers to the citizenry in terms of policy.

Khaled policy positions argue for free university education for American students with a $0 budget from the government to support this plan.

Salem is running in the next general election, scheduled for November 8, 2022. Thirty-four of the Senate’s 100 seats are being contested in these elections.


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U.S. Senate Candidate Khaled Salem


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Thousands join London march in solidarity with Palestine | Palestinian territories


Thousands of people have begun to march through Hyde Park, central London, in solidarity with the people of Palestine.

Organisers say immediate action is needed from the UK government to help end the “brutal” violence against the Palestinian people.

At least 126 people have been killed in Gaza, including 31 children, after a spiral of violence that began with the eviction of Arabs from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in east Jerusalem. In Israel at least seven people have been killed, including one child.

Saturday is the Palestinian Nakba day, marking the anniversary of the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their homes more than 70 years ago.

A boy waves a Palestine flag as demonstrators attend a protest in London. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Protesters gathered at Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park, and will march to the Israeli embassy at Palace Green, Kensington. The MPs Jeremy Corbyn, Zarah Sultana and Diane Abbott are among the scheduled speakers.

The demonstration has been organised by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Friends of Al-Aqsa, Palestinian Forum in Britain, Stop the War Coalition, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain.

A spokesperson said: “It is vital that the UK government takes immediate action. It must stop allowing Israel’s brutal violence against and oppression of the Palestinian people to go unpunished.

“The bombardment of Gaza which is killing civilians including children is a war crime. It is occurring in the context of the illegal forced displacement of families in Jerusalem and attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel by far-right groups including illegal settlers from the West Bank.

“The UK government is complicit in these acts as long as it continues to offer Israel military, diplomatic and financial support. Such support must end with a minimum start being an end to the two-way arms trade and trade with illegal Israeli settlements.”

On Tuesday, there were tensions as thousands of protesters waving Palestinian flags and carrying placards marched from Westminster to the Israeli embassy were met with a small number of pro-Israel counter protesters. Five people were arrested.

The organisers of Saturday’s demonstration said they expected up to 20,000 people.

Schools ditch student mask requirements in growing numbers


Many parents in school districts where masks have become voluntary also are concerned. AP Photo

As a lengthy, bitter fight over mask requirements for students neared its conclusion, the chairperson of a Florida school board announced that she would agree to lift a mandate that had been in place since September even though she preferred leaving it in place until the end of the academic year. Parents hurled insults in response.
“Communist! Democrat!,” opponents of making children wear masks in school shouted as Ueberschaer and the district superintendent said at a May 3 meeting that they still considered masks advisable. “This is Santa Rosa County, America, not China!”
Moments later, the Santa Rosa school board voted unanimously to make masks optional for all grades effective immediately, joining dozens of other U.S, communities in declaring that masks were or would soon no longer be mandatory for students.
The debates have been emotional and highly divisive around the country, in some cases leading to the involvement of police. A few beleaguered school boards, caught between the demands of anti-mask parents and the appeals of employee unions, eliminated student mask rules only to reverse or revise the decisions. Where many see a continued need to protect children who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19, opponents argue that masks make students uncomfortable and mandates impinge on freedom.
“The mask is a personal choice, and I wore it at the beginning, but I just decided that it wasn’t about the mask anymore,” said Cynthia Licharowicz, a Milton, Florida, parent who opposed Santa Rosa County’s rule. “So I decided to take it off, and I wanted my child to have the same choice.”
The dustups highlight competing risk narratives 14 months into the pandemic: Even as a number of US schools remain closed to minimize infections, districts in states from Alabama to Wyoming decided to ditch student mask mandates. Many more are likely to do the same before the next school year starts, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance that schools “should prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing.”
Some public health experts are alarmed. While the Food and Drug Administration this week approved Pfizer‘s Covid-19 vaccine for children as young as 12, it’s unlikely that many young adolescents will be vaccinated before the end of the academic year. Data from the CDC shows infection rates among US residents ages 14-17 are now higher than for Americans, while the rates among children 6-13 are getting closer to the national average.
“We know that masks work to reduce transmission,” Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said. “This is really not the time to remove one of the best tools we have to reduce transmission.”
Many parents in school districts where masks have become voluntary also are concerned. School districts in the South, Midwest and West have done away with mandatory masks. In Arkansas, a law will make it illegal by the end of the summer for schools, or any government entity to require masks.
“I am so frustrated… I don’t see any harm in wearing masks, and there is potential harm in not wearing a mask,” said Christie Black, the mother of a kindergartner and a third grader in Mesa, Arizona, who was puzzled by the decision of the state’s largest school district to make masks optional indoors starting earlier this month.
There’s little US data about the spread of the coronavirus in schools where students didn’t wears masks since most reopened schools required them, said Adam Hersh, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah. Mask supporters point to worrying examples, including high transmission at a maskless summer camp in Georgia.
Evidence from earlier in the pandemic found children less likely than adults to be infected with the coronavirus and less likely to become seriously ill from Covid-19. The CDC has said that while schools haven’t been associated with substantial spread, outbreaks in schools not following infection-prevention measures “tend to result in increased transmission among teachers and school staff rather than among students.”
Black continues to send her two children to school with masks but says “they flung their masks off” as soon as they saw classmates no longer covering their faces.
“I feel like because the governor and the school board caved to peer pressure, it’s now up to my children not to cave to peer pressure,” Black said. “It just feels like we’re more concerned with our own freedom and rights than doing what’s best for the most vulnerable.”
In Santa Rosa, east of Pensacola, mask opponents dominated public debate even though surveys of parents and teachers showed divided opinions in the 28,000-student district. A small majority of teachers wanted to require masks at least through the end of the school year, while a small majority of parents wanted the requirement lifted immediately.
The school board’s April 20 discussion about the issue nonetheless grew so heated that sheriff’s deputies escorted multiple attendees out of the meeting, including at least one who was shouting profanities at board members.
Jennifer Hensley, a Santa Rosa County parent and middle school teacher, was the only member of the public at the meeting who spoke in favor of keeping the mask mandate versus the 18 who spoke against the requirement. She said she was worried about the health of her fellow teachers and of her 15-year-old daughter, who has an autoimmune disorder.
“The atmosphere was so charged,” Hensley recalled later. “I don’t think they were expecting that level of emotion to be involved.”
Critics of the mask policy started organizing months earlier. Hailei Smead, a mother of three students, runs a Facebook group called Santa Rosa County Parents SPEAK UP that was created in September to oppose mask requirements and has nearly 900 members registered.
Smead said her fifth-grade daughter was repeatedly isolated in the school office for refusing to wear a mask and eventually obtained a medical exception allowing her to forego a face covering. Smead declined to state the medical reason.
“It’s not society’s job to protect every other individual,” Smead said. “It’s your own job to protect yourself and your own family.”
Santa Rosa County district leaders emphasized they were following public health guidance, but state officials undercut that position even as public pressure built locally. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on April 14 urged local superintendents to make masks optional for the 2021-2022 school year.
On April 29, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees rolled back a series of health advisories that had been cited by the Santa Rosa district. So the school board called the May 3 meeting at which its five members voted to revoke the mask mandate.
“I still strongly recommend the use of facemasks, especially for those who are not fully vaccinated,” board chair Ueberschaer said before the vote, raising her voice to be heard over shouting parents. “My hope is that the families will have a conversation with their children that face masks are now a personal choice, and that students should respect the choice of their peers.”
Some of the insults hurled at Ueberschaer, a longtime school volunteer who is of Asian descent. included references to China.
“It truly does make me sad that face masks have morphed from a virus-prevention strategy to a political statement,” she said.


Africa’s top shots: 30 April-6 May 2021


A selection of the week’s best photos from across the continent:

A girl ponders a chess move in Makoko, a slum in the Nigerian city of Lagos, on Wednesday…

A kola nut seller in Lagos, Nigeria - Saturday 1 May 2021

In the city on Saturday, a woman sells kola nuts for people attending a workers’ day parade.

Two girls looking at out a mobile phone in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Friday 30 April 2021

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‘We’re seen as dogs’: death of Tongan LGBTQ+ activist sparks calls for reform | Tonga


The large hall of the basilica in the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa, hasn’t seen many crowds since Covid restrictions were introduced a year ago.

But on Thursday night, people from across all parts of society packed every inch of available space in the venue, clad mostly in black and the traditional woven ta’ovala dress.

Tongan authorities have granted an exemption to the 50-person cap on indoor gatherings, so that people from across the Pacific country can come together for a candlelight vigil in memory of LGBTQ+ and humanitarian activist Polikalepo “Poli” Kefu.

Kefu, 41, a beloved leader in Tonga, was killed on Saturday on a beach near his home in Lapaha. Police have charged a 27-year-old man with his murder. The death has sent shock waves through the small country and through its LGBTQI+ community, who hope that it will spur action to tackle homophobic attitudes and to repeal thediscriminatory laws in the country.

Among those who have come to pay tribute is a member of the country’s royal family, Princess Frederica Tuita, who struggles through tears as she speaks about her close friend of nearly 20 years.

“Being Tongan means living as Poli did, embodying our society’s values of love, humility, respect, and loyalty,” said Tuita.

Princess Frederica Tuita speaks at a candlelight vigil held in Tonga for Polikalepo Kefu. Photograph: Broadcom fm Broadcasting

As diplomatically as she can, considering her high-profile position, Princess Tuita proceeds with an indictment on Tonga for allowing Kefu’s death to happen.

“Our society has yet to take command of the responsibility required to truly commit to those [Tongan] values, and implement them where it counts.”

Where it counts, Tuita implies, is in the greater protections of leitī people against the threat of hate crime.

The Tongan word leitī is one of the many descriptors across the Pacific region to recognise the diverse sexual and gender expressions in their populations.

“It’s more of a comfort word for the LGBTQ+ community. We just call everybody leitī, whether you are trans, a lesbian, or however you identify,” says Joey Joleen Mataele, founder of the Tonga Leitīs Association, who passed down her presidency to Kefu in 2018.

A man handed himself in to police on Monday and has been charged with Kefu’s murder. Tongan Police have not commented on whether they believe Kefu was the vitim of a hate crime, or not.

The hashtag #JusticeForPoli has stayed trending as communities from around the South Pacific gather to host their own vigils. Specifically, the justice the Pacific LGBTQ+ groups are calling for is sweeping law reform, including the repeal of Tonga’s Criminal Offences Act, which makes sodomy punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

President of Tonga Leitis Association Polikalepo Kefu who was killed in Tonga.
President of Tonga Leitis Association Polikalepo Kefu who was killed in Tonga. Photograph: Twitter

These legal issues are not unique to Tonga. In popular tourist destinations like Samoa and Cook Islands, homosexual sex acts are punishable by a prison sentence.

Samoa, which has hosted fa’afafine – understood in western terms as the third, non-binary gender – beauty pageants since the 1970s, only repealed laws criminalising the “impersonation” of females in 2013.

According to Phylesha Brown-Acton, a fakafifine (a Niuean gender identity designation) woman and executive director of F’ine Pasifika, these discriminatory laws empower some members of the community to feel comfortable acting in hateful ways toward leitī people.

“It gives people the permission to further treat leitī worse than dogs. I’m sorry to say, but in Tonga, Tonga has a Dog Act. Dogs have vets and doctors that look after them. There’s absolutely nothing for the leitī, we’re seen as a lower class of animals such as a dog,” said Brown-Acton.

Ymania Brown, the co-secretary of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA World), works hand-in-hand with LGBTQ+ groups in the Pacific to help lobby for law reform.

“There are many, many variables to successfully change laws and some of those variables include the cultural attitudes of different countries, which are different between Pacific nations. To know what’s right for Papua New Guinea, is not right for the Solomon Islands, or for Tonga, or Samoa,” said Brown.

‘The police told me it was my fault’

Police in most Pacific nations do not specifically record incidents of hate crime, so getting conclusive data on how frequently these cases occur is difficult, but Brown-Acton has her own harrowing story of how bad it can be.

She says in 2007 she was the victim of an attempted gang-rape by a group of about 10 men.

She says they pinned her down and tried to tear her pants off, but she was able to get free and run for help. Brown-Acton immediately went to the police to file a charge, but says her complaints were met with ambivalence.

“Basically the police were just like, ‘this is your fault, you should never have been there.’ Nothing eventuated. Nobody was held accountable,” said Brown-Acton. She believes she was attacked because she is queer and that police did not take her seriously for the same reason.

“I’m not isolated to being the only person that has had experienced this, leitī endure and experience violence, day after day”

Tongan Police deputy commissioner, Tevita Vailea said he wasn’t aware of this particular case but invited Brown-Acton to come forward to provide more information about the incident.

“Tongan police have come a long way in trying to develop our capacity and development of Tonga police,” said Vailea. “And part of that you see, is treating people in our society in a more fair and equitable way. So we are doing our best to encourage all victims of crime to come forward and report to us.”

By all accounts, police work into Poli’s death has been thorough and efficient. The accused murderer is remanded in custody and is due to appear at the magistrates court on 19 May. Investigations into the death are ongoing.

‘We must win our battle before the church’

Beyond policing, Brown-Acton says the fraught relationships between Pacific Island nations and their LGBTQ+ communities largely stems from the introduction of Christianity into the South Pacific from the 18th century.

Before missionaries arrived in the Pacific, all Pacific cultures were known to have wide acceptance of leitīs, fa’afafine, and the many other sexual identities that make up the Pacific.

For religious institutions, which are a fundamental cornerstone of life in the Pacific Islands, the road to accepting these cultural practices has been long and complicated.

Joey, the founder of the Tonga leitīs Association, and a trans woman, remembers the shock on the faces of the congregation when in the late 1970s, she plucked up the courage to wear a dress to a busy Sunday mass. As far as she knows, she was the first first leitī to ever do it in Tonga.

“It was an electric blue pleated dress and I remember walking in that I turned a lot of heads, I was the biggest show of the day,” said Joey. “I don’t know if I was trying to make a statement, but I was just wanting to be me.”

Today, leitī in Tonga can mostly feel free to dress as they please in church, and they’re seeing acknowledgment by some religious institutions.

At Kefu’s vigil, Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Tonga, spoke of the community that “mourn together with the leitīs’ association.”

Ymania Brown, from ILGA World, says that while there may be some progress, there’s a long way to go.

“We need to win the battle in front of the church before we can win in front of the law reformers, because if we win it in front of the clergy, they will stand in front of us. They will actually argue for us, for our inclusion,” said Brown.

In the meantime, the Tongan Leitīs’ Association and various other LGBTQ+ groups are looking to push reform urgently in the legal system.

“It’s hard for me to say, yes, Poli’s death is going to result in wide sweeping changes, because a lot of it depends not on us, because we’re ready, it depends on legislators and parliamentarians in the Pacific to stand up and develop a backbone. They need to care enough about humanity to say, yes, this is a group of people that need protection and then we can have changes,” said Brown.

In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. Other international helplines can be found at