Queen Elizabeth Addresses ‘Challenge’ of COVID Pandemic

Queen Elizabeth II urged Britons to “rise to the challenge” of the coronavirus pandemic in a rare address to the nation Sunday night.“I am speaking to you at what I know is an increasingly challenging time,’’ she said, speaking from her residence in Windsor.The Queen thanked workers at the National Health Service as well as those continuing to work essential jobs.“Every hour of your hard work brings us closer to a return to normal times,” the Queen said, going on to add her thanks for every Briton who is staying at home.“I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” she said.The Queen left London to stay in the Windsor castle as the COVID-19 pandemic affects Britain.Her son, Prince Charles, has been diagnosed with a mild case of the virus.Queen Elizabeth II records an annual Christmas message to Britain, but very rarely addresses the country in Sunday’s fashion. Other instances of such an address by the 93-year-old monarch include one before the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 and after the Queen Mother’s death in 2002.
 
“While we have faced challenges before, this one is different,” the Queen said, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly all nations around the globe.The United Kingdom has recorded more than 48,000 cases of COVID-19 and nearly 5,000 resulting deaths. Prime Minister Boris Johnson tested positive for the virus last week and is isolating at home.

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Ukraine: Fire Near Contaminated Chernobyl Site Extinguished

Emergency authorities in Ukraine say there are no signs of any fire still burning in the uninhabited exclusion zone around the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant after firefighters mobilized to put out a blaze.The country’s State Emergency Service said early on Sunday that background radiation levels were “within normal limits.”More than 130 firefighters, three aircraft, and 21 vehicles were deployed on April 4 to battle the fire, which was said to have burned around 20 hectares (50 acres) in the long-vacated area near where an explosion at a Soviet nuclear plant in 1986 sent a plume of radioactive fallout high into the air and across swaths of Europe.Fire and safety crews were said to be inspecting the area overnight on April 4-5 to eliminate any threat from sites where there was still smoldering.The blaze required seven airdrops of water, officials said.The Ukrainian State Emergency Service said that “as of April 5, 7:00 a.m., there was no open fire, only some isolated cells smoldering.”It said firefighters hadn’t seen any flames since around 8:00 p.m. on April 4.Officials had earlier shared images taken from an aircraft of white smoke blanketing the area, where it said firefighting was complicated by “an increased radiation background in individual areas of combustion.”There was no threat to settlements, the State Emergency Service said.A number of regions of Ukraine this week have reported brushfires amid unseasonably dry conditions.Fires are a routine threat in the forested region around the exclusion zone where an explosion 33 years ago ripped a roof off the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the now-abandoned town of Pripyat.The 1986 explosion sent a cloud of radioactive material high into the air above then-Soviet Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, as well as across Europe as Soviet officials denied there had been any accidents.Dozens of people in Ukraine died in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and thousands more have since died from its effects, mainly exposure to radiation.A second massive protective shelter over the contaminated reactor was completed in 2016 in hopes of preventing further radiation leaks and setting the stage for the eventual dismantling of the structure.
 

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Spanish Players Criticize League’s Call for Furloughs

Soccer players in Spain on Sunday criticized the Spanish league’s decision to ask clubs to put the footballers on government furloughs during the coronavirus crisis.The league on Friday said the furloughs were needed because there was no agreement on the size of the salary cuts players must take to reduce the financial impact of the pandemic.”It is strange that the Liga supports [the furloughs],” Spain’s players’ association said in a statement.It said the league should have created a financial cushion for this period considering it always boasted about its “economic control measures” and the “well-balanced economy” of the Spanish clubs. The association said it also should be taken into account that the league has been temporarily suspended and not yet canceled.The league and the players’ association have been in talks to try to find ways to mitigate losses that could reach nearly 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion) if the season cannot be restarted because of the pandemic.The players said they agree with a salary reduction to help the clubs during the crisis, but not to the extent the league wants, which could amount to nearly half of the total losses if the competition is not resumed.Players said they want to keep negotiating directly with the clubs instead of being forced into furloughs.”The clubs and the players have been reaching agreements regarding the salaries,” the players’ association said. “What footballers are not going to do is relinquish labor rights.”Barcelona and Atlético Madrid are among the Spanish clubs requesting furloughs, but both directly negotiated the amount of the salary reduction with players — 70% in both cases. Both clubs and their players are contributing to guarantee the wages of non-playing employees being furloughed.The government furloughs help reduce the clubs’ labor costs while also guaranteeing players their jobs once the crisis is over.Spain has more than 130,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with nearly 12,500 deaths. The nation is expected to remain in a lockdown until April 26.There is no timetable for the return of the Spanish league.Players maintained their position to only resume competing when health authorities deem it safe for everyone’s heath, a view also shared by the Spanish league.The league has suggested it will recommend teams start mini-camp while the lockdown is still in place, if it’s possible to do so within the restrictions imposed by authorities.

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Pope Celebrates Palm Sunday Mass Without Public in St. Peter’s

Pope Francis is celebrating Palm Sunday Mass without the public, since the traditional ceremony in St. Peter’s Square was scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic.Normally, tens of thousands of Romans, tourists and pilgrims, clutching olive tree branches or palm fronds would have flocked to an outdoor mass led by the pontiff. Instead, Francis was leading the ceremony inside St. Peter’s Basilica, which seemed even more cavernous than usual because it was so empty.Besides his aides, a few invited prelates, nuns and laypeople were present, sitting solo in the first pews and staggered meters (yards) apart to reduce the risks of contagion.Looking pensive, Francis blessed braided palms held by the others, then held one himself.Palm Sunday solemnly opens Holy Week leading up to Easter, which on this year falls on April 12. The Vatican has announced Francis will preside over all the traditional ceremonies without the public in keeping with lockdown measures in Italy and at the Vatican to contain the spread of COVID-19.Among the usual events is the Good Friday Way of the Cross procession. This year, instead of the customary candlelit procession at Rome’s Colosseum, the Way of the Cross will be presided over by Francis in St. Peter’s Square.The Vatican has said there are seven cases of COVID-19 among the residents or employees of the tiny independent city state. 
 
 

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France Turns to Speedy Trains to Catch up in Virus Response

The high-speed train whooshing past historic World War I battle sites and through the chateau-speckled Loire Valley carried a delicate cargo: 20 critically ill COVID-19 patients and the breathing machines helping keep them alive.The TGV-turned-mobile-intensive-care-unit is just one piece of France’s nationwide mobilization of trains, helicopters, jets and even a warship, deployed to relieve congested hospitals and shuffle hundreds of patients and medical personnel in and out of coronavirus hotspots.”We are at war,” President Emmanuel Macron tells his compatriots, again and again. But as the 42-year-old leader casts himself as a warrior and harnesses the might of the armed forces, critics charge that he waited far too long to act against this foe. France, one of the world’s wealthiest countries with one of the best health care systems, they say, should never have found itself so deep in crisis.Macron had just emerged from weeks of damaging retirement strikes and a year of violent “yellow vest” protests over economic injustice when the pandemic hit. Now he is struggling to keep the house running in one of the world’s hardest-hit countries. The Rungis food market south of Paris, Europe’s biggest, is transforming into a morgue as France’s death count races past 7,500. Nearly 7,000 patients are in intensive care, pushing French hospitals to their limit and beyond. Doctors are rationing painkillers and re-using masks.France’s centralized state and powerful presidency make it easier to coordinate the exceptional patient-moving efforts, which have crisscrossed the country and even extended to overseas territories. 

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France Launches Terror Probe After Two Die in Stabbing Spree

A Sudanese refugee went on a knife rampage in a town in southeastern France on Saturday, killing two people in what was being treated as a terrorist attack.The attack in broad daylight, which President Emmanuel Macron called “an odious act,” took place with the country on lockdown in a bid to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus.Counterterrorism prosecutors launched an investigation into “murder linked to a terrorist enterprise” after the rampage in a string of shops in Romans-sur-Isere, a riverside town of 35,000.The assailant, identified only as Abdallah A.-O., a refugee in his 30s from Sudan who lives in the town, was arrested without a fight by police.”He was found on his knees on the pavement, praying in Arabic,” the prosecutor’s office said.According to witnesses cited by local radio station France Bleu Drome Ardeche, he shouted “Allah Akbar!” (God is greatest) as he stabbed his victims.”Anyone who had the misfortune to find themselves in his way were attacked,” town Mayor Marie-Helene Thoraval told AFP.David Olivier Reverdy, from the National Police Alliance union, said the assailant had called on police to kill him when they came to arrest him.’Jumped over the counter’The suspect first went into a tobacco shop, where he attacked the owner and his wife, Thoraval said.He then went into a butcher’s shop, where he seized another knife before heading to the town center and attacking people in the street outside a bakery.”He took a knife, jumped over the counter, and stabbed a customer, then ran away,” the butcher’s shop owner, Ludovic Breyton, told AFP. “My wife tried to help the victim but in vain.”Interior Minister Cristophe Castaner, who visited the scene, said two people were killed and five others injured.”This morning, a man embarked on a terrorist journey,” he said.The initial investigation has “brought to light a determined, murderous course likely to seriously disturb public order through intimidation or terror,” according to the national anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office (PNAT).It said that during a search of the suspect’s home, “handwritten documents with religious connotations were found in which the author complains in particular that he lives in a country of nonbelievers.”The suspect, who obtained refugee status in 2017, was not known to police or intelligence services in France or Europe, PNAT said.Macron denounced the attack in a statement on Twitter.”All the light will be shed on this odious act which casts a shadow over our country, which has already been hit hard in recent weeks,” he said.France is in its third week of a national lockdown over COVID-19, with all but essential businesses ordered to shut and people told to stay at home.The country has been on terror alert since a wave of deadly jihadist bombings and shootings in Paris in 2015. In all, 258 people have been killed in France in what have been deemed terrorist attacks.

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Knife-Wielding Man in Southern France Kills 2 in Attack on Passersby

Prosecutors say a man wielding a knife has attacked residents venturing out to shop in a town under lockdown south of the French city of Lyon. Two people were killed and others wounded. The anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office told The Associated Press the attack took place at 11 a.m. in a commercial street in Romans-sur-Isere. The alleged attacker was arrested by police nearby. Prosecutors did not identify him. They said he had no documents but claimed to be Sudanese and to have been born in 1987. Prosecutors couldn’t confirm French media reports that there were several other casualties, of whom three are in critical condition. They have not yet determined whether the attack was terror-related.Prosecutors said that other people were also wounded but couldn’t confirm French media reports that there were seven other casualties, of whom three are in critical condition.They also did not confirm reports that the man had shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is great) as he carried out the attack.The office said it is evaluating whether the attack was motivated by terrorism, but that it has not launched any formal proceedings to treat it as such.Like the rest of France, the town’s residents are on coronavirus-linked lockdown. The victims were carrying out their weekend food shopping on the street that has bakeries and grocers, the office said. Two-meter distancing is being encouraged as in the rest of the country.Media reported that the knifeman first attacked a Romanian resident who had just left his home for his daily walk – slitting his throat in front of his girlfriend and son.Following that, they reported, the assailant entered a tobacco shop, stabbed the tobacconist and two customers, and then went into the local butcher’s shop. He grabbed another knife and attacked a client with the blunt end before entering a supermarket.Some shoppers took refuge in a nearby bakery.There have been a number of knife attacks in France in recent months. In January, French police shot and injured a man in Metz who was waving a knife and shouting “Allahu akbar.”Two days earlier, another man was shot dead by police after he stabbed one person fatally and wounded two others in a Paris suburb. 

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Italian Oncologist Treats Coronavirus Patients at Their Homes

An Italian oncologist and his team are treating coronavirus patients at their homes, as intensive-care units at hospitals have reached capacity.The director of the oncology ward at Piacenza Hospital in the Emilia-Romagna region on the border with Italy’s hardest-hit Lombardy region, Luigi Cavanna, and head nurse Gabriele Cremona rushed to help patients fight the new COVID-19 during the early phase of the epidemic.Cavanna has been prescribing antiviral drugs and Hydroxychloroquine to patients with the new coronavirus symptoms.”This disease can be stopped, and its spread can be stopped, because if we give (patients) an anti-viral drug, which prevents the virus from replicating, not only we can prevent the person from becoming ill, but we can probably also prevent the disease from spreading,” Cavanna said.Cavana and his team have treated more than 100 patients at home and less than 10 percent of them had to be admitted to the hospital. The other 90 percent responded successfully to home treatment and have been recovering.“Just seeing us walking in, some of them, even in their suffering were almost moved, because they thought, ‘Someone is coming to see us’. Under our monster-like appearance (referring to protective gear) they could see human features, and the impact is moving. More than one person told us: ‘It will end the way it will end, but you’ve come and for me that’s already great.’ For a doctor, this means the world,” Cavanna said.The health authority in Emilia Romagna and its regional administration have supported what has become known as the “Piacenza model,” and other teams there are practicing it.Other Italian regions have shown interest in the strategy, which could be especially successful in areas less affected by the coronavirus epidemic. 

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Poland Divided Over Having Presidential Vote During Pandemic

Poland’s parliament is preparing to vote Friday on legislation that would transform the country’s May presidential election entirely into a mail-in ballot due to the health risks of having public voting stations during the coronavirus pandemic. The proposal by the populist ruling Law and Justice party to go forward with the May 10 election is controversial.  Opposition candidates say having the election during the pandemic is undemocratic and it should be postponed. They argue that opposition presidential candidates stand no chance against conservative President Andrzej Duda because they cannot campaign due to a strict ban on gatherings. Duda, meanwhile, still profits from heavy coverage on state media. Critically, even one faction in the ruling coalition is strongly opposed to holding the vote, raising speculation in Poland that Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government could be toppled by the crisis.  Jaroslaw Gowin, center, the head of a faction within the ruling conservative coalition, speaks to reporters about his proposal to postpone a presidential election in Poland by two years in Warsaw, Poland, April 3, 2020.Surveys show that a large majority of voters in this European Union nation of 38 million want the election to be postponed due to the pandemic. Kamil Bortniczuk, a lawmaker with the faction opposed to the voting, told the radio broadcaster RMF FM his group would try to convince ruling party lawmakers “that Poles today do not want elections in such conditions and they cannot be prepared so quickly.” “There is not enough time to gain confidence among citizens in such a way of voting, and thus in the results of the election,” Bortniczuk said. Law and Justice officials insist that the current election timeline — voting on May 10 with a runoff on May 24 if no candidate wins 50% in the first round — is dictated by the constitution and should not be changed. The leader of the ruling party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, insisted Friday that to postpone the election “would be completely illegal.” He said “there is no reason to postpone it at the moment if it is conducted in a safe way from a health point of view.” Poland has had far fewer coronavirus infections and deaths than fellow EU countries like Italy and Spain, but the numbers have been accelerating in recent days, reaching 2,946 infections and 57 deaths on Friday.  Some Polish media outlets have suggested the country’s true numbers are actually much higher due to low levels of testing. Polish media have also reported about people dying of pneumonia who most likely have COVID-19 but who do not show up in the statistics because they were not tested. The debate over the mail-in vote shares similarities with efforts in the United States by Democrats seeking widespread voting by mail in the November presidential and congressional elections. So far, the Democrats have not gotten the billions of dollars in federal funding required to move to widespread voting but say they will keep pressing the issue. 
 

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EU Suspends Taxes, Customs Duties on Medical Equipment

The European Commission said Friday that it was temporarily suspending taxes and duties on the import of medical equipment and protective wear from outside the European Union.In a video statement, Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said the commission recognized the needs of hospitals and health care workers and was making the move to ease pressure on prices for crucial equipment.She gave the example of Italy, where customs duties of 12 percent and a value-added tax of 22 percent are levied on some face masks or protective garments imported from countries like China. The new cuts would lower prices by one-third.Likewise, she said, an average 20 percent VAT on ventilators would be removed.She said the tax and duty cuts would be applied retroactively to January 30 and be in place at least four months, longer if necessary.

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Russia Detains Activists Trying to Help Hospital Amid Virus

An activist doctor who had criticized Russia’s response to the coronavirus outbreak was forcibly detained as she and some of her colleagues tried to deliver protective gear to a hospital in need.  Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva of the Alliance of Doctors union was trying to take more than 500 masks, sanitizers, hazmat suits, gloves and protective glasses to a hospital in the Novgorod region about 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) northwest of Moscow on Thursday when she and the others were stopped by police on a highway.They were accused by police of violating self-isolation regulations, currently in place in many regions, including Moscow and Novgorod. The group was taken to a police station and held for hours, and the activists had to ask hospital workers to come to the station to pick up the gear.  After a night in custody, Vasilyeva appeared in court on charges of defying police orders. Two long court hearings later, she was ordered to pay fines totaling the equivalent of $20.”It was not about the money for them, It was about breaking me,” Vasilyeva said afterward. “But I’m even more convinced that we’re doing the right thing, and we will definitely keep on doing it.”Stay-home orderTwo weeks ago, Russia reported only a few hundred coronavirus cases and insisted the outbreak was under control. As the virus spread and more infections were reported this week, however, residents of Moscow and other cities were ordered to stay home.On Friday, officials reported 4,149 cases in the country, four times more than a week ago. The government sought to reassure the public that Russia has everything it needs to fight the outbreak and even sent planeloads of protective gear and medical equipment to Italy, the U.S. and other countries. Still, hospitals across the country complained about shortages of equipment and supplies, and earlier this week, the union began a fundraising campaign to buy protective gear for hospitals.Vasilyeva, who has become the most vocal critic of the Kremlin’s response to the virus, accused authorities of playing down the scale of the outbreak and pressuring medics to work without sufficient protection.”We realized that we can’t just sit and watch; otherwise it is going to be too late,” she said in a tweet Monday announcing the campaign.After being released from the police station, Vasilyeva was almost immediately detained again and charged with defying police orders. Video posted on Twitter by activists shows a dozen police officers gathering around Vasilyeva and two of them dragging her into the station.Assault accusationAccording to Ivan Konovalov, spokesman of the Alliance of Doctors, Vasilyeva was physically assaulted in the process and even fainted briefly. “We thought we may run into some difficulties, but no one could even imagine anything like that,” said Konovalov, who accompanied Vasilyeva to the Novgorod region.  The incident elicited outrage from other activists.”Why are they harassing this person, because she brought masks for the doctors? Bastards,” tweeted opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who supports the Alliance of Doctors and works closely with Vasilyeva.  Natalia Zviagina, Russia director of Amnesty International, said in a statement that “it is staggering that the Russian authorities appear to fear criticism more than the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.””By keeping her behind bars, they expose their true motive — they are willing to punish health professionals who dare contradict the official Russian narrative and expose flaws in the public health system,” Zviagina said.Russian military planes with medical supplies sit at Batajnica military airport near Belgrade, Serbia, April 3, 2020. The Russian Defense Ministry said it has sent medical and disinfection teams to Serbia to help fight the coronavirus.With the outbreak dominating the agenda in Russia, anyone who criticizes the country’s struggling health system becomes a thorn in the Kremlin’s side, said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter-turned-political analyst.  “The pressure will continue, because right now the most important political issue is on the table: How will the voters see the authorities after the crisis —as effective and acting in people’s interests, or ineffective, out of touch with the people, and in need of being replaced?” Gallyamov said.  Doctors’ unions say a shortage of protective equipment is one of the most pressing problems amid the outbreak. Konovalov said the Alliance of Doctors has gotten about 30 requests for protective gear from hospitals and medical facilities across Russia, and 100 more generic complaints about a lack of protective equipment.  Ambulance workers complainAndrei Konoval, chairman of the Action medical union, echoed that sentiment.”It is a serious problem that the authorities have started to solve, but not as fast as we want them to,” Konoval said, adding that his union is getting complaints from ambulance workers, who are often the first to come in contact with potentially infected patients.  Russian authorities sought to put a good face on the crisis. The Health Ministry said the outbreak has so far taken a “fortunate” course, while the Defense Ministry said it was sending another 11 planes with medical specialists and equipment to Serbia, a close ally of Moscow.In Moscow, which has the largest number of cases reported in the country, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was driven around the city in a van carrying an icon, praying for the epidemic to end. Media reports said the motorcade caused traffic jams as it traveled around the capital.

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Prince Charles Opens Fast-Tracked London Hospital

Prince Charles on Friday remotely opened the new Nightingale Hospital at London’s main exhibition and conference center, a temporary facility that will soon be able to treat 4,000 people who have contracted COVID-19.
Charles said he was “enormously touched” to be asked to open the temporary facility at the ExCel center in east London and paid tribute to everyone, including military personnel, involved in its “spectacular and almost unbelievable” nine-day construction.
“An example, if ever one was needed, of how the impossible could be made possible and how we can achieve the unthinkable through human will and ingenuity,” he said via video link from his Scottish home of Birkhall.
“To convert one of the largest national conference centres into a field hospital, starting with 500 beds with a potential of 4,000, is quite frankly incredible.”
The new National Health Service hospital will only care for people with COVID-19, and patients will only be assigned there after their local London hospital has reached capacity.
Charles, who earlier this week emerged from self-isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, said he was one of “the lucky ones” who only had mild symptoms, but “for some it will be a much harder journey.”
He expressed his hope that the hospital “is needed for as short a time and for as few people as possible.”
The hospital is named after Florence Nightingale, who is widely considered to be the founder of modern nursing. She was in charge of nursing British and allied soldiers in Turkey during the Crimean War of the 1850s, her selfless care earning her the reputation as the “Lady with the Lamp.”
Natalie Grey, the head of nursing at NHS Nightingale, unveiled the plaque formally opening the hospital on the prince’s behalf.
Further new hospitals are being planned across the U.K., including in Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester, to alleviate the pressure on the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.
“In these troubled times with this invisible killer stalking the whole world, the fact in this country we have the NHS is even more valuable that before,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who also contracted COVID-19 and only emerged from his self-isolation on Thursday.
The number of people in Britain dying after testing positive for COVID-19 has been increasing sharply over the past couple of weeks. The latest U.K. figures showed that the number of people to have died increased in a day by 569 to 2,921.
Like many other countries, Britain is in effective lockdown, with bars and nonessential shops closed in order to reduce the rate of transmission, the hope being that it will eventually reduce the peak in deaths. Hancock would not be drawn across several interviews about when he expects the peak to be, beyond that it’s likely to occur in “coming weeks.”

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