The World Today for August 18, 2020

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Pageantry and Plague

Nicaragua recently held its national beauty pageant online.

“We had trials and classes through Zoom, supervised by me from home,” Karen Celebertti, who has run the event for years, told the Associated Press in an interview. “The girls had a speech coach, an image consultant and stylists online who taught them how to do their hair and put on makeup alone. There was no other option.”

Celebertti said she wanted to do something positive, to provide some entertainment for her people. She had a point – many Nicaraguans would welcome a diversion from the otherwise concerning state of their country.

The Central American country’s authoritarian government has fired doctors who speak out publicly about the dangers of the coronavirus, the Wall Street Journal reported. The New York Times described the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front’s response to the pandemic as “haphazard” and “politicized.”

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a former rebel who seized power in a Marxist revolution in 1979 and who won reelection in 2016, has claimed that he has contained the virus in his country even as international epidemiologists say his official numbers are far too low, CNN wrote. So-called “express burials” have become common in Nicaragua, a potential clue to the extent of Ortega’s sham denial, the Washington Post added.

Now, ironically, as a result of increasing numbers, a number of high-level Sandinista leaders have fallen victim to the virus. Many purposely didn’t wear masks because doing so signaled support for the opposition.

Two years ago, Ortega faced civil unrest when he proposed cutting pensions to balance his budget. Protesters took to the streets, clashing with security forces. Almost 300 people died and thousands were injured. Since then, as Al Jazeera reported, the Nicaraguan government has staged a brutal crackdown on dissidents, activists and protest leaders.

Many now effectively face death sentences as they languish in overcrowded prisons with poor drinking water, scarce food and few beds, let alone Covid-19 prevention measures. Nicaragua’s prisons are “incubators” of the virus, Amnesty International wrote.

Meanwhile, pro-Ortega forces have allegedly torched Catholic churches. Nicaraguan bishops have been critical of the government’s heavy hand and given sanctuary to protesters fleeing security forces, explained Crux, a news website that covers the Catholic Church. One firebomb damaged a nearly 400-year-old wooden cross in a Managua cathedral, the Catholic News Agency reported.

Some leaders are willing to accept destruction rather than relinquish power. Unfortunately, in Nicaragua, Covid-19 is just accelerating that process.



Zig Zag

The Afghan government is refusing to release the remaining 400 Taliban prisoners until the armed group frees more government soldiers, defying a decision by the nation’s traditional council and stalling the peace process in the war-torn country, the Associated Press reported.

The US-brokered talks between the insurgents and the government were set to start Thursday, but are now postponed indefinitely.

The decision by the government comes a week after the traditional council – known as Loya Jirga – approved the release of the last 400 Taliban captives, fulfilling the government’s pledge to release 5,000 fighters. In turn, the Taliban would free 1,000 government and military personnel.

The government said that the release had to be “two-way” but Taliban representatives emphasized that they have fulfilled their obligations.

The government added they are also looking into complaints from Australia and France: Both nations have objected to the release of some of the last remaining fighters because they were involved in attacks on Australian and French forces.

The prisoner exchange is part of a US-Taliban pact signed in February aimed at withdrawing US troops in return for Taliban security guarantees. One of the aims of the pact is the intra-Afghan talks between the government and insurgents to end the nearly 19-year old conflict.

However, the withdrawal of troops does not depend on the success of the peace talks.


The Weight of Numbers

The British government agreed Monday to scrap an algorithm that has left thousands of students without university admissions and sparked charges of discrimination against disadvantaged students, Reuters reported.

British universities offer final-year high school students admissions based on grades predicted by their teachers. Admission is determined on the results of final exams, known as A Levels.

After the pandemic closed most schools and postponed final exams, education officials used the algorithm: The model – aimed at standardizing results – compared the student’s predicted grades with the school’s past performance. This resulted in high-achieving students in average schools seeing their marks downgraded while students in above-average schools kept their predicted grades, according to the Associated Press.

Hundreds of students and parents protested the results, while the system was heavily criticized by members of the governing Conservative party.

Following the government’s decision to scrap the system, students will now be awarded the grade their teachers had predicted for them based on past performance.

The fiasco has been a major embarrassment for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has pledged in the past to help those from poorer backgrounds and areas.

It remains unclear how universities will handle the sudden revision of grades.


If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Puerto Rico resumed its primary elections earlier this week after election officials suspended the polls due to voting centers’ failure to receive ballots, the Miami Herald reported.

According to early returns, Pedro Pierluisi of the ruling, pro-statehood New Progressive Party won 58 percent of the vote, defeating Governor Wanda Vazquez. Meanwhile, Carlos ‘Charlie’ Delgado of the opposition Popular Democratic Party won 63 percent of the vote.

The second round took place after Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled last week that the results of the Aug. 9 polls are valid and ordered the primaries to resume on Aug. 16.

Puerto Rico’s gubernatorial elections are scheduled to be held in November.

Six candidates are expected to run for governor, including Pierluisi, who served as governor for less than a week after former Governor Ricardo Rosello resigned last year following huge protests sparked by a leaked profanity-laced chat.


The Big Deception

Scientists have long believed that human sperm moves in a snakelike pattern but a new study discovered that the reproductive cells are skilled in the art of deception.

Under a microscope, sperm cells appear to be moving their tails from side to side when in reality, they “roll as they swim, much like playful otters,” according to CNN.

To discover this, lead author Hermes Gadelha and his team used state-of-the-art 3D microscopy, high-speed cameras and mathematics and found that the side-to-side movement was merely an optical illusion.

“Sperm are very cheeky little creatures,” said Gadelha. “Our new research using 3D microscopy shows that we have all been victims of a sperm deception.”

The authors explained that the sperm’s tail actually lashes on only one side, which causes the tiny cell to swim in perpetual circles. This type of movement allows the sperm to gain symmetry and to swim straight.

The findings came as a surprise to the team, who added that the pattern of motion provides information about the sperm’s health and ability to travel.

“What we hope is that more scientists and fertility experts will become interested and ask, ‘OK, how does this influence infertility?'” said Gadelha.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 5,443,162 (+0.74%)
  2. Brazil: 3,359,570 (+0.58%)
  3. India: 2,702,742 (+2.08%)
  4. Russia: 925,558 (+0.53%)
  5. South Africa: 589,886 (+0.43%)
  6. Peru: 535,946 (0.00%)**
  7. Mexico: 525,733 (+0.68%)
  8. Colombia: 476,660 (+1.78%)
  9. Chile: 387,502 (+0.40%)
  10. Spain: 359,082 (+4.63%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country

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