September 30, 2021

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When Faith is All That’s Left

VENEZUELA

As public services crumble in their authoritarian, socialist country, desperate Venezuelans are praying to José Gregorio Hernández, known as the “Doctor of the Poor” for their healthcare needs.

Recently beatified by the Vatican, Hernández gives hope to people who have lost faith in Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and opposition figures who have failed to loosen Maduro’s iron grip on power, held by torture and other violence, the weakening of the judicial system, suppression of human rights and other heavy-handed policies.

The image of Dr. Hernández – a mustachioed man in a black suit, white lab coat and bowler hat – is iconic in Venezuelan culture, the New York Times wrote.

“He’s a civilian that actually served other civilians, and that seems to be an ideal that is shared by both parties,” Columbia University doctoral fellow Daniel Esparza told the Times. “We’re orphans when it comes to role models – that’s when José Gregorio jumps in.”

Between Maduro’s incompetence and American sanctions on his regime and the Venezuelan economy, the South American country’s healthcare system is collapsing. Malaria cases in Venezuela increased at the highest rate in the world in 2019. Diseases like diphtheria and measles, which can be controlled with vaccines, are spreading.

Healthcare is only one piece of Venezuela’s decline. Lack of investment and hyperinflation have gutted agriculture and distribution in the country, added Reuters. To stock empty shelves at grocery stores, Maduro is privatizing companies that his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, nationalized as part of a leftist campaign to improve life for the country’s poorest citizens.

Meanwhile, the water infrastructure and other utilities, as well as cultural sites like museums and other attractions built in the oil-rich country in the 1960s and 1970s, are crumbling, reported Bloomberg. The financial news agency described gas as a “luxury” for Venezuelans. In Caracas, residents reported having to pay a bribe of $100 to fill up on gasoline.

Some Venezuelans, perhaps inspired by Hernández, are taking matters into their own hands. For example, underpaid healthcare workers are tabulating Covid-19 data to help their colleagues fight the virus, wrote Nature. Official government statistics mask the scope of the problem, they said.

Maduro and opposition figures recently pledged to work together more closely to improve services, especially those vital to stopping the spread of Covid-19, the Associated Press wrote.

Their bright idea was the way it’s supposed to be in the first place, of course.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Manchurian Candidate

JAPAN

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party elected Fumio Kishida as its new leader and potential prime minister on Wednesday, following the resignation of the party’s former head – and current prime minister – earlier this month, NBC News reported.

In a runoff vote, Kishida defeated his rival Taro Kono, the minister in charge of Covid-19 vaccines. The LDP-controlled parliament is expected to vote on Kishida as the country’s new prime minister next week.

Kishida, a former foreign minister, will become Japan’s 100th prime minister since the country adopted the cabinet system in 1885. His election comes weeks after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced his resignation amid rising public disapproval over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The future leader will tackle pending issues such as the pandemic and economic recovery. He will also have to cooperate with Japan’s traditional ally, the United States, to address regional issues such as China’s military maneuvers and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Kishida will also oversee the party through parliamentary elections in November. Although the LDP is expected to win, analysts predict a loss of support for the party. In recent months, the LDP fell short of a majority in a local election in Tokyo and lost a mayoral election in Yokohama.

Jeff Kingston of Temple University in Tokyo noted that Kishida’s win for party leader could prove problematic for the LDP: Public polls showed that Kono had the highest level of support but Kingston said that LDP elders did not want “a maverick, (a) loose cannon, (a leader who) doesn’t do what he’s told.”

He described Kishida as “the opposite of dynamic” and said his win could present the LDP to voters as a party that overrides popular opinion.

Small Steps, Big Steps

TUNISIA

Tunisian President Kais Saied appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane as prime minister nearly two months after he sacked the previous government and began ruling by decree, making her the first female to hold that position in the Arab World, CNN reported Wednesday.

Romdhane, 63, previously served in the ministry of higher education in 2011 and will take office as the head of government during a period of political and economic upheaval in the country amid surging Covid-19 cases.

Tunisia was plunged into a deep political crisis in July when Saied ousted the government and dissolved parliament, a move his opponents considered a coup. Last week, the president announced he would rule by decree and ignore parts of the constitution.

The situation has put into doubt the democratic gains Tunisia won following its 2011 revolution. It also sparked concerns over the country’s public finances.

Romdhane will now have to move fast to seek financial support from the International Monetary Fund for the budget and debt repayments. Talks with the international organization were put on hold following Saied’s power grab in July.

It’s unclear how much power the new prime minister will have and whether her role will be as prominent as in previous administrations.

A Numbers Game

CHINA

China will reduce the number of “medically unnecessary” abortions, according to a government guideline released this week, which observers believe is part of a sweeping plan to address declining birth rates, the New York Times reported.

The guideline published by the country’s State Council did not specify how the government would encourage that reduction or whether it would implement restrictions on abortions. But it did say authorities will aim to improve sex education and increase women’s access to birth control.

The plan has caused a stir among China’s netizens and women’s rights activists, with many believing that the government might attempt to restrict abortions in order to boost births and slow the demographic decline.

Getting an abortion can be difficult for couples already: Authorities banned sex-selective abortions and many regions require women to have a certificate of medical necessity to undergo the procedure.

Monday’s announcement comes after this year’s census showed that population growth from 2011 to 2020 was the slowest since the 1950s, according to Reuters. The findings highlighted how the population will start to decline within a few years.

The topic of abortion in China has historically been tied to the government’s population plan: In 1980, the government imposed the infamous one-child policy, which at times forced women to undergo abortions or sterilization.

In 2015, the government allowed citizens to have two children, and this year, it increased that number to three.

The issue of population decline has also prompted officials to introduce policies to reduce the financial burden of raising children while imposing a cooling-off period for couples seeking a divorce, which advocates say is a way of forcing women to stay in marriages and have children.

DISCOVERIES

Evolution, Awoken

Aside from climbing temperatures, climate change is causing another side-effect for some on the planet: Animals are “shapeshifting,” according to USA Today.

A new study has discovered that appendages in some animal and bird species – such as beaks, ears and legs – are changing in size as the climate shifts.

Lead author Sara Ryding and her team used a method known as Allen’s Rule, which dictates that animals in colder climates have shorter limbs and appendages than those in warmer ones.

They uncovered evidence of change in Australian and North American birds: For example, the bill surface area of Australian parrots has increased by an average of four to 10 percent since 1871. The same has also happened to the North American dark-eyed junco.

Meanwhile, wood mice have gotten bigger while the wings of bats have grown larger.

Ryding’s team said that shifting climate means that animals must find ways to regulate their body temperatures, which explains the changes in their bodies – in birds, beaks help regulate body temperature.

They noted that this increase in “shapeshifting” might be happening sooner than anticipated.

“We might end up with a live-action Dumbo in the not-so-distant future,” Ryding said.

She warned, however, that this sped-up evolution needs to be studied to understand how it impacts the lifestyle of fauna.

“We’re not sure what the other ecological consequences of these changes are, or indeed that all species are capable of changing and surviving,” she said.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 233,272,846

Total Deaths Worldwide: 4,774,440

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 6,204,909,854

Countries with the highest number of confirmed cases worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*

  1. US: 43,349,304 (+0.28%)
  2. India: 33,739,980 (+0.07%)
  3. Brazil: 21,399,546 (+0.08%)
  4. UK: 7,808,054 (+0.45%)
  5. Russia: 7,377,774 (+0.30%)
  6. France: 7,100,572 (+0.09%)
  7. Turkey: 7,095,550 (+0.00%)**
  8. Iran: 5,572,962 (+0.24%)
  9. Argentina: 5,255,261 (+0.03%)
  10. Spain: 4,956,691 (+0.06%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country