November 12, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

Round and Round We Go

BULGARIA

Bulgarians will vote in a total of four elections this year. Even so, confidence in the Balkan country’s government is still lacking.

As Balkan Insight explained, citizens of the European Union’s poorest member voted for new parliaments in April and in July that failed to result in stable governments. On Nov. 14, they again will elect a new parliament and prime minister and also vote for a new president.

Only 49 percent of voters turned out in April. In July, turnout was 41 percent. Fears over the coronavirus could depress that statistic to even lower levels. The country is facing a record number of infections and deaths amid low vaccination rates – Bulgaria’s Covid-related deaths per capita are among the highest in the world, Euronews explained. “Each day, Bulgaria loses the equivalent of one plane crash,” said Ruzha Smilova, an analyst at the Center for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia-based think tank. “It is really horrendous.”

Another inconclusive election or weak government could jeopardize Bulgarian leaders’ plans to tackle the pandemic in the short term and, in the medium term, adopt the euro as the country’s official currency – replacing the lev – in 2024, Bloomberg wrote.

EU officials in Brussels are also closely watching the elections because Bulgarian leaders have been holding up EU ascension talks for North Macedonia, its western neighbor, over disputes between the two countries involving their shared languages and histories, Politico added. European elites see the Balkans as a natural place to expand the EU.

After nearly a decade in office, former prime minister Boyko Borissov and his center-right GERB political party lost power in the April elections. But, as Reuters reported, they are projected to garner the largest share of the vote – 23 percent – on Nov. 14. Borissov’s rivals, the left-leaning Socialists, are expected to receive 16 percent.

Meanwhile, incumbent President Rumen Radev is expected to win reelection. He happens to be among Borissov’s staunchest critics. Last year, for example, Radev publicly chided Borissov for failing to devote enough time and resources to combating graft in the country where organized crime organizations wield significant clout, Radio Free Europe reported.

Emotions are running high. A far-right nationalist candidate, Boyan Rassate, attacked an LGBTQ+ community center in Sofia recently, prompting Amnesty International to call for a full investigation after he was arrested on charges associated with the violence. Rassate faces up to five years in jail.

Definitive election results won’t solve these problems but they would be a start.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

No Deal

EUROPEAN UNION

A European court rejected an appeal by Google to overturn a landmark antitrust ruling by European Union regulators, a decision watched by regulators around the world and one that emboldens the bloc’s efforts to go after the world’s largest tech firms, the New York Times reported.

The case is related to the 2017 decision by the European Commission – the EU’s executive branch – to fine Google about $2.8 billion for providing special treatment to its own price-comparison shopping service over rival services.

Google appealed the case but the Luxembourg-based General Court ruled against it, saying the company “departed from competition on the merits.”

The tech giant can still appeal the verdict at the European Court of Justice but the decision highlights a victory for European antitrust regulators, who have also launched investigations into other internet companies, such as Amazon, Apple and Facebook.

The large fine was the first of three issued by Margrethe Vestager, the Commission’s top antitrust enforcer, against Google. While the firm’s competitors welcomed the verdict, many noted that the long investigations and court hearings allowed Google to cement even further its dominant position.

Even so, the investigation into Google and other tech companies has inspired the EU to draft new and stricter competition rules to target the world’s largest technology platforms. The draft Digital Markets Act – expected to be adopted next year – would give regulators new powers to intervene in the digital economy.

Failure to comply with those rules could result in fines of up to 10 percent of a company’s annual revenue.

A Second Chance

UNITED KINGDOM

Thousands of Britain’s iconic red public phone booths were spared from destruction after the country’s phone regulator said they are integral in case of emergencies and in areas where cellphone reception is weak, NPR reported.

The regulator, Ofcom, revealed plans this week to protect the much-loved booths, even as it acknowledged that 96 percent of adults in the United Kingdom have cellphones and mobile phone coverage has improved.

Under the new plan, a phone booth cannot be removed if it has been used at least 52 times over a 12-month period, and if that booth is in an area identified as an accident or suicide hotspot. Even so, a local community can save a call box by purchasing it for £1.

Ofcom said that the new criteria for decommissioning a phone booth include a requirement that its service area is covered by one of the UK’s four mobile networks. It added that surviving booths must also be upgraded to Internet Protocol Standards.

There are currently around 21,000 red booths in the UK, with the regulator saying that they are frequently used to make emergency calls.

Meanwhile, some of them have been given a second life, converted into community libraries, mini-museums and art galleries, or to house life-saving public defibrillators, according to Ofcom.

Life and Justice

BOLIVIA

Bolivian authorities granted approval to a pregnant 11-year-old girl to have an abortion, a move that escalated the feverish debate about pregnancy terminations that has gripped the predominately Catholic country for months, the Washington Post reported.

The girl had become pregnant after being allegedly raped by her 61-year-old step-grandfather. The girl and her mother initially tried to seek an abortion, which is legal in cases of rape. However, a lawyer for a local Catholic organization interfered and church authorities reportedly promised to help the family if they would keep the child.

Officials said that the girl ended her pregnancy “in accordance with current laws and what has been decided by the judicial authorities in our country.” She is currently being monitored by the children’s ombudsman in Yapacaní, in the Santa Cruz province.

Meanwhile, her step-grandfather is in jail and awaiting trials on rape charges.

The case reignited the issue of abortion in Bolivia, with the country’s Catholic church strongly opposing the abortion, while women’s rights groups criticizing the church for overstepping its bounds.

For weeks, protesters marched in La Paz to call for the girl to be allowed to have an abortion, Sky News reported.

Bolivian Minister of the Presidency Maria Nela Prada said that while the government respects religious beliefs, the church “can’t be involved in deciding on a girl who, as in many others, has not agreed to have consensual sexual relations.”

The World Health Organization warns that complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the top cause of mortality for girls between the ages of 15 to 19 worldwide, and the dangers are significantly greater for younger girls.

Weekly World Quiz

DISCOVERIES

A Cabbie’s Memory

London cab drivers have to go through a very difficult memorization test known as “the Knowledge,” which requires them to memorize about 26,000 streets and plot routes without using GPS.

The cabbies who pass can secure a “green badge” license that allows them to drive anywhere in the British capital.

Now, scientists are planning to study the memorization skills of London cabbies to determine whether their brains hold clues that might be applied to research on Alzheimer’s, the Washington Post reported.

“London cabbies have remarkable brains,” said Hugo Spiers, a professor of cognitive neuroscience who set up the Taxi Brains project.

He explained that a previous study discovered that the Knowledge caused positive changes to a cabbie’s brain: He noted that the brain’s hippocampus regions – pivotal in learning and memory – grow larger in taxi drivers, but appear to shrink in people with Alzheimer’s.

About 30 cabbies have joined the study with researchers analyzing their brains as they map out taxi routes while undergoing MRI scans.

“London cabbies are ideal participants … because there is no other professional group quite like them, especially in the field of spatial navigation,” said co-researcher Chris Gahnstrom.

The Knowledge test is considered one of the most difficult tests in the world and can take about three to four years to complete.

Those who master it – and a few do – can earn up to $50,000 a year. But some cabbies claim to have made around $100,000 a year, while keeping an enviably flexible schedule, according to the Times.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 251,993,890

Total Deaths Worldwide: 5,080,990

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 7,379,047,436

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

  1. US: 46,852,796 (+0.13%)
  2. India: 34,414,186 (+0.04%)
  3. Brazil: 21,924,598 (+0.07%)
  4. UK: 9,495,395 (+0.46%)
  5. Russia: 8,804,297 (+0.45%)
  6. Turkey: 8,342,292 (+0.30%)
  7. France: 7,358,920 (+0.17%)
  8. Iran: 6,019,947 (+0.13%)
  9. Argentina: 5,302,445 (+0.03%)
  10. Spain: 5,042,803 (+0.09%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours