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Canadians seeking vaccines rely on web-savvy volunteers

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By Anna Mehler Paperny, Moira Warburton and Harry Miller

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canadians want vaccines. Many can’t figure out how to get them.

The country’s vaccine rollout, ramping up after a slow start, has been plagued by confusion and mixed messages, becoming so convoluted that Canadians are turning to a Twitter account and Discord channel run by a team of savvy volunteers to steer them to a shot.

Like a giant national game of Pokemon Go, the accounts post details of vaccine clinic locations, eligibility, how many shots are available and, sometimes, how long the lines are.

Unlike the game, the payoff for @VaxHuntersCan users is a chance to get inoculated against the coronavirus.

“Very short line at the Newtonbrook Mobile Clinic (155 Hilda Ave). M3H just added so goooooooooooo!!!!!” a recent tweet said, referring to the Toronto postal code whose residents had become eligible for vaccinations.

Vaccine Hunters Canada, a six-week-old group, has 66 volunteers running its Facebook page, Discord chat and Twitter account, which has more than 240,000 followers.

“The craziest thing is keeping up with the information,” said Josh Kalpin, one of the group’s four founding members.

Kalpin, a software developer by day, got involved when another co-founder helped him schedule vaccine appointments for several of his family members. “I just wanted to help as many friends and family as I could,” he told Reuters.

He works 16-hour days, trying to keep on top of an ever-changing landscape.

Much of the activity happens in the evening. Information comes in via email, direct messages and texts about upcoming clinics and available doses. The group also has a designated portal on its website (http://vaccinehunters.ca/)for pharmacists.

Volunteers collect information on vaccine availability and eligibility and, once they verify it, post it on their channels.

They also field thousands of queries daily from people who need help booking a vaccine or who have questions about the shot. Volunteers from the health sector assist, though they do not provide medical advice.

Kaitlyn Gonsalves is among them. The 27-year-old master’s degree student got involved with Vaccine Hunters just as the coronavirus was wreaking a lethal impact on her own family, with the death of a close cousin. It renewed her conviction in what she was doing.

“Helping people work through that made me feel I was doing something more than just grieving,” she told Reuters.

Gonsalves gets questions like – “Am I eligible?” “Where can I get a vaccine?” – on Twitter and via Discord, as well as in her community work in Scarborough, on the street or at the grocery store.

“The people who need [help] most are the people who are not on Twitter, who are not on Instagram, who don’t have internet access, who live in multi-generational homes, who live in encampments, who live in their cars,” she said.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has agreed to partner with the group and give it information on available vaccine spots.

“While I think it is great that the Vaccine Hunters group is filling that need and has been really instrumental in vaccinating a lot of Canadians, I do think it is an inequitable approach and the message doesn’t reach all Canadians equally,” Dr. Amanpreet Brar, who has been working with grassroots groups to get vaccines to high-risk populations, told Reuters.

Actress Roanna Cochrane was able to get a shot for herself only by following Vaccine Hunters Canada on Twitter, after struggling to navigate government websites. Cochrane’s husband got a shot after they wrote their names on Post-It notes for a draw for a clinic’s spare appointments.

“The fact that we needed a Twitter handle account in order to give us the information feels very disappointing,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto and Moira Warburton in Vancouver; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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Trudeau says he discussed border with Biden, but no deal

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Sunday he has spoken with U.S. President Joe Biden about how to lift pandemic-related border restrictions between the two countries but made clear no breakthrough has been achieved.

U.S. and Canadian business leaders have voiced increasing concern about the ban on non-essential travel in light of COVID-19 that was first imposed in March 2020 and renewed on a monthly basis since then. The border measures do not affect trade flows.

The border restrictions have choked off tourism between the two countries. Canadian businesses, especially airlines and those that depend on tourism, have been lobbying the Liberal government to relax the restrictions.

Canada last week took a cautious first step, saying it was prepared to relax quarantine protocols for fully vaccinated citizens returning home starting in early July.

Trudeau, speaking after a Group of Seven summit in Britain, said he had talked to Biden “about coordinating measures at our borders as both our countries move ahead with mass vaccination.” Canada is resisting calls for the border measures to be relaxed, citing the need for more people to be vaccinated.

The United States is ahead of Canada in terms of vaccination totals.

“We will continue to work closely together on moving forward in the right way but each of us always will put at the forefront the interests and the safety of our own citizens,” Trudeau told a televised news conference when asked the Biden conversation.

“Many countries, like Canada, continue to say that now is not the time to travel,” Trudeau added, though he said it is important to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible.

 

(Reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Will Dunham)

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Man with 39 wive dies in India

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A 76-year-old man who had 39 wives and 94 children and was said to be the head of the world’s largest family has died in north east India, the chief minister of his home state said.

Ziona Chana, the head of a local Christian sect that allows polygamy, died on Sunday, Zoramthanga, the chief minister of Mizoram and who goes by one name, said in a tweet.

With a total of 167 members, the family is the world’s largest, according to local media, although this depends on whether you count the grandchildren, of whom Ziona has 33.

Winston Blackmore, the head of a polygamous Mormon sect in Canada, has around 150 children from 27 wives – 178 people in total.

Ziona lived with his family in a vast, four-story pink structure with around 100 rooms in Baktawng, a remote village in Mizoram that became a tourist attraction as a result, according to Zoramthanga.

The sect, named “Chana”, was founded by Ziona’s father in 1942 and has a membership of hundreds of families. Ziona married his first wife when he was 17, and claimed he once married ten wives in a single year.

They shared a dormitory near his private bedroom, and locals said he liked to have seven or eight of them by his side at all times.

Despite his family’s huge size, Ziona told Reuters in a 2011 interview he wanted to grow it even further.

“I am ready to expand my family and willing to go to any extent to marry,” he said.

“I have so many people to care for and look after, and I consider myself a lucky man.”

 

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal and Adnan Abidi in New Delhi; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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Huawei CFO seeks publication ban on HSBC documents in U.S. extradition case

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Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on Monday will seek to bar publication of documents her legal team received from HSBC, a request opposed by Canadian prosecutors in her U.S. extradition case who say it violates the principles of open court.

Meng’s legal team will present arguments in support of the ban in the British Columbia Supreme Court.

Meng, 49, was arrested at Vancouver International Airport in December 2018 on a warrant from the United States, where she faces charges of bank fraud for allegedly misleading HSBC about Huawei Technologies Co Ltd’s business dealings in Iran and potentially causing the bank to break U.S. sanctions on business in Iran.

She has been under house arrest in Vancouver for more than two years and fighting her extradition to the United States. Meng has said she is innocent.

Lawyers for Huawei and HSBC in Hong Kong agreed to a release of the documents in April to Meng’s legal team on the condition that they “use reasonable effort” to keep confidential information concealed from the public, according to submissions filed by the defense on Friday.

Prosecutors representing the Canadian government argued against the ban, saying in submissions filed the same day that “to be consistent with the open court principle, a ban must be tailored” and details should be selectively redacted from the public, rather than the whole documents.

A consortium of media outlets, including Reuters News, also opposes the ban.

The open court principle requires that court proceedings be open and accessible to the public and to the media.

It is unclear what documents Huawei obtained from HSBC, but defense lawyers argue they are relevant to Meng’s case.

Meng’s hearing was initially set to wrap up in May but Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes granted an extension to allow the defense to read through the new documents.

Hearings in the extradition case are scheduled to finish in late August.

 

(Reporting by Moira Warburton in Vancouver; Editing by Howard Goller)

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