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Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Wednesday –



The latest:

Schools can safely reopen even if teachers are not vaccinated for the coronavirus, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

As some teachers’ unions in the U.S. balk at resuming in-person instruction before teachers are vaccinated, Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.” Walensky cited CDC data showing that physical distancing and wearing a mask significantly reduce the spread of the virus in school settings.

White House COVID-19 co-ordinator Jeff Zients called on Congress to pass additional funding to ensure schools have the resources necessary to support reopening.

How to safely reopen schools has been the subject of heated debate, not just in the U.S. but around the world. Walensky’s remarks come ahead of Ontario’s announcement that students will be back to class throughout the province by Feb. 16.

U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to ensure that nearly all K-8 schools will reopen for in-person instruction in the first 100 days of his administration.

Teachers are prioritized as “essential workers” under the CDC’s vaccination plans, though many have yet to receive doses as the country continues to face a supply shortage of the vaccines.

Democrats, Republicans divided over rescue plan

The update from officials leading the new administration’s COVID-19 response came after Biden panned a Republican alternative to his $1.9 trillion US COVID-19 rescue plan as insufficient. Senate Democrats pushed ahead, voting to launch a process that could approve Biden’s sweeping rescue package on their own if Republicans refuse to support it.

Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen joined the Democratic senators for a private virtual meeting on Tuesday, both declaring that the Republicans’ $618-billion proposed plan was too small. They urged swift action to stem the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.

As the White House reached for a bipartisan bill, Democrats marshalled their slim Senate majority, voting 50-49 to start a lengthy process for approving Biden’s bill with or without Republican support. The goal is to have COVID-19 relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires.

“President Biden spoke about the need for Congress to respond boldly and quickly,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said after the lunch meeting. “If we did a package that small, we’d be mired in the COVID crisis for years.”

The night before, Biden met with 10 Republican senators pitching their $618 billion alternative and let them know it was insufficient to meet the country’s needs. The president made it clear that he won’t delay aid in hopes of winning GOP support. While no compromise was reached during the late Monday session, White House talks with Republicans are privately underway.

The U.S. has seen more than 26.4 million cases of COVID-19 and has reported more than 447,000 deaths during the pandemic, according to a tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

The two parties are far apart, with the Republican group of 10 senators focused primarily on the health-care crisis and smaller $1,000 direct aid to Americans than the $1,400 payments Biden proposed, while the president is leading Democrats toward a more sweeping rescue plan to shore up households, local governments and a partly shuttered economy.

Winning the support of 10 Republicans would be significant, potentially giving Biden the votes needed in the 50-50 Senate to reach the 60-vote threshold typically required to advance legislation. Vice-President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker.

From The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 4:10 p.m. ET

What’s happening across Canada

WATCH | Students can go to school safely if some firm rules applied, says specialist:

Kids in southern Ontario can return to school safely, despite higher community spread of COVID-19, says Dr. Peter Jüni, scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. But he says it will be a challenge that needs to be well-managed. 7:31

As of 4:10 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Canada had reported 788,979 cases of COVID-19 — with 48,651 considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 20,328.

In Ontario, teachers, students and parents in several boards in the south of the province got word from the provincial government that students would be back in class by Feb. 8 in most parts of the province, and by Feb. 16 in Toronto, Peel and York Regions. 

“We have seen a considerable decline in community transmission,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said during the afternoon announcement. “Ontario is ready to reopen all our schools because it is safe.”

Ontario reported 1,172 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 67 additional deaths. The update came a day after the province reported just 745 cases, though Health Minister Christine Elliott noted in a tweet on Tuesday that a data migration had impacted the daily count and the province anticipated “fluctuations in case numbers over the next few days.”

Hospitalizations in Ontario decreased to 1,066, according to a provincial dashboard updated Wednesday morning, with 336 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units.

In Quebec, health officials reported 1,053 new cases of COVID-19 and 37 additional deaths on Wednesday, a day after Premier François Legault announced that restrictions would be eased in some areas of the province. Hospitalizations in Quebec stood at 1,106, with 177 people in intensive care, according to a provincial database.

WATCH | Quebec moves toward gradual reopening:

With COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations declining, Quebec has announced cautious plans to loosen some provincial restrictions, but major centres like Montreal won’t see much change for now. 4:05

The Northwest Territories has declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Gahcho Kué Mine, 280 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. There are now two confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the mine, both involving non-resident workers.

The territory’s chief public health officer, Dr. Kami Kandola, said both active cases are self-isolating at the mine and doing well. Kandola said an outbreak was declared because the second person acquired the virus at the mine.

Here’s a look at what is happening across the country:

-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 4:10 p.m. ET

What’s happening around the world

A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on a student’s desk, during a news conference at New Bridges Elementary School, ahead of schools reopening, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City last summer. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 104.8 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with more than 57.7 million of those listed as recovered or resolved, according to a tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than 2.2 million.

A United Nations-backed program to deploy COVID-19 vaccines to the neediest people worldwide has announced plans for an initial distribution of more than 100 million doses by the end of the first quarter.

The COVAX Facility says it aims for nearly 200 million doses by the end of June. Most of the vaccines in the first phase will be from AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India.

Another 1.2 million doses of a vaccine from Pfizer are expected to be shared by 18 countries in the first quarter.

The AstraZeneca vaccine rollout needs “emergency use” approval by the World Health Organization, which is expected in mid- to late February. The rollouts are contingent on regulatory approvals and the readiness of nations to receive the vaccines, which recently have been in short supply worldwide.

In the Asia-Pacific region, South Korean health officials said they have detected the first local transmissions of what are feared to be more contagious forms of the coronavirus first identified in Britain and South Africa.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said Wednesday it found four local cases of the variant first detected in the U.K.and one local case of the variant first detected in South Africa.

Since October, health workers have found 39 cases of new variants of the virus that causes COVID-19, also including a form that was first identified in Brazil. The previous cases were found in people arriving from abroad.

WATCH | A WHO team visits China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology:

A special team from the World Health Organization has visited China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, a key site in their search for the origins of the coronavirus. The team did not speak to waiting journalists after the visit. 1:25

In all five of the locally transmitted cases, the virus carriers had been infected from relatives who recently arrived from abroad, the agency said.

The KDCA said it is expanding contact tracing to determine whether the new variants could have circulated further. It also called for administrative officials to strengthen monitoring of passengers arriving from abroad so that they minimize their contact with other people during their two-week quarantine period, which in most cases can be done at home.

New Zealand’s medical regulator has approved its first coronavirus vaccine, and officials hope to begin giving shots to border workers by the end of March. Regulators granted provisional approval for the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech for people aged 16 and over.

New Zealand has no community transmission of the virus, and border workers are considered the most vulnerable to catching and spreading the disease because they deal with arriving travellers, some of whom are infected.

In Africa, South Africa will get two million doses of vaccines by March from the COVAX vaccine distribution scheme co-led by the World Health Organization.

A health worker receives a dose of the Chinese-made Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in Karachi, Pakistan, on Wednesday. (Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images)

Uganda has ordered 18 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine.

In Europe, EU lawmakers questioned chief executive Ursula von der Leyen for hours on Tuesday over the slow rollout and shortage of COVID-19 vaccines as she took responsibility for an export control plan that angered Britain and Ireland.

A German military medical team is heading to Portugal to help that country deal with a spike in coronavirus cases.

The team of 26 doctors and nurses was flying to Portugal on Wednesday from Wunstorf, in northern Germany. Dr. Ulrich Baumgaertner, head of the military’s medical service, said the team will help at a civilian hospital in Lisbon.

The COVID-19 situation in France remains fragile, but a new national lockdown is not necessarily inevitable, French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal told reporters on Wednesday.

The Ukrainian government is ready to cancel a nationwide lockdown and allow health authorities to ease lockdown measures in regions where COVID-19 cases are lower, Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said on Wednesday. The decision may be made in the coming days, he told a televised cabinet meeting.

WATCH | Capt. Sir Tom Moore dies at 100 after positive COVID-19 test:

Capt. Sir Tom Moore, the 100-year-old Second World War veteran who raised millions to fight the pandemic by walking in his garden, died in hospital where he was being treated after a positive COVID-19 test. 2:02

In the Americas, Colombia reported the highest incidence of cases, followed by Brazil, where the city of Manaus is still seeing exponential increases in both cases and deaths, Pan American Health Organization director Dr. Carissa Etienne said. Three new variants have been detected in 20 countries of the Americas, though their frequency is still limited, she said in a briefing.

Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, also warned Wednesday that the government’s plan to vaccinate more than 35 million people this year could face delays. The country said last week it had secured 61.5 million vaccine doses from a raft of pharmaceutical companies and via the World Health Organization-backed COVAX scheme.

A mortuary employee wearing full PPE checks coffins containing the remains of COVID-19 victims in a refrigerated container in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Tuesday. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

But in a mid-week media briefing, Duque recognized that the process could face delays, including potential export limits placed on vaccines by other countries and a low uptake of shots amid circulating disinformation.

“Are there risks [to the roll-out]? Yes, without doubt risks exist,” Duque said.

Venezuela will send further shipments of oxygen to help neighbouring Brazil treat COVID-19 patients, President Nicolas Maduro said, after sending a convoy of oxygen-filled trucks to the Amazonian city of Manaus last month.

In the Middle East, Dubai will start vaccinating people with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the state media office has said, after receiving its first shipment from India.

-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 3:15 p.m. ET

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Russian vodka, caviar and diamonds on new Canadian sanctions list



OTTAWA — Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly announced a fresh wave of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime on Friday including a ban on importing Russian vodka, caviar and diamonds.

The ban on the import of certain luxury goods from Russia will tighten the net on the country’s elite and covers alcoholic drinks, fish and seafood.

Canada is also banning the export of cigarettes and alcoholic drinks to Russia, as well as designer clothing, training shoes and sportswear.

The sanctions package, covering goods worth $75.7 million in 2021, includes a ban on the export of jewelry, art and even kitchenware from Canada to Russia.

Canada is also imposing a ban on products that could be used in the production and manufacture of weapons by Russia.

Joly also imposed sanctions on 14 more people, including oligarchs with links to the Russian president’s regime and their family.

They include billionaire Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent who bought two major newspapers, the Evening Standard and Independent, in the United Kingdom. He also finances Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s leading opposition newspaper.

Gleb Frank, owner of one of Russia’s largest fishery companies, and son of Sergei Frank, former minister of transport and former CEO of Sovcomflot, Russia’s largest shipping firm, is on the new sanctions list.

So is Gleb Frank’s wife Ksenia Frank, the youngest daughter of oligarch Gennady Timchenko, an associate of Putin. She lives in Switzerland and attended Edinburgh University in the U.K.

Elena Timchenko, wife of Gennady Timchenko, is also on the latest sanctions roll.

David Davidovich, the “right-hand man” of oligarch Roman Abramovich, is also hit by sanctions. Abramovich is selling Chelsea, the British Premier League soccer club, after being caught in an earlier wave of sanctions.

The fresh tranche of financial penalties came as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland wrapped up a round of talks with G7 counterparts in Germany, as well as with Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.

Freeland announced Canada is extending an additional $250-million loan to Ukraine, bringing Canada’s total financial support for the war-torn country to $1.8 billion. The loan comes on top of military support and weaponry for Ukraine.

Speaking to reporters from Germany, Freeland said other G7 nations were interested in following Canada’s lead in making legislative changes allowing the confiscation and sale of Russian assets to help rebuild Ukraine.

Current laws only allow the government to freeze assets and accounts of sanctioned individuals. But Canada’s budget implementation bill sets out its intent to enact a law that would broaden the current sanctions regime to allow for the seizure of their assets.

Freeland said other G7 countries had lots of questions about “the seizure of Russian assets and using them to help pay for the reconstruction of Ukraine” and were interested in following Canada’s lead.

She said Canada has an opportunity “to lead by example and show what can be done.”

“There was a lot of interest in what Canada is doing,” Freeland said.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Canada has imposed sanctions on more than 1,000 individuals and entities from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

“The Putin regime must, and will, answer for their unjustifiable acts,” said Joly.

“Canada, together with our allies, will be relentless in our efforts to maintain pressure on the Russian regime, until it is no longer able to wage war. We are unwavering in our support for Ukraine and its people.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2022.


Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

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Smaller telcos could feel the pinch after Ottawa prohibits use of Huawei’s 4G gear



Experts say smaller, independent telecommunications companies will be hurt the most by a federal government decision to ban China’s Huawei Technologies and ZTE from involvement in Canada’s 5G wireless network, in a move that will also eventually prohibit their products from existing 4G services equipment.

Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Thursday that the government will not be reimbursing the companies which need to remove this equipment from their networks by Dec. 31, 2027.

Telecom experts say smaller companies like Ice Wireless, which serves northern Canada and partnered with Huawei in 2019, as well as British Columbia’s rural internet provider ABC Communications, which also partnered with Huawei in 2019, could be negatively affected.

“We’re not talking companies that are flush with cash. They are going to have to stop investing in the technology that they have in place and somehow come up with the money to replace the equipment over the next five years,” telecom consultant Mark Goldberg said in an interview.

“It’s a bigger deal for the smaller players, proportionate to their resources,” former Telus chief financial officer Robert McFarlane said in an interview.

McFarlane noted the United States’ creation of a fund to provide subsidies to rural carriers working with Huawei when they had banned the company, something Canada hasn’t established.

Canada’s biggest telecom companies, including Telus Corp. and Bell Canada parent BCE Inc. will likely be able to absorb the costs associated with having to pull out 4G Huawei gear, the experts said.

Telus and BCE each said in 2020 that they would be moving away from Huawei and working with Sweden’s Ericsson as a supplier for their 5G networks.

The experts also said Rogers Communications Inc., whose partnership with Ericsson began in 2018, is an even better position.

Even though rural internet provider Xplornet Communications Inc. announced in 2020 that it would no longer be relying on Huawei for its equipment, it could face financial hurdles as it transitions from 4G to 5G because it doesn’t have the same cash reserves as Canada’s major players, they add.

Huawei Canada has reacted to Ottawa’s move, saying that it is “an unfortunate political decision that has nothing to do with cybersecurity or any of the technologies in question.”

Huawei Canada added that the ban on its equipment and services could lead to “significant economic loss in Canada and drive up the cost of communications for Canadian consumers.”

In an interview Thursday, Huawei Canada vice-president Alykhan Velshi said that it would be “reckless and irresponsible” for the Canadian government to ask the company to stop supporting its existing equipment in the 5G network, noting that there are around 10,000 cellphone sites across Canada that have Huawei technology in them.

He also said that more conversations need to be had between Huawei and Ottawa.

ZTE also provided its thoughts on the decision in a statement saying that the company “reject(s) the premise of this announcement,” calling it “highly speculative.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department says it welcomes Canada’s decision to ban China’s Huawei Technologies and ZTE from its next-generation mobile networks.

In a statement, the U.S. says it supports efforts around the world to ensure consumers and customers can trust their wireless networks and providers.

It says it will continue to collaborate with Canada and other allies to ensure shared security in the 5G era.

“We welcome Canada’s decision,” the State Department said in writing Friday in response to a query from The Canadian Press.

“The United States supports efforts to ensure countries, companies, and citizens can trust their wireless networks and their operators. We continue to collaborate with allies like Canada to ensure our shared security in a 5G future and beyond.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2022.


The Canadian Press

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Trudeau pledges more action on cybersecurity following decision to ban Huawei from 5G



OTTAWA — A day after the federal Liberals banned Chinese firms Huawei Technologies and ZTE from helping build Canada’s 5G networks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said more must be done to secure critical systems against threats.

The government is working closely with big financial institutions as well as other companies across the country to protect vital networks from malicious attackers, Trudeau said Friday at an event in Quebec.

Canada will do more, whether through legislation, new spending or “better and stronger partnerships,” he told reporters.

Trudeau seemed undaunted by the fact Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin raised the spectre of retaliation over Canada’s 5G decision at a press briefing Friday.

“Without any solid evidence, the Canadian side cited vague security risks as a pretext to exclude relevant Chinese companies from its market,” Wang said.

“This move violates the market economy principle and free-trade rules and severely harms the Chinese companies’ legitimate rights and interests.”

Trudeau conceded Canada’s 5G policy “may well lead to challenges of the World Trade Organization.”

“But we feel that it is extremely important to stand up for Canadian protection, Canadian interests and Canadian safety. That’s why we took this decision and we stand by it.”

The Liberal government made it clear this week that the long-awaited 5G decision is only a first step in an era of perpetual cyberattacks, ransomware operations and efforts by criminal hackers and state-sponsored players to pilfer information or sabotage key infrastructure.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Thursday the government would table legislation to protect critical infrastructure in the finance, telecommunications, energy and transport sectors.

In addition, Mendicino’s mandate letter from the prime minister directs him to expand efforts to detect security risks in foreign research and investment partnerships, partly by increasing RCMP and security agency resources for this purpose.

Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University, said legitimate network integrity concerns, as well as persistent pressure from the United States, helped forge Canada’s decision to exclude the Chinese vendors from 5G.

“Is this going to resolve our security problems, security concerns? Absolutely not.”

Much of the “hidden wiring” of the Canadian economy lies in private hands, and securing it poses a huge challenge, he said. “We need to do a lot more.”

Hampson ponders whether Canada is prepared for a major cyberattack against a seaport or machines in the oilsands that rely on remote-communication technologies.

“I think the short answer is no,” he said. “I mean, yes, we’re getting better at it. But it’s not just being able to thwart and deter those attacks, but how resilient are we?”

The latest federal budget earmarks $875 million over five years, and $238.2 million ongoing, for cybersecurity measures including programs at the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s electronic spy service, as well as more robust protection for small federal departments, agencies and Crown corporations.

The move is applauded as “utterly important” by Ulrike Bahr-Gedalia, senior director for digital economy, technology and innovation at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

However, the chamber wants the government to turn next to helping the private sector bolster its defences.

Bahr-Gedalia said knowing how to predict and prevent problems in the digital sphere is essential.

“It is crucial for businesses to be secure and safe,” she said. “We really want to be ahead of the game, which is so important.”

The chamber is urging the government to spend $1 billion to protect Canada’s critical infrastructure, supply chains and businesses of all sizes from cyberthreats.

This will augment the more than $7 billion already being spent by the private sector on cybersecurity products and services, it says.

It is also calling for $300 million to accelerate the commercialization of such products and services in Canada, and $200 million to build Canada’s future cybersecurity workforce through education, talent development and retention programs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2022.


Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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