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DR Congo leader under pressure amid humanitarian crisis

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Alex Crawford, Special Correspondent

As pressure from the international community grows on Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila to hold elections, a deepening humanitarian crisis and unrest grips the country.

Warning: Some readers may find photos below distressing.

A baby with nothing, not even a name lies in a hospital cot in DRC’s central hospital in Bunia, fighting to live. His tiny skeletal chest heaves up and down as he battles for every breath with under-developed lungs.

His translucent hands are about the same size as the thumb of the doctor examining him. He has no clothes, no home, not even the cot to himself. He’s sharing it with the hospital’s latest arrival – another baby born earlier in the day, who looks equally fragile.

The two of them hover between life and death. It’s too early to say which will be their fate. But should it be life, their futures look decidedly bleak in this, one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources.

The babies are two of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s “internally displaced”, basically a fancy name for refugees in their own country.

The baby is one of the Democratic Republic of Congo's 'internally displaced'
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The baby is one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ‘internally displaced’

There are 4.5 million others according to the United Nations, making them the largest number of internally displaced people in the whole of Africa. They’re people who’ve fled violence, left their homes and run trying to find safety anywhere.

Many are severely under-nourished. Some 7.7 million people are classified as severely hungry. They’re all desperately poor, prone to sickness and now living in the direst of conditions in huge squalid camps with little sanitation and where disease festers.

The two newborn babies fighting for their lives
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The two newborn babies fighting for their lives

The statistics are shocking. Some 13.1 million Congolese need humanitarian aid. That’s the same number as in Syria.

Looking at the little baby with no name battling for every gulp of air, struggling to hang on to this thread of a chance he’s been given, I thought of what lay ahead for him, should he win this, the first of a lifetime of challenges.

The dismal numbers scream out his life will be fraught with problems. Firstly, his 26-year-old mother, Lutove has to survive herself. She is also in the central hospital – but laying in a male ward because of lack of beds, weak through hunger and now ill with tuberculosis.

Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila
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There is pressure on Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila to hold elections

When we saw her, she couldn’t haul herself upright and couldn’t walk, she was that weak. The doctor measured her upper arms using a tape meant for babies from three months to three years.

She gave birth three weeks ago after running away from machete-wielding men who attacked her village for the second time. She was 28 weeks pregnant at the time.

The 26-year-old mother is now suffering from tuberculosis
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The 26-year-old mother is now suffering from tuberculosis

The stress and panic triggered the birth of her baby some 14 weeks early. With little food throughout her pregnancy, she was under-weight and under-nourished and her baby son was born weighing less than half a bag of sugar.

Three weeks of hospital care had helped but when we saw him, he was still only 750 grammes with ribs which stuck out so you could count each and every one of them.

The central hospital paediatric wing is filled and overflowing into tents outside with mothers and babies lining the pavement and corridors.

Inside, there are frequently two babies to a bed. All of them are the children of the “internally displaced” – hungry, vulnerable to disease which is easily spread in the poor living conditions they now find themselves.

Lutove fled machete-wielding men who attacked her village
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Lutove fled machete-wielding men who attacked her village

It is a miserable lot – and many believe this is man-made tragedy – caused by decades of ethnic conflict, multiple militias controlling and fighting for territory, rampant corruption and a president whose term expired last year but who’s still clinging to power whilst most of his country cling to life.

DRC should be one of Africa’s rich countries. It’s Africa’s largest copper producer and has more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt laying beneath its soil. But it ranks very low on the UN Human Development Index.

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President Joseph Kabila is now under pressure from the international community to hold elections as soon as possible as parts of his country descend deeper into chaos.

The baby with no name hardly has the strength to cry – but the cries around his country are growing louder and stronger for a new leader who may give fresh hope to the world’s most complex and longest standing humanitarian crises.

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COVID-19: Muslim graveyard in India turns bodies away, as coronavirus cases continue to surge | World News

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Delhi’s main Muslim graveyard is running out of space due to COVID-related deaths, as it surpassed Mumbai to become India’s worst-hit city.

On 15 April, a stream of ambulances arrived at the Jadid Qabristan cemetery on the outskirts of Delhi, where a patch of waste ground was turned into a COVID-19 burial ground last year.

The graves now run-up to the boundary wall, with little space for more.

People bury bodies at a graveyard in Delhi. The graveyard has had to turn away bodies as it runs out of space
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Drone footage shows people burying bodies at a graveyard in Delhi
According to official figures, Delhi recorded over 17,000 coronavirus cases on 14 April
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According to official figures, Delhi recorded over 17,000 coronavirus cases on 14 April

Head gravedigger Mohammad Shameem said he has had to turn bodies away, with space and staff at a premium.

“Yesterday there were 19 bodies, but we can only handle 15,” he said.

Hospitals are also struggling to cope under the growing strain of increased cases.

Pappu Ali, 43, contracted coronavirus and his family visited several private hospitals in the city searching for a bed. He died after being admitted to a government hospital.

“There were not enough doctors, we couldn’t even find water,” his uncle Mehboob said.

According to official figures, Delhi recorded over 17,000 cases on 14 April, while Mumbai’s highest single-day peak was 11,163 on 4 April.

People bury the body of a man, who died from coronavirus disease at a graveyard in New Delhi
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People bury the body of a man, who died with coronavirus
A Muslim graveyard in Delhi is running out of space, with the gravediggers forced to turn people away
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The Jadid Qabristan cemetery has been forced to turn people away

India reported more than 200,000 new cases in a single day on 15 April, with hospitals reporting a shortage of beds and oxygen.

The financial hub of Mumbai, India’s largest city, has gone into lockdown, but other cities remain open despite a spike in cases.

This week, millions of Hindu pilgrims gathered in the temple town of Haridwar, in Uttarakhand to celebrate Maha Kumbh Mela, dubbed as a superspreader event.

Following the event, 30 Hindu priests tested positive for coronavirus.

Among those infected with the virus, was the leader of the All India Akhada Parishad, Mahant Narendra Giri, who has been admitted to hospital.

On Thursday night, Uttarakhand reported 2,200 cases in 24 hours – its biggest single-day spike since the pandemic began in December 2019.

As cases around the country surge, India has found itself short of vaccines and is running out of the raw materials required to make new jabs.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is locally made by the Serum Institute of India (SII) but production has been delayed by a raw material shortage.

SII’s chief executive appealed to US president Joe Biden to end the ban on raw material exports out of the US.

A mourner is consoled after her husband died of COVID-19 in New Delhi. India recorded 200,000 cases on 16 April
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A mourner is consoled after her husband died of COVID-19 as India recorded 200,000 cases on 16 April
Due to a shortage of beds in hospitals, patients are forced to share beds as they received treatment for the virus
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Due to a shortage of hospital beds, patients are forced to share

“Respected POTUS, if we are to truly unite in beating the virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the US, I humble request you lift the embargo on raw material exports out of the US so that vaccine production can ramp up,” Adar Poonawalla said on Twitter.

Vaccination centres are rationing supplies, as the country inoculates over 45s having started its roll-out in mid-January with front line workers.

It has administered the most doses in the world, after America and China, but ranks much lower when looking at the per capita figure.

The government said the country had a stock of about 30 million doses, which will be enough for 10 days.

Despite initial reluctance to use non-Indian vaccines, the government has this week given emergency authorisation to Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine to be imported this month.

It has also urged Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to sell jabs to India.

A new Indian variant of the virus has been detected in the UK, with 74 cases detected by Public Health England.

India is not on the travel red list, so there is no requirement for hotel quarantine. Travellers returning from India are required to take two COVID-19 tests and quarantine at home for 10 days.

Boris Johnson is scheduled to visit the country at the end of April, his first major international trip since Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Asked if his planned trip to India would still go ahead later this month, a No 10 spokesman said it was still on.

But he said the programme “will be slightly shorter” and added: “As you would expect, safety is obviously important and is a priority for us on this trip, which is why we will make sure that all elements of the visit are COVID-secure.”



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Hong Kong: Media tycoon Jimmy Lai jailed over pro-democracy protests | World News

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Billionaire Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been imprisoned over his role in pro-democracy protests.

Mr Lai, founder of opposition newspaper Apple Daily, was one of several activists who appeared in court on Friday who had been earlier found guilty of taking part in “unauthorised assemblies” during mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.

He was sentenced to 14 months in prison while nine others received jail time or suspended sentences.

The 73-year-old is a fierce critic of Beijing and his sentence comes as the mainland is increasingly cracking down on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai is seen handcuffed and escorted by the guards leaving prison
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Mr Lai is seen handcuffed and escorted by the guards leaving prison for his hearing

Mr Lai has been in jail since December after being denied bail in a separate national security trial.

District court judge Amanda Woodcock said even though the 18 August assembly was peaceful there was a “latent risk of possible violence” and that a deterrent sentence and “immediate imprisonment” was appropriate.

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Raab says ‘China is violating the freedom of Hong Kong’

Mr Lai’s repeated arrests have drawn criticism from Western governments and international rights groups, who raised concerns over waning freedoms in the global financial hub, including freedom of speech and assembly.

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director Yamini Mishra said: “The wrongful prosecution, conviction and sentencing of these activists underlines the… government’s intention to eliminate all political opposition.”

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The other defendants also found guilty, included prominent barrister Margaret Ng and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Cyd Ho, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung.

They received sentences of up to 18 months. Ng, Leung Yiu-chung and Albert Ho were given suspended sentences.

The 2019 pro-democracy protests were spurred by Beijing’s tightening squeeze on wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997, and plunged the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the handover.

Beijing has since consolidated its authoritarian grip on Hong Kong by imposing a sweeping national security law,
punishing anything it deems as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Supporters of the law say it has restored stability.

Mr Lai has been a frequent visitor to Washington, meeting officials such as former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.

Prosecutors said he will face two additional charges of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and conspiracy to
obstruct the course of justice.

Earlier this week, Apple Daily published a hand-written letter Mr Lai sent to his colleagues from prison, saying: “It is
our responsibility as journalists to seek justice.

“As long as we… do not let evil get its way through us, we are fulfilling our responsibility.”

It is “time for us to stand tall”, he wrote.

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Human cells grown in monkey embryos triggers ‘Pandora’s box’ ethical concerns | Science & Tech News

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Human cells have been grown in monkey embryos by scientists in the US, sparking ethical concerns and warnings that it “opens a Pandora’s box”.

Those behind the research say their work could help tackle the severe shortage of transplant organs as well as enable better overall understanding of human health, from the development of disease to ageing.

But some experts in the UK have highlighted the significant ethical and legal challenges posed by the creation of such hybrid organisms and called for a public debate.

Credit: Weizhi Ji, Kunming University of Science and Technology
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The chimeric embryos were monitored in the lab for 19 days before being destroyed. Pic: Weizhi Ji, Kunming University of Science and Technology

Concerns have been raised after researchers from the Salk Institute in California produced what is known as monkey-human chimeras.

This involved human stem cells – special cells that have the ability to develop into many different cell types – being inserted in macaque embryos in petri dishes in the lab.

The aim is to understand more about how cells develop and communicate with each other.

Chimeras are organisms whose cells come from two or more individuals.

In humans, chimerism can naturally occur following organ transplants, where cells from the organ start growing in other parts of the body.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte
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Professor Izpisua Belmonte said the work was conducted with ‘utmost attention to ethical considerations’

Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who is leading the research, said: “These chimeric approaches could be really very useful for advancing biomedical research not just at the very earliest stage of life, but also the latest stage of life.”

In 2017, he and his team created the first human-pig hybrid, where they introduced human cells into early-stage pig tissue but found the environment provided poor molecular communication.

As a result, the researchers decided to investigate lab-grown chimeras using a more closely related species.

The human-monkey chimeric embryos were monitored in the lab for 19 days before being destroyed.

According to the scientists, the results, published in the journal Cell, showed human stem cells “survived and integrated with better relative efficiency than in the previous experiments in pig tissue”.

The Salk-Institute
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The chimeras were produced by researchers from the Salk Institute in California

The team said understanding more about how cells of different species communicate with each other could provide an “unprecedented glimpse into the earliest stages of human development” as well as offer scientists a “powerful tool” for research on regenerative medicine.

Insisting that their research has met current ethical and legal guidelines, Prof Izpisua Belmonte said: “As important for health and research as we think these results are, the way we conducted this work, with utmost attention to ethical considerations and by coordinating closely with regulatory agencies, is equally important.

“Ultimately, we conduct these studies to understand and improve human health.”

Human stem cells being injected into a pig embryo. Pic: Salk Institute
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Human stem cells being injected into a pig embryo. Pic: Salk Institute

Responding to the research, Dr Anna Smajdor, lecturer and researcher in biomedical ethics at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, said: “This breakthrough reinforces an increasingly inescapable fact: biological categories are not fixed – they are fluid.

“This poses significant ethical and legal challenges.”

She added: “The scientists behind this research state that these chimeric embryos offer new opportunities, because ‘we are unable to conduct certain types of experiments in humans’.

“But whether these embryos are human or not is open to question.”

Prof Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and co-director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford, said: “This research opens Pandora’s box to human-nonhuman chimeras.

“These embryos were destroyed at 20 days of development but it is only a matter of time before human-nonhuman chimeras are successfully developed, perhaps as a source of organs for humans. That is one of the long-term goals of this research.

“The key ethical question is: what is the moral status of these novel creatures? Before any experiments are performed on live-born chimeras, or their organs extracted, it is essential that their mental capacities and lives are properly assessed.”

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