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How the Flouting of COVID-19 Restrictions by Leaders Damages Credibility and Trust

Yesenia Harris

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It’s a form of d?j? vu for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and it involves government staffers, pandemic-era social gatherings and subsequent apologies.

Johnson offered one such apology this past Wednesday for attending a BYOB garden party in May 2020 involving dozens of Downing Street staff, held in contravention of COVID-19 restrictions that Britons were supposed to be following at the time.

He acknowledged public “rage” over the fact that “the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.”

And yet by Friday, Johnson’s office offered a separate apology over a pair of parties held by Downing Street staff on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral last April — a time when pandemic restrictions prompted the Queen to sit alone in her grief in St. George’s Chapel the following day.

Experts say this kind of contradictory, rule-defying behaviour by rule-makers undermines key pandemic messaging and does little to build trust with the people paying attention to what their leaders say and do.

Stated simply, leaders who act against the rules they’re recommending “tend to lose credibility amongst people,” said Gayathri Sivakumar, an associate professor in the department of journalism and media communication at Colorado State University.

WATCH | Apology from Downing Street:

Downing Street apologizes for parties held on eve of Prince Philip’s funeral

2 days ago

Duration 2:08

10 Downing Street has apologized to Queen Elizabeth II for hosting two parties on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral — held while stringent COVID-19 restrictions were in place. 2:08

It’s not just a British thing

Of course, it’s not just in Britain where these types of stories have made headlines during the pandemic.

In October 2020, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and his family cut short a vacation to Greece, after coming under criticism for going abroad at a time when the Dutch people were being asked to stay home.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, shown in February 2021, found himself in a controversy after attending a dinner at a three-star Michelin restaurant in November 2020 — at a time when he’d been urging his fellow Californians to stay home as much as possible. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The following month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom faced criticism for going to a birthday dinner at a three-star Michelin restaurant at a time when state residents were being urged not to gather with people from outside their households. Anger over pandemic restrictions was a factor in an effort to recall Newsom, but the governor held onto his job.

More recently, The Associated Press reported that a group of senior Hong Kong officials offered apologies after attending a large birthday party that led to scores of guests having to quarantine after exposure to a person who tested positive for COVID-19. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she was “disappointed” and that it’s incumbent upon officials “to set a good example and avoid attending private gatherings that may pose a major hazard.”

The exterior of a COVID-19 testing centre at Hong Kong International Airport on Jan. 11. A group of senior Hong Kong officials offered apologies earlier this month after attending a large birthday party that resulted in scores of guests needing to quarantine due to a possible COVID-19 exposure. (Lam Yik/Reuters)

Closer to home, Canada has seen some of its own political leaders doing what they wanted, not as they urged others to do in the name of public health.

The list includes premiers going places they told others not to and holding gatherings that were frowned upon under the circumstances, as well as politicians taking trips outside of Canada in the middle of the ongoing global health emergency. As recently as last month, a Liberal MP was removed from parliamentary committee duties after taking a non-essential trip outside the country.

‘One bad apple can sour a bunch’

Clifton van der Linden, an assistant professor of political science at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the issues that are entangled with how the public views politicians who flout the rules are “not something … unique to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But he said the pandemic has brought into focus the kinds of sacrifices that people are being asked to make, which contrasts with the behaviour making the wrong kinds of headlines for some politicians.

More broadly, van der Linden said research suggests that such behaviour serves to deepen cynicism about government among voters.

Clifton van der Linden, an assistant professor of political science at McMaster University in Hamilton, says the pandemic has brought into focus the kinds of sacrifices that people are being asked to make. (Submitted by Clifton van der Linden)

Monica Schoch-Spana, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, points out that these kinds of cases may draw media attention, but they shift the focus away from the fact that the majority of leaders are doing their best to do the right thing.

Schoch-Spana, who has worked in public health emergency management for more than two decades, said she fears that the repeated coverage of such stories may potentially be “reinforcing people’s lack of trust in government.”

Van der Linden agreed that “one bad apple can sour a bunch” in the minds of some voters.

Public trust at risk of being damaged

Maya Goldenberg, an associate professor of philosophy at Ontario’s University of Guelph who studies vaccine hesitancy, said such erosion of trust is a problem for people trying to lead the way out of a pandemic.

“The leadership in this pandemic, both politicians and scientists, needs a lot of public buy-in to successfully implement pandemic containment measures,” she said in an email.

“When the leadership act as if the rules don’t apply to them, they damage public trust in the leadership — and by doing that, they undermine their own ability to lead effectively,” Goldenberg said.

Monica Schoch-Spana, a senior scholar at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says the repeated media coverage of politicians breaking the rules may have an unintended consequence of reinforcing people’s lack of trust in government. (Submitted by Monica Schoch-Spana)

Schoch-Spana said people are certainly paying attention to leaders in the pandemic — and those figures can help convey key messages to the public, particularly when they are following the rules.

But she said the stories about leaders who aren’t abiding by the rules are becoming fodder “for a proxy war for people in how they feel about politicians and governments more generally.”

Alan Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said a lot of the reasons people choose to follow or not follow such protocols are deeply embedded in their own identity and values.

“My guess is that this is the kind of thing that will be cited by people who are not complying with restrictions, but most of whom perhaps would not have followed the restrictions,” he said.

Apologies not enough

Some leaders have offered apologies in the wake of COVID-era controversies — but that’s more of a media-relations strategy than a coherent pandemic leadership strategy.

“It is stunning to watch so many politicians and a few scientific advisers flout the rules and then think an apology is enough to restore their credibility with the public,” Goldenberg said.

Maya Goldenberg is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph who studies vaccine hesitancy. (Submitted by Maya Goldenberg)

Colorado State’s Sivakumar said one strategy might be for leaders to pair an apology with a reiteration of why restrictions are in place, even if “the damage is done” at that point.

“It would take coverage of the leader following COVID-related rules in the later date consistently to undo the damage a bit,” she said.

Schoch-Spana said it appears the leaders finding themselves in compromising situations are getting communications advice to make these apologies, but they need to do more.

“I think that these leaders who are caught in this misbehaviour have an obligation to take the moment even further, to get beyond the formulaic apology and reflect back how hard it is, how hard the COVID-19 conditions are for people,” she said.

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Original Post: cbc.ca

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Russia Launches Fresh Offensive, Wants Sanctions Relief to Free up Ukraine Food Supply Routes

Yesenia Harris

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Updates from Day 91 of the invasion

Severodonetsk remains under attack in the east, Ukraine officials say.

Zelenksy addresses Davos gathering, repeats willingness to negotiate with Russia.

Russia wants sanctions relief in exchange for access to food supply corridors.

Russia to eliminate upper age limit for military service.

U.S. won’t extend waiver that has allowed Russia to keep up with debt payments.

Russian forces launched offensives on towns in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, with constant mortar bombardment destroying several houses and killing civilians, Ukrainian officials said, as Russia focuses its attack on the industrial Donbas region.

Russia has been focused on attempting to seize the separatist-claimed Donbas’s two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket on the main eastern front, according to Ukrainian officials.

In the easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Severodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets River and its twin Lysychansk, on the west bank, have become a pivotal battlefield. Russian forces were advancing from three directions to encircle them.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said Russian forces launched an offensive on Severodonetsk early on Wednesday and the town was under constant fire from mortars.

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said six civilians were killed and at least eight wounded, most near bomb shelters, in Severodonetsk.

Smoke rises above a weapon manned by pro-Russian troops toward the direction of Severodonetsk on Tuesday in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

“At the moment, with the support of artillery, the Russian occupiers are attacking Severodonetsk,” Gaidai said.

Ukraine’s military said it had repelled nine Russian attacks on Tuesday in the Donbas, where Moscow’s troops had killed at least 14 civilians, using aircraft, rocket launchers, artillery, tanks, mortars and missiles.

WATCH | Russian troops would have to know some orders are unlawful: expert:

Expect dozens more war crimes trials to come due to Russia-Ukraine war, expert says

23 hours ago

Targeting unarmed civilians during war is ‘always criminal’ said Michael Newton, a law professor and former U.S. State Department official. There are dozens more war crimes trials to come out of the war between Ukraine and Russia, he said.

Reuters could not immediately verify information about the fighting.

The Donbas fighting follows Russia’s biggest victory in months: the surrender last week of Ukraine’s garrison in the port of Mariupol after a siege in which Kyiv believes tens of thousands of civilians were killed.

Three months into the invasion, Russia still has only limited gains to show for its worst military loss in decades, while much of Ukraine has suffered devastation in the biggest attack on a European state since 1945.

Zelensky said Wednesday that Russia must pull back to its prewar positions as a first step before diplomatic talks, a negotiating line that Moscow is unlikely to agree to anytime soon.

Speaking by video link to attendees at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelensky expressed a willingness to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, but stressed that Moscow needs to make clear it, too, is ready to “shift from the bloody war to diplomacy.”

“[Diplomacy is] possible if Russia shows at least something. When I say at least something, I mean pulling back troops to where they were before Feb. 24,” Zelensky said, referring to the day Russia’s invasion began. “I believe it would be a correct step for Russia to make.”

Grain, food exports remain blocked

The war has also caused growing food shortages and soaring prices due to sanctions and disruption of supply chains. Both Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of grain and other commodities.

Russia said it was ready to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine, in return for the lifting of some sanctions, the Interfax news agency cited Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko as saying on Wednesday.

Ukraine’s Black Sea ports have been blocked since Russia sent thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, and more than 20 million tonnes of grain are stuck in silos in the country.

WATCH | Recriminations, but few solutions so far to free up food supply routes:

Ukraine war deepens global food crisis

17 hours ago

The impact of the Ukraine war extends far beyond the country’s borders as Russian forces have destroyed crops and blockaded ports along the Black Sea, affecting the food supply in Africa and the Middle East.

Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies, and the lack of significant grain exports from Ukraine ports is contributing to a growing global food crisis.

Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn and sunflower oil.

Western powers have been discussing the idea of setting up “safe corridors” for grain exports from Ukraine’s ports, adding that any such corridor would need Russian consent.

“We have repeatedly stated on this point that a solution to the food problem requires a comprehensive approach, including the lifting of sanctions that have been imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions,” Rudenko was quoted as saying.

“And it also requires the demining by the Ukrainian side of all ports where ships are anchored. Russia is ready to provide the necessary humanitarian passage, which it does every day,” he said.

Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of planting drifting mines in the Black Sea.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday that Russia was using food supplies as a weapon with global repercussions.

“We are always ready for dialogue with all those who seek … peaceful resolution of all problems. I leave Ursula von der Leyen’s statement to her conscience,” Rudenko said.

He said that Russia would discuss the possibility exchanging prisoners with Ukraine once those who surrendered had been convicted. Russian and separatist officials have said some of those who surrendered should be tried for war crimes.

British military authorities say Ukraine’s overland export routes are “highly unlikely” to offset the problems caused by Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea port of Odesa.

The U.K. Ministry of Defence, in an update posted Wednesday morning, says there has been no “significant” merchant shipping in or out of Odesa since the start of the Russian invasion.

WATCH | Canada sends more military aid to Ukraine:

Canada is sending almost $100M in military aid to Ukraine

21 hours ago

Defence Minister Anita Anand announced that the federal government is set to send Canada’s biggest single donation of military equipment to Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion.

The ministry says that the blockade, combined with the lack of overland routes, means that significant supplies of grain remain in storage and can’t be exported.

“While the threat of Russia’s naval blockade continues to deter access by commercial shipping to Ukrainian ports, the resulting supply shortfalls will further increase the price of many staple products,” the ministry said.

Russia could be squeezed by U.S. move on debt

The U.S. announced early Wednesday it would not extend a waiver set to expire on Wednesday that enabled Russia to bondholders.

The Treasury Department said on its website late on Tuesday it would not extend the waiver, set to expire Wednesday, which allowed Russia to make interest and maturity payments on its sovereign debt.

A boy plays in front of houses ruined by shelling in Borodyanka, Ukraine, Tuesday, near Kyiv. While the Russian military has largely abandoned that region at present, the damage from the earliest days of the invasion is apparent. (Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press)

That waiver has allowed Russia to keep up government debt payments, but its expiry now appears to make default inevitable — the country’s first major one on international sovereign bonds in more than a century.

Almost $2 billion US worth of payments on Russian international bonds fall due before year-end.

Unlike in most default situations, Moscow is not short of money. Russia’s debt repayment dues pale in comparison to its oil and gas revenues, which stood at $28 billion in April alone thanks to high energy prices.

The Russian Finance Ministry said it will pay in rubles and offer “the opportunity for subsequent conversion into the original currency,” but that could be viewed by foreign investors as a default.

Russia to amend military service age rules

Russia’s parliament approved a law on Wednesday removing the upper age limit for contractual service in the military, amid heavy casualties in Ukraine. The bill now needs only the signature of Putin to become law.

Currently, only Russians aged 18-40 and foreigners aged 18-30 can enlist as professional soldiers in the Russian military.

Russia’s defence ministry said on March 25 that 1,351 service personnel had been killed and 3,825 wounded since Moscow sent its armed forces into Ukraine on Feb. 24. It has not updated its casualty figures since.

Both Ukrainian and Western intelligence officials have said Russia’s losses in Ukraine were significantly higher at the time, and have risen sharply since March.

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Original Post: cbc.ca

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Earth’s Oceans Were the Hottest, Most Acidic on Record in 2021, UN Report Finds

Yesenia Harris

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The world’s oceans grew to their warmest and most acidic levels on record last year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Wednesday, as United Nations officials warned that war in Ukraine threatened global climate commitments.

Oceans saw the most striking extremes as the WMO detailed a range of turmoil wrought by climate change in its annual State of the Global Climate report. It said melting ice sheets had helped push sea levels to new heights in 2021.

“Our climate is changing before our eyes. The heat trapped by human-induced greenhouse gases will warm the planet for many generations to come,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas in a statement.

The report follows the latest UN climate assessment, which warned that humanity must drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions or face increasingly catastrophic changes to the world’s climate.

The world’s oceans are the most acidic in at least 26,000 years, the UN agency said. (J. Sumerling/Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority via Associated Press)

Taalas told reporters there was scant airtime for climate challenges as other crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine, grabbed headlines.

Selwin Hart, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on climate action, criticized countries reneging on climate commitments due to the conflict, which has pushed up energy prices and prompted European nations to seek to replace Russia as an energy supplier.

“We are … seeing many choices being made by many major economies which, quite frankly, have the potential to lock in a high-carbon, high-polluting future and will place our climate goals at risk,” Hart told reporters.

On Tuesday, global equity index giant MSCI warned that the world faces a dangerous increase in greenhouse gases if Russian gas is replaced with coal.

The WMO report said levels of climate-warming carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere in 2021 surpassed previous records.

Globally, the average temperature last year was 1.11 C above the preindustrial average — as the world edges closer to the 1.5 C threshold beyond which the effects of warming are expected to become drastic.

“It is just a matter of time before we see another warmest year on record,” Taalas said.

Oceans bear much of the brunt of the warming and emissions. The bodies of water absorb around 90 per cent of the Earth’s accumulated heat and 23 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions from human activity.

The ocean has warmed markedly faster in the last 20 years, hitting a new high in 2021, and is expected to become even warmer, the report said. That change would likely take centuries or millennia to reverse, it noted.

The ocean is also now its most acidic in at least 26,000 years as it absorbs and reacts with more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Sea level has risen 4.5 centimetres in the last decade, with the annual increase from 2013 to 2021 more than double what it was from 1993 to 2002.

The WMO also listed individual extreme heat waves, wildfires, floods and other climate-linked disasters around the world, noting reports of more than $100 billion in damages.

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NASA’s Mars InSight Mission Coming to an End As Dust Covers Solar Panels

Yesenia Harris

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A NASA spacecraft on Mars is headed for a dusty demise.

The Insight lander is losing power because of all the dust on its solar panels. NASA said Tuesday it will keep using the spacecraft’s seismometer to register marsquakes until the power peters out, likely in July. Then flight controllers will monitor InSight until the end of this year, before calling everything off.

“There really hasn’t been too much doom and gloom on the team. We’re really still focused on operating the spacecraft,” said Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Bruce Banerdt, the principal scientist.

Since landing on Mars in 2018, InSight has detected more than 1,300 marsquakes; the biggest one, a magnitude 5, occurred two weeks ago.

It will be NASA’s second Mars lander lost to dust: A global dust storm took out Opportunity in 2018. In InSight’s case, it’s been a gradual gathering of dust, especially over the past year.

NASA’s two other functioning spacecraft on the Martian surface — rovers Curiosity and Perseverance — are still going strong thanks to nuclear power.

The space agency may rethink solar power in the future for Mars, said planetary science director Lori Glaze, or at least experiment with new panel-clearing tech or aim for the less-stormy seasons.

InSight currently is generating one-tenth of the power from the sun that it did upon arrival.

Deputy project manager Kathya Zamora Garcia said the lander initially had enough power to run an electric oven for one hour and 40 minutes; now it’s down to 10 minutes max.

The InSight team anticipated this much dust buildup, but hoped a gust of wind or a dust devil might clean off the solar panels. That has yet to happen, despite several thousand whirlwinds coming close.

“None of them have quite hit us dead-on yet enough to blow the dust off the panels,” Banerdt told reporters.

Another science instrument, dubbed the mole, was supposed to burrow five metres underground to measure the internal temperature of Mars. But the German digger never got deeper than a half-metre because of the unexpected composition of the red dirt, and it finally was declared dead at the beginning of last year.

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