The World Health Organization says the COVID-19 pandemic caused the deaths of nearly 15 million people worldwide through the end of last year. The WHO’s estimate is nearly triple the 5.4 million deaths reported by governments. It’s based on an examination of the number of excess deaths — that is, how many more people died than would otherwise be expected. The WHO’s Assistant Director-General Dr. Samira Asma announced the findings.
Dr. Samira Asma: “What we released today is a staggering number of 14.9 million excess deaths since the start of the pandemic, from January 2020 to December 2021, in a period of 24 months. What we also reported today is that the majority of these deaths occurred in Southeast Asia region, followed by Europe and the Americas.”
Here in the U.S., where an official count of COVID-19 deaths has topped 1 million, coronavirus infections have jumped by 50% among Transportation Security Administration workers in the two weeks since a Trump-appointed federal judge struck down a federal mask mandate for air travelers.
Meanwhile, the FDA has restricted use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine over concerns that in extremely rare cases it may cause life-threatening blood clots.
In southern Ukraine, Russia’s military has reportedly launched a ground assault on the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the besieged city of Mariupol. New video shows explosions at the vast Azovstal steelworks plant, where Ukrainian fighters say some 200 civilians remain sheltered from the fighting. The U.N. says it has dispatched another convoy to Mariupol in its latest effort to evacuate more civilians.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials say Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has accepted an apology from Russian President Vladimir Putin, after Russia’s foreign minister claimed that Adolf Hitler had Jewish blood. Sergey Lavrov’s comments set off outrage in Israel, which has nonetheless declined to join U.S.- and European-led sanctions against Russia.
The Louisiana House has advanced a Republican-led bill that would classify abortions as murder, allowing prosecutors to criminally charge people who terminate their pregnancies. Reproductive justice advocates have condemned the measure as “blatantly unconstitutional” and “barbaric.”
In related news, college and high school students on Thursday held walkouts across the country as protests continue in response to a leaked Supreme Court opinion that revealed the court is preparing to overturn Roe — the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion nationwide. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts has decried the leak as “absolutely appalling.”
The U.S. Senate is holding a vote next week to codify abortion rights into federal law. The efforts face deep opposition from Republicans and could still fail even though Democrats control both the House and Senate — partly because conservative Democrats Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona continue to oppose changing the filibuster. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York spoke Thursday in support of abortion rights.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: “I do not think that 50% of America should be told that they have to put their bodies at risk of life or death without their consent. It is barbaric. It is inhumane. It is unacceptable. And I hope every human being in this country understands that when you take away a woman’s right to make her decisions about her health and well-being, she is no longer a full citizen. She no longer has freedom. She no longer has bodily autonomy. She no longer has basic civil rights or civil liberties. That is what this decision would do in America today.”
The World Food Programme is appealing to Russia to reopen Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea to allow for shipments of grain. Speaking to a U.N. donors’ conference in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday, WFP director and Nobel Peace Laureate David Beasley said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed global food prices to near record highs, raising the cost of commodities like wheat, corn and cooking oil.
David Beasley: “If we don’t get those ports open in the Odessa region, we’re going to have economic agricultural collapse inside Ukraine, a country that feeds 400 million people. And I can tell you the devastation globally will be beyond anything we have seen.”
In Mexico, police freed 280 asylum seekers locked inside a tractor-trailer that was abandoned Friday on a roadside in the southern state of Veracruz. A Red Cross worker said the migrants were lucky to be alive, after local residents responded to their pleas for help.
Jorge García: “Because of the screaming, people came from nearby. I don’t know who opened the trailer, but it’s a good thing they opened it, because look at the state of these people. They were behind a fake wall inside the trailer. Most of them are dehydrated.”
The 280 asylum seekers came from Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras. Among them were 18 children. They were apprehended by Mexico’s National Migration Institute, which will determine their status.
Mexican authorities have reportedly agreed to take back more Cuban and Nicaraguan migrants expelled by the United States under Title 42, a Trump-era public health order that has been used to block nearly 2 million people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border from seeking asylum — a violation of international law.
In more immigration news, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper writes in a new book that in 2020, then-President Trump asked if the U.S. military could “shoot missiles into Mexico to destroy the drug labs.” Esper also reveals that White House senior adviser Stephen Miller asked the Pentagon to send a quarter-million U.S. troops to the Mexico border.
Israeli police have launched a manhunt for attackers who killed three people and injured several others Thursday during a rampage through an ultra-Orthodox community near Tel Aviv. Police say at least two attackers — each wielding an ax or a knife — randomly attacked pedestrians in the town of Elad before fleeing. The attack came as Israelis celebrated Independence Day; it follows a series of deadly attacks inside Israel committed by Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel — and retaliatory violence by Israel, which has killed at least 47 Palestinians this year. In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank not to exact revenge.
In Iraq, at least one person died and more than 5,000 were hospitalized with respiratory ailments Thursday as a massive dust storm blanketed much of the country. Six of Iraq’s 18 provinces suffered the storm’s effects, including the capital Baghdad, where authorities urged everyone to stay indoors — especially those with breathing difficulties.
Ahmad Thaer: “This dust makes the situation worse, because we cannot inhale clean air with this dust storm. There could have been better solutions for the climate to become balanced. Green belts could have been planted, and we could adhere to international climate treaties. This continuously happens, and every time people die because of it.”
It’s the seventh severe dust storm to hit Iraq in just the last month. In March, the International Monetary Fund released a report finding temperatures in the Middle East and Central Asia have already risen 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, triggering droughts and causing over 2,600 deaths a year.
The president of the newly formed Amazon Labor Union told a Senate committee Thursday that U.S. labor law is failing to protect the rights of workers to organize. Christian Smalls, who led the first-ever successful union campaign at a U.S. Amazon warehouse, was testifying to the Senate Budget Committee. He said that during organizing campaigns, Amazon has routinely broken the law with impunity, forcing workers into captive audience meetings aimed at breaking up unions.
Christian Smalls: “They have captive audiences every single day. For example, at JFK, they did them every 20 minutes. They brought in classrooms the size of 50 to 60 workers, drilled anti-union propaganda into their heads for nearly an hour. And they did this four times a week.”
Smalls called on senators to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a labor law reform that would make it easier for workers to form unions. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House but is stalled in the Senate, where it faces opposition from Republicans and some Democrats. Thursday’s hearing was called by Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, who urged politicians at all levels of government to cancel contracts with companies that bust unions and break labor laws.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: “Taxpayer dollars should not go to companies like Amazon who repeatedly break the law. And we’re talking about billions and billions of dollars in contracts. No government, not the federal government, not the state government and not any city government, should be handing out corporate welfare to union busters and labor law violators.”
On Wednesday, Senate Democrats voted overwhelmingly against a measure authored by Senator Sanders that would require semiconductor manufacturers that receive federal funding to respect workers’ union rights, while barring them from outsourcing jobs. The measure failed on a vote of 6 to 87.
President Biden has named Karine Jean-Pierre as the new White House press secretary, replacing Jen Psaki, who is stepping down from the role next week. Jean-Pierre becomes the first African American, first Caribbean American and first openly LGBTQ+ person to serve as the president’s chief spokesperson. She was born in Martinique to Haitian parents and grew up in Queens, New York. Jean-Pierre previously worked with the political organizing group MoveOn and is the partner of CNN political reporter Suzanne Malveaux. She spoke from the White House Thursday.
Karine Jean-Pierre: “This is a historic moment, and it’s not lost on me. I understand how important it is for so many people out there, so many different communities that I stand on their shoulders, and I have been throughout my career.”
Jean-Pierre replaces Jen Psaki, who reportedly has a deal with MSNBC to produce a show on NBCUniversal’s streaming platform, Peacock.
In the Philippines, voters are headed to the polls Monday for an anticipated presidential election. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos who was overthrown in 1986, appears to have a significant lead over current Vice President Leni Robredo, who’s in second place. Survivors of Marcos’s brutal two-decade regime are angered by his son’s candidacy and have recounted horrific details of what they endured under Marcos’s rule. This is a former political prisoner.
Cristina Bagawan: “The relatives proved that they were killed, summarily executed, tortured, their belongings taken from them forcibly, you know? So what more proof do you need?”