- A vehicle explosion in downtown Tennessee on Christmas Day that wounded several people and damaged buildings was investigated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Witnesses heard an announcement coming from the vehicle warning that a bomb was about to detonate before a 15-minute countdown music was played. This gave sufficient time for the local police to evacuate the area, preventing any fatalities from the accident. Officials had matched the DNA of Anthony Quinn Warner, a 63-year-old man whose burnt remains were found in the recreational vehicle that detonated. Neighbours and people around Warner described him as a recluse and said he was a former employee in the alarm security business.
- President Donald Trump signed a bill that grants US$900 billion (S$1,189 billion) in coronavirus stimulus spending last Sunday (Dec 27). He had previously blocked this bill, describing it as a “disgrace”. Mr Trump’s decision came after millions of Americans lost unemployment benefits due to the lack of funding from the federal government. Democrats criticised the delay in approving this legislation that could have prevented the loss of pandemic-related unemployment assistance for millions of Americans. The stimulus bill will allow Americans to claim jobless assistance for 50 weeks and provides an additional US$300 (S$396) a week in benefits to workers who have lost their jobs. It will also provide billions of dollars for specific industries that are facing unique challenges posed by the pandemic, such as the airlines’ industry.
- Novavax is launching a late-stage trial of its Covid-19 vaccine in the United States (US) and Mexico. Unlike the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, Novavax’s vaccine can be stored between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius, which would not require the special ultra cold chain for transportation. The vaccine development company, however, faced a rocky route with a failed clinical vaccine trial that was meant for respiratory syncytial virus back in 2016. Despite not having any approved vaccines in its record, Novavax is testing its vaccine in a phase-3 trial in the United Kingdom (UK) in partnership with Britain’s vaccines task force and a phase-2 study in South Africa.
- The new coronavirus strain has been discovered in Canada. Public health leaders are warning that the US could have failed to detect the more infectious variant in the country. The Sars-Cov-2 variant was first discovered in the UK and has since been found in Japan, Australia, several countries across Europe, and more recently in Canada last Saturday (Dec 26). The new variant is said to be 70 per cent more transmissible and health experts worry that it might escape protection of the current vaccines being developed and distributed.
- The US Congress overturned President Donald Trump’s veto of a defence spending bill last Friday (Jan 1). This was the first time the Republican-controlled Senate has overturned a bill during Mr Trump’s presidency. The US$740 billion (S$978 billion) bill will fund defence policies in 2021, which include limiting troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Europe. President Trump rejected the bill, calling it a “gift to China and Russia”. Under a circumstance where the President has vetoed legislation, the US Congress would have to command two-thirds of votes in both chambers of the Congress. On this occasion, the Senate voted 81-13 for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), overriding the President’s veto. This came just two days before a new US Congress is to be sworn in.
- The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) said it will delist three Chinese telecommunication companies – China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom Hong Kong. Shares in these three telecom giants will be suspended on NYSE starting next week due to their claimed links with its military. The state-owned companies have no significant economic presence in the US and earn most of their revenues from China. This move, however, is seen more as a symbolic blow to the tensions between the economic giants. China has also since blacklisted several US firms in response to President Trump’s order in November that barred US investments into Chinese firms owned or controlled by the military.
- Mexico received an initial shipment of 3,000 doses of the US-German Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Chile and Costa Rica have also begun administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to their people. Mexico has one of the highest death tolls, closely trailing behind the US, India and Brazil. Despite a surge in the number of cases, Brazil is not due to start mass vaccinations until February 2021. Argentina, on the other hand, has chosen the Russian-produced vaccine Sputnik V to prove that the vaccine is safe to administer after criticisms from the West and in Russia.
- Brazil’s Vice-President Hamilton Mourão tested positive for Covid-19 last Monday (Dec 28). His office made no further comments if Mr Hamilton was displaying symptoms but told the public that he would self-isolate in his official residence. Brazil has the second-highest number of Covid-related deaths worldwide, after the US.
- Félix Vásquez, an advocate for rural workers’ rights and a member of the Lenca indigenous community, was shot and killed last Tuesday (Dec 29) in Honduras. His death came after the killing of an environmentalist from the same indigenous tribe that happened four years ago. Mr Vásquez had announced recently that he would be running for the left-wing Libre party in the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections before he was murdered by a masked gunman. The rise in the killings of environment defenders in Honduras has raised the issue of risky activism in the country in recent years.
- Argentina’s Congress legalised abortions up to the 14th week of pregnancy last Wednesday (Dec 30). This is believed to be a historic and ground-breaking move for a country in a region with some of the world’s strictest termination laws. Before the legislation was passed, the country only permitted abortions in cases of rape or when the mother’s health was in danger. Large crowds of both pro-choice activists and opponents gathered outside the Congress in the capital Buenos Aire to watch the vote live.
- Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega pushed through new repressing laws last Tuesday (Dec 29). The law passed will ban “traitors” from standing for or holding positions in public office, and was yet another repressive move from the government after a series of hardline laws passed in recent months that included jailing political opponents and publishers of “fake news”. President Ortega is seeking a fourth term in office in November 2021. He has been in power since 2007 and previously ousted the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 during the Sandinista revolution.
- South Korea reported a record of 40 deaths last Tuesday (Dec 29) as a result of daily Covid-19 cases rising to more than 1,000 again. The daily death toll was the highest since South Korea reported its first Covid-19 case in late January 2020. Authorities have tightened social-distancing measures as a result of the current third wave of infections. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) extended current social-distancing measures in Seoul and surrounding areas until Sunday (Jan 3). There are also concerns with regards to the shortage of hospital beds and treatment for the seriously ill. Authorities issued an order to private hospitals in order to secure more intensive-care beds for the infected.
- Indonesia announced that it is preparing to vaccinate its population with the Sinovac vaccine when approved for use by the Food and Drug Agency. Indonesia secured 1.2 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine and will receive another 1.8 million doses this month. Budi Gunadi Sadkin, the Minister for Health has also said a 50 million dose-deal with AstraZeneca would be finalised before the end of this year and the same deal with Pfizer will be finalised by January 2021. Indonesia’s 1.3 million front-line workers will be the first to be vaccinated between January and April.
- At least 10,000 people marched through the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal last Tuesday (Dec 29) in violation of Covid-19 social-distancing measures, to protest against Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s decision to dissolve parliament and call for snap elections. Oli believes the dissolution to be necessary because of internal quarrels and uncooperative lawmakers from the ruling Nepal Communist Party, which has paralysed decision making. The Supreme Court of Nepal will continue to hear dozens of petitions filed against Oli’s political move this month.
- North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un will open a huge Workers’ Party Congress early this month. Congress is slated to open amidst the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, ailing economy and international sanctions. Kim’s hopes for sanctions relief were dashed when the US rejected limited denuclearisation measures by North Korea in return for extensive sanctions relief. In late January 2019, North Korea was forced to shut its border with its biggest trading partner, China after the Covid-19 virus outbreak. As a result, trade volume decreased by 75 per cent.
- Australia amended the lyrics to its national anthem. The changes took effect last Friday (Jan 1). The lyrics were changed from “young and free” to “for we are one and free”. The idea to change the lyrics of the national anthem was first brought up in 2020 by New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters that the national anthem should reflect Australia’s heritage of more than 300 national ancestries and language groups and the amendments did just that. Australia has struggled to reconcile its history for decades, with the Aborigines who arrived on the island some 50,000 years before British colonists.
- French-Italian designer Pierre Cardin has passed away at age 98, has been a fashion designer for more than seven decades. At an early age of 14, he was a tailor’s apprentice and moved to Paris to study architecture and work with a fashion house when he turned 23. In 1954, he opened his first ladies’ boutique, Eve. By the 1970s, he became a pioneer in branding by exploiting his name as a brand and putting it on almost everything, including cars. He was the first to enter the licensing business for perfumes, accessories and even food.
- China and the European Union (EU) have planned to finalise a major investment deal by this week. Abysmal trade relations with the US changed China’s position on a number of disagreements with the EU. The deal would open up China’s various sectors such as manufacturing, construction, advertising, air transport and telecoms to EU companies. The deal also gives China access to a small part of the EU renewable energy sector on a reciprocal basis. The agreement also removes barriers for investment in China, such as joint-venture requirements and caps on foreign ownership in certain industries. Furthermore, China is being asked to pledge to subscribe to the International Labour Organisation’s rules on forced labour. The deal is in the pipeline to be ratified by the European parliament, a process that will not begin until the second half of 2021.
- A 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck southern Croatia on Tuesday (Dec 29). A 12-year-old girl was killed in the town of Petrinja and five people died in the nearby town of Glina. A seventh victim was found amidst the rubble of a church in Zazina. The earthquake could be felt from the Croatian capital Zagreb, to neighbouring Bosnia and Serbia, and as far away as Italy. There were also reports of injuries in the nearby town of Sisak. Tomislav Fabijanic, head of emergency medical services in Sisak, said many people had been injured in the two towns. Slovenia proceeded to close its nuclear power plant in Krsko it co-owns with Croatia.
- The UK parliament has overwhelmingly backed the post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. The House of Commons voted 521-73 supporting the deal. The trade deal came into force at GMT 11.00 pm last Thursday (Dec 31). Under the new trade deal, the UK will leave the single market and the customs union but will end the possibility of tariffs on goods. The deal came four-and-a-half years after the UK voted to leave the EU in a referendum. The European parliament has started studying the 1,246-page document in detail but will not get the chance to formally ratify the agreement until early 2021.
- Russian scientists found preserved remains of a woolly rhinoceros in Yakutia, Russia. The rhinoceros likely roamed the Siberian hinterland more than 12,000 years ago. The remains were found in August 2020 at a river, including all its limbs, some of its organs, its tusk and even its wool. Scientist Valery Plotnikov said the rhinoceros may have lived in the late Pleistocene era, which ended 11,700 years ago.
- An army of Palestinian militants launched rockets into the Mediterranean Sea off the Gaza Strip in the first-ever joint exercise. Eight rockets were launched from Gaza towards the Mediterranean after Abu Hamza, spokesman for Islamic Jihad, delivered a speech to launch the drill. Israeli media believed the exercise was organised by the militants’ sponsors in Iran to demonstrate risks Israel could face if Iran comes under US or Israeli attack. Iran has blamed Israel for the death of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
- Iran began its first human trial of the safety and effectiveness of its locally-made Covid-19 vaccine last Tuesday (Dec 29). The vaccine is produced by Shifa Pharmed, part of a state-owned pharmaceutical conglomerate known as Barekat. The study will enrol a total of 56 volunteers to receive two shots of the Iranian vaccine within two weeks. The treatment, dubbed Coviran, is an inactivated vaccine, made up of the coronavirus that has been weakened or killed by chemicals, similar to how polio immunisations are made.
- A huge explosion struck Aden Airport in Southern Yemen last Wednesday (Dec 30). The explosion happened shortly after a plane carrying members of Yemen’s new cabinet landed. The blast killed 25 people and injured 110. No government officials were hurt in the incident and no groups claimed responsibility for the attacks. Yemen has been in a protracted civil war since 2014.
- Syria’s military claimed Israeli jets destroyed targets near Damascus, capital of Syria in the early hours last Wednesday (Dec 30). The targets are believed to be a weapons and rocket warehouse used by the Iran-allied Lebanese militant Hezbollah group and other militias, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British non-governmental organisation (NGO). The airstrike killed one Syrian soldier and wounded another three according to the Syrian military.
- Jordanian court sentenced five leaders of a national teachers syndicate to one-year imprisonment over a protest demanding for salary increase. The five were part of 13 teacher-members of the Teachers Association council who were arrested in July 2020. The arrests sparked widespread protests in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Jordan agreed to increase salaries by 50 per cent in September 2019 but the raises were postponed because of Covid-19.
- South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa announced tougher coronavirus restrictions last Tuesday (Dec 29), a day after South Africa recorded more than one million Covid-19 cases. The new restrictions include a ban on indoor and outdoor gatherings and a curfew from 9.00 pm to 6.00 am. Alcohol sales will also be prohibited. The new variant is said to be the cause of the surge in infections. South Africa is the country worst hit by the coronavirus on the African continent, followed by Morocco.
- Kumerra Gemechu, 38, was detained by Ethiopian police officials last Tuesday (Dec 29). Mr Kumerra has been working for Reuters as a freelance cameraman for a decade. He covered the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, but reports could not confirm if his arrest was due to his work. Mr Kumerra’s flash drives and papers were also seized by the police when he was taken away in front of his wife and three children. The Ethiopian government heavily controls access to the region for international media, aid agencies and human rights bodies.
- The people in the Central African Republic (CAR) voted in an election amidst violence between government and rebel forces in the country. The election was called by President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in a bid for a second term in office. Mr Touadéra has accused his opposition, François Bozizé, for instigating a coup with rebel groups and ignored calls from the opposition to postpone the election due to the current instability. There was a large voter turnout in many areas and ballots were cast in both the presidential and legislative races, with United Nations (UN) peacekeepers patrolling the country’s capital, Bangui.
- South African officials met to discuss the implementation of tighter coronavirus restrictions as the second wave of Covid-19 infections hit the country. The number of confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic has totalled to more than one million, a figure threatening to overwhelm hospitals. President Cyril Ramaphosa was ready to announce stricter curbs but some local leaders have been hesitant to restore full-scale lockdown measures due to the adverse economic impacts. Many are worried that highly restrictive lockdowns will leave the tattered economy in a state of no repair. The cause of the second wave of infections is believed to be complacency around social behaviour, such as mass gatherings.
- Suspected Islamist militants attacked two villages in Niger, killing around 79 people, according to the Reuters news agency. Around 49 people were killed in the village of Tchombangou and another 30 died in Zaroumdareye. Both villages are located in the vicinity of Niger’s western border with neighbouring country Mali. Africa’s Sahel region has been plagued with several violent tragedies recently. Both countries continue to be affected by ethnic violence, human and drug trafficking, and banditry.
- Two men convicted over the assassination of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Laurent Kabila 20 years ago were pardoned last Saturday (Jan 2). The pardon came during a misunderstanding between President Félix Tshisekedi and Laurent Kabila’s son, Joseph Kabila. Joseph Kabila served as President for 18 years after his father’s assassination before passing on the power peacefully to Mr Tshisekedi. Now, the president is currently seeking a new coalition that can give him a majority in parliament.