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Brazil’s Bolsonaro downplays Omicron

AFP

President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday downplayed the Omicron coronavirus variant amid a surge in hard-hit Brazil, ruling out new containment measures as he defended the pursuit of herd immunity through widespread infection.

In the country with the world’s second-highest Covid-19 death toll, Bolsonaro said the arrival of the Omicron variant posed little threat, even as experts warn of growing pressure on hospitals.

“Omicron has not killed anyone,” the coronavirus-skeptic president said, after municipal authorities in the state of Goias announced the country’s first death due to the new variant.

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“The person who died in Goias already had serious problems, notably with the lungs,” which is what killed them, Bolsonaro told the Gazeta Brazil.

Experts say the variant is already the most widespread in Brazil.

Bolsonaro cited provisional evidence of Omicron being more contagious but less deadly than some earlier variants.

“Some even say it is a vaccinating virus. Some smart and serious people, not aligned to the pharmaceutical industry, say Omicron is welcome and could herald the end of the pandemic,” the far-right president added.

– Herd immunity –

Asked in Geneva about Bolsonaro’s statements, the director of the World Health Organization’s emergency program, Mike Ryan, said, “No virus that kills is welcome, especially if death and suffering can be avoided.”

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According to the Brazilian UOL news outlet, Ryan added: “The fact that the virus is less severe does not mean that the disease is mild.”

Bolsonaro insisted that Brazil’s economy could not afford another lockdown, and defended the controversial approach of allowing people to get infected for so-called herd immunity against the virus to take root.

“Herd immunity is a reality. A person immunized with the virus has a lot more antibodies than a vaccinated person,” Bolsonaro insisted.

“Me, for example, I am not vaccinated and I am very well.”

Bolsonaro recovered from a coronavirus infection in July 2020, has said he will not get vaccinated, and has opposed health passes given to vaccinated people to access certain places as a breach of freedom.

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In October, a Brazilian Senate commission approved a damning report that recommends criminal charges, including for crimes against humanity, be brought against the president for his Covid policies.

He has had social media posts deleted numerous times for spreading misinformation and inciting people to violate social distancing and mask-wearing policies.

Bolsonaro has suggested vaccines could turn people into “crocodiles,” and has endorsed the use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, despite scientific studies showing it does not work.

Covid-19 has claimed more than 620,000 lives in Brazil, a toll second only to the United States.

The health ministry said Tuesday the country had registered more than 70,700 new cases in 24 hours — a rate eight times higher than two weeks earlier.

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At the deadliest peak of the pandemic last year, hospitals were pushed to the brink of collapse in many areas, and the daily death toll at one point exceeded 4,000.

The vast country of 213 million people was slow to start its vaccination campaign under a president who had minimized Covid-19 as a “little flu.”

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International

Russian soldier in Ukraine court for first war crimes trial

AFP

A Russian soldier accused of killing a civilian during Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine appeared in court in Kyiv on Friday ahead of the first war crimes trial since the start of the offensive.

Vadim Shishimarin, 21, was brought to court for a preliminary hearing, accused of killing an unarmed 62-year-old civilian, footage distributed by local media showed.

Shishimarin, with a shaved head, wore a grey and blue hoodie and was placed in the defendant’s box, in a video post by Ukrainian media.

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He faces possible life imprisonment on charges of war crimes and premeditated murder.

The trial marks a significant moment for Ukraine, where Russian forces have been accused of killing hundreds of civilians since the war began on February 24.  

Shishimarin is accused of firing an automatic rifle from a car window, killing the civilian to prevent him from serving as a witness to a carjacking, Ukrainian prosecutors said earlier this week.

Prosecutor Yaroslav Ushchapivskiy told privately-owned Ukrainska Pravda that Shishimarin had admitted his guilt and agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

After his convoy was hit in northern Ukraine on February 28, Shishimarin joined four other fleeing soldiers and stole a car from outside the village of Chupakhivka, Ukraine says.

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The civilian, who was not named, was riding his bicycle on the side of the road not far from his home when the alleged theft took place, according to prosecutors. 

“One of the military servicemen ordered the accused to kill a civilian so that he would not report them,” according to a statement from prosector Iryna Venediktova’s office Thursday.

“The man died on the spot just a few dozen metres (yards) from his home,” it added. 

Western countries have repeatedly accused Russian troops of committing war crimes in Ukraine. 

The UN Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly on Thursday — in a session boycotted by Russia — to probe allegations of atrocities in the Kyiv, Chernigiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions.

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International Criminal Court (ICC) teams are also investigating possible mass atrocities, including in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where at least 20 bodies were discovered in April. 

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International

Russia advises against travel to UK

AFP

Moscow on Friday advised its citizens against travel to the United Kingdom, citing London’s “unfriendly” stance as well as huge delays in visas for Russians.

“In order to avoid financial losses and other possible problems, we recommend that Russian citizens refrain, if possible, from travelling to the UK and trying to obtain British visas,” the Russian foreign ministry said. 

It added that it will “act in the same way” with British citizens until the situation improves.

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The ministry said it received “numerous complaints from Russian citizens that it has become virtually impossible or extremely difficult for them to obtain a UK visa” of any category. 

Britain’s visa service “gives priority to the processing of visa applications for Ukrainian refugees,” the foreign ministry in Moscow added, also pointing out that Russians are unable to pay their visa fees using Mastercard of Visa cards issued in Russia. 

The ministry said such an approach “contradicts all previously reached Russian-British agreements on consular issues” and “can only be described as a politicised infringement of the rights of Russian citizens”.

Britain has been part of an international effort to punish Russia with asset freezes, travel bans and economic sanctions, since President Vladimir Putin moved troops into Ukraine on February 24. 

On Friday, Britain announced new sanctions targeting 12 members of Putin’s “inner circle”, including Alina Kabaeva, a former Olympic gymnast who the UK government said was “alleged to have a close personal relationship with Putin”. 

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Zelensky says Macron talking to Putin ‘in vain’

AFP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky believes that French leader Emmanuel Macron is trying “in vain” to have a constructive dialogue with Russian President Putin, according to an interview transcript released by Kyiv Friday.

“We must not look for a way out for Russia, and Macron is doing it in vain,” Zelensky told Italian television Rai 1, according the Ukrainian president’s Telegram channel.

“I know he wanted to get results from mediation between Russia and Ukraine, but he didn’t get any,” Zelensky said. 

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Moscow, he said, would not seek any end to the fighting “until Russia itself wants and understands that it needs” this.

The Elysee told AFP on Friday that Marcon had “never discussed anything with Vladimir Putin without the agreement of President Zelensky”.

“He has always said that it is up to the Ukrainians to decide the terms of their negotiation with the Russians.”

The French leader said earlier this week that Russia and Ukraine would have to come to a negotiated truce and that peace efforts would not be served by Russia’s “humiliation”.

Zelensky said that “some European leaders think we need to find a way of talking with Putin”.

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“We have been looking for them for years. And today, these routes are littered with bodies, bodies of our people,” the Ukrainian leader added.

Zelensky however repeated his offer to speak with Putin directly but described talks with Russian as “no longer possible”. 

“Today, the stage when we could sit down with Russia has passed.”

Macron is one of the few Western leaders to speak to Putin since Moscow moved troops into Ukraine on February 24, spending hours on telephone calls trying to negotiate a resolution to the conflict.

Putin on Friday spoke with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and insisted that Russia was fighting “Nazi ideology” in Ukraine.

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