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COVID-19 Surge in Europe As It Heads Into Winter Could Bode Ill for U.S.




Winter is coming, and Europe is once again a coronavirus epicenter.

Germany’s beloved Christmas markets are in peril, and its intensive-care beds are filling up. Austria is telling the unvaccinated to stay out of restaurants and cafes. The Netherlands is headed for a partial lockdown, the first in western Europe since summertime.

In eastern Europe, where vaccination rates are generally low, the situation is far more dire, with surging daily fatality rates in states such as Romania and Bulgaria, which are European Union members. The World Health Organization, which includes Russia in its European region, on Wednesday reported a 10% rise in coronavirus deaths in Europe over the previous week, bucking a trend of declines in most other regions.

Across the continent, European governments are uneasily eyeing a likely backlash if unpopular measures such as strict shutdowns again become widespread, even while weighing possibly dire public-health consequences if safety measures are flouted.

Colder temperatures are driving people indoors, and holiday gatherings add to risks caused by crowded conditions, public health experts warn. The disheartening sense of COVID-19 déjà vu is acute in countries like Germany, where vaccination rates are the lowest in western Europe and new infections are breaking records.

“It would be advisable to cancel all large events,” Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said Friday, cautioning that big indoor festivities could “end up being super-spreader events.”

In Europe, as in the United States, it is largely the unvaccinated who are becoming seriously ill and dying. But breakthrough infections — vaccinated people contracting the disease — and the specter of waning immunity are handing fresh ammunition to vaccine resisters, galvanizing political tensions that populist movements across the continent have sought for months to exploit.

In the nearly two years since the pandemic began, Europe’s waves of infection have often presaged similar suffering across the Atlantic.

Nearly a year after vaccination rollouts began in most advanced countries, Western Europe’s vaccination rates are higher than those in the United States. Fewer than 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated, compared with nearly 67% in Germany and ranging up to almost 88% in Portugal, according to an Oxford University tracker.

Germany, which initially won plaudits for a sober, science-driven approach to containing coronavirus infections, has come to exemplify the painful reversal of fortune experienced by a handful of countries in a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide. The highly contagious Delta variant this year has made dramatic inroads even in countries like this one, which adopted early disease-prevention protocols.

Virus hotspots face strains on their healthcare systems, and hospitals in parts of Europe, even if not overwhelmed by COVID patients, have fewer resources to devote to caring for people who have heart attacks or get into car accidents — a pattern also seen in U.S. states that are hardest hit.

In Germany, authorities warned that with daily new-infection rates standing at nearly 50,000, some 3,000 of those cases would require hospitalization, and about 350 of those patients would wind up in intensive care units that are already filled to capacity. Between 200 and 250 Germans a day are dying.

“We’re worse off than we were a year ago, and we’re now facing a real emergency situation,” Christian Drosten, Germany’s leading virologist and a government adviser, said in a podcast on Wednesday. He zeroed in on vaccine hesitancy, citing “15 million people who actually could have been and should have been vaccinated by now.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is heading a caretaker government while a new one is being formed, has expressed public frustration over the 30% of German adults who have declined to be vaccinated, saying they are not living up to collective responsibilities. The long-serving German leader, a trained scientist, bowed out of politics and did not seek a new term in September’s elections.

Her compatriots, Merkel told a business conference by video link on Thursday, might well consider readily available vaccinations as “a great fortune, a huge achievement of science and technology.’”

But the outgoing chancellor said that needed to be coupled with another sentiment: “a certain obligation to contribute to protecting society.”

The center-left coalition expected to succeed Merkel opposes a national lockdown like those imposed last year, which caused economic hardships for many businesses. But the political grouping made up of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats this week proposed a measure to reintroduce free testing for all, and mandatory daily testing for staff and visitors at nursing homes.

Germany’s neighbor Austria, which has also seen record daily-infection rates in recent days, is seeking to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated people in imposing restrictions. In two particularly hard-hit regions, Austrian authorities announced Friday, unvaccinated people will be told to stay home starting Monday except for tasks like work or shopping.

Other European countries are taking a more one-size-fits-all approach. The Netherlands on Friday announced a three-week period beginning Saturday of restrictions including early shutdowns for bars and restaurants and a ban on spectators at sporting events.

As in the United States, Germany is seeing a hardening line between the vaccination-willing and the vaccination-hesitant. A few celebrities — such as the singer Nena, of “99 Red Balloons” fame, or the soccer star Joshua Kimmich — have come out against vaccines, to the dismay of public health experts who would like to see them serve as role models.

And in a phenomenon familiar to Americans, ordinary Germans routinely express utter incredulity at the views or those in the opposing camp.

“I can’t understand why anyone would rather go around unvaccinated — it really is comparable to seeing people out there as drunk drivers knowingly putting their lives and other lives at risk,“ said Nikola Graff, a 52-year-old gynecologist in Berlin.

Pockets of resistance are strongest in the former East Germany, but not confined to it. Isabel Garcia, a freelance communications trainer from the northern city of Kiel, has no plans to get the shot.

“The pressure has become intense, but it’s counterproductive because I don’t think you can convince people by putting pressure on them,” said the 51-year-old.

Although public health experts around the world say the potential effects of COVID are vastly more dangerous than the risks of getting inoculated, Garcia called the vaccines “experimental.”

In the meantime, many Germans are downcast at the prospect of a winter in which cherished holiday traditions may again fall casualty to the coronavirus.

At a Christmas market in central Berlin, Ursula Bergmann, 62, who operates a little stand, said she feared being forbidden to sell the seasonal gluehwein, the spiced alcoholic beverage that is a German seasonal favorite.

“The restrictions that could be introduced would wipe out the Christmas spirit,” she said. “Without mulled wine, it’s all pretty desolate around here.”

Special correspondent Kirschbaum reported from Berlin and staff writer King from Washington.

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself




Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe



On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court



Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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