The air-conditioned buses lumbered out of Singapore shortly after sunrise Monday carrying travelers into Malaysia for the first time in 21 months, modestly reviving what had been one of the world’s busiest border crossings before the pandemic.
The launch of the link Monday marked another major step in Singapore’s reopening and its bid to “live with COVID-19” — but it came amid sudden and growing concerns that the Omicron variant could stall the region’s recovery.
Singapore, like most of Asia, has been far more cautious than the West when it comes to relaxing border controls and loosening social restrictions. You won’t find crowded concerts and packed sports stadiums here. It’s virtually impossible to spot anyone flouting mask requirements. The spread of a more infectious new variant would almost certainly trigger the return of measures that could cancel travel agreements like the one with Malaysia.
“We must be prepared for more bumps along the road,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned at a political convention Sunday. “We are not sure yet, but we may be forced to take a few steps back before we can take more steps forward.”
Countries across the world, including Singapore, are already sealing their borders to travelers from South Africa, where Omicron was first detected, and other countries where the variant has spread. Japan on Monday joined Israel as the only two nations to ban entry to all foreigners. The Philippines postponed a program that would have allowed some vaccinated foreign visitors, and Australia and India said they would review plans to ease border restrictions.
Cases of the variant, which display early signs of greater resistance to immunity generated from infections or vaccines, have been discovered in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy and the Netherlands. Portugal announced Monday that 13 Omicron cases were detected among members of a local soccer team. No cases have been confirmed in the United States yet.
U.S. health officials said it would take two weeks for scientists to determine the threat level of the Omicron variant. The danger could be compounded by the arrival of winter, when people spend more time indoors, giving the virus more opportunity to spread.
The specter of new lockdowns and travel restrictions rattled stock markets in Asia on Monday as investors tried to assess the impact of the emerging variant on a continent that generates 40% of the world’s GDP.
Japan, which had begun allowing limited entry for foreigners Nov. 8, announced that it would reverse those measures and stop admitting newly arriving foreign nationals starting Tuesday, citing the variant. (Foreigners with previously issued visas can still return to Japan.) The country had maintained stringent border controls throughout most of the pandemic and has recently seen infections plummet to about 100 a day, down from a peak of more than 25,000 in August.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the move was aimed at preventing “the worst-case scenario,” calling it only “a temporary measure” until more is known about the new variant. He said Japan was analyzing the case of an arrival from Namibia who tested positive for COVID-19 to find out if the traveler was infected with the Omicron variant.
The blanket ban comes just three weeks after Japan had started issuing a limited number of short-term visas for students, business travelers and work trainees while keeping tourists out. Officials had been discussing allowing in strictly monitored and controlled group tours, measures that are likely to be shelved as the border restrictions tighten.
Japan started requiring special quarantine and testing for arrivals from certain African nations over the weekend.
South Korea was also quick to ban entry to foreigners from eight African countries, including South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The country said migrant workers entering the country would be further scrutinized for travel to the region. Despite a high vaccination rate of about 80%, South Korea has recently seen some of its highest levels of infections since the beginning of the pandemic, fueled predominantly by the spread of the Delta variant after the country relaxed restrictions on social gatherings Nov. 1.
South Korea never closed its borders during the pandemic, but has instead relied upon strict quarantines for those arriving from overseas.
Asia’s largest country and economy, China, hasn’t announced any immediate changes because of the Omicron variant — mostly because its zero-COVID strategy already imposes some of the tightest entry restrictions in the world.
Travel to China from southern Africa has been strictly controlled. Those who had residence permits or visas prior to the pandemic have not been able to enter on them since March 2020. Only diplomats and a small number of individuals entering for work or family reunion have been able to acquire new entry visas from abroad on a case-by-case basis.
Getting a visa is only half the battle. Entry into China requires a series of stringent steps that include self-isolating for two weeks before boarding a plane and at least two weeks of quarantine upon arrival — three if you’re going to Beijing or returning to a university campus.
The approach has been criticized by some for being draconian, but if Omicron explodes into a crippling outbreak worldwide, Chinese policymakers will likely feel emboldened to double down.
“China’s current strategy of rapid response and zero-COVID can take on all kinds of coronavirus variants,” Zhang Wenhong, a prominent doctor in charge of COVID response in Shanghai, wrote on Weibo. “We can handle Delta, and can also handle Omicron.”
The same can’t be said for other countries in the region. India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand have each struggled to contain the coronavirus and can ill-afford a COVID-19 resurgence given the fragility of their economic recoveries and mostly low vaccination rates. And while Vietnam, Cambodia and Taiwan have handled the pandemic relatively well, none is looking to be tested again.
Singapore, as it often does, stands out as an anomaly given its diminutive size and deep pockets. Eighty-five percent of its 5.4 million residents are fully inoculated. The city-state’s opening up and tolerance for some level of infection and death are being watched closely as a counterpoint to Hong Kong, its longtime corporate and financial rival, which must adhere to China’s zero-COVID strategy.
Until the government introduced so-called Vaccinated Travel Lanes with a handful of countries starting in September, Singaporeans faced expensive, two-week quarantines at designated hotels when returning from overseas. Now, many residents are flocking to Changi Airport, no longer confined to staycations and “cruises to nowhere.”
Amanda Tan felt pangs of envy when a friend told her about a recent trip to Germany where she got to while away a day mask-free in a beer garden — a visit that took place before the German government imposed new restrictions this month to combat a rise in infections. Tan plans to let loose herself when she flies to London on Wednesday to enjoy a much-needed weeklong vacation, her first time abroad in more than two years.
“I just want to get out of Singapore for a little bit,” said Tan, 36, who works at an online marketing agency. “Singapore has been pretty strict with a lot of mandates, and they kept going back and forth with the rules.”
Tan said she’s packing industrial-grade face masks and rapid antigen test kits — necessary precautions for what could be her last chance to travel for some time if the Omicron variant proves as disastrous as the Delta variant. Also, Britain itself, leery over the new coronavirus strain, just announced that, starting Tuesday, it would start requiring PCR tests of all incoming travelers within 48 hours after arrival.
The emergence of Omicron casts a cloud over what should be a day of celebration for Singapore residents with Malaysia ties, said Emily Chiang, who owns a nail salon in the heart of Singapore’s main shopping district and hasn’t visited her ailing mother in Malaysia since her mom suffered a stroke a year ago.
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“I’m very happy for my friends who get to travel home now,” said Chiang, 42, who is waiting until her peak business season is over after Chinese New Year in February to make the trip across one of the causeways connecting Singapore to Malaysia. “There are so many Malaysian families separated because parents have to stay in Singapore to earn money.”
The start of quarantine-free travel, which includes flights across the Johor Strait, reopens a lifeline for two countries that are inextricably linked economically and culturally. Chiang, however, can’t help but worry that the progress will be fleeting. If Omicron crashes into Singapore and overwhelms the nation’s hospitals, the government will again order businesses closed and residents indoors.
If that happens, she’ll have no chance of keeping her salon open, having already depleted her savings.
“I would not be able to survive,” said Chiang, who is urging her Malaysian employees to make trips home while they still can. “Even when I talk to my customers, I can tell everyone is stressed. They’re worried about the new virus. They don’t want to have to do this all over again.”
Pierson reported from Singapore, Kim from Seoul and Su from Beijing.
Original Post: latimes.com
News Analysis: Biden, in Blasting Trump, Concedes the Nation Has yet to Heal
For the better part of the last year, President Biden has sought to ignore his predecessor as he has tried to deliver on a campaign promise to return the country to some semblance of political normalcy.
But in a passionate speech at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday marking the one-year anniversary of the bloody insurrection, Biden essentially conceded he could not reconstruct a world before Donald Trump’s tenure, nor could he deliver on his promise of protecting democracy without calling out the former president’srole in lying about the 2020 election results and inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol.
“For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election. He tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob reached the Capitol,” Biden said from Statutory Hall, a historic chamber in a Capitol building that Biden, a former senator, reveres.
Biden avoided using Trump’s name, following a practice he has tried to abide since taking office on Jan. 20. But it hardly mattered. Like a prosecutor delivering a closing argument, the president methodically detailed Trump’s conduct as the slow-motion riot accelerated. He described how Trump lit the fuse and watched it on television from the White House, “doing nothing, for hours” to stop it.
In concluding his case, Biden hit hard at Trump’s motive:
“His bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution,” Biden said. “He can’t accept he lost.”
Visual coverage from remembrance events throughout the day marking the anniversary
This was not a commemoration filled with calls for unity or a return to normalcy as much as it was a plea for Americans to accept the truth of what happened a year ago. There was no attempt to say the nation had healed and has come together with common purpose or belief.
On the contrary, Biden spent much of the address debunking Trump’s claims of a rigged election, point-by-point, asking why many of the Republicans who have supported the former president’s fraud claims have not disputed their own victories, on the same ballots.
Few thought such a speech would be necessary a year after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, inflicted injuries on more than 100 police officers, contributed to the deaths of five people and forced the evacuation of lawmakers from the complex. Biden certainly hadn’t anticipated needing to make such an address. He pitched his candidacy on the idea that he was a seasoned hand who had worked across the aisle, one of the grown-ups in the room. The nation, he believed, could snap back from a twice-impeached president who smashed norms and challenged bedrock institutions.
“The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House,” Biden said in his first 2019 campaign visit to New Hampshire. “You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”
On the night he was declared winner of the election, Biden still believed healing would come.
“It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy,” he said.
But many elected Republicans and conservative media figures — even those who once agreed Biden had won the election or who texted Trump begging him to stop the insurrection — have since paid Trump homage at his Florida home. They have amplified his false rhetoric. The lies have taken hold on the rank-and-file in the party: 3 in 4Republican voters in a recent National Public Radio poll agree with Trump that there were “real cases of fraud that changed the results.”
The closest Biden came to reaching across the aisle on Thursday was an offer to work with Republicans who accepted the election and a concession that “some courageous men and women in the Republican Party are standing against” the lies. But even then he went only so far, quickly pivoting back to his harsher argument: “Too many others are transforming that party into something else.”
Biden seemed to understand that his words were unlikely to win him Republican converts and the risk of further politicizing the event. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close Trump ally, acknowledged in a statement Thursday that Jan. 6 that he “cannot believe that a mob was able to take over the United States Capitol during such a pivotal moment — certifying a presidential election.” He then blasted Biden’s speech on Twitter, saying it was a “brazen politicization of January 6.”
The president’s willingness to attack Trump, if not in name, will come as a relief to some Democrats who believe Biden’s determination to seek bipartisanship and convey normalcy has slowed his agenda. In particular, they believe his strategy has prevented him from articulating the full case for a voting rights bill in the face of Republican-led efforts at the state level to change the rules.
They point to senators like Graham, who once prided themselves as bipartisan dealmakers, as evidence of a changed party.
Biden has resisted giving up on his view that the parties can work together and will likely point as evidence to his $1-trillion infrastructure bill that he signed in November. But Republican leaders were absent from Thursday’s commemoration and are likely to drive an even harder partisan wedge as this year’s midterm elections approach.
Those who see this moment as an emergency for American democracy may have finally gotten the speech they wanted. As he was leaving the Capitol Thursday morning, Biden was asked whether calling out Trump would lead to more division than healing.
“The way you have to heal, you have to recognize the extent of the wound,” Biden told reporters. “You can’t pretend. This is serious stuff.”
Staff Writer Eli Stokols contributed to this story.
Original Post: latimes.com
‘I Really Thought That I Was Going to Die That Day’
For decades, many members of Congress believed the U.S. Capitol — with metal detectors, barriers and its own police force — to be one of the safest places in the country.
In interviews, six members of Congress from California recount their stories from that deadly day: the surreal experience of realizing that their lives were at risk, that their workplace was being overrun and that the nation’s two-century record of a peaceful transition of power had crumbled.
‘All I could think of is: Get Out. Run. As fast as you can. You don’t want to be trapped in here. Run, run, run. And all of a sudden, they closed the doors on us and they told us to get on the ground. There’s people trying to break in outside the doors.’
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles)
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) was in the gallery of the House chamber when the rioters breached the Capitol.
He and his colleagues were running across the gallery in hopes of escaping when he saw Capitol Police barricading the door the president uses to enter the chamber for the State of the Union. The rioters were too close for the lawmakers to get out safely.
“All I could think of is: Get out. Run. As fast as you can. You don’t want to be trapped in here. Run, run, run,” Gomez recalled. “And all of a sudden, they closed the doors on us and they told us to get on the ground. There’s people trying to break in outside the doors.”
Once police cleared the hallways and escorted the lawmakers to safety, several members of Congress got together and committed to remaining in the building and finishing the certification of the electoral college vote.
“That’s when [Reps.] Hakeem [Jeffries] and Liz Cheney said we’re going to go back and finish the job,” Gomez said. “They brought buses to get the members out, and [Rep.] Ruben [Gallego] and other Democrats were like, ‘Do not get on the buses.’ They said that’s how a coup happens: when the electeds are evacuated out of the Capitol or out of the palace. … So everybody that I was talking to was committed to staying.
“It was a terrible, terrible day. I don’t know if I said this to [Times reporter] Sarah [Wire] or a different reporter, but I did say like, ‘This is how a coup happens and this is how democracy dies and Donald Trump should probably be brought up on treason.’ And I still believe that to this day. I’m glad we impeached him. But now we know that there’s more people involved.
“I remember actually flying back from D.C. and, you know, I was on the plane with a bunch of MAGA people that were with their gear, like they’re coming back from a Republican convention or something.”
Gomez’s experience getting caught in the gallery left him shaken, but he says his resolve to stand up for democracy has only grown since that day.
“I’m a son of immigrants that believes in this whole idea of America, the idea of self-governance, the idea that you come here, you work hard, you believe in our values, you’re going to succeed, because I’m an example of that promise … in one generation. That doesn’t happen in a lot of countries. It doesn’t happen in Mexico, where my family’s from. So my resolve has been just more firm than ever.
“But it’s been tough, to be honest. I got triggered … a few months ago, and I didn’t really see it coming on, but I got hot and my vision got tunneled. So I had to kind of walk away. … But my resolve, it’s stronger than ever.”
‘I really thought that I was going to die that day, that I was going to be killed — that I would be literally killed — that I would possibly have to fight for my life, that so many of my colleagues would probably be victims.’
Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona)
Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat from Pomona, was inside the House chamber when the attack began.
“It was a very violent day for me. I had never been in a situation where I felt so unsafe, and I really thought that I was going to die that day, that I was going to be killed — that I would be literally killed — that I would possibly have to fight for my life, that so many of my colleagues would probably be victims.”
A year ago, as Trump supporters rioted in the halls, Torres told Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire, who was reporting inside the Capitol on Jan. 6: “It’s horrible that this is America. This is the United States of America and this is what we have to go through, because Trump has called homegrown terrorists to come to the Capitol and invalidate people’s votes.”
Torres said she has changed since that day, noting that she no longer feels safe inside the Capitol complex and sees her GOP colleagues in a different light.
“There used to be a time in the past, before the Jan. 6 insurrection, where I could look and see somebody wearing their congressional pin and think, ‘That’s my ally.’ Even if they were Republicans, it was like, ‘OK, that’s my ally, and we’ll take care of each other no matter what happens.’ I don’t feel that way anymore about my colleagues. Not at all.”
‘Attacking a federal building, whether it is the U.S. Capitol or a court or anything else, does not tear down democracy.’
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale)
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a California Republican from Richvale who was on the House floor when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, called the riot a “deplorable situation.”
“Nobody should be breaking into this building for any purpose, let alone trying to stop a process that we were going through, and we were going through it in good faith, no matter what side you were taking on the issue of the day.”
He said he wasn’t concerned about the long-term prospects of democracy, because the republic is built on people, not buildings.
“Attacking a federal building, whether it is the U.S. Capitol or a court or anything else, does not tear down democracy. We’re not a democracy, by the way — we are a republic. Democracy is on election day.
“So our republic is not torn down by what building the meetings are held in, but by the heart and souls of the people that are elected to carry out the business of the government wherever that’s done.”
‘I always thought that personally I was very safe in this job, particularly when I’m in the Capitol complex, because it takes so much to get in there. Certainly I don’t think about it every day, but I don’t quite feel that same level of safety.’
Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego)
Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat from San Diego, was in the House gallery when he saw something he’d never seen before: a nonmember of Congress at the rostrum.
“It was someone from the security force. He said: ‘Please stay in your seats. There’s been a breach in the Capitol.’”
“I didn’t know what to think at that point. I assumed that a few rogues had run by the metal detector. But I didn’t know how serious it was. Gradually I was kind of hurt that this was happening, thinking, ‘How could people get by security in one of the top terrorist targets in the country? We should be ready for this.’
“At one point, members were about to be evacuated when they were told to ‘get to the floor.’
“So everyone kind of got down low. And that was a little bit of a sobering moment. Then at one point, we heard an explosion. It sounded like a gunshot or a tear gas deployment. We didn’t know. I think it might’ve been the shot that killed my constituent. Ashli Babbitt was from San Diego.”
Peters, who was first elected in 2012, added that he doesn’t feel as safe as he did in his first term as a member of Congress.
“I always thought that personally I was very safe in this job, particularly when I’m in the Capitol complex, because it takes so much to get in there,” he said. “Certainly I don’t think about it every day, but I don’t quite feel that same level of safety.”
‘No matter what your politics, it wasn’t a good day.’
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona)
Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican from Corona, was in his office in a nearby building, not in the Capitol itself, but was still disturbed by what he saw and called it “very regretful.”
“I mean, it was troubling. But I wasn’t here in the building. And I have a lot of friends that were. Certainly, no matter what your politics, it wasn’t a good day. It’s a bad situation.”
He said he has hope that any changes to the institution of Congress and to relationships won’t be long-lasting.
“We have to get back to some kind of normalcy again. … I’m an optimist, I’m hoping we get back to some comity around here.
“These people are my friends. I may be in a different party and I don’t agree with them, but it doesn’t mean we can’t like each other. … We’re a divided nation, there’s no doubt about it, but people expect us to get together, get things done.”
‘Divisions here in this country are our biggest challenge. That’s what keeps me up at night. … It’s really trying to crack this nut of, how do we break this fever of division in our country?’
Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from Riverside
Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from Riverside, had to make his way from one House office building to the next during the riot.
“It looked like kind of a refugee zone with all these staffers sitting on the other side of the hallway, stepping over people.
“I got a couple of texts asking if I was OK,” Takano said. “But up until now, I don’t really have a reality of what is happening because I’m not looking at the news, but I’m getting a couple of texts from people saying, ‘Are you OK?’ And I thought this was kind of strange.
“I felt a little insecure, but I was in an office complex that was sort of nondescript. We were sheltering for an extended period of time. But I don’t have any kind of lingering trauma, personal trauma. I do have concerns going forward about the political culture of the country and the political norms of the country.”
Takano said he believes “the biggest challenge to America is ourselves.”
“That’s our biggest challenge. Divisions here in this country are our biggest challenge. That’s what keeps me up at night. … It’s really trying to crack this nut of, how do we break this fever of division in our country?
“I don’t see this being solved in one year or one election. It’s going to take a lot of courage. Persistence.”
Chief Justice Roberts Calls for Better Enforcement of Conflict Laws Involving Judges’ Stock Ownership
Federal courts need to do much better at enforcing conflict-of-interest laws that are supposed to prevent judges from deciding cases in which they hold stock, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in his year-end report on the judiciary.
He was responding to a report in the Wall Street Journal in September that from 2010 through 2018, federal judges participated in 685 cases involving companies in which they or their spouses held stock. When contacted, many of them said they were unaware of the stock holdings because a money manager handled their investments.
The chief justice said federal law requires judges to recuse themselves from a case in which they have a direct financial interest, no matter how small.
“Let me be crystal clear: the Judiciary takes this matter seriously. We expect judges to adhere to the highest standards, and those judges violated an ethics rule,” he wrote.
“We are duty-bound to strive for 100% compliance because public trust is essential, not incidental, to our function,” he continued. “Individually, judges must be scrupulously attentive to both the letter and spirit of our rules, as most are.”
He said “professed ignorance of the ethics rule” or the failure of computer software designed to prevent such conflicts were no excuse. Most judges rely on a computer program to alert them when a case coming before them includes a company in which they hold stock. Sometimes a relevant company slips by the software if it is a subsidiary of a larger corporation.
Roberts said that may explain some lapses, but not for judges who had multiple violations. For them, “there is a more serious problem of inadequate ethics training…. our ethics training programs need to be more rigorous. That means more class time, webinars, and consultations. But it also requires greater attention to promoting a culture of compliance, even when busy dockets keep judicial calendars full,” he said.
He noted, however, that ethics violations appear to be rare. Of the 2.5 million civil cases handled by federal district courts in the nine years that were examined, he said the 685 violations account for less than three-hundredths of 1%. “That’s a 99.97% compliance rate,” he said.
Moreover, he said the newspaper story did not report that “the judge’s actions in any of those cases — often just routine docket management — actually financially benefited the judge.”
The chief justice said the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is working on improving technology and training to deal with the problem.
Judges are not prohibited from owning direct shares of stock. If their shares are held indirectly in mutual funds, they are not required to step aside.
He did not suggest imposing penalties for repeat violators. For the most part, federal judges are responsible for deciding when they should remove themselves from a case.
As chief justice, Roberts serves as the leader of the federal judiciary.
Roberts received the highest job approval rating of 11 U.S. leaders in a Gallup poll taken in early December and released earlier this week, with 60% approving of how he is handling his role.
Only two other leaders received positive job approval ratings from a majority of Americans surveyed: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell (53%) and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to President Biden (52%).
Roberts was the only leader who received majority approval from both Republicans (57%) and Democrats (52%).
He fared much better in the poll than elected leaders. Biden was approved by 43%, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) by 40% and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) by 34%.
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