The presidency of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday ordered the military and police to take over civilian authorities in two regions that have been declared “besieged”.
North Kivu and Ituri – both eastern provinces where dozens of armed groups operate and civilians have been subjected to horrific massacres – were declared besieged on Friday.
According to the DRC constitution, the president can declare a state of either siege or emergency “if difficult circumstances immediately threaten the independence or integrity of the national territory, or if they interrupt the regular functioning of the institutions”.
In an address broadcast on public television on Monday, President Felix Tshisekedi said he had heard “our people’s cries for help and felt the pain our mothers, sisters and daughters are suffering in these provinces ravaged by barbarism.”
His spokesman Tharsice Kasongo Mwema confirmed that the two provinces would be declared under siege for 30 days from Thursday 6 May.
“To respond to the situation during the siege, the provincial governments of Ituri and northern Kivu and the units in these provinces will be replaced by offices of the DRC Armed Forces or the National Police,” he said.
“The actions of the civilian jurisdictions will be replaced by the military jurisdictions” until the “restoration of peace”, he added.
The announcement of a besieged state has been welcomed by North Kivu Governor Carly Kasivita, who said he had repeatedly called for a “national mobilization” to deal with attacks in the province’s Beni region.
However, some observers have expressed concern about the idea of replacing civilian authorities with military ones and warn that this could lead to abuse of power.
Shaken by force
Mineral-rich northern and southern Kivu, located along the eastern borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, came under violence during the country’s two wars between 1996 and 2003 and have never regained stability.
Ituri, further north, has also been shaken by violence since the end of 2017 after 15 years of relative calm.
Kivu Security Tracker, a monitoring group, estimates that 122 different armed groups of various sizes are active in the eastern DRC.
The Allied Democratic Forces, a group of Ugandan Islamist fighters based in the eastern DRC since 1995, are blamed for many of the massacres.
The ADF – which the United States brands as a “terrorist” organization affiliated with the Islamic State group – has been accused of murdering more than 1,000 civilians since November 2019 in Beni alone.
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At current vaccination rates in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, it would take nearly a decade to inoculate the entire adult population against Covid-19. The slow rollout is attributed by some health experts, at least in part, to the high degree of reluctance to use vaccines, a situation that is prevalent across the continent.
The Scottish independence debate arises during the British ‘Super Thursday’…
Britain will hold its first local and regional elections since Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic Thursday, with Scotland as the main focus on calls for a new independence referendum that could reform the country.
Voting starts at 7:00 am (6:00 am GMT) for local councils in England, regional mayors, including London, and for the delegated legislators in Wales and Scotland.
Surveys on what’s called “Super Thursday” close at 10pm, with most results expected from Friday, at the weekend, and early next week.
Most of the focus is on the vote in the Scottish Parliament, as the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) wants a new independence referendum if the pandemic abates.
The SNP leader, Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is aiming for a parliamentary majority after increasing her popularity with strong public engagement during the pandemic.
She stressed in a televised debate on Tuesday, “Getting through this crisis is my priority.”
The SNP has taken advantage of the widespread disappointment with the British Parliament in London to become the dominant political force in Scotland, but it is currently forming a minority government.
In Glasgow, Lorna McClure, a 60-year-old cleaning lady, said she was “all for Nicola Sturgeon”.
“I think she is very good for Scotland and I want independence,” she told AFP.
But Raghav Jay, a 35-year-old MBA student, said, “I think I would prefer Scotland to stay in the UK. So I prefer a party that will support that. ”
The latest polls suggest the SNP will gain a narrow majority for the first time since 2011, keeping it in power, although other studies have indicated a coalition is likely.
Securing London’s powers to hold a new referendum on independence and a “yes” vote is less certain, however, with indications that support for going it alone is waning.
Most Scots rejected Brexit, which has bolstered independence sentiment, although fears of renewed economic turmoil after the pandemic bolster support for staying in the UK.
The SNP promises that an independent Scotland would try to rejoin the European Union, but the practicalities are a matter of concern.
“We need strength in unity and to start new frontiers … would be madness,” said Alec Telfer, 64, president of the Blackface Sheep Breeders Association in Selkirk.
Scots cast two votes: one for a constituency MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) and one for electing regional MSPs in a system of proportional representation.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the 2014 referendum, where 55 percent of Scots voted “no”, closed the debate for a generation.
“This is not the time for a reckless and I think irresponsible referendum,” he said Wednesday.
The SNP insists it will only hold a referendum that is legally valid, although Sturgeon’s predecessor Alex Salmond and his newly formed Alba party want an immediate vote.
England’s municipal elections will test the support of Johnson’s Conservative Party after he led Britain out of the EU and through the pandemic, with the highest death toll in Europe, but also with the fastest rollout of vaccines.
Johnson recently averted a scandal over the costly renovations to his Downing Street flat.
The results will be viewed to see if Johnson’s party manages to hold on to gains in the 2019 general election and previous local votes following the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The main opposition Labor party, led by Keir Starmer since last year, is hoping for a win in its so-called “Red Wall” seats in Northern England that it lost to the Tories in 2019.
It also wants to stick to the northeastern port town of Hartlepool, which has had Labor MPs since the 1970s, while simultaneously holding a UK parliamentary election.
Victory there would boost Johnson and put pressure on Starmer as he tries to reposition the party after the far-left leadership of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.
In London, incumbent Labor incumbent Sadiq Khan – Britain’s most prominent Muslim politician – is predicted to win a second four-year term in the high-profile mayoral race.
No candidate has the profile of Jihyun Park, who stands as a councilor for the Conservatives in Bury, near Manchester, in the north west of England.
She arrived in Britain thirteen years ago after fleeing a North Korean prison camp.
“The British people welcomed me to this country and I finally found my freedom. I want to pay back, ”she told AFP in February.
As French schools reopen, minister scolds Covid-19 ‘obsessed’ critics, but…
France’s secondary schools reopened on Monday after a four-week break to stem the tide of Covid-19 infections.
Some new preventative efforts have been deployed for the restart of classes, but critics say more must be done to secure schools lest the reopenings send cases, which remain high in France, climbing sharply again.
The country’s education minister, for his part, says people should stop “obsessing” over the risks of contagion at school.
Speaking at a high school in a small town outside Nancy in northeastern France as it reopened on Monday morning, Prime Minister Jean Castex assured those assembled that “the virus is circulating very little” in schools. “Between the risks, including the possible health hazards, of keeping schools closed and the risks of reopening them, the balance tipped very largely in favour of opening schools,” Castex explained.
After priding himself on keeping France’s schools open in February despite the repeated warnings of healthcare professionals, President Emmanuel Macron finally shut them down on April 6 as a third wave, largely fuelled by the British variant, forced his hand.
The school closure was the signature measure of France’s third nationwide lockdown – along with a post-Easter ban on travelling between regions and the closure of many non-essential shops.
Ultimately, for high schools and middle schools (collèges in French), much of the shutdown fell during the two-week Easter break, bookended by two weeks of distance learning.
France eases lockdown as bars, restaurants, museums and cinemas to reopen May 19
Kindergarteners and elementary pupils, meanwhile, were already back in class last week, having had only 3.5 days of remote learning before their Easter vacation. France has maintained an exceptional rate of in-person class time during Covid-19: the country closed its schools for just 10 weeks between March 2020 and March 2021 – all during its first lockdown last spring – compared to 28 weeks of complete or partial school closures in Germany and 47 weeks for the United States, according to UNESCO figures.
>> ‘A French exception’: Experts call for rethink of open-schools policy amid pandemic
By and large, healthcare and school professionals alike in France have advocated keeping schools open during the pandemic, but many have taken the government to task for not applying sufficient measures to stem the spread on school grounds. As schools reopen now, some of those concerns have been addressed, although critics warn the devil may still be in the details.
Self-tests by the millions
A key part of the reopening plan relies on testing. France has ordered 64 million Covid-19 self-testing kits, initially for use twice a week by primary- and secondary-school teachers and then, from May 10, for high school students to use once a week on a voluntary basis.
In kindergartens and elementary schools, less invasive saliva-based tests have been deployed. Now at a rate of 250,000 per week, the government is eyeing 600,000 a week by mid-May – a figure that represents less than 10 percent of kindergarten and elementary schoolchildren. But close observers say that just isn’t sufficient to keep a handle on the epidemic.
Germany introduces Covid-19 self-testing in schools
“There aren’t enough and it isn’t regular,” Guislaine David, spokesperson for the Snuipp-FSU union representing kindergarten and primary school staff, told FRANCE 24. “A saliva-based test might be conducted in a school, but they won’t come back the next week. They aren’t sure to come back before the end of the year, for that matter. There aren’t the regular testing measures like in some other countries where elementary school students have self-tests,” she added, citing Austria as an example.
One case, one closure
Under the Covid-19 protocol in place as students return, a class will be ordered to close as soon as a single Covid-19 infection is confirmed, no matter the variant. In February and March, as cases rose across the country, the protocol in place had classes closing only after as many as three cases were confirmed – at times depending on whether the strain detected was the baseline, British, Brazilian or South African variant – a policy that critics deemed unwieldy and ineffective for safeguarding public health.
During the last week before schools closed at the start of April, a new one-case-one-closure protocol saw a sudden cascade of shutdowns, with 11,272 classes closed. By Wednesday of that week, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo had called for all schools to shut down noting the “very grave” health situation and the “very great disarray” in Paris schools, with 20,000 Parisian children sent home “either because they are ill or because their classes are closed”.
>> In Paris suburbs blighted by Covid-19, ‘schools are kept open at all costs – even without teachers’
A month later, France is still registering well over 20,000 confirmed new cases daily, nearly 29,000 people remain hospitalised and more than 5,500 are currently being treated by the country’s saturated intensive-care units. Admissions to each have nevertheless dropped 13 and 18 percent, respectively, over the past week.
The 1,884 kindergarten and primary school classrooms shuttered last week under the one-case-one-closure rule were primarily due to Covid-19 infections contracted during the holiday break and confirmed only after children returned to class.
One precaution announced as kindergarten and primary schools reopened last Monday has already been withdrawn: Indoor physical education classes had been prohibited but that ban was quickly lifted, to the dismay of some experts concerned about the heightened risk of aerosol transmission inherent when indoor sports are played without masks.
“That’s always the problem with these [Covid-19] protocols from the ministry. Decisions are made and they are obsolete a week later,” David told FRANCE 24. “Closing a class after one positive case [instead of three] was a demand we made and one we think will really protect pupils. But we’re very afraid that, in a week, the protocol will go back to closing after three cases, considering what happened with gymnasiums and swim classes,” she said, a possibility the education minister suggested in an interview over the weekend should the Covid-19 situation improve. “These incessant changes are difficult to put in place on the ground,” explained David.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has long insisted that schoolchildren were more vulnerable to Covid-19 infection at home than they would be at school. But epidemiologists called the perception that schools had no part in Covid-19 contagion misguided – or even “idiocy”, as prizewinning epidemiologist Dominique Costagliola, of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), put it. Many experts blame this false sense of security for hampering prevention efforts.
“People have to stop being obsessed by the role that schools play in infections,” Blanquer told the weekly Journal du Dimanche over the weekend. “It’s far from the primary factor,” the minister said, provoking a flurry of dismay from detractors on social media.
“That we’re in the midst of an improvement in the [epidemic] situation is notably thanks to the three weeks the schools were closed, the only new concrete [Covid-19] measure imposed in April,” tweeted Dr. Michaël Rochoy, a founding member of Du Côté de la Science (“On the side of science”), a collective of healthcare professionals advocating for methods of Covid-19 prevention.
In December, France’s Comcor study, conducted in part by scientists from the Pasteur Institute, showed that having a kindergartener at home raised a parent’s risk of infection by 15 percent and having a middle schooler increased it by 30 percent. That was before the demonstrably more contagious and more lethal British variant, now dominant in France, took hold in the country.
“It’s apparent to everyone,” said David. “We know that life in collective settings necessarily allows the exchange of everything, including viruses and germs. So since [schoolchildren] exchange lice, chicken pox and gastroenteritis, well, they exchange Covid-19, too. It’s inevitable.”
Vaccinating teachers still not a priority
Another new rule prohibits reassigning schoolchildren to other classes when their homeroom teacher is out sick. Amid a shortage of substitutes, if a replacement teacher cannot step in, pupils will simply be asked to stay home. Previously, they were parachuted into adjacent classes – instantly undermining the goal of creating insulated “class bubbles”. But new measures addressing the issue of ailing teachers underscore another problem: France has yet to prioritise vaccinating them.
Teachers’ unions including David’s Snuipp-FSU have lobbied for the nation’s million-plus primary and secondary schoolteachers to get the sort of priority status for vaccination that their colleagues enjoy in Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, the United States and elsewhere – but so far to little avail.
>> Covid-19: French vaccine appointments go unclaimed, reviving debate on who should qualify
In mid-April, the French government announced with some fanfare that teachers over the age of 55 had been granted priority for vaccination – only for the unions to point out that vaccine eligibility had already been lowered in recent days to age 55, teacher or not. They also noted that teachers over 55 are a marginal population in France; they make up only 13 percent of teachers at the primary-school level, for instance.
Blanquer said over the weekend that 35,000 teachers over 55 had received a dose. He added that all schoolteachers would receive a first dose of vaccine before the summer holidays, which begin on July 7. But that pledge hardly entails being given priority: The government says all French adults will be eligible for vaccination on June 15. It also means putting off full Covid-19 immunity for teachers with two vaccine doses until well after classes empty for the summer.
People queue outside a vaccination centre at the Vélodrome stadium in Marseille on April 29, 2021. © AFP / FRANCE 24
Union reps say teachers are trading tips on where and how to score access to the precious vaccines outside of official channels. “More and more of our colleagues outside the age criteria tell us they are managing to get vaccinated because vaccination centres wind up accepting them when they say they are teachers. So there is this sort of parallel channel for vaccination that illustrates the limits of the official policy,” Sophie Vénétitay of the SNES-FSU union of secondary school personnel told FRANCE 24.
“It’s makeshift solutions on a grand scale. We trade top vaccination tips between us. It’s a bit under the table. It’s pretty surreal. But, voilà, that’s the state of the vaccination campaign for the education system in France,” said Vénétitay, a high school economics and social science teacher.
High schoolers returned on Monday on a so-called half-gauge system, alternating between in-person and distance learning. The novelty is that the same goes for some middle schoolers – those in eighth and ninth grades (13- to 15-year-olds) in the 15 French areas worst hit by Covid-19 infections.
“We feel these decisions are adapted to the current situation,” Philippe Vincent, general secretary of the SNPDEN, the top school principals’ union, told Agence France-Presse. “They resolve the issue of the canteen in particular, which remained the weak link (since students dine without face masks). But will they allow us to avoid a new spike in the epidemic?” the union leader wondered.
Indeed, half-gauge does not mean half-classes. Schools are expected to halve the number of students present in the building, but individual schools can choose how they achieve that goal, be it with half-classes or whole classes attending half the time. In practice, the guideline doesn’t necessarily offer more social distancing within a single classroom – while the room next door might sit empty.
“It’s rarely half-classes,” Vénétitay explained. “We get the impression that it’s mainly about limiting any mingling in the canteen, which is always a good thing; we know that the canteen is the weak point in the health protocol. But if it winds up displacing the problem to the classroom, which in addition might not be well-equipped for ventilation, that really raises questions,” she said.
History and geography teacher Benjamin Marol told AFP that at the middle school where he teaches in Montreuil, in the hard-hit Seine-Saint-Denis department just northeast of Paris, there was disagreement about how to organise classes. In the end, it was decided that eighth- and ninth-graders would alternate mornings and afternoons, attending full classes every time. “So we will continue to have packed classes,” he lamented.
Blanquer recently expressed support for installing carbon-monoxide detectors, which can aid in preventing aerosol transmission in schools by flagging built-up exhalation in a classroom and promoting better ventilation. But the minister left the heavy-lifting – and indeed, the bill – to individual municipal authorities, creating a divide between haves and have-nots.
David’s Snuipp-FSU has been among those pleading for C02 detectors since September. She said Blanquer “is starting to hear what the scientists are saying and what we’ve been asking for”. But she suggests the minister’s persistent “denial” has gotten in the way of meaningful policy changes.
“He still thinks – he said it again – that there isn’t transmission at school, that transmission takes place in family settings and that schools are well-protected,” she said. “So having said that, he can’t also say that measures need to be put into place to secure schools. That dogmatism doesn’t allow for the right protective measures.”
Union rep Vénétitay echoed that sentiment. “It isn’t about being ‘obsessed’ or whatnot. It’s just about recognising that the virus circulates in middle and high schools – all the more because for months we had a very light or even quasi-nonexistent protocol, and that fostered transmission in schools,” she said. “The minister needs to come out of denial. The virus doesn’t make a U-turn at the school door.”
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