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India’s COVID-19 cases rising despite widespread belief in country’s natural immunities

A crush of thousands upon thousands of people line the banks of the Ganges River in the holy city of Haridwar, in India’s northern Uttarakhand state, pushing forward to enter the water to wash away their sins. 

Steps away, a hand-sanitizing station sits empty. 

This is the Maha Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, one of the most important Hindu festivals, which happens only once every 12 years. Its location rotates between several holy Indian cities, but Hindu pilgrims believe bathing in the Ganges will cleanse impurities and help free them from cycles of rebirth.

The festival goes until the end of April, but this time it’s under the shadow of a pandemic. But you wouldn’t know it, looking around. 

There are few masks and little physical distancing. Large circles painted on the steps leading down to the river — meant to encourage standing apart from your neighbour — are mostly ignored. 

The pilgrimage is taking place just as India is seeing some of its highest numbers of new infections so far this year — more than 25,320 as of Sunday. 

WATCH | COVID-19 cases rise in India amid religious festival and vaccine hesitancy:

One of the world’s largest religious festivals is taking place in India and public health officials are worried. Not only is the country a COVID-19 hotspot, but vaccine hesitancy is high and experts say many people falsely believe the country has attained herd immunity. 2:17

Minutes after he took a quick dip in the Ganges, Bhavesh Patel told CBC News he had zero worries about the virus spreading at this massive festival.

“Nobody’s infected here, nobody. And even if they are, once they dip [into the Ganges], they are all pure,” he said. “There is no COVID here.”  

‘The river … sanitizes us’

Patel, 56, travelled to the festival from New York and said he was determined to attend, “COVID or no COVID.” The feelings he expressed are prevalent here. 

“I’m not worried about the virus, because I take care of myself,” said Anita Verma, standing beside her father, Sitaram. They’re both from Rajasthan, a 12-hour drive away.

Just then, her father interjected, and Verma repeated his sentiment: “The river itself sanitizes us from the COVID virus, so it’s very pure. It saves us,” she said. 

The festival comes as India is seeing a spike in other large gatherings, namely political rallies in several states holding elections next month.   

“[The gatherings] are religious, they’re political, they’re social,” said Dr. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, and a member of the country’s COVID-19 task force. “Unfortunately, we are giving the virus free rein.” 

Reddy blames complacency over following public health guidelines on the marked decrease in infections at the beginning of this year, which saw India’s daily case count fall to 10,000 a day from a mid-September high of more than 97,000.

Saints and worshippers gather on the banks of the Ganges to celebrate the Kumbh Mela festival. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“There was a general feeling [in early 2021] that the pandemic has receded, at least as far as India was concerned,” Reddy said. “There was also the feeling that the mythical herd immunity had arrived, that we have achieved that nirvana and therefore people need not worry about it.”

Hope for herd immunity

Those factors, plus the controversial approval of a homegrown vaccine, Covaxin, before efficacy data was fully available, led people to reconsider getting vaccinated, Reddy said. (Covaxin has since released data that shows an 81 percent efficacy rate, two months after it received emergency approval for use.) 

The World Health Organization has established that herd immunity should be reached through vaccination and not simply by exposing people to the virus. WHO has also said that it doesn’t know what percentage would achieve herd immunity when it comes to COVID-19.

Herd immunity in India is a “nebulous” concept and a myth, according to Reddy, who pointed to a lack of nationwide data proving a sufficient level of immunity. 

“The 55 per cent rates that are being reported are in large metropolitan areas like Delhi and some pockets of Mumbai,” he said. “So you’re really not seeing all of India crossing even the 40 per cent threshold, and we do not know what the herd immunity threshold for this particular virus is.” 

In explaining the plunge in cases earlier this year, experts point to the fact that more Indians started following public health guidelines to mask up and physically distance after cases peaked. 

Dr. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, said the country has some social demographic advantages. ‘We have two-thirds of the Indian population in rural areas, where there’s less crowd density,’ he said. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

But the sharpness of the drop was puzzling to many. That led to speculation that India’s warmer climate and younger population were also contributing factors, as well as other innate advantages.

India’s social demographic advantages 

There’s a theory, bolstered by two new studies done by Indian scientists — which have yet to be peer-reviewed — that Indians are less vulnerable to COVID-19 because they’re exposed to more infectious diseases from birth, thus making their immune systems stronger. 

India has the third-highest tally of COVID-19 cases in the world, at 11.36 million, but counts fewer deaths per capita than countries such as Canada, the United States and France, with 11.73 deaths per 100,000 people compared to 163.31 in the U.S. and 60.51 in Canada.

Reddy said there are some simple explanations. 

“We must remember that India has social demographic advantages. We have two-thirds of the Indian population in rural areas, where there’s less crowd density,” Reddy said. 

He pointed to the fact that rural homes are more ventilated, people largely work outside and their social bubbles are much smaller than those living in the city, leading to far less risk from the virus.  

But India is now heading in the wrong direction, with cases spiking again in at least eight states and coronavirus variants spreading. 

The country’s vaccination drive has also been slow to ramp up, with only 1.5 per cent of the population having received a first dose. The current pace is far from what’s needed to meet the government’s goal to have 300 million Indians, about a quarter of its population, vaccinated by August. 

“We are seeing a lot more opening up, a lot more commuting, a lot more superspreader events and the [variants],” Reddy said. “There is cause for worry.”

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CBC | World News

The cream is already rising to the top at the Scotties

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts is off and running

With a full weekend of action and the first seven draws now in the books, here’s a quick lay of the land at the Canadian women’s curling championship in the Calgary bubble:

The cream is already rising to the top. Kerri Einarson’s defending-champion Team Canada became the first rink to reach four wins today by beating the Northwest Territories to improve to 4-0. Three-time champ Rachel Homan and her Ontario team are right behind Canada in Pool A at 3-0. The Pool B leader is the wild-card rink skipped by two-time champ Chelsea Carey, who’s filling in for Tracy Fleury. Manitoba’s Jennifer Jones, who’s going for her record seventh Scotties title, is 2-1, with the loss coming to Carey’s team. Sarah Hill’s Newfoundland & Labrador rink is 2-0, but has played opponents with a combined record of 0-6.

Homan is curling 86 per cent — at eight months pregnant. “It’s challenging because your body changes,” Homan told The Winnipeg Sun’s Ted Wyman. “But so far, so good.” Very good, actually: among skips, only Carey (88 per cent) is throwing better statistically. Homan believes she’ll get through the tournament fine. But alternate Danielle Inglis, who usually skips her own team, is ready to step in if needed.

The tournament survived its first health scare. Today’s Canada-Northwest Territories game was supposed to be played Saturday afternoon. It was postponed after an unidentified member of the Northwest Territories team fell ill with a suspected case of food poisoning. Tests for the coronavirus came back negative, so the game went ahead this morning.

One more thing: If you’re watching the Scotties but you haven’t seen That Curling Show, you really should check it out. Every night, six-time champ Colleen Jones and CBC Sports curling reporter extraordinaire Devin Heroux discuss what’s happening on and off the ice with some of the tournament’s biggest stars. Jennifer Jones, Chelsea Carey and Kerri Einarson have already joined them as guests, and last night’s show featured a tribute to the late, great Sandra Schmirler (see below). Also, Devin and show producer Sophie Baron made Colleen cry with a touching montage of all her Scotties championships. Tonight’s guest is Laurie St-Georges, the young Quebec skip who’s 2-1 and winning over fans in her first Scotties. Watch the show tonight and every night at 7:30 p.m. ET on the CBC Olympics Twitter, Facebook and Instagram channels.

Jennifer Jones, Sara England and Joan McCusker join hosts Devin Heroux and Colleen Jones during the annual Sandra Schmirler Foundation Telethon. 46:17


Artemi Panarin is taking a leave of absence from the New York Rangers. The team says the 2019-20 NHL MVP finalist “vehemently and unequivocally denies” the allegations in what it calls a “fabricated” report by a Russian newspaper claiming Panarin physically assaulted an 18-year-old woman at a bar in Latvia a decade ago. The allegations were made by Alexei Nazarov, a former NHL player who coached Panarin’s KHL team at the time of the alleged incident. Nazarov has been critical of Panarin’s public opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which included a recent Instagram post supporting vocal Putin critic Alexei Navalny. The Rangers called the newspaper report an “intimidation tactic” and said Panarin, who has family living in Russia, “is obviously shaken” and “will take some time away from the team.” Read more about this bizarre situation here.

A first-year Raptors assistant got hired as head coach of the Timberwolves. Chris Finch is making the big leap to replace Ryan Saunders, who steered Minnesota to a league-worst 7-24 record before getting fired. Finch worked with T-wolves president of basketball ops Gersson Rosas when they were with the Houston Rockets. Rosas called him “one of the most creative basketball minds in the NBA.” Read more about Finch and his new job here.

And in case you missed it…

A few other things from the weekend that you should know about:

Bianca Andreescu is hurt again. She withdrew from this week’s tournament in Adelaide and will also miss upcoming events in Doha and Dubai due to what Andreescu and her agent called a “lower-body issue.” Andreescu said the setback was a result of “playing long, tough matches” at the Australian Open and the Phillip Island Trophy after a 15-month layoff. Her agent said it was “not concerning at all but she has to think about the longevity of the season and of her career.” Andreescu hopes to return for the Miami Open, a high-end event that starts March 23. Read more about her latest absence here.

Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open singles titles. Osaka beat Jennifer Brady in straight sets to capture her second Aussie title. She also owns a pair of U.S. Open titles and has won four of the last nine Grand Slams. No other woman has won more than one in that span. Djokovic crushed Daniil Medvedev in straight sets to win the men’s title for the third straight time. He now owns nine Australian Open singles titles — two more than anyone else has won in the Open era. With 18 Grand Slam titles, Djokovic trails Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal by two for the all-time men’s lead.

Auston Matthews is making a strong case for MVP. With three two-goal performances in his last four games, the Leafs star now has 18 goals in 18 games this season and leads the Rocket Richard Trophy race by six goals. Connor McDavid has a seven-point lead in the Art Ross chase (and is eight up on Matthews), so buckle up for some heated Hart Trophy debate over the next few months. Matthews seems to have the edge at the moment, partly because he’s led Toronto to a league-best 14-3-2 record.

The Canadian women’s soccer team got its first win in more than a year. After returning from a long, pandemic-induced layoff with a 1-0 loss to the U.S. last Thursday at the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando, Canada beat Argentina 1-0 yesterday. The Canadians’ final match at the four-team, round-robin-only tournament is Wednesday vs. Brazil. With seven key veterans unavailable for the event, rookie head coach Bev Priestman has been testing out some younger players. Four have earned their first senior-level caps at the SheBelieves Cup. Read more about Canada’s win over Argentina and watch highlights here.

Mikaela Shiffrin’s world championship streak was snapped. The American’s bid for her fifth consecutive slalom world title fell short when she placed third Saturday in northern Italy. But Shiffrin still had a terrific meet, finishing with four medals (including gold in the combined) at her first world championships since her father’s unexpected death last year. Only 25 years old, she already owns six world titles and two Olympic gold medals. Read more about Shiffrin’s astounding numbers here.

The NHL’s Lake Tahoe games didn’t go smoothly, but they still looked fantastic. It was a bad look for the league when Saturday afternoon’s game between Vegas and Colorado had to be halted after the first period and delayed until midnight ET because the sun was melting the ice. On the, uh, bright side, it led to this accidentally immortal quote from Gary Bettman: “… The sunshine has always been our enemy.” Sunday’s Boston-Philly game was also pushed to the evening for fear of the sun. But, let’s face it, the games themselves never really mattered. This was a glorified Instagram shoot, and we got plenty of gorgeous pics like the one below. You can see more here.

Hang it in the Louvre. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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CBC | Sports News

The father-daughter relationship behind the success of rising Canadian tennis star Leylah Annie Fernandez

Sitting on the living room couch at their Boynton Beach home in Florida, Leylah Annie Fernandez and her father, Jorge, are intently watching All or Nothing: Manchester City.

The pair are huge fans of City manager Pep Guardiola, considered one of the greatest soccer managers the game has known. As the intensely cerebral Spaniard breaks down the patterns he wants his players to exhibit on the pitch, Leylah and Jorge sink their teeth in.

“I love Real Madrid but right now we’re kind of taking a break from them and supporting Man City,” Leylah said. “I like Pep Guardiola, his style is kind of like my tennis game so I’m learning from him.”

Learning to use patience to dictate play. Maximizing angles to go for the kill. That soccer techniques have intertwined with tennis strategies is only fitting. 

Leylah’s coach through her formative years has been Jorge, a former pro soccer player of Ecuadorian descent who played across South America. He never had any association with tennis whatsoever, but took on the challenge when he saw a daughter in need.

The two have already seen some of the ups and downs of pursuing a tennis career. From tennis pro being the answer to what she wanted be at the age of nine to thinking there may be more to life than sports within a year, Jorge has stood alongside her through every decision.

It is a most intriguing relationship the two share as Leylah looks to continue her ascension on the WTA circuit after having struggled for lift-off with her tennis aspirations as a child. Jorge’s gut instincts to coach his daughter have helped Leylah maximize everything within her 5-foot-4, 106-pound frame to put her on the cusp of making her name an unforgettable one in the tennis world.

The past 12 months has gone a long way toward that goal. She delivered a straight-sets win over Belinda Bencic, ranked No. 12 in the world, in February last year in a must-win match for Canada at the Billie Jean King Cup (formerly the Federation Cup). She following that up by reaching the first WTA Tour final of her career in Acapulco shortly after.

The Montreal-born 18-year-old is now ranked No. 89 heading into the Australian Open, which begins Sunday in Melbourne. She will open the tournament Monday against Elise Mertens of Belgium, the tournament’s No. 18 seed. It is the fourth major of her young career.

When Leylah first began playing sports at the age of five, she looked a natural at soccer, and though track and field joined the fray along with volleyball – tennis had her heart. She first started playing in their Laval home driveway where the goal was simply to avoid hitting the family car. She worked on her consistency by hitting a ball against the basement wall for hours on end, a practice that had her mother, Irene, stressing over whether the TV or wall would end up with a hole. As Leylah got older, she and her younger sister, Bianca, would ride their bikes to the tennis courts three blocks away.

“It’s the beauty of it,” Leylah said about why tennis appealed to her more than the other sports. “Every time I would watch tennis on TV, it was so beautiful: the way you can create something out of nothing is what attracted me to it. And then the competition: you’re on your own on the court, you make the decisions and if it goes well you get the win and if it doesn’t you lose. You don’t really need to depend on anybody else, you don’t need to depend on your teammate for the winning shot.”

WATCH | Fernandez wins Junior French Open:

16-year-old Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez beats Emma Navarro 6-3, 6-2, becomes country’s first-ever junior champion at French Open. 1:13

As Leylah’s passion for the sport increased, she found a hero in 5-foot-5-and-a-half Swiss legend Justine Henin on YouTube, inspired by what someone with a relatable frame could do. Henin spent 117 weeks as world No. 1 and won seven Grand Slam titles, including the French Open four times. She also won an Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens.

“She’s not the biggest player nor the strongest player but she always found a solution playing against bigger players,” Leylah said. “She had the talent, great hands, slices and drop shots to open up the court where not many could, and that inspired me that I could do it, too, and I want to inspire other kids to believe they can do it, too.”

The modern era has typically favoured taller players in the women’s game. Billie Jean King, at 5-foot-5, won 12 major singles titles and Chris Evert managed 18 at 5-foot-6, but both retired more than a decade before Leylah was born. The likes of Henin have been more the exception than the rule since. Of the 20 highest-ranked players on the women’s tour coming into this season, 16 are listed at 5-foot-9 or taller.

More encouragingly, the other four are world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty (5-foot-5), No. 2 Simona Halep (5-foot-6), and No. 4 Sofia Kenin and No. 8  Bianca Andreescu (both listed at 5-foot-7). They have accounted for half of the previous 10 Grand Slams won — compatriot Andreescu becoming the first Canadian to win a major singles title when she won the U.S. Open in 2019 — and Leylah hopes to join that list sooner than most prognosticators anticipate.

At 5-foot-7, compatriot Bianca Andreescu, right, provides inspiration for Fernandez, who at 5-foot-4 often finds herself battling taller players on the Tour. (Getty Images)

‘Big mountain to climb’

“Finish top 10 in the WTA,” she said when asked about her goals for 2021. “I know that’s a very big mountain to climb but I always think that it’s possible and me, as a player, I can do it.”

Leylah’s parents’ first step to helping her pursue a tennis career began at the age of seven when they enrolled her in a provincial development program in Montreal that was in partnership with the national program. The hope was to help her elevate her game, but they soon saw the challenges of chasing professional aspirations. Leylah, a left-hander, was found to have a flawed forehand technique, was slow on her fitness tests, and struggled with her serve. Losses piled up and before she could realize what hit her, she was cut from the program.

“I thought I was gonna get my weekends back,” Jorge said with a laugh. “She was crying and I’m looking at this little girl, ‘Honey, is this really important for you?’ She said yeah and that she really wanted to play. I said, ‘If you want, I’ll coach you.'”

Honey, is this really important for you?’ She said yeah and that she really wanted to play. I said, ‘If you want, I’ll coach you.– Jorge Fernandez

In the moment, Jorge viewed her fundamental deficiencies as secondary. He may not have known how to be a tennis player, but he certainly knew how to be a professional athlete. He had watched Leylah get coached from the sidelines and could see there were teaching methods she could benefit from. Tennis, after all, has been as traditionalist a sport as any. Perhaps a fresh pair of eyes could be exactly what she needed.

Jorge quickly decided to work on a plan of action, recognizing that if he was going to get the best out of his daughter, he was going to have to stick to his guns. After all, he could relate to the task at hand for Leylah, having signed his first professional soccer contract at the age of 13.

Whether it be coaching or any goal, Jorge’s first step is to write down his objectives and assign timelines. At the top of the list was to make Leylah mentally unbreakable. He knew it was going to require a plan that took not days or weeks or months, but years. By the time she was done her teens, Jorge wanted to ensure he had helped mould someone who could consistently showcase character and spirit.

He also put in time to study parents who have coached their kids to an elite level in tennis. In the women’s game, there’s hardly a better example than Richard Williams, who nurtured his daughters Venus and Serena to a combined 30 Grand Slam singles titles. Serena, with 23 to her name, is arguably the greatest tennis player the women’s circuit has ever seen. Steffi Graf, perhaps her biggest competition in the GOAT debate, finished with 22 Grand Slam singles titles and was also coached by her father, Peter Graf, in the early stages of her career.

Richard Williams hugs Serena Williams, right, after her 2012 Wimbledon championship. Sister Venus, left, is also a Wimbledon champion. (Getty Images)

Steffi and Peter Graf in 1989 after her Wimbledon championship, one of 22 major singles titles the German star won. (Getty Images)

Jorge would spend time watching Venus and Serena’s matches and try to understand game plans not only from each of the two sisters, but their opponents and how they would be countered.

“One of the things [with Richard] was the simplification of the sport,” Jorge said. “I think great salespeople have a way to simplify complexity and just focus on the assets that are going to get you where they’re going to get you. He focused on their power. 

“In the land of the blind the one-eyed-man is king. I had one eye, and I said, OK, since my kids and my wife don’t know better, I’m not going to get criticized too much. I decided we’re going to focus a lot on finesse, mental toughness, and speed. A lot of precision tennis, and every now and again, a knockout punch.”

Leylah’s first taste of Jorge the coach was a rude awakening. She was nine and trying to execute a basic drill of hitting the ball over the net. Unknown to her was a three-strike rule Jorge was going to enforce for repeating the same mistake. As the ball nestled into the net for a third time, she was told to run “suicides,” a high-intensity sprint drill. Leylah was taken aback, but Jorge wasn’t going to have it any other way. He wanted her at what he viewed as maximum output.

You have to be at the red line all the time, and then you find a new red line.– Jorge Fernandez

“You have to be at the red line all the time, and then you find a new red line,” Jorge said, conjuring the markings on a pressure gauge. “You have to be there until the red zone becomes a normal zone, then, the most beautiful thing happens. You become a better player and the mistakes you’re making, you’re no longer making them.

“You have a mental fortitude and what you didn’t think you could do, you now do regularly.”

Jorge recognizes that it’s difficult for kids to grasp the concept of pressure and stress. He felt it was important to convey that in the simple terms kids understand: good gets rewarded and bad gets punished. Leylah would often end up in tears and other coaches would shake their head at Jorge’s methods, but he wouldn’t let up. It was the way he knew best. Having recognized his daughter’s shock, though, he did have a conversation with her immediately after to see how she felt.

“He just wants me to improve, keep correcting, keep competing,” Leylah says now. “He said that’s going to happen a lot, that he’s going to put me in uncomfortable positions during practice and it’s up to me to fight through it and find solutions.

“When I said I wanted to be professional, that’s the place I wanted to go. That’s why he pushes me a little bit more every day, every year.”

While creating a “normal zone” in their coaching relationship, Jorge also wanted to make sure Leylah was never intimidated by the size of her opponent. While Jorge still had the time in Montreal, he played pickup basketball with some friends and decided that he was going to ask one of his muscular 6-foot-4 friends who happened to also play tennis to go up against his nine-year-old daughter.

The instructions for Leylah were to focus on the ball no matter what and just keep the rally going. Jorge watched from her side of the net as the rallies progressed and she was able to keep up. To take the challenge to another level, he walked over to the other side and asked his friend to crank up the power from time to time. Leylah would struggle, but she kept going.

Focus on the yellow fuzz coming at you

Jorge’s message was simple: in tennis, no one can physically hurt you. It’s not soccer where someone can get their cleats stuck into you, or basketball or hockey where someone might take a cheap shot. He felt the key in tennis is to ensure the ball going by you or into the net doesn’t phase you. Leylah left the court that day knowing all she needed to focus on was the yellow fuzz coming at her, not who was hitting it back.

The results speak for themselves. Leylah won her first national tournament, for players 16 and under, at the age of 12. She was soon invited to Tennis Canada’s U14 and provincial program and though she wound up leaving it after just a couple of months, her acceptance into the program gave the family confidence to pursue international tournaments and move to Florida, a renowned hub for tennis talent. Playing in the ITF Juniors, her biggest moment came in 2019 when she was 16, reaching the finals of the Junior Australian Open in January and then winning the Junior French Open a few months later.

Fernandez finished runner-up to Clara Tauson, left, in the Junior Australian Open in 2019. A few months later Fernandez won the Junior French Open. (Getty Images)

“With the help of my dad, him learning with me and my younger sister, too, and also my mom, they were all there and just encouraged me and told me that if I want to stop playing tennis, I can,” Leylah said looking back on her early struggles.

“Tennis is not the only thing in life that’s going to make you happy but, for me, I just kept improving, kept my head down and kept working. With time, a few years later, the results came and more opportunities came my way too.”

For Leylah to fully realize her potential, help with the fundamentals and technical aspect of her game were going to be necessary. In that regard, there was little Jorge could offer. He needed help. He positioned himself more as a head coach, like he knew in soccer, and the right assistants were to be pivotal to Leylah’s growth.

Jorge recruited Francisco Sanchez, a former hitting partner of pros Henin and Kim Clijsters, and coach Robby Menard when the family was still in Montreal. Now it is Frenchman Romain Deridder, who previously worked as the director of ITF team and player development at Proworld Tennis Academy in Delray Beach, Fla.

‘Compliment each other’

“Jorge and I have a really good relationship on and off the court,” said Deridder, who is with Leylah in Australia this month. “I think we compliment each other very well. Obviously, he has been on court with her his whole life so when we started I wanted to learn from him as much as possible and I still do, so I can fit into the team and understand what I can bring and how to approach Leylah.

“We sometimes get into situations that they both lived before and it helps a lot that he knows his daughter better than anyone. Two sets of eyes are better than one.”

Fernandez celebrates winning the second set in her first ATP final at the Mexican Tennis Open last February. She ultimately lost in three sets to Great Britain’s Heather Watson. (Associated Press)

Away from the court, there are movie nights, scarfing down burgers, Leylah making fun of her dad being the most immature person in the room and then both laughing. After dinner, Leylah and Jorge — and more recently sister Bianca — can be found shooting paper towels into a glass to see who can get it in first.

“He actually lets me eat what I want, which is pretty cool that he’s not too strict outside the court,” Leylah said. “The only thing he’s strict about is my schooling, like every parent is, other than that he just says balance your life, you have time to relax and hang out but when it’s time to work, you work. That’s all he wants for me, and to be independent.”

As Leylah has grown and matured, Jorge has stressed the importance of her making her own decisions and being able to live with them. 

He’s not one to control me. I have my opinions, my decisions, he wants me to be independent …– Leylah Annie Fernandez

“He’s not one to control me,” Leylah said. “I have my opinions, my decisions, he wants me to be independent so he teaches me all this stuff but leaves the decisions to me to open up, be a strong, independent woman and live with my decisions, whether it’s a bad one or a good one and dealing with the consequences. At the same time I know he’s always going to be there and be able to support me so that’s great.”

Whenever it’s time to take a break from dad, Irene and Bianca are there for her. Leylah sees her mother’s calming presence and encouraging manner as the perfect complement to her father’s more fiery style. With Bianca, who is pursuing a tennis career of her own and who is also being coached by Jorge, the two can share their experiences together. It was only recently the two stopped sharing a room, but when home, Leylah can be found hanging out with her little sister in her room, extending the closeness that developed.

“She’s the one teaching me sometimes,” Leylah said about her sister. “She has so much energy, we’re always so competitive, every time we’re on the court we’re trying to beat each other or even off the court we want to see who’s better at cleaning or cooking even.”

Leylah opened the 2021 season this past week by losing in the second round of the Grampians Trophy, a tuneup to the Australian Open. She pulled off an impressive 6-3, 6-1 win over 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in the first round, but then lost to world No. 22 Maria Sakkari in straight sets in gusty Melbourne conditions. 

Every win over the next four months matters even more since a silver lining of the pandemic is that a door has been opened for Leylah to participate in the Tokyo Olympics — an opportunity her ranking wouldn’t have afforded her last year. She entered 2020 ranked 209th. With the one-year delay, qualification for the tennis singles competition has been extended to June 7, 2021, and the top 56 players in the world at that time will be considered eligible.

Olympic dream

“It would mean a lot to me,” Leylah said of Olympic participation. “That was one of my dreams when I was younger, just to represent my family and my country in the Olympics, hopefully get a gold, silver or bronze medal. Obviously, I want the gold medal, but just having that experience would be a checkmark off the book.”

While Leylah has high expectations of herself, Deridder keeps perspective on the Canadian teenager and emphasizes just how much further Leylah can go.

“She is still in development and transitioning from the juniors,” Deridder said. “Her game has so much room for development and improvement in every aspect: mentally, physically and technically. That’s the everyday work and that’s what we are here for.”

Jorge has been spending time more recently working with. It is all part of the process of recognizing that Leylah’s best will steadily come as he slowly lets go and gives more of her to the world. Just as he was the one to bring a fresh approach to her game when she needed it as a child, he is happy for others to keep adding to her repertoire. Leylah may tease him over abandoning her and moving on, but deep down she recognizes why it’s necessary.

“He sees weakness as an opportunity to improve and become your greatest weapon,” Leylah said. “He will always admit his faults, he will always say, ‘I’m not good at this but I can bring someone to mentor you and teach you at the same time so when the time comes and we need to go to a different path…’ 

“He will still know what to tell me, what to teach me, and we’ll keep working together.”

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COVID-19 didn’t overwhelm Africa as some feared. But Uganda is a cautionary tale of rising risk

Henry Bugembe riding his bright red motorcycle became a familiar sight in the town of Nakawuka during Uganda’s lockdown last spring.

With public and private transportation banned at the time, and ambulances few and far between, it was one of the few vehicles on the road.

A volunteer health worker, Bugembe used a permission connected to his work with an NGO to get through the security checkpoints enforcing the lockdown in order to ferry people in need to hospital on the back of his bike.

He also delivered medicine, a vital service in a country where 1.4 million people are living with HIV and where malaria is the leading cause of death.

“The existence of COVID-19 didn’t stop people from suffering from other diseases. But it was very hard for someone to travel to the hospital,” he said.

When there was a very strict lockdown, people depended on Bugembe to deliver their medicine on his red motorcycle. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Bugembe’s empathy is not hard to locate. He lost his wife to a brain tumour just months before the pandemic, leaving him a single parent to their two children.

After the government imposed its lockdown on March 31, permissions were required from often absent or unavailable officials. In an emergency, said Bugembe, people sometimes had to simply try their luck and hope for a sympathetic soldier or police officer.

Critics have blamed the lockdown, the most intense version of which lasted several months, for unnecessary deaths in Uganda. Blood banks reported shortages, and at least seven women died in labour because they couldn’t reach medical help, according to the Women’s Probono Initiative, a non-profit legal aid organization based in Kampala.

But predictions that COVID-19 would completely overwhelm African nations with seriously fragile health-care systems have not, for the most part, been borne out. At least not yet.

“What is happening in Uganda and many African countries [is] the infection may be spreading, but most of these [cases] are asymptomatic or mild,” said Prof. Pontiano Kaleebu, executive director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) in Entebbe.

Infections in Africa account for 3.4 per cent of the 72 million COVID-19 infections recorded around the world, according to figures released Thursday by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

And a World Health Organization study released in September found that 80 per cent of the cases in Africa have been asymptomatic.

The strictest lockdown measures are long over in Kampala, where the streets are once again crowded. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Kaleebu points to both the warmer climate and the high proportion of young people across the continent as contributing factors to limiting the pandemic’s deadly impact. Another theory, he said, is that Africans might have existing immune responses because of heavier exposure to some diseases, including other coronaviruses.

In Uganda, figures for Dec. 16 put the cumulative number of COVID-19 infections at 29,361, with 228 deaths.

“I believe there are more people infected,” said Kaleebu, “but they have not been tested.”

However, he doesn’t believe there is a corresponding unseen higher mortality rate, he said.

“We cannot be missing the very severe cases that need intensive care, oxygenation and ventilation. I don’t think we are missing them.”

Few ICU beds

That doesn’t mean Uganda couldn’t very easily find itself overwhelmed.

An assessment last February by Makerere University found that in a country of about 42 million people, there are only 55 functional ICU beds, most of which are in the capital, Kampala.

Africa CDC’s report this week pointed to Uganda as one of the five African countries reporting the highest number of new cases over the previous week, along with South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.

The Uganda Virus Research Institute, founded in 1936, handles much of the country’s COVID-19 testing. The case numbers have spiked in the past month. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Uganda’s Health Ministry reported 16,563 infections between March and November, but there has been an increase of 12,798 cases in the past month alone.

“There’s been a lot of increased spread and it is getting out of hand,” said Dr Julius Lutwama, who heads the UVRI’s department of emerging infectious diseases.

“Now, given the political situation where there is campaigning going on and people [gathering] in big numbers, people are not putting on masks, people are not distancing, so the spread is becoming more and more.”

Julius Lutwama, head of the Uganda Virus Research Institute’s department of emerging infectious diseases, says it’s difficult to get a clear picture of the pandemic in Uganda because there seem to be so many asymptomatic cases. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Ugandans will vote in presidential elections next month. Opposition parties have accused the government of using COVID-19 restrictions to shut down their campaign events and arrest their candidates while ignoring violations by President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement.

Museveni, in power now for 34 years, is seeking a sixth term.

In addition to all the other work it does on virus sequencing, immunization and emerging infections, the UVRI in Entebbe has become Uganda’s main testing centre for COVID-19.

Lutwama says they are processing up to 1,500 tests a day. But with so much asymptomatic spread out in the community, it’s difficult to get a true picture of what’s happening.

“In these last three or four months, there has been an explosion. We don’t know how long this is going to be sustained or whether this is going to go down,” he said.

“The worry is with the health system. The health system is getting overwhelmed.”

WATCH | The National’s report on COVID-19 in Uganda: 

COVID-19 hasn’t had the devastating impact on Uganda that many expected, but doctors say it wouldn’t take much of a spike to overwhelm the country’s hospitals that have only 55 intensive care beds for 42 million people. 2:42

Shift in attitudes

There is also evidence of a shift in attitude toward the virus among the public, with seemingly fewer people willing to listen to public health advice and stay home.

In the town of Rubuguri in southwestern Uganda, the tourism industry that’s been built up around the mountain gorillas of the nearby national park has come to a complete halt, severely impacting people’s ability to support themselves and their families.

There are signs in town warning of the dangers of COVID-19, along with a number of rudimentary handwashing stations, but few people are wearing masks.

A warning sign stands at the side of a road in Rubuguri in southwestern Uganda. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

“At first, they would wash, put on mask, stay home, even would have soldiers telling people, ‘Go back home,'” said Carol Magoba, a young mother and unemployed social worker.

“But now, it has become like any other disease. People are like, ‘Uh, what should we do? Should we die of epidemic in the house?'”

In the town of Nakawuka, Henry Bugembe uses a loudspeaker along the town’s main shopping street to raise awareness about COVID-19.

In the past, his volunteer health team would go door to door to talk to people, but that’s not allowed given the nature of the pandemic.

They can try to keep track of people who might be sick by phone, but not everybody has a phone, or electricity to keep one charged.

Bugembe and his loudspeaker draw a crowd of kids, but few adults stop to listen.

“Most people here don’t have work to do, people are just starving, so they don’t have money to buy masks,” he told the CBC.

Poverty in Uganda creates added challenges when it comes to trying to control the pandemic. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Bugembe himself has few tools at his disposal. He and others who make up the village health teams aren’t paid salaries.

And both the loudspeaker and the red motorcycle came courtesy of a public health partnership between Makerere University in Kampala and the U.K.’s University of Nottingham Trent aimed in part at supporting Uganda’s community health-care workers.

Bugembe admits to being worried for Uganda.

“What if it turns the other way around, and we start [seeing] people being infected at a high rate and death? What can we do? Because it is a poor country.”

The worry has increased the focus on the role vaccines will play in Africa.

WATCH | How COVID-19 could also threaten Uganda’s mountain gorillas: 

There are concerns that COVID-19 could undermine 40 years of conservation efforts to protect Uganda’s mountain gorillas. The CBC’s Margaret Evans, Lily Martin and Jean-Francois Bisson went to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to see the challenges of balancing tourism and protecting the animals. 8:17

Concerns about arrival of vaccines

UVRI executive director Pontiano Kaleebu said he’s optimistic.

“I think there’s been international support now as we’re talking about vaccines. The discussions that are going on to ensure that low- and middle-income countries are not left behind.”

But that was before internal documents from Gavi, the global vaccine alliance that is partnered with the World Health Organization to ensure fair access to COVID-19 vaccines for poorer countries, were leaked to the Reuters news agency suggesting those efforts had a “high risk” of failure.

The documents, prepared for Gavi’s board of directors, cited lack of funds and supply risks as potential problems, Reuters reported.

Africa CDC’s goal is to vaccinate 60 per cent of Africans — more than 813 million people — a huge logistical challenge given the varied nature and circumstances of the continent’s 54 countries.

“The continent has never ever vaccinated more than 100 million people in [any] one year and we have to do more in 2021 to have a fighting chance against this pandemic,” Africa CDC director Dr. John Nkengasong said in a video news conference on Thursday.

“We are working hard, as much as possible, to ensure that the continent is not left behind,” he said, while admitting he didn’t know when they’ll be “putting vaccines in the arms of Africans.”

In the meantime, the fight against COVID-19 may well depend on people like Henry Bugembe.

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U.K. PM Johnson to impose further COVID-19 restrictions, but anger rising

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will on Monday impose a tiered system of further restrictions on parts of England as the COVID-19 outbreak accelerates, though anger is rising at the cost of the stringent curtailment of freedoms.

Johnson will hold a meeting of the government’s emergency COBRA committee and then address Parliament, offering lawmakers a vote later in the week on the measures. He will then hold a news conference alongside England’s chief medical officer and his finance minister.

Johnson’s three-tiered local lockdowns will include shutting bars, gyms, casinos and bookmakers in some areas placed into the “very high” alert level, probably across the north of England, British media reported.

“The purpose of these measures is to get the virus under control,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told Sky News. “The point of moving to this tiered system is so that in those most highly affected areas, we have got measures in place to control the virus.”

Dowden said there was academic research that showed the risk of spreading the virus was higher in hospitality settings such as bars and restaurants. He said he hoped the measures would get the virus under control by Christmas or sooner.

But hospitality businesses say they are being pushed toward collapse by the government’s restrictions.

New measures ‘catastrophic’

The Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), a U.K. trade body, told Reuters on Sunday that the industry has taken legal action to prevent lockdown measures from being imposed.

“The industry has been left with no other option but to legally challenge the so-called ‘common sense’ approach narrative from government on the implementation of further restrictions across the north of England,” NTIA CEO Michael Kill said in an email.

“These new measures will have a catastrophic impact on late night businesses, and are exacerbated further by an insufficient financial support package,” the statement read.

After being criticized for mixed messaging as the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths increase, Johnson will again go to Parliament and the country to ask for support for a new approach to stem the spread.

A person walks in west London on Sunday. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

Britain recorded 12,872 new cases on Sunday and has officially registered 42,825 deaths.

Northern England has been particularly hard hit by a new surge that has forced local lockdowns as students returned to schools and universities.

The mayor of Liverpool, Steve Rotherham, said on Sunday the government wanted to put his city and surrounding area in the category subject to the toughest restrictions, noting that the measures that would apply there had not yet been agreed upon.

“Of course, it is very challenging for people,” he said. “The measures we are taking are having a bad impact on health, they are having a bad impact on the economy, but ultimately it is better to do that than to allow the virus to get out of control.”

Johnson, under pressure from parts of his Conservative Party over some COVID-19 measures, is reluctant to repeat a national lockdown that would further hurt a struggling economy, but has been urged to act by medical officials.

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Even the loonie is rising against the U.S. dollar as the Fed faces currency threat: Don Pittis

No one will be surprised if Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell uses part of his news conference on Wednesday to scoff at the idea of the U.S. dollar losing its place as the world reserve currency.

But even as he scoffs, the comments this week by strategists at global finance giant Goldman Sachs that “real concerns around the longevity of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency have started to emerge,” will certainly be in the minds of everyone listening to the Fed’s latest plans.

Predictions of the mighty U.S. dollar’s fall from its place as the ultimate measure of value are nothing new.

“Gold bugs” — the slightly disrespectful term for people convinced the yellow metal is the only truly safe investment — roll out an attack on the U.S. dollar’s safety every few years.

Deposing king dollar

The euro has been an aspiring candidate, but has had many troubles of its own. Countries that don’t get along with the U.S., including Iran, have complained about the absurdity of having to sell their oil to third parties priced in U.S. dollars.

After the global financial meltdown of 2008, China’s then central banker, Zhou Xiaochuan, criticized the use of a single country’s currency for a world standard, calling it a historical anomaly.

“The crisis again calls for creative reform of the existing international monetary system toward an international reserve currency with a stable value, rule-based issuance and manageable supply,” wrote Zhou.

But the comments from New York bankers Goldman Sachs just as gold is hitting new highs and the greenback is hitting new lows are quite different from bellyaching from those who would like to take the dollar’s place.

Most people in finance will tell you, as financial specialist Kamal Smimou once told me, that dislodging the U.S. dollar from the key place it has held for 75 years since the Bretton Woods conference would be disruptive and costly.

But the Goldman comments act as a warning of what might happen if the U.S. currency eventually becomes debased through too much government spending and too much borrowing at interest rates close to zero.

Fear of debasement

“The resulting expanded balance sheets and vast money creation spurs debasement fears,” said the strategists’ report.

That puts Goldman in the inflationist camp, adding their voices to the idea that central banks will be afraid to raise interest rates even in the longer term.

That’s certainly the impression the central bank chair seemed to offer at his last news conference when, in his most quotable statement, he promised that higher rates were not on the cards.

“We’re not thinking about raising rates,” Powell said in June. “We’re not even thinking about thinking about raising rates.”

Perhaps now the bank will at least have to start thinking about thinking about it, or at least explain what its strategy will be if the currency continues to fall or if inflation shows signs of perking up.

The Canadian dollar is up two cents against the U.S. currency in the last month. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

Even the Canadian loonie has been on a tear against the U.S. dollar, perhaps a sign that even with the WE controversy in Ottawa, Canada is seen as a relatively stable country and a healthier economy than some.

The Canadian dollar is up two cents against the U.S. currency in the last month. But as usual, that is deceptive. With most of our trade happening with the U.S., the loonie tends to rise and fall with the U.S dollar. The loonie continues to trade lower against the euro.

The Goldman Sachs report is making lots of headlines and offers a little thrill of dread to those who are looking for an even more dire outcome from the current pandemic. But gold quite regularly rises in value during times of financial uncertainty and it tends to fall shortly after.

Speculation not investment

When the U.S. economy starts chugging along again, gold will once again be expensive to hold and will still provide no investment return. The rule from the past is the only people who make money by buying gold are those who sell fairly quickly, before it plunges again.

The fact is, Goldman’s fearmongering may be playing into the hands of Powell and other central bankers. Research has shown that one of the biggest predictors of inflation is what people think inflation will be.

Perhaps Powell and Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem would be pleased for people to think inflation is on the way back, thus offering a little more insurance that its evil twin, deflation, will be driven away for good.

But with so many of our longstanding rules about what causes inflation seeming to be in abeyance, the potentially perilous consequences of the Goldman Sachs warning mean that it will be hard for central bankers to completely ignore.

Follow Don on Twitter @Don Pittis

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B.C. puts new rules on restaurants, bars, nightclubs amid rising COVID-19 numbers

New measures will be introduced at B.C. restaurants, bars and nightclubs amid rising COVID-19 numbers, according to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Thirty-four new cases were announced in the province on Wednesday, bringing its total to 3,362. No new deaths were announced.

B.C. saw a spike in new infections over the weekend, with 102 new confirmed cases between Friday and Monday, and 30 more on Tuesday. Henry said that 70 cases have now been linked to events and parties in the Kelowna area over the past several weeks.

Under the new measures, all patrons in restaurants, bars and nightclubs will be required to be seated, alcohol self-service will not be available (that means no ordering from the bar), and dance floors will be closed.

Henry also emphasized that groups at restaurants should be limited to six, and patrons should not be pushing tables together or engaging in behaviour that puts staff at risk.

“The B.C. COVID-19 curve is trending in a direction we don’t want it to go — upwards,” said Henry.

“There are close to 1,000 British Columbians self-isolating at home;. This means people are unable to work, see friends, enjoy the summer.”

Henry said the current focus is to support the people currently in self-isolation, some of whom are likely to contract COVID-19 in the coming week.

Watch | Dr. Bonnie Henry says contact tracing is getting harder because people’s bubbles are getting too big:

Dr. Bonnie Henry says contact tracing is easier and faster when people keep their bubbles small. 1:46

But she said she does not believe the province moved into Phase 3 of its gradual reopening too quickly, although B.C. residents do need to renew their commitment to keep gatherings small and maintain physical distancing.

“We have been very measured. It is not surprising to me as people are travelling more, that we have more cases. People are getting together with small groups, but different groups every night,” she said.

“We need people to start paying attention again. Every time you meet a group of new people, you’re exposing yourself to new risk. We need to get on top of it.” 

Henry said that in some cases related to the Kelowna gatherings, people had been in contact with people they did not know, making contact tracing impossible.

Responding to questions about images that circulated of a large crowd of people drumming and dancing close together on a Vancouver beach Tuesday night, Henry said that while the risk of spread is lower outside, people should still be gathering in smaller groups.

“We don’t want lots of people to crowd together for periods of time, having close conversations. It’s not zero risk outside. Keep a safe distance from other small groups. Then you can enjoy the beach, you can enjoy the water, the sunsets around B.C.,” she said.

“Each of us needs to do our piece to make that happen. Contact tracing three or four people is much easier than tracing 20-30 people. With each additional person, the time they have to develop symptoms increases risk.”

Dix said that while large outdoor gatherings often garner significant public attention, the majority of residents are adhering to public health advice.

Henry said younger people tend to experience milder symptoms, but some people experience prolonged symptoms and can be ill for a very long time.

“Even people who have milder illness [can have] a prolonged recovery that takes weeks — profound tiredness, weakness, shortness of breath. Even if you feel young and healthy and [think] you’re going to be fine, there are people in their 20s and 30s who have died from this,” she said.

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After 15 Years, Retail Video Game Prices May Be Rising

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Back in 2005, Microsoft, Sony, and other game developers collectively decided the new standard price for a video game would rise, from $ 49.99 to $ 59.99. For the past 15 years, retailers have avoided punching through that number, even as inflation reduced its value in absolute terms. Now, 2K has raised the price of its upcoming NBA 2K21 to $ 69.99 for the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X. If you want to buy the game for both platforms, it’ll cost $ 99.99 for the “Mamba Edition” to do so.

This could be an arguable positive. Adjusted for inflation, the price of a $ 59.99 game in 2005 should have risen to $ 77.84 already. A $ 69.99 price is only a $ 10 increase, and it’s unlikely to break the bank. It’s no accident that the long pause between price increases has coincided with the rise of alternative funding models, including crowdsourcing, increasing use of DLC, aggressive efforts to push customers towards pre-ordering, microtransactions, and loot crates. Gamers have not greeted all of these innovations with open arms. Game publishers have made some particularly egregious attempts to ring money out of the community like a dishrag. Raising the price of games by $ 10 could be a good thing if it led to fewer predatory tactics.

If history is any indication, we may be less likely to see these kinds of walk-backs than people might like. There’s no talk of reducing the use of microtransactions, while the release trailer for NBA 2K20 last year drew multiple unflattering comparisons to a casino or pachinko parlor for how heavily it marketed these mechanics.

There’s a tempting narrative here about greedy publishers and hapless developers trapped in months of crunch due to their leaders’ poor financial and game design decisions. But the situation is more complex than that. Game developer Ralph Koster, lead designer of Ultima Online and the creative director behind Star Wars Galaxies, has published multiple blog posts on the finances and challenges of building games. His website is an excellent resource — not many game development presentations from 2005 can claim to be great resources in 2020, but he’s got an online discussion of “Moore’s Wall” that I’d still recommend giving a look (mousing over the slides will display the talk transcript).

Graphic by Ralph Koster

On the subject of game development’s increasing expenses, he writes:

‘Too expensive’ isn’t a measure of just cost though, it’s a measure of risk. As costs have risen, we have seen massive consolidation across the industry… As costs have risen, third parties have either died when they overextended trying to reach the quality bar, or they were absorbed by the larger companies. Publishers overextended by banking on major franchises, and when one didn’t hit, went away.

This cycle tends to reset only when new technology platforms come along that don’t let you do expensive productions because they don’t have the graphics horsepower. Mobile was like that, so was Flash gaming. But as soon as you can overspend on graphics, it becomes mandatory, and then the spiral starts.

He dives into why microtransactions and similar content models exist, and how they interact with price thresholds and psychology. Put simply, cheap DLC, cosmetics, and the like offer content that’s inexpensive enough for people to want to buy it. Some games have adopted a free-to-play model in an effort to grow their user bases, while others, like NBA 2K21, combine microtransactions and a base $ 70 price. In both cases, though, the goal is the same: The developer is trying to nudge players into spending more money over time. In many cases, the reasons they’re chasing more revenue is that games-as-a-service incur ongoing costs and the price of building games and marketing them has been increasing every generation for decades.

A $ 69.99 price point for video games will recoup a little more revenue for developers and publishers, but according to the sources in the industry we’ve spoken with, DLC and microtransactions tend to be extremely profitable and critically important to the perpetually rising costs of game development. The advent of indie games may also make it easier for gamers to swallow the $ 10 price increase — there are now many, many titles available for prices ranging from $ 0 – $ 40, and it doesn’t long for new titles to go on sale. A game selling for $ 69.99 in January may well be on sale for $ 30 – $ 50 by the end of the year.

I don’t think gamers are going to go nuts over a $ 10 increase after a 15-year pause in game pricing. But I think the advent of more expensive games would go down better if people didn’t feel relentlessly nickel and dimed already.

Feature image by 2K.

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Brazil prepares to deploy troops into the Amazon to fight rising deforestation

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose sharply in April, government data showed on Friday, as the coronavirus outbreak keeps many environmental enforcers out of the field and the country prepares to deploy troops to fight illegal logging.

Destruction in Brazil’s portion of the Amazon increased 64 per cent in April, compared with the same month a year ago, according to preliminary satellite data from space research agency INPE.

In the first four months of the year, Amazon deforestation was up 55 per cent from a year ago to 1,202 square kilometres, according to the INPE data.

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, and scientists say its preservation is vital to curb global warming because of the vast amount of greenhouse gas that it absorbs.

Destruction of the Amazon surged to an 11-year high last year and continues to climb in 2020, which environmentalists blame on the policies of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro who has emboldened illegal loggers, miners and ranchers.

An Indigenous chief looks out at a path created by loggers in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in August 2019. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

Bolsonaro has called for more farming and mining in protected areas of the forest, saying it is the only way to lift the region out of poverty.

The new coronavirus outbreak has complicated efforts to combat deforestation, with environmental enforcement agency Ibama sending fewer agents into the field due to health risks. The agency has said it will scale back field agents in other at-risk areas but not the Amazon.

“The pandemic has not helped because there are apparently less agents out there, and illegal loggers obviously don’t care about the virus in remote areas of the Amazon,” said Paulo Barreto, senior researcher for non-profit Amazon institute Imazon.

Barreto and other environmentalists, including Greenpeace, said the surge was already underway last year due to government steps that encouraged illegal logging, in particular a decree now before Congress that could give title to land grabbers who invaded public and indigenous lands.

An Indigenous nurse is seen in Manaus, Brazil, on April 26. (Bruno Kelly/Reuters)

As deforestation soars, Bolsonaro on Thursday authorized the deployment of armed forces to deter illegal loggers and combat deforestation and forest fires in the region. Environmental advocates say the measure may help in the short term but is not a lasting solution.

Ibama agents have expressed dismay that deforestation has continued to surge in recent months despite the current rainy season in the Amazon, which makes the jungle harder to traverse and usually deters illegal loggers.

Parts of the Amazon that are hot spots for deforestation such as southern Para state have seen higher than average rain levels, which would normally lead to a fall in deforestation, Carlos Nobre, an earth systems scientist at University of Sao Paulo, told Reuters.

Nobre warned that the rains will ease in the next three months as the dry season takes hold, which is when deforestation peaks in most years.

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Trump’s bump goes bust: Polls point to rising disapproval as voters sour on U.S. president’s pandemic response

There are signs the political bounce U.S. President Donald Trump’s received in the polls earlier in the coronavirus crisis has, at least for now, deflated.

Election polls in key states show him trailing Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee for president in the November election, and the Gallup polling firm registered his biggest drop in popularity since taking office.

Trump enjoyed a brief rise in public opinion in late March, getting some of his best polling numbers since early 2017, averaging 46 per cent approval and 50 per cent disapproval on the polling site FiveThirtyEight, which tracks a number of polls.

That polling pop fizzled this month, dropping to 43 per cent and 52 per cent, respectively.

The polling aggregator RealClearPolitics.com shows a widening gap between Trump’s approval and disapproval in April in several of the polls it tracks, with the spread ranging between two and 11 percentage points. 

‘You never mention it’

In recent days, some polls also suggest Trump is out of sync with public sentiment when it comes to reopening of the economy. Multiple surveys suggest an overwhelming majority of Americans favour a go-slow approach, but Trump has been vocal about his support for protesters in several states calling for an end to COVID-19 shutdowns.

This week, Trump chastised reporters for not giving him the credit he says he deserves for tackling the pandemic. 

While the death toll from the virus has surpassed 50,000 in the U.S., projections have been revised significantly downward in recent days.

Trump also expressed annoyance at the lack of media coverage about how the U.S., after a panic over ventilators, now has such a surplus of ventilators that it can start exporting some.

“You never mention it. You never mention it,” Trump said at a press conference Wednesday.

“There’s no story [about] what a great job we’ve done with ventilators.”

Trump at his daily press conference at the White House on April 16, during which he berated the media for not adequately covering his coronavirus successes stories. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Disapproval ratings higher

Any mention of presidential polling merits an important caveat: the overwhelming consensus among American political observers is that the 2020 election will be a close, hard-fought affair, as modern U.S. presidential contests usually are.

In other words, it’s a game of inches.

Compared to most politicians, Trump’s approval numbers have been seemingly set in concrete — they budge a couple of points one way, a couple of points the other way.

But Trump did come close to achieving a distinction that’s eluded him since the start of his presidency: for one brief moment last month, Trump nearly had an approval level higher than his disapproval ratings, which hasn’t happened since his first days in office at the start of 2017.

The website Real Clear Politics illustrates how Trump briefly had a majority of Americans supporting his handling of the pandemic. (Real Clear Politics)

But now, he’s back to being what polling junkies refer to as under water. 

RealClearPolitics.com finds his disapproval rating is on average five percentage points higher than his approval rating; FiveThirtyEight puts the gap at nine per cent. 

Governors faring better

It’s not looking any better in the election polls.

Trump is trailing his general-election rival Biden in 29 of the last 30 head-to-head polling matchups, a lag that persisted even during his brief popularity spike in March.

In addition, he’s also getting lower marks for his handling of the crisis: both polling aggregators now show more disapprovals than approvals.

A number of other politicians, outside and inside the U.S., have gotten a bigger political lift, including Democratic state governors Trump has been fighting with.

Trump’s approval numbers have fallen off their March highs, to where they were in February, which is still better than last fall. (Real Clear Politics)

Those state numbers matter most.

That’s because winning the popular vote doesn’t make you president. Just ask Hillary Clinton. What decides elections is states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. 

There’s more bad news here for Trump.

  • Polls in Florida in the last week show him three or four points behind Biden. 
  • His numbers are worse in Michigan. A handful of surveys in the last week show him lagging Biden by between six and nine points.
  • In Pennsylvania, numerous surveys show him behind between five and eight points. One shows him tied with Biden.
  • Wisconsin is a bit better for Trump. But he was still lagging in a number of surveys.
  • It’s been a couple of weeks since the last survey from Arizona, but Trump was down by as much as nine per cent in some polls in a state Republicans almost always carry.

Seniors favour gradual reopening

In Michigan, where demonstrators protesting Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown orders were among those cheered by Trump, a poll commissioned for Fox News last week showed the governor about 15 points more popular than Trump.

That same poll showed Biden eight points ahead of the president.

Another important trend for Trump is his score among older voters. Senior citizens are an indispensable, solidly Republican constituency.

A large majority of Americans opposes reopening the economy now, and a small majority opposes Trump’s handling of the crisis. Here a woman affixes a sign to her vehicle during a protest Thursday in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

That Fox survey from Michigan also showed Biden leading Trump by 18 points among self-described baby boomers. And it appears Michigan seniors aren’t as ready to reopen the economy as the protesters Trump cheered on.

Only one-quarter of self-described baby boomers in the Michigan poll said they preferred a quicker reopening.

Noisy minority, meet silent majority

A mere 12 per cent of Americans think current lockdown restrictions go too far, according to a new poll for the Associated Press.

But about 80 per cent of Americans want to keep pandemic restrictions in place, said the poll, which is supported by multiple similar surveys.

That’s after days of widespread news coverage of protests. One such scene unfolded in Pennsylvania this week, where people honked car horns at a rally outside the state legislature.

Thousands of people frustrated by the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown protested in Harrisburg, Pa., on Tuesday. 2:02

Even though a Fox poll from Pennsylvania found most residents favoured a go-slow approach to reopening the economy.

Trump’s message has wavered several times. His official guidelines actually call for a slow, multi-phase reopening of the economy based on a series of criteria.

But then last week, he expressed support for protests against lockdowns in Democratic-controlled swing states, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”

Now, he’s gone back to a cautious message. 

This week, Trump questioned the logic of Georgia’s Republican governor to immediately open gyms, massage parlors, tattoo shops and beauty salons.

“I disagree strongly,” Trump said, pointing out that the idea violates federal recommendations.

“I think spas and beauty salons and tattoo parlors and barbershops … is just too soon. I think it’s too soon.”

A number of Trump supporters say the restrictions need to loosen up, arguing that they penalize small businesses, and hurt the economy in rural areas where there are few cases.

“They’re using our constitution like toilet paper in a crisis,” said one woman at the Pennsylvania rally, holding up a flag and a booklet containing the constitution.

“We’re living by science and data, not our constitution. That’s wrong. We are not safe if we are not free.”

Protesters did get some concessions this week: In Michigan, Whitmer extended stay-at-home orders to May 15 but also allowed some businesses and outdoor activities to resume. 

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